Yosemite (Pronounced Yo-Seh-Mighty in my book)

Original Post: August 16, 2015

Leaving Sequoia National Park, I was excited to head to Yosemite.  Yosemite.  That amazing park where Ansel Adams produced so many phenomenal photographs.  Images that influenced my love for photography, perhaps even images that fueled my insatiable love for nature. (Though I admit, early childhood hikes with family had already sparked that fire.)  When I “discovered” Ansel Adams, I was a freshman in high school and my Intro to Photography class with Mr. King taught black and white film photography.  We learned to develop our own 35 mm film, used the dark room to produce photo prints, and broke into the photo room like James Bond with our school ID cards – a skill all of the photo students at Freedom High possessed.  How else were we supposed to get our work done if we couldn’t find Mr. King to open the photo room for us? Given the digital age, I wonder if that class is still offered.

In a short 2-hour drive, I would soon be in the very park that had inspired my love of landscape photography.

Oh, but I should have known by now that no anticipated drive time was ever truly accurate.  2 hours to Yosemite, yes, but another 3 beyond that to the campground we had booked. Outside of the park. To the east.

Let me present this image to you to make our dilemma even clearer:

But, that wasn’t all of the fun!  No!  Tioga Pass Road (i.e. The Road from Hell) is the ONLY road through the park.  And it was under construction.  One lane closed on a two lane road.  You don’t have to be a genius to figure what fun that brings.  It means…you guessed it, we sat and waited for 20 minutes while the traffic coming the other way followed a pilot vehicle (a very slow-moving pilot vehicle) through the construction zone, before the pilot vehicle would turn around and lead traffic in the opposite direction.  But we didn’t get to experience this fun just ONCE.  We went through two large sections of road like this, adding about an extra hour to the trip.

Our only bonus, we got to see a bear butt.  No, not a bare butt (although he wasn’t wearing clothes), but a bear butt.  The black bear had just crossed the road as we arrived and we got to gawk as a he continued on into the woods, having really only been able to see his rear thanks to the line of cars that had stopped before us to watch him cross.

By the time we passed Tuolumne Meadows Campground, we were beat and in no mood to drive another hour to our campground.  So, we decided to ignore the “Full” sign by the roadside and check to see if they had any availability.  We were in luck (Or were we?  More on that later.) and they had a single site available.  Relieved, particularly since it had started to rain, we headed to our site.

Oh, but the camp site.

We arrived to a large puddle of water covered in a delightful chartreuse-colored slime.  I’m still not sure to this day whether it was pollen (from pines?) or just a slime residue from the trunks, but the stuff was everywhere.  The puddle leading to our campsite was just the most offensive build-up of it.

We set up the tent in the steady rain, hurrying to get it done before the real downpour began and to our amusement (yes, that’s a little sarcasm), the rain stopped the instant the tent was set up.  Lovely.

Part of the reason we had chosen to stop at Tuolumne Meadows instead of continuing on to our previously booked campground had to do with the fact that I wanted to capture photos of moonbows, a phenomenon that only happens at a certain time of night, at a certain time of the month, with very specific conditions needed.  In order to capture moonbows (yes, that’s a new link), I needed to be able to be at Yosemite falls at night during this very specific time.  By fate or by simple good fortune, we were at Yosemite during a full moon.  Condition number one was met.  And we could be at the falls when the moon was no higher than 42 degrees in the sky.  Condition number two – check.  And, of course, the sky needed to be clear.

(Hear the chirping crickets on that one?)

Oh, right, the rain.  Well, the forecast still looked optimistic, so I just hoped that it was true and I could look forward to the sky clearing.

The drive back to the falls was at least an hour and a half from Tuolumne Meadows.  Add in the extra hour to the campground we should have been staying in and you’ve got a 2 1/2 hour drive in the middle of the night on a winding road in pitch black that we would have been taking.  Not my idea of a good time, though let it be duly noted that I was up for whatever it took to get the moonbows on film.  Er, make that on my SD card.  Whatever.

We were prepared to drive it.

