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Big, Beautiful, Big Bend National Park

Big, Beautiful, Big Bend National Park

Posted by on Apr 5, 2018 in Gallery, National Parks, Texas, Travel | 36 comments

Thank you, dear friends, for your compassionate, generous, and supportive comments in response to my last blog post. While this blog is primarily about our travels, everything that happens along the way is part of the journey. I don’t write about every flat tire or mosquito bite, but I do write about the big challenges. Your kindness buoys our spirits and helps us know we’re not alone as we navigate this epic adventure called life.

Flipping back through the calendar pages to the cusp of the New Year finds us in Big Bend National Park. According to Native American legend, after the Great Spirit created heaven and earth he dumped all the leftover rocks into a big pile, and the Big Bend was born. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? I assure you, that legend doesn’t tell the whole story.

This is not a place you just happen upon. We’ve come close numerous times in our travels across West Texas, but it wasn’t until the last of December that we turned onto the two-lane road that would take us seventy miles from the nearest town into that giant pile of rubble known as Big Bend National Park.

Big Bend National Park

It is remote, rugged, and wild. And far more beautiful than I imagined (truthfully, I didn’t imagine it would be beautiful. I imagined dry, rocky, and barren. I was wrong).

Even the National Park Service waxes poetic in describing the park: “There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone…this magical place is Big Bend.”

Painted hills on the road to Boquillas Canyon

We spent a week in the park, hiking as many of the trails as we could squeeze into short winter days, rafting a section of the Rio Grande, and best of all, sharing adventures with our good friends and fellow full-time travelers Beth and Perry. Our verdict: This truly is a magical place.

Big Bend National Park is enormous. Covering more than 1250 square miles of desert and mountainous terrain, it takes more than an hour to get from one side of the park to the other. But there’s no traffic. And the roads are peaceful and scenic.

We stayed in a private RV park just outside the entrance to the west side of the park. Upon arrival, I had one of those “Uh-oh, what have I gotten us into?” moments. The park is hard packed dirt, the sites are not well-defined, and scattered around the property is a random assortment of junk, most of which the owner intends to use for some project someday. Oh, and there’s an old cemetery for added ambiance.

Our view at Study Butte RV Park

Curiously, there’s a cemetery at Study Butte RV Park

As it turns out, it was a wonderful place to stay. The internet is free and fast, the owner is friendly and accommodating, and the park is quiet and has memorable sunsets and dark night skies filled with stars.

We started our explorations at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. The film about the park is excellent, and the map and list of hikes we picked up was invaluable in planning our time. While there, we decided to hike the Grapevine Hills Trail, which isn’t far from the visitor center. It turned out to be one of our favorite short hikes in the park.

First stop: Panther Junction Visitor Center

A VW camper caravan

The Grapevine Hills Trail on a cold, late December day

We happened to be at the park the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There were a couple of nights of unseasonably cold temperatures (dropping into the 30’s) and a couple of days of chilly hiking, especially when the wind was blowing. But we’ll take cold any day over hot, especially in Big Bend, where there’s not much shade to be found and the temperatures can soar to 95 degrees by late spring.

On the way to Balanced Rock, the big attraction on the Grapevine Hills Trail

It’s a short hike at less than two miles round-trip, but has some fun rock scrambling

Beneath the famous Balanced Rock

Surreal views from the top of the Grapevine Hills Trail

Adventures On The West Side

The 31-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (named for the first park superintendent, who helped design the route) is the highlight of the west side of the park. We set out bright and early on a chilly morning to drive the trail, stopping often to admire the views and  hiking a variety of short trails along the way. At the end of the day, we’d hiked about seven miles, and spent many more miles entranced by the mosaic of canyons, cliffs, desert, and clouds.

On the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Beginning our adventures in Big Bend with Perry and Beth

At the Sotol Vista Overlook

On the Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail; about one mile round-trip

Purple prickly pear provides a bit of color during the winter

Admiring the Burro Mesa Pouroff

On the Mule Ears Spring Trail; about 4 miles round trip

See the Mule Ears in the distance?

We finished up our day on the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which begins rather elaborately with paved switchbacks and stone retaining walls before descending to the river. The trail hugs the Rio Grande and offers a glimpse of the temple-like canyons carved from limestone promised by the national park.

