More Than Meets the Eye: Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Prior to 2015, my impression of South Dakota was informed largely by bits and pieces I’d gleaned from the Travel Channel and a well-meaning Nebraskan friend. Corn, windmills, and biker rallies figured pretty prominently into the picture, as did tractors on highways and grasslands on steroids. Let me amend that: only grasslands on steroids. To hear my Nebraskan friend tell it, South Dakota comprised nothing more than 75,000 square miles of telephone poles and the very occasional crow.

“You’ve read Little House on the Prairie, right?” she said. I nodded, and she tossed her hands up in a you see what I mean? gesture. I thought she might at least concede Mount Rushmore as a worthy stop, but I quickly learned my lesson: South Dakota/Nebraska rivalry is a glorious, deep-seeded thing. Planning three days in South Dakota could only be perceived as a personal affront. “Have fun watching grass grow,” she huffed.

Here’s what I didn’t dare tell her: we could’ve spent three weeks in South Dakota and only scratched the surface of all that this beautiful state has to offer.

From Rocky Mountain National Park, we headed north, spending a day in Badlands National Park before bearing west towards Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Monument. Already, we were enamored of the otherworldly terrain and wildlife of the Badlands, but before our three days were through, we’d come to love so much more about this underrated state. We were fortunate to stay at the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch, just ten minutes away from Mount Rushmore. We love in-park camping and had planned a week’s worth between Grand Teton and Yellowstone in the coming week, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I love a good KOA almost as much as the kids do. It’s the perfect camp/resort hybrid, and at $20/night for a tent-only site plus a $10 resort fee, this KOA measured head and shoulders above any commercial campground we’ve ever stayed at. But more on that later.

IMG_20150630_192708
Our home for two nights–Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch was one of our favorite KOAs ever!

Palmer Gulch turned out to be a convenient home base for exploring Wind Cave National Park, a short 40-minute drive away. Wind Cave doesn’t receive nearly the attention that Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Caves does, and that’s a shame–it’s a fascinating place to visit. On first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Wind Cave as yet another example of the ubiquitous South Dakota grasslands my friend had warned us about, but this prairie harbors a secret world. Beneath the bison herds and prairie dogs peeking out from park burrows lies a 140-mile labyrinth of passageways that makes Wind Cave the sixth longest cave in the world. More significantly, Wind Cave houses 95% of the world’s known boxwork formations–thin calcite projections that form honeycomb patterns. 95%! True, I’d never heard of boxwork formations before visiting Wind Cave, but still. I know a significant thing when I hear it. 😀 

IMG_20150701_083721
Wind Cave National Park, 2015

Visitors may only enter the cave through a guided ranger tour, so we stopped at the Visitor Center to purchase tour tickets and Junior Ranger booklets. We opted for the 1.5 hour Fairgrounds Tour, which would allow us to explore both the upper and middle levels of the cave. NPS labels this tour as its most strenuous walking tour, but don’t let that deter you–participants navigate 450 stairs over two thirds of a mile in dimly lit conditions, but aside from the darkness, this tour is entirely doable for kids and adults of all ages. At $12 per adult and $6 per kid, the tour was reasonably priced, and we were excited to see what Wind Cave held in store for us.

A short elevator ride transported us from the Visitor Center into a dark and complicated maze of cave passageways. Outside, it was a blistering 100 degrees; here, beneath the surface, it was a cool 50–chilly enough to warrant a jacket. Moving from room to room, our ranger pointed out elaborate boxwork formations and illuminated iridescent frost formations with a flashlight. She warned us not to dawdle, and it soon became clear why: passageways forked into multiple passageways, which in turn divided into multiple passageways yet again–a mitotic explosion of cave confusion to the uninitiated like us. We ducked low boxwork ceilings in rooms barely large enough to accommodate a single body, only to turn the corner to enter gaping caverns where our voices echoed for what seemed like miles. It was an amazing study in contrasts. Our ranger ended the tour by extinguishing her flashlight to let us experience absolute darkness–the kind of darkness that made it impossible to see our outstretched hands not six inches from our faces. It was an incredible experience.

IMG_20150701_102423 (1)
Descending into the depths, Wind Cave Fairgrounds Tour
IMG_20150701_100444
Low boxwork ceilings meant frequent ducking and stooping
IMG_20150701_100512
Intricate boxwork in Wind Cave
IMG_20150701_110758
Maneuvering between narrow walls, glancing up at intricate formations
IMG_20150701_100504
Boxwork ceilings, iridescent frost formations as well
IMG_20150701_104520
Fairgrounds Cave Tour contains over 450 stairs, but it’s very manageable for families. Nothing sketchy or overly strenuous.

We ended our time in-park with a cursory nod to Wind Cave’s above-ground offerings, hiking 1-mile Prairie Vista Trail. Rolling plains, wallowing bison, and skittish prairie dogs set the stage for a hot but easy stroll through a sampling of the park’s bucolic setting. I would’ve loved to spend the rest of the day exploring Wind Cave’s hiking trails, but there was a KOA with resort amenities calling to the kids like Siren song. They’re good sports, always indulging my hiking and backpacking whims without complaint, so how could I begrudge them an afternoon of kid-approved fun? We drove back to our campsite and unleashed their boundless energy on Palmer Gulch.

IMG_20150630_145838
Prairie Vista Trail

Talk about amenities–this KOA was seriously decked out! Water slides, swimming pools, climbing walls, and a giant jumping pillow would’ve been ridiculous enough. But throw in a foam pools, life-sized chess, hayrides, horse rides, and bicycle rides, and you begin to understand why the kids couldn’t tear themselves away. They played hard all afternoon, finally collapsing at camp five hours later for dinner. We cooked our own meals, but this KOA even offers a pizza parlor, nightly barbecue buffet, and an ice cream shop for those who’d prefer to let someone else do the heavy lifting. For $20 a night, I can’t recommend Mount Rushmore KOA highly enough!

IMG_20150701_134652
Catching air–the kids loved this jump pillow!
IMG_20150701_141708
With all the activities that the KOA had to offer, it was a happy surprise to see them enjoying basketball together
IMG_20150701_143100
Our youngest had the best time riding around camp
IMG_20150701_155837
Slippery, soapy, foamy fun. Our youngest made fast friends with this little guy.
IMG_20150630_203553_1
Water slides, pools, and sprinklers provided relief from the triple digit heat
IMG_20150630_192731
Mini playground just feet from our campsite. The kids played here before every meal. The main amenities area had a much larger playground with sprinklers and a climbing wall.
IMG_20150630_192646 (1)
Hearty dinner for the famished fam

After dinner, we drove to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If we had any question about the kind of crowds this great American icon draws, we had only to survey the enormous size of the parking lot–far and away the largest of any NPS site we’ve ever visited–to know the answer. This is not the kind of monument that’s hidden behind some grand facade, either; it doesn’t require hours of hiking to get to. In fact, from the moment you step onto the grounds (and for many miles before), you can see Mount Rushmore. But the experience of visiting Mount Rushmore? So much more than that. Walking through the parade of flags, watching the presidents’ faces sharpen in focus with each passing step–it’s an intentional process that transforms and elevates the experience into something unforgettable.

IMG_20150701_200450
Entering Mount Rushmore National Memorial–turnstiles
IMG_20150701_201026
Parade of flags–each state is represented here
IMG_20150701_200934
Mount Rushmore crowds are huge, especially in the summer. I never thought I’d love a crowd, but it really added to the patriotic swell of the lighting ceremony.
IMG_20150701_201122
A little piece of Hawaii in South Dakota
IMG_20150701_201322
Mount Rushmore at sunset, June 2015
IMG_20150701_201232
Sunset over Mount Rushmore. You can probably tell from all the gray–we got caught in some crazy thunder and lightning on the way back to camp!

Although we didn’t have enough time to hike any of the trails that would have brought us to the base of the carvings, we enjoyed browsing museum exhibits that cataloged the arduous task of bringing Mount Rushmore into fruition. Given a second chance, I’d definitely allot an entire day here, but if 2015 turns out to be my only experience at Mount Rushmore, I’m extremely grateful to have experienced the park’s evening program. Like everything else about South Dakota, the evening lighting ceremony was so much more than I expected. The sun set over the amphitheater, crowning the monument with a brilliant halo and then darkness. Floodlights illuminated the stage, drawing our attention away from the darkening monument. Through film, the ranger explained the significance of the presidents honored by Mount Rushmore. She asked us to consider the symbolic light of freedom and its importance not just to Americans, but to all those fighting oppression worldwide as Mount Rushmore came aglow. By the time the audience joined her in the Pledge of Allegiance and “The Star Spangled Banner,” I was choking back tears. The ranger called those who’ve served to the stage, asking each serviceman and servicewoman to introduce themselves and their branch of service. I was beside myself. The crowd’s deafening cheers, the rousing ovation for the men and women who defend our freedom–it was a swell of patriotism and pride I’ll never forget.

IMG_20150701_210043
Evening lighting ceremony. As the sky darkens, the amphitheater stage comes to life
IMG_20150701_212932
Symbolic light of freedom, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If you visit Mount Rushmore during the summer, I highly recommend attending this ceremony!
IMG_20150701_212948
The park ranger called servicemen and women to the stage. So incredibly moving.
IMG_20150701_213018
Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing “The Star Spangled Banner” during the evening lighting ceremony

Since 2015, we’ve compiled a growing list of places we’d like to explore in South Dakota, among them Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument. My friend will roll her eyes when I tell her our plans, no doubt. Is South Dakota all grasslands on steroids? Absolutely–and not at all. Amid all that grass, there is so much more than meets the eye, and I, for one, am thankful that my friend is a very good sport because goodness knows, I am a very bad listener.     

Rocky Mountain National Park: 5 Family-Friendly Hikes

In our family, life in the seventies unfolded to a revolving soundtrack of the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, and Neil Diamond. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom setting the record player needle onto vinyl just so, my dad singing and stomping to “Sweet Caroline.” I’d spend whole afternoons rifling through our album collection, pulling records from sleeves to hand to my mom. I remember one album in particular–a bespectacled, long-haired John Denver on the cover, guitar in hand–a greatest hits compilation. I may not have understood who Annie was or the significance of those country roads, but there was an earnestness to Denver’s voice that moved me even then. Listening to “Rocky Mountain High” with the kids decades later at Rocky Mountain National Park was like traveling back in time, linking past and present. Like coming full circle and going home. Wandering a few miles of RMNP’s trails, those lyrics came alive like never before. Hiking felt like catching a small glimpse of Denver’s heart.              

  1. Bear Lake Loop (0.8 miles)

If you’ve ever visited Bear Lake in late June, then you already know the truth we discovered on Day 3 of Road Trip 2015: the eponymous bear of Bear Lake might have more to do with the challenging parking conditions than any creature of the ursine variety! Still, one glimpse of beautiful Bear Lake was all it took to convince us that parking woes were a small price to pay for such beauty. We jockeyed for a stall at the Bear Lake Park and Ride (our fault for lingering over camp bacon!) and took a free park shuttle to the lake.

With a bevy of lovely trails and showstopping subalpine scenery to enjoy, Bear Lake is one of the most popular regions in RMNP. Crowds are something I prefer to avoid, but Bear Lake is popular for a reason: if ever there was a picture perfect postcard scene, Bear Lake is surely it. Bear Lake Loop follows the circumference of Bear Lake, offering multiple perspectives and viewing angles with an added benefit–the farther we hiked along the loop, the more the crowds diminished. And while you’re never truly alone on this trail, there are plenty of lakeside pockets and clearings to escape to, if only for a minute.