We were not, however, prepared for the unpredictable weather.  It stormed the entire night, a storm that produced lots of lightning and thunder and pouring, pouring rain.  Hooray, more chartreuse slime to look forward to!  (And all over our tent nonetheless!)

Yes, it was safe to say that night number one for Yosemite was a bust.  But I still had high hopes that perhaps night two would fare better.  Thank goodness I’d thought ahead to plan TWO nights at Yosemite.  (Can you hear me snickering in that statement?)

On a side note, does Tuolumne Meadows Campground sound familiar to you?  If you keep up to date on the news, you should be well-aware that it was closed down this very week due to the discovery of two dead squirrels who had been infected with…the plague.  That’s right.  The plague.  The one that killed 25 million people in the 14th century. This one.   

Well, we’ve been plague-free for over a month now, so I think we’re probably in the clear.  They say that fleas are the only way to become infected (and the primary route of transmission between animals and people), but I’m still left pondering that creepy, yellow slime.  Perhaps the fleas are a coverup…

To See a Giant

Original Post: August 11, 2015

Though we could have enjoyed the coast forever (And really, who couldn’t?), we packed up early and hit the road for Sequoia National Park to meet with The General.  (Sherman, that is.)  We were on our way early and fully prepared for hitting LA traffic in full-on rush hour.  Yeah. Well. It’s one thing to say that and another to do it.  We weren’t really prepared.

How can you be prepared for this?  See those red dashes?  That’s a delay.

Los Angeles traffic only added an extra hour to the trip and I guess we should have been grateful for that.  It could have been worse.

One thing we discovered along the way was that most of California looks like this:

With the exception of the times it looked like this:

Or like this:

Seriously – weird, grassy, rolling hills or orange orchards or vineyards.  That was it.  I’m certain there must be more to California than this, but in all the miles we traveled (from San Diego to the Redwoods) this was, more or less, what we saw.

We reached Sequoia National Park at three in the afternoon and headed straight for the world’s largest tree. But first, a massive downpour.  It was hard to imagine that California was in a drought when the view through our windshield was hardly visible at all.

When we finally got to into the park and had our first views of Sequoias, our jaws dropped.  There is nothing that can prepare one for the sheer mass that is a few-thousand year old Sequoia.  They are awesome in the true sense of the word. The gorgeous rust-hued trunks are not what you would expect.  I put my hand on one and expected to feel a tree trunk (duh, right?), but I was shocked to feel a soft texture, almost spongy.

We made our way down the path to General Sherman, and while he was not the most gorgeous specimen, he was regal nonetheless.  There was a line to take photos next to him.  Dutifully, I stood in line so that Nate could get a picture of me with the tree, but no camera could really capture the stunning presence that these trees have.  (So go see them in person!  You won’t be sorry!)

If Sequoias can convince Nate to hug a tree, they can convince anyone.

We made our way to Lodgepole Campground, which was, hands down, one of the best sites we booked on the trip.  The park ranger who checked us in quickly reminded us that we were in bear country and that just the night before, they’d had to shoo away a black bear from the campgrounds.  This made me somewhat nervous, as I’d booked a campsite on the outskirts of the grounds.  Oh well.  You only live once, right?  And that’s what bear boxes are for.

The campsite was perfect, and right next to the Kaweah River (which was more like a creek at that point in time) and you know exactly where Nate went.  Fishing, of course.

The native brook trout, though tiny, were feisty and Nate caught several.  Since they weren’t used to people, Nate discovered that some stealth was required to catch them.  If they saw you, they were gone…  

Of the woods, Sequoia National Park was one of my favorites.  It’s a long and windy drive to get to (But unlike the Rockies, there were guard rails and stone walls!) and it’s a hike to see General Sherman (although there is handicapped access available), but it was worth every second. 

And we managed to avoid a bear encounter.  Woohoo – that’s two for two in bear country!  Safe!

Even the Best Laid Plans Go Awry

Original Post: August 2, 2015

Hooray, we were finally blessed with a day when we could wake up slowly and take the day easily.  I had booked two nights at the Grand Canyon and we were grateful for the down time.  Showers and shopping for souvenirs before a short drive to Cape Royal where we’d been told by another camper and photographer that there’s a great view of the canyon, perfect for pictures.