Beginning the ascent into Santa Elena Canyon; about 1.6 miles round trip

The Rio Grande is the watery border between the U.S. and Mexico

Along the Santa Elena Canyon Trail

At the end of the trail in Santa Elena Canyon, overlooking the Rio Grande

Heading back down the concrete paved stairway

Curious to see the canyon from the water, we signed up for a half-day rafting expedition on the Rio Grande. Our guide was high-spirited and great fun and we learned a lot from her about the geology and history of the area. It’s not an inexpensive trip, though, and we realized in retrospect that we could have easily used our own kayaks and created our own shuttle.

Rafting on the Rio Grande with our very fun guide

It’s more of a float trip than a rafting trip

A great day for floating on the river

Adventures On The East Side

On the opposite side of the park from where we were staying, we explored the rocky desert-like terrain of Boquillas Canyon and the historic hot springs on the Rio Grande. This is one of the only places we encountered hordes of people (in Big Bend National Park, “horde” is a relative term. This is one of the least visited national parks in the country). Had we been there at any time other than Christmas break, we would have had the hot springs to ourselves.

On the road to Boquillas Canyon

Overlooking the Rio Grande on the Boquillas Canyon Trail

Trinkets made by craftspeople of Boquillas, Mexico

Jesus from Boquillas serenades hikers on the trail, sells trinkets, and makes a quick return to his home across the river if officials appear

The getaway canoe on the bank of the Rio Grande

Beth cooling off in the Rio Grande

A Mexican burro mama and baby come to drink from the river

On the Hot Springs Trail

Historic bathhouse on the trail

The hot spring was packed on this fine late December day

Adventures In The Chisos Basin

The Chisos Mountains are the crown jewel of the park. We chose two beautiful hikes here. The Window Trail is a 5.6 mile round-trip trek that descends 1,000 feet and ends abruptly at the pour-off for the basin. It’s a wonderful framed viewpoint with rocks worn to a glass-like smoothness by centuries of cascading water. You don’t want to get too close to the edge on this one.

The Window Trail

Heading down into the basin on the Window Trail

Stone walls along the trail; more of the handiwork of the CCC boys

A stone staircase, also created by the CCC, provides passage through the rocky chasm

Hiking up the carved stairs on the Window Trail

Admiring the view from The Window, the rock slick as glass from centuries of water cascading over the edge

Returning on the Window Trail

We saved the Lost Mine Trail for our last adventure in the park. The rugged, gorgeous trail climbs 1,100 feet over two and a half miles through a cool forest of pine, oak, juniper, and madrone with stunning views along the way of volcanic buttes rising from the desert floor. If we had to choose one not-to-be-missed hike, it would be this one. Or maybe the Window Trail. Or the Grapevine Hills Trail. I take it back—we don’t want to choose. We can’t choose.

Heading into the Chisos Canyon at daybreak

Views of the massive Casa Grande volcanic butte dominate the trail

A century plant (agave) dried bloom stalk on the beautiful trail

Stairs carved in pink granite, again thanks to the CCC

The pines and junipers on the trail look almost like bonsai

Nearing the end of the trail, with another view of Casa Grande

A volcanic pinnacle at the end of the Lost Mine Trail

About the campground

We were in Big Bend National Park the week between Christmas and New Year’s, one of the two busiest times at the park (March is the second busiest time). Even months ahead of time, there were no reservations available at Rio Grande Campground, the only RV campground within the park. All of the other campgrounds in the park are no hook-up, first-come first served, and most are unsuitable for anything but the smallest rig.

As it turns out, we were happy that we landed at Study Butte RV Park. The park has full hook-ups, the owner is great, and the internet is speedy and free. And it’s just a few miles from the town of Terlingua, which if you come to Big Bend, you do not want to miss.

Our site at Study Butte RV Park. It looks spacious in this photo because Beth and Perry had left. They were about three feet away, which is just the perfect distance with good friends! :-)

Next Up: Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua and Marathon, TX





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Wildflowers And Wildlife: Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Wildflowers And Wildlife: Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Posted by on Aug 14, 2017 in Gallery, National Parks, Travel, Washington | 36 comments

When we hiked on Hurricane Ridge a couple of years ago in October, we were enthralled by the display of autumn colors blanketing the hills. A fellow hiker on the trail remarked, “You really should come in the spring to see the wildflowers.” Hurricane Ridge went right back onto our list. (This is precisely why our list never gets any shorter.)

In late June this year, we hit the trail on a perfect day for another hiking adventure with our friends Pam and John. The sun was shining, the colors almost blinding, and we had a crystal clear view of the Olympics. As promised, the wildflowers were beautiful. But even better was the wildlife, which we didn’t expect.

