South Dakota

What a jam packed two weeks! The Black Hills of South Dakota gave us plenty of adventure, new experiences, and unexpected beauty.  I had always thought of South Dakota as a touristy, dusty sort of place and I was happily surprised to be proven wrong.  While it has gimmicky tourist traps like Wall Drug, the state is also home to amazing tourist traps, like Mount Rushmore, and incredible, off-the-beaten-path escapades.

Happy to be in South Dakota (and drinking wine)!

South Dakota is home to two National Parks, the first of which we visited was Wind Cave.  Zach wanted to do a Wild Cave tour – a four-hour expedition into the cave involving crawling, squeezing, and climbing.  I reluctantly agreed.  I’m very happy I did.  I was picturing many more tight spaces, and while there were a few times I had to maneuver through a small opening, I never felt trapped.  It was so much fun that maybe, if software development doesn’t work out for me, I’ll become a cave surveyor. I would highly recommend doing a wild cave tour if you ever have the opportunity. Phone’s weren’t allowed but here’s a picture I found online of the amazing boxwork formation found throughout the cave.

Wind Cave has the most boxwork in the world!

The other National Park, the Badlands, was a bit of a letdown.  The best views of the park were top notch but it lacked depth and diversity.  As Zach put it, the park could be summed up in one view.  It’s an amazing view but once you see it, there’s not much else.  There’s no great hikes or other activities, nothing that can’t be done from the car.

Not too shabby of a view

The National Park Service also owns Mount Rushmore.  I, as a president enthusiast, loved it. My expectations had been set low by the multiple people who had told me the heads were smaller than they appeared in pictures.  Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by the size and quality of George, Tom, Teddy and Abe.  We arrived at dusk, with enough daylight remaining to walk the short trail and stuck around for the illumination ceremony.

Reppin’ the NPS

While not visiting National Parks, we spent a lot of time in Custer State Park.  Over the course of our three trips to the park, I came to truly appreciate South Dakota’s beauty.  Out of all the great things we did in the state, this is the one I would most recommend.  The winding roads, the abundance of wildlife, and the awe-inspiring views are not to be missed.

One day after work, we headed to Custer to combine three trails to make one epic hike.  We started at Cathedral Spires, big spiky rocks that attract rock climbers from all over the country.  Then we hit up Little Devils’ Tower, which had spectacular 360 degree views.  Finally, we cut across to Black Elk Peak – the highest point in South Dakota.  Here we had more fabulous views, supposedly of five states.

Cathedral Spires

Little Devils Tower

Black Elk Peak

Within the first minute of our trip back down, I fell hard and sprained my ankle.  It started swelling instantly but I got up, wiped away my tears and had Zach fetch me a walking stick.  We were three miles from the car and the only way of getting there was on my own two feet (Zach offered to carry me but, no offense to him, I didn’t think he could make it all the way).  The way down was rocky, steep and a struggle but we made it back just before dark.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve done but when there’s only one way out, you do what it takes.  It’s still a bit swollen and sore but it will hopefully be back in shape in time for Glacier.

Still enjoyed the views on the rough trip down

While not exploring the great parks of South Dakota, we took some time to experience the culture of the state.  We attended a rodeo in the nearby town of Deadwood.  In Zach’s words, we had a boot-scootin’ good time.  The Sturgis motorcycle rally, one of the largest in the world with more than 700,000 attendees, started our last weekend in town. Zach wanted to rent a moped to drive around the rally but luckily, he couldn’t find one.  I felt enough out of place as it was.

Zach got some great pictures (considering we were in the top row)

South Dakota was full of exciting wildlife! Buffalo (safely from our car this time), prairie dogs, so many deer, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, a grey fox, and mountain goats!  It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say there was more wildlife in South Dakota than all the previous states combined!

Bighorn sheep!

I feel like I’ve been ending most of my blog posts with ‘you need to visit this place!’ and I’ll do it again this time.  South Dakota is a great state with much to do and see!  Definitely worth spending some time in!

North Dakota

North Dakota. Zach’s first new state of the trip; my eighth new state. Although he can only remember being in an airport in Minnesota so I’m not sure I trust his state count. Layovers do not count as being in a state. We spent the workweek in Fargo – winner of the “Toughest Weather City” poll, thanks to its harsh winters and frequent flooding.  Luckily, we only experienced high temperatures and one strange thunderstorm that appeared to have pink lightning.

Beautiful post-storm sunset

In Ohio, we like to complain about the amount of orange barrels covering the roads but it is nothing compared to the construction going on in Fargo. It seemed like every other street was closed due to road work. In order to drive the five miles from our campground to downtown, we had to take four detours! In addition to construction, Fargo also has a surprising amount of culture. We went to a different independent coffee shop every day. A brewery put on The Office themed trivia that packed the bar to well over capacity. I thought I knew The Office pretty well but there were some teams that didn’t miss a question the whole night!

