Custer State Park, South Dakota

Most people who travel to the Black Hills of South Dakota are intending to visit Mount Rushmore and perhaps even the Crazy Horse Monument, while on their way somewhere else (Yellowstone National Park for example).  However, visiting Custer State Park (CSP) with its open prairies, dense forests, and large buffalo herd, can be the perfect complement to the more acclaimed (and crowded) tourist draws in the Black Hills.

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of southeastern South Dakota, several hours drive from any big city (like Chicago, Denver, or Kansas City).  While Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are must sees on any outing in the Black Hills, they are each easily visited in just a couple of hours. If you’re staying in the area for more than one day and want something a little bit off of the main tourist trail, then Custer State Park can be the perfect chance to explore deeper and to get to know the area. For starters, the park is immense, with over 71,000 acres of rolling prairie and forested hills with lots of space to spread out, it is nearly six times larger than Mount Rushmore National Park.  CSP is probably best known for its large herd of roughly 1,500 free roaming buffalo but there are also many other animals that can be seen in the park like antelope, deer, goats, and even a herd of burros.  There are also miles of hiking trails, lodges, campgrounds, and lakes to explore.

The trailhead to South Dakota’s tallest peak, Harney Peak (or Black Elk Peak as it is now known), is located just within the park and the summit can be reached via a moderately difficult seven mile hike. The peak tops out at an elevation of 6,200 feet at the summit, making it the tallest mountain in South Dakota and the tallest in the United States east of the Rockies.  At the top, there is stone fire lookout tower, making it a unique summit to rest and take in the great views of the plains below.  If you know where to look, you can even see the backside of Mount Rushmore from up there.  Elsewhere in the park, there are also many miles of less strenuous hikes if this seven mile hike isn’t for you.

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Fire Lookout Tower, Harney Peak
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The backside of Mt. Rushmore in the distance, sightseeing helicopters above
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One of many hiking trails within the park
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Cathedral Spires

The thrill of seeing wild, free roaming buffalo is the closest thing to what it must have been like in the old west that we can experience, and there are so many of them that they often kick up huge dust clouds as they graze. If you’re lucky enough to be around the large herd, you can have the animals that seem as big as your car, completely surround you.  Buffalo are a truly magnificent animal and you can really appreciate that when they’re in close proximity and you can experience that here, without the crowds.  The buffalo photo above was taken on a dirt road with not another person within miles of us and we could literally touch it out of our car windows it was so close (we didn’t touch it by the way).

So if you’re planning a trip to the Black Hills or if you’re just passing through on your way somewhere else, think about staying an extra day and exploring Custer State Park, it’ll probably be the best part of your trip.

 

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Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park – The Four Seasons

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is the closest national park to my home in Colorado and I consider it my base park.  It takes me about an hour to get there and I’ve been there enough to know how different the seasons are in both RMNP as well as in its gateway city, Estes Park.  The seasons here are wildly different – from the extreme temperature swings to the number of visitors.  Here is my take on what each of the four seasons is like:

Summer

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Death and Renewal

Estes Park – In the summer, Estes Park is completely overrun with tourists.  Despite this, it shouldn’t stop you from visiting.  The weather is nearly perfect and is typically at least a few degrees cooler than the cities below on the plains, like Denver or Boulder. If you’re really looking for a cool down, you can cool off even more if you head high up into Rocky Mountian National Park.  The town itself is a typical tourist town but with a mountain/western twist.  There are the obligatory t-shirt, salt water taffy, chocolate, and ice cream shops that you would see in almost any national park gateway town. What makes Estes unique is the surrounding scenery, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Swiss Alps, with its huge snow-capped mountains and valleys.  What is lacking though, in a good way, are flashy resorts as in other Colorado mountain towns like Vail or Aspen.  Here, there are mostly small motels and cabins along with the place that Stephen King made famous, the Stanley Hotel.

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15 feet of snow and it’s summertime

RMNP – The throngs of tourists are here too, unfortunately.  However, all you need to do is to start a hike on almost any trail and you can lose 90% of them after only a mile or so from the trailhead.  Hiking in summertime at these elevations means being prepared by starting early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. If you don’t consider yourself a hiker, consider a drive up Trail Ridge Road, a journey which can yield a somewhat unique activity, a summertime snowball fight or building a snowman. The highest point in the pass is 12,183 feet (over two miles high) and that leaves enough snow year round for winter games, even in mid summer. The wildlife also move up to higher elevations in summertime, seeking greener pastures.  Up at these higher altitudes, you might see large herds of elk and bighorn sheep in the alpine tundra, way above the height where trees grow.