IMG_20150627_110440
Bear Lake Park and Ride–even with several hundred stalls, this lot fills by 9 am
IMG_20150627_110842
Bear Lake, RMNP
IMG_20150627_110935
Bear Lake Loop, 2015
IMG_20150627_111352
Bear Lake Loop offers pockets of solitude not generally found at the trailhead
  1. Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake (3.6 miles)

Once back at Bear Lake trailhead, we followed an adjacent trail to Nymph Lake, half a mile away. A short but steady uphill climb didn’t sound so bad on paper, but the unfamiliar altitude (9,400 feet) left us winded. Coming from sea level, we found ourselves headachey and nauseous. Recognizing the effects of altitude, we slowed our pace and hydrated liberally to take the edge off. (Which mostly worked, though we continued to experience headaches the next day, too.) We rested at Nymph Lake for half an hour, journaling and sketching the waterlily-ringed lake before us. While not as clear or vivid as Bear Lake, Nymph Lake had its own Monet-like appeal that made for an interesting watercolor study.

IMG_20150627_114853
Taking a break to sketch the scene with watercolors
IMG_20150627_115632
Nymph Lake, RMNP 2015
IMG_20150627_121344
Photo cred to the hubby for this shot…and most of the shots on this blog, really! 😀

From Nymph Lake, we climbed another half mile to an elevation just shy of 10,000 feet. This portion of the trail remains ingrained in my mind to this day: yellow wildflowers overlooking miles of forest, Longs Peak standing watch in the distance. It was hard to keep from stopping every few seconds; it seemed there was a rushing creek or family of deer vying for our attention around every bend. Perhaps that’s how it was meant to be–RMNP’s way of upping the ante to prepare us for the grandeur of Dream Lake. Framed by snow-capped Hallett Peak, Flattop Mountain and Tyndall Glacier, Dream Lake remains one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. We lingered on a rocky perch and sketched for the better part of an hour, savoring the view.

IMG_20150627_125457
On the way to Dream Lake, Longs Peak in the distance
IMG_20150627_125515
Between Nymph Lake and Dream Lake
IMG_20150627_130559 (1)
This portion of the trail was especially scenic
IMG_20150627_130126
We felt like we were getting whiplash–there were beautiful creeks around every bend
IMG_20150627_131007 (1)
Dream Lake was sublime, especially as seen from our rocky perch away from the crowds
IMG_20150627_130935
Dream Lake, RMNP–we sat here for close to an hour just absorbing this beautiful scene

Though we were loath to leave Dream Lake, we still had a mile to go to reach our final destination: Emerald Lake. Climbing through the heart of Tyndall Gorge, we were excited to come upon a family of elk grazing in a meadow. They paid us no heed as we ascended the trail, finally coming to a rocky outcropping signalling the end of the trail and the beginning of Emerald Lake. I wasn’t sure anything could top the magnificence of Dream Lake, but Emerald Lake gave Dream a run for its money with its exquisite jewel-toned hue. We’re lake fans through and through, and this hike came through in a big way, supplying four beautiful subalpine lakes in under four miles. Emerald Lake even delivered an entertaining bonus in the form of a plump marmot who scurried about the rocks, panhandling for food.

IMG_20150627_135336
Between Dream Lake and Emerald Lake; loved seeing the mountains and lakes from multiple angles
IMG_20150627_141942
Emerald Lake, RMNP–it was challenging to take a photo without being unintentionally photobombed by lakeside visitors
IMG_20150627_141723
Emerald Lake (plus unintentional photobombing visitor) 😀
IMG_20150627_141957 (1)
Loved Emerald Lake’s beautiful jewel-toned hue
  1. Alpine Ridge Trail (0.6 miles)

Day 2 in RMNP dawned ominous and gray. A quick check-in with a park ranger regarding impending thunderstorms confirmed our hunch that hiking 5 miles along open and exposed Mount Ida Trail was probably not the best idea. His recommendation? Hike the half mile trail behind Alpine Visitor Center instead. I have to admit that I secretly pooh-poohed the idea– “Only half a mile?” I thought–but don’t let Alpine Ridge Trail’s short length fool you: ascending 200 feet at an elevation of 12,000 feet in under three tenths of a mile is no joke. Our youngest was seven at the time and had to sit with his head between his knees a long while to recover. He struggled to catch his breath, saying it felt like there was an elephant sitting on his chest.

Here in the alpine tundra, the growing season is short. Wildflowers bloom for six short weeks and plants grow low to the ground, adapting to the harsh winds and temperature extremes of this unforgiving environment. These miniature blooms have found a way to thrive where other organisms perish, and it was a treat to see their vibrant hues dotted against the stark expanse of glaciated greens and purples.

IMG_20150628_092526
Alpine Ridge Trail begins behind this Visitor Center
IMG_20150628_094158
Climbing toward the sun (or thunder clouds)
IMG_20150628_095224
Interpretive signs help with identifying all the different wildflower species
IMG_20150628_094119
Looking back at the Visitor Center
IMG_20150628_100849
Adventures of Five at 12,005 feet!
IMG_20150628_100947
At the top of Trail Ridge Road, fourteeners look like tiny hills
  1. Tundra Communities Trail (1.1 miles)

Located a few miles from the Alpine Visitor Center along Trail Ridge Road, the Tundra Communities Trail traverses alpine tundra and offers tremendous Alpine Ridge Trail views with far fewer crowds. I wish we’d taken pictures of this trail, but we were too busy keeping an eye on the thunderstorm headed our way…and driving ourselves crazy trying to locate the elusive pikas that had us turning circles with their distinctive chirps! We could’ve sworn we heard thousands of them, but spotting these little critters would elude us until Grand Teton National Park a week from now. Still, we loved hiking above the treeline through tundra meadow and especially enjoyed the strange and wonderful mushroom rock formations along the way. Tundra Communities Trail makes for fantastic and worthwhile tundra exploration along Trail Ridge Road.

  1. Hidden Valley Trail (<2 miles)

With thunder clouds rolling in, we were anxious to descend Trail Ridge Road but couldn’t bring ourselves to leave RMNP just yet. As luck would have it, RMNP’s Junior Ranger Headquarters is located at the base of Trail Ridge Road alongside a picturesque picnic area and valley creek. With a pot of lentil soup warming our bellies, we set out to explore Hidden Valley. A short boardwalk looped around the picnic area, branching off into spur trails that led into the mountains. We followed the most obvious of these trails and found ourselves quickly gaining elevation–and just as quickly losing traction along the steep incline. We later learned that this area is an old ski area used for winter tubing, which sounds just about right given the slopes we encountered. Downed trees littered much of the trail ahead of us, so we decided to turn around before things turned sketchy. To be honest, I’m not even sure of the trail’s official name, but exploring Hidden Valley reinforced the old adage that it really is the journey that matters most.

IMG_20150628_134221
Main loop around picnic area
IMG_20150628_141849
So many wildflowers in Hidden Valley
IMG_20150628_133343
Creek view, Hidden Valley
IMG_20150628_134205
The yellow wildflowers were especially pretty here
IMG_20150628_141743
Hamming it up in Hidden Valley

Back at Jellystone of Estes Park, we’d barely finished 4 holes of miniature golf before thunder crashed across the Rockies, splitting the sky apart in a torrent of rain. I’d used the phrase “lightning bolt” before but had never actually witnessed one until that moment. Watching lightning zig-zag across the sky and strike the ground with an electrifying crackle was a terrifying and awesome thing. The boom of thunder echoing across the Rockies is something I’ll never forget. Safe and sound in our tent, we were so glad we’d heeded the ranger’s advice about Mount Ida!

A short aside about Jellystone of Estes: Though the staff was very welcoming and kind and the kids loved the Yogi Bear Mardi Gras parade, given the price of a tent-only site ($60 per weekend night) and lack of amenities such as a hot tub or pool, we probably wouldn’t stay here again. We’re happy to have tried it and enjoyed our stay, but we’d prefer to camp in RMNP next time.

As always, our time in RMNP was over too soon, but we were grateful to have sampled the sights and serenity that make this park so unique. Heading out of RMNP for South Dakota, we couldn’t help but smile at John Denver’s fitting send-off refrain. 

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain High, I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.

You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply.

Rocky Mountain High, Colorado.

Also from Road Trip 2015: RMNP Trail Ridge RoadGrand Teton Day 1, Grand Teton Day 2, Badlands National ParkPANO_20150628_101243

Dinosaur National Monument + Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road

Let me come right out and say it: Dinosaur National Monument was not a destination high on our travel list. Like Mesa Verde, it was an afterthought of the we’re passing through, so why not? variety. Honestly? My expectations were embarrassingly low.

Oh, we of little faith! Because National Monument and Park status is not something so glibly conferred. Still, it took a Dinosaur National Monument visit to eradicate my heretical leanings once and for all. Spoiler alert: this unassuming park delivered in big and unexpected ways!

Salt Lake City

Summer 2015 began with a six-hour red-eye to Salt Lake City that sounded good in theory–cheap tickets with an early-morning arrival, allowing for a full day of SLC exploration. Turns out a 3 am (Hawaii time) touchdown makes for some very grouchy kids–and testy parents. Oops! Oh well, at least we got the cheap tickets part right. Luckily, the kids caught their second wind at Park Cafe. Trip Advisor nailed this SLC breakfast recommendation right: thick-cut slab bacon, in-house strawberry jam, and homemade hash that delivered beautifully in the surface area to crisp edges ratio department. Bountiful portions kept our hungry brood plenty satisfied.

From Park Cafe, we headed to Temple Square for a glimpse into the heart and history of the LDS organization. Regardless of religious affiliation, Temple Square represents a triumph of both architecture and the human spirit. It is easy to appreciate the immaculate grounds and reverent beauty found here. We spent the better part of the afternoon wandering Salt Lake Temple, the Family History Library, and LDS Conference Center. The Tabernacle, in particular, harkened back to childhood memories of watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform around an old rotary-knobbed Magnavox on Christmas Eve (Whew, dating myself big time here. Anyone else remember standing up to change the TV dial? Bueller?).

IMG_20150625_133905
Afternoon walking tour through SLC

Melt-in-your-mouth pastrami burgers and creamy fry-dipping sauce from Crown Burgers made for a tasty early evening pick-me-up before a 3-hour drive east to Vernal. If you like pastrami, you’ll love this SLC institution! Vernal is a fun little town–a quirky, kitschy mishmash of dinosaur-themed memorabilia and potted flower-lined streets. Even the gas stations sport fun dinosaur statues. With two weeks of camping ahead of us, we happily splurged on a motel and settled in for the night.

IMG_20150625_140726
Crown Burgers with special fry sauce (It’s probably just mayo and ketchup, but I swear the stuff is like crack with that pastrami burger!)

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument straddles the border of Utah and Colorado, sheltering a dinosaur fossil hotbed in Vernal and winding through dramatic canyon country in Colorado. Both regions are stunning. Unfortunately, we only had time for half a day in Vernal but earmarked both ends of the park for a return visit.