Literally the only picture I took in Fargo

We left Fargo on Thursday afternoon and headed west. We ran into a bit of trouble when our trailer got a flat tire along the way. Thanks to teamwork, we fixed it without too much stress and continued on to Bismarck where we witnessed a beautiful sunset from the Walmart parking lot we spent the night in.

I think we’re ready to be NASCAR tire changers now

Our final destination in North Dakota was Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We planned on going backpacking and, on Saturday morning, headed to the visitor’s center to pick up our permit.  The ranger warned us that our route was very difficult and seemed skeptical in our ability to find the way.  Undeterred, we headed out for the 18 mile Achenbach loop.

TRNP – where the Great Plains meet the rugged Badlands

The trail was by no means easy but we survived.  A few times we lost the trail, once getting over a half mile off it, but managed to find it again everytime.  We crossed the muddy Little Missouri twice, climbed up and down the hills of the badlands and traversed wide open plains.

This is how I traverse

The geology of the park is baffling.  I felt like I was hiking on the moon or Mars (or a planet with the oxygen and gravity levels of Earth.)  There were multiple times I looked around and said to Zach, “this is so weird”.  It’s hard to describe but here’s one of many strange formations we walked through.

What is going on with the dirt?

Along the way, we ran into a herd of buffalo on the trail. After taking pictures from a safe distance, we skirted around them.  Unbeknownst to us, a few had strayed from the pack. We rounded a corner and there was a very large bison, very close to us.  Bison, North America’s largest animal, weighing up to 2,000 pounds, are quite frightening up close.  Zach snapped a picture before we hightailed it out of there.

Zach is really upset the camera focused on the bush rather than the buffalo

About two-thirds of the way into the loop, we were feeling good and had plenty of sunlight left.  We decided to finish the whole trail that day.  There was cold beer and a nice bed waiting back at the camper and I wanted to prove we were fast and able backpackers after the talk from the skeptical ranger.  It seemed like a good idea at the time but the trail ended up being a few miles longer and more strenuous than we were expecting.  At that point, we were so close to being done that we had to finish.  By the end, I was exhausted and could barely keep moving. Walking 20 miles with a 30+ pound backpack is not easy.  We would have enjoyed it a lot more if we had stopped and camped along the way like originally planned.  But we learned our lesson and it made for a memorable day.

So thankful the last miles were on a flat road

Sunday, after sleeping in, we headed to the more popular south unit of the park.  Not feeling up for hiking, we drove to a prairie dog town where we saw prairie dogs (obviously) and some wild horses.  We said goodbye to North Dakota and headed down to  South Dakota for the next two weeks.

Prairie dog!

I had never heard of Teddy Roosevelt National Park until we decided to visit all of the National Parks. But I would highly recommend stopping by if you’re ever in the area.  The views are great and it’s pretty spectacular to see bison up close.  As Teddy himself said, “It is an incalculable added pleasure to any one’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.”

Canada

When most people say Canada, they mean the second largest country in the world, producer of hockey players and maple leaf memorabilia, birthplace of Tim Hortons, poutine, and Justin Bieber. When I say Canada, I mean a very specific location – a small island on the French River off the Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. This was illustrated when, about two hours north of Toronto, I commented to Zach that it was starting to look a lot like ‘Canada’.

This is what Canada looks like to me

The island is owned by family of family friends and growing up, we would head up to the French River every year with our family friends, the Youngbloods. We would spend the week tubing, fishing, swimming, picnicking and playing games. Many of my favorite and most memorable childhood experiences took place in Canada.  The countless days of trying to fit three people onto a tube with only handles for two and the endless nights of drinking virgin strawberry daiquiris and winning Euchre tournaments. Each year we spent a week in paradise and the other fifty-one counting down the days until we returned to Canada.

Megan is handleless

This continued through high school but busy schedules have prevented us from returning the past few years. The rest of my family headed up in 2011 after dropping me off at West Point, Matt was working in Des Moines when we returned in 2013, and my dad, Matt and I made it up for a long weekend in the fall of 2014. This would be the first time since 2009, which concluded 15 straight years of the trip, that all 5 Cymanski’s would be on Power’s Island.

My first trip up to Canada circa 1995

I spent the past three years telling Zach about Canada so I was thrilled he would be able to see for himself why I loved the area so much. Unfortunately, the Youngblood’s couldn’t make it up, but we would have Mike, our French River Sherpa.

