Category Archives: Scenic Drives

The Great Ocean Road Day 3: Final Day

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The iconic 12 apostles is not the only intriguing coastal rock structure in the Port Campbell area. Continuing westward along the Great Ocean Road for the next several kilometers, spectacular oceanic limestone rock structures continue to appear.

First there’s The Arch, the only place I have ever seen a mini waterfall in an ocean.

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Then there is London Bridge. The name London Bridge was given to this structure back when it was attached to the mainland. In 2005, London Bridge literally fell down, due to waves and erosion.

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The South Ocean is quite turbulent. Everywhere along the Great Ocean Road, particularly in winter, there is a steady barrage of strong waves. There is a reason so many shipwrecks occurred here. As a result, this section of the coast is in a constant state of change. Watching the waves come onshore inundating the limestone rock, gradually eroding it and paving the way for the next structural change, is like watching science in action.

At the grotto, visitors can walk down to an arch-like structure where waves periodically crash in.

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Some of the larger waves can lead to mist on the other side of the arch.

After these structures, the Great Ocean Road once again ventures inland, transitioning to farmland.

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It would make sense that the Allansford Cheese World is in an area surrounded by farms, right near the end point of The Great Ocean Road.

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The Allansford Cheese World produces far more varieties of cheddar than I ever would have thought to be possible. I had always thought of cheddar as one of many types of cheese, which would include Swiss, Pepperjack, Havarti, etc. Visitors to the Allansford Cheese World can sample a dozen different types of cheddar, some of which are really innovative.

It was here I noticed myself slipping back into an American-like stand-offishness when it comes to dealing with people. For the entire trip, I felt Australians to be generally more friendly than Americans. In conversations with Australians, I did not experience the need for the conversation to provide some kind of value, or the assumption that everyone was in a rush to get to their next activity that is characteristic of many conversations I have with Americans. On my final day on the Great Ocean Road, as if trained by years of cultural experience I found myself starting to engage in conversation without being fully engaged, with the time and my next activity on my mind. I could not believe I was doing this.

Although the Great Ocean Road ends here, but most tourists continue on, at least to the town of Warrnambool, where visitors can supposedly see whales. A 30 minute visit to the pier, where one sign promised us “A Whale of a Time”, turned out to be a bust.

I guess there is a danger in trying to fit an activity like this, dependent on complicated natural forces and animal behavior, into any kind of schedule. However, I wanted to continue west, to the Tower Hill Nature preserve, a set of volcanic lakes where koalas often hang out. It would be a shame to visit Australia and not see at least one of those, and at this time of year daylight in Australia is limited.

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I made a major mistake here as well. Based on our life experiences, we often internalize assumptions and operate based on them without thinking. Being from Colorado, I have a base assumption that all “hikes” involve a climb, to some sort of peak or cool looking overlook.

After two such hikes, in hopes of seeing koalas, an employee at the visitor information center informed us that koalas need trees with moisture and would likely be found down by the lakes. This walk needed to be flat, not up a big hill.

For some reason, despite their actual demeanor, koalas feel like a picture of innocence. A small, furry, cuddly creature constantly hanging onto a tree and sleeping 20 hours per day. I actually wanted to pet them.

Port Fairy would be our final destination.

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We’d have one last adventure here, a short walk onto Griffiths Island.

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Where we would have one final wildlife encounter, fairly up close with the wallabies!

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A trip that many would consider “once in a lifetime” was coming to an end. I sat on a rock gazing out at the Ocean as the sun gradually faded behind me. It felt like a real life version of the fade outs often used at the end of movies and videos. Looking straight outward, I was amazed at how vast the Ocean is. I began to imagine what is on the other side, pondering more adventures. Uncertain as to the exact direction I was facing, I imagined multiple possibilities of what laid straight in front of me.

I imagined the jungles of Madagascar, with monkeys and other forms of wildlife roaming around in the trees and a lone explorer with a knife trying to trudge through the trees and mud.

I imagined the vast expansive ice sheets of Antarctica.

I imagined the far more nearby mountains of Tasmania, quiet for the winter season, but coming to life with young adult hikers and adventurers in the Springtime.

Despite the fact that my adventure would slowly be ending, the reflection of the orange light on the ocean surface felt like an invitation and promise of more to come.

