Tag Archives: Scenic Drives

The Great Ocean Road Day 1: Great Otway National Park

IMG_7011

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.

IMG_7010.jpg

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.

IMG_7017.jpg

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.

IMG_7022.jpg

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.

IMG_7037IMG_7036

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.

IMG_7034.jpg

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.

IMG_7041.jpg

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.

Exploring New Mexico

IMG_5660 (1).jpgThe northbound journey out of Santa Fe, along highway 84 towards Pojoaque, and Espanola could not possibly feel any more Southwestern.  Rolling hills are covered with bushes and sagebrush.  There are some trees here, but unlike in the East, their impact on the wide open landscape is minimal.  They are but mere dots, small points in a panoramic image that shows off the entirety of the landscape of the region, stretching for miles and miles.  As a consequence, mountain ranges can be seen in the distance in multiple directions.

IMG_5662 (1).jpg

Artwork depicting the culture of the American Southwest can be seen quite frequently along this entire stretch of highway, on roadside decorations, bridges, and even buildings in the distance.  There is something about sculptures and murals like these that invariantly make me think of the Southwest, even when I am in a completely different region.  The use of colors in particular are reminiscent of this region, warm and dry but still American.  The colors are warm, reds, oranges, browns.  Even when they use “cool” colors, like green and blue, these murals somehow find a way to make these colors feel warmer than they typically do in other drawings and signage.

I wonder, as much of the artwork of the region originated with the Native tribes that thrived in the area roughly a millennium ago, if the styles that came to be predominant in this region are a mere reflection of the manner in which the landscape, and climate, impact the human psyche.  And, is this an aspect of human nature that transcends culture?  Did the Spanish, and White and Hispanic people who would later inhabit the region adopt similar artistic styles because they were responding to the same conditions around them and reflecting them in a similar manner?

The reason I was headed in this direction out of Santa Fe, other than just merely to explore, which I do believe is a reasonable pursuit in of itself, was the desire to see one of the most significant, but also confusing places in the United States; Los Alamos.  Los Alamos is a place where some of the top scientists in the world came together during World War 2 in order to build the nuclear weapons that eventually ended the war.

Of course, at the time, it wasn’t the Japanese, but the Germans who were the main subject of concern. It was rumored that the Nazis were building this capability, which could have significantly altered the course of the war.  The Manhattan Project was both highly secretive (Americans were largely unaware this was going on at the time), and quite controversial, as it still is today.

IMG_5665.jpg

The entire area has a feel that continues to reflect how Los Alamos came about.  Headed towards town, on highway 502 West from Pojoaque, road signs indicate that the stretch of highway is a “safety corridor”.  What does that even mean?  I have never seen this before.  Anywhere else, this road would have a higher speed limit, less fines, and would likely not have three lanes in each direction.  Something must be going on here.  But, is it still going on?  If so, what?  And, how much of a secret is it?

IMG_5668.jpg

The truth is, Los Alamos is a place like no other place on earth, and like the rest of New Mexico, cannot be placed in a specific category.  It is, indeed, a place where discoveries are made.  But, unlike many other towns with major labs, and I am particularly thinking of Boulder, Colorado, which is near my home, it does not appear laid back at all.  After parking, I had an intense experience crossing the street to get to the Bradbury Science Museum.  This crosswalk had a walk/ don’t walk voice command that spoke words with a level of urgency that appeared to highlight the National Security and wartime origins of this town.  It felt as if 70 years later, the mindset had never really changed from its wartime heritage.  Or, in the very least, the town had kept its infrastructure, which was built specifically for time of extremely heightened security.

IMG_5669

The Bradbury Museum is quite well done, and for those traveling on a budget, is free.

I’d say slightly over half of the museums exhibits focus on the Manhattan Project, the A-Bomb and the original history of the laboratory.  However, the laboratory is operational, and has been involved in some high caliber research over the last 70 years, in areas such as cancer detection, energy conservation, and wildfire prevention.  It is amazing to think, the same place, the same people, the same lab, and the same knowledge base was used both to create the most destructive item on the face of the earth, nuclear weapons, but also to advance humanity and help countless people better their lives!

IMG_5667.jpg

One of the reasons Los Alamos was selected as the location for this top secret lab, was that it had to attract top scientists, many of the young at the time, to a project that likely meant years in seclusion.  While these young scientists would not have the benefits of urban nightlife, for Los Alamos, and the laboratory, they found an area with plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities.  The volume of hiking trails throughout Los Alamos County (a relatively small county) reflects this history.