Another old pic because there’s so many good ones

Powers Island is about an acre large with one main cabin on it. There is no power other than a generator which is sometimes run at nights, no internet, no cell service. We leave our cars at the marina and travel by boat for the week. The French River is at some points a rapidly flowing body of water and at others, such as where Powers’ Island is located, more like a lake than a river.

Powers Island

I had a fabulous week in Canada.  Not only was I in my favorite place in the world with my favorite people in the world, but I was also on vacation! To you, it may seem like we’re always on vacation, but we actually work 40 hours a week.  I love CoverMyMeds and am very thankful for everything they do for Zach and I, but it was nice to get away for a week.

Zach happy to not be working

We did all of my favorite Canadian things.  This was my first summer up since turning 21 and I took full advantage of that by drinking beer, wine, margaritas and  some non-virgin strawberry daiquiris.  We slept in, went tubing and water skiing, ate great food, took naps and played a lot of cards.  Unfortunately, I didn’t win the Euchre tournament this year, but I have won the most tournaments overall, so I believe that still makes me the best player in the family.

Waterskiing like a champ

The weather was great – mid 70’s and it only rained once.  Appreciating the good weather, we picnicked at both Lovers Lane and the Dallas.  Lovers Lane is an area with small rapids – gentle enough to go down in person.  While Matt and my dad were using the current as a make-shift endless lap-pool, the rest of us played in the rapids.  The Dallas is a much larger set of rapids.  No swimming here, but we hiked around a bit and unsuccessfully fished.

Riding down the rapids

Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows my family, we returned to the mainland a few times in order to run and did near daily open water swims. Due to life on the road, I haven’t been able to swim much in the past months but it was nice to get in the water.  I used to be the fastest swimmer in the family but now I can barely keep up with my parents and am blown out of the water by Matt.

Ready for a nap!

The end of the week came too quickly, especially considering we hadn’t seen a bear or a moose! Not only was I sad to be leaving Canada, I also was saying goodbye to my family for a few months.  The five of us are only together a few times a year so I cannot put into words how happy I was to be able to spend a whole week with my family in our favorite place. I look forward to seeing some (or all) of them in Hawaii in October!

Fam

I really struggled picking pictures for this post because there were so many good ones! We recently bought a DSLR camera so the quality of our pictures skyrocketed! Check out other pictures from the week here! Below is the video Megan made – it’s much more exciting than the usual clips of Zach or I walking around.

OHIO

After nearly 5 months away, we returned to the homeland.  I love traveling but was ready to spend some time in Ohio.  We completed our drive across the Midwest and arrived home just in time for Memorial Day. It was a great holiday weekend full of catching up with family, cornhole, and enjoying the fresh Ohio air.

Reunited Serafini siblings

In addition to seeing family and spending time in the greatest state in America, work was another reason to head to Ohio.  CoverMyMeds is very supportive of our nomadic lifestyle but they still would like us to come into the office occasionally.  Of the five weeks we were in Ohio, we spent 3 of the workweeks in Columbus.  I hadn’t realized I missed working in the office and I really enjoyed seeing my colleagues in person and being able to easily communicate with them.

Literally the only picture I took in Columbus

After working during the day in Columbus, we spent the evenings catching up with friends and visiting our old stomping grounds.  We continued our losing streak in volleyball and celebrated with porch drinking and late night Taco Bell.  Zach went skydiving and I played Harry Potter trivia – both equally thrilling.

Ready to jump out of a plane!

I thought my month in Ohio would be relaxing and full of free time. But between watching the Cavs almost win a championship, helping out the family firewood business and trying to catch up on my reading and running goals, it turned out to be quite busy – in a good way, of course! One of my favorite experiences was attending the Laurelive music festival with Megan.  Less than a half hour from our house, there were great bands, including some of my old favorites – like The Head and the Heart – and some of my new favorites – such as Johnnyswim.

So much sunburn

For a while, Megan and I had been talking about getting matching tattoos once she turned 18.  This was my first time back since her birthday so we wrangled my mom into coming with us and all got matching tattoos. The ‘C’ stands mostly for Cymanski but also for Cleveland – our city, Crestwood – our alma mater, and calm, confident – things we strive to be.  Or collected, creative, cool– really any positive C-word works.

Cymanski

Another reason we needed to come back in June was to meet Zach’s new nephew.  He was due mid-June but was late so we were worried we’d be gone before he arrived.  Luckily, he decided to make his appearance on Matt’s birthday (fitting since Becca and Robby got married on my birthday).  Zion is absolutely precious and named after one of my favorite stops on our trip! I’m sad to be missing the next few months of his life and can’t wait to see him (and everyone else) at Thanksgiving.

