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Entries about hiking

Glacier National Park

STATE 22 - MONTANA

sunny 60 °F

We left behind the beautiful state of Idaho and entered another state just as scenic. Megan and I headed to one of the most awe-inspiring National Parks in the country, Glacier National Park!

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Driving through the Rocky Mountains was just as beautiful crossing from Idaho into Montana as it was driving through the mountains passing from Colorado to Utah. Forested mountains surrounded blue lakes, and it seemed like we were the only people for miles.

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To get to Glacier National Park from Sandpoint, Idaho, we were supposed to follow a state highway north to about 10 miles from the Canadian border, head a couple miles west through a mountain pass, and then come back down south to the entrance of Glacier National Park. It was a long loop, but apparently there are not many passes through the Rocky Mountains in this area. When Megan pulled up the directions to Glacier National Park, the GPS found a direct route through the mountains that would cut 2 hours off our drive. I'm not usually one for blindly following the GPS, but a 2 hour time savings sounded too good to pass up. I left the highway and followed the road heading straight east.

Turning off the highway, the road looked like a standard two lane country road. 15 miles later, it turned into an unmarked paved road.

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In another 15 miles, we were no longer on a paved road.

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At this point, we had been driving for about 40 minutes. We could only drive about 20 MPH since our tiny 2 wheel drive Ford Focus was not quite equipped for off-road travel. I figured that turning around would cost us 40 minutes of time backtracking, plus 2 additional hours of driving time. The road was probably only gravel for a few miles before connecting to another road. Unfortunately, that didn't quite happen.

It turns out that NFSR-401, the name of the road we were on according to the GPS, does not stand for "Neat and Fast Shortcut Route" as I had naively thought, but rather for "National Forestry Service Road". The narrow, unpaved road we were traveling on was used by the National Forestry Service to travel through the Kootenai National Forest. The slow progression down the road was bad, but seeing that we still had another 43 miles until the next turn was even worse. I took a couple deep breaths, and tried to focus on the beautiful scenery around me. That worked until we encountered a log laying across the road.

I slowed the car, and briefly considered turning around. We had been traveling on the detour for over an hour, and it was going to start getting dark soon. I didn't want to be caught driving through a National Forest, on a narrow dirt path, with hundred foot drops at night. I said screw it, and stubbornly decided to continue forward. I punched the accelerator and attempted to "jump" the log. The car slammed into the log, the steering wheel jerked hard to one side, and Megan and I were thrown forward. When we landed, we miraculously ended up on the other side of the the log, and I thanked God when the car still seemed drivable. Expecting that the worst was behind us (there was now only 10 miles until we left the NFSR), we ran into the next obstacle—a river was running over the road.

I always heard you shouldn't drive through standing water, but it's not like we had a choice. I didn't want to try log jumping again, and the water didn't look that deep. Megan, who kept uncharacteristically silent during the log incident, began to openly express her concern with going across the water. I told her that I would try to go through the shallower looking mud and just try to keep moving. Figuring it had worked well before, I punched the accelerator and tried to get as much momentum as possible before reaching the water and mud (while muttering a quick Hail Mary). Water shot off the side of the car as we sliced through the river. We slowed to a crawl, and I fully expected water to start coming in from the door jams. Somehow we made it to the other side without getting stuck.

Thankfully we emerged from the dirt road with our car still intact. Our route through the forest had taken over 3 hours. The previously white, shiny car was now covered in mud and dust. A thousand insects peppered the front grill and windshield, but at least Megan and I had made it through alive. I wish I had more pictures of the off-road ordeal, but honestly I had been too nervous to think about documenting the experience.

Sticking to the main road, we eventually found ourselves on the outskirts of the National Park. We entered an Visitor Center to get more information on which trails through the park were closed. Never did I expect that we would have to worry about trails being closed due to snow at the end of July. It can snow at Glacier National Park at any point during the year, even the middle of summer! The Visitor Center didn't have any information on closed trails because it was actually the Alberta Visitor Center (for traveling into Canada). I took a picture with a mounty, looked around quickly, and then got back into the car to head into the park.