Autumn

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The bugling elk

Estes Park – Surprisingly, Estes park can still be quite busy during the fall.  Some might think it has to do with fall colors but the area around Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park really doesn’t have an abundance of aspen trees. For most people, the primary reason they come up here in the fall is to hear and see elk during the ‘rut’ which is the mating season.  And why would you want to hear bugling elk during the mating season?  The reason is that their mating calls sound like a sort of ancient call that can be heard from far off. It is a difficult sound to explain and do it justice, but is a truly a breathtaking and mesmerizing experience to see and hear, and something that simply must be heard in person. This is the main reason people flock to Estes Park in the fall, the elk literally bugle as they’re walking on the golf course, through parking lots right in town, as well as on the grounds of the Stanley Hotel.

RMNP – As with in Estes Park, the reason to head into the national park at this time of year is to see and hear the elk.  Although being bumper to bumper with like minded people might not seem like something you want to do, you can still go into the park and hike into the woods where you might find yourself all alone on the trail in the middle of a large herd of bugling Rocky Mountain Elk.  Last October, my wife and I went on a hike, away from the main areas of the park, and started to hear bugling in the distance and were soon surrounded by around 100 elk on both sides of the trail without another human anywhere near us.  The park brochure cautions you against approaching wildlife, so by all means keep your distance. But if you happen upon a large herd while hiking the trails, excercise extreme caution and keep a safe distance.  I usually like to have a big tree nearby just in case.  The bulls are extremely aggressive during this time of year and they are big, averaging around 700 lbs, and strong enough to inflict great bodily harm if they decide you’re too close.

 

Winter

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Estes Park – If you’re  looking to experience a tourist town without the tourists, this is the time of year to come to Estes Park!  You will not have to fight for a table at your favorite restaurant, there will be no bumper to bumper traffic, there’s plenty of parking, and you can have the place virtually all to yourself.  Unlike other Colorado mountain towns that usually see a massive influx of people in the winter, Estes doesn’t have a ski resort (although it once did) to anchor its winter economy.  Because of this, Estes sees a very dramatic drop in visitation in the winter.  As an added bonus, a stay at the Stanley Hotel in winter can give just a sliver of what inspired Stephen King to write ‘The Shining’.

RMNP – The park is at its best, in terms of scenic beauty in the dead of winter.  The mountains are usually covered with snow, sometimes approaching 10 feet.  Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and wildlife viewing (although seeing animals inside the park during winter is less likely). Some areas, such as around Bear Lake, are still crowded but it can be much easier to find areas of the park where you’ll need your snowshoes to walk through the snow. It is simply one of the most beautiful winter scenes in all of Colorado.

Spring

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Always snow up in the highlands

Estes Park – This town still doesn’t really get going again until late spring. In most places, spring begins a steady warmup towards summertime but at this altitude and being in Colorado, Estes Park typically experiences its snowiest months of the year in the spring.  Traditionally, February, March, and April are Colorado’s months for heavy snow and blizzards.  Eventually however, the snows slowly give way to longer and warmer days and the area begins to thaw and creak to life.

RMNP – Spring in the park is the beginning of the big melt.  The east and west sides of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Road, but due to heavy winter snow, the road is impassable until the weather warms and crews can begin plowing the road. When the road finally opens, it becomes symbolic of winter’s deep freeze losing it’s grip on the park. The animals get to moving again and the large numbers of people begin to make their way back to the park that had been tranquil for several months.

In any season, the area is unique and beautiful. During the cold winter months, it is quiet and peaceful.  In the warmer months, it is energetic and bustling but no matter what season, it is worth a visit and will not disappoint.

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The less visited area of the park known as ‘Lumpy Ridge’

Nuclear Hiking : A walk through Rocky Flats

LThe land that was once considered one the most polluted places on earth has now been cleaned up (we hope) and is now open to limited recreation, known now as Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.  And guess what?  You can hike there…for free!

Admittedly, this hike does have a bit of an odd feel to it knowing that nuclear triggers were made here.  However,  it did not have the ‘eerie’ feel that the area around Los Alamos has (the place recognized as the birthplace of the atomic bomb) which has a strong government town atmosphere and feels as though it holds many secrets.  Rocky Flats is more out in the open, kind of in your face, whereas Los Alamos is hidden behind trees and rocks. At the Flats, the Department of Energy still has a presence at the refuge monitoring the site. I noticed there are still large mountains of dirt being moved around by heavy machinery creating dust that gets carried in whatever direction the wind blows.  Let’s hope that this dust is nothing more than common everyday dust.

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Earth moving operations

If nothing else, the refuge provides the area with some new trails to try out and is considerably different than any other hike that you can do near Boulder. There is a reason why the area is called Rocky Flats as it is the flattest hike I have done in Colorado.

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The ‘Flat’ in Rocky Flats

The view of the Flatirons in Boulder is very good from here but I found myself looking at them wishing I had chosen to be in the scenery instead of viewing it from a distance.

