Two weeks ago we returned to one of my very favorite places: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It offers solitude, unbelievable views, and a 40 plus mile trail that hugs the coastline of Lake Superior. Backpacking paradise.
As always, when you return someplace you love, it feels comfortingly familiar, and yet, the lake also never ceases to surprise me. This time with ice. When we planned our trip for May, we figured it would be cool this far north, but we never imagined the horizon would be painted white. It felt like standing on the edge of the arctic even though the trail is laced with sand. It was worlds-colliding-beautiful.
Each day of the trip we watched how the ice changed, moved, breathed. From the beach we could hear it cracking, shattering, and moaning as the sun melted it and the wind swept it into the shoreline and then pushed it away. Each morning we hurried from our tent to see what the ice had done over night. It was like a game. Hide-and-go-seek with the ice.
During the day, we would take breaks along the shore, half the time just listening, the other half spent skipping rocks between the ice and into the ice and over the ice. We sunk an iceberg with a steady stream of stones.
Our weather, for the most part, was sunny or partly-cloudy and shifted in heavy breaths from warm to cool to cold and back again. One night, sitting on the beach after dinner, the wind suddenly changed direction blasting us with icy air moving directly from the center of the lake, and the ice pack, to us. We hurried into our tent.
Sunset has always been one of my favorite times of day when backpacking, and the ice only added to the layers of shifting colors and shadows as the sun sunk into the distant water. Watching was like breathing in color.
Our trip refilled me. The pleasure of walking and looking and being in one of my very favorite places once again!
I love national parks. Every time I set foot in one I feel thankful that past generations had the foresight to protect special places all over our country. It makes me feel lucky and proud and profoundly happy.
So last weekend, when I had the chance to spend three days exploring Great Smoky Mountain National Park with my cousin I was giddy with excitement. I started bouncing and fidgeting in the car before we even reached Tennessee. And this park did not disappoint.
With over 800 miles of trail, it is a great place for hikers of all levels, and offered a wide range of trail lengths and levels of difficult. We spent our first two days going up. I love long trails and big views and that is exactly what we got. On day one, we struck out on a section of the Appalachian Trail stretching from Newfound Gap to a little rocky bluff called Charlies Bunion. The section we did, just over 8 miles round trip, was a steady climb through bare trees and rocky soil ending with awesome views out across the valley. The famous blue-gray haze of the mountains drifted out in front of us and the spine of ridges snaked across the rolling hills of this area like rippling water.
On day two, we did my favorite hike, the Alum Cave Trail up to the summit of Mount Le Conte. At just over 11 miles round trip, this hike offered every stage of beauty the park had to reveal. The trail starts out crisscrossing a clear, boulder strewn river banked by thick stretches of deep, green rhododendrons. I can’t even imagine how pretty this section would be when they are in bloom as it was beautiful with the simple palette of green.
The first main attraction you reach is a natural rock arch, that you hike under where you begin the great march up and up and up. Here the terrain breaks away into rocky outcroppings and brief glimpses between trees of the views that are coming. The trail is rocky, and in some places, steep, but worth it for the views. About 2.5 miles in, you reach Alum Cave Bluffs, a wide stretch of rocks carved out into a dust-colored overhang.
The next section, above the bluffs, offers the best views we saw during our trip: miles and miles and miles of mountain shadows like layers of blue-gray sharks teeth reaching so deep into the horizon it is hard to tell where the mountains end and the clouds begin. Every turn offered more views. And at the top, just above the only lodge in the park (not accessible by car), is the final spur trail to the cliffs that dead-ends at the edge of a rock outcropping that simply drops off into mountain views.
After sitting at the top, basking in the sun and views, it is almost impossible to come down. So beautiful.
Our final day, we traveled to the west side of the park to do the historic driving loop at Cades Cove and for a short hike out to Abrams Falls. This side of the park is very different and showcased much of the history of people in this area. It was interesting to experience a new perspective on what the park encompasses.
Here, the trail follows the river with little drops and rises until it reaches the main attraction: Abrams Falls. The falls are about 30 feet and cascade into a large pool of clear, cold water. I loved the pounding sounded that whispered and then echoed and then whispered again as we drew close and hiked away. A beautiful way to cap off a wonderful trip!