Baby Z!

Although I didn’t make it back for Megan’s high school graduation ceremony, we were in town for the more important event – her graduation party.  It worked out nicely that I got to see all of our family and family friends before leaving Ohio.  Lucy (our trailer) was up in Hiram for the day so we gave everyone tours of our new house.  The food was great, the rain held off for most of the party and tent only blew over before anyone arrived.  I still can’t believe my baby sister will be attending Ohio State in the fall!

The only picture of Meg and I from the party is an actual polaroid

Zach probably disagrees, but five weeks in Ohio didn’t seem like enough to me! I was sad to leave, more so than when we originally left in January.  But there’s so much of the country left to see and we have some great things planned for the coming months (check them out here)! I’m looking forward to returning home for Thanksgiving and Christmas but will spend the meantime enjoying every minute on the road.

Zion National Park

We had heard great things about Zion National Park and it delivered! Prior to visiting, I thought it was over-hyped and wasn’t expecting too much but I sure was wowed. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and near the top of the best experiences of our trip so far.  We spent almost all our time hiking so I decided to rank the hikes we did from least exciting to my new favorite hike.

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.

5.) Riverside Walk

We had really been hoping to backpack the Narrows – a hike through a very narrow canyon which is considered the best hike at Zion and one of the best hikes in the whole country. Back in March, when the permits became available, we stopped at a McDonalds somewhere between Houston and San Antonio to ensure we got one of the limited number of overnight permits.

Found this on the internet since I didn’t see it in person

Unfortunately, the snow fall was extra high this year, resulting in a large spring run-off, leaving the Narrows closed until weeks after we visited Zion.  We settled for the Riverside Walk – a path that leads to the mouth of the Canyon, so I could at least see the start of the legendary trail (Zach had done a day hike in the Narrows when he came to Zion a few years ago with his family).

 I didn’t take any pictures of  the Riverside Walk but here’s our really cool campsite

Not that I was expecting much, but the Riverside Walk was a letdown.  Being the easiest trail in Zion, the path was full of strollers, elderly tourists and people blocking the way to take pictures of every squirrel.  I would avoid this hike unless you’re continuing onto the Narrows (which I plan on returning to the park to do).

And here’s the really cool coffee shop we worked from

4.) Emerald Pools

We fell a bit behind on blogging.  It’s been over a month since we were in Zion and it that time I’ve forgotten all but a few distinguishing details about the Emerald Pools.  It’s one of those hikes that would be amazing if it was in Ohio but gets overshadowed in a place like Zion.  There were some waterfalls, an emerald pool and, most excitingly, a rattlesnake!

The ranger said it might be a gopher snake, but I’m going with rattler

If you’re looking for a shorter, family friendly hike lacking scary cliff edges, this is the one for you.  Otherwise hit it up if you have an hour or two to kill (we fit it in between work and dinner on Friday).

3.) Angels’ Landing

You know a park has some great trails when Angel’s Landing is ranked third on your list of best hikes. The five-mile hike starts off modestly enough, but after reaching Scout’s Landing, which itself has spectacular views, it quickly becomes very strenuous.  Narrow, steep, with thousand feet drop offs on each side, it is not for those frightening of heights.

Heading up the spine of the landing

Neither Zach nor I are fans of heights but after turning around on a hike in Mount St Helens two summers ago due to the fear, I vowed to never again quit a hike because of heights.  But multiple people have died from failing off the trail, including someone a few weeks before our visit, so I was nervous but determined.

Zach getting close to the edge

The trail was more crowded than I would have preferred, especially given its narrowness. In the upper section, there are chains to hold on to in the more treacherous sections.  But with people moving both ways, someone must let go of the chains to get around the other.  Usually I opted to stand there and let them go around.

 Using the chains

All in all, it wasn’t as frightening as I expected and the views were amazing from the top.  There were some over friendly chipmunks which climbed into my lap to get the almonds I was eating and even went as far as biting my hand.  I, as a rule-abider and a believer that wild animals should find their own food, followed the signs saying not to feed the animals, and refused to share.

Vulturous chipmunk

I would strongly recommend Angels Landing to anyone visiting the park. I think any relative fit person without a debilitating fear of heights can do it. The hike is challenging without requiring any special skills and the views from the top are first class.

 Angels Landing!

 

2.) Observation Point/Hidden Canyon

 Observation Point is an 8-mile roundtrip hike with quite a bit of elevation gain.  The trail winds its way up the canyon before reaching a spectacular observation point.  You have a great view of Angels Landing, nearly a thousand feet below.

