Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve – Day 31

Our last stop on this trip was in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  The Great Plains used to cover North America from Mexico to Canada and was home to some of the greatest herds known to men.  Now only 4 percent of this prairie remains – and almost all of that is in the Flint Hills of Kansas.

A year ago, the preserve reintroduced 13 bison back to the area.  The herd will continue to grow as the preserve creates a sanctuary for many animals that used to roam the area.  

The park also preserves the cultural history of the pioneers as they transformed this land from prairies to the farmlands that we know today.  This is a little schoolhouse that was built in 1882 that the local children would walk to for the day’s lessons.  We got a little lost here as well – and climbed under a fence and ended up in front of this schoolhouse.  We had to backtrack just a little bit.

It had also been discovered that we didn’t have any pictures of just me on this trip – so this is the final picture of the adventure.  However, there are plenty more adventures to come. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park – Day 29

These sand dunes appear on a dried up ancient lakebed that resides in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.  The mountains behind the sand dunes (which can stand up 750 feet above the ground below) were beautifully covered with snow from the day before.

We climbed to the top of the Tallest Dune, which is not technically the tallest but appears that way from the parking lot.  We didn’t make it quite to the top because it was so windy and the sand was pelting us.   We are still finding sand in random places, such as our silverware. 

Mesa Verde National Park – Day 27

At this point, we decided to head back east so we’d have more time with our families.  We stopped at Mesa Verde National Park to visit the Pueblo ruins.  Most of the ruins were closed due to it being so late in the season, but we did do a guided tour of the Cliff Palace.

We learned a lot about the lives of the people there – and it was hard.  They lived in these dwellings for 700 years, leaving the area in about 1200 AD.  Typically, the women got married when they were 13 and had a child every year of her married life.  They would have to climb up these cliff walls by means of little holes with a child on her back and a 5-gallon jug on her head (which could be filled with waste from her family)!

The fall colors have been fantastic the whole trip – but I think they were the most magnificent here.  The red, orange and yellow leaves covered the shrubs that covered the mountains.  

The next day, we drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.  We drove through a pass that was snow covered (and being covered).  We cheated this night – and spent the night in a hotel. 

Canyonlands National Park – Day 23, 24, 25

Canyonlands preserves a colorful landscape eroded into countless canyons, mesas and buttes by the Colorado River and its tributaries. The rivers divide the park into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the rivers themselves. We headed to the Needles section – and it was absolutely amazing.

We did a two night backpacking trip through the canyons – and I think might have been my favorite adventure of the whole trip.  The first day, we climbed over the canyon pictured above (on the right hand side) and camped down on the other end of the canyon.  

It was a lazy morning as we waiting for sun to reach down into our campsite.  When we did finally get started (around 1 o’clock), we headed out of the canyon.  The hike took us longer than normal since we were literally climbing up and down the walls.  We lost the trail once – so we climbed up and unnecessarily steep mound.  We didn’t stay off the trail for long through.

We finally got to the Charlie’s Park, where our campsite was supposedly located.  However, the trails weren’t very well marked and we couldn’t figure out which path to go down to get to our site.  We found a patch of clear sand on the side of the trail and set up camp for the night – just as the sun was going down.  

We were up with the sun in the morning and starting to head out of the canyons.  However, we made a wrong turn (or possibly two) and ended up going about 4 miles out of our original path.  We finally reached a 4-wheel, permit only road and a fork in the trail.  At first, we tried to go down the trail be we climbed up a few extremely high patches – just to realize we weren’t on the trail at all.  It was awesome though.

We walked back the six miles to the truck on a ridiculous road.  It was a really amazing adventure – especially for our last nights away from any sort of civilization.

Arches National Park – Day 21, 22

After leaving the life of luxury in Denver, we headed back out into the serenity of wilderness – or to Arches National Park.  We were so excited to be back out away from the city that we meant to hike out to Delicate Arch at sunset.  However, we missed the sunset and caught the arch during the moonrise.

Arches is situated on a plateau that blocks most of the light pollution from any nearby urban areas that allows you to 7,500 stars instead of the usual (in rural areas) 2,500.  The moon was extremely bright and clouds spotted the skies preventing this miraculous display.  It was an amazingly peaceful evening regardless.