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Glacier National Park is humungous, over a million acres in size. Wildlife is abundant. Mountain goats, black bears, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, lynx, cougars, wolves, moose, deer, and plenty more can be found throughout the park. Megan was scared to death of encountering a bear while we were out hiking, and I had spent a good portion of the road trip assuring her that we would not see a bear. However, not 30 seconds after paying the entrance fee to enter the park, we came across our first bear.

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It was awesome seeing the bear walk through the forest, although also a little scary. Megan had read up on what to do when encountering a bear (play dead when encountering a grizzly, fight back when encountering a black bear). She had also tried to convince me to get bear bells (bells attached to your backpack that jingle as you hike so you don't sneak up on a bear) and bear spray (heavy duty pepper spray). My fears grew upon stopping at the Visitor Center when we learned that of the top 3 trails we wanted to hike, 1 was closed due to snow, 1 was closed to a bear attack the day before, and the third had both a grizzly and black bear sighting earlier in the morning. To get Megan's mind (and mine) off of bears, we walked outside to take in the view of Lake McDonald and head to a bear-free trail.

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We took the bus to the Avalanche Trail trailhead. There is only one road that winds through the mountains of Glacier National Park, Going To the Sun Road. It is incredibly scenic, as we caught spectacular views of Lake McDonald and the surrounding mountains.

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We did a quick hike through the Trail of the Cedars before heading up Avalanche Trail. The trail was only a couple miles long following an ice-cold, cool-blue stream. The trail was fairly busy, with a large number of people jingling from their bear bells. With all the foot traffic, it seemed unlikely that a bear would be anywhere close to this trail (I was both relieved, but also disappointed). Bears, or no bears, the hike along the stream and through the woods was great.

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At the end of the trail we encountered a glacier lake, Avalanche Lake, that was the source of the stream. The sun was warm, and encouraged us to wade out into the water. The water was like ice! Waterfalls streamed down the mountain ridges in the distance, and the clear, blue water sparkled magnificently.

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We sat on the edge of the water and took in the scenery. It was late in the afternoon, so the crowds had thinned out, and we were almost left alone. Once our feet had thawed from wading the water, we put our boots back on and made our way back down to the bus stop. Tomorrow morning we planned on getting an early start to do a full day hike on the trail with the multiple bear sightings.

We parked our car at the trailhead leading to the Granite Park Chalet. The sun was just starting to rise over the horizon, and everything was eerily quiet. The trail lead straight up one of the mountains to an overnight camping lodge, although we planned to hike back down later in the afternoon. We were the first ones on the trail that morning, and a sign that said "Entering Grizzly Country" reminded me that this trail had bear sightings the day before.

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As we hiked, Megan did her best to engage me in a conversation (one of the tactics to prevent a bear attack is to make noise while hiking, such as talking loudly, to make sure you don't surprise them), but I am not much of a conversationalist on the trail. Plus, I thought, I would be able to spot a bear well before we got close enough for it to be a threat. About that time, the bushes rustled 10 feet in front of me and a large animal jumped onto the trail.

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It was only a deer, but it could have been a mouse and I would have been just as startled. If I didn't see a deer 10 feet away, I was just as likely to miss the bear. On either side of the trail, grasses and flowers rose 4 feet, almost totally obscuring the immediate view. Once my heart started beating at a normal pace, we started back up the trail.

The first part of the trail wound through a section of dead trees. A wildfire had burned 10% of the park in 2003. The dead trees weren't as pretty as the live ones, but they allowed clear views of the surrounding mountains while we hiked.

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Wildflowers were everywhere on the trail, adding vibrant color and contrast to the green fields and trees. Pink and purple, yellow and white, big and small, flowers were in every color and size.

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Eventually the trail wound above the treeline and offered awesome views of the mountains and glaciers off in the distance.

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About 2/3 the way up the trail, snow and ice began to dot the side of the mountain and eventually covering the pathway. The trail also wound back through a heavily forested area. Megan began trying to talk to me loudly again, so I knew she was nervous about entering the forest. After an hour or so of clear visibility, we could no longer see what was waiting around each turn.