Angels Landing is the rock formation in the middle of the canyon

At the top, I talked to a guy that had done the previous year’s Ohio 70.3, which I had also raced.  While it’s by no means a small race, it was crazy to see a fellow compactor on the other side of the country.  We took the long way down, detouring into Hidden Canyon.  Along the way there were more chains, steep drop offs and great views.

So many cool rock formations

I deliberated for a while rather to rank Angels Landing or Observation Point higher on the list, but in the end, I went with this hike.  Angels Landing is very-hyped, rightfully so, but Observation Point has more stunning views and is longer with more elevation gain. It’s a leg-burner but I would highly recommend hiking it if you have the time.

My favorite picture from the weekend

1.) The Subway

This was our consolation prize for not being able to do the Narrows.  And it is my new favorite hike.  Only eighty permits are given a day, and we were luckily enough to get two.  There isn’t a trail but rather you follow a river upstream, crossing it uncountable times, navigating through boulders and climbing waterfalls.

Hiking up a waterfall

I love water, climbing over rocks and trail blazing and this hike had it all!

Writing super short paragraphs so I can fit more pictures

The titular subway is difficult to describe so here’s a picture:

The Subway!

There were pools of water at the end which extended the trail by about 100 feet so they weren’t necessary to swim in but we wanted to do it all.  They were very cold but we sat in the sun afterward to dry off and eat some snacks.

Swimming Pools (of chilly water)

Because the Subway requires a permit, it requires so planning ahead but I would highly recommend anyone traveling to Zion to at least attempt to get one.  They become available a few months ahead of time so be proactive!

Zach’s trail name is ‘The Trashman’

Since this blog took a really long time to write, I’ve created our Utah video in the meantime

Medford

There are a few things I miss about Columbus – the free lunches at work, the ability to drive home for the weekend, and Hounddog’s Pizza. But my favorite thing to do in Columbus, hanging out with Tyler and Whitney, wouldn’t have been possible even if we had stayed in C-Bus.  Zach’s brother Tyler and his family moved out to Medford, Oregon in December and we went from seeing them almost weekly, to not seeing them for months.  Since our springtime travels in the southwest weren’t taking us near Oregon, we left Lucy in the Las Vegas airport oversized parking lot and flew up to Oregon.

Oregon has so many waterfalls!

It was great to see Tyler, Whitney, Sage and June again.  Our first weekend, we explored the town of Medford, stopping by the local Comic-Con and eating at a local brewery.  After lunch, Zach, Tyler, and I biked up the local mountain, Roxyann Butte.  As a cautious rider, I enjoyed the way up, on a wide gradual road, much more than the way down, on a narrow, steep, rocky trail.  I rode my brakes the entire time and the guys spent most of their time waiting for me.

Biking up the mountain

On Sunday, we travelled south to hike Pilot Rock.  Our driver missed the turn and we ended up in California for a few minutes before turning around (our 13th state of the trip!).  The hike started out easily enough but soon became difficult due to steep, icy sections of trail.  Considering we had a baby and a four-year-old with us, things went relatively well.  The trail ended at the actual Pilot Rock, a very steep volcano plug.  Whitney and I headed down with the kids while Zach and Tyler made the treacherous climb to the top.

Zach and Tyler made it to the top of Pilot Rock

Unfortunately, we all had to work during the week but still managed to find time for fun.  Their house had the perfect backyard for croquet.  We got a little creative with the course setup which made an antiquated English game relevant again.  We also went to multiple wineries, including one within walking distance from their house.

Great wine, food, and company!

Nearly every night we played a game after the kids went to bed.  I love board games but there’s not a ton of great options for two players.  Luckily, Tyler likes games almost as much as me and we could usually convince Zach and Whitney to play with us. Euchre, Super Smash Brothers, Mario Party, Pirate’s Cove and my favorite, Agricola were all played multiple times throughout the week.

No picture of us playing games, so one of me and the Rogue River instead

My imagination and creativity were stretched playing Superhero Princesses with Sage. We both fought girl-eating giants and made macaroni-and-cheese soup for the prince.  I liked to think I was one of June’s favorites back in Ohio but she always seemed to cry when I was around.  Even though she may not like me, she’s still one of my favorites.

June liked Zach a lot more than me

The second weekend in Medford, we headed north.  Unfortunately, all the hikes we had planned were still closed due to snow so we headed to Crater Lake National Park. There was so much snow there – I was surprised it was open!

SO MUCH SNOW

The lake was breathtakingly beautiful and we didn’t let the piles of snow keep us from hiking.  There were obviously no trails visible so we followed the general rim of the lake, throwing snow balls, climbing up snow mounds and trying to jump as deep as possible into the snow.  Since we spent the past few months in the south, we hadn’t seen any snow.  I love winter so I was very happy to finally be surrounded by snow.