A quick stop at the Quarry Visitor Center gave us time to view the park film, pick up Junior Ranger booklets, and hop on the summer shuttle to Quarry Exhibit Hall a quarter mile away. Recently renovated, the Quarry Exhibit Hall was truly magnificent! The structure itself contains glass-paneled walls that allow you to see for miles into the quarry, but what is even more impressive is the fact that the building houses over 1,500 dinosaur fossils in relief. In the early 1900s, paleontologist Eric Douglass envisioned housing the exposed bones in relief, suggesting that such a site would inspire more awe than excavating the fossils. He couldn’t have been more right. With skeletons left untouched and exactly as they’d been discovered over a hundred years ago, we felt like paleontologists discovering this quarry for the first time. True, we were a small and biased sample, but the wonder and awe we felt walking through the display seemed to confirm Douglass’ vision. This was not some hodgepodge of bones, either; we were able to make out entire articulated vertebral columns, skulls, and Stegosaurus plates. We purchased a one-dollar guide that was invaluable in helping us identify the fossils and decipher what we were seeing; between the guide and the quarry, our youngest was in dinosaur heaven.

IMG_20150626_091719
Dinosaur National Monument, Utah 2015
IMG_20150626_094357
Riding the shuttle tram from Quarry Visitor Center in Vernal
IMG_20150626_095109
Quarry Exhibit Hall
IMG_20150626_100116
Quarry Exhibit Hall houses skeletons in relief
IMG_20150626_095653
Vertebrae in relief
IMG_20150626_095317
Comparing fossils against our reference guide

The Quarry Exhibit Hall also houses many reassembled fossil skeletons, among them a Camarasaurus discovered in Dinosaur. An interactive Junior Ranger Talk gave the kids an opportunity to touch dinosaur bones, test their knowledge of Jurassic trivia, and emulate dinosaur gaseous emissions with balloons–a hilarious activity that proved you’re never too old to find balloon flatulence amusing. 😀

IMG_20150626_100339
Dinosaur National Monument
IMG_20150626_101547 (1)
After striking out on fossils at California Academy of Science, he was so happy to see assembled dinosaur skeletons here
IMG_20150626_101333
Informing the vision behind Quarry Exhibit Hall
IMG_20150626_105010
Blowing balloons to emulate dinosaur flatulence
IMG_20150626_105037
Flatulent balloons never get old

In a state that boasts the Mighty Five, it’s easy to see how a park like Dinosaur might get overlooked for top billing. But perhaps it’s precisely Dinosaur’s quieter nature that makes it feel like such a find. We only had time to hike 1.2-mile Fossil Discovery Trail before our shuttle arrived, which is a shame because Dinosaur National Monument looks to have some incredible trails. We’d love to tackle more hikes as well as camp or river raft through the park someday. Kids or no, I suspect we all harbor some secret seven-year-old dinosaur zealot deep within. Call me corny, but there’s something nostalgic about reigniting that dormant zest at Dinosaur National Monument.

Rocky Mountain National Park: Grand Lake to Estes Park via Trail Ridge Road

From Quarry Visitor Center, we drove four hours east to Kawuneeche Visitor Center in Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Coming from triple digit temps in Dinosaur, we found ourselves reaching for jackets to stave off the cold in Grand Lake. With a quick stop to view the park film, admire elk, and play with roadside snow, we ascended Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road is a spectacular 48-mile stretch of highway spanning the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park and linking Grand Lake in the west with Estes Park in the east. Crossing the Continental Divide, Trail Ridge Road traverses alpine tundra at dizzying elevations of over 12,000 feet. The drive begins like any other in the Rockies–evergreens and forest views–but within minutes, Trail Ridge Road redefines itself as something else entirely. Pine forests yield to wind-sheared firs and then barren sky as you climb above the clouds–a literal expression, not a figurative one. Here in the vast alpine tundra, clouds mist across the road, cloaking snowy peaks below. Devoid of trees, the Rockies seem to go on forever, just one immense fourteen-footer after another. It is impossible not to be moved by the enormity of it all.

Spotting a herd of elk grazing amid the clouds, we felt certain we were at the top of the world. It wouldn’t have been such a stretch given the rising altitude and thinning oxygen. Where else but at the top of the world could you find startlingly stark beauty like this?

IMG_20150626_174048 (1)
The ascent…climbing into the clouds
IMG_20150626_173502
The views keep getting better and better
IMG_20150626_173835
From up in the clouds, those 14-ers look like little hills
IMG_20150626_174806
Turning a curve to see this herd in the clouds was amazing
IMG_20150626_174822 (1)
We sat here for quite a while admiring these beautiful elk
IMG_20150626_175156
Trail Ridge Road, 2015

With daylight fleeting, we were disappointed to make a hasty descent to Estes Park and Jellystone Campground, our home for two nights. With the beauty of Trail Ridge Road still fresh in our minds, we were excited to see what Rocky Mountain National Park held in store for us at Emerald Lake and Mount Ida the next day. For now, though, it was on to more pressing matters, like dinner and s’mores and the adorable bunny who so graciously allowed us to share his charming home.

IMG_20150626_200407
The adorable bunny who shared his campsite with us for two days, Jellystone Estes Park

 

3 Days in Arches: 7 Family-Friendly Hikes + Whitewater Rafting Fisher Towers, Part II

“It’s a high water year, folks. You’re in for a treat,” our guide assured us with a grin.

Gangly and angular, our guide’s arms hung disproportionately long in a way that no respectable non-teen’s should. The kid couldn’t have been a day over 18. What little faith I’d staked in the skimpy life vest strapped around my neck vanished the moment he uttered, “Dude,” like he was doing some bad Keanu Reeves “Bill and Ted” impression–only clearly, he wasn’t. He clapped a jovial hand to my shoulder. “Duuude. This is going to be some ride.”  

This is how Day 3 of our Arches National Park adventure began. Road Trip 2014 took us through 9 National Parks and 6 states with a Colorado River whitewater rafting trip serving as a highlight and splurge we’d carefully budgeted for. Only now, standing in a Moab parking lot being fitted for life vests, I was sort of wishing we’d sprung for a safe little float trip instead. You know–calm. Mellow. Post-pubescent guide.

We jumped into a rickety jeep sans seatbelts and zipped off to our put-in site near Fisher Towers, 45 minutes away. While our Canyonlands by Night and Day guides chirped about the myriad ways we could potentially die on this tour (waivers, liability, blah, blah), I had time to contemplate how little I cared for adrenaline rushes and how fond I’d grown of breathing. With warm gusts making bird nests of our hair, we cruised down the highway to a rash of exuberant high-fives and Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring from the front-seat boom box.

Nodding along to the beat, our guide explained how high water had turned our heretofore Class I and II section of the Colorado into more sizeable Class II and III rapids. He winked at our youngest–a hair over three feet and 30-some-odd pounds–small fry by any standard.

“You ready to hang tight and get wild, little guy?” he said, reaching across the seat to muss our son’s hair. He studied the life vest dwarfing our youngest’s face, clearly a size or two too large despite falling within the recommended age range for this trip before turning to me.

“He can swim, right, Mom?” he asked, almost as an afterthought. “I’m kidding,” he deadpanned.

Once at the put-in site, we learned that the guides would lead four separate tours. As a party of five, we were assigned own raft and guide–ours being the gangly teen with the lashes and curly locks girls would kill for, of course. With a trademark grin, he threw gear into our raft–extra life vests, a first aid kit (“You’re a Scout mom; you know how to use this thing, right?” he said with a wink), Tevas, sunscreen–and chatted up the kids about school and Scouts and Arches. I’ve no doubt the conversation seemed natural because he was young enough to be their older brother, but I was grateful for his easy rapport with the kids. “Relax, Mom!” he said to me more than once. “I promise you, this is going to be so much fun.”

IMG_20140615_090353-SMILE
At Fisher Towers, getting rid of pre-ride jitters
IMG_20140615_090851
Our put in site, 45 mins from Moab
IMG_20140615_112438
Enjoying a breather without life vests

And oh, did we have fun! Despite my initial misgivings, our first-ever whitewater rafting adventure turned out to be a true trip highlight for us. Our guide explained how to lean into the center of the raft through the rapids and how to angle our bodies if we fell in. Boy, were we surprised to learn we’d be sitting on the edge of the raft and not inside it! Our guide expended all his elbow grease rowing while we focused on gripping that raft line for dear life. Being on the water was calming, however, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves savoring the unique perspective the river provided: orange sandstone climbing toward the sun, the Colorado River snaking into the horizon. Our guide regaled us with brushes with celebrity–”Bon Jovi rented out that sandstone tower to film his music video!” (“You weren’t even alive when that video came out,” I quip; his smile concedes it’s true)– and Moab trivia. It was all so calm and un-rapids-like that we were lulled into thinking that maybe this was the extent of the ride.

IMG_20140615_092434
In which we find out we’re sitting on the edge of the raft, not in it!
IMG_20140615_095115
This view made everything better
IMG_20140615_102409
View from the raft, Fisher Towers 2014

But this was a whitewater rafting tour after all, and it was just a matter of time before our ride turned bonafide wet and wild. From around the bend, Onion Creek Rapids looked like little more than gentle froth, but the sly grin on our guide’s face told us otherwise. “Lean in!” he hollered, paddling directly into the effervescent white. With a whoop and an explosive geyser-spray that drenched us head to toe, we were off! The raft rocked wildly to and fro, battered about by the swirling eddies. We ebbed and crested for what felt like minutes; at one point, I could swear the raft leapt right out of the water. The kids screamed with delight, Mom loudest of all.

“Again! Again!” the kids shrieked. We couldn’t get enough of the frothy white stuff, urging our guide to maneuver a long path through the next set. It was equal parts thrilling and terrifying in the most addictive of ways. I could see why people did this year after year. I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the guts to hoist myself back into a flimsy raft after this, but man, was it ever a rush. We floated through Fisher Towers with eagle eyes peeled for whitewater, screaming and laughing like loons every time our raft went flying through the air. Before we knew it, we were on the edge of the last rapid, our 3-hour ride all but over. Our guide was awesome, prolonging the ride as best he could by not paddling. Rapids being rapid, however, we were soon in the shallows and docking along the river bank. We’d had an absolute blast–I can’t recommend Canyonlands by Night and Day highly enough! If whitewater rafting isn’t your thing, Canyonlands by Night and Day also offers jet boat tours, zip lines, and ATV tours in the area.

IMG_20140615_094639
Holding on for dear life and having a blast
IMG_20140615_102203
In between rapids, the kids got a chance to row the raft
IMG_20140615_094610
The calm before the rapids
IMG_20140615_110643
The frothy white good stuff!

After a bumpy jeep ride back to the company office in Moab, we spent the rest of the afternoon hiking in Arches. Hikes #1-5, including Landscape Arch, Double O, Balanced Rock, Double Arch, and Delicate Arch, may be found here.