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Deciding it was time to take a break, I turned around to give Megan some water. I noticed she was carrying something in each hand. When I asked her what she had, she held up a rock in each hand. She had picked up weapons to use in case a bear attacked. One rock was her "stunning rock", a larger baseball-sized rock, while the other rock was the "cutting rock" due to its sharp edges. In the event of encountering a bear, I was now more likely to be pelted with rocks as to be attacked by a bear.

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We made it safely through the woods and up to the Granite Park Chalet. The view was outstanding.

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We sat down outside the lodge and ate a light lunch. Chipmunks scattered about, anxiously awaiting for us to drop something. From the lodge, the trail forked to go different directions. We watched hikers attempt to cross snow covered passes off in the distance. Only one group made it successfully across, the others turning around to come back to the lodge. The cold bite in the air encouraged us to begin the hike back down the mountain.

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We got back to the car and decided to drive the rest of the Going To the Sun Road through the park. The entire road was over 40 miles long, but it offered magnificent views of roadside waterfalls, valley views, and mountain ridges. The road was uncomfortably tight, and delays due to road construction gave us plenty of time to soak in the views. Upon reaching the far side of the park, we encountered a totally different view of the park. The great plains of the middle of country stretched out as far as we could see, a stark contrast to Rocky Mountains behind us. We circled around the park to begin the long drive back into Washington to catch our flights home.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 10:10 Archived in USA Tagged mountains animals hiking national_park world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Columbia River Gorge

STATE 19 - OREGON

sunny 85 °F

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This picture appeared in my National Geographic Traveler magazine that arrived just days before my trip out west. This picture is the reason I am looking forward to visiting Oregon. Waterfalls, giant trees, moss covered trails—a hiking wonderland. This specific waterfall was to be my destination immediately upon leaving the airport. Unfortunately it is a six-hour drive west to reach this waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge from Spokane, Washington where I landed.

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To my surprise, the drive from eastern Washington into eastern Oregon looked nothing like the photograph in National Geographic.

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Where were the trees? Where were the mountains? Where were the breweries and the birkenstock-clad, bearded men I had been promised? Much like there is more to North Carolina than sandy beaches and the Appalachian mountains, a large portion of Oregon is void of mountains. The Cascade Mountain range cuts through the western edge of Oregon, and along with a prevailing westward wind, keeps most of the moisture near the coast. I was driving through an arid plateau, and it would be a while until I see any trees.

In fact, the first trees I saw where obviously planted by man. The trees formed perfectly straight lines, it looked like a never-ending tree farm.

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This tree farm was gigantic, stretching for miles down the highway. The Boardman Tree Farm stretches out over 30,000 acres. Eventually the tree lines ended, and I was presented with more dusty scenery. The highway I was traveling on, Interstate 84, runs along the Columbia River, the river that separates Oregon from Washington. Although the river was visible next to the highway, it was far from the view presented in National Geographic.

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Way off in the distance, I saw what looked like a mountain. A solitary mountain surrounded by dusty plains. In the middle of the summer, it looked to be covered in ice. What I saw was Mount Hood, the tallest peak in Oregon. The Cascade Mountains are actually part of the the Pacific Ring of Fire, the volcanic hotspot that we all learned about in 4th grade that circles the Pacific Ocean. This giant mountain was actually a volcano similar to Mount St. Helens. I was finally getting closer to the mountains and the waterfalls.

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The Columbia River Gorge is the only natural passage way through the Cascade Mountain range. The highway twists and turns as it follows the steep slopes of the mountains. I tried to follow the signs to get to the Eagle Creek Wilderness Trails, but I never saw the exit I needed to take off the interstate. After a couple wrong turns, I eventually was stopped by park security as I tried to enter a secure zone. Explaining that I couldn't find my exit, the park ranger informed me that the exits were only available on the westbound side of the interstate, there were no cloverleaf style interchanges. Following the ranger's directions, I was able to find the trailhead and start my hike into Columbia River Gorge.

