Last weekend we finally made the long-talked about trip to Ricketts Glenn State Park. A full day of much-needed hiking. What is so special about this particular state park is the Falls Trail. This loop trail showcases 21 waterfalls in about 7 miles! It is the kind of trail you hike slowly because around each corner is another spectacular view.
The trail follows two branches of Kitchen Creek that have cut a snaking gorge before reuniting at Waters Meet. The falls vary from wide cascading layers to sheer movie-like drops and range in height from 11-94 feet. What I liked most about the trail is the diversity. It is hard to imagine that water can drop and twist in so many different, beautiful ways. I also loved the sound: the rushing water came in thunders and a low bass-like thrum and light rain-splattered curves. A constant symphony.
I wish there had been fewer people, but otherwise, it was just what we needed to kick off a summer of hiking.
Happy Trails for Memorial Day Weekend!
I love the fall because it is, without a doubt, the best time to camp. The bugs are gone, the nights are dark and cool, campgrounds are mostly empty, and you can hike for hours without getting too hot. The perfect storm of camping.
So I was more than excited to head off into the woods for the weekend, especially since it was also an opportunity to recreate and re-imagine a father/daughter camping tradition from my early days out in the woods. Our little group of four has since expanded, and isn’t strictly father/daughter any more, hurray for Lucas joining our gang. But it still held the essence of what made all those early camping trips so wonderful: way to much food, laughter, walks in the woods, building campfires, long morning breakfast (fire included), and lazy evenings.
There is something so special about turning your cell phone off, forgetting about time or meetings or deadlines, and drifting into the pleasant cloud of the moment. Sitting around the campfire at night we sometimes just watched the fire crackle and hiss and lick at the logs in long, blue flashes.
Beyond the joy of camaraderie, we also experienced a spectacular display of fall colors, rushing rivers, and waterfalls. Ohiopyle State Park is one of my favorite places in Pennsylvania. I have been there several times, and I never get tired of seeing the Youghiogheny [yaw-ki-gay-nee] River rush in sweeping twists around corners and over boulders slowly carving a tree-lined gorge.
Along the banks of the river, and above our heads on the trail, the leaves rustled in bright shades of fall. My favorite are the yellow leaves. Crisp and striking against the blue sky, like blots of paint flung haphazardly on a blank canvas.
A wonderful fall weekend!
After nearly a year of “becoming Alaskan,” we are back in the Eastern Time Zone and, honestly, not exactly sure how to settle back into life in the lower 48. Things seem fast, and hot, and crowded. Where there always this many people on the east coast? But maybe we are just missing Alaska, and having a hard time saying good-bye, and, maybe, that is okay. For now.
But in the spirit of remembering, yet moving forward, this weekend we did what always makes us happy…we set off for the woods.
Luckily, our new town, Carlisle, PA, is surrounded by a handful of state parks that make the outdoors a short 30-40 minutes away. The Appalachian Trail stretches through our new “backyard,” and it is finally getting cool enough to enjoy being outside without loosing half your weight in sweat.
Yesterday, we drove through the country, up into the hills, to Colonel Denning State Park. The 273-acre park is small, cute, and, for the most part, quiet. We hiked the short Flat Rock Trail (2.5 miles one-way) to Flat Rock, a scenic ledge overlooking the Cumberland Valley.
The view was clear and crisp. I loved the patchwork of farm land linked by thin lines of trees like a living quilt, and the soft arch of the hills mirrored on the other side of the valley. Three hawks played in the breeze, dipping and crossing like paper air planes caught on a current of air.
It reminded me that there is always a new place to explore.
The Road Trip Continues… Alaska to Pennsylvania
By the time we entered the Black Hills of South Dakota we had been on the road for 15 days, only one of which we spent in a hotel. We could put up and take down our tent with our eyes closed. We were road trip experts. But there were two things we weren’t prepared for: people and heat.
After spending so much time in the north, where we were still sleeping in a snow hat and gloves at night (in July), the heat of 90 degree days felt like being smothered. And it had been a long time since we had seen such thick swarms of people. It felt a little like wandering out of the woods into an amusement park. But, the scenery of Custard State Park made up for it!
Our destination was the home of Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and the scenic Needles Highway. While in the park we also spent time at Sylvan Lake and hiked to Harney Peak. For us, Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse felt too busy, so we looked at them from the road and moved along. Neat, but I’m glad we had more time for the Needles Highway and our hike.
