Step Away From The Car… In Yellowstone

If you don’t get more than 100 feet from your car when you go to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) in Wyoming that would be a shame, but I will not judge you… however I would encourage you to hike your way to the front of the line.  In doing so, you’ll leave the vast majority of the parks visitors far behind.  YNP has some of the most incredible roadside attractions nature can offer: steaming geysers, large herds of bison, elk and deer, as well as apex predators like wolves and bears.  But all of this nature in one place has one big disadvantage: Disneyland-like crowds with no skip the line pass to make viewing it all easier.

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Bison or Buffalo?

My wife and I recently spent a few days in Yellowstone and roughly split our time equally between seeing large swaths of the park from, or very near to, our car with the other half of our trip walking into the woods to experience a much different Yellowstone than most people do.  From the car, there are the massive Yellowstone Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as well as huge herds of bison that seem very comfortable weaving through the cars and people who dare to get too close.  Bears are often seen here from your car and even wolves show face for those who are either lucky, or patient, or both. There are also thermal features within close proximity to parking lots such as the famous Old Faithful Geyser and the incredible colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring.

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Lower Yellowstone Falls

If you get out of your car and venture into the woods, you may be rewarded with a much more intimate experience in one of America’s most popular national parks. Our first hike in the park was 4.8 miles round trip to Lone Star Geyser, which can erupt up to 45 feet into the sky. This geyser erupts every three hours so timing is everything, and we lucked out and arrived (with no planning mind you) only 10 minutes before the geyser went off.  The hike is uphill to the geyser but is not steep and follows an old road that has been closed to automobile traffic (bikes are allowed). A few minutes of waiting after reaching the end of the road, the geyser began to pick up steam (pun intended) and showed rumbling signs that an eruption would be coming soon.  The geyser erupted for about 18 minutes with water shooting up first, then a few minutes of steam and it was a wonderful reward for the relatively short 2.4 mile hike to get there.  We felt like our efforts to have hiked there were instantly rewarded as there were only about 10 other people there to witness this very cool display whereas Old Faithful can have as many as 2,000 people watching an eruption.  It was also refreshing to have an unobstructed view of the geyser with no signs or ropes in the way and the best part was that it truly felt like this is how we were meant to see it, au natural so to speak.  We worked for this experience and we were richly rewarded for our efforts.

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Lone Star Geyser

Our second hike was to see Fairy Falls which is accessed near the very busy Grand Prismatic Spring area.  Once you get past the large crowds of this popular spot, you’ll find a much smaller group of sightseers on the way to the falls.  Fairy Falls is a very tall (197 feet) cascade, one of the tallest in the park, but for us the true gem of this hike unexpectedly turned out to be Imperial Geyser.  This geyser bubbled and burped the entire time we were there and again there was hardly a soul there, this time only four other hikers.  If you make this an out and back, the distance is around six miles, but there are also options to add more distance by linking to other trails in the area, which we did to add another three miles or so.  While on one of these connector trails, we came across a lone male bison just off trail that really capped off what was a very unique hike. Seeing a big bison from your car can be intimidating so imagine seeing one out on the trail!  We stayed back a safe distance to take some photos and didn’t want to end up on the news like so many others recently who have gotten too close to a wild bison.

Not everyone can hike but if you can, do.  I’m not trying to diminish the experience for others who do like to see the park from the relative safety of their cars and only walk the boardwalks. We did our fair share of this type of sightseeing, just like everyone else and it was great.  However, wildlife encounters seem to have a more authentic feeling when you see them from the trail instead of the road. The power of a wild buffalo is more pronounced when you don’t have your car to save you.  Walking through forests that have grizzly bears heightens your awareness to your surroundings (carry bear spray) and that also adds a different dynamic to the experience.  Geysers and other natural features experienced miles from the nearest parking lot mean that you might have it all to yourself, without man-made barriers.

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Twilight on Yellowstone Lake

So, if you can get a hike or two in during your stay, do it and you’ll be glad you did. Enjoy a more secluded Yellowstone experience because most people will be at the lodge, in their car, or never far from it, and that means you can experience something rare in Yellowstone, solitude.

