Long distance bites, but it means that every time I get to see Andrea it’s like a mini vacation. Fortunately, the timing of her September visit couldn’t have been better since it corresponded to the “turning” of the larches – Washington’s deciduous conifer – into their characteristic bright yellow in the autumn. But first, some photos from a quick day trip to Whidbey Island, including Ebey’s Landing and Fort Casey:
Right then, onto the beautiful scenery:
Ingalls Lake Larches
This hike starts from the trailhead at the end of the Teanaway Road, accessed through Cle Elum on the east slopes of the Cascades. This is one of my absolute favorite areas (see this trip in the early spring on skis), but I haven’t yet been up in the autumn to see the larches. The trail is pretty straightforward with some moderate elevation gain and there are plenty of trail guides out there, so I won’t go into much detail.
The trail ascends to Ingalls Pass by traversing along some steep hills but the trail has good tread (sketchy in snowy conditions sometimes though). There are good views of Esmeralda Peak from here but no larches yet.
Once we reached Ingalls Pass, the larches were ablaze on the other side of the ridge on the cooler, north facing slopes.
The grove of larches extends all the way to the slopes of the Ingalls Peaks. We ambled through this section taking lots of photos. They don’t really capture the “Dr. Seuss” effect of the oddly shaped trees in the grove.
As we neared Lake Ingalls, the weather started to move in a little bit and the light didn’t capture the color of the trees as well. They definitely contrast better against blue sky.
However, the low hanging clouds interacted with the terrain in interesting ways. I’m pretty happy with this next shot for some reason.
It started to drizzle on us at the lake. We ate our lunch, called it a day, and headed back for the car.
We woke up in Frisco ready to cross the Continental Divide for the third (maybe fourth) time in the trip, but this one would be over Loveland Pass, where you can really tell that you’re in the Rockies.
Since we were in ski country, the family wanted to check out the resort town of Breckenridge which was a short drive away. I had spent a couple of nights in Breck over Spring Break, so it made me wish that Winter would go ahead and arrive a little bit sooner. Our travel plans were complicated by the USA Pro Cycling Challenge race, which started in Breckenridge later in the morning and actually closed the road we were planning to take out of town. The obvious solution was to sit and watch! Chris Froome, this year’s Tour de France champion, was in attendance along with many other stars.
I-70 though Colorado was amusing and windy (much prefer driving this when not snowy, thanks), but we detoured to Loveland Pass to take the obligatory Continental Divide photo and stretch our legs.
The rest of the day consisted of driving through old mining towns on the way to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. We headed into RMNP and drove up the Trail Ridge road in the evening. What we saw was another fantastic sunset in one of America’s national parks.
Day 12: Estes Park, CO to Sidney, NE
Sadly, weather conditions on Long’s Peak had claimed the life of a hiker earlier in the week, and with my ankle recently tweaked after a trail running mishap, I did not feel comfortable heading up there alone into icy conditions. The alternative was great though – a hike to Loch Vale with the brother and my dad. I was very aware that this would be my last western hike of the year before heading back to the midwest, so I wanted to take it all in without taking many photos. Here are a couple of highlights from the Loch.
And that was the end of my Western summer.
Since I was skipping Long’s Peak, we were done much earlier in the day than anticipated and decided to leave early in order to cut down on the driving over the next couple of days. We ended up staying in Sidney, NE. Not a lot to report on in Sidney; there are cheap hotels and Cabela’s store headquarters are located there.
Days 13-14 – Returning to MI and reflections on the trip
On the way home we followed I-80 almost the entire way, stopping overnight in Avoca, IA to visit family and finally reaching home on Day 14. Since there is nothing to really report on for this section of the trip, I figured I’d leave some thoughts from the trip:
– Seeing 9 national parks and monuments including 2 of the “big three” – Yellowstone and Grand Canyon
– Devil’s Tower was a major surprise in a good way
– Every American needs to visit at least a few of these parks. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in particular are real national treasures with no equal anywhere else in the world. Get out and see them!
– Driving across the country is a way to keep from being too out of touch with “flyover states”. By driving and stopping in little towns you get a sense of the direction of the economy. For instance, seeing the energy sector in Wyoming, and the agricultural economy of south central Utah.
– Spending that much time in a car with the family was a good bonding experience
– I’m very glad that my brother and I were 18 and 22 respectively before we did this. Kids would go absolutely nuts.
– This trip was really a lot of driving. I am not sure that I would visit so many parks on one trip if I were to plan it over again. A northern loop with Glacier and Yellowstone might be good, with a southern loop based out of Vegas hitting the Southwestern parks.
– Doing the trip with the family limited some of the more extreme/strenuous hikes I could accomplish in each park. I need to revisit Yellowstone to head out into the (vast) back country instead of just scratching the surface.