The Needles Highway is awesome. The road, particularly the middle portion, switchbacks up and through granite tors that burst from the hills like candle sticks. The rock seems to have an artistic mind of its own. Each outcropping, stretches and bends and buckles in Play-doh-turned-rock kind of ways.
My favorite spot on the highway was the Cathedral Spires. A row of granite towers linked in a chain across the sky. It seemed like I should hear the trumpeted bellow of an organ at any minute. Another neat spots was a rock tunnel, that turned so sharply around a corner it looked like it was going to swallow the car trying to navigate its narrow channel.
We also loved our hike to Harney Peak. At 7,242 feet, it is the highest peak east of the Rockies and offers a wonderful 360 degree view from a historic stone fire tower perched amid larger boulders. The wind was blustery, whipping across the exposed peak, as we looked out across the Black Hills. Lovely.
The Road Trip Continues… Alaska to Pennsylvania
If you haven’t guessed, I love to hike. And Glacier is one of those parks you can really go crazy hiking. So I hope you don’t mind hearing me gush about two more trails.
First, Gunsight Lake Trail. Although this trail comes with a caution, the first four miles are, well, not great. We even thought about turning around. Lots of over grown vegetation on the trail, but totally worth it in the end. The trail is about 13 miles round trip, and after you finally get past the first four miles, you cross along a ridge with outstanding views and continue up to the lake, which is beautiful.
The ridge offers views deep into the valley, with a huge waterfall on the other side, and red-toned mountains that are banded in scars from ancient glacial movement. The lake is clear, turtle-green, and cold. It is ringed by a bowl of mountains and 20 plus waterfalls funneling into the lake. We spent an hour snacking, skipping rocks, cooling our feet, and soaking in the views that have come to define this park for me.
On the trail back, we also took a short side trail to a huge waterfall. We guessed the falls were at least 100 yards long and spread out in a watery-fan near the bottom. The spray was so heavy my camera lens was covered in spots, and we were totally wet after looking at the view for ten minutes. I think that might be the sign of a good waterfall
Our last hike in the park was Scenic Point Trail, in the southern Two Medicine area. The landscape here was really different. On the hike we rose up onto a mountainside covered in sun-bleached tree trunks, low alpine flowers, and a snaking, rocky trail. We had great views of Two Medicine Lake and enjoyed a constant breeze on this exposed trail. I particularly liked the ghost-white trees. Other worldly.
An amazing national park.
The Road Trip Continues… Alaska to Pennsylvania
I had planned to do one blog for Glacier National Park, but this morning as I sat down to write I realized there is just too much for one post. We spent four days in this fabulous park, and I wish we had more time. In order to maximize our time, we hit a different section of the park each day, sleeping in a new campground each night.
Our first night we stayed at Many Glaciers campground, in the northern part of the park, and woke up early (hoping to beat some of the heat) to hike Iceberg Lake Trail. This gradual ten mile hike is beautiful. It moves up along a ridge and in and out of the woods as it curls higher towards the lake.
Along the way, little creeks rushed across the trail turning the stone crimson red and wildflowers speckled the hill like multicolored freckles. On the open ridge line you could see out into the valley and above to the rugged mountains. The mountains here are so different than in Canada. They are darker and older looking, at the peaks they look broken and fragile, like the unfinished edge of a jigsaw puzzle.
Near the end of the trail we crossed into several snow fields, slick and icy under the afternoon sun. The snow packed trail ended at a half-moon of mountains surrounding the frozen Iceberg Lake, where we stopped for lunch. I loved the water falls formed by snow melt cascading down every crack on the mountain faces and the cotton-like puffs of clouds overhead. Beautiful. One of my favorite hikes in the park.
Another highlight from the park: the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Beyond the sheer craziness of creating the road, which is cut into the side of a mountain, and is constantly fight erosion and water, the views and stops along this make it a place I don’t mind being stuck in a car rather than out on a trail. The road twists and bends, and at one point, we drove directly under a waterfall. So cool.
More on Glacier National Park soon.
The Road Trip Continues… Alaska to Pennsylvania
The Icefields Parkway is possibly one of the prettiest stretches of road I have ever driven on. And after a year in Alaska, that is saying a lot. The road is approximately 140 miles long and passes through Jasper National Park, Lake Louise, and Banff National Park. It cuts directly through the mountains like some kind of insane scenery-driven roller coaster. Jaw dropping.
Below are a few of my favorite spots along this amazing scenic highway:
The sheer amount of water rushing and twisting over and under rock makes this place special. The first part of the falls is the most dramatic, a giant plunge into a smoothed out bowl of churning white water. The spray here was so intense we were covered in tiny droplets that blinked in the sun like Christmas lights.