A few notes about the hike:

  1. The park service allows hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians on its 11 miles of trails.
  2. The path is mostly gravel and dirt suitable for mountain bikes but probably not road bikes.
  3. The main entrance is just off of Colorado state highway 128 and has free parking for about 10-12 vehicles. There are really no services at the trailhead but there is a portable toilet.  There was also no fee to enter the refuge, that I could see.
  4. The trail is very exposed, with only a few trees, and virtually no shade.
  5. I saw little to no wildlife during my hike, a common sparrow being the only fauna I noticed. However, I was hiking in late morning, not the best time to view animals. The park brochure mentions deer, elk, prairie dogs, coyotes, jackrabbits and porcupines as animals that you might see.
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At the trailhead, for your reading pleasure

In summary, this is a place of contrasts where you have abandoned ranches next to modern wind generators, protecting wildlife in a place that once made nuclear weapons, and maybe the least important was the hike itself which was a flat prairie hike in full view of the beautiful foothills around Boulder. The hike is one that I would most likely not do again but in fairness, I haven’t seen the whole 11 miles of trails within the refuge.  If you like flat, treeless hikes with great views of the mountains, this is the place for you.  It just wasn’t for me.

I give this hike a ‘glowing’ review! 😬

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Just outside the refuge boundary, an artist with a very strong opinion

Bigfoot Threw A Rock At Me

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The eerie but beautiful Oregon Coast Trail

For the record, I don’t believe in folklore legends like the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, or the Headless Horseman, but when I decided to hike a section of the Oregon Coast Trail this summer, I did not expect anything other than some sea mist and tall trees. What I actually came across that day was something that may have challenged those beliefs.

I have watched all of the same documentaries that you have about the legend of the Pacific Northwest, Sasquatch (a.k.a. Bigfoot). As a child, these documentaries terrified me and gave me no desire to ever go into the woods of Washington and Oregon. Seeing the grainy video of Bigfoot walking through a clearing in the trees was enough to give me nightmares.

The section of the Oregon Coast Trail I decided to hike (alone I might add) was in Oswald West State Park, near the town of Manzanita, about a two hour drive from Portland. I was planning an out and back and decided I would turn around when I got tired. So I did an about face and headed back towards the trailhead after two uneventful miles, due to a cold wind and tired legs. As I was descending the overgrown and narrow trail, I heard noises ahead of me that I have never heard before in the forest. Granted, I was in a different part of the country and there are always unique and unfamiliar sounds in the wilds of a different region, but what I heard was what sounded like a baseball bat striking wood, but this didn’t overly concern me. My initial reaction was that there was a black bear ahead of me turning over logs looking for food and/or crashing through the brush, but the sounds didn’t quite match what I could rationalize as being a bear. As I approached the section of the trail where the sounds were at their most intense, I stopped to see if I could see anything moving in the thick underbrush, at this point still expecting a black bear. I saw only thick green vegetation.  After only a few seconds, I heard what sounded like three or four objects being dropped from the trees in different spots. This too did not make sense to me since I could imagine maybe a single pine cone falling from the trees but not three or four in rapid succession. I was very confused about what might be making these sounds. Maybe squirrels were dropping little pine cone bombs onto a bear below them to scare it off? This seemed plausible but not likely.

What happened next was one of a few times in my life that I have literally felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. As I continued looking into the dense forest, an object that looked like a rock came flying out of the thicket and landed about 20 yards away from me. This had an effect on me which I have never had on a hike in my lifetime, it was such a disturbing feeling I couldn’t get to the trailhead and my car quick enough. I hauled ass out of there and made it to my car without further incident and didn’t hear or see anything else, but was still rattled by what transpired.

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So what was it? Maybe it was a bear (but bears don’t throw rocks.) Squirrels can drop things on unsuspecting life on the ground below them but the object that came towards me didn’t fall from a tree. In Colorado, where I live, a mountain biker was killed last year while he biked on a trail near Colorado Springs and the person responsible has not been caught. At the time of this writing, a college student is missing on the same mountain and I hope his disappearance is not related and that he returns safely. It makes me think though that there may be someone that doesn’t want people in the area. So maybe there was someone up there who is trying to scare off hikers because they are getting too close their property, or they don’t like the hikers passing through. Maybe it was someone just having a little fun at my expense? I had just passed two hikers, the only two I saw on the entire hike.

Or maybe it was Bigfoot?

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The Quest for Lava: Kilauea Volcano

I sat in a helicopter with no doors, buckled tightly and quite nervous, looking at flowing and glowing lava for the first time in my life. We were still over 3,000 above the lava flows that were both beautiful and very destructive.  There were fountains and rivers of molten rock making a path to ocean and taking out homes, and anything else in its path, along the way.

