Wandering Desert Backroads

My New Year’s resolution for this year is to visit as many National Parks as I can in 2017. For my first trip I had had my sights set on Death Valley National Park. Everything I had read indicated that February was one of the ideal times to go there. I ordered maps and guidebooks and started looking at the NPS website. My goal was to explore some of the desert back roads and do some day hiking. As I began researching I learned that two years ago Death Valley had experienced a rare 1000-year flood that buried several roads in mud and heavily damaged Scotty’s Castle, one of the big attractions in the park. Death Valley normally only receives two inches of rain in an entire year but during that storm they received over two inches of rain in less than an hour. So as I researched I learned that many of the roads I wanted to travel there were still closed due to the time and labor it takes to dig them out. Still, it looked like there was enough left open that I could still have a great trip. So I proceeded to plan for a mid February trip to Death Valley.

 

Well, what’s a great adventure without something going awry? Three days before I left the weather forecast was suddenly calling for an inch of rain in Death Valley! So my options were to wait or go somewhere else, a Plan “B.” I had put some thought about where else I might go but I hadn’t done much planning for that area. I had a strong urge to go back to southern Utah but it wasn’t looking the most promising due to more snow in the forecast. So at the very last minute I came up with Plan C, which was to go to Palo Duro State Park in the Texas Panhandle and hike for two or three days while I waited to see what the weather was going to do in Death Valley.

Palo Duro Canyon

The first thing I learned when I reached Palo Duro Canyon on Friday afternoon was that I was lucky to get one of the last campsites available. The second thing I learned was that every Texan for hundreds of miles around had decided it was a good idea to head for Palo Duro Canyon for the weekend and all the campsites were reserved for Saturday and Sunday nights. No problem, I thought to myself. I’ll camp Friday night, hike Saturday, and by then somebody will have cancelled their reservation. Saturday’s hike on the Lighthouse trail made me change my mind about all of that. There were so many people hiking that I couldn’t even take a picture without someone either being in it or walking right into my frame. After a few hours of that I became very claustrophobic (or whatever the word is for not wanting to be in a crowd of thousands of people when you are trying to enjoy nature,) and I decided I wanted to get the heck out of there as quickly as possible. After I finished my hike I drove to the top of the canyon so I could get a cell signal and called a park ranger in Death Valley hoping to hear good news about the rain passing over. Well, there was no good news. She told me it was raining heavily, roads were flooding, and part of Death Valley had become a lake! She told me she thought if I could delay my trip several more days some of the roads would be passible again. So it was settled: I wasn’t going to stay another minute at Palo Duro, I couldn’t go to Death Valley, so I decided I was going to go wander around southern Utah and take my chances with the snow forecast.

On the trail to The Lighthouse, Palo Duro Canyon, TX
The Lighthouse, Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

As I drove through northern Arizona on Sunday the temperature dropped into the low 30’s and the skies alternated between giving me rain, sleet, snow, and sunshine. Once I was in Utah in the Bear’s Ears National Monument area the skies were much kinder to me but it was very apparent that many of the backroads were total mud bogs. On my first evening in Utah I camped at Natural Bridges National Park where I learned from a ranger that they winter snows had just melted and the ground, trails, and back roads were sopping wet and muddy. That night it dropped into the 20’s but I slept comfortably inside the Wander Wagon. The next day I drove Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 from Natural Bridges NP to Capital Reef National Park.

Desert Roads of Utah

Natural Bridges National Park in morning light
Scenic Byway 12

At Capital Reef NP I talked to a park ranger about the conditions on the famous Notom Road, a back road that goes 34 miles south from Capital Reef to the Burr Trail switchbacks near Boulder Utah. About 14 years ago I nearly tore up a two wheel drive car while driving on this road. I’ve also read stories about people getting trapped by flood waters while trying to cross the many washes the road crosses. When I traveled the Notom Road I was in awe of it’s beauty. The Notom Road goes right down the middle of the Waterpocket Fold, a one hundred mile long buckle in the Earth’s surface that is pushed up creating beautiful rock formations. So each time I’ve returned to Utah I’ve wanted to travel that road again. However, each time there has always been some weather event that made the road impassable thus preventing me from traveling it.

 

While I was talking to the ranger about the conditions on the Notom road a guy overheard us and interrupted. He said he had just come off the road and he had nearly been stuck several times in his Toyota Tacoma. He strongly warned me to not get on the road. He said it was extremely muddy. With that discouraging news I reluctantly drove down the highway thinking that I’d miss driving the Notom Road again. Well, about 10 miles down the highway I did a U-turn and decided come hell or high water, or deep mud in this case, I was going to go for it! I was going to take my chances on a muddy Notom Road. I figure in a worse case scenario if I got stuck and wasn’t able to recover myself I’d just camp there until the sun and wind dried the road out enough that I could keep driving. I had plenty of food and water!

 

As I reached the end of the pavement I hit the gas as I passed the sign stating to stay off the road if there were any chance of rain. For the first mile the road wasn’t bad at all and I was able to stop and snap a photo. When I reached the first mud pit I could see dryish road on the other side so I gassed it and the Wander Wagon glided through with hardly a fishtail. The road was fairly solid for the next mile but then I encountered a longer and muddier section. Again the Wander Wagon performed beautifully with only slight fishtailing. The mud pits became longer and wetter, and deeper as I continued down the road. There would be a section of mud but I could usually see a dry spot further down the road on the other side so I just took it one mud spot at a time. As I adapted my driving to the longer and muddier sections I realized I transformed from driving a leisurely drive down a country road into a rally race. As the mud pits grew longer I began hitting them faster and faster. At one point I realized I was doing 35 and 40 miles per hour while fishtailing down this mudd road and I didn’t dare to try to even peek at the scenery. My eyes were glued to the road ahead. Sometimes out of my peripheral vision I could see mud flying away from my tires.