The next morning, we woke up to an overcast day to hike around the Devil’s Garden.  It contained six arches, including Landscape Arch (the longest arch in the park) and the Patriarch Arch (pictured below).  The red rocks are made of sandstone that has been eroded away at an uneven pace causing these unique rock formations.  (For more information, go to the Arches Information Page.)

The first part of the trail was fairly heavily populated before it ran into a primitive loop trail.  A lot of families (with little kids!) had climbed up the extremely steep first part of the loop to see a couple of arches that were less than half a mile away.  However, the rest of the loop was fairly empty.  You had to climb up and down the fins that lined the landscape and follow piles of rock formations to stay on the trail. 

Sandstone erodes extremely quickly and created huge muddy puddles that we had to maneuver around.  However, the rocks themselves were super slick from the rain that had started to fall on us.  We came across one puddle that we have also referred to as a pond, which Graham struggled to hug on to the nearby rock to pass.  I tried to follow in his same “just run for it” method; however, I slid down the rock on my bum to land in muddy water up to my chin! 

We hiked the rest of the loop.  We got back to the truck just in time for the sun to come out.  I was excited to change out of my cold, wet clothes.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rocky Mountain National Park – Day 13, 14, 15 and 16

We spent some time in Rocky Mountain National Park before heading to Denver (where we are currently staying for a few days – in a hotel!)  Our first day, we headed out with backpacks to Lawn Lake – staying in campsite halfway between the trailhead and the lake.

(There is a rainbow in this picture – although, it’s a little hard to see.)  It was a cold and rainy afternoon (and it looked like it was snowing in the direction of the lake) so we decided to just relax that afternoon and head out to the lake in the morning.  

We were exploring around the creek beside the campsite – and Graham likes to cross what he calls “river ladders” where there are rocks that you can hop across.  I always get nervous that I’m going to fall in, which I did do on this particular afternoon.  My soaking wet shoes put an early end to the adventure. 

The cold wore us out and we went to bed around 4 in the afternoon – not to wake up again until 10 in the morning.  I can understand why bears have evolved to hibernate in the winter – it was pretty awesome.

In the morning, after eating our dinner that we slept through, we headed up the lake on a beautiful, sunny day.  About a mile or so from the lake, we started to see a light dusting of snow that had probably fallen the day before.  

It was a beautiful lake located right at the tree line.  It was extremely windy and chilly – but I could have sat there all afternoon enjoying the beauty around us.  We headed back down the mountain following the stream that flowed out of the lake.

We grilled steaks and mushrooms over the campfire for dinner.  In the morning, everything (including our shoes) was covered in about two inches of snow.  So instead of hiking, we drove around and just enjoyed the park.

I went camping earlier this year at Wolf Lake in Yellowstone.  We were lazy and napped out in a field for most of the morning after a storm had kept us the better part of the evening.  A coyote had wandered to the field and got about 20 feet away from us.  He was curious about the area – it was awesome to see one so close.

I have an irrational fear of coyotes because when I was a little kid my dad told me that if I was out after dark a coyote could eat me.  However, after seeing them in the wild (always just a lone coyote), I see how beautiful they are – just doing there best to survive in a world so altered by humans.

(Later that night, we went to dinner because it was cold and we wanted to sit inside.  On our way back to our campsite, we saw a cat of some kind – maybe a Lynx or a Bobcat – run across the road!)

The next day (after our shoes had dried out), we went for a loop hike that passed by four different mountain lakes – Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake and Lake Haiyaha.  

This is a Steller’s Jay.  The day before, we had walked about a mile around Bear Lake.  There had been two Steller’s Jays that we chased partially around trying to take their picture.  On our way down from the lakes, we passed Alberta Falls where a family was picnicking.  There were two Steller’s Jays that were sitting on a rock by the screaming kids.  (Don’t feed the wildlife.) 

We are in Denver, CO staying at a Hyatt in downtown right now.  Graham is working at an expo thing for his mom – and I’m just relaxing and taking as many showers as I can.

Dinosaur National Monument – Day 12

There is an area on the Utah/Colorado border that has an abnormally large amount of dinosaur fossils caused by a river that used to flow in the area that had a bend.  When dinosaurs would die, they would be washed up by the river and deposited in this bend where they would quickly get covered up with other sediment.

They built up the Visitor’s Center around the wall with most of the fossils; however, it is currently under construction so we didn’t get to see it.  We did go down a trail that had fragments of bones on the wall.