This would be my second time in Hawaii, with the first visit having missed the goal entirely of seeing red hot liquid magma, while the second trip took a helicopter ride on my last day to finally see it. There were many attempts prior to the helicopter ride, all ending up in failure, but failure in this case was definitely a wild ride.

Ever since I was a kid, I have always wanted to visit the Big Island of Hawaii. I can remember photos of exotic looking black sand beaches, tropical fish, and active volcanoes. But for me, seeing lava flowing from an active volcano was definitely the number one draw. I wanted to see lava, actual lava, spewing from the Kilauea Volcano, just like I had seen in pictures and videos. Kilauea volcano has been erupting essentially nonstop since 1983 (since I was in junior high school) and getting to see a live lava flow with your own eyes is pretty much a slam dunk, at least that’s what I thought. So with family, I was fortunate to get to visit the island of my dreams for the first time and try to check off a couple of other bucket list items while we were there.

 

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At least there aren’t any ‘real’ hazards to worry about!

We arrived in Hawaii and made plans to see the sights, including Kilauea, which is mostly located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.   Inside the park, there is evidence of volcanic activity everywhere with steam rising from the ground in many places along the rim and a large amount coming out the Halemaumau Crater, the main and largest crater in the park. However, there were no rivers of lava anywhere that we could see from inside of the park so we waited until it got dark to look at the crater at night and could see the orange reflection of lava in the clouds of steam. This was still pretty cool but not the rivers and fountains of lava I dreamed about as a kid, and it certainly wasn’t seeing lava directly with my own eyes. Reflections don’t count!

We decided to come back to the park later in the trip and hike into the crater of Kilauea Iki (Little Kilauea).  The hike is a four mile loop hike that starts in a rainforest at the rim of the crater, descending onto the barren crater floor.  The hike starts at the Volcano House in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with a restaurant and gift shop on the rim.  As you step out of the Volcano House and into the rainforest, you’ll be in perhaps the closest example of a ‘perfect’ rainforest you can imagine, almost like what you think of when you imagine what the Amazon rainforest would look like. The greens are greener, the foliage is denser, and all of this is as you descend into a volcanic crater where the terrain couldn’t be more different.

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The crater floor is paved with thick black hardened lava that resembles a highway that has suffered massive earthquake trauma, minus the painted lanes and auto traffic. As you walk along the valley floor, steam shoots out of small cracks in the rocks and is a subtle reminder that you are very close to the core of an active volcano.  Kilauea Iki however, is not the place for active flows, it’s just a great place to hike in a crater that once had a massive fountain of lava pouring from it way back in 1959.  As an added bonus, there is an excellent lava tube, the Thurston Lava tube, just a short distance from the main trail.  It’s well worth the extra half a mile or so that gets added onto the total hike and it is one of the most visited sites inside of Volcanoes National Park and all of the Big Island. This hike had evidence or lava everywhere, it just didn’t have the hot flowing kind. So we left Hawaii this time without seeing lava but otherwise the Big Island was, and is, an amazing place to spend a couple of weeks. We would return two years later to a very different volcano.

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The crater floor

This time the volcano was going nuts. You’ve all heard how devastating the Kilauea Volcano has been from news outlets this year with so many people losing their homes to the lava flow. I have so desperately wanted to see this rare phenomenon but not in this way, while people are losing their homes.  So I was conflicted but ultimately felt like I was not disrespecting anyone by simply wanting to witness it myself.

We set out from Kona one day for the long drive out to the Puna district in search of lava with hopes of seeing it in an area where homes weren’t being immediately threatened. We made our way to Pahoa where the first signs of the volcano could be seen. The first hint that anything at all was happening was the discolored smoke that was rising from the area just south of town and it was in the town where there was a command center set up for coordinating rescue efforts. This was truly the first time I felt like trying to see the lava was something more than just a cool thing to see, it was truly an active situation affecting the lives of people in a real community.

The roads leading in and out of the active lava flow area were either closed or only open to local traffic and were guarded by local police along with the Hawaii National Guard.  We drove to a couple of these roads and were turned around by the blockaded intersections. I was beginning to get discouraged but found one back road on a map that looked promising and might yet yield an opportunity to see the lava flow from close up. It was a very small road that followed the shore line and it showed that it would eventually lead an area that would get us very close to the flow. As we rounded the last turn in the road before getting to this spot, there was another blockade with the National Guard controlling access to the area.  This was a devastating blow to my hopes but the soldier pointed us down the highway back towards Pahoa, and according to my maps, would lead us right past the open fissures.  As we drove along this road, there was a slight ridge between us and the lava flows and it was just enough to prevent a sighting.  That was it! No lava for me! Only I could manage to not get to see lava when a volcano is in full eruption mode. Perhaps it was all for a reason that I didn’t get to see lava that day.

 

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From 3,000 feet above the lava flow and a very creepy dark shape just to the right of the lava!