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The Great Ocean Road Day 2: The Twelve Apostles

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Just like that the weather turned. A couple of hours after the sun went down After our first day on the Great Ocean Road, the wind started howling and the rain started falling. It was weird to be on top of a van while a storm was coming through. At first I was scared that the van would tip over, but I reminded myself of the amount of wind needed to actually do that, at least 85 miles per hour (135 km/hour). As much as I lament the amount of places in the world, particularly at work, where emotions are expected to ignored, it is still great to overcome an irrational fear with knowledge and logic.

I was surprised to awaken and find that I had slept in, until about 8:30 A.M. Given how early I had gone to sleep, due to the sun setting at 5:10 P.M., this meant that I had slept nearly 11 hours! While I had hoped to get an earlier start that day, I could not believe how refreshed I felt. Lately it feels like there are multiple competing theories about sleep, in particular related to whether or not lost sleep can be made up for. Based on my experiences, it feels like it can. The experience reminded me of coming home from college and immediately sleeping 12 hours at my parents house after stressing out about finals and final projects for weeks (as well as living in the dorms). After sleeping 11 hours, for the first time in what feels like years, I did not feel any sleepiness or need for caffeine!

No matter how much people plan, changes in weather create the need for some adjustments. The wind and rain made it feel not exactly pleasant outside. The beaches, as well as some of the walking trails, were empty that day. The town of Apollo Bay is bigger than Torquay and Lorne, and where the Great Ocean Walk, a 104 km trail that leads to the Twelve Apostles, begins.

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About 3 km West of Apollo Bay, is the first place along the Great Ocean Road, nearly halfway through the drive, deviates from the coastline.

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Even here, the ocean is still always kind of in sight, but the inland traverse into the hills provides some variety in the scenery.

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It is this section of the coast, near Cape Otway, conditions felt at their windiest. Sort of like a peninsula jutting out into the Southern Ocean, the area is often referred to as “shipwreck coast”. 19th Century historical events here include a number of documented shipwrecks, but also the construction of the Cape Otway Lighthouse, Australia’s oldest. This lighthouse established the first connection between mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania, via both shipping routes and telegraph messages.

In the afternoon the rain stopped, but the wind continued to howl. The sun even gradually started to return. However, the cold wind straight off the coast would still make it a less than pleasant day for any kind of long walks or hikes. It ended up, however, becoming the perfect conditions for a once in a lifetime experience. A helicopter ride over one of Australia’s most iconic destinations; The Twelve Apostles.

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At AUS $145 ($110 US) per person, the cost of this epic journey is quite reasonable! The ride itself lasts about 15 minutes, and quickly soars over some iconic images, including The Great Ocean Road.

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Of course, the Twelve Apostles.

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And, many of the similar limestone structures further West.

While the helicopter ride provided an arial view of these beautiful oceanside structures, the Gibson Steps, located just a couple of kilometers to the East of the Twelve Apostles, provides a view at beach level.

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The Gibson Steps are exactly what one would expect, a staircase that leads down from the overlooking cliffs to the beach. Walking down and up the steps requires being outside for only about 10 minutes, so the less than pleasant weather was not too much of a factor.

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We camped that evening in Port Campbell, a town of barely 600 permanent full time residents with a beautiful beachfront. In the summer, this place is a lot more crowded. In the winter, it was quite empty.

This was the evening that having traveled to the Southern Hemisphere in June messed with my mind the most. Port Campbell in winter has a clasic quiet small town feel. The Main Street bar with a faded neon light outside it. The three block stretch of lit roads surrounded by darkness in all directions. The quiet street with a few people walking around but most inside the restaurants or their own homes.

We are accustomed to the relatively gradual changes in daylight patterns as the seasons progress. Even in periods like April and October, the amount of daylight, at most changes by a couple of minutes each day. Having experienced the daylight expansion in the Northern Hemisphere from April to June, I’d inured to sunset being sometime around 8 P.M. and complete darkness onsetting closer to 9. Being in complete darkness in a quiet small town made 6:30 P.M. feel almost like 10. Without seeing too many people out and about, it is easy to feel like we had arrived at everyone’s bad time.

 

The Great Ocean Road Day 1: Great Otway National Park

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The Great Ocean Road is an iconic drive along the south coast of Australia. Accessing the road is relatively easy. It starts about an hour west of Melbourne. For travelers, especially international ones, I’d recommend a stop at the travel information center along highway 1 just outside of Geelong. The people there were quite friendly. They provided plenty of maps and other information about attractions, which ended up being quite useful. They told me that many visitors try to do the entire drive all in one day, particularly in summer. However, with so much to do here, I am glad we chose a three day excursion in a camper van.