Hurricane Ridge is the most easily accessed mountain area in Olympic National Park. A gently winding 17-mile road from Port Angeles climbs 5,242 feet to the visitor center. From there, we hiked the Hurricane Hill Trail (1.6 miles one way) to the top of Hurricane Ridge. It’s a beautiful trail, with grand views all along the way. If you’re lucky enough to have a clear day, from the crest of the ridge you’ll be treated to a panorama of snow-capped mountain ranges, islands, and the Strait of San Juan de Fuca.

Pam and John at the Hurricane Hill Trailhead

A stunningly gorgeous day on the trail

The views are grand all along the trail

We were hoping to see Olympic marmots, a species that lives only on the Olympic Peninsula. We saw them last time we were here, and sure enough, they made a repeat appearance. Apparently, Hurricane Hill is one of the best places to see these engaging creatures. They whistle to one another across the meadows, sun themselves on rocky outcroppings, and occasionally scamper across the trail. “Back in Pennsylvania, we call those groundhogs,” said John. (He’s right—they are groundhogs. But they are exotic groundhogs.)

A rare Olympic marmot crosses the trail (“Looks like a groundhog to me,” says John)

Trying to capture a photo mid-step as the marmot speeds by

Safely across the trail and striking a pose in the sun

As we hiked, we enjoyed displays of the colorful alpine wildflowers that thrive in the rocky, wind-buffeted landscape. Hurricane Ridge gets its name from the hurricane-force winds that assail the mountain, but we lucked out with nothing more than a gentle breeze. It couldn’t have been a more ideal day—once at the top, we had views of the Olympic and Cascade mountains, Canada’s Vancouver Island, and the San Juan Islands. We could even see Lopez, our island destination for the summer.

Alpine wildflowers on Hurricane Hill Trail

Lovely pasque flower (Pulsatilla spp.) on the mountainside

At the top of Hurricane Ridge

Views from Hurricane Ridge on a perfect day, including Lopez Island, our summer destination

We love seeing wildlife in the wild, in their natural environment. We even enjoy seeing black-tailed deer, which are a nuisance in our hometown in southern Oregon. There’s a thriving population of “city deer” in Ashland, and they annihilate everything. We tried planting deer proof plants, only to discover that the deer do not read the Sunset Garden Book. The deer are not cute when they’re mowing down your vegetable garden, emptying your bird feeders, killing your Japanese maples by rubbing their antlers on them, and spreading disease via ticks. An eight-foot tall cedar fence solved our problems.

Out here on the trail, where there isn’t an overpopulation of deer, we enjoy seeing them. A few joined us at our lunch spot at the top of Hurricane Ridge. And one popped out from behind a tree when Eric left the trail for a quick rest stop. (Yes, he takes his camera everywhere. You never know when a photo opportunity might come along, right?)

Lunch spot on Hurricane Ridge with deer (and Pam and John’s famous boots)

Not sure who was more surprised, Eric or the deer

Hills covered with sweetly-scented spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) on a side trail

Sharing a fun moment with good friends

Pam, Queen of the Mountain

There was still snow on parts of the trail in late June

Hiking back down the trail, we spotted a small gathering of people. We knew there was something interesting going on, and quickened our pace. The “something interesting” was a tiny black dot on the hillside. Up close (through our binoculars and camera lens) it was a big black bear.

A bear draws a small crowd of hikers

That tiny black dot is a bear

A better view through the magic of a zoom lens

We returned to the visitor center, thinking we were finished hiking—until we heard that mountain goats were hanging out near the Sunrise Point Trail. Mountain goats have been high on our list of critters that we’ve wanted to see, and our group unanimously agreed to try to find them. As it turns out, it would have been nearly impossible to miss them.

Heading back down the Hurricane Hill Trail

Hiking back up another trail; the view from Sunrise Point Trail

We hustled up the steep, partially snow-covered trail. Just before we reached the crest, we spotted a small herd grazing on the mountainside. When the goats decided to move in our direction, they used the trail, and we gave them right-of-way. Later, we learned that the goats are not native to the park, and have become problematic.

Mountain goats grazing near Sunrise Point Trail

The goats start making their way toward us

We backed up as far as we could on the narrow ridge

A mama goat and baby trotting by

I’m separated from our herd, and waiting for the goats to pass by

Local sportsmen introduced goats for hunting near Lake Crescent in the 1920s. In 1938, Olympic National Park was established, and the goats were off-limits to hunters. Since then, the goat population has increased by leaps and bounds. They damage native plant communities, seek out hikers for salt (from perspiration and urine), and although it’s unusual, they can be aggressive toward people.