So after a lifelong desire to finally witness this incredible natural event, it was, admittedly not exactly under the circumstances I had hoped for.  I feel fortunate to have seen the incredible power and beauty of Kilauea and I hope the families that have been displaced can rebuild their homes and their lives.  I did achieve a bucket list goal and it was incredible. Now I have added a more specific bucket list goal: to see lava while standing on the ground, close enough to feel the heat. Maybe to a place where the flows are not threatening homes or lives? Maybe a trip to Vanuatu?

Hike: Lost Dutchman State Park

When I thought about my first hike in Arizona this past spring, I knew I was prepared for the environment. I had lots of water, sunscreen, and a wide brimmed hat, just like everyone reads about desert hikes.  I also knew that it would be comparatively hot as I was coming from Colorado where spring is just a snowier extension of winter, to the Phoenix area where the temperature was in the low 80’s.  Hiking in temperatures in the 80’s is not too bad, if you’re used to it but I hadn’t hiked in temperatures that high in months.

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One of the feeder trails, Jacob’s Crosscut

So when I decided to hike in Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction, Arizona, I felt that I was ready for the challenge of a desert hike.  What I wasn’t prepared for was how steep the trek would be and, maybe most surprising of all, how high the altitude would be at the top, 4,861′ which is only slightly less than the elevation of my home near Boulder Colorado.  I was hiking the Siphon Draw Trail, which didn’t ‘look’ that tough on the map or even when I drove into the park, but I definitely misjudged this one. The first 1/2 or so of the trail is relatively flat with saguaro cacti all around and great views of the Superstition Mountains looming above. After a short while, the trail officially leaves Lost Dutchman State Park proper and enters the Tonto National Forest and the climb really begins from here.  About every 30 minutes or so during the hike I could hear a steam whistle from a train that runs through the Goldfield Ghost Town.  Normally man-made noises would detract from a hike, but here it added a bit of an old west feel to the area.

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No switchbacks here!

In most places that I’ve hiked steep grades are usually lessened by switchbacks, but there weren’t too many switchbacks on this trail! The Siphon Draw Trail is mainly a vertical trail! I only managed to make it to the area known as ‘The Basin’ and only then realized how tough of a hike this really was. The final mile or so has, according to the park brochure, a 2,000′ elevation gain over the last mile! That would make it the steepest hike I’ve ever done, but today was not the day for me to pull that steep of an ascent off.  I may try it again some day and maybe make up that one mile, 2,000′ ascent.

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The flat part
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The Superstitions
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Phoenix in the distance 

 

Boulder Colorado’s Mesa Trail

Some say that the Mount Sanitas Trail is Boulder’s quintessential hike.  The hike is 3.1 miles round trip and has an elevation gain of around 1,350 feet but to me, there are better hikes in Boulder and although the Mount Sanitas Trail is a great (short) workout, it is not the most scenic hike in the area, in my opinion.  To me, the hike that should be on everyone’s Boulder must do list is the Mesa Trail.

The Mesa Trail has almost the exact same elevation gain as the Mount Sanitas trail, but it spreads that elevation gain over a one way distance of about 6.8 miles.  It may actually be one of the flatest hikes you can do in Colorado since it parallels the mountains rather than climbing up them.

As far as scenery goes, there are few hikes anywhere in the country that can rival this one.  The Flatirons are the rock formation that you see in every tourist magazine that features an article on Boulder.  These five primary blocks of sandstone make for a spectacular backdrop for a day hike.  In additon to the Flatirons, this is one of just a few areas along the Front Range where the pine forest actually comes all the way down over the foothills and onto the prairie below.

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The trailhead at Chautauqua

Another great aspect of this trail is its accessabiity.  The trail has three primary trailheads: The South Mesa Trailhead, the Trailhead at the National Center for Atmospheric Reasearch (NCAR), and the Chautauqua Trailhead.  Of the three, only the South Mesa Trailhead has a fee to park ($5).  All three can be very crowded in the summer tourist season and on any weekend day when the weather is good.  Go to NCAR if you want free parking and moderate crowds.  The view here of the Flatirons is really good too but go to Chautauqua for the best view (the downside is the bigger crowds.) For a less crowded section of the trail, start at the South Mesa Trailhead.  It is the least scenic of the three trailheads but it still has some decent views of the Flatirons, Boulder and even Denver off to the southeast.

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Early summer flowers

The best part of hiking the Mesa Trail is that you have many options, and the hikes are all pretty accessible for most people.  If you start at Chautauqua and NCAR, you can walk right up to one of the Flatirons and touch them within about 20 minutes after leaving the parking lot.  Also of note is the many side trail options off of the main trail.  If you’re looking for a longer hike, the side trails heading into the hills are nearly endless and offer you the opportunity to get a workout as good or better than the one you can get on Mt. Sanitas.