  • Hike #6 Windows + Turret Arch: This easy 1.2 mile trail brought us up close and personal with North and South Windows and Turret Arch, all of which can be readily viewed from the road. What’s the point of hiking when you can easily see these arches from the road, you ask? Well, everything, really, and perspective, mostly. There’s something both humbling and sacred about being in the presence of these temporary giants. It’s a feeling that can’t be replicated from the car. To clamber up boulders at the base of an arch or lay in the shade of a multi-ton wrinkle-in-time is to know the immense awe of these natural wonders. Arches does a fantastic job of maintaining the accessibility of this trail, making it perfect for kids and adults of all ages and abilities.
    IMG_20140614_123233
    North and South Windows; note the line of people ants ascending the base!
    IMG_20140614_114250
    Easy trail to the Windows
    IMG_20140614_114702
    Not quite sure how this became our universal Arches pose 😀
    IMG_20140614_115052
    The kids completed their Junior Ranger booklets under this arch
    IMG_20140614_122106
    Turret Arch looks small from a distance
    IMG_20140614_122216
    But grows larger and larger the closer you get

    IMG_20140614_122619
    …And larger still! We’re the colorful specks at the base of Turret Arch
  • Hike #7 Park Avenue: This moderate 2-mile out-and-back trail evoked a skyscraper-lined cityscape hewn from stone. The steep descent toward the Courthouse Towers made for a moderate return climb under afternoon sun, but this is a very doable hike for littles if timed properly. The Three Gossips was our favorite formation by far, capturing our imaginations with its uncanny resemblance to a conspiring threesome. With formations like the Organ, Sheep Rock, and Tower of Babel, Park Avenue Trail is sure to spark your imagination, too.
    IMG_20140615_132741
    Park Avenue is such a fitting name for this trail
    IMG_20140615_133137
    Wandering Park Avenue after whitewater rafting
    IMG_20140615_140532
    Looking up, you really get a sense of how enormous these formations are
    IMG_20140615_135817
    My three silly gossips!
    IMG_20140615_134927
    The OG Three Gossips
    IMG_20140615_133915
    Exploring Park Avenue; it’s hard not to feel little here

    IMG_20140615_135859
    Arches 2014
  • Bonus birdwatching hike in Scott Matheson Wetlands Preserve: Located less than ten minutes from the entrance to Arches, this lovely one-mile boardwalk loop meanders through fragile wetlands providing sanctuary to more than 200 species of migrant birds. While spring and fall might prove more fruitful for spotting seasonal migrants, our time in the Preserve was unfortunately a bust. We enjoyed exploring the informational kiosk and shaded gazebo, but afternoon summer heat rendered any potential bird activity non-existent. Still, this peaceful stroll through lush wetlands was like striking oasis gold amid Moab’s ubiquitous desert red rock.  
    IMG_20140614_151356
    Beating the heat at Scott Matheson Wetlands Preserve

    IMG_20140614_151415
    On the trail; no luck this time with the birds                   

Hikes are short and sweet in Arches, making this sandstone playground imminently accessible to both young and young-at-heart alike. With a bevy of great trails to choose from, a daily six-mile cap proved key in keeping our five-year-old (and thus mom and dad!) sane and happy. A three-day timeline worked well for us, allowing for leisurely hiking and ample time for fun extras like swimming. Your mileage may vary (pun intended, groan!)–families with older kids or hardier littles might easily squeeze these hikes (and then some) into a single day.

My one regret? Missing the Fiery Furnace ranger-guided tour. Exploring Fiery Furnace without a guide is allowed, but I think we’ve all seen “127 Hours”–um, no solo off-the-grid hiking for me, thanks! I hemmed and hawed over our youngest’s skill level and safety for this hike and missed our window of opportunity; I’ve been kicking myself ever since. These tickets sell out fast, so don’t let my mistake be yours: snatch them up and reconsider later–you can always return them if need be. Whether you’re a thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie or first-time hiker, Arches offers something special for everyone. Linger a while, and let yourself be moved.

Also from Road Trip 2014: Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Mesa Verde 

3 Days in Arches: 7 Family-Friendly Hikes + Whitewater Rafting Fisher Towers, Part I

 

A few years ago, I picked up a well-loved, second-hand copy of Time Magazine’s “America’s National Parks” at a library book sale. Call it kismet: I’d mistakenly yanked the book off the shelf thinking it was a Hawaii hiking guide. Our youngest was still in diapers, and we’d yet to embark on a single road trip or visit any National Park other than Hawaii Volcanoes or Haleakala. Flipping through the pages, though, I was spellbound. Smack dab in the center of the book was a sunrise photo of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know when, but I promised myself there and then that we’d be standing at Delicate Arch someday.

Three years later in 2014, we took a leap of faith and planned a Southwest National Parks road trip. Our youngest was only five, and we weren’t sure how he’d fare with all of the hiking and driving, but we’d had a taste of Mount Rainier and Redwood in 2013 and found ourselves craving more. It was a challenging itinerary–9 parks in 18 days towing 3 littles over 3,000 miles–but 2014 holds a special place in our hearts as our first in-depth Parks experience. If we were smitten before, we were head-over-heels this go-round!

We visited Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde before stopping at Arches for 3 days. With a quick stop at the Visitor Center to view the park film and exhibits, we spoke with a park ranger regarding trail conditions and Junior Ranger booklets. Our youngest was especially thrilled to borrow a Junior Explorer bag. With binoculars, a jeweler’s loupe, colored pencils, field guides, and an activity binder, this backpack was free to borrow and held our youngest’s rapt attention throughout our stay. After participating in a kid-geared Ranger Talk (Highly recommend! We love Ranger Talks and try to squeeze in as many as we can), we set out to explore:

  1. Landscape Arch (1.6 miles + 0.5 miles more for Pine Tree and Tunnel Arches): From the moment we stepped foot in Devil’s Garden, the striking terrain was like none we’d experienced before: orange sandstone against the bluest of skies, miles of desert sand giving rise to wild green junipers. It was a divine master class in complementary colors and textures. The trail itself was relatively flat with minimal elevation gain; gravel and sand underfoot made Landscape Arch accessible to all. At 290-feet long, Landscape Arch ranks among the five longest arches in the world, but what is perhaps more impressive is its improbable width. Impossibly long and thin, this oxymoron of a spindly mammoth seems to defy the laws of physics.
    IMG_20140613_122312
    Beginning of Landscape Trail in Devil’s Garden
    IMG_20140613_124246
    I love this photo, if only for the sibling love
    IMG_20140613_124252
    Utah’s summer skies are the brightest and bluest I’ve ever seen
    IMG_20140613_124303
    The color contrasts and sandstone formations on this trail were amazing!
    IMG_20140613_150010
    Landscape Arch, 2014
    IMG_20140613_150254
    I know it’s horrible to shoot into the sun, but I loved the head-on angle here

    Unfortunately, it was 94 degrees the day we visited, and our youngest had no intention of hiking another four miles, so we divided and conquered: the hubby took the youngest an extra half-mile to Pine Tree and Tunnel Arches (which they loved), while the older two and I continued on to Double O Arch.

    IMG_20140613_135325
    Hanging out at Pine Tree Arch

    IMG_20140613_134627
    Tunnel Arch, 2014
  2. Double O Arch (additional 3 miles RT from Landscape Arch + 1 mile more for Partition and Navajo Arches): The trail becomes significantly more challenging after Landscape Arch. The gravel and sand trail morphs into steep inclines, slickrock scrambling, and narrow fins. While doable for older children (ours were 9 and 11), parents should exercise caution as this primitive trail contains steep drop-offs and areas of exposure. We lost the cairn trail several times, but hiking to Double O was worth every ounce of effort. The Disneyland crowds vanished the minute we left Landscape Arch, affording us blissful solitude the entire way.
    IMG_20140613_131036
    The Primitive Trail is steeper and more rugged than Landscape Arch trail.
    IMG_20140613_135221
    Final fin before Double O (note the brave soul standing atop the fin for scale)

    The kids enjoyed climbing the endless slickrock until the final fin to Double O when the wind suddenly picked up. Sand whipped into our eyes, and we dropped to all fours as persistent gusts threatened to knock us from our narrow perch. Low-pitched wind howled through rock wall tunnels, adding to the eeriness of the experience. Several parties ahead of us turned back, urging us to do the same for the kids’ safety. Being stubborn, we soldiered on for a few minutes until a rogue gust nearly knocked the kids off a narrow fin. Pride goeth before a fall, and I wasn’t sticking around to lose a kiddo to hubris. While disappointed to turn back so close to Double O, we were happy to have at least caught a glimpse of the overlook. Turning back turned out to be serendipitous as our favorite Arches experience occurred at Partition and Navajo Arches on our return trek. Partition Arch in particular framed an insanely gorgeous vista at a dizzying elevation. There were shaded shelves on either side of the arch that made for lovely impromptu sketch studios; moved by the spirit and beauty of Arches, we journaled here for close to an hour.

    IMG_20140613_143832
    Navajo Arch: we had this one all to ourselves. Strong winds made bonsai out of these trees!
    IMG_20140613_141126
    The partition in Partition Arch
    IMG_20140613_140912
    We couldn’t get enough of that arch-framed vista
    IMG_20140613_142341
    One of my favorite moments at Arches

    IMG_20140613_142538
    Lovely shaded spot on the opposite side of Partition Arch for journaling
  3. Double Arch (0.5 miles): Though tuckered out from Landscape and Double O Arches, the kids caught their second wind at Double Arch. A gentle half-mile stroll led us to the base of this spectacularly intertwined behemoth. We lay humbled beneath Double Arch and watched clouds roll by before climbing out as far as we could along the sandstone ledges. Though you could easily check Double Arch off your list in half an hour, we loved lingering here. Exploring every nook and cranny fostered an intimate sense of connection to the park; the kinesthetic and visceral connections forged here remain strong for the kids to this day. Our youngest still talks with affection about exploring Double Arch with his jeweler’s loupe!
    IMG_20140613_161557
    Double Arch Trail. This structure reminded us of Tatooine.
    IMG_20140613_162059
    Beneath Double Arch
    IMG_20140613_162308
    Looking out from under Double Arch. I could never get tired of this view!
    IMG_20140613_162524
    We sat here for over an hour, watching the clouds roll by
    IMG_20140613_163449
    We can’t recommend the Junior Explorer bag enough–free to borrow and sure to keep littles engaged for hours
    IMG_20140613_162647
    Exploring Double Arch

    IMG_20140613_162302
    The trail back is almost as beautiful as the arch itself
  4. Delicate Arch (3 miles): Though NPS classifies Delicate Arch as difficult, most families would probably find it more moderate. There is a 200-yard ledge near the end with drop-offs, but not to the degree or sketchiness of Double O Arch. Traversing the rocky terrain is safe and doable for even the youngest of hikers if taken slow. With a 7 am start time on Day 2, trailhead parking was plentiful, and we were able to avoid the previous day’s soaring midday temps. The landscape evoked “John Carter’s” arid slickrock glory, offset only by Utah’s endless blue skies. Long, rocky inclines allowed the kids to choose their own path between cairn markers, making for a memorable experience. Rocky inclines gave way to spiraling rock stairways, eventually yielding to a narrow ridge pathway boasting multiple arch sighting opportunities across the valley (keep your eyes peeled!).
    IMG_20140614_084310
    Hiking Delicate Arch, 2014
    IMG_20140614_075941
    Our youngest was 5 at the time and loved this trail!
    IMG_20140614_083645
    These desert views never cease to amaze me
    IMG_20140614_083706
    With gorgeous rest stops like these, it was tempting to linger a while
    IMG_20140614_084838
    Picking a path between cairns. The cloud-cover was disappointing at first but such a relief temperature-wise
    IMG_20140614_085850
    Final push to Delicate Arch–I spy 2 arches across the valley

    No matter how many times I’d dog-eared that Time Magazine page or read online about how the arch appears right after this ledge, nothing could prepare me for that first glimpse of Delicate Arch. At over 60-feet tall and 40-feet wide, Delicate Arch holds top honor as the park’s largest freestanding arch, but here’s what mere photos and statistics cannot convey: Delicate Arch is huge. And glorious. And fleeting–a temporal blip in a scheme of eons. It dwarfs and humbles you; you can’t help but contemplate time and tide and the transient nature of existence. On your return trek, be sure to take the short spur trail to Wolfe Ranch Cabin to see an early turn-of-the-century ranch building as well as intricate and well-preserved Ute petroglyphs.