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Bison in Lamar Valley

 

 

 

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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Cacti, Guns and Snakes – Hiking the Peralta Trail in Arizona

The Peralta Trail is a very popular Arizona hike, and with good reason.  Being a relatively short drive from the Phoenix metropolitan area, it provides easy access to great hiking for the majority of Phoenicians (and snowbirds too!).  Located on the eastern edge of town off of Highway 60, the drive really starts to get interesting once you leave the pavement of Peralta Road near the town of Gold Canyon.  If you’re lucky enough to catch a cactus bloom in the springtime on this section of desert track, you may not even want to get out of the car to hike.  There are so many cactus varieties and my botany background is weak but even I could identify flowering saguaro, ocotillo, and prickly pear, all blooming with different colored flowers.

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Prickly Pear Cactus Flower, Gold Canyon AZ

The hike begins at the Peralta Trailhead in Tonto National Forest, although this forest is probably different than any other you’ve been to before.  This “forest” isn’t full of many trees like you’d see in a traditional forest, but it does have the aforementioned cactus and there are some trees and shrubs along the creek bed.  In those trees and shrubs, you may even have the chance to see an Arizona cardinal.  When the football team moved to Arizona from St. Louis, I thought for sure a name change was in order because I’d never seen a cardinal west of Kansas, but there are real cardinals in Arizona and their color stands out vividly from the desert landscape.

Most people hike up approximately 2.5 miles to the overlook of Weavers Needle and then head back down.  From the trailhead, the first 2.5 miles are almost all uphill with only a few spots along the way to get out of the sun.  Take full advantage of these shady areas as the temperature can get pretty hot on the trail.  Hiking in the spring and fall can offer temperatures that are decent enough, but summer hiking here would be borderline crazy. Temperatures in the Valley of the Sun can reach into the 110’s and sometimes even hotter.  The day of our hike was a near perfect 84 degrees.  Even still, we went through three bottles of water each and wish we would have had more.  As a side note, when I was at Sky Harbor International Airport, one of the souvenir shops was selling t-shirts that read “Keep Phoenix Hot” along the lines of “Keep Portland Weird” I guess.  Clever and I should have bought one!

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Several trails can be accessed from the Peralta Trailhead

 

 

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The trail

Once at the top, you get a spectacular view of Weavers Needle and the Nothern Arizona landscape in the distance.  The view is hard earned so savor it, we were really tired and pretty much only stayed for a few minutes.  A family sitting near us had packed sandwiches with them and I think my dad was about ready to pull out his wallet to try to buy one.  At least one of the kids in the family was also packing heat on his belt and had a Crocodile Dundee worthy knife on it too.  Arizona is known for having alternative politics and having kids with guns on a hiking trail is definitely a first for me.  We’d seen a few other hikers with guns holstered along the trail throughout the day.

Next up is down, downhill that is.  Hiking always seems harder going downhill for some reason.  You’re already tired and you’re having to use your legs to slow your body down.  This is also a good time to make sure that you focus because there may or may not be a rattlesnake on the trail, just sayin’!  A couple was stopped on the trail ahead of us and one of them turned up the trail towards us to let us know that there is a four foot rattlesnake across the trail and to be careful.  It was gone by the time we got there but our radar was definitely up from that point on.  The couple also warned another hiker on the trail to be careful and when he got to us he had a walking stick and a holstered handgun.  He said both were for the snakes.  On a serious note, you do need to keep an eye out for snakes.  Every place has its hazards.  After talking with a few hikers, this snake (allegedly – innocent until proven guilty 🐍) had rattled as a warning to a group of hikers earlier.  Here in the desert, the heat is a much bigger concern than the snakes but you need to be aware of both.  Wear sunscreen and a hat for the sun and drink plenty of water.  Walk softly and carry a big stick for the snakes or something like that says Teddy Roosevelt (not to hit them with of course but for gently nudging them to safety off of the trail, for their own good and for the good of anyone walking the trail, something I actually did a few days after this hike).

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The view of Weavers Needle

 

After finishing the hike, there are many great Mexican restaurants in the Greater Phoenix area to choose from to load up on some of the carbs and sweat you lost out on the trail.  We chose the outdoor seating at Los Gringos Locos in Apache Junction.  I had a margarita, chips and salsa, a Dos Equis Amber, and a cheese crisp (basically an open faced crispy quesadilla) to cap off a great day hiking with family in the Arizona desert.