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A 5 mile trail from led from the parking lot to the waterfall from National Geographic. The trail was beautiful. Gigantic trees loomed overhead (although not quite as big as the ones I saw while hiking in Tasmania or the Tingles in Western Australia). A picture doesn't really show how big the trees are because no one is in the picture for a reference, but the smaller tree in this picture was easily 50 feet tall, and it would take at least 4 people to form a circle with their arms around the big pine.

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The trail hugged the slope of one of the mountains, and a large pass hung precariously over a drop. A steel cable was bolted to the rock for support, but it was nerve-racking when I had to let go to pass someone on the trail. You couldn't beat the views though.

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The trail started to make its way down to the bottom of the gorge, and I was presented with my first view of the falls.

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Upon reaching the bottom, several waterfalls cascaded down the valley. People sat on rocks taking in the scenery, while others briefly swam in the cold waters. You can't see the waterfalls in this picture looking downstream, but it gives you an idea of what it was like standing on the edge of Eagle Creek.

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Following Eagle Creek upstream, I finally found the waterfall that inspired the entire trip.

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The waterfall (Punch Bowl Falls) is much larger than it looks in the picture (which surprised me). It is over 30 feet tall, but you can't get super close without swimming out to it. I saw a crowd gathering to watch the falls, and then noticed someone fly through the air and land in the water beneath the falls. A group of younger guys were jumping off a ledge 4 times higher than the waterfall! It looked insane, and only a couple actually braved the jump (I assume the rest climbed back down via a trail). I rested my legs and watched a dog fetch rocks from the water. I got someone to take my picture in front of the falls, and then hiked back to my car. My travel through Oregon has only started, as I planned to spend the next week in Portland, Oregon.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 07:14 Archived in USA Tagged waterfalls mountains hiking state_park Comments (0)

Mammoth Cave

KENTUCKY - PART II

Kentucky is home to the longest cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave. This cave system is so long that if you put the second longest and third longest back to back, Mammoth Cave would still be 33% (over 100 miles) longer. Megan and I set out to hike the longest portion open to the public, the Grand Avenue Passage.

It was about a 2 hour drive from my grandma's house to Mammoth Cave. We left early in the morning, and the weather seemed to eerily foreshadow what laid ahead for the next 6 hours. A fog blanketed the highway, limiting visibility to the immediate area around us. We should probably get used to the claustrophobic feeling, hiking through a cave wasn't likely to feel any more open.

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The fog eventually let up as the sun rose higher, exposing the rolling hills and green grass of the Kentucky countryside. We turned off the highway and followed the signs through a forest to get to the visitor center. Mammoth Cave is designated a National Park, World Heritage Site, and an International Biosphere, so we didn't pass by any other buildings. The visitor center was a madhouse, full of families and prospective spelunkers on a holiday weekend. Most of the Mammoth Cave can only be explorer with a guide, presumably so people don't get lost or injured in the miles of darkness. We had arrived with about 45 minutes to spare before our tour, so we sat on a park bench to escape the bustle and noise of the visitor center.

The 45 minutes turned out to be 1 hour and 45 minutes since Mammoth Cave was located in the central time zone, so Megan and I left the visitor center to explore the trails in the woods surrounding the visitor center. The first path we went down took us to the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave. It is a natural entrance to the cave (some of the entrances to the cave were created by using explosives to blast through the rock). A strong breeze blew constantly out of the cave, and the air was very chilly. We walked down the steps to get our first glimpse at Mammoth Cave.

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A small waterfall fell over the cave entrance, and low powered lights lit the entrance to the cave. After 50 yards or so, a large gate blocked access to the rest of the cave. We had no choice but to turn around and continue heading down the trail. The trail we were on was supposed to take us to an area called the River Styx, a place where an underground river rises to the surface. The trail was only a little longer than a mile, so it didn't take long to get there. The River Styx looked like creek that had flooded its banks to engulf the surrounding trees.

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Waterfalls came out of the side of the rock face (may be hard to see in the picture) creating the tranquil sound of falling water. It was hard to tell that this was an underground river. The water level was much higher than normal due to the heavy rainfall in the surrounding area (the tornadoes running rampant from Georgia to Missouri seemed to fill the news every other day). I found a picture of the same area that shows where the river emerges from underground.

