Travel Update: Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park was my farewell to the West, a final camping and hiking adventure before I was to spend three very long driving days covering the 2,000 miles of hot asphalt that separated me from my parents in Virginia.

My experience in Yellowstone was probably typical to that of other visitors.  Buffalo, geysers, long stretches of vast wilderness between natural wonders, and so many photographs taken.

Old Faithful at the tail end of its eruption

Old Faithful at the tail end of its eruption

I’ll be honest – a lot of the scenery in Yellowstone didn’t impress me as much as I thought it would.  I drove through long corridors of unremarkable two-lane road bordered by dense evergreens – maybe unique in the west, but not remarkable for someone who comes from a heavily wooded state.  I didn’t understand until I visited how big the entirety of the park really is, and how far you can drive from one place to another before the scenery changes.

Saphhire hot spring

Sapphire hot spring

But loved the Geyser Basin.  The area around Old Faithful called Biscuit Basin is riddled with (very) hot springs and erupting geysers.  The trees thin out and rainbow-colored pools of boiling water and steam dot the landscape.  This part of the park is unreal – unlike anywhere else I’ve been, even unlike the hot springs I’ve visited.  The barrenness of the Western landscape is what has always drawn me, so it makes sense that this was my favorite spot in the park.

cloudy pool in biscuit basin

cloudy pool in biscuit basin

On a short hike, we were lucky to see a rainbow in the valley just as Old Faithful erupted again.

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Lamar valley is the first place I would go back, if I ever make it to Yellowstone again.  Camping here would have been divine; I’m sorry we didn’t try to make it work, but I don’t think I nor my couchsurfing friend were prepared to wild camp in grizzly bear country.

Lamar Valley panorama

Lamar Valley

Possibly I could also have been trampled by a buffalo, always something to be avoided when in a tent.

Buffalo crossing

Buffalo crossing

My favorite long-distance views were from Mount Washburn.  It’s not a very difficult or interesting trail, but I would recommend it for the views from the top.

Panorama from the spur trail

Panorama from the spur trail

Wildlife on the trail was limited to some mildly interesting moths, but from the summit we could look through telescopes to see the bighorn sheep on the opposite hillside.

two bighorn ewes and a kid

two bighorn ewes and a kid, seen through a spotting scope

I would have loved to continue hiking the spur trail that follows the top of the ridge from the Mount Washburn summit.  The grassy plains and scattered rocks reminded me of the rolling fields in Ireland, so green and vast.

Spur trail up to Mount Washburn summit

Looking up toward the watchtower from the spur trail

And the hillsides covered in butter-colored wildflowers didn’t hurt either.

Field of flowers

And that was it.  I put the holy West behind me reluctantly, cutting a sprig of sagebrush as as last souvenir.

As cross-country trips go, mine tend to be hurried.  Three solid days of driving got me back to Virginia without much to show for my journey except 15 cups of coffee and emergency oil change in Montana.  And so the lull in my travels began, which as I write is coming to an end.  In two weeks, I’ll begin a trip through South America that may last six months or more.  I’ll keep writing and posting photos, so stay tuned.

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Laying low in Virginia

For the next month or so, I’m biding my time in the house where I grew up, keeping my parents and sister company and trying to hang on to a few pennies for my adventures outside of the country.

After weeks of road trips and hikes in majestic mountain ranges, new stories revealing themselves every day, I’m finding I don’t have as much to write about here in the comfort of my family’s house.  I’m happy and relaxed, staying busy by reading voraciously, keeping a daily yoga practice, running, writing, and taking day trips around Virginia to see various friends.  It’s not very exciting, but it’s important for me to have this downtime to tie up the loose ends of my previous life and prepare for what I hope will be at least six months of traveling abroad.

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It’s surreal to visit my hometown now.  I’ve changed so much even in just the last six months that it feels like I’m seeing the area where I grew up for the first time, even as I also feel like I’m returning home. When I make a grocery run to the store where my family has bought food for the past 20 years, I feel just as much like a traveler as I did on one of my many grocery stops in nameless towns across the country.  But I don’t feel isolated, or lonely, or out of place.  I feel excited to be seeing old familiar places with new eyes.