As 2013 comes to a close, and snow drifts down in lazy clumps outside my windows, it seemed like the perfect day to look back. I have been blogging here for just over 2.5 years, which seems crazy and unreal and wonderful. So today I thought I would re-post some of my favorite memories (oldest to newest with links to the blog post).
Thanks for sharing in our journeys and we look forward to new adventures in 2014!
Happy New Year!
I am already enjoying the fact that we are within 45 minutes of three state parks and have even more options within a 2 hour radius. So on Sunday, I decided to explore a new place: Moraine State Park.
I hiked part of the Glacier Ridge Trail, the longest trail in the park (14.8 miles) and part of the North Country Tail, which holds a special place in my heart as it also crosses through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This trail sticks to a thick, wooded ridge line that runs above Moraine Lake. The trail was shaded, deep green, and almost-empty. I loved settling into the quiet, with sunlight filtering through the trees in blinding winks. It was good to breath deeply and think about nothing for four hours.
I also took a side trail down to the marina. It was loaded with people, and the sun was sticky-hot. But I loved watching the sail boats glide across the horizon and I saw butterflies flitting from flower to flower. A happy way to spend a water break.
A very nice Sunday afternoon!
The last few weeks have flown by as we made, what seems like our annual tradition, another move! We enjoyed our year in central PA, and we certainly had some cool experiences while exploring this part of the country: Tractor Square Dancing, Troegs Brewery, Ricketts Glenn State Park, the Grand Canyon of PA, the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, learning to brew our own beer, and a slew of new recipes and yummy treats. It was a great year.
Now we are starting to settle into our new home: Western PA! Another side of the Keystone State.
To be honest, we are getting a little too comfortable packing up boxes and driving large trucks and then unpacking everything again, but I always like the excitement and nervous feeling of starting out in a new place. It means find new gems, like a great bakery or new park, while at the same time getting lost and trying to figure out a new doctor and mechanic and all those everyday kind of things. But, the boxes are all unpacked (thank goodness!) and to celebrate we did what always makes us happy: We hit the trail.
It seems like the best way for us to settle in and start enjoying a new place. So, two weekends ago we set out for McConnells Mill State park and spent the day hiking. We last hiked at this state park in college so it has been a few years, but my favorite parts of it remained unchanged. The trails still run right along the rushing river and the water’s constant lullaby still makes me feel relaxed and refreshed.
We hiked and ate lunch on a patch of sunny rocks and skipped rocks. My kind of afternoon. I love the huge boulders that dot the landscape here, bunched along the river’s edge and scattered on the hillside. The woods were green and cool, and we spotted a bright orange salamander, a snake, and a tad pole.
A good way to kick off the beginning of a new chapter in our journey.
Last weekend, for three days, we attended events commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg including lectures, a trip to the actual battle fields, and the reenactment of key battles. Because it was the 150th anniversary, the scope and size of this event was staggering: over 10,000 re-enactors and over 100,000 spectators flooded a farm south of Gettysburg to immerse themselves in this important historical moment.
It was a hot weekend, marked by a cloudless sky and, on the last day, a torrential downpour. The weather, in many ways, mirrored what the soldiers, medial staff, and towns people endured during the three-day battle that scarred the land and served as a particularly important moment in the Civil War.
From the grandstand, we watched the re-enactors stretch across the fields out in front of us, firing in long volleys that echoed across the smoky landscape. Cannons blazed and cracked along the ridge lines and men crumpled to the ground as their battalions reformed and marched on. It was impressive and sad. Seeing history come to life was at once marvelous, almost magical, and incredibly hard to watch at the same time. It made the struggle and the suffering and the death that much more real.
It left us quiet in a way we ought to be more often.
The Adventure Continues…
Day five on the trail included a whole lot of wind! Wind, wind, and more wind. We started the day hiking along steep cliffs that dropped into the churning ocean. The trail hugged the coastline and wandered through wide open fields of heather, coastal grasses, and haphazardly placed boulders. It made me feel like a tiny speck compared to the landscape.