After the initial drop, the falls cut through a deep canyon, crashing into the walls in violent bursts. I loved the curved face of the canyon walls, smoothed by time and water.
A bonus, in the early morning light, the mist created several rainbows that hung over the water like brightly colored ribbon.
This waterfall was unique in the way it stretched out across the rock face like tree roots, bending and splitting and reaching towards the clear, deep pool. And it did this again and again in a series of falls and pools, feeding into one another. A woven wall of water.
The icefield, one of the largest accumulations of ice and snow south of the Arctic Circle, feeds 8 glaciers and gets up to 275 inches of snow fall per year. From the highway you can see it sitting on top of the mountains like a massive layer of icing, thick-white. I am always amazed to see reminders, like this, of how the world used to look, covered in endless layers of white.
Pouring, like over flow from a full sink, Athabascan Glacier slides down the side of a mountain to form a horseshoe-shaped tongue. At the toe (the lowest end of a glacier), the snow is dirty and dripping, but above it on the walls of the mountain you can see hanging glacier, glinting blue, and the cracks of an icefall.
We also liked the year markers indicating the ghost of what was once the toe of the glacier. The 2000 marker is almost 100 yards from where the toe now sits. Hard to believe how fast it is receding.
Hiking Wilcox Pass Trail
This trail cuts above treeline quickly, offering views of the Athabascan Glacier and the Columbia Icefield beyond it. We crossed over graying snow and thin, cold streams running clear and slick across the rocky bottom. But my favorite part was when the trail swung up and over a rocky hill into the pass. Here the alpine meadow, spotted with gray boulders, stretches out into a canvas of green. It felt like the setting for a fairy tale.
The Weeping Wall
This spot is right along the highway. You turn a corner and bam: a giant wall of rock with long thin vertical lines of water cresting over the knife sharp edge of the cliff and sprinkling towards the ground. It is so big that everything looks small. The water looks quiet and wispy, but I am positive that it is all much bolder and more intense than it looks.
The color of this lake is like a dream or maybe straight out of Neverland. I am almost surprised we didn’t see Peter and Wendy drifting by. So pretty.
The Road Trip Continues… Alaska to Pennsylvania
After traveling for several days through the Yukon and British Columbia, we finally arrived in Alberta where we took our first two day stop at Jasper National Park. Talk about pretty. The Canadian Rockies are something to marvel at- towering jagged peaks of sheer rock. The area is snaked by rushing blue-green rivers and some of the prettiest lakes I have ever seen.
We were welcomed to the park by several packs of goats who are a car-stopping attraction in this area. Literally. They walk out in front of cars as if they own the road and don’t seem to mind when they block both lanes of traffic as they walk back and forth. Too funny.
Our other animal highlight in Jasper: a huge male elk! His velvet rack was impressive as he stood stoically on the side of a back road.
But my favorite part of the park during these first two days was our hike on the Sulphur Skyline Trail. It was an intense uphill climb, over 2,000 feet of elevation gain, but the views made it worth every lung-burning minute.
On the final shelf before the peak, we walked through a field of alpine wildflowers. It reminded me of pastel polka-dots scattered across green paper. So cute.
The wind picked up as we began the final ascent to the summit, a series of tight switchbacks up a rock/gravel knoll that would lead us to the treeless, boulder-topped peak. Lucky for us we hit the summit as the other group was going down so we had it to ourselves. A moment alone with the mountains.
The view…wow. It felt as if we had been dropped into the jaws of a shark, rows of razor sharp mountains piercing the blue sky in every direction. Wind pushed in fierce gusts that sucked my jacket tight to my skin. I never wanted to come down.
Our hike this weekend was an exercise in persistence and a lesson in the pitfalls of “break up.” Spring in Alaska means water and snow and icy and everything in between. We had an idea what this would mean, but not really a sense of how this changes hiking.
We set out for Granite Tors in the morning armed with snowshoes and layers of clothes and dry shoes that would be waiting for us back in the car. Prepared. This hike is a loop that runs along the North Fork of the Chena River and then ascends into the mountains where it passes by and around large rock outcroppings know as tors. It offers mountain views all around. My kind of hike.