Our first spotting of the ocean shore in the distance, occurred less than 2km after we passed a sign welcoming us to the Great Ocean Road. A lot of travel involves a destination that is one specific location; a museum, campground, event or city. In these cases, it is easy to know when you have “arrived” at your destination. On trips like this one, the lines can be blurred. Seeing the ocean after passing this sign gave us a clearer indication that we were now at our intended destination- The Great Ocean Road.

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A bit further West, after having already hugged the coastline for about 20 km, an even fancier welcome awaits motorists just before entering one of the larger towns along the road, Lorne.

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Passing under this arch felt reminiscent of cycling under the original gateway into Yellowstone National Park, several summers ago.

The eastern half of this scenic drive passes in and out of coastal towns like Lorne and Torquay, which are primarily known for their surfing.

It also jets in and out of Great Otway National Park, a pretty dense feeling forest with plethora of utterly amazing waterfalls. Visiting all the waterfalls in this park would likely take several days, so it’s probably good to just pick a few specific ones to visit.

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As is the case with most of the other waterfalls in the park, getting to Erskine Falls required venturing a bit off the Great Ocean Road. The trailhead is about 10 km off the road in Lorne, and the walk was about 1.5 km round trip.

Despite the raw power of a this waterfall, the place felt quite tranquil. The trees calm the air while also creating a feeling of seclusion. Below the falls, the water seemed oddly calm despite having just descended 38 m (125 ft.). There is nothing like a gentile flowing creek when it comes to feeling balanced, happy, and connected to nature. The water cycle ties our planet together, and the manner in which it retains its tranquil feeling after going over the falls is uniquely reassuring.

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Each of the waterfalls in Great Otway National Park has a pattern that is unique from one another. Yet, they are uniform in their ability to create a feeling of seclusion from the outside world which made me feel refreshingly carefree and mindful.

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We saw the sun gradually begin to descend upon the Great Ocean Road, as we approached our campsite for the first evening, in a smaller town called Wye River where it appeared as if most people live on a hill.

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We set up a table and chairs along another tranquil creek, and opened up the top, or “penthouse” of our Jucy camper van.

It was my first time traveling in a camper van, but the experience felt quite similar to the kinds of camping trips I take part in back home in Colorado (with the exception of the sunset at 5:15 creating a long night).

Trips like this, away from much of our most recent technology always make me wonder whether or not it is worth it. Sure, when we ditch some of this technology, at places like this, there are more chores to be done, and some entertainment options are not available. However, making a comparison between an evening camping and an evening in the city, it feels like much of what our newest technologies have created are only minor conveniences, like a computer algorithm to help us select music to listen to, or a way to not have to physically buy a ticket to an event in person.

In exchange, we have created hundreds of new procedures to remember, hundreds of additional hours annually in front of screens, hundreds more things to keep track of and maintain and hundreds of log-ins and passwords to various sites and apps. Maybe it all is worth it, as I am comparing a holiday to normal days where we often have to work, do some form of home maintenance or run errands. Regardless, I am glad to have had some time away from these countless complications we have recently added to our lives.

Moab- An Active Destination

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Some trips are restful, while others are more active.  There are some destinations that lend themselves to more restful trips; cottages in the woods near quaint towns, tropical beaches, and resorts.  Moab, is a place where it is nearly impossible to imagine anything other than an active itinerary, with a variety of activities, and a lot of places to see.  Situated in East Central Utah, several hours from the nearest major city, this popular tourist destination is surrounded by too much natural beauty to picture anyone coming here and spending large amounts of time sitting in one place.

First of all, Moab is surrounded by two National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands.

Both National Parks are, as National Parks tend to be, filled with tons of natural beauty and unique places.  At both National Parks, while it is possible to see a lot of interesting natural features without straying too far from the road, the best features at both parks require hiking.

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Getting to the signature feature of Arches National Park, Delicate Arch, requires a 1.5 mile hike from the Delicate Arch Trailhead.  Interestingly enough, this trail starts near the historic Wolfe Ranch, and traverses by some other unique features including some Ute Indian Rock art.

It is also quite difficult to imagine making a trip to Arches National Park and not viewing some of the other arches (Yes, it’s Arches National Park, not Arch National Park).  There is a section of the park known as Devil’s Garden, with somewhat of a network of trails taking visitors to all kinds of other arches.

The most famous of these arches is Landscape Arch, a long and wide arch whose name provides a clear recommendation as to how to orient any photograph of this particular feature (for those familiar with landscape vs. portrait  ).

