Category Archives: Unique Natural Features

A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 3 Sunrise on Devil’s Causeway

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“It’s gonna be so cold leaving the tent before sunrise.”

“The sunrise will look just as nice from the comfort of my tent.”

“We already saw the Devil’s Causeway on Friday.”

“Look at all the distance we’ve already covered.”

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These are all the things my inner dialogue told myself, to stop me from going the extra mile Sunday morning. And, it literally was an extra mile (two round trip).

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We all experience this from time to time. That voice in our heads is most often referred to as the inner dialogue or inner chatterbox. Its goal is to protect us from discomfort, failure, embarrassment and the like. It is the voice that once told an 11-year-old version of me that nobody wanted to talk to the new kid in town and subsequently told a 15-year-old version of me to avoid the embarrassment of asking anyone out. In both situations, that voice was dead wrong. Yet, it continues to plead its case in situations like these, pushing for its own version of comfortable stagnant mediocrity.

Perhaps the best decision I made on this trip was to ignore that voice, which actually took some mental energy given how exhausting Saturday was. That extra hour of rest in the morning was quite enticing.

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These photos don’t do justice to the gradual turning of the sky in anticipation of a new day, or the still lit full moon on the other horizon at dawn.

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Unlike in previous days where we were camping at lower elevations, when the sun kissed the sky, we were among the first to be struck by its golden rays.

It was a feeling that is hard to describe. I felt like I was receiving some kind of gift. I was recieving an infusion of energy, spirit and liveliness from some kind of abstract source. It felt almost spiritual. Regardless of what was actually behind this wonderful feeling, I was certainly glad to have ignored that inner dialogue.

The final day was the shortest of the three. We only had 6.2 miles to go to get back to the trailhead. It started out with a bit more traversing across open grassland.

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We got a couple more great overlooks before the main descent.

It was perhaps the fastest day of the three. The miles went by quickly for backpacking standards.

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We made only one significant stop, for a mid-morning snack.

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A little before 11 A.M., we saw the Summit Reservoir, the place where the journey had begun, indicating that we were already approaching the trailhead!

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There was an advantage to getting back to the car just before noon, as we all had to work in some capacity the next day. The amazing thing about this trip is that nobody involved had to take more than one day off of work.

However, to achieve this, we had to set up camp in the dark the Thursday night and felt somewhat hurried at times.  Before we even got back to Kremmling to have our first regular meal after the trip, we were all already checking our phones, checking back in with work and our day-to-day lives.

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We truly got the most out of the 74 hour period we were away. However, we didn’t really escape for too long. From the standpoint of making the most of our time it was ideal.

From another standpoint, it was less than ideal. It is not too uncommon for Americans to plan trips like this, possibly because we do not value time away as much as we should. Although there are many pointing out the follies of these too many people not taking time off, the prominent culture in this country still seems to value work over all else and expects others to as well.

Whenever I find myself shifting my priorities to match the ones of our current culture, my inner dialogue is behind it. That inner dialogue tells me to be concerned about how I will be perceived, and what negative consequences I might face if I were to act in accordance with what I value as opposed to what is expected of me.

Ignoring my inner dialogue’s demands that I stay in my sleeping bag an extra hour on a cold morning is good practice for what I know I must do in the coming years to create a life that is truly authentic and fulfilling. I need to ignore my inner dialogue’s demands that, in order to be safe, I sacrifice the individual autonomy that comes with adhering to my own set of values in favor of what is often referred to as “herd mentality“.

A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 1 Alpine Lakes

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It started with an evening of “car camping”. Sometimes I feel like Colorado has a vocabulary that is distinct from the rest of the country. For those who rarely venture too far away from the comforts of modern urban living, this activity is referred to simply as “camping”. In Colorado, car camping must be distinguished from backpacking, bike-packing, horse-packing and all other forms of camping that take us away from our vehicles.

As we rolled through the town of Kremmling, picking up some last minute supplies and having one last comfortable meal, my mind started to become daunted with the prospect of spending three days without heat, showers and a comfortable bed.

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The part of my brain that fears the unknown, protects the ego from failure and seeks comfort at all costs filled my head with images of hot meals, blankets and comfortable sleep. Very few people are exempt from this kind of mental resistance to change, discomfort and the unknown. The key is to understand how to deal with it, welcoming when we are seriously being warned about a potentially dangerous situation and when it is appropriate to silence that voice in our heads and go forth with our intentions.

The first evening was cold!