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One of many trails that can be accessed from the Mesa Trail, the Mallory Cave Trail

In my opinion, the Mesa Trail pretty much has it all: great scenery, the option for longer hikes while all are within the close proximity of the city of Boulder. For a great après hike food/beer option, check out the Southern Sun for a laid back vibe and great beer just down the hill from the NCAR trailhead.

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For most of the winter, the trail is still accessible and can still be hiked (microspikes recommended though)

Hike: Tsankawi Trail – Bandelier National Monument

Hiking the Tsankawi Trail in Bandelier National Monument is truly a unique trek.  It is located in the high desert of New Mexico near the city of Los Alamos in the Tsankawi section of the park.  This is a less traveled area than the more famous section of the park proper and it made for an interesting, unexpected side trip.

Part of the appeal of this area of the park, to be honest, is that there are far fewer people here.  This means that you can really take your time exploring this relatively short 1.5 mile hiking trail.  Not long after you leave the trailhead, you get to climb a wooden ladder (fun) to get up onto a ridge that leads you to the Ancestral Pueblo village of Tsankawi. There isn’t much left of the village itself but the area is littered with pottery shards, one of the very few places left where you can actually touch history. The pieces are small but you can clearly see the colored lines that were painted onto the pots.

After leaving the pottery shards of the village behind, it was onto some of the most unique aspects of any hike anywhere in the world. The Ancestral Pueblo villagers walked the same paths so often that they ended up wearing out the rocks to the point where it looks like a bobsled course winding its way through an Olympic venue. I can’t describe how totally awestruck I was by this and by the fact that the National Park Service still allows people to hike on it (thank you NPS).

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I’m just going to keep the words at a minimum here and let all of the photographs speak.  If you’re ever in Northern New Mexico and want a truly unique hike, without many people, some Native American history, and stunning high desert scenery, check this place out.  It is such an interesting, and very easy walk.

If you’re looking for a great place to eat après hike, Tomasitas in Santa Fe is the perfect locale to refuel. The food is consistently outstanding and the location at the Railyard District is just minutes away from the famous plaza. Try the roast beef burrito and be sure to eat the sopapillas with honey butter.  After that, consider finishing off the evening with a cold one at the Second Street Brewery, just right around the corner.

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Editor in Chief, Kimberly, posing with a strawberry quark at the Second Street Brewery

 

Of 14ers and Keggers

Many years ago, I made a pact with myself to climb one 14er (a 14,000 foot peak) a year for as long as I am physically able to.  I managed to do this for a few years before life got busy and days in the mountains took a back seat. But now I have more spare time and have been hiking for most of the summer so the timing seemed right to start my goal over again. However, I wanted to do an “easy” one and with the help of a friend (hi Mike!) we chose Quandary Peak as the best possible option. Quandary is a mountain near Breckenridge Colorado, less than a couple of hours from where I live, near Boulder. The only problem with picking an “easy” 14er within driving distance of a major metropolitan city (Denver) is that you can expect a small army of hikers who are thinking exactly the same thing.  So this would not be a hike in solitude but rather a hike more closely resembling a conga line to the summit. Foreshadowing?

No matter how fit you are, high elevation has a way of taking you down a notch or two. Even though I had been hiking a lot over the summer, I noticed the lack of oxygen almost immediately after leaving the car at the trailhead, at 10,900 feet above sea level. The mountain introduced itself to us straight away by letting us know that this would be no “easy” climb.  I was carrying a simple day pack with a few essentials like Vanilla Coke, trail mix, camera, aspirin, etc. and felt good that I had not overpacked. I was as light as I could hope to be, gear wise anyway. We hiked along pretty well for quite awhile before we ‘really’ started to notice the effects of the higher altitudes.  It slowed us down tremendously but we were outside on a crisp late summer day and we were just taking our time getting up the hill, just happy to be up high again.

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Rocky Mountain Goat

When I hike or spend time in the outdoors, I prefer solitude over crowds. Today, I had to accept the fact that there would be large numbers of hikers and there most certainly were. Recently, I have been doing a cruiser bike ride on Thursday nights in Boulder with a couple of hundred, mostly college aged cyclists. On these rides, I have noticed that most of the younger crowd is just out to have fun, and that they generally behave in a respectful manner.  I have found that I enjoy being around their youthful energy.  Unintentionally, this prepared me for being around a bigger crowd of like-minded people just like the ones I would see on the trail today.

We continued to make our way up the mountain step by step and as we did, a rumor of something unheard of began to filter down to us from hikers that had already reached the summit, that some guys had carried a keg of beer to the top and that if we didn’t hurry, we would miss out on having a a cup at the top. At first, I scoffed at the idea that anyone or any group of people would, could, or should carry a keg up a mountain when I could barely carry my light pack with snacks.  But the more we passed other hikers with the same news, the more exciting getting to the summit was becoming. The anticipation of confirming the validity of the rumors was actually helping to take my mind off of the trials of the hike.