Notom Road, before the mud

Half way down Notom Road I hit a very long section of mud at about 40 miles per hour and as I neared the middle my speed dropped significantly and I began to worry. Suddenly the grade pitched upward, I lost my momentum, and I came to a complete stop, stuck in the mud! My first thought was “I guess I’m camping here tonight!” But when I threw it into reverse she moved, so I knew it wasn’t over. Inching forward in first it was losing traction again so I reached down and hit the button to disengage the symmetrical all-wheel drive. Oh boy! If I thought my tires were slinging mud before they were really slinging it now!!! But it allowed me to move forward again and once I started gaining speed I flipped the switch to allow the computer to control the all-wheel drive again. Well, another mile down the road and I encountered another long boggy mud pit that took away my momentum and I found myself stuck again. Then, just like before, by manually manipulating the all-wheel drive I was able to get myself unstuck! I was amazed at how well the Wander Wagon preformed! I was also very happy I had installed the skid plates. There were times during my mud run I could hear the skid plates scraping on rocks!

 

When I reached the junction of the Notom Road, Burr Trail Road to Halls Crossing, and the Burr Trail Switchback to Boulder I decided I better go find a place to camp before it got too dark and save traveling the Burr Trail Road for another day.

Dry spot at the end of Notom Road looking north
Burr Trail Switchbacks 1
Burr Trail Switchbacks 2
Climbing the Burr Trail Switchbacks

I spent the next two days exploring back roads in Grand Staircase Escalante National park. I also hiked to a couple of slot canyons and camped in the Wander Wagon off of some of the back roads.

Hole in The Wall Road near Escalante UT
Devil’s Garden near Hole In The Wall Road, Escalante, Ut
Devil’s Garden near Hole In The Wall Road, Escalante, Ut
Slot canyon

After several days of sun and wind the mud on the Burr Trail Road was nearly dry. From the Boulder, UT to Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell it’s just under 70 miles. Half of that is unpaved and has many risky stream crossings if there has been rain. However, compared to a few days before on the Notom Road the Burr Trail Road was almost anticlimactic. I was able to stop and take photos whenever and wherever I wanted. Once I reached Bullfrog I talked to a Ranger about the Backroads in the nearby Henry Mountains. He said the Mountains had just gotten more snow and said the roads would be impassable for another month or two. So maybe next trip!

Stream crossing on Burr Trail
Burr Trail cattle

From Bullfrog Marina I drove Scenic Byway 95 north past the Henry Mountains. Then I took Scenic Byway 1212 east to Blanding UT where I got a hotel room, took a hot shower and laundered my clothes. By then the rain in Death Valley had ceased and the sun and wind were working on drying the roads, so my plan was to drive on to Death Valley. The next morning I headed south with the intention of going through Monument Valley. As I was heading south I spotted a back road I had somehow missed on previous trips. It turned out to be a backroad that meandered through Monument Valley. Of course I couldn’t resist! I think I could make a whole trip out of photographing Monument Valley. I could see setting my camera up on the tripod in one spot and taking photos all day long as the sun and clouds change the light and shadows on the landscape. It was beautiful!

Scenic Byway 95 near the Henry Mountains
Scenic Byway 12 near Blanding Utah
Fry Canyon Bridge
Valley of The Gods Back Road
Winding Backroad through Valley of The Gods
Valley of The Gods Desert Road
Valley of The Gods Desert Road B&W
Valley of The Gods Desert Road 2
Valley of The Gods Desert Road 2 B&W
Monument Valley

Death Valley National Park

When I reached the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center in Death Valley it dawned on me that it was Saturday and I was around thousands of tourists again! I quickly found a ranger and inquired about what backroads were open. Turns out that there were still many roads closed due to the flood damage from two years ago, plus there were additional roads closed due to the previous week’s rain. However, I did find two back road areas I could explore. The first was Echo Canyon, which is where I wound up camping that night. Like many of the National Parks in the southwest you can camp for free off of many of the backroads in what is considered “Dispersed camping.” So after just a short time dealing with the crowds the solitude of Echo Canyon was refreshing.

 

The next day I explored Badwater Basin which is the lowest point in North America. It’s 282 feet below sea level. Normally Badwater Basin is a dry salt plain. However, due to the recent rain I had the rare opportunity to see standing water in Badwater Basin! In the summer it reaches 120 degrees there but on that February day it was only in the 70’s. However, once out on the salt plain it started feeling pretty toasty under the bright sun. I also thought I was going to go snow blind! It was so bright that even with my sunglasses I was having trouble seeing after being out there for nearly two hours.

Badwater Basin Flood
Sun reflecting off flood water in Badwater Basin

My next destination was the Eureka Sand Dunes. It wasn’t so much the sand dunes that I wanted to see but it was the solitude I was seeking away from all the tourists. When the park ranger told me that it normally takes three hours to drive from the ranger station in Stove Pipe Wells to the Eureka Dunes I knew that was the road I wanted to take! The road didn’t disappoint.

Desert Road #2
Crankshaft Junction
Desert Road to Eureka Sand Dunes

While at the sand dunes I played around with shooting astrophotography. According to an iPad app I have that night was supposed to be moonless and the Milkyway was supposed to run north and south overhead. Even if my first attempts at astrophotography weren’t the best I still enjoyed a moonless, cloudless, and starry night, that was unobstructed by trees or buildings or light pollution. It was a nice experience.

Playing with asltrophotograpy and long exposures
Eureka Sand Dunes in morning light.
Eureka Sand Dunes at morning
Sunrise on Eureka Sand Dunes

The next day I drove back to the ranger station at Stove Pipe Wells hoping to hear good news about more roads reopening. Unfortunately there was no such news. So I headed west over the mountains into Panamint Valley to explore there. While there I visited the ghost town of Ballarat. There isn’t much there except the main attraction is the 1946 military surplus Dodge Power Wagon. A four wheel drive pickup truck owned by Charles Manson. The truck earned the nickname “The Manson Getaway Truck” when Tex tried to use it to escape being captured. He made it as far as Ballarat before it broke down. From there he hitchhiked to his home in Texas and evaded capture for another month. In the mean time the truck still sits in Ballarat. The white pentagrams can still be seen on the inside roof of the cab where Manson’s followers painted them.

Charle’s Manson’s 1946 Dodge Power Wagon – The Escape Truck
The Escape Truck, Charles Manson’s 1946 Dodge Power Wagon. The truck Tex Watson tried to escape in.