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To get to most of the remaining arches requires a bit of a steep climb, which starts pretty much right after Landscape Arch.

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The hiking in the entire Moab area, not just at Arches National Park, is considerably different from the typical hiking experience.  Much of the hiking I’ve experienced, is on trails covered in dirt, gravel, and sometimes small to medium sized rocks at places such as the top of Quandry Peak.  All around Moab, I found myself on surfaces such as this one, on top of solid rock, sometimes for nearly the entire duration of the trail.  Traversing these trails required me to use my upper body more, and even do a little bit of jumping, from one rock to another.

At the top of this Mesa, there are arches with multiple partitions, arches people can hike under, and even one arch with an opening that lends itself to laying inside it to soak up the sun, the surroundings, and the experience!

The entire loop, including all the side trips in the trail network, is a total of 7.2 miles.  So, if a visitor desires to see all of these features, as well as Delicate Arch, a total of 10.2 miles of hiking is required.

And some people decide to add even more activities to their day.  In a shaded off-shoot of the Devil’s Garden Trail, I witnessed a sizable group of people playing a game of Frisbee, using the walls of this tiny canyon to make trick shots.

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Since immersing oneself in the here and now, and contributing to the local culture of a place creates a more enriching travel experience, I decided to play my part.

First, I decided to bring my own arches into the park..

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Disclaimer: I did properly dispose of that cup

Then, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided it was time that we started making our own arches, contributing to the park’s plethora of natural beauty.

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Canyonlands National Park is even bigger than Arches, broken up into three sections by the Colorado and Green rivers, whose confluence is right in the center of the park.  Without any bridges connecting over either river, and with the entrances to each section over an hour apart, it is all but impossible to visit more than one section in a day.

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The most common image of Canyonlands National Park is an almost Grand Canyon-like overlook into a deep river valley, sometimes with one of the two isolated mountain ranges in the background.  However, at the scenic overlooks in the parks’ Island In The Sky region, it is actually quite difficult to see the rivers themselves.  The canyons that make up Canyonlands National Park are quite expansive, with multiple tiers.  To see these canyons from the best vantage points requires a bit of hiking.  The hike to the Confluence Overlook (an overlook of the confluence between the Green and Colorado Rivers) is 10 miles round trip, something that could require the better part of a day!

Canyons are not the only interesting feature to Canyonlands National Park.  Being only roughly 20 miles away from Arches (as the crow flies), Canyonlands has some arches of its’ own.  The most interesting one is an arch called Mesa Arch, where one can see both the peaks of the nearby La Sal Mountain range, and actually another arch by looking through the arch at the right angle!

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And some features are random, like Upheaval Dome.

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Scientists still do not know whether or not this particular salt deposit is a remanat of a meteorite that would have theoretically collided with the earth roughly 20 million years ago.

The two National Parks are not even close to all that Moab has to offer, all of which is “active” in one way or another.  Dead Horse Point State Park, located between the two National Parks, is a place where one can hike to one of Moab’s most picturesque locations: Goose Neck.

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The entire region, regardless of what any spot is named, or whether it contains a state or federal distinction, is rich with abundant natural beauty, and places to hike, bike, jeep, climb, or even just explore.

Anyone driving into Moab from the East (from Colorado), would be well advised to take the additional time it takes to follow the windy State Highway 128 through Professor Valley, essentially following the Colorado River into town.

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We set up camp at a place called Hunter Canyon.

Twenty minutes from town, Hunter Canyon is a place where each part of the day, from sunrise to sunset, lights up a different rock formation.  It felt almost as if nature was putting on a show, with lighting, stage props, and characters coming on and off the stage for different scenes.

I also saw bike trails nearly everywhere I went.  Moab is known as a mecca for mountain biking, an activity we did not get around to (is is… really… impossible to do EVERYTHING in Moab without something like two weeks).  But, with trails like these, Moab is also a phenomenal place for road biking.

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And, everywhere I went red rock formations, each one distinct from the next, would pop up, in and out of view.

It was next to impossible not to imagine these rock formations as something else.  While driving around, I would often point out to the rest of the group what each individual rock formation looked like, or what I perceived it to look like.  Some, I said looked like specific animals, some looked like people, others, still, looked like various specific objects, such as hammers, cooking utensils, or even a turkey wishbone (by the way, the following image is an arch, residing in neither National Park, they really are everywhere)!