IMG_5677 (1).jpg

Just West of town, and the lab, is a large area known as the Santa Fe National Forest.  This National Forest, in many ways resembles the National Forests that can be found throughout Colorado.  In fact, I can picture many of the same activities, backpacking, camping, and with the Jemez River, water activities such as fishing and boating.

IMG_5680 (1)IMG_5681

The main difference I felt, between here and many of the forested areas of Colorado I regularly frequent for hikes and such, is that this area seemed significantly less crowded- emptier.

Along highway 4, the main road through the forest, there is one area hot spot, a unique natural feature known as the Soda Dam, a waterfall the flows between a rock along the Jemez River.

IMG_5682 (1).jpg

Not only does this area feature a waterfall unlike any other place on earth, but there are geothermal features that make this river a popular pseudo hot spring.  I say pseudo- hot spring, as the water is not really hot, as it is in some areas where water temperatures resemble that of a hot tub.  It is just simply warmer than you would expect it to be given its high altitude origins.  It was warm enough that people were able to comfortably swim in it.

IMG_5685.jpg

It is an area that is just simply peaceful and panoramic, the kind of place where one can simply turn off the wheels that churn in their heads as a result of everyday life, and just sit, swim, float, or fish, gazing in the distance at the majesty of the region.  Two weeks later, I still gaze at this very photograph and feel as if I am entering a much more peaceful state of mind.  I almost need to place it in front of my desk, as a stress reliever.

IMG_5686 (1).jpg

The entire west is full of areas like this, where, due to unique geological history, the rocks take on a reddish color.  This is the color that many associated with the American Southwest.  Although most of Central New Mexico is much browner, especially in April, a section of bright red suddenly appears at the South end of Santa Fe National Forest, along highway 4, at the border of Jemez Pueblo, yet another Native American village.

The day ended with a final drive down highway 550 towards Albuquerque, where the Sandia Mountains, largely to the City’s Northeast, drew gradually closer as the drive progressed.

IMG_5688 (1).jpg

Thinking about all of the beautiful places I saw over the course of the day, my main regret is spending too much of the day in the car, and not being able to stop, hike, float, walk around, and just get immerced in area.  As a travel enthusiast who unfortunately has responsibilities at home, it is all too easy to get into the trap of planning too many activities for too short of a period of time.  This often makes travel feel rushed, like there is too little time to experience some of the places we see.  Luckily, I live in Colorado, and therefore can get similar experiences, National Forest recreation areas and such, closer to home.  But, there are some subtle differences, and things that make this area unique.  I would very much like to come back here at a much more relaxed pace, and experience another side of New Mexico life.

 

 

A Drive Across Virginia

IMG_1271

 

Virginia is a very pretty state.  It is kind of an overlooked state when it comes to natural scenery.  At least it is from the perspective of someone who has spent most of their lives in the Midwest.  I know Shenendoah National Park can be quite nice, but I did not set aside time to visit on this road trip.  Instead, I chose to go straight from the Great Smokies to Farifax Co./ the DC Metro area.  This made for a long drive, nearly 8 hours, but it was a very pretty drive too.

IMG_1272 IMG_1273

 

I spent most of the day on Interstate 81, which I was on for 300 miles from the TN/VA state line to Strasburg, VA, where I turned onto I-66.  Through the Southwest part of Virginia, I was able to see mountains on both sides of the highway, but without driving up or down any major terrain features.  This differs greatly from many of the scenic drives I have taken across the state of Colorado, which typically involve driving up and down mountains.  The mountains here, while legit, also seem to be spread out a bit more, making for a scenic, yet still relaxing drive.

IMG_1274 IMG_1275

 

It was also nice to have relatively cheap gas.  I filled up in Wytheville (which I am told is pronounced with-ville), a town that is kind of in the shadows of a couple of fairly major mountain peaks.  Later that day, we would actually have a fairly in-depth discussion about some of these strange pronunciations of place names, and how they effective act as a manner in which people use to identify outsiders.  If I were to have talked to any local, I would have tried to pronounce the name of this town the way it is spelled, making it clear that I am not from here.