When we returned to the visitor center after our hike, the ranger told us about a tragic incident a few years ago where a goat in the park killed a hiker. He advised that when we encounter goats on the trail, that we should stand our ground and not allow the goats to dominate. (“Right,” I thought. “You first!”)

Next Up: A Lighthouse Hike, Lavender Fields, And More: Sequim, WA

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A Rainy Day Hike To Sol Duc Falls

A Rainy Day Hike To Sol Duc Falls

Posted by on Aug 3, 2017 in Gallery, National Parks, Travel, Washington | 44 comments

Set deep within the temperate rain forest of Olympic National Park, Sol Duc Falls is considered to be one of the most photogenic waterfalls in Washington State. In years when water is abundant, the fall divides into four separate channels just before plunging 40 feet into a narrow, rocky ravine. We were looking forward to seeing this beauty for ourselves.

Our friends Pam and John also had Sol Duc Falls on their to-do list. On an overcast, misty morning with rain in the forecast, we set out to meet them at the trailhead. Ordinarily, none of us would deliberately choose to hike in the rain. But it turned out to be the perfect day for our adventure.

We discovered that hiking in a rainforest is best done in the rain. Not a drenching downpour—that would be miserable. But in a gentle rain, the mosses and ferns come alive, and the forest glows in every imaginable shade of green. The thick canopy of old growth firs and cedars protected us from all but a fine mist of moisture for most of our hike.

You can get to Sol Duc Falls via a short, easy trail of less than a mile. That’s what most people opt for. But a much more interesting route is the Lover’s Lane Trail, a loop of six miles that wanders through the lush, deep forest, over several rustic bridges, and one slightly sketchy boulder and log crossing.

At the Lover’s Lane Trailhead

The trees each have their own little forest of ferns and mosses

John and Eric in a jungle of bracken fern

An abundance of shelf fungi

Not sure if this bridge is up to code

Heading deeper into the forest

Beautiful bunchberry lines the trails

Eric tests the log crossing (he drew the short straw)

The expedition tackles the crossing

And yet another bridge; they’re sturdy, even if they don’t look like it 

The crown jewel of the trail—the falls—comes at the halfway mark. But the entire trail is gorgeous. I’d say it’s one of the prettiest we’ve ever hiked, and certainly the prettiest of our rainforest hikes in Olympic National Park.

Pretty little falls on the way to the “big one”

Beautiful Sol Duc Falls, with all four channels flowing abundantly

The Sol Duc River, a salmon highway

Bridge spanning the Sol Duc River

Two wildflowers in a sea of green :-))

A very fun day with Pam and John

The Sol Duc Valley is located in the northwest region of the park, about 35 miles southwest of our home-for-the-week at Salt Creek County Park. On the winding drive home, we passed by Lake Crescent, a beautiful glacially carved lake within Olympic National Park. Conveniently, it was happy hour. Muddy boots and all, we trudged into the lovely historic lodge for cocktails and an appetizer of Dungeness crab. Sitting in the glassed in sunroom, overlooking the sparkling lake, we toasted our four-year anniversary of our fulltime travels.

Lake Crescent Lodge, circa 1915

A sparkling afternoon at Lake Crescent

Cocktails and Dungeness crab after a great day of hiking; celebrating four years on the road

This has been a magnificent, beautiful, wondrous, and sometimes terrifying journey. Life has certainly taken us on a wild ride. We never expected some of the adventures we’ve encountered this past four years. But really, none of us ever know what’s around the corner. What we do know is that we’re very happy that we embarked on this journey four years ago.

Life is good. Really, really good. Our neighbor at Salt Creek County Park took this picture of our rig while photographing the Milky Way and was kind enough to share it with us. It seems like the perfect image to commemorate our four-year travel anniversary and our desire to keep on exploring. Here’s to following your dreams, whatever they may be!

Our rig under the Milky Way (courtesy of Ryan Hurd)

Next Up: Wildlife Adventures on Hurricane Ridge

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Return To The Edge Of The World: Neah Bay, WA

Return To The Edge Of The World: Neah Bay, WA

Posted by on Jul 21, 2017 in Gallery, National Parks, Washington | 24 comments

At the furthest northwesternmost point of the continental U.S., the wild, stormy coastline meets the deep, mysterious rainforest. This far-flung, untamed place is the land of the Makah, a Northwest Coastal people who have called the remote headland home for thousands of years.