As we neared the top, we could hear a group of people counting, but we had no idea why.  We could also see a fairly big group of people on the summit gathered around in a circle.  So what we heard was that some guy set a goal to climb all 53 of Colorado’s 14ers in one summer, and this was his last one to complete what is a very monumental feat.  His buddies decided to bring a keg to the top of the last 14er to celebrate his accomplishment. Truth really is stranger than fiction –  when we reached the summit, there was said keg on top of said 14er in all of its silver glory, glistening like a trophy. Everyone who made it to the top, strangers alike, were offered a beer. Although it was very foamy and not my beloved Fat Tire (it was PBR I believe), it was the best beer I’ve ever had on a 14er (okay, it’s the only beer I’ve had on a 14er).

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The circling crowd on the summit

 

Now to the counting we heard from below, as it turns out the millinials were counting off the seconds that a few brave (read crazy) souls were doing ‘keg stands’. So this was to be a  special ’14er’ keg stand where the goal was to last 14 seconds.  Man after man tried and failed until a woman in her late twenties managed a 16 second keg stand.  When they flipped her back up, she had tears rolling down her cheeks. Tears of joy? Beer in her eyes? Lack of oxygen? Tears of sorrow for not making it further than 16 seconds? Realizing there was no hospital nearby?! I have no idea, but whatever the reason…very impressive, and fun to be a part of.

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Commencing keg stand

And how did they get the keg up to the top? They made an apparatus out of PVC pipe and plywood with the keg strapped to it so that two people (or even four) could carry it up to the top (they must’ve been Engineering majors). They took turns carrying it up, but comparing their load to the load I carried, it looked much more impressive for them, not so much for me.  This may explain though why everyone got a free beer at the top…so they could carry an empty keg back down instead of one with the excess weight of beer they couldn’t finish. Again, impressive!

My first 14er in many years and there was a kegger on the summit! Crazy. Awesome. Fun.

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Parting shot

Las Vegas, brain eating amoebas, and suicidal jackrabbits

The plane ride to Las Vegas was full of peppy 20 somethings on their way to a weekend of “fun” in Sin City taking selfies, pre drinking, dancing in their seats and playing card games as a preliminary bout to the main event (apologies for the boxing metaphor).  It’s really why most people go there and I get it.  Where else can you go to do things that are illegal in most states?  But that isn’t why we’re here…my wife and I are here to do mostly un-Vegas activities.

The first un-Vegas thing we did was staying outside of the city.  Our stay was in Kyle Canyon which was about 45 minutes from the airport where the brightest lights were from the moon, the stars, the headlights from the car, and maybe the glow from the Strip about 15 miles distant as the crow flies. The drive from the airport did seem a bit long but all of the suicidal jackrabbits on the highway forced you to pay attention. Unfortunately for one jackrabbit, the car’s bumper proved to be fatal. There were also wild donkeys on the road too but they were a little smarter than the rabbits and moved off of the road whenever the car got close. But staying so far away from the bright lights has certain advantages, the primary being just being able to relax where the pace of the place is slower compared to the craziness of Las Vegas.  When it’s hot enough to melt your shoes walking the Strip, the temperatures are quite a bit cooler in the canyon, about 20 degrees cooler (in the summertime, 20 degrees cooler can make the desert summer just a little more tolerable).

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Elvis has left the bathroom

The next morning, we headed to the Strip for a few hours of sightseeing.  The Strip is an all out attack on your senses.  First off, there are people everywhere, hoards of them.  Most people do walk here and it truly is the easiest and best way to get around (there are taxis too but walk if you can).  On your eyes, there is a constant barrage of signs, billboards, lights, and street performers vying for your attention as you stroll up and down the Strip.  There is no rest for the bloodshot eye in this town!  Your ears will get all of the sound it can handle as each hotel has music coming from outdoor speakers as you pass in front of their grounds.  This is all good until you transition from one casino to another and the sounds just overlap into one confusing din of Top 40 hits.

The best part of the strip has to be the hotels themselves.  The architecture is stunning.  It can be argued that the some of the hotels lack originality in wherever they draw their inspiration from but that makes them no less spectacular.  The hotels often are made to look like scenes from other famous places while still managing to be large, functioning places to gamble, entertain, and sleep.  You can go around the world without leaving the Nevada desert it seems.  New York, New York has done a magnificent job of replicating the Manhattan skyline.  Paris has a scaled version of the Eiffel Tower. The Venitian has canals with singing gondoliers that take you through a mini replica of Venice.  The list goes on: the Luxor is like a modern pyramid of Giza, Excalibur is like a giant English castle, Caesars Palace is Roman themed, and the Bellagio has a water theme.  There are just too many beautiful hotels to mention but try to see as many as you can.  You’ll get lots of steps in on your FitBit which will help work off some of those buffet meals you’ll consume during your stay.