The first section of the hike was sloppy. Melt water flooded the trail in many sections and thick, wet mud blanketed the rest. But we had expected this. What we hadn’t expect was what came next. As the trail steadily climbed out of the flood water and mud, we thought we would come to snow. Strap-on-your-snowshoes-and-go-kinda-snow. Instead, we encountered a hopscotch of deep snow and bare ground. It was a pain in the butt. For over an hour we continuously put on snowshoes only to take them off again. The sections of snow were too deep to walk, up over our knees, but walking on bare ground in snowshoes isn’t a great idea either. Fortunately, we at least had good views. Mountains, mountains, and mountains.
We did finally get to a spot with more continuous snow, but it wasn’t very stable. In some places you could easily walk on the top of the hard-crusted, wind-blown snow, but then a few steps later, you would sink, even in snowshoes, up to your knees, hitting what we started calling “bomb holes.” The hardest part was getting back out of them. Your snowshoes would catch in the thick, icy snow, and you had to work to get them moving again. It was like trying to walk up stairs with glue on your feet.
At the crest of a hill about four miles in we realized we were never going to be able to finish the loop. It was just too slow between the bomb holes and the on/off processes with snowshoes, so we stopped for a break to enjoy our distant view of the tors. I never get tired of looking out at the mountains, especially when you have the view all to yourselves.
There was also weather rolling in. Out over the mountains in front of us, huge dust-gray clouds clumped and hung around the peaks. In contrast, behind us the sky was crayon blue and clear. I loved the feeling of the sun warming my back as I watched the dark clouds roll and bubble like a caldron moving towards us. It was time to head back.
The walk down turned out to be the more comical version of our hike up. After three hours of sun, the snow was mushy, and we found ourselves sinking and flopping and falling through the snow all the way back down. When you hit a bomb hole the motion of your body, coupled with the downhill grade, sent you forward at a pace that face planted me into the snow, twice. I wish we had a video of us laughing and falling and laughing our way down the mountain like the two stooges. It would have made a great black-and-white movie with a pie in someones face at the end.
Hiking in Alaska is always an adventure!
Lucas and I have been vigilantly monitoring the snow plowing progress at Denali National Park for the last few weeks, and this weekend, we got our break. On Saturday, the park road was opened to the public up to mile 29 for the first time since the fall. Saying we were excited is perhaps an understatement.
Denali has quickly become one of my favorite places in Alaska. I could happily explore this massive park every weekend and never get tired of it. There is just so much to see.
For this excursion, we decided to drive the road out to mile 29, Teklanika, and then continue to hike deeper into the park via the road. Less than five minutes into our drive, we were chatting, and looking out at the snow covered peaks wishing to see a moose. And bam. A moose, snacking a few yards off the road in the woods. It was a good sign for the day ahead.
The drive itself is always beautiful. Denali is one of those places you can never quite capture in a picture because it surrounds you. Full mountain immersion. It is like being lifted into another world, quiet, still snowy-white at this time of year. The peaks look like they have been draped in yards and yards of white silk. And these kind of views stretch in every direction.
We also got super lucky on Saturday. The clear-sky day revealed the mountain. Denali (McKinley). It peaked out early, within ten miles of the winter visitor center, and we craned our necks to watch it as it appeared and disappeared behind corners all the way out to Teklanika. I am always amazed at how huge it is. It stands in the sky like a giant, even when it is hundreds of miles away.
After a leisurely drive, taking pictures, getting out to walk a little on the hard-packed, wind-swept snow, we made it to the “road closed” sign and continued on foot. The next section of the road, out to Igloo Mountain, is sandwiched by mountains and crosses a few rivers, little and big. The first river, the biggest we crossed, had several open patches of water. The deep blue water appeared from under the snow and ice, swept across the riverbed rocks, and disappeared just as quickly under more ice. Signs of spring.
At Igloo Mountain we decided to hike, off the road, into the snow a little bit. A side trip. At first the snow was hard-packed and wind-swept like what we had walked on earlier. But at the top of the first rise we found ourselves on the tundra, covered in thick patches of icy, wet snow, and we started to sink. First to our ankles, then knees, and then up to our thighs. We struggled to move forward. It was like walking in silly putty. I even spent some time crawling across the snow to help distribute my weight. I wish we had a video. It was comically ridiculous. We gave up less than a half mile from the road. We were missing the snow shoes we left in our car. But we both like a little adventure, and it was one of my favorite parts of the day.
On the way back, the light was beautiful. Soft against the blue sky, and the Denali, the mountain, continued to dance along the horizon. And the icing on the cake, we saw another moose, laying down in the snow, on our way out. Back to back moose sightings. Oh, Denali. I am already dreaming about our trip back this summer.