We first visited Neah Bay and the Makah Reservation a couple of years ago, despite the advice we received from someone who told us, “There’s nothing there worth seeing.” Au contraire. This is exactly the kind of place that captures our interest, and we returned in mid-June for an adventure we missed the first time around.

Hiking to Cape Flattery

Just like last time, we hiked the trail to Cape Flattery, which is as far as you can go and still be in the continental U.S. This is sacred tribal land, and the Makah have declared Cape Flattery a nature sanctuary. A three-quarter mile rugged trail winds through the dense rainforest. At the end of the trail, cedar platforms resembling the prow of a canoe jut above the churning ocean, dramatic headlands, and hidden sea caves.

Trail through the rainforest to Cape Flattery

Viewing platforms built like the prow of a canoe

Cape Flattery looking north, with hidden sea caves tucked into the headlands

Hanging over the railing, we scanned the ocean for whales and puffins. No whales or puffins, but a family of sea otters appeared, rolling and playing in the waves, mama holding baby close.

Scanning the horizon at what feels like the edge of the world

A family of sea otters

Standing on the tip of Cape Flattery, we could see tiny Tatoosh Island in the distance. Once a fishing camp for the Makah, a lighthouse here has pointed mariners to the entrance of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca since 1857.

Tatoosh Island from Cape Flattery

Visiting the Museum of the Makah

We also paid a return visit to the Museum of the Makah Indian Nation, one of the most intriguing museums we’ve encountered anywhere in our travels. The artifacts within were discovered in 1970 at Ozette, a Makah village 15 miles south of Neah Bay.

The Makah Cultural Museum and Research Center totem archway

Entrance to the Museum of the Makah Indian Nation

During a storm in 1750, a catastrophic mudslide buried the village in 10 feet of clay, creating an oxygen-free environment that perfectly preserved five longhouses and objects of everyday life. For more than a decade, archaeologists and tribal members worked together to unearth more than 55,000 artifacts. It’s considered to be one of the most significant archaeological finds in North America.

Despite living in a challenging environment, buffeted by wild storms and drenched in 100 inches of rain each year, the Makah shaped a life of rich traditions, comfort, and beauty, creating what they needed from the abundance of the rainforest and ocean surrounding them. The museum is arranged according to the seasonal life of the Makah; thousands of artifacts in pristine condition are engagingly displayed. There’s a replica of a full-size longhouse and four beautiful cedar dugout canoes built by tribal members, and an excellent hour-long film on the Makah and the Ozette site.

Blankets woven of woodpecker feathers, dog hair, and cattail fluff; clothing woven of cedar bark (the inner bark was pounded until soft and pliable); baskets and boxes of red cedar; intricately carved and decorated tools and ceremonial items made of bone, shell, and wood; all survived centuries of burial in mud. It’s a remarkable and beautiful display of a unique culture. I wanted so much to take photos, but the tribe asks that we refrain, and we did.

Fabulous 20-foot tall carved cedar figures outside the Museum of the Makah Indian Nation

Hiking to Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches

“Generations of Makah people have used this area. If you are patient and respectful, its enduring beauty will enrich and teach you too.”

So reads a sign posted at the trail head to Shi Shi Beach (pronounced Shy-Shy). Located 8.5 miles south of Neah Bay, this remote beach bordering the Makah reservation became part of Olympic National Park in 1976. A two-mile hike through the rainforest (the first mile has partial boardwalk, built by the Makah) leads to the beach.

Trailhead for Shi Shi Beach

Cedar boardwalk through the forest; it starts off reasonably well

Beautiful fungi in the rainforest

Bridge on the Shi Shi Trail

We hiked this trail two years ago, but only to Shi Shi Beach. We returned this time to hike all the way to Point of Arches, for a total of 8 miles round-trip.

Never in all of our years of hiking have we encountered so much mud. The last time we hiked the trail to Shi Shi Beach it was muddy, but nothing like this. This was an epic mud bath, ankle deep in many places. We bushwhacked, made little bridges of logs, climbed trees, attempted great leaps. There was no way around the mud and the mud puddles. Why did we continue, you ask? Well, the worst of the mud didn’t start until about a mile in, and we kept thinking, “Surely this will improve!” It didn’t.

A muddy, miserable trail

Soggy, muddy, puddles—it has it all

Finally, after more than an hour of slogging, we reached the bluffs and caught our first glimpse of the beach below. A series of ropes help in navigating the 150-foot drop down to the beach. There, we stepped into the otherworldly landscape of rock spires, sea stacks, caves, and arches that decorate Shi Shi Beach.