After a couple of years in the desert, the mist and fog and fuzzy, tree-covered mountains that I grew up with seem exotic.  I still miss Reno’s dry air and constant sunshine, but I’m also enchanted by the rolling fog and heavy clouds that have blanketed the valley for the past few days.  I began hiking avidly when I moved to Reno, and now I’m coming back to discover that my hometown is rich with hiking trails I never took an interest in before.  On today’s hike, we ascended up through heavy fog and into low-lying clouds that brushed the top of the mountain we summitted.

Travel Update : Tetons

I’d wanted to return to the Grand Tetons for nearly two years.

I first saw the mountains while driving west on my way out to Reno. They struck me almost like a blow, I’d never seen mountains so sharp or tall. We had crossed the Rockies, but this was different – these were like the fingers of God.

Grand Teton mountain range

July was my first time seeing them again. In 2012 we’d driven past the mountains at sunset, passing herds of bison and taking pictures of the mountains until the light failed. The next day we were driving as far as Reno, so there was no time to do more than learn the name of the mountain range and give our own secret names to the peaks that had most unsettled us.

I expected to feel frightened and disturbed like I had when I first saw the mountains, but I’ve grown since last time, and they didn’t affect me the same way. I must have taken a hundred photos, trying to catch the range from every angle as the light changed. I hiked into some of the canyons, exploring the hidden places of the mountain range.  After all the exploring, though, I left feeling like the mountains still had something to tell me, something I hadn’t quite heard while I was there.  Maybe to really understand this mountain range I need to summit one of the peaks – something I wasn’t prepared for on this visit.

Misty, ambient sunrise on the drive into Jackson

Misty, ambient sunrise on the drive into Jackson

I’d left Reno for the last time (in the foreseeable future) on Tuesday midmorning, car packed to the brim with the remaining possessions I couldn’t part with.  I followed a route that took me through northeastern Nevada, northwestern Utah, and a corner of Idaho where I eventually camped for the night.  My roads were two-lane highways and I generally avoided interstates, so cell phone reception was spotty and my musical selection limited.  I kept things interesting by sampling the ancient CD collection that has lived in my car since high school; for the misty, ethereal morning sunrise over the Idaho farmlands, I picked Radiohead’s Amnesiac.

I was just beginning the second listen-through when I entered Jackson from the south – gas stations and supermarkets crowded each other and broke the mesmerizing atmosphere just as the sun rose high enough to burn through the last of the morning mist.

Mountain and Thistle

Mountain and Thistle

It was a different experience seeing the mountains after driving through crowded, superficial Jackson as opposed to coming on them suddenly after miles of empty mountain roads.  I felt more like a tourist, less like I was discovering the mountains unexpectedly.  I was in luck, though – the road was busy but not congested (apparently this is rare), and I was lucky to snag a campsite for the following two nights.

Family in front of Rockchuck peak

Family in front of Rockchuck peak

I set up camp, but the morning air was clinging to the inside of my head and making me feel aimless.  I hadn’t planned any major activities for the day – a mistake I still sometimes make as I’m getting the hang of solo travel – so to keep myself from feeling like I was wasting time, I packed food and hopped on my bike to explore the park and get some exercise.

Teewinot Peak

Teewinot Peak

The drama of this range can’t be conveyed through photographs – it must be experienced in person.  These mountains were formed along a fault – no, they are the fault: the top of the ridge is one edge of the fault, the other edge far below at their roots.  There are no foothills, no gradual rise in elevation.  They burst from the landscape.  Standing by these mountains, you can almost feel the surrounding area still trembling from the violence of their rising.

Grand Teton

Near sunset I swapped my bike out for the car so I could take in the length of the scenic drive that parallels the Teton range.

Sunset

The next morning I was sick from something I’d eaten the night before, but I’m an old hand at weathering exciting digestive incidents, so I decided to drive into Jackson for espresso (and the coffee shop’s flush toilets).  By midmorning, after  I felt well enough to go through with my plan for the day – volunteering for trail maintenance with a cleanup crew.

It was a day of hard work brushing out a trail above one of the park’s alpine lakes.  Working alongside me were a very young ranger on her summer break from college and an old retired woman who had more energy than me and the ranger combined.  By the end of the day I was exhausted and happy to have spent the day getting plenty of exercise and fresh air, and making a contribution (however small) to the health of the park.  As I begin this long season of traveling, I don’t want to experience the places I go as a typical tourist.  It was good to participate more deeply in the growth of this park – not as a consumer, but as a participant in its maintenance.