View from Cape Royal.  I almost didn’t want to Google this one.  Made me want to cry.  Photo Credit: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get2/I00002fMl9VpSyxs/fit=1000×750/Grand-Canyon-Wotans-Throne-8334.jpg

But Cape Royal (or Cape Royale as Nate wanted to call it) was not in our future.  Our plan was ultimately foiled by a turnoff for Green Lake.  There was a trail off the side of the road that looked little used and we figured it had to be worth the short hike just to see what might lie ahead.  Not 50 yards in, I stopped to take a photo.  When we began to move forward again, I foolishly adjusted my camera and wasn’t watching the trail.  I rolled my ankle on a loose rock, felt a snap, and let out a string of imaginative curses I could only have put together in pain.

It was several minutes before I could place my foot back on the ground and bear any weight on it and only when I was sure it wasn’t broken did we make our way back to the car.  I won’t lie.  I was in tears on the way back to the campground.  I saw all of the plans I’d spent so long preparing (much of which involved hiking) fall to pieces with my five seconds of stupidity.  And accompanying this regret?  A flashback of my honeymoon, where I ended up with acute tendonitis in the very same ankle from walking a few miles in sandals, causing my new husband and I to miss our scheduled trip to scuba dive the coral reefs in the Bahamas.  It’s twelve years later and we still haven’t done it.

I took three Ibuprofen and as soon as we got back to the camp, settled in the tent, put my leg up, and iced the ankle for three hours.  I discovered it didn’t hurt at all once it had gone numb.  Nice!

The good news – it wasn’t a bad enough injury to stop me from enjoying the rest of my trip and participating in everything I wanted to do, with the exception of a hike in or on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  

The bad news – it’s definitely injured and will take a few months to heal.  Since I’ve dealt with tendonitis frequently in my wrists, my ankles, and my knees in the past, I’m pretty sure that’s what I injured.  Now, a month later, it’s a whole lot better than it was, but it’s still not great!  Give me two more months at least.

The worst news – I injured it after taking this shot

That wasn’t even worth it! 

The only good news from this day?  At least there were several lookout points we could drive to.  I did get a few decent photos, but I’ll just have to face it.  The Grand Canyon was simply bigger than I was this day.  I’ll suppose this means I’ll just have to return to conquer it another day!   (Just twist my arm…  Hmm, maybe a bad phrase to use, given that I’ve already twisted the ankle.)

Hot Stuff

Original Post: July 29, 2015

No, not that Zion.

As if driving through the Utah landscape wasn’t torture enough, we faced another scorching day.  Leaving Bryce, we found the first place to shower since we’d left Missouri and I swore I heard a heavenly choir when I stepped into that shower stall.  Or perhaps that was me.  The bathroom was empty and everyone knows showers have great acoustics…

After showering and doing a quick load of laundry, we headed to the road and to Zion National Park.  Talk about a phenomenal park entrance!  Zion has an incredible road that travels straight through the mountain for 1.1 miles.  The tunnel is exceptionally dark and it is, hands down, a million times cooler experience than driving the Lincoln Tunnel.  Oh, right. The Lincoln Tunnel isn’t really that cool (at least if you’ve been in it a few dozen times).  Plus, if you’re really daring, you can park your car near the entrance of this tunnel and walk through it.  That’s right.  There’s a walkway!  And a “secret” window about halfway through that takes you to a lookout point – only viewable by foot.  Nate and I said we were definitely going to do it, but time got away from us and we ended up missing that opportunity.

It was amazing to me that the views in Zion were so drastically different from those in Bryce Canyon just a few hours’ drive northeast.  Everything in Zion was bigger, more solid, and yes, still breathtaking.  The biggest shock, perhaps, came when we reached our campsite at Watchman Campground to find that it was 100% in direct sun, there was no shade in sight, it was 2 pm, 104 degrees, and the sun wasn’t due to set for another 6 hours at least.