While in Ballarat I talked to the caretaker of the ghost town. It turns out its now private property and he was hired by the owner to live there and oversee it. It also turns out the caretaker may have been a classmate of one or more of Mary’s siblings during high school! Probably due to possible friends in common he relaxed and began telling me about his conspiracy theories centering on the “real” reason the government acquired the land for the national parks. Then he opened his refrigerator and handed me the Mason jar of moonshine and told me to have some. When I opened the lid and smelled it there was no odor but pure alcohol. My first reaction was to say “we used to thin shellac with this!” When I asked if he had made it himself he said yes. Having previously noticed he was already blind in one eye I decided I’d better pass on drinking the Mountain Dew. Instead, I told him I’d sure like to, but I needed to be able to drive.

Back Road in Panamint Valley

As I drove north up the road in Panamint Valley I suddenly heard a very loud roar. At first I thought something was wrong with the Wander Wagon. It occurred to me that one of my skid plates had fallen off and I was dragging it down the highway. Just as I was formulating that thought saw a fighter jet passing over me at a very high speed. So I was actually buzzed by a fighter jet! When he buzzed me he had to have only been about 150 to 200 feet above me! After buzzing me he flew to the north end of the valley and then shot straight up into the sky. After doing some rolls and turns he shot off into the horizon in the south. It all happened so fast I wasn’t able to get the car stopped and my camera out before he was gone. Once I was back in my car he buzzed me again! Again he was going so fast that there was no way I could stop and get my camera out to shoot! It was pretty amazing!

 

Once back into Death Valley I headed back to Echo Canyon. From reading the map I knew if I went further into Echo Canyon than I had a few days before I’d find the Inyo Gold Mine. As the sun was setting I drove the 9.5 miles of rough back road through the canyon to the remains of the gold mine. I reached the mine and the old miner’s shack in just enough time to set up my camera on the tripod and compose the shot with the miner’s shack in before the sun set. While I waited for the stars to come out I ate my dinner.

 

Once dinner was done and the stars were in full force I began shooting the Milky way above the miner’s shack. I began experimenting with the long exposures and illuminating the shack with my flashlight. Then I even put a spare light inside the shack to illuminate it from the inside. All the while I was doing this I kept hearing noises but couldn’t figure out what they were. Sometimes it sounded like an animal in the sage brush off to the side but I never saw one with my light. Then there were times when I could hear a metal ticking sound. After a while it started to get a little bit creepy but I tuned it out. So I was standing at my tripod and camera in the dark illuminated only by starlight. I’d take a few shots and then I’d review them on my camera to make sure I was still doing the exposures and lighting the way I intended. Suddenly as I was looking through my viewfinder to preview the image I had just shot I saw a man standing by the doorway of the miner’s shack! I quickly flashed my flashlight at the shack, which was about 200 feet away, but there wasn’t anyone standing there. When I looked back into my viewfinder at the image he was there again and the hair on the back of my neck stood up! Again I flashed my light at the shack but nobody was there. I’m not one to spook easily but this really had my attention for a brief moment. When I looked closer at the image I realized there was a piece of tin nailed up next to the doorway. So looking through the small viewfinder in the low light setting made it look like someone was standing there!

Milkyway over Miner’s Shack

The next morning I cooked and ate my breakfast and then shot photos of the mining camp as the sun rose on it. After wandering around the miner’s camp for a few hours I decided it was time to drive back out. When I reached pavement I got a call from Mary. After talking to her for a few minutes we decided it would be nice for me to go home for a while. I’d been on the road for two weeks.

Inside miner’s shack # 2
Miner’s shack # 2
Inyo Mine
Inside miner’s shack #1

Introducing Wendy the Wondrous Wander Wagon.

In 2009 Mary and I were married during Oklahoma Freewheel. At the end of that ride we parked our tandem bike and hopped into our Honda Element and headed north toward Montana and Alberta Canada. We spent the next two weeks camping in the back of the Element that I had outfitted as a camper. During those two weeks we never spent a dime on hotels, and while the mountain lion was freely roaming the campground in Waterton Lakes National Park, and the grizzlies were roaming the campgrounds of Glacier National Park Mary and I slept safe and sound inside the Element.

While the Element was our first adventure mobile it was lacking in ground clearance and only had two-wheel drive. When we acquired our Subaru Outback with it’s higher ground clearance and symmetrical all wheel drive we knew we had an adventure wagon on our hands, a vehicle that could take us places the Honda Element couldn’t. During the last few years our adventure wagon has taken us on some pretty rough back roads as we have explored new hiking trails, Anasazi ruins, and ghost towns. Well, I guess that just wasn’t enough because recently I outfitted the adventure wagon with 3/16” thick aluminum skid plates to protect the oil pan, transmission, and rear differential. I also added oversized all-terrain tires. Now our adventure wagon can take us to places not reachable before but more importantly we are a little more likely to make it back without getting into trouble. However, if we do wind up in trouble we are now also carrying an assortment of recovery gear that includes an exhaust jack and Maxtrax recovery boards. So even though our goal was to just get to the more remote hiking trails we wound up inadvertently becoming Overlanders!

On a recent back roads trip I camped in the Wander Wagon for two weeks. It got me to where I was going and back again and along the way I fell more in love with wandering the back roads just for the sake of wandering the back roads. So stay tuned for my next story about that adventure.

Wendy the Wondrous Wander Wagon
Skid plates for the Outback
Editing photos while camping inside the Outback
The Wander Wagon after a very muddy Notom Road in Utah.

 

Hiking Big Bend National Park

Last week Mary and I spent time hiking in Big Bend National Park in Texas. When we left our home in Midwest city it was 26°F. On our first day of hiking at Big Bend it reached 80° and we knew we had picked a winner for a December hiking destination! Apparently we weren’t the first to come up with this idea though. We discovered that the week between Christmas and New Years day are the busiest and there were no campsites available in the park. However, we did find a decent camping spot at the nearby town of Terlingua, TX.

Our first hike on Wednesday was on the Lost Mine Trail. It turns out there is no lost mine. In fact there never was a mine. The trail got its name because it overlooks a nearby peak that is named after a local legend. The legend is about a lost gold mine. However, due to the geology of the area there isn’t even any gold. Still, the trail has a cool name and it’s one of the most hiked trails in the park. While it lacks an actual mine it more than makes up for it by the spectacular views of the nearby peaks and the desert floor in the distance. You can also see many miles into Mexico.