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We started the mile hike back (which was all uphill) to the visitor center. We met up with the rest of our tour group, loaded the buses, and headed off to the New Entrance of Mammoth Cave.

A quick back-story on the history of Mammoth Cave. People have known about the cave since the explorers first came to Kentucky. In the war of 1812, saltpeter was mined from the cave to use to fire rifles. Later, nitrates were mined from the cave. Eventually, people began exploring the cave for recreation. In the mid 1800s, people began to pay guides to take them through the caves. After the civil war, Mammoth Cave became a big tourist attraction, people would travel from all over to see the cave. Most of the formations are named after things that people in the north could relate to, like the large room called Grand Central Station or the Frozen Niagara. The tour industry was so lucrative, that other people in the area began offering their own cave tours to caves on their property. The Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave was located 5 miles from the highway, so competitors would dress up as cops to direct traffic away from the Historic Entrance to their entrances, or dress up as construction crews and tell people that Mammoth Cave had collapsed and they would have to go to alternative sites. The New Entrance was one such competitor. The owner of the site even sued to use the name Mammoth Cave because he said he could prove it was the same cave system. Eventually an organization setup to preserve the caves bought all the land around the caves, and Mammoth Cave was later made a National Park.

The New Entrance to Mammoth Cave was marked by a large wooden awning, but otherwise would be all too easy to miss. We received some quick instructions from our guide, and the kids in the front of the group asked questions like "How often does the cave collapse?" and "When did the last person die in the cave?". With a morbid thought now implanted in my brain, I was ready to spend the rest of the day underground. As we passed through the gate into the cave, cold air blasted upwards, and we descended 300 feet underground.

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We passed a couple small bats clinging to the ceiling of the tunnel and emerged in a large cavern at the base of the stairs. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the lack of light. Once the group all made it safely down the steps, we started the hike through the limestone tunnel.

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The cave was not brightly lit. In fact, it was lit just barely enough so that you could see where the trail was. This portion of the cave was about 20 feet tall, and ranged from 10 to 30 feet across. Large blocks of limestone littered the sides of the cave, often looking like they fell off in giant slabs. There was no sound except the light slapping of shoes hitting stone. The guide would stop every 20 minutes or so in the larger rooms of the cave to talk about the experiences of people who toured the cave 100 years ago. Chicken bones and bullets could occasionally be found in the cave, and these artifacts (not trash) had to remain untouched since the cave is now a World Heritage Site.

The cave twisted back and forth, never traveling in a straight line or letting you see too far ahead. The guide turned the lights off behind us as we traveled from section to section. The lights in the cave were usually placed to accent unique rock formations and create eery shadows on the wall. No harsh, white lights were used, but instead softer reds and greens lit the way in front of us.

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The first third of the hike did not have any stalactites or stalagmites, which only form in areas where water is moving through the cave. Instead, gypsum formations lined the ceiling and walls. Water percolating through the limestone extracted gypsum and deposited it in formations looking like spaghetti or flowers.

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After about an hour of hiking, we reached the Snowball Dining Room. Much to my surprise, it was an actual dining room that served food. Although it was pretty dark, picnic tables lined the large room and a serving line allowed you to buy hot soup and sandwiches. They even had flushing toilets and running water! The guide explained that an elevator had been installed to descend the 300 feet underground and carry the supplies. Megan and I sat down at a table by ourselves and ate the sandwiches we had made before we left. The first picture is Megan sitting at the table, and the second is of the serving line in the Dining Room.

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I had on long pants, but the short sleeve shirt did little to keep me warm in the cave. Sitting still for the 30 minutes we were given to eat let a chill creep into my bones. Megan and I got up and explored the areas surrounding the Snowball Dining Room to get the blood circulating again. It was hard to take any pictures, as only the pictures taken in the most lit up areas of the cave turned out. And even when there was a light, you often had to choose whether to show the rock formation with a black silhouette, or turn the flash on to show the person and wash away the background. You can barely see the people just behind Megan in this picture, that is how dark it was in the cave.

