Now that fall is finally here and Southern California has started to cool off a little, it’s time to talk about how awesome the United States is. While the current political climate has myself and most of us dizzy with frustration, and while socially we still have a longgggg way to go, it is undeniable that the U.S. holds some of the most astonishing and beautiful geography in the world. Between June and September I spent a good amount of time reacquainting myself how awesome my home state and the surrounding areas are after spending most of my breaks abroad for the last couple years.
The first in the trio of awesome travels was a girl’s road trip with my best friend, Brooke. We had been planning on doing this for a long time but never got around to it between teaching, friends getting married, family visits, etc. Our main destination was Yellowstone, so we picked up from San Diego at 5:45 PM and beat it northeast towards Utah. We stopped for a minute in Zion on the way, driving up the road on the west side until it ended, marveling at the amazing red rocks and steep cliff faces surrounding us. We wanted to get to at least Salt Lake, so we hustled out and got back on the road. When we pulled into Salt Lake, we were shocked: the first two hotels we tried were completely booked, even though we went to the outskirts of town in hopes of avoiding really expensive rooms. It turns out there was a convention that weekend (we still don’t know what for), and there was pretty much nothing available in all of town. We had already been driving around eight hours and didn’t want to keep going (despite all the fun we were having over our sleep deprived religious musings), but were resigned to the possibility if we didn’t get a room in the next few calls. The next place had one super expensive King suite available, but the next one had just had a cancellation and was otherwise completely booked. We were just a few minutes down the street, so we rushed over to snag it right as the man behind the front desk got another call about making a reservation. After being in the hot car for so long, we were happy to take a dip in the pool and grab a Polygamy Porter from a nearby restaurant (you can’t make this up, folks) then hit the hay.
After sleeping in and unsuccessfully trying to find beer at Target in Utah, we hit the road again. We stopped off quickly in Idaho to look for beer and postcards (beer yes, postcards no) then continued through the absolutely gorgeous countryside and up through the corner of Montana into Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. Upon arrival at the ranger station near Old Faithful, we found that campsite offerings for the night were looking a little slim, and finding one that wasn’t too far of a hike in (we arrived around 3:30 PM, so an eight mile hike through bear country was out of the question) and which also would allow us to leave and go straight to another campsite for the following night was impossible. We ended up getting a site identified only as OD5 with a one mile hike in next to a lake, and then we would hike out, drive to a new trailhead, and take off for the following three days to another backcountry site called Summit Lake. We watched the “bear video” (a park safety video which mostly covered bears), re-thought our choice not to bring bear spray, picked some up at the general store, and went on our way.
The hike into our site was down a fire road, so super flat, but also not as crowded as many of the other trails we had stopped off to explore on our way into the park. We passed a couple steaming pools, and squinted off in the distance at a large rounded shape in the distance, speculating: bear, buffalo, or boulder? We arrived at our site and set up our tent. Neither one of us had ever had to bear bag before (in Yosemite they don’t allow hanging anymore, only bear canisters), so Brooke supervised while I put all our smelly stuff into the canister we had brought and suspended it in a backpack from the pole. I took a little walk around the lake while Brooke read her novel, and at sundown we reconvened to cook up some sumptuous freeze dried backpacking food and check out the hoards of blue dragonflies masquerading as needles on the tiny pine trees to escape the wind. We opted not to build a fire, since we were planning on going to be early and getting an early start, and just in case bears might be drawn to the scent. While we were packing up the kitchen, a group of four young women came down the hidden trail to our site, lugging blankets and pillows in their arms. They seemed to believe that there had been a mistake and that one of wasn’t supposed to be there, but we knew what our permit said and didn’t mind sharing the space, so we told them just to pitch camp and not worry about it.
It became apparent very quickly that these four were not supposed to be here and no idea what to do in the back country. One of them produced a tent out of her sleeping bag and tried to set it up as other pulled out numerous bottles of booze and a couple packages of hot dogs. The tent was pitched and all the blankets thrown inside, but no sleeping bags were produced, and the four of them struggled to get the rain fly on. Brooke and I eyed the setup skeptically, and when the ringleader of the group proclaimed that they didn’t need the rainfly anyway (keep in mind the temperature was to get around or below freezing that night), I stepped in. I set up the rainfly in exchange for a swig of whiskey, and was headed back to the lakeshore (my duties over, I thought), when another of the girls expressed concern that none of them was having any success building a fire for the hot dogs. I’ve always wanted to try using cow patties as fuel, and this seemed like the prime opportunity considering I had minions to go collect them from the grass for me. After we got a roaring fire going, Brooke and I decided that bears be damned, if there was a fire already, we may as well enjoy it. We stayed up for a while chatting with the girls, who it turned out were seasonal employees working in the park, and they weren’t old enough to drink so they came out into the woods to do it. As they started throwing hot dog wrappers into the fire, we decided it was time to distance ourselves, and went to bed hoping that they wouldn’t be too cold and they wouldn’t get any bears looking for their tent, since they had a multitude of smelly food items in there with them.