Lost Mine Trail
Lost Mine Trail
View from Lost Mine Trail
Casa Grande Peak in the distance from the top of Lost Mine Trail
Mary reads a trail guide as I take photos of the area
Lost Mine Trail in the valley with Casa Grande Peak to the left

 

After hiking Lost Mine Trail we also hiked the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off trail. The trail followed a dry stream bed to a cliff face where the stream on top of the mesa creates a waterfall when it rains. On our return from reaching the base of the dry waterfall Mary and I explored another area where we scrambled over and around boulders. We would have kept exploring but we were running out of sunlight and had turn around before the sun went down.

Burro Mesa in the distance
Mary stands below the Burro Mesa Pouroff

Hiking into the sunset

 

On Thursday we hiked to Slickrock Canyon. There is no trail that takes you to the canyon. Instead you hike dry stream beds until you reach the canyon. The trick is having a good guidebook because the hike starts out on Ash Creek but reaches the canyon on Oak Creek. You pass a hand full of creek that merge with the main creek before reaching the one that will take you to the canyon. Luckily our guidebook was pretty accurate at describing how to recognize the right stream bed to follow.

Unlike the perfect weather of the previous day this hike had us wearing several layers of clothing underneath our Arcteryx jackets. The temperatures were in the 40’s with occasional rain sprinkles, and the sustained winds were 25 Mph. When we reached the canyon the wind speed was at least 50 to 60 Mph as it channeled through the narrow canyon walls. At times we felt like we were about to be blown over. After walking through the canyon we explored the remains of an old well and windmill before returning. Our out and back hike was a little over 10 miles.

Slickrock Canyon
Mary near the entrance to Slickrock Canyon
Slickrock Canyon from the east side
Decaying lumber cover the old well
Parts of the old well pump
Collapsed windmill
Slickrock Canyon water puddle
Slickrock Canyon green water pool

 

On Friday we drove to the east side of the park to hike the Ore Terminal Trail near Rio Grande village. Before hiking the trail we watched a guy paddle a canoe across the Rio Grande River. He had snuck over from Mexico to put out hand made trinkets that were for sale at the roadside scenic overlook.

The Ore Terminal Trail was quite interesting in that it mostly followed the ruins of an aerial tramway. The tramway transported zinc ore from the Puerto Rico mine in Mexico, across the Rio Grande and then into the desert where it reached the terminal. From the terminal ore was transported by wagons to the railroad in Marathon Texas.

For the most part the trail follows the tramway cable and collapsed towers. Along the way you can see bits and pieces of the hardware as well as several ore buckets. There is one tower still standing but you can only see it from a distance because the trail veers away in order to avoid a very steep climb up the canyon wall. Our trail guide was a little off and just when we thought we were about to reach the ore terminal the trail would go around another bend or go over another ridge. We were concerned about getting off the trail before dark and so we debated on whether to keep going or not. Each time one of us would say if it wasn’t over the next ridge we’d turn around. When we’d get there the other one would say let’s go a little bit more. In the end we were happy we kept going. Once we reached the plateau the scenery changed to a nearly level desert were we could see the Chisos Mountains in the distance. After shooting a few photos we high tailed it back the way we came.

Ore Terminal Trail
Ore buckets on the Ore Terminal Trail
Scenery from the Ore Terminal Trail
The foundation of a collapsed tramway tower

The only standing tramway tower
An ore bucket surrounded by zink ore
Rusting hardware from the collapsed Ore Terminal
Tramway cables leading to Ore Terminal
Collapsed Ore Terminal

 

While our hike to the ore terminal was mostly uphill our hike back was mostly downhill and we made much better time than we had estimated. When we reached our car at the trailhead we still had about an hour of daylight so we decided to go look at the hot spring. While the hot spring wasn’t really considered a hike we did explore a little bit along the banks of the Rio Grande and snapped a few photos. Friday’s weather was much better than the previous day’s. By the end of the hike we were back to wearing t-shirts and were a little sun burned.

Abandoned store on the bank of the Rio Grande near the hot spring.
Rock art found along the bank of the Rio Grande

 

On Saturday we drove down the unpaved Old Maverick Road. The road is rated as a high clearance vehicle road but the Subaru Outback handled it just fine. In fact we were on worse roads in Utah two years ago. However, there are other high clearance roads in Big Bend that we were warned to avoid. On the spur of the moment we took a side road off of Old Maverick Road to search for the ruins of Terlingua Abaja a deserted farming village constructed of rock and adobe on the banks of Terlingua Creek. At the end of the road there are a couple of piles of rubble, the remains of two buildings. They weren’t really much to look at. Had we not run into a guy who was camping nearby we’d have never known the main part of the village lies across Terlingua Creek.

Old Maverick Road
Old Maverick Road
El Jacal de Luna – Lunda’s Jacal
View from the inside of Lunda’s Jacal

 

The village wasn’t in our guidebook or on our map, and the lone hiker wasn’t much help either. All he said was that the village was across the creek somewhere, which made me, wonder if he had even seen it himself. So we set out to explore the area to see if we could find it ourselves. There were very little clues to where the village might be. There were footprints in the sand of the creek but they all appeared to reach a point in the sand were they turned back the way they came. So it was obvious that some folks weren’t finding the village. There were also very few places we could cross the creek without just wading in. On the other side of the creek there was fairly tall grass so it was impossible to tell if there were any ruins over there.

When we were about to give up I decided I was going to take a WAG (wild ass guess) at where I thought the village could be. I looked up and down the banks and thought that if I were going to build a village I wouldn’t build it there because it was all flood plain. Then I looked at the hills further back and thought to myself that this one area looked like a good place to build buildings. So we went downstream until we found a shallow enough place with enough rocks where we could cross the creek. I crossed first and climbed a very steep and loose embankment. When I reached the top I spotted the ruins of a fairly large building in the distance. I hollered for Mary to come up and together we explored the many ruins of the old village. We agreed that the large building must have been the town hall or the mayor’s house or at least the richest dude around. It stood on the highest hill overlooking the village. Then at the furthest outskirts of the village we found the remains of the cemetery.

I’m sure that there are guidebooks and maps that have the exact location of the village but we didn’t have any of those. Instead we followed a hunch and for a brief time we got to feel like we were explorers discovering the ruins of a long lost city!

Terlingua Creek
Main building in the distance in Terlingua Abaja
Main building, Terlingua Abaja
Terlingua Abaja Cemetary
Terlingua Abaja Cemetary
Terlingua Abaja

 

After exploring Terlingua Abaja we headed back to pavement and the crowd of tourist for our final albeit very short hike into Santa Elena Canon.

Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon
Rio Grande at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon

 

Here are a few black and white photos from our hikes:

Terlingua Abaja Main building

 

 

 

Should I Be Running Too?

Today we hiked our last hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Actually to be more accurate we ran over half the trail. On the way up my fast hiking pace caused Mary to have to run to keep up. On the way down we both ran the trail. The trail was Alum Cave Trail to the Mount LeConte Lodge and then a mile further to Myrtle Point. Round trip it was roughly 12 miles and we gained 2844 feet.

The fact that I walked at all much less ran the trail today is nothing short of miraculous because on Monday afternoon I wrenched my ankle so badly that by evening I was unable to walk or bear weight on it at all.

I honestly don’t know what I did to my ankle. I wasn’t hiking or even walking when it happened. I was standing completely still and decided to turn around. When I did my leg and ankle moved but my foot didn’t. I had an instant sharp piercing pain on the outside under my ankle. Within minutes the pain intensified and I had difficulty walking and stairs became quite a challenge. Mary and I decided not to hike any but instead drove to view some historic log cabins. After only walking for 30 minutes the pain must have been so evident on my face that tourist were looking at me in horror as I hobbled and limped along at a snail’s pace. By the time we got back to the cabin I was unable to bear any weight on my ankle at all. I had to use a chair as a walker in order to get around.

Mary looked at the swelling and instantly knew something was wrong. Thinking that I had either torn a tendon or ligament or had possibly fractured my foot Mary and I started discussing cutting our trip short to go home. She wrapped my ankle with an ACE bandage, gave me 800mg of ibuprofen and I went to bed thinking our trip was over.

The next mourning to my surprise I was able to walk again. Although there was still some pain I was able to get around much better than the previous day. So I decided that I had nothing to lose but to try a short hike to see what happened. We drove to Clingman’s Dome and with my ankle still bandaged I slowly hiked the paved sidewalk/trail to the top and back. Round trip from and to our parked car was only a mile and a half.

Wednesday morning my ankle was feeling even better so again we figured we had nothing to lose but try another trail. So we hiked the Rainbow Falls trail. Rainbow Falls trail was an interesting challenge because the trail was covered with child sized boulders boulders and tree roots designed to snag your toe. After an hour of hopping from rock to rock my knees began to hurt. When the pain in my knees surpassed the pain in my ankle I knew my ankle must be getting better! Getting old sucks!

Sadly Rainbow Falls was a mere trickle. The hike wasn’t a total loss though because we saw another bear. This one was wearing a GPS tracking collar. I did a little research later and discovered this was one of five nuisance bears that they put GPS collars on in order to track their movements in the park.

By Thursday I could only occasionally feel a twinge in my ankle so we decided to hike two trails. The first was Grotto Falls Trail and the second was Kephart Prong Trail. Grotto Falls was beautiful but full of tourists. Kephart Prong Trail had a lot fewer people and the scenery was beautiful.

On the Kephart Prong Trail we saw a few remains of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp. The camp was built in the 1930’s and once had a fish hatchery. During WWII it was used to house conscientious objectors. The trail crosses the beautiful Oconaluftee River several times on foot logs. Along the way we saw some beautiful wildflowers and a few rail irons from a narrow gauge railroad that once ran through the area.

So today, knowing we had a lot of elevation to gain and 12 miles to cover we decided to travel as light as possible. Instead of our day packs we hiked with our running packs.To travel light I also left my camera behind and only shot photos with my iPhone. We hadn’t even traveled a quarter mile from the trailhead when we saw several large piles of bear poo. It was pretty evident the bear had been eating the berries that grow in the area because the poo was a rather bluish purple.

When I’m hiking light my hiking pace is the same as Mary’s slow running pace. So Mary ran behind me. On level grades I would also run but for most of the climbing I kept a fast walking pace. On our way up we passed dozens and dozens of hikers with packs so full you’d think that they were planning on spending a month in the wilderness. As we passed them we’d briefly chat and we learned they all fell into one of two groups. They were either spending the night in the lodge at the top or they were spending the night the shelter that was near the lodge. Still, for an overnight stay they were overly laden. In fact, we passed one group two miles into the trail and then passed them again on our way back down. They were still two miles from reaching the lodge!

Once we reached the lodge we briefly sat at a picnic table and ate our PBJ sandwiches before continuing the last mile to Myrtle Point. At Myrtle Point we snapped a few photos of the wonderful views. There were clouds rolling in and it was looking like it could rain. Even though some of the mountain tops were obscured by clouds the views were spectacular! At the top there were also a couple of guys who weren’t going to budge from their sitting spot to let others photograph the view. Maybe I’ll learn how to remove people from photos in Photoshop soon.

On the way down a lady stopped us to tell us she had just seen the largest bear she had ever seen. She was still pretty shaken up when she was telling us about it. She must have scared the bear worse than he scared her because we kept going but never saw it. Soon we were off the knife edge like trail that led along the narrow ridge to Myrtle Point and were back at the lodge. From the lodge we decided to run as much of the 5 miles as we could back to the trailhead.

As we ran we began passing people who were still on their way up. A few of them gave us some pretty angry looks because we had already flew past them on the way up and now we were passing them again. About half way down we finally started running into fresh hikers. I call them fresh because we hadn’t already passed them on the way up. These were folks who had started hiking later in the day and were probably just hiking to Alum Cave and back.

We had just ran down a long steep slope when we came to a set of boulders we had to carefully descend. As I slowed a young lady coming the other way looked at me with an expression of panic on her face and nervously said: “Should I be running too? Is there a bear chasing you? Do I need to run?” I couldn’t help but laugh! I told her we were running for the fun of it and that there was no bear. At first she didn’t act like she believed me. I had to stop and tell her again that we were really running because we wanted to and that there wasn’t a bear chasing us!

From that point to the end of the trail whenever we passed someone that looked shocked to see trail runners I would laughingly say “Don’t worry, there’s no bear. We just need the exercise!” A few of them laughed but I got some really dirty looks from the ones who looked to be out of shape and struggling to climb the trail.

It’s been a great two weeks hiking in the Smokys. We didn’t hike every day of our two week vacation but between travel time and some sight seeing and a day spent ZipLining we managed to hike 12 hikes and hiked 84 trail miles.