IMG_1279 IMG_1280

 

After my stop in Wytheville, the highway actually took me closer to the mountains, but still without a major climb.  This part of the drive is quite scenic.  The only thing I wish they had was more rest stops/ scenic overlooks like there are in other parts of the country.  But, with nearly all of this interstate being quite scenic, the people who designed this highway probably find little need to identify one specific spot as worthy of a pull-off.  Instead, I think the point of this experience is just to have a nice, consistent drive.

Also, at this point I got a pleasant surprise when the sun emerged and the clouds gradually dissipated.  By the end of the day/drive it would be completely sunny.  The sun made it pleasant, and warmer by my next stop.

IMG_1282 photo-1

 

Virginia does not seem to me like the kind of place for the truly rebellious, anti-establishment types.  At least it doesn’t seem so from this particular drive.  Throughout the drive I continually saw signs indicating that the speed limit was enforced by aircraft, something I have not seen in any other place I have driven in recently.  The rest stops contained a lot of police related messages, and I did see a lot of highway patrol on the road, either pulling someone over, or waiting in the median, clocking people.

IMG_1288

The second half of the drive up I-81 drives around Shenendoah National Park.  I am not sure whether or not this particular feature I am looking at is part of the park or a ridge outside the park.  This is part of what happens when travels take you to a place that is unfamiliar.  If I were somewhere I currently, or have ever lived, I would be able to pick out all of the land features based on memory.  In places I have never been to, I am left with pure speculation, or the prospect of buying a map to figure it out.  With all of the drive along both I-81 and I-66 I certainly believe I saw some features from the road associated with the national park, but I am also left kind of wishing I had set aside some time to visit the park, or at least drive through.

IMG_1291

 

After a long day’s drive, I approached my destination glad I was traveling in the direction I was traveling in, eastbound on I-66.  The traffic going the other way was quite heavy, most likely people from the D.C. area headed out of town for the weekend.  Many were probably on their way to Shenendoah National Park to see it during the peak fall foliage season.  There also could have been some people who live that far away from the city, as I had already begun to see housing developments and such appear.  As a person who has always generally lived in a metropolitan area, there is something about the appearance of traffic, extra lanes on the highways and signs for park-and-rides that makes me feel at home after a long drive like this.

I had heard the Interstate 81 across Virginia was a pretty drive and I am glad to have done it.  I really appreciate how one can look at the mountains, off to both the left and the right, without having to traverse through anything majorly treacherous.  This combination of features made the drive unique, and kind of made it a relaxing drive.  Well, if it weren’t for signs telling me airplanes were tracking my speed in a state known to have a sizable military presence, it would have been quite relaxing.  Also, with Friday starting off cloudy, but clearing out sometime shortly after noon, I got to experience the scenery in both cloudy and sunny skies.  Maybe the features look slightly better in the sun, but the early part of my drive was still quite nice underneath a cloud deck, making it a drive that would be pleasant for many motorists in many different conditions.

Mount Evans The Easy Way

The United States of America is not perfect.  There are definitely some aspects of our history that seem a bit shady, and there are definitely some things I would change if I had my way.  But I still love this country, and feel lucky to live here.  One of the things I love about this country is that we attempt to accommodate nearly everybody.  We have lifestyles that range from the crowds of Manhattan to empty parts of Wyoming, and many other things in between.  Despite the fact that I have come across a few Americans who would like to eradicate one or more of our prevalent lifestyles, we remain a county that accommodates.  If anything, we are becoming more accommodating, as more and more places add bike lanes, and some communities allow people to follow their dreams of traveling everywhere by golf cart.

To get to the top of the mountains in Colorado, we also accommodate many different methods.  Most Coloradans prefer to hike up our tallest peaks, and nearly every tall mountain here has multiple hiking trails to the top.  Two of Colorado’s tallest peaks, Mount Evans and Pike’s Peak, have paved roads to the top.  During the summertime, people can drive or ride a bicycle to the top of these peaks.  In fact, the ride from Idaho Springs to the top of Mount Evans was featured as one of Bicycling Magazine’s Top Bike Rides.  Pike’s Peak can even be reached by train.

The easiest way to the top of a mountain is to drive.  Having already hiked three of these peaks this summer, I decide to take a drive (or, more accurately, go along for a ride) up Mount Evans.  The road up to Mount Evans is actually North America’s highest paved road, and a very scenic one.  There are plenty of wonderful places on the way up this highway, including dense pine forests, alpine lakes, and places where you can see the mountains in the distance.  These are the kinds of images you will often find on a calender.