    IMG_20140614_090612
    Delicate Arch 2014
    IMG_20140614_090413
    Three years after marking that Time Magazine book, we’re here at Delicate Arch! It was a surreal moment.

    IMG_20140614_092658
    Delicate Arch. The people at the base of the arch give a sense of scale–Delicate Arch is so much bigger than I’d imagined.
  5. Balanced Rock Loop (0.3 miles): More gentle stroll than hike, kids and adults alike will enjoy walking the circumference of this gravity-defying icon. Studying Balanced Rock from multiple angles gave us a true appreciation for its precarious size and structure. Stay tuned for hikes #6 and #7 and whitewater rafting at Fisher Towers in Arches, Part II!
    IMG_20140614_131547
    Balanced Rock is a sight to behold
    IMG_20140614_132030
    We loved studying Balanced Rock from different angles
    IMG_20140614_130824
    From this angle, Balanced Rock looks exceptionally sturdy

    It’s hard to articulate just how much that little 50 cent book from the book sale changed our lives. In the years since, we’ve visited 21 National Parks and hope to visit 12 more by summer’s end. What began with a dog-eared photo and a promise has evolved to become the thread running through the fabric of our family history. The Parks are a hundred stories of bonding in the rain on the Olympic coast and trout-fishing on Yellowstone Lake and marveling over bighorn sheep on Iceberg Lake Trail. They’re stolen moments of holding hands through a Yosemite meadow and jumping at the top of the world in Mesa Verde. They’re three kids who consistently rank Park Ranger at the top of the ever-evolving list of what they’d like to be when they grow up. In no small way, the Parks have changed the way we see ourselves and the world. We are addicted!

    IMG_20140613_090239-SMILE
    The Mighty Five make Utah one of our very favorite states!

 

Walking Among Giants: Redwood National Park & Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

Every morning in the second grade, our class would belt out “This Land is Your Land” while our teacher held up photos of Redwood National Park and diagrams of the Gulf Stream current to illustrate the patriotic tune’s famous verse. Seeing California’s redwoods has topped my bucket list ever since. To a second grader stuck on a tropical island, nothing seemed more mythical than millennial giants towering over coastal cliffs. The reality three decades later, though? Even better.

After leaving Point Cabrillo Lighthouse (click here for San Francisco/Point Cabrillo Lighthouse trail), we checked into Seabird Lodge in nearby Fort Bragg. It was one of the nicest motels we’ve ever stayed at, probably due in no small part to its proximity to exclusive Mendocino. ‘Posh motel’ might sound like an oxymoron, but with full amenities, spacious rooms, and upscale decor, Seabird Lodge felt more like a coastal bed and breakfast escape than a motel. Given the chance, we’d gladly stay here again.

At the front desk’s recommendation, we dined at D’Aurelios, a gem of an Italian eatery hidden in an unassuming strip mall. This humble diner was true Guy Fieri material: impeccable service, reasonable prices, and outstanding food made this one of our best road trip finds ever! It was hands down the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life. Pizza sauce wasn’t something I’d ever given much thought to before tasting D’Aurelios garlicky, addictive, and downright crave-worthy sauce. This stuff was ambrosia!

IMG_20130602_201728
D’Aurelios makes THE most amazing pizza! Their “side salads” were gargantuan and delicious, too.

After some much needed rest, we ventured north toward Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of old Highway 101 encompassing Humboldt Redwood State Park and purported to contain the most scenic display of redwoods in the area. It did not disappoint.

IMG_20130603_163204
I couldn’t get enough of that soft light filtering through the trees
IMG_20130603_162705
A true towering giant
IMG_20130603_164551
The kids took to calling the soft beams ‘God light,’ which seemed very fitting
IMG_20130603_162506 (1)
Well, hello, little banana slug

Avenue of the Giants redefines the term ‘enchanting.’ Here, sky surrenders to colossal trees and Lilliputian cars wind through shaded bends. You stretch your neck to pinpoint where canopy ends and sky begins, but it’s folly; even from the forest floor, it’s clear the redwoods climb forever and then some. The forest is all dappled light and prehistoric ferns and majestic giants, but it’s a fragile magic. Too often, we found ourselves seeking ever taller trees instead of appreciating the splendor of the forest. One of the best decisions we made was to pull over and wander on foot for a mile or so. If ever we believed that any of the trees were anything less than tall, all we had to do was lay on the ground and look up for a minute to realize the futility of comparing height when you’re talking redwoods. Walking among gentle giants, enveloped in the kind of deep silence that speaks to the passing of millennia, we loved the peace and serenity afforded here.

IMG_20130603_101402
Redwoods may not boast the same breadth and girth as sequoias, but their trunks are still massive!
IMG_20130603_100321
Hubby posing for scale, Avenue of the Giants
IMG_20130603_102420
Playing by the creek, surrounded by redwoods
IMG_20130603_101811
She loved standing in her own custom redwood spotlight

From Avenue of the Giants, it was another hour and a half to Redwood National Park. With a stop to admire Gold Bluffs Beach and check on trail conditions at Kuchel Visitor Center, we got down to business hiking Fern Canyon Loop trail. Fern Canyon is a 1-mile loop through a verdant gully painted in ferns. I’d read that this hike was a must-do (it is!) but failed to note how much of the hike was through a creek, so we got wetter than expected. I’d highly recommend Tevas and towels for this one. The kids enjoyed scrambling over logs, crossing swampy boardwalks, and wading through calf-deep water (thigh deep for our preschooler!): Mom and Dad loved the otherworldly ambiance created by the spectacular 30-foot canyon walls of ferns. The trickling of the creek and the dank, lush gully combined to make this hike a family favorite.

IMG_20130603_150342
Entrance to Fern Canyon Loop
IMG_20130603_145655
Lots of fun creek crossings
IMG_20130603_150019
The kids loved clambering over the wet logs and boardwalks
IMG_20130603_150141
Fern Canyon, Redwood National Park

We circled back to Prairie Creek, hoping to catch a glimpse of Redwood’s famed Roosevelt elk. Aptly enough, we found a herd taking respite in the shade at none other than Elk Prairie itself. The was the kids’ first wildlife sighting, and they couldn’t have been more thrilled! We pulled over and watched the family of elk for quite a while before continuing on.

From Elk Prairie, it was back to Prairie Creek Visitor Center to walk 0.3-mile Circle Trail. Realizing we were pressed for time, we nixed 1-mile Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail from our itinerary in favor of Circle Trail. This easy, level trail was perfect for our 4-year-old, who’d had his fill of driving and hiking by late afternoon. Even he couldn’t begrudge the chance to see Big Tree, a 1,500-year-old colossus and true superlative in a park full of biggests and tallests. Having the trail to ourselves was a treat; in fact, we’d barely passed another soul all day. Redwood might be packed to capacity during the summer, but we were fortunate to visit during the first week of June when many schools were still in session.

IMG_20130603_163715
Big Tree: 1,500 years old!!
IMG_20130603_163731
Big Tree stands a whopping 304 feet tall

We ended our time in Redwood National Park driving 9-mile Coastal Drive Loop. With narrow, unpaved roads and blind curves skirting precipitous cliffs, this 1-hour drive is not for the faint of heart, but the payoff in panoramic views of the Pacific is unsurpassed. I love Hawaii and our beautiful ocean views, but there’s something about the California coast that speaks to me. It’s a quintessential mix of rugged beauty and slate-blue water just shy of inviting; blue skies tempered by fog echo the mild but untamed sentiment of the coast.

IMG_20130603_171923
Stopping to stretch our legs on Coastal Drive
IMG_20130603_172711
Coastal Drive, Redwood National Park
IMG_20130621_151803
The views were worth those scary hairpin turns
IMG_20130621_215655
View of the California coast from Coastal Drive (please forgive the poor photo quality; these were taken on an old phone)

By sunset, we were more than ready for dinner at Good Harvest Cafe, a Crescent City eatery with an emphasis on local, organic cuisine. Dinner was pretty good, though I’ve read rave reviews about Good Harvest Cafe’s brunch fare–worth a try if you’re in the area. We settled in for the night at Front Street Inn with an ocean view of Battery Point Lighthouse to lull us to sleep.

The next morning, we awoke early to cross the California border into Oregon. We traveled the coast for 3 hours, admiring lonely sea stacks and pelicans before arriving at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Encompassing more than 40 miles of sand dunes in Reedsport, OR, Oregon Dunes NRA represents the largest stretch of coastal sand dunes in North America. The tallest specimens reach 500-feet high, providing recreational opportunities galore, including dune buggying, canoeing, hiking, and camping. We enjoyed a picnic lunch high atop a covered bluff before venturing down to the sand. Sand and surf may define our summers, but we’d never seen anything like this before! The dunes are marked by undulating sand ripples, paralleled endlessly across miles of coast. There is a hypnotic quality to the unbroken ripples that initially made us reluctant to mar the sand with footprints, but it wasn’t long before we were running and sliding down the dunes, getting the cardio workout of our lives. What comes down must first go up, and climbing up those steep dunes was tougher than we expected! We would have loved to spend all day here, but we had another 100 miles to cover before our final stop for the night: Newport, OR.

IMG_20130604_083244
This was the kids’ first time crossing a state line; OR marked their first state outside of CA and HI.
IMG_20130604_131703
Like sands through the hourglass…Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
IMG_20130604_131911
Loved the ripple pattern–so striking over miles of dunes
IMG_20130701_110725
Life-size sandbox
IMG_20130604_133542
That dark speck at the top is the oldest. Sliding downhill didn’t work out so well, but running downhill was lots of fun

With a quick bird-watching stop at atmospheric Heceta Head Lighthouse, we arrived at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport a little after 3 pm. Normally, I’d hesitate to pay for admission knowing we only had a few hours left to closing, but we had a 60% off Groupon that sweetened the deal. The adorable sea otter exhibit was a big hit with the kids, as were the walk-through shark tunnel, aviary, and interactive kids’ exhibit.

IMG_20130604_151427_1
Birdwatching at Heceta Head Lighthouse; seeing pelicans up-close was a thrill!
IMG_20130604_151516
Rugged beauty, Heceta Head Lighthouse
IMG_20130604_151501
Quintessential PNW mystique
IMG_20130604_150121
Oregon coastline, near OR Sea Lion Caves, Florence
IMG_20130604_161815
Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, OR

We chowed down on clam chowder and seafood at Newport Chowder Bowl, followed by a chilly evening on the beach. Like many quaint summer towns along the Oregon coast, Newport exudes a laid-back, boardwalk charm that we’d love to explore more fully someday. In hindsight, it might have been wiser to explore the coast over 2 weeks instead of cramming it into 5 days, but I’m grateful to have gotten a taste of the coast. Even as I plan Road Trip 2017, this is an issue I continue to struggle with: is it better to see someplace for a little while than never to visit it at all? And what if doing so comes at the expense of more fully enjoying a single destination? This area is very gray to me, so please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. There’s no denying we were National Park Road Trip rookies in 2013, making classic rookie mistakes: too much time driving, too little time experiencing, and way too much rushing around. No regrets, though; without that experience, we wouldn’t have had a baseline to know what worked and didn’t work for us. Best of all, 2013 was a pivotal year for falling in love with National Parks and road trips–and that’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

IMG_20130604_183107
Newport Chowder Bowl–their namesake chowder was so creamy and delicious
IMG_20130604_191804
Can you tell we were a little cold? 😀
IMG_20130624_215432
Father and son bonding time, Oregon Coast (Newport)

 

6 Tips for Securing High-Demand Wilderness Permits and Campgrounds

It’s February, and planning for Road Trip 2017 is officially in full-swing! Midnight permit faxes, reservation-stalking on Recreation.gov, and obsessive checking and re-checking of NPS deadlines and Google Maps is the name of the game around these parts. This year’s trip poses particular logistical challenges, as we will be on the road for six and a half weeks. On the itinerary are 17 National Parks and 8 National Monuments–some new to us, others highly anticipated return visits. We’ll explore some parks as long as five days, others as few as five hours. 20 nights will be spent backpacking, 6 in motels, and 19 more will be spent in frontcountry campgrounds. And man oh man, are there reservations to be made–so many reservations! Airline tickets, ranger tours, backpacking permits, shuttles–the list seems endless. As an obsessive-compulsive planning type, I think I may have finally met my match.