Ropes help on the climb down the 150 foot bluff trail

Shi Shi Beach on a misty day

Otherworldly rock formations

We didn’t linger long, because our destination—Point of Arches—was another two miles down the beach. The hike was gorgeous, with exposed rock formations and tide pools all along the way, and views of Point of Arches coming closer as we walked.

Rock formations and tidepools on the hike to Point of Arches

Ochre sea stars and giant green anemones

Point of Arches in the distance

Crossing Petroleum Creek on the way to Point of Arches

A lone surfer on the beach (I can’t believe he hauled his surfboard down that muddy trail)

The ideal time to visit Point of Arches is at low tide, when the numerous tidepools are exposed. It’s a beautiful, peaceful hike, and the reward is a picturesque seascape of dozens of sea stacks, spires, arches, and caves, with tidepools surrounding it all. Ideally, we would have stayed overnight on the beach, which is what most people seem to do after making the effort to get here. The sunsets are reputed to be spectacular.

Point of Arches rock formations

Tidepools at Point of Arches

Seastack and arches at Point of Arches

Oystercatchers on the beach

Halfway back to Shi Shi Beach

Heading back up the bluff trail

(Note that before you hike on this or any trail or beach on the Makah Reservation, you must obtain a $10 annual recreation permit, available in Neah Bay or at Hobuck RV Park.)

About the campground:

Just like last time, we stayed at Hobuck Beach RV Park and Campground. Last time, we stayed in the RV Park, which offers 10 full-hook up RV sites ($40 per night) with a fabulous view of the Pacific and easy access to the beach. This time, we opted for the big open field. It’s a free-for-all. You pay your $20 and stake out your spot anywhere that looks good to you.

We arrived on a Thursday and found a choice location. By Saturday, we were surrounded by tents, VW campers, boats, and surfers. This is apparently a prime fishing and surfing locale. Everyone was well behaved, and we enjoyed our stay. We had speedy Verizon coverage, a place to fill our water tanks, and amazingly, there was a free, almost new shower house with unlimited hot water.

Hobuck Campground and RV Park

Choose your spot and set up camp

Sunset on Hobuck Beach

Next Up: A Delightful Week At Salt Creek 

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Tidepools And Rainforests: Olympic National Park

Tidepools And Rainforests: Olympic National Park

Posted by on Jul 15, 2017 in Gallery, National Parks, Washington | 42 comments

We first visited Olympic National Park two years ago in the fall, and immediately promised ourselves that we would return. With tidepools filled with colorful sea creatures, mysterious rainforests, snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes, beautiful lodges, and a rich history of native culture, this is a diverse and enchanting park.

Although it’s possible to do a driving tour and get a quick peek at some of the splendors, Olympic National Park is not easy to corral into a day trip. No roads go through the park, travel is slow, and many of the treasures lie off the beaten path. We started our explorations this time with four days at the southwestern corner of the park, camped high on a bluff overlooking the mighty Pacific Ocean.

At first glance, South Beach Campground doesn’t look all that appealing—it’s a primitive campground within the national park and the sites are staked out in the open. But the expansive views of the Pacific and our sightings of gray whales spouting offshore and sea otters frolicking in the waves far outweighed the lack of water, electricity, or privacy.

South Beach Campground in Olympic National Park

Scanning the horizon for whales and otters

We got excellent tips from Ranger Birdie at Kalaloch Ranger Station

The campground is just 10 miles from Ruby Beach, which we were told has extraordinary tidepools. It lived up to its reputation, with dozens of pools filled to bursting with sea stars and anemones. We were thrilled to see hundreds of orange and purple ochre sea stars—they’re making a healthy comeback after a devastating virus several years ago. There’s something mesmerizing about tidepools, offering a glimpse into the lives of creatures that endure the radical extremes of changing tides twice a day. The anemones look so delicate, but they’re obviously resilient.

A peaceful morning at Ruby Beach

Tidepools exposed at low tide

Ochre sea star and green anemones

A baby ochre sea star in my favorite color

A cluster of delicate-looking green anemones

Purple sea star and green anemones

Sharing the wonders of the tidepools

Sea stacks on Ruby Beach

During our stay at South Beach, we made two trips into the rainforest. Olympic National Park contains four temperate rainforests, defined by moderate temperatures and a staggering amount of rainfall—somewhere around 14 feet per year. The result is a primeval world of ancient giant trees draped with curtains of lichen, and a landscape lushly upholstered with ferns and mosses.