Tomorrow morning we drive home. 🙁

Ogle Cabin
Ogle Cabin
Ogle Cabin
Ogle Cabin
Clingman's Dome
Clingman’s Dome
Clingman's Dome
Clingman’s Dome
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On Rainbow Falls Trail

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Black Bear with GPS tracking collar on Rainbow Falls Trail
Black Bear with GPS tracking collar on Rainbow Falls Trail
Black Bear with GPS tracking collar on Rainbow Falls Trail
Black Bear with GPS tracking collar on Rainbow Falls Trail
Sign at Grotto Falls Trailhead
Sign at Grotto Falls Trailhead
Mary under Grotto Falls
Mary under Grotto Falls
Grotto Falls
Grotto Falls
Mary in front of CCC Camp structure on Kephart Prong Trail
Mary in front of CCC Camp structure on Kephart Prong Trail
Chimney at CCC Camp on Kephart Prong Trail
Chimney at CCC Camp on Kephart Prong Trail
Mary on a bridge
Mary on a bridge
One of several foot logs
One of several foot logs
Mary at Oconaluftee River
Mary at Oconaluftee River
Narrow gauge rail irons on Kephart Prong Trail
Narrow gauge rail irons on Kephart Prong Trail
Shelter on Kephart Prong Trail
Shelter on Kephart Prong Trail
Flowers on Kephart Prong Trail
Flowers on Kephart Prong Trail
Flowers on Kephart Prong Trail
Flowers on Kephart Prong Trail
Flowers on Kephart Prong Trail
Flowers on Kephart Prong Trail
Blueberry Bear Poo on Alum Cave Trail
Blueberry Bear Poo on Alum Cave Trail
Views on Alum Cave Trail
Views on Alum Cave Trail
Views on Alum Cave Trail
Views on Alum Cave Trail
Views on Alum Cave Trail
Views on Alum Cave Trail
Mount LeConte Lodge
Mount LeConte Lodge
Mount LeConte Shelter
Mount LeConte Shelter
View from Myrtle Point
View from Myrtle Point
View from Alum Cave trail
View from Alum Cave Trail
View from Alum Cave trail
View from Alum Cave Trail
View from Alum Cave Trail
Mary on Alum Cave Trail
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Alum Cave trail
Descending into the arch on Alum Cave Trail
Foot log leading to the arch on Alum Cave Trail
Foot log leading to the arch on Alum Cave Trail
Mary Trail Running
Mary Trail Running
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Trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Engine that Couldn’t

We moved our base camp to Gatlinburg and will be hiking and exploring in this area for a week. Today we hiked to Injun Creek via. the Grapeyard Ridge Trail. Grapeyard Ridge Trail was once a road used by early settlers. There are a few remaining stone walls that once lined the road and the remains of a home site. The highlight of the hike was reaching Injun Creek and looking at the remains of an old steam traction engine.

The engine was a Nichols and Shepard No. 4246 self-propelled, steam-powered traction engine. The story goes that steam engine was brought to Big Greenbrier Cove in the 1920’s to saw timber for a new school. It tumbled into the creek on its return trip to Webb’s Creek but no one was injured. The owner of the engine salvaged many of the parts but the turbine and a couple of wheels remain the creek bed today.

There are two stories about how the creek got it’s name. Both state that the creek was originally called Engine Creek for the over turned steam engine. From there the stories differ slightly. One claims the map maker mis-penned it calling it Injun Creek. The other story states that the locals misunderstood the meaning and thought that it was named for the Native Americans who once lived in the area.

All the while that we explored the steam engine we were watched by a salamander who had made it’s home in one of the hollow areas of the cast iron frame.

Steam engine wreckage in Injun Creek
Steam engine wreckage in Injun Creek

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Boogered up cog
Boogered Up Cog
This salamander lives in the wreckage of the steam tractor
This salamander lives in the wreckage of the steam tractor
Wheel, gears, and cog
Wheel, gears, and cog
Teeth, Spokes, Cog, and Hub
Teeth, Spokes, Cog, and Hub
Teeth and Spokes B/W
Teeth and Spokes B/W
Teeth and Spokes
Teeth and Spokes
Mary's favorite view of the salamander
Mary’s favorite view of the salamander
My favorite of the salamander
My favorite of the salamander
This chimney is all that remains of the old home site
This chimney is all that remains of the old home site
Confluence
Confluence

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rocky Top

On Friday we climbed up Rocky Top Mountain. It was roughly 6 miles up and 6 back. Most of the trail was quite rocky so hiking was a bit slow. Several parts of the trail passed through thick tunnels of rosebay rhododendron and parts of the trail were quite furrowed. Once we reached the AT the scenery opened up a little more and we hiked north surrounded by Showy Goldenrod as we skirted Spence Field. At the top the views were spectacular and made the rocky climb to the rocky top worth the effort.

While at the top of Rocky Top we chatted with two other hikers from Michigan (Laura and Julie) who said they had just come from the AT shelter at Spence Field. While there they said they talked to a National Park Ranger who told them they were considering installing an electric fence to keep the bears away from the shelter. Mary and I had read the story in the news a few months ago about the AT thru-hiker who was attacked by a black bear on May 10th while sleeping in his tent. We didn’t put two and two together until we were talking to the lady hikers that this was the shelter where it occurred. So of course on our way back down the trail we just had to take the short side trip to visit the AT Shelter at Spence Field.

If you are curious about the bear attack here is the story straight from the guy who was attacked: https://peachpeak.wordpress.com/2016/05/24/first-blog-post/

 

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White blaze on the AT
White blaze on the AT

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On Rocky Top
On Rocky Top
AT Shelter at Spence Field
AT Shelter at Spence Field


A Shy Young Bear

Today we hiked the Finley Cane Loop trail. We chose this trail because we wanted to view the remains of some old home sites. When we got to the trailhead there was a sign stating that hikers must stay on the trail due to some sort issue with bats. I couldn’t pronounce the word used but it gave me the impression it was like a Shriner’s Convention but for bats. Anyway, from the description in our trail guide we didn’t think that would be an issue as the book led us to believe the home sites were right on the trail. Half way into the hike we met a couple of locals who explained that the home sites were actually deep into the restricted area. We should have just turned around at that point and went and found another trail. Without the prospect of viewing the old structures the trail didn’t offer much in the way of scenery when compared to the three trails we had already done. Maybe we are getting spoiled. So when the trail intersected a road after hiking five and a half miles we decided to cut the trail short and hike back to the car on the road.