As the kids grow older, backpacking has become a larger staple in our road trip repertoire. For one, it is incredibly economical–even more “expensive” permits such as a Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim trek can be had for as little as $8 a night per person. More importantly, the opportunity for intimacy with nature and uninterrupted family time can’t be beat. It’s a win-win situation in cost and payoff, especially for those (like us) who live outside the Lower 48 and must consider airfare and car rental expenses as well.

Securing wilderness permits, however, can be a source of anxiety and frustration, especially at popular destinations such as Yosemite or Grand Canyon. I’m no expert on the permitting process; I truly believe luck played as big a part in securing our Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim and Devil’s Postpile to Tuolumne Meadows permits as anything else. I have great respect for those who prefer a more spontaneous, less-planned approach to travel, and my intent is not to espouse one method over the other. However, for those who are inclined to plan, there are ways to increase your chances of securing high-demand wilderness permits. Here are just a few:

  1. Check NPS websites regularly for updates

    Check, double-check, and triple-check NPS websites for updated deadline timetables and preferred application methods. For example, less than a month ago, Sequoia’s website indicated faxing to be the preferred application method for wilderness permits. A recent update to the website, however, indicates that email is now the preferred application method. Reservation systems are tweaked constantly; I’ve learned the hard way that procedures can change seemingly overnight.

    img_20130603_150133
    Ode to road trips past: Redwoods, 2013
    img_20130603_101408
    Redwoods National Park, 2013

    img_20140612_091436-1
    Cliff Palace tour at Mesa Verde, 2014
  2. Early is best

    Determine the earliest date and time applications for your desired permit are accepted. Sync your computer to the official NIST time, and aim to apply the minute reservations open. This tip applies to campground reservations as well, especially in popular parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. If your wilderness permit is handled by Recreation.gov, aim to set up an account and log in prior to “go” time. Pre-navigate to your intended trail/backcountry use area. Pre-select dates, and be ready to click “Book these dates” the second reservations become available. In some cases, hundreds of other people (literally!) will be competing for the same dates and spaces, so time is of the essence. A correlate to this tip is to note the time zone indicated on the reservations page and calculate any discrepancy for your specific time zone in advance. For example, 12:01 PST on Reservation.gov means a 10:01 pm booking time the day before the listed date for Hawaii folk.

    img_20140620_120948
    So excited to return to the Narrows this year!
    img_20140620_122648
    Hiking the Narrows, Zion, 2014

    img_20150701_102423
    Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, 2015
  3. Flexibility is key

    For a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim, flexibility is key, especially with hundreds of applicants vying for a mere dozen spots. There are only 12 campsites available in Cottonwood at the base of the North Rim, and reservations at coveted Phantom Ranch are even more of a unicorn chase. Flexible dates are your best best; short of that, multiple itinerary options are you next best option. For example, our dates were only marginally flexible, so we included no less than 8 trail/itinerary options to increase our chances of securing a permit. While we were ultimately unable to snag Cottonwood, we were granted permission to take the North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim to Bright Angel Campground for 2 nights before heading out via Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. It’s not ideal and will require a longer Day 1 hike than anticipated, but listing this option allowed us to secure a permit for a rim-to-rim traverse–a bucket list item for us. Listing no alternate options, on the other hand, might have resulted in no permit at all.

    img_20140610_194359
    Last light, Grand Canyon 2014

    img_20140610_090157
    Bright Angel Trail, 2014
  4. Consider a reverse trek

    For those looking to reserve Yosemite wilderness permits originating in Tuolumne and ending in Inyo National Forest, consider a reverse trek. For example, we had our hearts set on backpacking a 30-mile section of the John Muir Trail, beginning at Tuolumne Meadows and ending at Devil’s Postpile National Monument. With Yosemite’s strict entrance and exit quotas, particularly over Donohue Pass and Lyell Canyon, we knew obtaining a summer permit was a long shot at best. Instead, we set our sights on a reverse trek. Entering at Devil’s Postpile (Agnew Meadows) and exiting at Tuolumne opened up multiple trail options reservable through Inyo National Forest/Recreation.gov instead of Yosemite National Park. The benefits here are multifold: Recreation.gov’s online system operates in real time, whereas faxing an application to Yosemite requires a multi-day wait for approval. During this wait, any alternate routes you might have considered in lieu of your first choice could easily be snatched up, shutting down your backpacking options should your first choice route be denied. Also, Inyo National Forest offers multiple entry points and trails leading to the same destination. In our case, River Trail, Shadow Creek Trail, or High Sierra Trail all merge with the JMT at Thousand Island Lake and exit at Tuolumne Meadows. Having multiple trails to choose from in real time offered us the best chance of successfully booking this high-demand section of the JMT.

    img_20140622_143131-smile
    Moro Rock Trail, Sequoia 2014

    img_20140622_125613
    Clara Barton Tree, Sequoia 2014
  5. Some folks go sly

    I haven’t personally tried this tip yet, and while I’m generally opposed to underhanded dealings as a matter of principle, there’s also a part of me that admires the evil genius behind this plan. In most cases, Recreation.gov allows you to make campground and wilderness permit as early as 6 months in advance. For example, on 1/1, you can make camp or permit reservations for a start date of 7/1. However, on 1/1, you can also theoretically reserve a 14-day block that extends all the way to 7/15. Again, I haven’t tried this personally, but I’ve read that you can deliberately select a too-early start date to guarantee a spot for your later preferred arrival date. For example, let’s say you would like to reserve Coveted Campground A from July 8-July 15. You could wait until January 8th to make your reservation, or you could “work the system” by reserving the earliest date that would allow you to wholly accommodate your desired reservation (in this case, January 1) and modify your reservation start date later. Though shady, this would theoretically guarantee you a spot at Coveted Campground A for your preferred dates nearly competition-free. Note that Recreation.gov charges a $10 fee to modify your itinerary; I’m less sure of any fees karma may eventually collect.

    img_20140613_141036
    We’ll pass within 50 miles of Arches, but a return visit isn’t in the cards this year, unfortunately

    img_20140623_155015
    Yosemite, 2014
  6. Shoot for weekdays, not weekends

    Last but not least, maximize your chances of securing high-demand wilderness permits and campgrounds by traveling weekdays if at all possible. Traveling during non-summer shoulder seasons is also helpful, but we were unable to swing this with school and work schedules. Traveling for close to two months means that we will inevitably wind up at a handful of parks during peak weekend visitation periods, but we tried to time our high-demand treks for weekdays to maximize our chances of acquiring permits. We hope that this strategy will pay off as we apply for our Rae Lakes Loop (Sequoia/Kings Canyon) permit next week–fingers crossed!

There’s no denying that applying for high-demands permits and campgrounds can be a frustrating process. And while dumb luck may play a larger role in determining success or failure than we might like, there are ways to stack the odds in our favor, however small that may be. After all, if success is where preparedness and opportunity meet, then preparing for the best gives opportunity every reason to knock on our door!

What are your favorite tips for securing high-demand campgrounds and permits? What summer plans have you been making?                          

WW II Valor in the Pacific National Monument: Pearl Harbor Reflection & Tips

There are 1,177 men entombed beneath my feet.

The knowledge is humbling, overwhelming. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 would stun the nation, catapulting America into WWII. History tells us that the battleship USS Arizona sustained a fatal blow to a powder magazine that day. That the violent force of the explosion caused it to sink in minutes, entombing the 1,177 sailors aboard. Some were trapped alive. I think about the average age of those who died that fateful Sunday–23 years old–and of my son, 15, not three years younger than the crew’s youngest. I picture the faint mustache settling in above his lip and the cartoon character baby blanket he refuses to part with. I think about the soldiers’ mothers, whose sons will never return. History may seek to analyze and interpret the events of December 7th, but standing here at the Arizona Memorial, there is no logic or reason–only profound sadness.

Two hours earlier, we’d made the fifteen minute trek to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument –in our Sienna, not a rental car–a first and likely last for us in the National Parks system, given our homebase of Honolulu. We’ve driven thousands of miles visiting parks afar; it was only fitting that we visit the NPS site closest to home. Just a week prior, the Arizona Memorial had made international headlines with the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but today, there is a quieter crowd. Christmas is a week away, and the kids are less than enthused about our choice of holiday activity. With school out, they’ve merry making on their minds–not war. But with complimentary tickets to the Pacific Aviation Museum set to expire, we knew a combined Pearl Harbor/Pacific Aviation Museum tour was in order.

It’s a repeat visit for the kids, who’ve come before on field trips. But it’s been two decades, maybe three since my last visit. Everything is shiny and new–the result of a recent multi-million dollar renovation. It is comforting to see the familiar NPS set-up at work: park rangers, visitor center, gift shop. In many ways, the set-up reminds us of Mount Rushmore, complete with turnstiles, on-site museums, and guards. In other ways, less so: namely, the constant reminder that we are on an active naval base. We secure 10 am Arizona Memorial boat tickets* from a crowd-weary park ranger, who swigs water from his beat-up Nalgene. His boots and backpack indicate he is a hiker; his accent is not local. I don’t imagine this is the gig he envisioned when he signed with the Parks service. North Cascades receives 30,000 visitors per year; Pearl Harbor receives 1.8 million. It is the number one tourist destination in Hawaii, which is saying a lot for a state powered by tourism. He reminds us to meet at the theater in two hours, where we will view a short movie before boarding a boat to the Memorial.

img_20161219_115747
World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument
img_20161219_100929
Walking to the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater

We wander the Visitor Center’s two exhibit galleries, “Road to War” and “Attack.” Everywhere we turn, we are met with the sights and sounds of war: gunfire, airplanes, and portraits of Japanese fighter pilots that could just as easily pass for photos of lost relatives. It haunts me. Patriotism comes naturally–I was born abroad on an Army base, and my father and his seven siblings served in the Army and Air Force. But I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of those who attacked Pearl Harbor that day. And I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of US citizens who were interned, of JA boys who gave their lives in service to prove their loyalty to America. Confusion and sadness turmoil within. Intellectually, I understand the whys and hows of all that transpired. But wandering these galleries, I don’t know how to reconcile these feelings. Emotion overcomes me more than once. I tell myself this is a good thing. That we should not forget the price of freedom, that our nation is stronger for recognizing that heritage and patriotism are not mutually exclusive. Above all, I am reminded that war is fiercely personal and that opposing sides often wear the faces of young boys not unlike my son, separated only by fate. Loyal to different flags, unaware of the politics at play or how their actions may change history.