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And, what amazed me was how often others in my group would actually see the exact same thing when they look at a rock formation and say, yes, I also saw an octopus.  This means that either my imagination is quite accurate, or, I have managed to surround myself only with similar minded people.  Both are very much a possibility!

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But, the analogy I came to in my head most frequently, throughout the trip, is between the rock formations and the ruins of an ancient city.  Every time I saw a structure such as this one, I would imagine what is would be like if, for some unknown reason, there actually was a civilization here, many thousands of years ago.  And each one of these rock formation was actually the remnant of an ancient skyscraper, or even a larger building like Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, weathered down by thousands of years of natural erosion.  I imagined what this ancient city would have been like, in an Atlantis-like scene that would play through my mind.

Since Samantha Brown’s presentation at last month’s Travel and Adventure Show, I had been trying to live in the here and now, and experience the current culture of a place, as she had advised.

For me, this included another new activity (for me)- Jeeping!

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And, I got to experience some crazy roads and some crazy places.

But, as I find in many of my travels, there is no way to truly avoid thinking about the past, and imagining another setting.  A video at the Canyonlands Visitors Center explained the actual process in which these rocks came to be formed, which took place over the course of 200 million years, back to a time when much of Utah and Colorado were near sea level, with some sections underwater and others above.  In fact, that is part of the reason why there is so much small scale variance in the color of the rocks throughout this region.

Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, there were echoes of the past, both real and imaginary, and both ancient and more recent.

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The experience of visiting Moab for a long weekend is as jam-packed as I have made this aritcle.  Around every corner, something new, something exciting, and something unique.  While there are some travel destinations, like Miami, one can make as active or as restful as they would desire, Moab is one destination that requires one to be active, at least in some way, to truly experience.  To come to Moab, and not wander, not explore, not do a little bit of hiking, biking, or jeeping, one would miss out on so much of what is around every corner in this region.

 

 

 

The Longest Day Hike of My Life

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Conundrum Hot Springs

The hike from the Conundrum Trailhead to Conundrum Hot Springs is roughly 8.5 miles.  Round trip is at least 17 miles of hiking.  I say AT LEAST as I have been on plenty of hikes where side excursions, both planned and unplanned, lead to covering a total distance that exceeded the official distance of the hike.

Due to the distance, and the destination, nearly all the people we encountered on this hike were backpacking.  This is an attractive option, as the trail is pretty long but not terribly challenging, and the hot springs are the kind of destination one would want to spend a significant amount of time at.  However, Conundrum Hot Springs is a popular destination, and there are limited camping sites in the immediate vicinity of the springs.

Conundrum Hot Spring is close to Aspen, which is three and a half hours from Denver.  Some of the people in our group, myself included, were not able to leave early enough on Friday for us to be confident that we could secure a camping spot.  We ended up deciding to find a campground somewhat close to the trailhead, and hike to and from the springs as a day hike.  As an added bonus, we would not have to bring, or carry nearly as much equipment, as we would be “car camping”.  The hike would be both easier and harder.  We would not be carrying nearly as much weight, but we would be cramming 17 miles of hiking into one day.

Up in the mountains of Central Colorado, trees change color earlier in the Fall than they do in many other parts of the Country.  In general, the second half of September, and maybe the first few days of October, is the best time to see the Aspen trees here change colors.  I was partially surprised by how vibrant the colors were, by September 16th.  For the first two hours or so of the drive, before sunset, we saw a preview of the kind of colors we’d be seeing during the hike, certainly early season, but vibrantly colorful, with sections of bright yellows and oranges periodically appearing in front of us.

To be sure we would have enough time, we had to wake up, eat breakfast and leave the campground at Lincoln Creek (dispersed camping roughly 40 minutes from the trailhead) all before sunrise.  We arrived at the trailhead and started hiking at roughly 15 minutes after 7 A.M.

The morning chill was both an obstacle and a boost.  Overnight temperatures dropped to roughly 30F (-1C) at the campground.  For the first 90 minutes of the hike, the ground was covered in frost.  In fact, the frost even made our first river crossing a bit slippery.

This morning cold made me cary several layers, adding a little bit to the weight of my backpack (although it was still way, way, lighter than it would have been had we been backpacking).  However, the cold weather motivated us to begin our hike at a rapid pace.

We would cover over four miles before we even reached the sun!

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I would describe at least the first five miles of the hike as “easy” from the standpoint of evolution gain.

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Many sections of the trail are actually close to perfectly flat, giving me plenty of time to take in the natural beauty that is around me, and also connect with my friends who I was hiking with.  When hiking, it is challenging to have a conversation when hiking up steep terrain, but fairly easy to do so in largely flat sections.

