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.”

Michigan’s UP and Minnesota

Saying goodbye to the Powers Island, a place Liz has always loved and I grew to love over the week, we hit the road again. Back to the United States. We entered the US through Michigan’s upper peninsula, stopping to pick up two cases of Alexander Keith at the duty-free shop in Sault Saint Marie.

One last Canadian sunset

The next morning, we drove across the UP on our way to my Aunt Susan and Ed’s house, where we would be spending a few days. I always forget how big the peninsula is; the drive from Sault Saint Marie, on the far east side, to Hancock, in the northwest, took a solid five hours.

Beautiful drive across the UP

The days spent in Houghton/Hancock were jam packed with exciting activities. The first day, after setting up our trailer in my aunt’s yard, we headed up to Ed’s cabin on Lake Superior for grilled steaks and a hike overlooking the lake. The next day, Ed, Susan, and I went mountain biking in the morning. Getting back on a trail after such a long time was a little intimidating at first, but I eventually found my groove. As we got back from biking, we noticed a swarm of bee’s leaving one of their hives. After tracking down their landing spot, Ed got out the chainsaw and cut a few small trees down to get to the swarm and move it into a new hive box. That night, we went on a hike up Mount Baldy and picked a few handfuls of wild blueberries before dinner at the picturesque, lakeside Fitzgerald’s Hotel & Restaurant. I couldn’t have asked for a better end to our already wonderful vacation.

So many bees!

Monday, it was back to work. Hancock had a nice local coffee shop, Cyberia, where we camped out in their loft during the day. Tuesday was our last full day in the UP and we spent that night in Houghton with Susan and Ed. We had a great time during our short visit and are glad we’ll have another opportunity to see more of the area when we return to backpack in Isle Royale.

Wednesday afternoon, Liz and I packed up and drove to Duluth, MN. Our campground was situated on top of a ski resort, and, while it was closed for the summer, we rode an alpine coaster they built down the hillside.

Duluth Harbor

Early Saturday morning, we headed north to Voyageurs National Park. Our primary source of Nation Park research comes from “Your Guide to the National Parks” by Michael Joseph Oswald. For the most part it’s an excellent resource, with maps, recommended hikes, activities, and campground information. The book also offers “best and worst of” lists that offer guidance on the best parks for backpacking, beaches, biking, ect. One list, titled “Do Not Detour For”, should be revised though. The parks that make the cut (or don’t really) include Hot Springs, Biscayne, Cuyahoga Valley (sorry Ohio), Saguaro, Channel Islands, Lassen Volcanic, and, yes, Voyageurs.  While I can see an argument for Cuyahoga Valley and certainly Biscayne – I don’t for Voyageurs. Liz and I had a great time!

This view is worth detouring for

Saturday morning, we picked up a canoe from a local rustic resort and paddled 5 miles across the lake to Kabetogama Peninsula. From there, we backpacked back about a mile and setup our tent at another, smaller, lake on the peninsula. While canoeing we only saw a small handful of other boaters and, on the peninsula, we were only accompanied by wildlife – including a fawn and doe that wandering by our tent a few times. I’d highly recommend the park for anyone looking for nature and solitude. My only advice would be to come prepared for bugs while not on the lake – lots and lots of bugs. We were able to keep them at bay with a campfire we kept going throughout the day though.

Sunday morning, we paddled back to the parks visitor center, ready for the next leg of our journey – the first state I hadn’t been to before our trip – North Dakota.

Utah To Ohio

Moab, the self-proclaimed mountain biking mecca, located in the Utah desert, is not a hotbed of wireless hotspots. The small desert town that hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year may be known for its outdoor recreation but finding a decent place to put in an eight-hour work day proved to be its greatest challenge. For starters, the town is distinctly deficient of a Starbucks – our go-to office on the go. Instead we resorted to hoping between laundry mat, crowded local coffee shops, and the campground provided Wi-Fi, which, while quick enough to work for, had a nasty habit of disconnecting every 8 minutes, leaving us to reconnect to the company VPN. While connecting to the VPN is generally trivial – doing so every few minutes quickly becomes cumbersome.

Looking for wifi

Besides seeking out the town’s Wi-Fi options, we visited the Moab Brewing Company and one of the two local national parks – Arches. Arches is home to the iconic Delicate Arch along with over 2000 other natural stone arches. Unfortunately, most of the parks roadways were under construction, so we were limited to the parks front half. Still, I think I was able to get a good sense for the whole park with the small handful of short hikes we did after work.

Delicate Arch

We will most likely make it back to Moab again during our trip to hit up Canyonlands National Park. We just felt as though there simply wasn’t enough time to do the park justice since we were on a mission to get back to Ohio by Memorial Day. Hopefully they’ll build a Starbucks in the meantime.