That evening, feeling deeply worn out and satisfied from my hard day, I put on a flowy dress and drove into Jackson.  I walked slowly along the busy streets of the tourist district, window shopping at the upscale outdoor outfitters and jewelry stores, people-watching.  As the sun set, I drove back into camp, stopping for a couple of unexpected wildlife sightings – a bull moose and a bull elk!

a moose!

a moose!

Looking Northeast, a bull elk grazing with two does nearby (not pictured)

Looking Northeast, a bull elk grazing with two does nearby (not pictured)

At this point in the story, I suspect a normal exhausted person would have taken a day to recover from the hard work, possibly sleeping in, but I tend to push myself when I’m traveling.  I don’t want to spend my time sleeping when there are mountains to climb! So, I hauled my tired butt out of my sleeping bag at 6:00, broke camp, and headed out to a trail for a 10-mile hike.

Grand Teton at Sunrise

Grand Teton at Sunrise

The morning light gave me a new look at the mountains – their shape and character changes subtly throughout the day as the light moves over new faces and into canyons.

Tired as I was, getting up really early turned out to be a great decision.  All the hiking information in the park contains strict admonitions not to hike alone due to the presence of bears.  I didn’t have a traveling or hiking partner, so after consulting with a ranger I’d planned to go up the trail armed with bear spray and plan to stick close to other hikers on the popular trail.  However, I was in luck – I met another solo hiker at the trailhead and we agreed to hike together.

Hiking buddy!

Hiking buddy!

It only took about an hour of conversation for us to discover that we were both Couchsurfers and on road trips in opposite directions – I was going east, he was headed West.  It was a serendipitous meeting that wouldn’t have happened if I’d slept in the way I wanted to!

Surprise Lake panorama

Surprise Lake panorama

The views at the top – Surprise lake and Amphitheater lake – were lovely.  As we rested at Amphitheater lake, a gentle rain crossed the ridge and made its way east, gently dimpling the surface of the lake with perfect rings that gradually spread out and crossed each other over and over.

Amphitheater Lake

Amphitheater Lake

I wish I’d had the energy to follow the spur trail up to the peak pictured above – an additional 2,000 feet of climbing, with the top of the mountain just brushing the clouds.  Starting a hike like that with uncertain weather is not the best idea, either, so I passed on the opportunity this time.

Indian paintbrush flowers

Indian paintbrush flowers

I didn’t find the trail particularly exotic, but we were treated to beautiful scenery.  The park has had a late spring this year, and wildflowers blanket the trail corridors at various elevations.  I also happened upon a beautiful leather belt that someone had abandoned on the hike.  Good strong leather, it must have been made for a woman, because it was the right length for me, and tooled with ducks and wetland scenery.

After 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain, I was seriously worn out.  Couchsurfer and I decided on a drink in Jackson, then headed to a campground by a developed hot spring, where I’d originally planned on staying on my way into the park.

I’ve been spoiled by many visits to beautiful undeveloped and remote springs, so I was a little unimpressed by the large concrete swimming pool “hot spring” that required a $6 entry fee.  However, even the grumpy hot spring snob in me had to admit that the warm water felt amazing after two days of hard work.  We soaked and floated in the water for about an hour, and enjoyed a hilarious conversation with a very drunk group of middle-aged ladies who had snuck vodka into the pool in their water bottles and were having a fantastic time splashing around in the spring and making snarky comments about the fat tourists.

The next day we headed north to Yellowstone, separately – planning to meet again in the next park, both of us a little lonely from our days spent traveling solo.  I left the mountains for the time being, still not entirely understanding them, and promising to come back.

Teton Range

Travel Update : Great Basin National Park

I will always remember Great Basin National Park fondly, because it was the first night that I actually slept well in my little tent! Earplugs are the answer, my friends.

While visiting the park, I also summited Wheeler Peak, a hike that begins at about 10,00 feet and climbs to above 13,000 feet over the course of four miles. It’s not the most challenging hike I’ve ever done, but definitely the highest in altitude. I had the voice of my good friend and hiking buddy P—— in my head reminding me to slow down, not to rush and risk injuring or sickening myself all alone in the wilderness. This is a lesson that has taken me a long time to learn. I’m competitive, with others and with myself, and I definitely have a selfish side that wants an excuse to feel superior.  It’s gotten me into trouble on hikes before, when I’ve worn myself out to the point of illness.  On this hike I think I did well at maintaining a healthy pace up the mountain, stopping frequently to rest and acclimate to the altitude.