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The appearance of small lakes precludes the transition to the more challenging part of the trail.

This occurs somewhere around six and a half miles into the hike.  First of all, there are sections that are more technically challenging, including a couple of tricky creek crossings, and a section where one must scramble over rocks.

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There last two miles of the trail also includes some fairly steep sections.  I wouldn’t say they are overly challenging, but in the context of a 17 mile day that included hiking at a rapid pace towards the beginning, they ended up being fairly exhausting.

We ended up spending roughly two hours at the hot springs (including changing and eating lunch).  There were a lot of people in the hot springs, but it was not as crowded as some of us had feared.

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For a variety of reasons, the fall colors appeared even more magnificent on the way back down!  The most significant reason had to be the manner in which the trees appeared in the mid-afternoon sun.

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I was also pleasantly surprised to see a significant amount of deep orange shades.  In prior experience with fall in the Rockies, I had almost exclusively seen the yellow shade that seems to be the most common fall color for Aspen trees.  While “autumn gold” is pretty, I had, in some ways, missed wide variety of shades that leaves on maple trees take on during fall.

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I would definitely describe the color we enountered as “early season”.  There were still many Aspen trees primarily shaded green, particularly at lower elevations.  This indicates that the next two weekends could be just, or perhaps even more, colorful!  The colorful trees, the yellows and the oranges, tended to be those higher up.  The several patches of deep shaded orange I saw were nearly exclusively up closer to the tree line.

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Both the hike up to the hot springs and the return trip took roughly four hours.

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We got back to the trailhead sometime just after 5 P.M., and, after the 40 minute drive back to Lincoln Creek, I finally got to see what the campground looked like.  And I got to do something I had not previously done.  I got to park my car with the rear left tire on top of a rock, showing off just how rugged my vehicle is.  Well, at least in an auto show pamphlet sort of way.

Capping off an exhausting day was a side excursion, to a waterfall, well, multiple waterfalls, that those of us in our group lucky enough to be able to leave early Friday had located roughly a quarter of a mile from the campground.  In fact, they hyped this place up over the course of the hike.  So, we had to go.  Additionally, this side excursion was enough for me to achieve something meaningless, but also something I am likely never again to achieve.  I recorded 50,000 steps on that step counter thing that comes with every iPhone6.  Yay me!

We would explore this likely unnamed waterfall area again Sunday morning before departing for Denver.

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If you count all the places where water squirts out of random places in the rock, there are probably close to a dozen “waterfalls” in this area.  What a great unexpected treat!

The return trip on Sunday was eventful as well, with some great stops at Independence Pass and Twin Lakes, both places I had driven by on Friday, but after the sun had already set.

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I titled this blog “The Longest Day Hike of My Life”, as, well, I can not picture a day where I hike more than 17 miles on a day trip.  However, I probably would have never imagined hiking 17 miles in one day a few years back, so there is no way to definitively say never.  I am prepared, though, for this to be my longest hike, and understand the significance of it. Like many of the adventures I had over the course of this summer, and in previous years, it was both exhausting and amazing.  But, most worthwhile experiences, from relationships to starting successful businesses and such, are.  Being exhausted after this experience should be a reminder to all of us that what is easiest is often the least rewarding, and that which is most challenging often comes with the greatest reward.

 

 

48th State

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Arizona is the third most recent state to join the Union.  The only two states admitted more recently are Alaska and Hawaii.  This means that, when it comes to mainland U.S.A., this very much was the “final frontier”, an area that remained wild and unsettled for over a century while areas were being converted from frontier, to small villages, and eventually into powerhouses connected by networks of trails, ports, and railroads.

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The primary cultural image of Arizona is the “Old West”.  Cowboys roaming around wide open spaces.  Small isolated towns where outlaws and town sheriffs fight a continuous battle that resembles the internal conflict we all have between the innate desire for freedom and the desire for justice and order.  Crazy games of poker in whiskey salons that often end in guns being drawn.

Historically, it is correct that Arizona, like much of the west, is the site of many epic battles that often lead to gunfire.  This lead to places such as Tombstone, and Rawhide, being depicted in numerous Western themed movies and TV shows.  Tourists today can relive the experience of the wide open, unsettled, west by visiting these places.