Crater Lake National Park

Before we knew it, Monday had arrived and it was time to fly back.  We had a great time visiting in Medford and are already trying to fit another visit in this fall. Thanks for hosting us Tyler and Whitney!

The Grand Canyon

For months, my brother Matt had been planning, preparing and convincing others to join him for a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon.  The R3, as the experts call it, entails starting at one rim of the canyon, running down to the river, up the other rim and then turning around and running back.  It ends up being about 48 miles with over 10,000 feet of climbing.  He talked my dad and our two friends, Will and Geoff, to join him.  They picked a weekend in April, late enough that the water spigots along the trail were turned on but before it got too hot, and we planned our trip around meeting them at the park and hanging out with my mom while the guys went on their adventure.

The grandest of all canyons

Apparently, the way we hang out in my family is by going on 18 mile hikes.  Not wanting to seem too lazy compared to the others, we decided to hike down to the river and back (a Rim-to-River-to-Rim if you want).  Although there were many signs warning against doing the hike in a day, we felt fairly confident we could make it, especially considering it was well under half of what the rest of the group was doing.

One of many signs warning us against going to the river in a day

We woke at 4 the morning of the hike and headed to the South Kaibab trailhead.  The guys needed an early start to beat the heat and the mules and, with nothing better to do, we took to the trail then as well.  The first hour was dark; we stumbled along with our headlamps before we were blessed with an amazing sunrise.  Zach and I had arrived after dark the night before so this was our first sighting of the canyon (excluding the previous times we had been to the park.)

The first glimpse of sun

The way down was so pleasant that we even decided to run some of it.  The canyon itself is the major draw for the park but seeing the Colorado River was amazing.  It was absolutely beautiful and I felt very accomplished for getting myself there (and soon to be back up) on my own two legs. Millions upon millions of people have seen the Grand Canyon but not many have crossed the Colorado River within. 

Crossing the Colorado!

After getting some coffee from Phantom Ranch and filling up on water, we headed back up via Bright Angel Trail.  As expected, the way up was much more exhausting than the way down.  It was also much more crowded, as it was now a reasonable time for hiking.  We took lots of breaks, ate plenty of snacks and tried to keep a lively conversation going.  It got pretty rough near the end but we all made it up in a decent state of mind.

Looking back at how far we’ve come

We had just enough time to take the shuttle to our car, shower and eat some food before we headed back to the trailhead to wait for the guys to finish.  At just about the time I was starting to worry, they made it back.  All were in great spirits considering what they had just accomplished.   We celebrated the successful day with eating pizza, watching basketball, and going to sleep early.

Happy to be done!

The next day, as my family headed back to Phoenix to fly out, we headed to Coconino National Forest.  On the way, we stopped to pick up the essentials for our camper – some plates, bowls, cups, a broom, a trashcan and some beer.  We spent the week at a campsite smack dab between Sedona and Flagstaff.  Although it had no electricity or water, it was a beautiful, secluded site that allowed us to become acquainted with our new home.

The road between Sedona and Flagstaff

Zach succeeded in backing it into the spot in less than ten attempts and we managed to set it up without it rolling away or breaking anything.  We took the next few nights to move our things from the car to the camper and figure out how everything worked.

Our first campsite with our camper!

While we weren’t working, organizing or sleeping, we were able to fit in a hike and try some of the world’s best chile relleno (as recommended by Zach’s mom).  Before we knew it, we were heading to the Las Vegas airport.  Staying in Sedona had been a spontaneous decision (we were originally supposed to spend the week in Las Vegas) and we look forward to returning to enjoy more time among the beautiful red rocks of Sedona.

 

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Leaving Tucson, we headed back to Texas for our third weekend of backpacking in a row.  We originally planned on hitting up Guadalupe Mountains National Park on our way to Tucson but we hurried over to Arizona to meet up with our parents.  Although this added a bit of driving, we both like car rides and had a lot of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to listen to. 

An accidental selfie on the way to Texas

We spent Thursday night in El Paso and woke up early on Friday to drive the remaining ninety minutes to Guadalupe Mountains. After stopping by the visitor’s center to pick up our backpacking permits, we started hiking up McKittrick Canyon.  The first four miles were relatively flat and the trail was more of a path.  We stopped by Pratt Cabin, built in the 1920’s, and the Grotto, an interesting rock formation.

Hiking up McKittrick Canyon

After the Grotto the trail drastically increased in difficulty and we quickly gained a lot of elevation.  The coolest part of the hike was a spot called the Notch.  We had been climbing switchbacks, only able to see the mountain ahead and then all of sudden it opened up into a beautiful canyon.