The morning was chilly and crisp, and the girls were up early, having not slept well because of the cold and lack of sleeping bags (we were cozy in our tent). They packed up and left us to our camp oatmeal, which we enjoyed while watching a bald eagle harass a duck on the lake. We hiked out and started on our way to our next trailhead. We stopped along the way to see some really beautiful park features like the Prismatic pools. As soon as we found a parking place where we felt okay leaving the car for a few days, we packed up and headed in. We followed the advice of a hiker coming off the trail head, which ended up taking us to another parking lot and adding 2.5 miles onto our trek (which was already to be a little under eight miles, what’s another two with a loaded pack, right?). We laughed about it, not knowing what was to come.
A quick stream crossing and some easter egg hunt: trail edition later (back country trails are often marked with little orange tabs or flags, like we found in New Zealand, and sometimes finding them is like an easter egg hunt) we were at the base of the mountain. The ascent was brutal (the lake lies at 8552 foot elevation, and this portion of the trail is about a 1,300 foot gain according to one source), and when we got to the top we were relieved. Carrying on with a new pep in our step, we crossed through fields of burned and downed trees, intermittently coming across a creek which we hoped would lead us to the lake. We walked on for hours, joking about how we would really like to see a bear…on the other side of that valley, across the river, etc. We passed a little berm of snow nestled in a shady spot against a hill, and tried to make the best of the gradual exhaustion and blisters we were experiencing, repeating to each other the mantra “I like backpacking. This is fun. My feet don’t hurt. I like backpacking…” The sun was rapidly fading, I was starting to get blisters, and we were starting to come across trees whose bark had been shredded to bits by something with very sharp claws or horns, and fairly recently if the still liquidy sap oozing slowly from the hardwood told us anything. We trekked on some more, and realized eventually that we hadn’t seen a trail marker in some time (many were old and the paint had been bleached, and many more were old enough to have fallen off the trees into the grass). We were obviously on a path, but had no clue how far we had come or how far we still had to go, and it was getting close enough to darkness that I was beginning to get very concerned. We walked on a ways more, Brooke scanning the distance for a sign of the lake and I scanning the surrounding hillsides for a place that we could safely bag and hang the food, especially if whatever had wrecked those trees was still nearby). In the distance, we saw what we thought was a geyser going off, but upon pulling out the binoculars, we discovered Summit Lake, the shore of which was being whipped into such a frenzy by the wind that the water was shooting up like a geothermal feature.
Quickly, we made our way to the lake, and set about setting up camp. On the ascent up the mountain, a beer had exploded in Brooke’s pack, so she went down to the lake side to try and get as much of it off of her clothes as possible while I struggled to find a place to pitch the tent where I wasn’t afraid of one of the many dead, precariously leaning trees falling on us in the night but also with enough shelter from the wind. I settled on a spot right next to the lake which had two large trees to run a little interference for us from the wind and other trees which might fall, and helped Brooke hang her clothes out to dry. We utilized the last bits of sunlight to cook up some grub and have a quick beer, and settled into our tent for an uneasy, extremely windy night of “rest,” both waking up multiple times thinking something was moving nearby.
The next day, we left our campsite behind us and took a super nice day hike. We were both so happy to be walking and out in the warm sun without our packs on and without much wind. After a couple of miles, we turned back to eat some soup and take a quick nap in the sun and read a book. Brooke took off the meditate by the lake while I continued to read, until I heard her yell my name in a very concerned tone, which I don’t think I’d ever really heard her use. I sprinted to the lake side in time to hear her say “It just went into the lake.” Without further delay I ran to the tent to grab my camera and the binoculars. Whatever it was, it was big, and it was swimming around right where the sun was casting a massive glare on the lake. Finally, it got out and entered a shady patch, where we would see it was a lady elk. We sat quietly, watching her slowly circumvent the lake until she spotted our light colored clothing and melted into the woods. We made some dinner, enjoyed the sunset, and went to sleep.