However, movies and TV shows can frequently lead people to inaccurate perceptions.  Films and shows are designed for entertainment purposes, and therefore must focus on the interesting aspects of life in a specific place, like a shoot-out between two gangs.  Anyone that compares their lives to those of characters from TV and movies will often come out feeling that their life is uninteresting.  After all, no movie will show someone sitting at a cubicle for six hours, or doing laundry and ironing shirts.  They focus on the parts that will, well, entertain the people that watch them.

Recent studies have indicated that, while these high profile gunfights did occur in the old west, they were the exception rather than the rule.  Some studies (although not all) have even suggested that the western frontier of the later 19th century was actually a safer place than America today.  There is speculation as to why the “Old West” is depicted and thought of in the manner in which it is, leading some to entertain conspiracy theories.  Regardless of what the reality of what life in this time and place know as the “Old West” was truly like, it is encouraging to see people look at it statistically, as opposed to based on anecdotes and catch phrases.

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Arizona may have grown up late, but it grew up fast.  Based on the 2010 census, Arizona is now the fourth most populous state west of the Mississippi River.

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Growing up in the middle to late 20th century, Arizona grew up in a manner that is very car-centric.  Depictions of present day Arizona life, in movies like Bad Santa, commonly show life in car-centic suburbs, with winding subdivisions, malls and such.

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There is also no forgetting Arizona’s position along the famed Route 66, which took countless motorists between Chicago and Los Angeles during the middle part of the 20th century.  In popular culture, the Arizona stretch of this major historic thoroughfare is amongst the most celebrated, providing the inspiration for the setting of the Route 66 based movie Cars.

The most high profile destination in Arizona is the Grand Canyon.  After all, the state’s nickname, which is labelled on all Arizona license plates is “The Grand Canyon State”.  However, by taking a road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas, one will traverse the landscapes that cover a much larger portion of the State.

Passing through the Sonoran Desert, which includes Phoenix and much of the surrounding  area, one will encounter hills covered in sagebrush and cactus plants.

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Periodically, one will also encountered Joshua Trees, mountain ranges, and mesas.

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Closer to Vegas, the landscape transitions to the Mojave Desert, which is sometimes even hotter, drier, and more baren than the Sonoran.

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Two developments made Arizona’s rapid expansion in population possible.  First, is the much discussed invention of, and subsequent proliferation of air conditioning.  This, of course, made living in places prone to hot weather more desirable.  The second is the creation of dams, canals, irrigation systems, and water pipelines, which facilitated supplying these dry regions with the water resources needed to sustain life.

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The Hoover Dam, located at the border of Arizona and Nevada, is one of many places throughout the west that diverts water resources from a major river (the Colorado River) to major metropolitan areas.

 

As is the case with the idealized image of the rugged individual of the “Old West”, present day life in Arizona, when discussed, elicits some divided responses, as well as some different interpretations.

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This is very much the image of standard life in Arizona.  A house in suburban looking neighborhood, a pool in the backyard, mountains, and, in many cases, golf.  Some love it.  Some see it as the natural culmination of the “American Dream”.  Some can’t wait to get away from the frigid winters many experienced in other parts of the country, move down here and enjoy the life.  Others, and particularly those concerned with the environment, feel it is irresponsible for so many people to be living comfortable lifestyles, with swimming pools, irrigated lawns, and golf courses in a climate this dry.  People here seem to adhere to the “haters gonna hate” mentality.  The knowledge that people in some distant land are disapproving of their living, eating, hiking, and golfing in the desert does not seem to phase them.

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Glenwood Springs: Where Canyon Country Begins

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When people think of the American West, certain images often come to mind:  the unique natural features of Yellowstone.  Iconic mountains that tower over the nearby landscape, such Rainier and Hood.  The canyons that carve through the American Southwest, creating popular destinations such as the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is not the only canyon of the American West.  In fact, it is not the only canyon carved out by the Colorado River, the continent’s fifth longest running river.  The river, has its source at Rocky Mountain National Park and snakes through the west carving out  numerous canyons.  In fact, there are some that believe that the canyon in Southern Utah that was flooded when Glen Canyon Dam was built, a couple of hundred miles upstream of the Grand Canyon, was even more scenic than the Grand Canyon itself (some are even looking to remove the dam despite the Wests water needs).

An overly simplified model of Colorado’s geography, is that of the three flavored boxes Neapolitan Ice Cream.  Colorado’s three sections are the Plains, the Central Rockies, and a region generally referred to as the Western Slope.  While the Western Slope is officially defined as anywhere west of the Continental Divide, culturally, we tend to think of it as west of Ski Country, which also happens to coincide with where canyon country begins.