Would like to return to:
– Zion, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton
– Salt Lake City (in winter)
– Jackson, WY
Regret not hitting:
– Long’s Peak (this stings, it was going to be my first 14’er and I was very ready)
– Glacier NP (will get another time, wouldn’t have been practical for us)
– Great Basin
– Grand Canyon rim to rim trail
Could have lived without:
– So much driving
– Most of South Dakota
This day was a much longer drive than expected for some reason, bu it started out great! We had a leisurely morning at the Grand Canyon, visiting the coffee shop and looking around the lodge before hiking around the visitor’s center area in search of views of the side canyons.
From there, we sat in the car for probably 8 hours. Much of the driving from Arizona to Moab is on U.S. Highways, which, while scenic, are anything but fast to drive on. We finally reached I-70 for the last run into Moab, but in order to get there we had to cross the longest stretch of any Interstate with no motorist services – 119 miles from Salina to Green River, UT through the San Rafael Swell, a weird landscape of angular rock pushed up millions of years ago. It is so foreign looking that apparently they shot scenes from the Planet Vulcan here for the most recent Star Trek movie.
Moab is a super cool town. I had visited once previously, doing some hiking and canyoneering in the area. Since we had some time to kill in the evening, we headed over to Arches to see the rock formations in the dying light (third National Park sunset in 3 days!)
Day 9: Moab Rafting
I actually have no pictures from today, but it’s for good reason, as we headed out on the Westwater Canyon section of the Colorado River for some whitewater rafting. The most memorable rapid is a nasty one called Skull which runs at Class IV, although it wasn’t nearly as tricky as the guides built it up to be earlier in the day. I had a blast, and the sights in the canyon were really unique.
Evidently some of the oldest rock in the world is exposed in Westwater – a formation called the “Vishnu Schist”. Clearly everyone spend the rest of the day making schist jokes.
Day 10: Moab to Dillon, CO
This was a short day by design, so we took some time in the morning to revisit Arches and see some more of the… well, arches.
The rest of the day consisted of driving out of Utah along I-70 to Frisco, located right in the heart of Colorado ski country. We could start to feel the altitude a bit again here!
The rest of the trip took a more relaxed pace than the more structured tour of the national parks in the Southwest, and we all appreciated the chance to spend a little more time outside the car for once.
We knew that Day 5 was going to be a long drive, but also that it would pass some of the most spectacular vistas on the trip (as well as 2 new states for much of the family). We left the park fairly early and fought construction from the South exit of the park until the Grand Teton visitor center. We didn’t spend much time in the park, but did enjoy the great views of the range from the road.
The hazy conditions due to forest fires in the area reduced visibility somewhat but not enough to conceal America’s most distinctive mountain range. Passing through Jackson, along the Snake River into Idaho, and then into Utah, we got our first taste of how enormous the West is, and how desolate the parts of the Southwest can be. We rolled into Salt Lake City in the early evening, and I showed the family around Temple Square. I talked them into eating at my favorite restaurant in town, Squatter’s Pub, which was a real treat after road food.
Day 6: Salt Lake City, UT to Springdale, UT
I wanted to do an easy hike in the Wasatch to expose my brother and dad to the beauty of the area without making the trip too difficult or hazardous. We ended up hiking Sunset Peak (for my fourth time) from the Alta side. Needless to say, they both really enjoyed it. I’ve posted lots of pictures of the area on the blog before, but here are some of the nicer ones from that morning:
The rest of the day consisted of a fairly lengthy drive on the interstate to Springdale, which is right outside Zion National Park. We took a bus tour of Zion Canyon in the evening as the sun set, and the colors were pretty unreal. It’s a very different view of the Canyon than when I had previously seen it in the morning light.
Day 7: Zion National Park to Grand Canyon North Rim
The primary goal of the day was for my brother and I to hike Angel’s Landing. I had hiked it in the spring and really enjoyed it, but he was concerned about the exposure. I told him he had nothing to worry about, and he handled it pretty well.
We got on the first bus into the park, which put us on the trail earlier than anybody (always good for the crowded Angel’s Landing trail).
First view of the valley from higher up on Angel’s Landing
We handled the chain section with no problem. My brother who isn’t a very experienced hiker said it wasn’t as bad as he was expecting.
The second trip up Angel’s Landing presented the same view, but it’ll be
This was my second trip to the top of Angel’s Landing, but I imagine it will always be worth the trip due to the unparallelled view of the rest of the valley and the “exciting” trail!
We hiked out and rode the bus back to our hotel in Springdale, where we linked up with the rest of the family and headed to the Grand Canyon via Kanab. This route goes through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, which was carved out of the sandstone by WPA crews in the 1930’s. It is sort of sketchy with regard to lack of guardrails and narrow parts of the tunnel, but worth it for the views (and for getting to the Grand Canyon of course).
From there it was several hours of driving to get to the North Rim. Along the way, we stopped in the little town of Kanab for a quick bite to eat before heading through the Kaibab National Forest to the North Rim visitor’s center. Be advised that there are very few services along this road. It definitely feels like a remote corner of the country, despite the number of visitors.