Cold mornings on intense trips provide a challenge of their own. After leaving the comfort of a sleeping bag, the best way to stay warm is to move around. However, I knew I had 26.2 miles (42 km) to cover in a three-day period and needed to conserve my energy. Despite my love for outdoor activities in the mountains, I don’t exactly love the cold.

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Desperately waiting for the sunshine to gradually slide down the mountainside and reach the campground reminded me that no matter how hot of a summer I had just experienced, I was not necessarily looking forward to the winter chill.

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The hike began at the Stillwater Reservoir about 15 miles (27 km) WSW of the town of Yampa, CO. Day one would start with a 1500 ft (450 m) climb. It was here we would get our first view of the Devil’s Causeway, the Unique Natural Feature that draws most visitors to this specific part of the wilderness.

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Climbing can be slow with heavy backpacks on, so it took us the entire morning to reach the summit. We would spend the next hour descending back to an elevation of roughly 10,500 feet (3.2 km).

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Here, the trail goes by a series of alpine lakes, of varying sizes, each one stunning in its own way.

We didn’t stop for long at these points of interest. Most of the afternoon we spent cranking out miles at a fairly rapid pace for backpacking standards. Still, at most we were moving at a rate of 2.5 miles per hour (4 km/hour). A lot of trips include periods like this, with little stopping, where the primary objective for a period of time is to cover a lot of distance.

I’ve experienced this on road trips, bike trips, and even paddling trips. The great thing about these outdoor adventures is that we are still moving at a slow enough speed to take in nature. Additionally, we can see the creatures moving around, smell the landscape and feel the air flow around us.

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There is a true connection to nature. Unlike in some of the heavily visited areas, where tourism businesses have crafted a specific experience for visitors, the wilderness here is truly wild. It is untamed. Walking through this wilderness area, I was in the presence of one of the few places in the world that has not been boxed in by any of the standards, assumptions and paradigms we had artificially created to regulate the world to our liking.

At 2.5 mph (4 km/hr) that can truly be appreciated. I feel it can still be appreciated from the seat of a bicycle at 20 mph (32 km/hr) on roads that are far away from towns and cities. It contrasts so much from many of our day-to-day lives, where we have schedules, codes of conduct, social norms and deadlines. The word I would use to describe what I was experiencing, at that moment in time, is refreshing.

By the end of the day, we had covered over ten miles. Having passed by all of those breathtaking alpine lakes, we set up camp near one called East Lost Lake and enjoyed an evening of solitude.

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An interesting thing happens on the first day of group trips like this. Sometimes we are talking. Sometimes we are not. Sometimes, despite being so far from civilization, my mind wanders back to whatever I am concerned with in my daily life. As we slowly exhaust ourselves physically and then have to take on tasks like starting a fire, pumping water from the lake and cooking food, our minds complete a transition away from what has been concerning us the last few weeks to a focus on what is right in front of us.

With the genuine desire to take in nature, I believe my mind slowly realizes that the mental energy it takes to stress out about whatever had occurred over the past week or month is mental energy I don’t have to spare. At this point, I had truly brought my entire psyche away from day-to-day life and into a position of being fully immersed in the experience I was having.

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.

The Time I Hiked Two Miles Past My Destination

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It took a mere 15 minutes to actually find Sand Creek Falls at Osage Hills State Park. I walked by these falls, which have a vertical drop of only around two feet, and thought “this cannot be the actual falls.” We would spend another two hours looking for waterfalls we had already found.

We would walk by some fishing cabins.

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Birds circled the warm and humid late April Oklahoma sky.

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And, we continued to look, at different places further up the river, for the waterfalls that we had actually already found.

It was not until we had gotten back to the car and searched for images of Sand Creek Falls that we realized what we had seen were indeed the falls that this trail was named for.

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We just had the wrong expectation. Sure, Osage Hills State Park is in Oklahoma, but this part of Northern Oklahoma is hillier than the stereotypical images brought up by movies like Twister.

Just last year, I had visited another waterfall on the Great Plains, Smith Falls in Northern Nebraska.

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I thought the waterfall would be more like this one. As a result, I wouldn’t appreciate the falls until I looked back at the photos hours later. I was too focused on expectations. Rather than taking in Sand Creek Falls for what it actually was, I spent hours looking for something else.

This is a common struggle with respect to all kinds of events. It’s the party where not as many people show up as expected and the music being played is not what you wanted. It’s the time your friend cancels on you last minute, or when you didn’t get to watch the movie you had hoped for at a family gathering.