Driving through the Utah desert

After spending the work-week in Moab, we headed toward Golden, Colorado – home of Coors Light – to visit my college roommate Mark “Wildcard” Ferris. On the way, we had to cross the Rocky Mountains just after a late-May snowstorm had shut down much of I-70 the day before. Seeing Veil covered in snow while the lodges and slopes remained empty (closed for the season) made me want to stay and find a way to ski the mountains alone. But we drove on. While in Golden for the weekend, we made time for a jazz festival, a board game parlor with more old college friends, and a snow-covered hike at Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

Blizzard in the Rockies

Our next planned stop was nearly a thousand miles away, in Des Moines, Iowa to visit Liz’s brother Matt. On the way, we slept in Walmart parking lots on both sides of Nebraska – working in the morning and driving in the evenings. In Des Moines, Matt treated us to the local cuisine – some of the best on our trip up to this point. We also got a tour of the Dimond bike shop where he works as the head engineer designing and manufacturing high-end bicycles.

At a Des Moines Cubs game

On Saturday came the final leg of our first lap of the states – an eleven-hour drive from Des Moines to Canton Ohio. In under 5 months we drove 15,000 miles, visited 22 states and 12 National Parks, bought our new home on wheels, spent 2 nights in the hospital, and crossed countless items off our bucket list. Here’s to many more adventures to come!

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

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.

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.

Dry Tortugas

It’s becoming a Friday tradition – heading out the door after our last meeting of the week and traveling to our weekend destination. This past Friday, we gladly left the hustle and bustle of Miami and headed south.

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Putting lots of miles of the 4Runner

The trip down Route 1 to Key West is on many lists of the country’s most scenic drives.  We were trying to get to our campsite before it became too dark so we didn’t have time to dilly-dally.  Even so, the drive was enjoyable, especially the Seven-Mile Bridge, which is one of the longest bridges in the world.
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We didn’t make it before it the sun set 

Interestingly, before there was a road to Key West, there was a rail road.  Completed in 1912, costing over $50 million, it was only used until 1935 when a hurricane destroyed many of its bridges.   The bankrupt Florida East Coast Railway sold the infrastructure to the State of Florida for $640,000.  Many of the surviving bridges and beds were used to build the Intercostal Highway.

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Seven Mile Bridge

We camped in Sugarloaf KOA, which wasn’t our first choice but all of the nearby state parks were already booked when we were making reservations.  It was very crowded and incredibly expensive for a campground (it is our most expensive accommodations yet). But it had a nice pool and hot tub, and although it was noisy, we had no trouble sleeping.

Saturday morning, with three alarms set to make sure we didn’t oversleep, we headed to Key West, which was about a half hour drive. We boarded the Yankee Freedom III and were off to Dry Tortugas National Park as the sun was rising.

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Looking for turtles or dolphins (we didn’t see either)

Dry Totrugas is located 70 miles off of Key West.  Although 100 square miles, a majority of it is water, with only seven small islands. Other than the 2.5 hour ferry ride we took, the only way to get there is by seaplane or private boat.  The main attraction is one of the largest forts in the country, Fort Jefferson built of over 16 million bricks in the 19th century.

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The parade field itself is 8 acres

We arrived to the park around 10:30 after a pleasant ferry ride.  Zach’s parents visited the park a few years ago and said that a majority of the people got sea sick, so we were glad the water conditions were calmer for us.  We did a self-guided tour of the fort, which was much more impressive than I was expecting. It’s mind baffling to me both how and why they build a giant fort in the middle of the ocean.

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Endless arches

 

After a surprisingly good lunch provided by the ferry, we went snorkeling.  It wasn’t as good as the previous weekend in Key Largo but I don’t think we were in the best area; later we overheard people talking about some much cooler sounding snorkeling.

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Every picture so far has been of Zach so here’s a selfie of me

We walked around the outside of the moat, looked at the birds nesting on a neighboring key and before we knew it, we were boarding the ferry for the trip back.  We had really been hoping to camp on the island but the ferry only has 10 camper slots, and when we booked back in December, they were already taken.
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Why does a fort on an island need a moat?

Once back in Key West, we ate dinner at the Waterfront Brewery and then headed to Mallory Square for the Sunset Celebration.  We arrived after sunset but still saw some cool street performers.  We stopped at a bar and then headed back to the KOA.  Maybe I was just tired from being in the sun all day but I wasn’t super impressed with Key West – it seemed like just another Florida tourist town.

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A fire breather

On Sunday morning we went for a run and then packed up and headed back towards the mainland.  The only thing I wished we had done was visit the Southernmost Point Marker but what is there to do other than take a photo with it? And I’m pretty sure our ferry took us south of it.

Gators Galore!

Friday after work, we left Siesta Key and headed south.  We spent the night at a campground in Big Cypress National Preserve, which borders the Everglades to the north.  Our neighbors were super friendly and we ended up playing drinking games with them.  One thing led to another and we woke up the next morning very hungover.  I blame it on the difficulty of knowing how much you’re drinking when you’re using a Nalgene and a box of wine.

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The eclipse – not quite what we were expecting but still looked cool

After struggling to get out of the tent on Saturday morning, we headed into the Everglades.  Matt got me a National Parks pass for Christmas so we saved $25 on entry.  I would definitely recommend getting a pass if you’re planning on going to more than a handful of fee-charging parks in a year.