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On the above map, the two yellow stars are Denver, where the Plains end and the Central Rockies begin, and Glenwood Springs, where, traveling west the terrain transitions from tall peaks to canyons, mesas, and plateaus.

The official reason for the trip to Glenwood this year was whitewater rafting, a group trip that I organize every year, with a different destination each time.

This year, the trip was a little bit later in the season, early July, rather than mid-June.  The later date allowed more of the mountain snowpack to melt, particularly this year, as the period around the fourth of July was quite hot across the state.  As a result, the rapids were not nearly as intense as the previous two years.  However, the trip was not without its moments.  This time, everybody stayed in the raft!

As was the case last year and the year prior (this is the third year of my annual trip), we camped.  We selected a somewhat peculiar place to camp this year, on top of the White River Plateau north of town.

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To get to the Plateau, we had to follow a road called Coffee Pot Road, a bumpy road that rose up out of the Colorado River Valley below us and onto the plateau several thousand feet above it.

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Here is where I fully came to the realization that I was on the border of two of Colorado’s “stripes”.  Looking east from the campground, in clear view are the tallest peaks of the Central Rockies, the Sawatch Range, which includes Mount Evans, Colorado’s tallest peak.

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A mere mile to the west of our campsite sits Deep Creek Canyon.  I had no idea this canyon existed.  Deep Creek is a tiny creek, carrying very little water at the time we saw it.  Yet, it manages to carve a 2100 foot deep crevice in the landscape in a manner similar to Black Canyon and other Western Canyons.

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What really made this feel like a peculiar place to camp was the range of temperatures we would experience over the course of the weekend.  We spent the middle part of the day in the valley, first rafting in the Colorado River than in town, all at elevations below 6000 feet.  Daytime temperatures soared well into the 90s!  At night, we returned to our campground, above 10,000 feet in elevation, where nighttime temperatures fell into the upper 40s.  If one were looking to experience comfortable temperatures, it would make sense to do the exact opposite, spending the daytime hours at higher elevations where it is cooler and then returning to the valley at night.

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The town of Glenwood Springs is a touristy town.  Everyone around, from the rafting instructors to the bus drivers describe it as such.  However, it is touristy in a different way than some other places I’ve visited.  I didn’t see 50 ice cream shops like I do in South Haven, MI.  I did not see anything like Ripley’s Believe it Not or the other places I see at the Wisconsin Dells.  And, I certainly didn’t see 150 T-shirt shops as I do when I visit Cooperstown.  It seemed like more bars and restaurants than anything else here.  And, of course, one of Glenwood’s other main draws, the hot springs.

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Maybe Glenwood’s tourism industry is simply trying to accommodate a different mix of people than those other places, or maybe they are simply trying to stay true to their own unique identity.  After all, there are a lot of activities in the area, and a lot of reasons for people to visit.

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Just east of town, is the area known as Glenwood Canyon.  Due to the narrowness of this valley, there are sections of I-70 where the speed limit drops to 50 miles per hour, the westbound lanes are stacked on top of the eastbound lanes, and parts of the highway are tunneled underneath rock that goes right up to the River.

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It is in this canyon, several miles east of town, where Glenwood’s signature hike, Hanging Lake Trail draws so many tourists, that the parking lot is commonly full.  In fact, both Friday and Saturday, highway signage indicated that this lot was full anytime we drove by it.  We were able to get parking spots in the later part of the afternoon, around half past four, after the rafting trip, and lunch in town.

Hanging Lake is a short but challenging trail.  Only 1.2 miles long, it climbs 1200 feet in elevation.  This, both made sense and surprised me at the same time.  Being in a canyon, I knew that any hike in the area would be steep, and this one sure had its steep parts.  What surprised me was, how far up the canyon hanging lake is.

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I had seen pictures of this lake before, and knew the trail was short, I just pictured it being much shorter and much closer to the bottom of the canyon.

The trail was crowded, which should not be surprising, given that the parking lot was still almost completely full when we arrived.  What surprised me was the ethnic diversity of the crowd hiking this trail.  On the way up to hanging lake, which probably took a little over 30 minutes, I heard people speaking all sorts of different languages!  I enjoyed seeing so many different kinds of people enjoying scenery, nature, and, as I speculate, a weekend away from it all.

There is only one area attraction I did not get to, the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.  It’s hard to get to everything on a short weekend trip.  I guess there is still a lot more for me to see here in Glenwood, where Westbound travelers leave the high peaks of the Central Rockies and enter the land of deep canyons.