Looking down the trail - note the two hikers in the lower left

Looking north along the Wheeler summit trail – note the two hikers in the lower left for scale

Panorama from the top of the mountain

Panorama from the top of the mountain

The summit was great – not as windy as Mount Rose, where I’ve sometimes been so uncomfortable I couldn’t enjoy the top of the hike for long.  In the photo above you can see Mount Moriah and a large wildfire burning on the north side.  The center of the photo faces due south toward the wilderness encompassed by Great Basin park, which includes some spectacular valleys and forested areas.

My contribution to the summit record

My contribution to the summit record book

The record book at the summit was the funniest I’ve seen! A few people logged just their names and the date, but more wrote a story or shared information about themselves (“Age 11” “This is our anniversary and it’s the highest we’ve ever been together!” “On our way to Yellowstone” etc).  A lot of it was clearly made up, which made it even funnier.

Excerpt from the summit record book

Excerpt from the summit record book

Looking over a dangerous ledge

Looking over a dangerous ledge

Of all the dangerous ledges I have unwisely dangled my feet over, this one was definitely the scariest.  That’s about 1,000 feet of empty space under my chucks.

Looking south

Looking south

A full night’s rest and a sizeable mountain to climb were a nice welcome back to Nevada.

Speed bumps in Zion

Like my drive to Tucson, the story of my trip to the Zion National Park in Utah is one that could be told several ways.

looking toward the entrance to Zion

looking toward the entrance to Zion

I could tell the unglamorous story. This story includes my feelings of isolation, fear, uncertainty, and self-criticism. I’d talk about how a lack of sleep made me less able to enjoy my stay, hindered my decision-making process, and generally made me cranky. I’d tell you that I suffered the effects of camping inexperience, not feeding myself well or using my time effectively. I didn’t explore nearly as much of the park as I might have under different circumstances. It would be kind of a lame story, to be honest.

The story of my trip to Zion wouldn’t be complete without the lame parts – the speed bumps. But sometimes I wonder if I should censor things like that from my travel stories. They make me sound whiny, and after all I’m truly privileged to be able to take this trip. When things don’t go as planned, when I feel lonely and unhappy and uncertain, I wonder if I’m acting spoiled. I’m embarrassed to think I might actually be a spoiled person, so I feel I should omit my negative feelings from my stories to avoid seeming ungrateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. I don’t usually think of myself as a spoiled person – but what spoiled person does?

cliffs bordering Zion.  Note the tiny window in the rock - that window borders the tunnel that passes through those mountains into the Zion valley

Cliffs bordering Zion. Note the tiny window in the rock – that window opens onto the tunnel that passes through those mountains into the Zion valley

So what would my non-spoiled-person story sound like? I could post pictures and talk about the hikes, the wildlife, and the natural beauty – it would be the story of a lucky girl who got to travel to a beautiful national park many Americans will never visit, the story of an independent woman venturing into a new chapter of her life and discovering new and exciting skills, preparing for her next adventure.

The story of my trip to Zion wouldn’t be complete without that side of it, either.

This formation is called The Watchman

This formation is called The Watchman – visible from the campground where I stayed

For now, I’m choosing not to censor my negative experiences from my travel stories. For one, I’m not entirely convinced that they make me a spoiled person – an honest picture of travel isn’t complete without the dirt and tears and worry. Hell, an honest picture of life isn’t complete without those ugly bits. I think leaving out the unglamorous bits of a travel story makes it shallower, and less realistic. I’ve gained a lot of useful information reading the travel blogs of other nomads, and if those people had chosen to leave out the difficulties they faced while traveling I’d probably be a lot less prepared for some of the speed bumps that have come up on my road.

So – here’s the story of my trip to Zion National Park, speed bumps and all.


You’ve already seen how beautiful are the views on the way into the park. I was on a bit of a schedule: my research suggested that the first-come first-served campground in the park would fill by about 11:00 and I was still a couple hours’ drive away when I woke up at Lake Powell. I made it into the park around 10:00 and was delighted to find plenty of campsites still open, including a spacious site with plenty of shade directly across from the bathrooms and water pump.

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my hotel for the night

I feel so lucky to have snagged this campsite!

That first day I explored. Zion is a relatively small park – really just the one canyon and a few surrounding cliffs. The park management has made the wise decision to close the main canyon to traffic and instead rely on a series of shuttle buses to transport visitors around. I found this system to be surprisingly comfortable and quick, and definitely preferable to long traffic delays up the canyon! The park roads are also open to bicycles, and I found them easy enough to navigate on mine.