Once we got our bearings and determined which direction to hike on the road I used my thumb as a crude gauge on the map to estimate our distance from the car. Mary laughed and told me it was using a really “High Tech” method of gauging distance. I stated that I’ve used fingers, twigs, abd wire as mapping tools before and announced that we’d be at the car in 2 miles. She again questioned the accuracy and I reassured her that it always puts me in the ball park.As we were walking on the road Mary asked if I wanted to stow my camera in my pack. I told her “No, I want to keep it out in the event we see a bear.”

With the car in sight a half grown black bear crossed the road in front of us and meandered into the woods. I was able to snap a few photos but I really didn’t have a clear shot. When we reached the car my mileage estimate was only .05 off. Mary has been my adventure partner for a long time now and I trust her. But sometimes it just feels good to know that I know just a little bit more.

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Lobelia cardinalis - cardinal flowe
Lobelia cardinalis – cardinal flower
Lobelia cardinalis - cardinal flowe
Lobelia cardinalis – cardinal flower
Back end of a Black Bear
Back end of a Black Bear. As bear encounters go it is often best to see them walking away as opposed to them walking toward you.
A shy young bear!
A shy young bear!

 

Eastern Trails

We are currently in Tennessee hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is the first time we’ve hiked east of the Mississippi. Also, it’s one of the few times we’ve decided not to tent camp. Instead we rented a cabin to serve as our base camp.This week our cabin is near Townsend TN and we’ve lined up day hikes that are only a short distance from our cabin. Next week, we’ll go over to Gatlinburg and stay for a week in a cabin there where we have planned out day hikes only minutes away from that cabin.

On our way to Townsend we stopped in Nashville and hiked at Radnor Lake State Park.We also visited REI and picked up some really nice day packs.We visited the botanical gardens at the Gaylord Opryland Resort Hotel where we looked at tropical plants planted among fake rocks and waterfalls.

On our first day after arriving in Townsend we hiked the Rich Mountain Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was a very nice trail but there were no overlook opportunities. Our second hike In the GSMNP we drove across the border to North Carolina and hiked the Twentymile Trail up to the Shuckstack Fire Tower. The trail was incredible as it followed several mountain streams. There were a variety of wildflowers in bloom and the Black Swallowtail butterflies were in abundance. The views at the top of the fire tower were worth the hike!

Mary at Radnor Lake State Park
Mary at Radnor Lake State Park
Deep Thought. The answer the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything is right there. She just doesn't see it yet!
Deep Thought. The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is right there… She just doesn’t see it yet!

Rich Mountain Trail photos:

Mary on Rich Mountain Trail
Mary on Rich Mountain Trail

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Twentymile Trail Photos:

Mary next to a white blaze on the Appalachian Trail
Mary next to a white blaze on the Appalachian Trail
Vernonia gigantea (Walter) Trel. ssp.ngigantea Giant ironweed, Tall ironweed
Vernonia gigantea (Walter) Trel. ssp.ngigantea Giant ironweed, Tall ironweed
Lobelia cardinalis - cardinal flower
Lobelia cardinalis – cardinal flower
 Impatiens capensis - spotted jewelweed
Impatiens capensis – spotted jewelweed

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Shuckstack Fire Tower
Shuckstack Fire Tower

 

Today we are headed for the Finley Cane Loop Trail. It’s 8.9 miles and has less climbing than the previous two trails. This way we’ll give our legs a chance to rest before we climb Rocky Top tomorrow.

The Canyons of Utah – A Few Day Hikes.

As Kurt & I drove from Oklahoma to Utah for our 2 week vacation, we decided to take a little side trip into the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest to take a look since I had never been there.  It reminded me of a mission trip that I’d done as a teenager to the Badlands of South Dakota.  The colors were hues of reddish/orange, then bluish purple.  It amazed me to see the  petrified wood – not really what I’d expected, which would have been an actual forest.  It was interesting to read how the wood became petrified.  We saw a few ruins & pictographs, then headed off for our first destination in Grand Gulch.

 

Painted Desert
Painted Desert

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As we approached the Valley of the Gods, it was nearing dusk.  A treacherously curvy road up the side of a mountain would deliver us to the Natural Bridges National Monument area, where we hoped to be able to find a camp spot at such a late hour.  That hope proved fruitless as we found the campground was full.  We drove into the nearest town, Blanding, and opted for a cheap hotel for the night.

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Utah Hikes 008

The next day after breakfast we drove back to the Grand Gulch area & headed straight for the Ranger’s Station to discuss various trails.  The helpful lady recommended Moon House & said the ruins there were spectacular.  Another helpful ranger asked what we were driving because the road to the trailhead was rough & would take us an hour to drive, albeit it was only 8 miles long!  Kurt asked about camping & were advised there was a perfect overlook where we should camp which was on that rough road that would lead us to the trailhead.

 

The Moon House trail proved to be a challenge.  At one point there was a blind drop off that some previous helpful trailblazers had attempted to build up from the bottom with a bunch of rocks.  We first attempted a different path down, but after I almost slipped down the side of a sheer drop-off, we decided to go with the other.  It still had a big drop which we decided we would feel better doing with ropes.  I spent several minutes regaining my composure and getting my heart & respiratory rates back to normal after the near fall, then we headed back to the car to get our only rope, a thin rope that was intended to be used to hoist food for hanging in a tree, if needed.  After securing it to a rock, we maneuvered down the blind drop without difficulty.

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The ruins were definitely worth every bit of effort we put into getting there!  It made us wonder about the primitive people so many thousands of years ago that had built them & the fact that they were still standing after all this time – a true testament to their resourcefulness & ingenuity!  After exploring them for a while, we headed back to the car to try & get a good camp spot for the night.  We found the recommended scenic overlook & set up camp.  As the sun receded, the stars came out & were so clear you felt like you could reach up & grab them.  The Milky Way was even visible.  We sat in our camp chairs for hours viewing them before it got too cold & we headed into the tent for the night.