Oh, and of all of the campgrounds I’d booked for this trip, it was the only one I’d managed to secure that was a walk-in site, meaning that we had to carry everything from our car in the parking lot to our campsite about 50 yards away.  That doesn’t sound too awful until you start to do it in 104 degree heat and direct sunlight.  It didn’t seem to matter how much water I consumed, I was sweating it out as fast as I could put it in.  So much for that shower this morning.

The Watchman

We dragged our picnic table off the camp pad and next to the only tree around (which didn’t provide much shade, either) and watched a couple of fawns in the brush behind us as they warily kept an eye on us, trying to figure out whether they should continue foraging or take off in our presence.  The temperatures didn’t seem to bother them in the least. I wished I had their outlook.

The heat didn’t do much for our nerves either.  Nate was instantly annoyed with me for having booked such a site, even if our view was of The Watchman. And I felt horribly guilty as if I should somehow have known that the weather would be so unbearably and unseasonably (for the time of year, anyway) hot.  Somehow, we managed not to bite each other’s heads off and decided that putting up the tent was out of the question. Instead, we headed to catch the shuttle bus through the park to hike the Emerald Pools.  (Just like my spreadsheet said: 6/25/15 Zion, Hike Emerald Pools 1-4 pm.)  I was in no mood to hike, but it seemed to be the only place where we might find some shade.  And though spending hours in the gift shop was an option, I’m not much of a “crowd” person and the gift shop really wasn’t that big.

Photo credit: http://turville-photo.com/Resources/EmeraldPoolMini.jpg?55

Thankfully, once we joined the trail, temperatures immediately dropped in the shade and, though we were still sweating, it was no longer intolerably uncomfortable.  We reach the Lower Pool after about an hour or so (it was a slow hike), and were surprised by how empty it seemed.  Where was my gleaming pool that I was itching to photograph?  It was supposed to look like this —>

It was underwhelming to say the least…but oh, right, there’s that little thing called evaporation that happens when it’s hotter than hell out.  What I didn’t realize before coming to Zion was that what I actually wanted to see and believed I would see at the Emerald Pools  was this (below): 

(Photo credit: http://www.harrylichtman.com/imgs/gallery/17160/17160_9190466484ee17517119ea.jpg & Photo Credit: http://zuzog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/80ec1fffa646c411111fe84b1d457da1.jpg)

Oh, I’d seen the photos and I couldn’t wait to see it in person.  But, I didn’t do enough research into where exactly these particular Emerald Pools were located.  These bad boys aren’t on the Emerald Pool trail at all.  They’re on the Subway.  That’s right.  The Subway.  (Because that’s just where gorgeous, natural, emerald-colored pools always are, right?)  A 9.5 mile hike requiring 7 hours, rappelling skills, and one of 80 permits issued by the park per day – none of which I had.  Well then.

But no disappointment lasts long in any national park.  Our trail back led us to these cuties, and I managed to get at least one worthy landscape shot (of the trickle that barely flowed).

One thing we noticed in Zion, and even in the previous parks before, was that wildlife didn’t seem to be intimidated by humans at all.  Sure, if you got too close, they’d take off, but most of the time you could walk right by and you’d get an ear flick or a tail swish as acknowledgement.  It was like living in a Disney film.  (I wonder what would have happened if I’d broken out in song…  Ah, well.  Too damn hot to try.)

When we reach our campground again, the site was still blazing hot.  Dinner?  You bet – someplace air conditioned, please.  We ended up stopping at Flanigan’s Spotted Dog Cafe just outside the park.  Once inside, the decor indicated that perhaps we were a bit underdressed (and undoubtedly wearing more sweat stains than necessary), but other patrons were similarly dressed and the hostess greeted us warmly.  The menu looked fabulous and made me believe that this restaurant was really quite out of place.  But, thank goodness.  Air conditioning AND real food!  It’s a minor miracle.  For Nate – filet mignon.  For me – pasta “purses” – homemade ravioli made from pear and ricotta and quite out of this world.  If I ever end up on death-row (for a crime I didn’t commit, naturally), please note that I choose pasta purses from Flanigan’s to be my final meal.  The view from our table (in the air conditioned cafe – did I mention that it was air conditioned?) was nothing short of spectacular.