That night we attended Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio and gambled while waiting  for the show to start, we played slots for about 20 minutes and won about $20 and then gave it right back to the casino, high rollers we are…not.  The show was a water themed production which fit well with the overall concept of the hotel.  The show itself has been in Vegas for many years and still draws very well.  If you’ve not been to a Cirque du Soleil show before, they are very well done and entertain you for the entire time, unless you don’t like clown humor, then it’s entertaining about 90% of the time.  The music is performed live, was equally as impressive and was perfect for the act it was supporting.  After the show, we caught one the “Fountains of Bellagio” shows as we walked back to our car.  These draw big crowds and was considerably cheaper than the Cirque show…free.  Next up was the drive back to our hotel and more jackrabbit dodgeball.

The next morning was an early one, 4:15 A.M. after only a couple of hours of sleep.  I know the couple of hours of sleep thing is par for the course in Vegas but for most people, their reasons are vastly different than ours.  We were getting up to go kayaking on the Colorado River.  We had booked a full day, unescorted trip and had to meet up with the outfitter, Desert Adventures in Boulder City at 6:00 A.M. sharp.  After going over the cursory safety details and pointers, we hopped into a van which would take us to the put in point just below the Hoover Dam where we would begin our damn tour (I couldn’t help the Vegas Vacation reference at least once). We would be on or near the river for about the next eight hours.

If there is no wind, the paddling is pretty easy as you are going downstream with the current for approximately 13 miles to where you get picked up by the tour company.  During the journey downstream, you get to take in the canyon scenery while gently floating along at a fairly leisurely pace.  Aside from just being in the kayak, there are also many opportunities to get out of your boat to do some hiking.  After about two miles, there is a popular slot canyon which is fed by a hot spring.  The water is warm as you walk along the canyon floor and it feels goooooooood! Trouble for me was navigating the rocks where the mini waterfalls were. It proved to be much harder than it looked.  I managed to fall off of the first fall (pun intended) and found each successive waterfall to be increasingly difficult. The falls were not too tough to get up but getting down, well that was a different story altogether.  I guess there is a shoe for everything and we had the wrong ones for walking through slot canyons.  When kayaking, Keen sandals are perfect since they can get wet but dry quickly. In a slot canyon they get rocks in them which is mostly just a slight nuisance but more importantly, they don’t grip the slippery rocks at each little waterfall.  There aren’t very many slot canyons where I live and I was not prepared for this part of the trip.  Next time I will be!

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Hoover Dam and the start of the kayak trip down the Colorado

Later on, there was a much easier to navigate slot canyon called Arizona Hot Springs and the Keens were perfect this time.  The short slot canyon was also spring fed (hence the name) and access to the pools was via an approximately 20′ ladder.  Sandbags are used to create the pools but everything else is purely natural.  Don’t get any water up your nose though, there’s s a brain eating amoeba in the water that could cause you some serious problems.  I hear that if a brain eating amoeba got into some people’s heads, they would starve to death 😂.  There were about four or five pools and each one got progressively hotter as you worked your way upstream.  I found the next to last one to be just right for me to sit in.

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Ominous signage

Back on the river, we still had about eight miles to go and about four hours to get there.  As easy as the paddling was so far, eight more miles would be a piece of cake.  Wrong! The wind had come up from downstream and made the paddling extremely difficult.  I had to stop several times from fatigue and I consider myself fairly healthy/fit.  Needless to say, we didn’t do much sightseeing the rest of the way as we battled the wind to make it to the rendezvous point by the 4:00 deadline.  There were times where the wind was blowing so hard that we weren’t even moving. Considering that we were paddling downstream, I found this extremely disheartening. We made it to the takeout beach with a few minutes to spare, only to learn that there were others who  were behind us.  For most of the paddle, I thought we were the last ones in the group still on the river but was so relieved to know that we weren’t.

Our last day was spent recovering from the past couple of days of “un-Vegas” activities.  I did a short hike in Kyle Canyon before we checked out of the hotel and then we began slowly working our way back to the airport.

What I’ve learned about traveling is that no matter where you go, there is something for everyone. Most people would probably look at our trip and say what a waste it was to go to Vegas and not do the Sin City itinerary.  Others avoid Vegas altogether. For us, we did the things a traveler would do rather than what a tourist would do.  Either way, there’s something in Las Vegas for everyone.

By the way, the plane ride home was full of quiet, exhausted people (us included) who I’m sure all have fun stories to tell but can’t because of the “code”.

Viva Las Vegas!