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After our delicious oatmeal breakfasts, we headed out to the Collin’s Canyon trailhead to explore & look for some pictographs that were described in a trail guide that we’d purchased.  It was a warm sunny day and we found the trail description a bit lacking the guide.  After some maneuvering, we finally found our first pictograph: The picture of a family high upon the side of a rock face.  We took photos & headed off to find our 2nd point of interest the pictograph of 100 hands.  The trail description for this hike was even more elusive and after several different attempts in various directions, we decided to abandon our efforts to find it.  We headed back to the car, then stopped at the Natural Bridges campground to see if there were any spots for the night, which there weren’t.  We opted for a remote campsite down a dirt road, which was again, wonderfully quiet.

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The next day we drove to our next exploration area:  Bryce Canyon National Park.  Upon arrival at the park gate we asked the attendant about the weather forecast.  He stated that it would start raining that night & continue through the following day.  He recommended that the next day we just explore the various overlooks from the canyon road and save our hiking for the subsequent days.  We found one of the few remaining campsites in the park.  Unfortunately, there was much heavy (noisy) equipment/construction underway and the remaining spot wasn’t ideal.  We setup camp, cooked dinner & no sooner had we gotten into the tent for the night before the rain started.  It rained throughout the night and continued through the next morning.  Wishing I’d brought our canopy shelter to put over the picnic table as others in the campground had done, we opted to head to the lodge for an $8.50 oatmeal breakfast (yikes!), rather than cook in the rain.  The temps had dropped, the rain had picked up, the fog had rolled in & the wind was pushing the rain sideways.  We headed off to several overlooks, however, with the fog & very cold rain, we didn’t get to see much that day.  The rain finally let up just before sunset.  We headed back to our tent to find the rain had sputtered mud up on the bottom sides of the tent.  It was dry on the inside, which is the more important part, so we tucked ourselves in for a cold night.  A ranger had mentioned to us that Zion National Park had closed for traffic in & out of the park due to the rain.  That concerned us because that was our next destination.  We discussed potential alternate plans that night in the tent.

 

The temp the next morning was 36 degrees – burr – but we were excited to finally get to hike in Bryce.  We decided to hike into the Navajo & Peekaboo canyon trails.  The views were phenomenal!  Hoodoo after colorful hoodoo kept us entranced!  A steep climb in & out of the hoodoos was every bit worth the effort.  The weather was perfect!  After a fun day of hiking, we decided to clean up our muddy tent & drive on to Zion to spend our remaining days hiking there, as the temps in Bryce were projected to get down to 29 overnight.

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We grabbed an inexpensive hotel for the night in Mt Carmel, UT, just outside the east entrance to the park.  The next morning we headed off to Zion.  The 1.1 mile tunnel at the east entrance into the park is something of a marvel.  The construction of it began in the late 1920’s and was completed in 1930, and at the time was the longest tunnel of its kind in the US.  Exiting the unique tunnel, we had to maneuver a twisty-curvy road down into the canyon with many other Zion-bound tourists.  We headed straight to the Visitor’s Center to inquire about the trail conditions and campsites.  A big whiteboard posted behind the attendant gave us the campsite information we were seeking:  Campsite:  “Full”.  She advised us that we could check back by 8am the next morning to see if there were any openings.  Instead we drove out of the park through the southern exit into Springdale & opted for a commercial campground, outfitted with Wi-Fi, showers, a laundromat & pool.  We found a decent spot, set up the tent, and headed out to do some hiking.

 

We discovered that the only places most tourists are allowed to drive to in the park are the Visitor’s Center & the Museum.  From there visitors must take a park shuttle to go to the various trailheads & sites within the canyon.  We jumped onboard & decided to do a moderately easy hike with a ton of other tourists to the Emerald Pools.

 

The next day we decided to hike the much touted Angel’s Landing trail.  A description of Angel’s Landing from Zion’s website describes the trail as “a narrow rock fin with dizzying drop-offs on both sides. The trail culminates at a lofty perch, boasting magnificent views in every direction. One would think that this narrow ridge with deep chasms on each of its flanks would allure only the most intrepid of hikers. Climbers scale its big wall; hikers pull themselves up by chains and sightseers stand in awe at its stunning nobility.”  Although only 5 miles in distance, the guide warns to expect your average hiking time to be 5 hours.  The difficulty level is ranked as “strenuous”.  Unbelievably, a large percentage of this very steep trail was actually paved!  Pedestrian traffic both up and down the trail proved to be a challenge, particularly when we got to the narrow ridge with the chains.  Once atop the ridge, we shared a fairly small area with many others & decided pretty quickly that we were ready to head back down.  The down (as usual) ended up being worse that the up for me, and I ended up with a big blister on my foot by the end of it.

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We debated about which trail to do for our final day of hiking in this spectacular place.  The Narrows was one option.  We walked a short distance down a paved trail to the start of the Narrows Trail & unfettered our boots to dip our feet in and “test the waters”.  Kurt dropped his Garmin watch with a thermometer into the water to determine that it was between 55-56 degrees – too uncomfortable to withstand for long.  The Narrows hike would entail hiking through the water for much of the day, oftentimes with water up to your mid-thigh & eventually causing you to have to swim.  We noted that most people coming off the trail had rented dry suits at a local outfitter.  After inquiring & determining that it would cost $41/ea for dry suit rental, we started looking into some of the other trails in the park for our last hike.  On our way back to the shuttle a girl going the opposite direction stopped & noticed my Redman 2014 shirt & asked if I’d done the Redman triathlon.  She introduced herself as Susie Morgal, a newly transplanted Utahan from Oklahoma.  She’d also done the Redman in the past & knew many of the same wonderful Tri-OKC athletes that I’d gotten to know the past year while training for the half ironman.  It was wonderful to talk to a fellow Okie & triathlete!

 

We decided that the Observation Point trail sounded intriguing.  The next day we took the shuttle to the trailhead & started up the paved switchbacks leading 4 miles (8 miles round trip) up to Observation Point.  Not as heavily traveled as Angel’s Landing, this trail would actually go higher so that we could look down upon & view Angel’s Landing across the canyon.  We lunched at the top as we looked over the edge into the vast canyon.  Although we could see Angel’s Landing, it was far enough away that we could only barely view some people on it.

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Although sad to have to leave this wondrous part of our country, we were determined that future vacations would certainly find us back here enjoying its beauty!

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