By the time we left the cafe, the sun was near setting, but not down yet. I came up with the brilliant idea of — shopping!  Off we went for a few necessities, a few souvenirs, and by the time we returned to the camp- ground, the sun was finally off the site.  Oh, but it wasn’t so simple. Once we had the tent set up, the sand continued to bake us through the floor of the tent and the insulating layers we used as cushioning all night long.  It was like sleeping on an electric blanket set to high heat. Great in the wintertime.  Not so great when all you want to do is cool off!

Regardless we finally managed to get some rest…

…Until about 2 am.  Ridiculous wind gusts we never could have imagined made the windows of the tent (which had remained open for air flow in our little oven) flap like an entire flock of birds.  Raging nylon from every direction!  We managed to secure everything down quickly and settle in again.

But now my mind was awake and turning.  “I wonder what the sky looks like right now…”  Finally, I gave in to the impulse, set up the camera and unzipped the tent.

Wow.  Glad I did.

So, sometimes, my friends, when the wind wakes you up in the middle of the night, there’s a reason.  You just have to figure it out.  (This same reasoning does not apply to infants and toddlers, by the way.  There is no way to figure that out.  Ever.)

Yep, hot stuff alright.  Definitely visit Zion National Park.  In the spring.  Or the fall.  Or good God, any season but summer.

The Longest Drive

Original Post: July 27, 2015

The title of this post might be slightly misleading.  The drive from Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to Arches National Park was hardly the longest drive.  Not even close, in fact, but there’s something about the Utah scenery (or lack thereof) that makes the drive exceptionally monotonous.  The desert is initially amazing and we were instantly in love with the color and the scrub, but as hour upon hour passed, we were over it. It went something like this: mountain, rock, scrub brush, mountain, rock, scrub brush, rock, rock, scrub, scrub, rock, scrub, and so on and so forth…for four hours.

As a bonus, we reached Arches National Park about an hour earlier than expected.  Suffice it to say that Arches is one park that I couldn’t possibly have realized the immensity of when I booked our stop.  It was once again 100 degrees, though the sky was relatively overcast, which worked to our benefit in that we could walk without being in direct sun, but I was still disappointed that I wouldn’t get the chance to capture any amazing photos of arches with that incredible blue, blue Utah sky behind them.

If you ever have the urge to see Arches (and who doesn’t?), my recommendation is to take a few days to see the park.  There are a ton of different arches to view and many of them can only be seen by hiking.  That means lots of time, which we just didn’t have.  The road through the park is well laid out and it’s a good substitute to actually hiking the park (especially in 100 degrees), but don’t expect to get close to some of the more well-known arches like Landscape Arch and Delicate Arch.  

We were rewarded after a few hours with some bluer skies and we managed to get a few photos of brilliant orange-hued rocks against a more interesting background than cloud cover.  If nothing else, it was nice to see the sun…especially since we were returning to our air-conditioned car after a short hike fighting through the crowded walkways filled with people of questionable intelligence.  No, truly, we really encountered some true nuts.  One such nut comes to mind instantly.  We dubbed him goat-boy. (Though, believe me when I say that his act was not nearly as hilarious as that SNL skit years ago…)  Crazy goat-boy jumped from rock to rock, running at full speed, and urged his parents to hurry because “this is the fastest way down.”  (He was close to being correct.  Had he stumbled, we would have seen him go down…really fast.)  As it was, he ended his hike directly in front of us – by about two whole feet – on the walkway despite his ridiculous “Look at me!” antics. But we all know that teens are immortal, so I guess I should keep my stodgy old-lady opinions to myself.

Hooray, only a 5 hour drive from Arches to Bryce Canyon National Park.  That’s nothing, right?  Wrong.

Oh, so wrong.