The Notch

From the Notch to the campsite the trail continued to be narrow and steep.  At one point my feet got tangled up in a plant and I tripped hard.  Luckily, I fell straight forward, otherwise I could have rolled right off the cliff side.

Happy I didn’t fall off the trail

We spent the night at a campsite near the top of the mountain. We played some cribbage and saw a skunk which inspired us to move campsites.  The next morning we woke early and hiked the eight miles back down to our car.  After a quick lunch and refilling of water, we headed up Guadalupe Peak.  Although only four miles to the top, it climbed nearly 3,000 feet and we had tired legs from climbing the equivalent amount the day before.

Sunrise on the mountainside

We set up camp a mile from the top and tried to take a nap but it was so windy we spent the whole time worrying our tent was going to blow away with us in it!  After turning it 90 degrees and tying it down better, we left and headed to the peak.  Although it was no Big Bend, the top had some pretty good views – after all, it’s the highest point in Texas.

Very windy on the top

I was proud of our tent for making it through a windy night.  At some points I wasn’t sure it would but we brought it down the mountain in one piece.  From Guadalupe, across the New Mexico border to Carlsbad Caverns, our second National Park of the weekend.

Aliens all over the place in New Mexico

There are two options at Carlsbad Caverns, either take the elevator to the Big Room, one of the largest cave chambers in the country, or enter through the natural entrance and walk about a mile to the Big Room.  We opted for taking the long way through the natural entrance.  It was nice to see more of the cave but I was very hungry by the time we made it out, as snacks are not allowed in the cave.

I call this the Cauliflower Tree Formation

After eating a much anticipated meal, we drove a scenic drive that wasn’t too scenic and then headed back towards El Paso.  We had a great weekend but were ready for a week of relaxing.  If you’re into caves or have never been to one, Carlsbad Caverns is a cool place.  And although Guadalupe Mountains was more beautiful than I was expecting, if you’re in the area and looking for an outdoor experience, it’s worth the 4 hr drive to get to Big Bend.

Tucson

Although sad to leave Big Bend, we had a lot to look forward to in Tucson! Both my mom and Zach’s parents would be there for our first week in the city.  My mom was in town for a triathlon camp put on by Dimond (the company my brother works for) and the Serafini’s came out to Arizona to check out the desert (and see us).

The Cymanski-Serafini gang

We got a very nice house for all of us to stay in.  It had a large yard and a swimming pool which was a bit too cold to swim in.  We each did our own things during the day and then spent the evenings together.  Zach and I spent our days working.  Don and Lori spent their days sightseeing.  My mom spent her days swimming, biking and running.  I was lucky enough to take an extra-long lunch break and swim with her one day.  My mom will forever be my favorite swimming partner.

My first time swimming in 7+ months

Although Arizona is in the mountain time zone, it doesn’t observe daylight’s saving so we were three hours behind the east coast.  That meant waking up before 6 am and as anyone who knows me knows, I’m not a morning person.  The upside to getting an early start is that we were done working around 2 pm, leaving us plenty of daylight for exploring.

Hiking in Saguaro National Park after work

Our first week in Tucson went by way too quickly and before I knew it, my mom was heading back to Ohio.  Luckily I knew I would be seeing her in a month so goodbye wasn’t too bad.  Don and Lori stuck around for the weekend and we all went backpacking in Saguaro National Park.

A big (and old) saguaro!

It was nice to backpack with people.  As much as I like Zach, it was fun to have others to talk to and play Euchre with.  Excluding a minor mishap where the water filter wasn’t working (we luckily had brought enough water with us that we didn’t need to filter any) it was a very successful trip.  The saguaro’s really are magnificent.

It got chilly up on the mountain

We took advantage of the next week in Tucson to relax.  We had backpacked the past two weekends and were planning on backing the next weekend as well, so we needed some down time.  We still managed to explore Tucson – visiting the Sonora Desert Museum, driving up Mt. Lemmon and going on a few trail runs.  We got dinner with Vasanth, a CoverMyMeds co-worker who recently moved to Tucson, and his fiancé.

It was tough driving up Mt. Lemmon – I can’t believe my mom rode her bike up it!

Since before we started the trip, the background on my phone has been a picture very similar to the header photo for this post.   I was super excited for the Southwest and Tucson delivered.  It’s a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains and countless varieties of cacti.  We had a relaxing, nature-filled two weeks and were able to spend quality time with family.  What more could you ask for?