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Two of the many alligators we saw

Our first stop was Shark Valley.  I had planned on renting bikes and riding the 15 mile loop but was severely doubting my ability to do anything other than nap in the car all day.  Zach convinced me to at least get out and walk around and I felt a lot better once I was moving.  We ended up renting the bikes and I’m very glad we did.

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More alligators!

On the way out, the loop follows a big water filled ditch (I’m sure there’s a more scientific word for it). In and around it were so many alligators.  I would guess we saw well over a hundred.  At one point, we had an alligator spotting contest that lasted a mile or two and I won 20-13.  Zach clearly had the advantage – I let him have the inside of the road and he was standing for most of the time but I still easily won.  Most of them were just laying around.  We saw a few swimming and one starting walking on the road in front of us but the rest of them seemed almost fake.

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My new Everglades hat to replace the one I lost on Splash Mountain

Half way into the loop there’s a observation tower.  The highest natural point in the park is eight feet so from the 45 foot observation tower, you can see for miles.  The second half of the loop meanders through a swampy savannah looking area but is actually a 5o mile wide river… I really don’t understand the science behind the everglades.  We saw some more alligators throughout here and a lot of interesting birds.  I’m not a bird person but they were nice to look at from a safe distance.

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Biking through a river?

I napped/navigated and Zach drove the two hours to our campground in the southern Everglades.  We set up our tent and took (another) nap but the sun was beating down on our tent so I ended up more sweaty than rested.  We had planned on eating ramen but there was a restaurant a few miles away that we got some very cheesy pizza from.

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Struggling to wake up from a late afternoon nap

After dinner, we braved the mosquitos and attended a ranger talk about nocturnal animals in the park. Even though the bugs were biting me through my pants, the talk was very enjoyable and informative.  He talked about alligators, crocodiles (the everglades are the only place in the world where they both live), panthers, bobcats, and pythons.  Burmese pythons were introduced by pet owners who could no longer care for their quickly growing snakes and would release them into the park.  This started in the late 90’s and their population size quickly skyrocketed to an estimated 25,000-500,000 (!!!!!)  With no natural predators, they have easily taken control of the food sources in the park.  Small mammals have essentially disappeared from the southern portion of the park due to pythons eating them.  This causes trouble for native animals like the panther who also eats small mammals.  I left the talk, concerned about the  already extremely endangered panthers and worrying about finding a python in my sleeping bag.

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Didn’t see any of the elusive panthers or pythons so here’s another picture of a gator

I woke up on Sunday feeling much better than previous morning.  We set out to complete six hikes the guide book recommended.  Four were 0.4 miles, one was 0.2 and the other 0.8 and they were all either paved or boardwalked so it didn’t really feel like hiking.  As I mentioned earlier, the Everglades are very flat.  Literally a few inches of elevation is the difference between a wet slough and a hammock of trees (not entirely sure I’m using either of those words correctly).  Each hike showed a different aspect of the everglades – the cypresses, the mahoganies, the pines, the saw grass.  The final hike was the Anhinga which was by far the most popular.  There were lots of alligators here as well (see below).

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In a cypress forest –  we took a selfie at each hike but this is the only one that turned out halfway decent

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I counted at least 28 alligators laying in this area

We finished our six hikes before noon so we decided to drive to Biscayne National Park.  We had planned to go after work one day after work while in Miami but since there was time, we headed over.  From the guidebooks it had seemed like there wouldn’t be much do since we didn’t own a boat (most of the park is water and some islands 7+ miles from shore). Once there, our thoughts were confirmed. They had kayaks and paddleboards for rent but there was a waitlist for them. We stopped by the visitor’s center (so I could get my national parks passport stamped) and a there a volunteer told us about snorkeling at a state park 45 minutes away. We felt guilty about not spending any time at Biscayne since our goal is visit all of the National Parks, but headed south to John Pemmekamp Coral Reef State Park.

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Ready to snorkel!

Neither of us had been snorkeling before and we had a great time. They took us about 3 miles off shore to a reef and we saw lots of very cool fish and plants.  I followed a big fish around for a while and later found out it was a barracuda.  In my defense, it was very friendly looking fish. My favorite was the parrotfish because they were colorful, had human-like teeth and you could hear them crunching on the coral.  Unfortunately we didn’t have any sort of underwater camera so we’ll just have to rely on our memories and this picture of a parrotfish I found on google.

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Look at its teeth!

Kudos if you made it all the way through this 1200 word blog post!  I hadn’t been sure I was going to like the Everglades but I very much did!  I wish we had time for some sort of canoe/kayak/boat ride.  Zach wishes we had gone on Slough Slog (also known as a muck-about, swamp walk, or ‘the only real way to experience the Everglades’) but I’m fine keeping my feet out of gator infused waters. We’re in Miami this week before heading to Key West and Dry Tortugas this weekend.