The stillness outside compared to the gusting winds of the previous night was unsettling, but we slept better until sunrise when I woke to hear something splashing around in the lake, the sound in stark contrast to the night’s silence. Trying not to wake Brooke, I went to go check it out, and discovered nothing except a gorgeous sunrise reflected on the glassy surface of the lake. I took the bear bag down for the last time, and we started to make breakfast and pack up camp. We hiked out early, knowing how much ground we had to cover. About four hours in, as we were near the summit, we met HOB (Hiking Or Biking), who was completing his triple crown with the Great Divide trail, which our hike was a very small part of. He was headed to the same site we had been at, and we wished that we had all been there at the same time to hear his tales. HOB had been hiking for a couple months now already and was due to be hiking for a couple more, and he “hadn’t seen anyone else for a long time.” We chatted for a little while, offering him some food and encouragement, then beat it down the sharp descent back to parking lot, stopping only briefly to stash the backs and take a quick detour to see a couple waterfalls. We were exhausted and happy, but still had some distance and daylight to kill. We stopped on our way out of the park to watch Old Faithful erupt, then headed south to Grand Teton National Park .
Seeing the Tetons had been a dream of mine since I was little, after first seeing the iconic Ansel Adams photo of Snake River. We marveled at the scenery as we drove, but began to be a little concerned as we passed a couple campsites which were already full. We visited a ranger station, where we were told that there were only a couple backpacking sites in the park and all of them were a decent hike in, so we decided to go against our instincts and stay in one of the larger, more populated campsites nearby so Brooke could go swimming in the lake. We arrived at the campground to see a line backed a good ways up, and sat anxiously in the car until we reached the front and managed to get a site (Can’t touch this came in the iPod at this point, the first of many chance occurrences which was perfect, and we danced to match). We quickly pitched camp and headed down to the lakeshore, where we both enjoyed a dip in the lake at the base of the snow-capped mountains. As we were drying off on the shore, a stranger walked up, introduced himself as Andrew, our camp neighbor, and offered us beers. We chatted by the lake until the sun went down, then popped into the store and grabbed habanero sausages and other sweet fixin’s for our first non-freeze dried meal in days. Andrew joined us for a hot dog and some beer, and we shot the shit until quiet hours.
We woke up early the next day, did the dishes from the night before while hanging out with the grey jays, said goodbye to Andrew, and left for our Adams inspired photo journey. We stopped at a couple of reflective spots along the way until we hit the Snake River overlook, where I ran around like a little kid in a candy store, despite how much the scenery had changed since the photo was taken in 1942. We popped off the main road again at Schwabacher road to check out some beaver dams, which created the most incredible pools, perfectly mirroring the mountains in the still waters, except when the occasional beaver rocketed by into the safety of the dam.
We exited the Tetons with the goal of reaching Grand Junction, Colorado, where a friend from high school lived. Since we had purchased the annual parks pass anyway, we decided to hit up as many parks as possible. So, we stopped at Dinosaur National Monument, and admired the rock wall full of bones from a variety of ancient species before heading south again. The tram driver at DNM told us to be careful on the roads, especially on the mountain. We quickly discovered what she meant: a very, very steep, winding road separated us from Emily and Grand Junction. Just when we though the windy road covered in water couldn’t be more dangerous, we came around a curve to mind a mama cow and her calf in the middle of road, the baby suckling. Mama cow looked at us as if she dared us to come any closer, so we slowly made our way past them and continued on our way. It was amazing to spend a night where we could shower and cook real food on a stove, but the best part of course was seeing Emily. We goofed off for a couple hours over some salmon burgers and wine, then passed out for the night.
Brooke and I decided that we may as well head to arches on the way back and stop in for a least a couple hours, since we were planning on spending the night outside of Zion and Arches is only a short detour away. We hugged Emily goodbye and hit the road once again, arriving in Arches to do a couple speed hikes through Devil’s Playground, the viewpoint for Delicate Arch, and up through the path for the Windows arches. At this point, Brooke was starting to feel sick (a combination of the heat and the drive perhaps), so we trekked onward, stopping only when we were right outside the south-western border of Zion for the night.
The next morning, we slept in a bit, wanting to recuperate a little before our last day of hiking and the drive home. We decided to do a piece of the Narrows hike so Brooke could get her feet wet. We managed to get going before things got too crazy crowded in the park, and thoroughly enjoyed the cool water, sometimes deep enough for a decent swim, flowing between the tall multicolored walls of the canyon surrounding us. Because we were planning on driving back to San Diego by that night, we didn’t hike as far we both would have liked, and instead headed back to the Prius. As we walked, the air began to seem heavier, and just as we got to the car, thunder began to boom nearly overhead. We were stoked to have made it out of the river before the possibility of rain arouse, so we grabbed a quick pizza before exiting the park and making the long drive through Vegas and the desert back home, but not before we stopped at a liquor store to grab a couple Polygamy Porters for the folks back home.
750 songs, ten days, and a couple thousand miles later, our grand adventure was over, for now.
Stay tuned for the next post, Half Dome! And a shameless plug, please consider helping me fundraise for an awesome volunteer opportunity I’ll be participating in starting in May! Every little bit counts!