Given that the Hoh Rain Forest is an iconic feature of the park, of course we needed to see it for ourselves. In the heart of Olympic National Park and almost 40 miles from our campground, it was a long and winding drive. Once there, we endured hordes of tourists at the visitor center focused more on snapping selfies than admiring the wonders of the rainforest. But stepping onto the trails, we left the crowds behind. We looped together the Hall of Mosses Trail with the Spruce Trail for three miles of mossy splendor—it felt as though we were hiking in a forest cathedral.

Mushroom exhibit in the Hoh Rain Forest visitor center

On The Hall of Mosses Trail

A moss-covered arch; it’s important to not stand still for too long lest the mosses take over

A cathedral of trees, mosses, and ferns

A raven in the rainforest

On our second foray into the rainforest, we drove 30 miles south to Lake Quinault on a misty day. Built in 1926, Lake Quinault Lodge is the quintessential national park lodge, with a cozy seating area, crackling fireplace, and stuffed elk decor. The grounds are lovely, with gently sloping lawns dotted with Adirondack chairs, a tranquil view of the lake, and a chimney adorned with a totem-pole rain gauge that measures rainfall in feet. We hiked from the lodge to the Gatton Creek Trail, picking up the Quinault Loop Trail for a six-mile hike. We finished out our day with a cup of tea in the lodge, followed by a drive on the 31-mile scenic road that loops around Lake Quinault and along the Quinault River. The scenic drive passes by several beautiful waterfalls, no hiking required.

Beautiful Lake Quinault Lodge; note the totem pole rain gauge on the chimney

It’s cozy inside the lodge

A scene from a gentler time

Geared up for a rainy day hike at Lake Quinault

One of many beautiful waterfalls

The negative ions are good medicine

On the shores of Lake Quinault

About the campground:

We loved our stay at South Beach Campground. The views are unsurpassed, even if you don’t score a front-row seat. We had to juggle sites to find one that we could get level in, but then life was grand (even on the day it rained non-stop for 24 hours). First-come, first-served, no hook-ups, bathroom with flush toilets but no potable water. Fresh water and a dump station are available at Kalaloch Campground, 3 miles up the road. Surprisingly, there was excellent Verizon coverage. $15 night/$7.50 for seniors.

Next Up: Revisiting The Edge Of The World: Neah Bay, WA

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It’s A Long Way Down: Carlsbad Caverns

It’s A Long Way Down: Carlsbad Caverns

Posted by on May 29, 2016 in Gallery, National Parks, New Mexico, Travel | 32 comments

While perusing the website for Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we decided to make reservations for a guided tour. We knew we wanted to visit the Big Room, the main cavern that’s open for self-guided wandering. But—what the heck! Let’s do it all!

I was in charge of making the reservations, and considered signing up for one of the tours that requires ropes and ladders and belly crawling (what in the world was I thinking??). Fortunately, the only tour available was for the King’s Palace, a 1.5-hour exploration that descends into the deepest part of the caverns, but doesn’t involve anything challenging—other than the ability to stay calm in a pitch-black maze 830 feet below the surface of the earth.

Just to be clear about this adventure—neither Eric nor I is enamored with caves, caverns, mines, or anything subterranean. We much prefer our adventures above ground, in the sunshine and fresh air. But Carlsbad Caverns was on our trajectory north, it’s a National Park, and it seemed like we should go see it. We actually got pretty excited about our expedition.

To add to the adventure, the elevator that normally transports visitors from the surface to the Big Room was undergoing repairs. We had already planned to hike down into the caverns from the Natural Entrance, a 1.25-mile steep winding trail that drops 750 feet down into the caves. No elevator meant that we would also be hiking back out that same trail—which is totally fine, unless you start thinking about how far beneath the surface you are, and how dark it is, and what if the lights go out, and what if you freak out…. and the only way out is up that long, steep trail. There were a few moments when I had to have a reassuring talk with myself.

Our tour of the King’s Palace was great, except for our guide’s penchant for hanging out in the dark. We were told that we would have the “opportunity” to experience total darkness for a few moments during the tour, but she left us in an abyss of darkness for a good 15 minutes while she talked about how wonderful it was. As much as I appreciate dark nights, I also like a teeny bit of light to orient myself—a few stars, crescent moon, something.