The line at the theater gives Disneyland a run for its money. Every ten minutes, two park rangers rally throngs of ticket-holders into a cordoned-off holding area before funneling them into the theater. For 23 minutes, we view black and white footage of the two waves of Japanese attacks that day. It is surreal to see Japanese Zeros flying against the crenulated relief of the Ko’olaus, rows of sugarcane in Ewa plantation fields. Unlike the Ben Affleck flick, though, there is no melodramatic soundtrack to set the mood. The sounds of actual explosions, planes, and gunfire are sobering enough.

The kids don’t say much at the dock. I suspect they feel as affected as I do; it’s hard not to. We are ushered with several dozen visitors onto a Navy-operated boat. It is a short ride to the Arizona Memorial, and clear skies and calm waters make for a smooth ride. Looking out upon Ford Island and the telltale contour of Pearl Harbor, it is impossible not to picture the events of December 7th. The stillness of the harbor reminds us that time may have passed, but this will always be hallowed ground.

img_20161219_110217
Approaching the Arizona Memorial by Navy boat
img_20161219_111604
As seen from the assembly chamber, Arizona Memorial

The all-white Memorial grows larger and larger until finally, its symbolic shape comes into full view–peaked ends sloping toward a concave center. The peaks represent America’s pre-war pride and eventual triumph; the concave depression symbolizes the attacks of December 1941. We deboard into the entry chamber, moving quickly to the assembly room to gather around floor portals that open directly into the water. Designed by architect Alfred Preis, the Memorial spans the sunken hull of the Arizona, floating above the battleship without touching it. Oil still seeps from the wreckage; this morning, there is a filmy sheen to the blue-green water beneath us. Our youngest points out a ten-inch slick just beyond the portal, a school of fish darting into view. Though the wreckage is clearly visible from all vantage points, there is a surprising lightness to the Memorial. Open-air ceilings accentuate blue skies, warm breezes. Overlooks allow for quiet contemplation over the water.

My personal discomfort stops me from photographing the Memorial, though I know that photography does not equal disrespect. Still, I am less sure of the selfie sticks, social media posts, and Go Pro cameras I see, though I try to refrain from judgment. Most visitors linger quietly–some in the assembly chamber, others in the shrine room with a marble wall bearing the names of Arizona’s fallen. Many offer lei, prayers. I don’t know how to honor the sacrifice here except to read the names of the fallen and try to comprehend the magnitude of each life lost. For a long moment, I am overwhelmed with grief, and then I see the diversity of those gathered: Americans of every color and credo, as well as international visitors–including many from Japan. Perhaps peace is the most beautiful testament of all to the sacrifice and memory of these men. Bonded here in reverence, it is clear that the humanity that unites us is so much greater than the sum of our differences. Here at the memorial wall, there is grief, yes, but there is also promise and beauty and hope.

Tips for Families Planning to Visit Pearl Harbor:

  • *Admission to WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument is free. Boat tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial Program are also free, but slots are limited. Recreation.gov allows you to reserve tickets up to 2 months in advance; there are also 1,300 first come, first served walk-in tickets issued daily. (A note of caution: walk-in tickets almost always sell out by mid-morning.)
  • For security reasons, no purses, camera bags, diaper bags, etc. of any kind are allowed at the Visitor Center. There are storage lockers available at the entrance for $3, but pockets are free and work well for phones, wallets, and keys.
  • The Memorial Program lasts 75 minutes, including boat rides, theater movie and time at the Memorial. Three hours provides ample time to wander the exhibit galleries and experience the Memorial. Allow an extra half hour to walk the Remembrance Circle and interpretive wayside exhibits.
  • Other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites include: the Battleship Missouri, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Separate admission fees apply unless you choose to purchase a Passport to Pearl Harbor bundle, which allows access to all sites for one inclusive cost. However, we found that the Arizona Memorial and Pacific Aviation Museum alone took us the better part of 7 hours to experience. I’d recommend spreading visits over two days, or alternately, choosing one or two historic sites to focus on.
  • The Pacific Aviation Museum is fantastic for aviation enthusiasts of all ages. Historic Ford Island is restricted to those with military access; however, visitors to Pearl Harbor can access the museum by taking a free 5-minute shuttle to the museum. As this is an active military base, cell phones and picture taking are prohibited during the shuttle ride. We highly recommend taking advantage of the free audio tours available at the museum’s entrance. They provide a wealth of information and do a fantastic job of bringing the exhibits to life. Be sure to visit Hangars 37 and 79; Hangar 79’s windows house bullet holes from the Pearl Harbor attack. Our youngest, an Amelia Earhart buff, loved the Combat Flight Simulator, a 20-minute hands-on experience over Guadalcanal. Be sure to check the museum’s website, which often features coupons for free flight simulator admission (normally a $10 additional fee).
    img_20161219_132202
    Pacific Aviation Museum audio tour
    img_20161219_143721
    Hangar 79, bullet holes in windows sustained during Pearl Harbor attack
    img_20161219_120407
    Waiting for the Ford Island shuttle

    img_20161219_145902img_20161219_131541 

Olympic NP: Backpacking the Southern Coast, Part II (a.k.a. In Which It Hits the Fan)

Have you ever had the feeling? The one that niggles at the back of your mind and warns you that things are too good to be true? That every event in life is connected and the butterfly effect isn’t just some bad Ashton Kutcher movie?

Suffice it to say that day two of our Olympic coast backpacking trek lives on in our collective memory with the kind of infamy usually reserved for do you remember the time Kid B pooped in his car seat and we had no wipes? type incidents.

So bad. And I’m only partially referring to the coast hike.

When last we left off, our unsuspecting family had fallen hard for the rugged coast, excited to set up camp along Third Beach. Freshly showered, spirits high, we hardly gave a second thought to the creek crossing next to our campsite. It was high tide, and getting wet just went part and parcel with the territory. For the record, let me just say: for a bunch of Hawaii folk who practically live at the beach all summer, I will never, for the love of all that’s holy, understand why it didn’t occur to us to remove our shoes before crossing the creek, but it didn’t.

(Cue Butterfly Effect theme music)

img_20160708_164148
The cursed creek…it looks so innocuous, doesn’t it?

And so we crossed the creek, shoes, pants, and all. Sure, our wool socks and waterproof shoes were completely soaked, but no matter. We would leave them outside to dry overnight. And true, our perfect ocean-view campsite was marred by wads of used toilet paper strewn across the sand (so gross!), but so what? We were hiking to Toleak Point tomorrow, a destination Ranger Eddie had assured us was nothing short of phenomenal: bald eagles taking flight from the sand by the dozen, otters and seals playing just beyond the shore, tidepools teeming with spiny sea stars and giant green anemones–the likes of which could be found nowhere else on earth. We dined al fresco along driftwood logs just steps away from the roaring ocean, warming ourselves beside the crackling fire. Yes, the blanket of starless gray above seemed ominous, but our happy stint at Third Beach left us convinced it was more bogeyman than real. All bark, no bite.

20160708_193033_richtonehdr
Home for the night, Third Beach, Olympic NP
img_20160708_172800
Fastening that rain fly, juuuust in case…..
20160708_192949_richtonehdr
Campfire just past our tent on the beach
20160708_170309
This was the view from our tent. It was amazing!
20160708_172805
Waking up to this view was incredible
img_20160708_180406
Cooking dinner, Third Beach
img_20160708_181039
Those bear canisters were just the right height for makeshift chairs!
img_20160708_180854
Dinner on a driftwood log–it doesn’t get much better than this

You see where this is going, don’t you?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Lord almighty, please don’t let her wax poetic about the rain again. It’s the Pacific Northwest. It rains a lot. We get it. But indulge me for a second, please, because this was truly Next-Level Stuff. See, we awoke to the gentlest of drizzles. Just a whisper of spray, barely even noticeable. Certainly not enough to deter us from venturing to the creek to refill water. Our shoes and socks were still uncomfortably damp, but my brother and his partner were arriving soon, and we needed water for oatmeal. We’d just have to dry our footwear fireside while we prepared breakfast, we figured.

20160709_093955_richtonehdr
Morning low tide, the calm before the storm (literally!)
20160709_094104_richtonehdr
Ignorance is bliss…if we only knew what was about to come

 But by the time we’d crossed the driftwood logjam en route to the creek, the drizzle had progressed to a steady trickle–with breakfast still to prepare and no awning to prepare it under. The beach didn’t offer much in the way of natural shelter, but it wasn’t cold (yet!), just windy, and surely, hot oatmeal and a blazing fire would warm our wet feet right up, right? Only, starting a fire in the rain proved impossible, or at least, beyond our skill set. We huddled around the simmering oatmeal while rain streamed down our already-damp pants and socks.

And then the wind picked up, and the kids abandoned ship to take cover in our heretofore warm and dry tent. Unbeknownst to us, they shed their wet clothes in favor of dry sleep clothes, leaving puddles of water and sodden long underwear strewn about the tent. Meanwhile, the husband and I braved the elements, hoping to warm our bodies with food. Rain streamed down our faces in earnest; each bite of oatmeal was accompanied by a mouthful of rainwater and sand, courtesy of the whipping winds. We began to shiver, and I remembered this quote I’d read once about backpacking, something to the effect of “there’s always some degree of misery to every backpacking trip, but it’s the misery that makes the highs all the more glorious.”

I was pretty sure we were due some serious glory.

As if on cue, we glanced up to see my brother and his partner walking toward us. They’d made the three and a half hour drive from Seattle at dawn to backpack to Toleak with us! In true Seattle-ite form, they arrived clad only in T-shirts, shorts, and rain jackets, unfazed by the heavy downpour. The kids ran out of the tent to hug them. With such a happy reunion, the rain didn’t seem nearly as miserable anymore. The turn in weather, however, prompted concerns over trail conditions (which included muddy rope climbs/descents and steep, broken ladders), and we voted to dayhike to Toleak instead of backpacking there, returning by afternoon to camp again on Third Beach. The guys pitched their tent next to ours in the rain, an almost cheerful affair now that we were all together. And then the sky split open and the ensuing deluge rendered the shoreline nearly invisible.

20160709_130935_richtonehdr
Even with all the rain, she was so thrilled to find these smooth stones
20160709_130943_richtonehdr
Happy find, Olympic NP

We made a beeline for our tent, the first in a series of increasingly Bad Decisions. In our haste, we’d plopped ourselves onto the water puddles and wet clothes left inside the tent. Which wasn’t such a big deal for the husband and I, who were already wet, but a little more dire for the kids and the guys, whose only dry change of clothes was now as soaked as ours. It was about this time that the creek-crossing incident began to haunt us. Our warm and dry tent was no longer warm nor dry, and it wasn’t long before cold entered the scene. Our phones indicated a temperature of 40 degrees with no chance of sun until noon the next day. Wet? Check. Cold? Check. Dry clothes? None. Chance of sun? Zero, nada, none.

So naturally, we decided to press on. With only four days of vacation left, we wouldn’t be able to try for Toleak another day. Besides, my brother and his partner had driven all the way here for this. It was just rain. We’d be all right. Increasingly bad decisions, remember?

Thing is, we’d spent so much time huddling in our tent that we’d missed low tide. The shoreline portions of the trail were no longer viable, forcing us to take the muddy headlands almost exclusively. With ladders and ropes involved, we decided it was best that the kids not shoulder a backpack load. The guys didn’t have daypacks and wanted their hands free as well, so they decided to leave their packs (and water bottles) back at camp. Which is how the seven of us set out for Toleak with a grand total of three liters of water. With no rain pants. Sopping wet socks. In 40 degree weather. With a crap-ton of rain.