When we finally arrived (in Arizona time, one hour behind) it was pretty rainy and chilly, although it cleared up enough for us to see a canyon. We were gawking at the view until we realized it was only a side canyon. The main canyon is beyond imagination in scale. It’s easily the largest natural feature I’ve ever seen, wider even I believe than the Yellowstone caldera.
Due to the long drive and easily accessible views, we didn’t plan to hike much in the park, but we did walk to a small point by the N. Rim Lodge where we were able to get a pretty good view of the main canyon. We stayed around after dinner until the sun set, and that’s when the scenery really came to life. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, it was just awe inspiring.
Luckily we were done driving for the day, as we had a reservation at one of the cabins. I recommend staying in the park if at all possible, because the drive back to Kanab really would have put a damper on the day and would have made it impossible to watch the sun go down over the canyon.
This day was spent primarily exploring the east and northeast sections of Yellowstone National Park. The route to the East Entrance travels through some beautiful country west of Cody, including Buffalo Bill State Park. However, the eastern side of the park has been decimated by fire and pine beetle, leaving the landscape barren of live trees. There are some impressive granite peaks in the area, which reminded me of areas further north in the Rockies into Montana or Canada.
Wildlife sightings in the park are frequent and impressive. There are lots of bison roaming around, and it would be impossible to spend a day in the park without seeing multiple herds. On the drive into the park, we spotted the other distinguishing feature of Yellowstone – geothermal features.
Next, we turned North towards Canyon Junction, following the Yellowstone River. We stopped at LeHardy’s Rapids for a short walk down by the river.
Along the way we also stopped at the Mud Volcano. At the time, it was a really cool feature with one of the loudest vents we heard at the park. The amount of water in the ground dictates the character of the vents. In wet times, geysers and hot springs form. In dry seasons, pure steam exits the ground in fumaroles. Unfortunately, the Mud Volcano area was hit hard by wildfire during the August 2013 wildfire season, so I’m not sure how the area is looking right now. When we visited it was really nice.
We went on our way towards the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The area south of Canyon Village is open tundra where the Yellowstone River winds around.
We stopped briefly in traffic before Canyon Village due to a huge bull elk in the woods off to the side of the road. We did not mind the “animal jam” because somehow nobody else in the car had seen an elk before.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is where the river cuts deep into the softer volcanic rock, giving the canyon a crumbly yellow appearance and giving the area its name. It is probably my favorite area of the park due to its spectacular scale.
We took the trail to the brink of the falls which wasn’t as much elevation loss (and gain) as the park would have you believe. It’s a unique way to see the falls and totally worth the trip. I had previously seen the falls in early Spring, and huge ice formations were on either side of the river, calving off chunks into the water. Those were completely gone by the time of our most recent visit in August.
Before leaving the area we stopped at another couple of overlooks, including one where we had a great view of an osprey nest on an exposed stone pillar.
By this time it was getting a little late in the day and rain was threatening, so we took the long way round to get out of the park before nightfall. We didn’t stop at Tower Fall but did hike around Mammoth Hot Springs for a little while. The colors were muted because of the flat light, but we still enjoyed seeing the unique terraced formations.
It took us another hour and a half or so to get out of the park to our hotel (the Three Bear Lodge in West Yellowstone). Food options in town were largely expensive, tourist-oriented places, but we did appreciate the ice cream options available. West Yellowstone got pleasantly chilly at night, which was appreciated knowing that we were about to descend into the Utah desert in another two days.
Day 4: Yellowstone National Park
Day 4 consisted of a full day in the park. We started out the morning taking our time along the road to Old Faithful. We stopped a couple of times to look at cow elk in the various meadows along the way. Old Faithful was not nearly as exciting as I had remembered, possibly because it was very steamy and the cloud hid the actual column of water. A BBC documentary crew for a kids show was filming nearby and I hope they weren’t too disappointed by the footage in the dryer summer season.
Next, we wanted to check out some of the other features at Midway Geyser Basin. We stopped at a packed parking lot next to some smaller geysers and lots of steam. After hiking around the boardwalk, we happened upon what we found out was the largest hot spring in the US, the Grand Prismatic Spring.
This hot spring greatly exceeded my expectations. I had no idea that that bacterial mats could produce such vivid colors, and the deep blue color of the water was stunning, especially as the light changed as clouds would roll by and block the sun from time to time.
There were also some other smaller hot springs worth looking at on the same boardwalk.
After checking out Old Faithful, we were looking for something to do, so my brother and I decided to hike to the observatory at the top of Mt. Washburn. The drive was sort of long to get there (requiring a drive all the way past Canyon Village and over Dunraven Pass but the hike was fairly easy and well worth the trip. There is a graded 4WD road all the way to the top, where a concrete shelter and fire observer’s home are located. There was a smaller sub-peak that we visited for a better, unobstructed view.
After Mount Washburn, we were pretty tired out and decided to head back to West Yellowstone for a more relaxed evening.