I struggle with this a lot. I often find myself down, or even hurt, when my life doesn’t meet the expectations I set for myself and the world around me.

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Experiences like a string of bad luck at a casino, a friendship or relationship not turning out as one hoped, or a bad turn of events at a job are somewhat out of our immediate control. However, sometimes when something does not match an expectation, it is not necessarily for the worse. It just requires an adjustment, and sometimes can open people up to new experiences altogether.

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Being part of something truly awe-inspiring is not as hard as most people make it. It’s just about finding the right balance; between planing and spontaneity, and between being determined to get what we are after and being able to adjust to changes in life’s circumstances. It is also about being open enough to new opportunities as they present themselves and noticing what is around us for what it is and not what it could or should be.

 

 

Nebraska Out of the Way Attractions

Smith Falls

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Smith Falls is pretty well hidden from most travelers. It is located in a very sparsely populated section of North Central Nebraska, far away from any heavily traveled interstate highway. It is also in a section of the country where few would expect to see a magnificent waterfall like this one.

Unless you are one of Valentine, Nebraska’s 2,820 residents, getting there is a long drive on empty roads, that even requires four miles on a gravel road off of State Highway 12.

Being so far out of the way of where people live and travel, the Niobrara Canyon, where Smith Falls is located, is quite secluded. The river itself looks nothing like the surrounding areas. The dense tree coverage feels reminiscent of places further East. It feels like the perfect destination for a private group experience; a float trip, family reunion, or some other group bonding experience.

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There does tend to be a few more people at the Falls themselves, as it is the main attraction at the State Park.

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Unlike some trails, visitors can freely walk right into Smith Falls without breaking any kind of rule. Many visitors bring swimsuits, and wear water shoes, as the trail to get from the parking to the falls is not vigorous at all, although it is about half a mile.

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Carhenge

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Carhenge, just north of Alliance, Nebraska, several hours west of Smith Falls is also quite far from any metropolitan area or heavily traveled highway. This image of an open two-lane highway with nobody else on it, wide open skies and small subtle sand hills in the background sums up the entire three hour drive between Smith Falls and Carhenge.

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While both attractions are out of the way, a few miles outside a small town (Alliance has a population closer to 8,000), in a way they could not be any more different. Smith Falls and the Niobrara Canyon is all about natural beauty, an attraction carved out of a glaciation event that occurred about 17,000 years ago. Carhenge is a homage to all things manmade, a recreation of Stonehenge, a mysterious pre-historic manmade structure, using a more modern human invention, cars.

Whereas Smith Falls is serious, Carhenge is has a goofy vibe. There is also more to Carhenge than just rusty old cars arranged like Stonehenge. This one vehicle apparently has a time capsule in it. In the year 2053, someone will open up memories of 2003, the last year before social media. That should be an interesting experience, especially for someone not old enough to remember such a world.

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There is also a car where people can write on.

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A few of these random structures that are made out of car parts, whose relation to the rest of the exhibit is not aparent.

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And, a car hood with a vaguely political sounding message on it.

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Chimney Rock

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Not too far from Carhenge is an attraction of both natural beauty and historical significance: Chimney Rock.

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Although this structure served as a landmark for Native Americans and fur trappers, its significance was heightened when South Pass (in Western Wyoming) was discovered to be the easiest passage across the Rocky Mountains. This lead to most major trails, including the famed Oregon Trail, being routed along the North Platte River, passing by Chimney Rock.

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Chimney Rock is a National Historical Site with a museum containing artifacts, primarily about the pioneers who traveled this route, including journals and letters written by those who made the journey.

It is hard to appreciate in the current era, where anyone with means can get on a plane and fly to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but when pioneers in the mid-19th Century came across Chimney Rock, they were often in awe of its beauty. Many accounts went to great lengths to describe the structure that is Chimney Rock.

It was also recognized by those making the journey at the time as the point where the flat portion of the journey ended and the uphill part began. The journey ahead would become more rigorous, but also more beautiful.

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Nebraska is not always known as a place with a lot of natural beauty. However, it is not without its places to be appreciated. The truth is that beauty can be found pretty much anywhere, because, it is often not a specific place or a specific person. It is often an experience. A major part of the travel experience is driving. Nebraska offers open roads that pass by subtle features like the sand hills or the rock features further west. The key is to go a little bit out of the way, and to notice, be looking for what is around you. Then, with the right music on in the right vehicle (I personally found both classic rock and EDM to match this situation, you may find something different), the experience becomes a thing of beauty itself.