Is it sick to say that the trail was actually really fun? That the hanging wooden ladders with missing rungs and rope-assisted muddy climbs were kind of a blast? We were less fond of the ankle-deep rainforest mud bog that seemed to go on for miles. We couldn’t be sure of the distance though, what with two topo maps between us, both completely useless. My brother’s partner’s map was an unreadable, soggy mess in his pocket, and mine was equally unreadable, folded up in a Ziploc bag. All I know is that mud-slogging is sweaty, thirst-inducing business, and it was maybe two miles in before we found ourselves down to our last half liter of water. With our water filter back at camp. And two miles left to Toleak.

20160709_125945
This rope section was steeper and muddier than it appears
20160709_125949
En route to Giant’s Graveyard
20160709_130011_richtonehdr
Navigating the mud, Olympic NP
20160709_114414
Headland trail marker and evidence of yet another Very Bad Decision: abandoning our trekking poles (!!)
20160709_122113
What may possibly be the worst pic ever taken from the headland trail. Photos weren’t really at the top of my mind at the moment, funny enough. 😉
20160709_122116
Okay, I lied: this is the worst pic ever. Storm blowing in…

It was then, somewhere between Giant’s Graveyard and Strawberry Point, that we got lashed by yet another torrent from the sky. With rain sheeting in from all directions, we could barely open our eyes. And here is where we finally, FINALLY, started making smart decisions. Teeth chattering, our youngest’s lips were downright blue. Even my brother, who hadn’t batted an eye when he arrived now only half-joked to me, “I think I might have hypothermia.” I laughed, and he leaned in, shivering. “I’m kind of not kidding,” he said.

It makes me sad (now) to see beautiful pictures of Toleak online, but at the moment, none of that mattered. We were freezing and getting wetter by the minute. In a unanimous ten-second decision, we voted to book it two miles back to Third Beach. Along the way, several of us slipped and fell in the mud. When we got back to camp, everyone piled into the tent–mud, rain, and all. In a second unanimous decision, we voted to leave–stat! Easier said than done, what with frozen fingers and rain pelting us as we made haste to pack. We trekked another mile and a half to the car, teeth chattering and miserably cold. No spinning the truth here–there absolutely were tears of misery for our youngest on the way back. The older two were sullen and quiet. It was the lowest point we’ve experienced on any vacation. As a parent, I’d made some pretty crappy decisions that brought us here, and the hike back gave me plenty of time to reflect on that guilt.

When we finally got back to the trailhead, our cramped little Lancer rental was as beautiful a sight as I’ve ever seen. With a brief, “Meet you at the Wilderness Information Center!” we piled in and blasted the heater. We stripped off our socks and shoes, unwilling to brave the rain even a second longer to retrieve dry clothes from the trunk. It was an hour’s drive back to the WIC, one filled with profuse apologies, relieved laughter, and gratitude that we hadn’t gotten into serious trouble in spite of my bad decisions. We were still shivering (though much less so) by the time we returned our bear canisters, and thankfully, Port Angeles was overcast but not raining, so we all changed into dry clothes. Bliss!

download_20160730_153839
This pic is so blurry, but I love it–partly because it’s one of the only photos I have of that day, but also because it captures a moment of humor in the middle of all the misery. We couldn’t stop laughing when my brother’s partner held his camera up and said, “Cheese!” 

Without a campsite for the night, we had some decisions to make. This time, I listened to reason (i.e. the kids) when they said they didn’t want to camp that night. I listened to my brother, who gave a big thumbs-down when we arrived at the only motel with available rooms in Port Angeles, only to find it resembled Bates Motel, complete with chain-smoking sketchy characters out front. And even though I really, really wanted to save the Dungeness Spit camp reservation we’d booked for the following night, I listened to the inner voice that said no campsite, no matter how beautiful or coveted, was worth sacrificing safety or happiness.

Instead, warm and happy, we drove three hours back to Seattle and feasted on carne asada enchiladas, chips, and fresh pico de gallo. Hot showers and quilted comforters awaited us at my brother’s home. Sometimes I think back to that afternoon and wonder what might’ve happened had we pressed on to Toleak. It might’ve turned out amazing, who knows? But regret was the last thing on my mind as I drifted to sleep that night, grateful for a warm, dry bed and safe, happy kids. Six miles and one very muddy trail wiser, I knew for certain that the bird in my hand was worth worlds more than two in the Toleak bush.

Coming soon: Seattle and Bainbridge Island; World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

Olympic NP: Backpacking the Southern Coast, Part I

In a world where nothing seems certain, it’s nice to know there are absolutes you can bank on. The sun will rise. The birds will sing. And in Forks, Washington? Sparkly vampires and hunky werewolves are as real as real can be.

Also, you can bet your bottom dollar that it rains in Hoh Rain Forest. A lot.

Our initial plan was to forge ahead to 5 Mile Island along Hoh River Trail before retracing our steps back to the Visitor Center. After a cold and wet night spent in the rain forest, however, we ready to be done with the elements. Inclement weather had followed us for the better part of a week now–in mid-July, no less–and our spirits (and patience) were worse for wear.

Forget the herd of elk grazing along river’s edge. To heck with boiling water for coffee and hot chocolate. We were bailing, and in a hurry. We broke camp in record time, hitting the trail just after 7 am. The trickle of a waterfall we’d passed yesterday more closely resembled a flood after last night’s heavy rains. Fresh moss carpeted the forest floor in a layer of slick green; speckled fungi sprawled skyward like mythical beanstalks. It was as if every living thing in the forest had vied overnight for the title of Most Alive.

20160708_094333_richtonehdr
Making our way out of the Hoh
20160708_085707_richtonehdr
Beautiful Hoh River
20160708_085721_richtonehdr-1
Ten minutes to the parking lot…happy campers

Still, nothing could match the lure of our warm, dry car. Come mud or high water–or both, as it were–we were a family on an escape mission. What had taken almost two hours to hike yesterday took less than one this morning. No stops for ceremony or high-fives in the parking lot; we slammed our packs in the car trunk and piled in.

With fresh socks and heat came relief and then excited chatter, namely: how Adam Richman had nothing on our appetites and what was for breakfast? The soggy granola bars stashed in our bear canisters had lost all appeal. Conversation fixated on a restaurant we remembered passing on our way into the forest, the one with the clever name–Hard Rain Cafe.

Equal parts quaint eatery and mercantile, Hard Rain Cafe boasts a range of eclectic offerings from espresso and burgers to kitschy trinkets and backpacking essentials. As tempting as the souvenir racks were, every hungry hiker knows there’s nothing more enticing than a juicy burger post-hike–nine in the morning or otherwise. Hard Rain Cafe’s bacon cheeseburgers delivered the savory oomph we craved. Portions were small-ish and pricey, but thick-sliced bacon has a way of mitigating all ills.

The hour-long drive out of the rainforest took us past the coast and into the heart of Forks, the sleepy Olympic town immortalized in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying Twilight paved the way for many of us who’ve since landed agents and contracts in the young adult publishing industry. And the city of Forks? Consider it a living homage to all things Twilight. From billboards proclaiming the city’s current vampire threat level (red, of course) to the Team Jacob/Team Edward posters plastered across every shop window, it’s all great fun.

20160708_120137_richtonehdr
The infamous sign featured in the movie Twilight
20160708_125824
When in Forks, you pilgrimage to Forks High School and scan for the Cullen family

Twilight fever aside, there were still chores that needed tending to before our afternoon coastal trek. Chief among these were showers and laundry. God, but we needed a shower! In the interest of keeping it real, I have to admit that we hadn’t showered since Glacier, five nights ago. Seriously gross, I know. We stopped at Forks 101 Laundromat (our clothes were so filthy, they practically stood on their own!) and Forks Outfitters Thriftway, where we stocked up on backpacking food for the next two nights. Our last stop was Three Rivers Resort, a rustic lodge and campground in La Push, for coin-op showers ($1 for the first three minutes, one quarter every minute thereafter). I literally could not pump those quarters in fast enough. It was the hottest, most glorious shower of my life. Slipping into clean clothes, I felt like a new woman, excited and eager for our final trek: the southern Olympic coast.

It was a short drive to Third Beach Trailhead parking lot. Even with bear canisters and packs strapped to our backs, everyone was in good spirits. We were headed to the beach, after all–what wasn’t to love? Having hiked earlier in the day, our planned mileage was minimal–just a mile and a half to Third Beach, where we would camp overnight and meet my brother and his partner in the morning to backpack to Toleak Point. More importantly, the rain had stopped, and though it wasn’t exactly sunny, it wasn’t pouring either–a win in our book.

The short hike to Third Beach took us through coastal forest reminiscent of the Hoh, albeit flatter and less lush. There were moments where I wondered if we were on the right trail–Isn’t this supposed to lead to the beach…?–but it wasn’t long before we heard the telltale roar of the ocean. We stopped at a bluff overlooking Third Beach and marveled at the the juxtaposition of forest and coast–behind us, only trees; ahead of us, nothing but ocean and salt air. Here, sand and soil gave rise to ferns and wildflowers that thrived in the unique coastal mix of mud and grit.

img_20160708_160505
Familiar but different. Coastal forest en route to Third Beach
20160708_160445_richtonehdr
Third Beach Trail, Olympic National Park
img_20160708_163310-pano
Our first glimpse of the beach

The descent from the bluff was steep, but we barely noticed, so mesmerized were we by the ocean. When our feet finally hit the sand, it took every ounce of self-restraint not to make a beeline straight for the water. Instead, we made note of the creek before us for water resupply and took stock of the massive driftwood pile blocking our path. Climbing over individual logs wasn’t overly difficult; scaling stacks of driftwood piled 8-10 feet high proved more of a challenge. Backpacks made balance tricky, but we all made it safely over to our first unobstructed view of the Olympic coast. 

img_20160708_163500
Driftwood logjam
20160708_163546_richtonehdr
We didn’t realize how high the logjam was until we got there
20160708_163647-1
Balancing was tricky…
20160708_164325_richtonehdr
…but the rewards were immense.
img_20160708_164142
Admiring the coast, Olympic National Park

The Pacific isn’t unfamiliar to us–it surrounds our tropical island home, informing our culture and way of life. But this Pacific was something else entirely, tempestuous and untamed. Here, horizon and water melded into an impermeable wall of gray. Wind-sheared trees clung to lonely cliffsides and sea stacks. And the thunder of crashing waves reminded us that we were but powerless spectators to Nature’s formidable display. The Olympic coast was every bit as wild as we’d hoped for and then some.  

20160708_164037
Giant’s Graveyard in the distance
20160708_164042
Watching eagles swoop across the headland
img_20160708_164131
Stark beauty, Third Beach
20160708_170325
The Olympic Coast
img_20160708_164140
Entranced by the ocean
img_20160708_164137
Solitude and wilderness along the Olympic Coast, Third Beach

From a driftwood perch, we watched an eagle swoop across the headland. We surveyed the tide–high at the moment–taking note of the tide’s reach and all it had veiled. Soon, all that was gray would darken to evening black, and we would retreat to the warmth of our tent. But for the moment, at least, finding a campsite could wait. For now, we would admire the forlorn beauty of the coast. We would memorize the wind and salt and sand in our hair. And though it would be impossible to hear each other over the roar of the ocean and the whipping wind, our contented smiles would need no translation.