The area used to be home to the Ute Indians that had left Petroglyphs on the rocks.  The lizards had been scraped into the rock on an area that was way to high for us to be able to reach it. 

Pacific Coast – Day 9 and 10

We spent our first night up on this ledge with the beach just below in Pacific Ocean State Park.  After the sunset, we wandered along the beach for a while watching the stars and looking for things (sand dollar skeletons and crabs) in the surf.  (This was also our first chance to shower on the trip – I was super jazzed to get clean!)

The next day, we headed to the Oregon/Washington border – to the Cape of Disappointment.  We climbed out on the jetty in between the beach and the mouth of the Columbia River.  We sat out there for the afternoon – watching pelicans fly by the fishing boats just off the coast. 

That evening, we made a fantastic dinner with Chanterelle mushrooms, fire-cooked corn and mashed potatoes.  The next day, we left our friends and headed back inland towards Colorado.

Olympic National Park – Day 7 and 8

We spent a day in Seattle running errands and getting various things done.  That evening, we met up with a couple friends from Yellowstone in Olympic National Park on the Washington peninsula.  

We spent the night beside a river just inside the park (or possibly in the National Forest just outside the park).  We were immediately struck by how different everything was here – it had every shade of green imaginable.   Giant trees hid under moss that clung to just about every surface possible while ferns and mushrooms covered fallen over trees.

There were insects abound – spiders, beetles, and especially slugs.  (Slugs technically are land invertebrates.)  We saw probably 20 to 30 slugs on our hike out through one of the last temperate rainforests along the Hoh River.  

“The immense vertical barrier of the Olympic Range stops enough precipitation coming off the ocean to drop about 12 to 14 feet of rain per year on the forest.”  The trees can be up to 260 feet high and 10 feet in diameter.  The moss made the whole thing that much more fantastical feeling – like you should be seeing fairies floating between the branches of the trees.

We saw a Fly Amanita mushroom.  They are the most poisonous mushrooms.  It was about 5 inches tall and had a bright red top.  We saw tons of mushrooms – one of the coolest looking was called Witch’s Butter.  It was an orange-yellowish color and looked gelatinous with water dripping off its edges.

It was a beautiful fall afternoon and we set up camp with plenty of time to explore, build a fire and eat a fantastic dinner.  The Hoh Rainforest is one of the few homes left for Roosevelt Elk, the largest species of elk.  We kept hearing this bull elk bugling and it didn’t sound to far off.  So we went creeping in that direction while Josiah was doing his best elk bugle to keep him going. 

We stood stooped down in the ferns and watched two bull elk and a harem of females parade by about 30 feet away.  As we were eating dinner, two of the females came by our campsite to get water from the river.  Instead, they stood at the edge of our view eating grass while we enjoyed our fire-cooked ears of corn.

That next morning, we were sitting by the river quietly sipping on coffee and tea when a black bear crossed the river just up from our campsite.  He wasn’t a very large bear – but nonetheless a bear.  We yelled at him to let him know that we were there and he just meandered on down the opposite side of the river.  

We left the rainforest that afternoon to head out to the Pacific Coast.  It was truly a unique experience – and one that I’m thankful to have the joy of witnessing.

Sawtooth National Recreation Area – Days 3, 4 and 5

Note: We keep track of day by where we slept that night – sometimes it’s a bit off from what we did that day.

We were antsy to get out of the car for an extended period of time – so we went backcountry camping in the Pioneer Mountains. With very little guidance from the ranger, we headed off towards Alice Lake with backpacks strapped on. 

The first few miles were fairly flat as it meandered along a stream.  At one point, I was crossing the stream over a fallen down tree and had stopped to take a picture.  Graham says – be careful.  There is a snake right by your foot.  Of course, I think he’s kidding and as I turn around to say that’s not funny, I catch a glimpse of a Western Garter Snake.  

Eventually, we did start to climb – and gained a total elevation change of (approx.) 1600 feet.  We started to see glimpses of the White Cloud Peaks as we headed up the mostly White Fir and Aspen forest.  

Our goal for the night was to pass Alice Lake and camp at Toxaway Lake.  We started to pass by little lakes that we just beautiful with the fall colors shinning in the evening sun.  There were two mini-lakes that were connected by this waterfall.  The basin in this area was truly breath taking.