IMG_1074 IMG_1075

One added bonus of taking this trip in late September was the fall colors.  The fall colors here in Colorado come primarily from the Aspen trees, and primarily turn the color yellow.  This makes a fall image here in Colorado quite different than what you would see in the east.  Firstly, with more pine trees here, not all of the trees are changing colors.  And, with the trees mostly changing the same color, yellow, there is less variety.  In that sense, I would say anyone looking to take a vacation for the primary purpose of viewing fall foliage would be better off going to New England or the Smoky Mountains.  But, the colors did add an extra element to the views on this trip.

IMG_1076

Some places in higher terrain just recently received their first snow of the season.  The snowfall was not particularly heavy, but it still could be seen, especially from the shaded areas once we climbed above 9,000 feet.

IMG_1077

As a result of this recent snowfall, as well as a heavier snowfall at the highest peaks (during the floods a couple of weeks ago), the road was not open all the way to the top of Mount Evans.  The farthest up we could go is Summit Lake, which is around 12,800 feet in elevation.  This is not too atypical, as these higher elevations typically start receiving snow in September, and plowing a road at this elevation is not an easy task.

IMG_1078 IMG_1079

I love science!  I love the way some scientific phenomenon can create some unique observations, and I love the process of figuring it all out.  It was a very windy day at Summit Lake, and I could feel it as soon as I got out of the car.  In fact, the wind confirmed for me that it would have been quite unpleasant to try to hike at this elevation.  What I observed on this lake is a phenomenon I had seen years back when I was living in Madison, WI.  On a cold, windy morning, the wind blows water off of the lake onto nearby grass and rocks.  If it is cold enough, those water particles freeze on contact, much as they would in an ice storm.

When I observed this in Madison, WI, it was a similar situation.  In that case it was December, as it gets cold a lot earlier in the year at high elevations, but the progression of events is the same.  Water has a higher heat capacity and therefore both warms up and cools down slower than air.  It takes more than a few cold mornings to freeze over a lake, even a smaller lake like this one.  So, at the time of year when winter-like chill first arrives, this phenomenon can be observed near lakes.  Larger lakes like Lake Michigan and Lake Superior never freeze over in the winter, and sea spray events like this one can be observed pretty much all winter long.  Although I have seen the result of this combination of weather conditions a couple of times, I am now kind of curious to see it actually occurring.

The world is a tough place to understand.  Life often seems to unfold in ways that do not make too much sense.  Often times, after a particular endeavor does not turn out the way I had hoped, I spend a good deal of time scratching my head, wondering why.  When something impacts my life in a negative way, my response is always to try to figure out where it went wrong, as to avoid making the same mistakes.  But, most of the time it does not work that way, particularly when social interactions and group dynamics are involved.

In a way, I feel like I can take comfort in science.  In science, there are universal laws, and certain things that will always behave the same way, even in an unfamiliar place.  The cold windy night on Summit Lake created the same ice patters that it did on Lake Mendota.  No matter where you are light waves of 550nm will appear green to the human eye.  This, and a host of other things, can be counted on, will always make sense, and can provide some comfort in unfamiliar situations.  Yet, unlike some predictable things, like re-watching movies and T.V. reruns, it does not become mundane and uninteresting over time.  There is always something new to be discovered, a new phenomenon to be observed and investigated, and a new possibility to be opened up.

IMG_1073 IMG_1090

On the return trip, we stopped in Idaho Springs, walked around and ate lunch.  I have driven by this town many times, but never really spent much time here.  In a narrow valley, with steep terrain on either side, the town actually has some houses on higher terrain.  From the highway, it’s appearance consistently reminds me of model train sets.  In addition, the town, which champions itself as “Where the Gold Rush Began”, actually named it’s high school team the “Golddiggers”.  I still wonder if the the marching band plays that Kanye West song when the team comes out onto the field.

I was pretty impressed with the downtown.  It is a nice, kind of small, western town.  It is not over touristy, as it is not adjacent to a big attraction the way Estes Park is.  The shops seem well kept, and also seemed to have variety.  We ate at Tommyknockers, a microbrewery downtown with bar food, and also a lot of buffalo burgers.  From walking around town, I see several other places I would like to try, on subsequent trips.  But, I really do not know when I will be coming into town again, as it is not a typical stop-off for me on ski trips and such.