The wind pressed in around us, pushing us off the trail, and then back on, tossing us like toy boats. We saw no other hikers on the trail all morning and it made the power of the elements seem that much more intense. Here wind and water rule. They carve and shape the land.
The boulders, speckled across the horizon, also added to the magic of this sunny, windy day. The rocks looked like lost marbles dotting the land. Just before lunch we reached Motion Head, a small rocky point jutting out into the sea. I loved watching the waves pound this low-lying point. They crashed into the geometrically broken rocks and sprayed, several feet into the air, a wall of water fanning out towards the sky. Very cool.
In the afternoon, we ascended “The Big Hill,” aptly named. It offered us impressive views back down the coast, out into Motion Bay and took us through some of the prettiest wildflowers we saw on the trip. Waves of dancing, wind-swept pink.
At the bottom of the Big Hill, sits Petty Harbor, our favorite community link. It was spotted with bright-colored houses and friendly inhabitants and a little shop that sold us giant ice cream cones. We sat in the harbor, looking at all the fishing boats, sun on our faces, enjoying our treat.
The hike out of Petty Harbor takes you up onto another series of high cliffs overlooking Motion Bay. We enjoyed the views and particularly liked a little side trail that let us drop down into a tiny, rocky cove complete with a waterfall and clear, cold, blue-green water.
With all the wind, we settled on a narrow pocket under a clump of pine trees for our camp that night. And we heard the heavy gusts of wind plowing into the coast all night. We were glad to have found a sheltered campsite.
In the morning, amid overcast skies and a cool breeze, we set off for Cape Spear, the eastern most point in North America. We once again followed the coastline, seeing nothing but wide open space and endless views. We loved all the craggy beaches and little freshwater creeks that drop out of the coastal woods through the rocks to the ocean.
As we neared Cape Spear on our way to St. John’s we saw more day hikers, and got updates from the outside world, like the status of the Stanley Cup hockey series, and the weather. It is so interesting how you can just dip out of the world for five days, and I felt a twinge of regret as we realized we were headed back to “civilization.”
We took a lunch break at North Head, a spur trail on a large piece of land that bows out into the ocean. From here we could see Cape Spear, and the two lighthouses in the distance. I love that on this trail you can continuously see both where you have been and where you are going.
Cape Spear is an interesting mix of history, rugged coast, and tourism. We loved the old battery there and seeing the historic lighthouse, but it was strange to see fences and warning signs along the coast, keeping people back, putting the wild just out of reach.
Due to weather concerns we decided to make a final push on this day and hike the rest of the ECT. It would make for a long day, but I loved this last section of trail, especially once you reached the plateau that would lead us into St. John’s.
But first we wander along the coast, then headed up to the dummy fort on Blackhead, and passed through the tiny town of Blackhead proper. In this section I also spotted a humpback whale! A fellow hiker suggested looking for tour boats slowed or stopped in the water to help up your chances of seeing a whale, and that is just what happened. We saw a boat sitting ideal in the ocean, then scanning the area, I saw a blow. A few minutes later the whales back then tail. It is the first time I have ever seen a whale from land. Very cool.
We continued to curl down through a coastal woods and had small glimpses of the coves that pocket this section of the trail. In Freshwater Bay, we passed across “the gut,” a long stretch of rocks separating the fresh water from the salt water. It was tough on the feet and we were glad to head back along the coast.
This is where we went up and up and up. It was out steepest and most continuous climb of the trip, but it was also the first spot that we saw pitcher plants, the provincial flower, and something I had been really hoping to see. They are a strange and impressive flower with a deep pink and yellow belly and fuzzy “ears.” They seem a little alien. For the rest of the hike, we saw them in small clumps and standing alone on the edge of the trail like bright-colored jelly beans.
When we reached the top of the plateau you could see back to Cape Spear, out towards the harbor, and the distant ocean horizon. The sun poked through creating spot lights that dotted the landscape and as we crossed rolling rocks we passed through another section of beautiful, pink wildflowers. The landscape up here was very different from the rest of the trail and uniquely captivating.
Finally, we had to go back down towards the harbor, Fort Amherst, and St. John’s. It was sad to know that when we reached the bottom our time on the ECT would be over, but we were looking forward to a shower 🙂
What an amazing trip!