Both Nate and I were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were being featured in an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a warped time-space continuum meant that we were actually stuck in an endless loop, forced to live out our remaining days in the Utah desert, never actually reaching our destination.  My proof:

How long until we ran out of water?  Haven’t we seen this landscape before?  I swear it was an hour ago when I looked at the clock, but it’s only registered that three minutes have passed.  What is going on?  We were nearly delirious by the time we reached Bryce Canyon. (And we DID finally reach Bryce Canyon.)

Real men wear coral.  (I’m sorry…Cabela’s calls it ‘citrus.’)

About an hour from Bryce, we decided to stop for gas and to pick up a few grocery essentials, paper plates, bread, etc.  It was a tiny town called Marysvale and it is exactly what you would expect to encounter when you believe you’re traveling in The Twilight Zone.  The locals were sitting on the front porch of the convenience store and gave us the hairy eyeball as we walked inside.  I guessed they didn’t see many outsiders on a regular basis.  Or it could have been because they’ve never seen a man wear a shirt this color.

I suppose we could have purchased a Marysvale sweatshirt (yep, they really were for sale at the gas station/grocery store/ice cream shop/souvenir shop) so that he fit in a little better, but somehow I doubted that would have been adequate camouflage.

The entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park was impressive.  Upon entering, the first thing we noticed was the drive through a squat tunnel carved out of the red Utah Rock.  It was akin to driving through a wall (only without the resistance of a wall, naturally…).  All in all, it was pretty spectacular.  When we finally reached the campground, we set up camp and looked forward to doing nothing but sleeping.  It was already early evening and I, for one, was tired of walking after having taken lots of short hikes in the heat around Arches earlier that day.  Plus, I’m pretty sure my retinas were slightly burned out after staring at the desert for hours on end.  I’m pretty certain that I’ll  see scrub brush in my sleep for years to come. Perhaps I’ll see a doctor about that…

And yet, once again, temptation was too great.  It was sunset.  And going to the canyon rim at this time meant that I wouldn’t have to get up at sunrise the next morning as originally planned.  This plan had some merit.  So, off we went, and as it turned out, the rim of the canyon was only a half mile or so from the camp.  

The view was instantly revitalizing.  Breathtaking.  Bryce Canyon was one of the destinations I had most looked forward to on this trip.  I had always admired those incredible spires (which I learned were actually called hoodoos….yeah, you can say it.  I know you’re thinking it.  Hoodoo that voodoo?) and thought that Bryce just seemed to have this indisputable energy.

I was 100% correct.  Instant awe.

Of all of the places we visited, Bryce has definitely landed itself in my top three short list.  Once the sun finally set low enough that it no longer illuminated the hoodoos, we headed for the campground and for the blissful oblivion known as sleep.

Bryce Canyon at sunset.

But guess what?  We’re at an altitude not much different from our campground in Maroon Bells.  And we’re still up several times a night to visit the bathroom.  No one tells you about this part of traveling high altitudes.  Drink, yes.  Stay hydrated, yes.  Pee a lot, funny, I read not a word about it.  I suppose it should go without saying that one thing leads to another, but really…perhaps I just thought I’d sweat it off.  I digress.

Despite the fact that we’d visited the canyon the night before, we greeted Day 6 at 5:30 and were at the rim of Bryce Canyon by 6 am for a stunning sunrise.  Far more photographic than sunset the night before and I was grateful that sleeping in a tent was so revitalizing despite our wacky schedule.

After the sunrise, Nate turned to me with a question.  “Hike?”

Well, heck, yeah!  He didn’t have to ask me twice!

Off we went, into the canyon, amongst the hoodoos. We hiked for two hours, beating the heat of the day with the timing and enjoying some of the most indescribable scenery.  Amazing in every way. 

It should be illegal for someplace so striking to be located somewhere so desolate.  Utah, of all places.  But, I suppose that’s the biggest part of what makes it so amazing. If it were in Phillipsburg, NJ, I’m willing to bet the charm somehow just wouldn’t be there.

Just as the temps neared the 90s, we reached the top of the rim, took one last glance behind, and returned to camp to embark on the rest of Day 6, blissfully unaware that we were about to discover the true Utah desert in a way we hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t have imagined.  Soon enough.