We took a break after our tour to eat our picnic lunch in the darkness of the underground café, huddled in a dank corner like a pair of pack rats. “We’re already here,” said Eric. “I think we should go ahead and do the Big Room.” And so we did, walking the mile-and-a-quarter loop, taking in the beauty of the various formations created drip by drip over centuries. Five hours after our descent into the caverns, we hiked out the 1.25 mile trail on which we had entered the caverns. We emerged, blinking, into the glorious sunlight. Are we happy we did it? Absolutely. Would we do it again? No, once was enough. (The Caverns at Sonora in West Texas, however, are still on our list—glittering formations of crystals—we’re definitely up for that.)

As far as above ground adventures, we walked the short trails at Brantley Lake State Park, and spent part of a day exploring the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park near Carlsbad (about 10 miles from our campground). This small and lovely park is focused on the flora and fauna of the Chihuahuan Desert. We happened to arrive in the reptile house at feeding time, and the snakes were going berserk. It was fascinating—and unnerving—to be surrounded by a symphony of rattlers rattling in anticipation of their meal.

One day plunged into an abyss, the next in the company of rattlesnakes. Our stay in Carlsbad was kind of like an immersion camp for overcoming phobias.

About the campground:

Brantley Lake State Park isn’t exactly close to Carlsbad Caverns, but from what we surmised, it’s the nicest place to stay. It’s a beautiful park, with spacious sites, many on the lake, and each with a covered picnic table. Water and 30/50 amp electric hookups, peaceful, dark night skies (but not too dark), nice bathrooms and showers, good Verizon. And lots of birdlife, which we love. It’s a bargain at $14 per night. The park is 12 miles north of Carlsbad, and 38 miles from the caverns.

Next Up: Back To Hiking: Oliver Lee State Park, NM

Heading Down Into The Caverns

It's Dark Down Here

The Trail Around The Big Room

Everything You Need To Know About Cave Decor

Some Of The Most Beautiful Formations

Relic From Early Cave Explorations

Mirror Lake

Richly Decorated Passages

Café Dismal

Happy To Be Above Ground

At The Living Desert Zoo And Gardens

Wonderful Displays On Desert Environments

Blooming Ocotillo In The Desert Uplands

Brilliant Prickly Pear Blooms

Snoozing Bobcat

Salad Bar For The Prairie Dog Family

Cool Snake Mural In The Reptile House

With His New Bat Buddy

Pond Habitat In The Desert

Campsite At Brantley Lake State Park

Bullock's Oriole On Ocotillo

Say's Phoebes Learning To Fly

Desert Bird Of Paradise

Black-Tailed Jack Rabbit

Heading Down Into The Caverns
It's Dark Down Here
The Trail Around The Big Room
Everything You Need To Know About Cave Decor
Some Of The Most Beautiful Formations
Relic From Early Cave Explorations
Mirror Lake
Richly Decorated Passages
Café Dismal
Happy To Be Above Ground
At The Living Desert Zoo And Gardens
Wonderful Displays On Desert Environments
Blooming Ocotillo In The Desert Uplands
Brilliant Prickly Pear Blooms
Snoozing Bobcat
Salad Bar For The Prairie Dog Family
Cool Snake Mural In The Reptile House
With His New Bat Buddy
Pond Habitat In The Desert
Campsite At Brantley Lake State Park
Bullock's Oriole On Ocotillo
Say's Phoebes Learning To Fly
Desert Bird Of Paradise
Black-Tailed Jack Rabbit
Heading Down Into The Caverns thumbnail
It's Dark Down Here thumbnail
The Trail Around The Big Room thumbnail
Everything You Need To Know About Cave Decor thumbnail
Some Of The Most Beautiful Formations thumbnail
Relic From Early Cave Explorations thumbnail
Mirror Lake thumbnail
Richly Decorated Passages thumbnail
Café Dismal thumbnail
Happy To Be Above Ground thumbnail
At The Living Desert Zoo And Gardens thumbnail
Wonderful Displays On Desert Environments thumbnail
Blooming Ocotillo In The Desert Uplands thumbnail
Brilliant Prickly Pear Blooms thumbnail
Snoozing Bobcat thumbnail
Salad Bar For The Prairie Dog Family thumbnail
Cool Snake Mural In The Reptile House thumbnail
With His New Bat Buddy thumbnail
Pond Habitat In The Desert thumbnail
Campsite At Brantley Lake State Park thumbnail
Bullock's Oriole On Ocotillo thumbnail
Say's Phoebes Learning To Fly thumbnail
Desert Bird Of Paradise thumbnail
Black-Tailed Jack Rabbit thumbnail

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