That first day I explored the route up the canyon and did the Emerald Pools Hike.

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I would recommend the hike to anyone! It was strange, though – after only a couple of days of traveling alone I was already a bit lonely, and met a lot of blank stares on the trail. Maybe it was the general population density, or maybe I was meeting mostly foreigners (there were a ton of French and German-speaking tourists in the park), but I didn’t find myself striking up the usual conversations with fellow hikers. It’s possible that my perspective is skewed by having more recently done challenging and less-traveled hikes, where it’s in your survival interest to chat up the passing hikers who are few and far between, knowing that they may be the ones you call to for rescue if you run into trouble up the trail. That’s certainly not the case in Zion – I probably passed 200 or 300 other people on this hike. Loneliness was my first speed bump.

Cliff by Upper Pools - tiny dots are climbers

Cliff by Upper Pools – tiny dots are climbers

At the Upper Pools I found a crowd gathered to watch the descent of two climbers down a massive cliff. Here’s a zoomed-in crop of the image above so you can appreciate the scale:

The hiker is wearing a red shirt and descending with a light blue bag

The hiker is wearing a red shirt and descending with a light blue bag in the upper left quadrant of the image

It was at this point in the hike that I realized how difficult it was for me to grasp the scale of the cliffs in Zion. The people in those pictures look tiny in comparison to the rocks! It has the effect of being so overwhelming it’s underwhelming – it’s similar to being in St. Peter’s church in Rome. Everything is massive, but all in proportion to itself, so it’s actually harder to appreciate the scale. On my hike down, I challenged myself to keep the human scale in mind (comparing the size of trees wedged into cracks in the rock helped). I thought of my mind as something that was being physically expanded by the presence of so much large and dramatic scenery.

Virgin River and... some pointy rocks.  I can't remember right now.

Virgin River and… some pointy rocks. I can’t remember which right now.

That night was a big speed bump – I slept well at first, but a fierce wind began to blow through the canyon at about midnight. At that point, I wasn’t accustomed to camping, and the noise of the wind whipping my tent around terrified me. I was worried that a huge storm was brewing (it sounded like a hurricane from inside the tent) and I was sure I’d never be able to hike Angel’s Landing in the tempest. I slept only a few hours that night, and I woke up frustrated and disappointed (especially since the wind never turned into a storm and died down by the time I would have been on my hike).

I then proceeded to have an irritating morning that involved dropping my bra in the toilet. Speed bump after speed bump.

To cheer myself up, I decided to spare a few extra dollars for breakfast at a local cafe in the nearby town of Springdale. Revived by breakfast and coffee, I spent the morning biking around the park and wading in the river.

mule deer buck grazing at the campsite

mule deer grazing at the campsite

The rest of the day was so hot I couldn’t sleep even in the shade. I was down on myself at first for not getting out and doing more that day, but in all honesty it was lovely to spend the afternoon taking periodic dips in the river and lying in the shade on the soft sand of the banks.

The next morning, despite another sleepless and windy night, I resolved to hike Angel’s Landing.

worth it.

worth it.

This was a good decision.

Looking toward the canyon entrance from the top of Angel's Landing

Looking toward the canyon entrance from the top of Angel’s Landing

It was a challenging hike, but at 7:30 in the morning the air was cool and dry as I slogged up the steep ascent. The chain grips along the final stretch were mainly free of the crowds that swarm them later in the day, and the early morning light threw the cliffs into dramatic relief. The view from the top, as you can see, was memorable.

Looking upcanyon along the river

Looking upcanyon along the river

On the way down the trail, I struck up conversation with a group of fellow hikers and ended up sharing stories all the way back to the trailhead – finally having found the connection I was hoping for! It’s starting to happen in my life that anytime I strike up a conversation with someone and it goes well, it turns out that person is either a nomad or traveler, or they’re from another country. It’s kind of annoying in that it makes me wonder if I’ve lost the ability to connect with anyone else… but then I think, what the hell, travelers are the coolest people anyway.

Sunrise panorama

Sunrise at Angel’s Landing

I’d only been in Zion for about 48 hours by that point, but it was time to move on – restlessness kicks in for me after a couple of days and I begin to long for the open road. Though I’d initially thought of going to Bryce Canyon and Arches in Utah, Nevada was calling me back.

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