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The first section of cave that we had traveled through had been carved out by an underground river. The second part was carved by the same river, only it was faster moving. The faster current cut more vertically through the rock, so instead of 20 ft wide passages, we only had enough room to move single file through the passages. Rock ridges sometimes forced you to duck through tight openings, and we often had to use ladders to climb up and down the steep passageway. Visibility was limited to only a couple of feet due to the tight turns and lack of light. It was awesome! Unfortunately, it was too dark to see anything in the pictures.

Our guide stopped us as we finished passing through the tight pass and collected us in a big room. He said he wanted to show us what it was like to be in complete darkness, and then he turned off the lights. He asked us to wave our hands in front of our faces and try to see anything. Just as I was thinking that I could see the shadow of my hand, the guide said the brain will project an image of the hand where it thought it should be to keep our sanity. The guide flipped the lights back on and we continued on our way.

Sometimes the cave would branch off and someone would shine a flashlight down the alternative passageway. We could never see very far, but the kid in me imagined bottomless pits and trolls living just out of sight (or maybe a Fraggle). We passed pits that dropped 50 and 100 feet below, carved out by water falling from the ceiling of the cave.

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The final couple miles of the trail were "wetter" than the rest of the cave. Water was running along the walls of the cave, and waterfalls leaked from the ceiling. This falling water formed crazy rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites and walls of shimmering rock. The largest formation was called Frozen Niagara, because it looked a Niagara Falls had been frozen in place.

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We walked down a set of stairs to see some of the best formations, and I was glad we saved this section of the cave for last. The rest of the cave seemed more bland after seeing this artful display of rock.

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In this section of cave, there was a little more wildlife than we had seen earlier in the day. If a light was shone on the wall, you could see dozens of cave crickets moving around.

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We started to make our way out of the cave, often crouching to move past the low ceilings. We crawled through more narrow openings and ascended steep ladders. You had to keep your eye out for stalactites hanging from the ceiling to prevent from being stabbed in the head.

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We finally emerged from the cave, and turning around, it was hard to imagine the miles and miles of caves hidden just below the surface. Here is the view of where we left the cave (see the stone wall on the right side of the picture).

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I was glad that we got to see Mammoth Cave and all its natural wonders. The cave had more of a touristy feel than a natural feel, and I think the main reason was because we had to stay with a guide and a larger group. The boy scout troop in my group had become bored after the first couple hours and had resulted to running through the corridors to entertain themselves. The cave would have been perfect if I had been able to move at my own pace, faster through the large walkways and taking more time to explore the more interesting sections.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:55 Archived in USA Tagged hiking national_park world_heritage_site Comments (0)

The Great Salt Lake & Antelope Island

UTAH - PART II

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Resting our legs after hiking in Arches National Park, we drove out of the flatlands and made our way into the mountains. It wasn't as steep as driving through the Rockies, but the snow covering the ground made it feel like we were even higher. At one point while driving through a mountain pass, a huge wind farm sat directly in front of us. The blades were lazily turning, and although installing these "eyesores" in the North Carolina Appalachians has been a controversial debate, it was mesmerizing to watch them spin. It may have just been the little kid in me remembering playing with a pinwheel.

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We passed through Provo, which was a disaster. The main interstate was under construction, and our GPS nearly blew up trying to calculate the remaining time on our trip as we crawled foot by foot. We had already been driving 9 hours, and it was only another hour to get to Salt Lake City. We got off the interstate and decided to follow some back roads to bypass the city. Other than the congested highway, the city was beautiful. Scenic farms with mountain backdrops were only a mile from the city. A mix of rustic barns and the colors of spring were able to take my mind off the traffic momentarily. We looped back to the highway just in time to see some crazy people jumping off cliffs wearing parachutes.

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We entered into Salt Lake City in the early evening. You can't help but admire the gorgeous views from the city. Snow-capped mountains surrounded the city to the east, while the lake borders the city to the west. It was very pleasant outside, and the grass was a rich green (which was a stark contrast after staring at sandy-brown dirt and shrubs for the past week). I could see why Brigham Young selected this spot as the home for his community and his church after conflicts forced the church to leave Illinois.