We didn’t make it all the way to Toxaway Lake because it was starting to get dark.  However, we camped in between the two lakes at the Twin Lakes.  Down in a rocky basin, there are two lakes, so calm and still, that were barely separated by a small stretch of earth.  When we were trying to fall asleep, I kept thinking I was hearing something because I could hear my own heart beating. 

In the morning, we woke up the sun reflecting a mirror image of the rocky slopes to the west of us.  We went over to the sunny side for breakfast and a morning stretch before finishing the loop.

We headed up the ridge, which gives you a better view of what the lakes looked like form above.  The little pond in front of the two lakes didn’t have a name – but it rested over these two that were our home for the night.

We hiked 9.5 miles that day back down the other side of the ridgeline.  We heard Pikas for a good majority of the hike, which are relatives of the rabbit that live in rocky high altitude areas.  They sound a bit like a squeak toy that you would give to a dog.

The Sawtooth Wilderness surpassed our expectations of mid-Idaho and I would definitely recommend making a stop if you are in the area.  

Craters of the Moon – Day 2

We drove all that next day through the Idaho Mountains.  (Who knew Idaho had mountains? I thought it was all potatoes.)  Our first official stop was Craters of the Moon National Monument. 

For most of the drive, the mountain range was to the north of us while farms and a few sagebrush flats zoomed by on the south.  Suddenly, black rock formations began to jut out of the ground and immediately we were in the park.

There is a fissure in the land here that allowed lava to escape from the earth – the release of the lava prevented the upwelling of the earth, which is why its flat instead of a mountain at this location.  The last release was about 2,000 years ago and geologists predict there will be activity again the future.


We also met this half mountain that is barely visible in the picture.  (Note:  I normally do enhance some of the black and white in my photos to help bring features out.  I did not enhance this photo at all.)  This is Crescent Butte.  Pioneers on the Oregon Trail used to use this as a landmark to avoid the rough terrain left by the lava flows.  However, there is so much air pollution in the area that has floated in from more populated areas that this probably won’t be visible that much longer. 

That evening, we explored the lava tube caves.  Lava tubes are created when lava hardens over still free flowing lava that leaves behind an empty tube.  We had to have flashlights to enter the caves, which were awesome.  The Boy Scout cave was the longest and contained ice throughout about half the cave.  The walls were wet so they glowed iridescent in our lights.

The next morning, I was up with the sun again.  I played with some of the colors in the morning light with the brush landscape.  I love the soft tenderness in this photo – it makes me want to relax and breath in the warm morning light.

We did a hike up the north side of the park.  We started out climbing up what was sort of shaped like stairs but really made of cinder stones (that sink when you step on them) only to discover that we had unnecessarily climbed up.  We did see a snake because of it though. 

The ranger had warned us of mountain lions, moose, possibly blacks bears.  And oh yeah – bow hunters.  He also told us to just keep to the right at each of the forks, which we did.  However, after we had hiked about a half a mile out of the way – we realized that he had forgotten about this fork and we needed to go left at the first fork.  

We didn’t see any mountain lions – but we did see a snake (mentioned previously), a deer, eight elk (which we heard down a creek long before we saw them), three more deer, a lizard and about a million grasshoppers. 
That evening, we headed to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.  We got there just with enough time to set up camp and get a fire going before the sun went down. 

We were headed down to the creek to get some water to put out the fire when we noticed a set of eyes just across from us.  We slowly backed up and watched the two sets of eyes watching us. Finally, we scraped dirt on to the fire and went to sleep with bear spray in hand – just in case.  In the brightness of morning, we think it was just a couple of deer.  It was a really eerie feeling though.

Gallatine National Forest - Day 1

Our first day out of Yellowstone and we had traveled to just ten miles or so outside the west entrance.  The season (i.e. work) was over.  Our grand adventure was beginning. 

We camped in the Gallatine National Forest based on a friend’s recommendation – she said it wasn’t very far and the sites were pretty secluded.  We passed by an area that had three sites – and two of them were taken.  We figured there would be more so we headed up the very rocky road up into the mountains.

After driving four miles up the mountain with no signs of another site, we turned around and headed back to the one available site.  We saw a deer on our way down – the first wildlife outside of the park! 

We quickly set up our tent, went for a walk and headed off to sleep without a fire to commemorate the event.  I was up before the sun rose and sat shivering watching the sunrise on the hillside while Aspens quaked beside me in the morning breeze.