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend left me speechless so it’s going to be difficult to find the words to describe both the beauty and vastness of its endless rocky desert.  I loved loved loved Big Bend.  I already miss it and am trying to think of ways to fit another visit into our schedule.  Beforehand, I hadn’t put much thought into the park and, although excited, was more looking forward to the bigger name parks further west. But Big Bend blew me away and I think that everyone should make the trek to southwest Texas to experience it for themselves.

Welcome to Big Bend National Park!

We took Friday off of work to give us more time in the very remote park.  It’s about a 7 hour drive from Austin so we drove most of the way on Thursday night and woke early on Friday to travel the remaining hours into the park. We got there just as the visitor’s center was opening in order to get one of the limited numbers of backpacking permits.

Chisos Mountains in the distance

With permit in hand and national park passport stamped, we headed out to the trailhead.  Our backpacking site was only about 7 miles in so we did a 5 mile warm up hike.  The Lost Mines trail had some amazing panoramas (even if they were nothing compared to what we would see later).  It seemed like around every corner was an even better view than before.

Top of the Lost Mines trail

After a quick lunch, we loaded up our packs and headed into the Chisos Mountains.  Between a good bit of elevation gain and the mid-day desert sun beating down, the route was pretty challenging.  But the surroundings made thoughts of complaining evaporate.   At the time, I knew the pictures wouldn’t do it justice, but looking at them afterwards, they don’t even come close.  Just imagine something hundreds of times more amazing than these pictures.

Taking a break at the south rim of Boot Canyon

We spent the night at a windy, secluded campsite at around 7400 ft (not too high by Rocky Mt. standards but it was by far the highest I’ve ever slept outside).  We left our cards in the car and with the temperature quickly dropping we went to bed around 7pm, a not uncommon practice for us while backpacking.

Amazing views around every corner

The next morning, we got moving early and climbed up Mount Emery, the highest point in the park. The peak was a bit harrowing. Both Zach and I have acrophobia, and there was not much wiggle room at the top.  I was glad we got an early start (I think we were the first people to make it up) because we saw a lot of people heading up the mountain as we were heading down.  The peak seemed like too small of a space for just Zach and I; I can’t imagine being up there with a crowd.

Scaring Zach by sitting at the edge of Emory Peak

Once we made it back to the car, we were ready to be done with hiking for the day so we headed out to the dirt roads of Big Bend.  Zach was excited to take the 4Runner on some roads that would require 4-wheel drive.  We drove for hours and saw only one other car.  It was bumpy, beautiful ride.

The 4Runner was in desperate need of a wash by the end of the weekend

We headed south to the Rio Grande Village (which is not a village at all, just a campground).  The Rio Grande is not very grand.  Just considering the river and not the surroundings, I think the Cuyahoga is just as deserving of the adjective.  But I was able to throw a rock into Mexico which was pretty cool!

Just an average looking river (and Mexico on the other side)

We had read that the hot springs were a good place to watch the sunset so we headed there next.  The springs were by far the most crowded area of the weekend and you couldn’t see the sunset but it was a fun time and we got to talk to some interesting people.  The spring were … hot so we ended up spending more time in the river than the springs.

Can you find Zach?

It took an hour and a half to drive the 13 miles of dirt roads back to our campsite.  This was a blessing in disguise because it made us stay up well past sunset.  The stars at Big Bend were out of this world (literally).  My phone’s camera was not able to capture their magnificence (I tried unsuccessfully) but the cover photo for this blog is an accurate depiction of what we saw.

Our very remote campsite – we were the only people for miles

The next day we took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the far southwest corner of the park.  While the views weren’t as breathtaking as the ones day before, they weren’t too shabby.

Our final destination was the Santa Elena Canyon.  The canyon is kind of like a wider version of the Narrows at Zion.  You’re not hiking up the river but the walls rise up on both side for hundreds and hundreds of feet.  They only have one short hike here but I was glad as my legs were feeling quite tired from the backpacking.

Even closer to Mexico than yesterday!

Like every time I am outside, I was hoping for a bear sighting, but once again, no luck.  We did see some javelinas (they look like pigs but are not that closely related), jackrabbits, a coyote (from the car), and lots of birds and lizards.

Some javelinas – also known as skunk pigs or peccaries

As I stated in the opening paragraph, I absolutely loved Big Bend.  But Trump’s wall could soon be the newest addition to the park.  Because the federal government already owns the land, it would be one of the first places construction would start.  I oppose the wall for a litany of reasons but I don’t know how anyone, no matter their political beliefs, could think that a wall should be built along the southern border of the park.  In addition to ruining the amazing views, it would have a harsh impact on tourism in the area and, most importantly,  could harm the hundred of plant and animal species who call the region (both the US and Mexico sides) home. Here is a well written and interesting article, if you want to read more.