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We drove right through the heart of the city to reach our hotel. As we aproached the end of the drive, I was surprised that we got such a great location while booking a hotel through Priceline. We passed the Utah Jazz NBA Arena and turned onto Temple St. The GPS had said we reached our destination at this building.

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This is the Salt Lake Temple, the largest temple of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Obviously this was not where we were staying. After consulting the hotel confirmation and the map, we figured out the error. The address for the hotel was 2100 Temple St, but the "2" was covered by a paperclip, and Megan had entered the address of 100 Temple St. Since we weren't staying within walking distance of the arena or the temple, we took in the beautiful gardens surrounding the temple while we were there. A crowd of people were walking into the arena, apparently a big game since the Lakers were in town (about 1/3 of the people had Lakers jerseys on).

I was amazed at how wide every street in Salt Lake City seemed to be. Even down side roads and through neighborhoods, roads were easily 5 lanes wide. Apparently Brigham Young had designed the city streets to make sure that you could do a U-turn in a horse and buggy on any road in the city (or at least that is what I was told by a local who overheard Megan and me talking about it).

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Megan and I got back in the car and headed towards the hotel. Good thing the roads were 6 lanes wide, because 4 of them were closed to construction (although I didn't see a single person working on the two mile stretch of road). I nearly went blind from all the reflective strips on the construction barrels.

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Although Mexican cuisine had been a frequent choice for a meal on this trip, we had been told that the best place to get dinner in Salt Lake City was the Red Iguana. The place was busy, as expected on a Friday night, so we got seats at the counter/bar. The specialty at Red Iguana was their variety of mole sauces. I'm not sure how many of you have ever been with Megan at a restaurant, but she needs time to consider each choice on the menu, and many choices means a lot of time to decide. We were given 9 different types of mole to try, and she began the scientific process of deciding which one she liked the best. A basket of chips later, she had finally made her selection. Only then did she open her menu to decide what food to put the sauce on. The waiter saved my sanity by suggesting a combination that sounded appetizing to Megan. The food was fantastic, and well worth the wait. As good as the food was, Megan was even more excited by the mango margarita.

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We woke up early the next morning to drive out to the Great Salt Lake and do some hiking on Antelope Island. The Great Salt Lake has several islands in it, and Antelope Island proved to be much larger than I had expected. The island received its name from the wild antelope that live on the island. In addition to the antelope, there are also herds of bison on the island. We drove down the land bridge that connects the island to the mainland (the Great Salt Lake is only around 35 feet at its deepest point, and has an average depth of about 13 feet). The view from the island was amazing.

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You can see how the water line seems to be pretty far from the shore. Since the lake is so shallow, its size can change drastically. A lot of the snow has not melted yet, so less water is flowing into the lake. I had wanted to swim in the lake, but it was a little cold to do that. And since the water was so far from the shore, I didn't even get a chance to dip my finger in.

We drove up to the visitor's center to get some information on the trails. There are a lot of different trails, and we wanted to make sure we went on the one where we would most likely see antelope and buffalo. The visitor center had a display of the two animals living in the Great Salt Lake (something does actually live in it), the brine shrimp (seamonkey) and salt flies. They had information on how the lake was formed and the types of animals living on the island, but not any information on which trails would be best for seeing wildlife. I found a ranger and asked her where we would should go, and gave me a look indicating I had just asked a stupid question and replied, "Anywhere but the visitor center."

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We left the visitor center and headed out to a trail that led up to a lookout on top of a hill. The trail was short and steep, but it did have great views of the lake and the rest of the island. They even had telescopes mounted at the top to allow you take a closer view. I scanned everywhere for bison and for antelope, but didn't see any. Disappointed, we hiked back down to the car to get to the next trail. Our disappointment didn't last long, a couple miles down the road we ran into our first group of buffalo.

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The bison probably look like ants in the picture, but they were only about 70 yards away. We got out of the car and watched them for a while, but they didn't do much except slowly make their way across the field grazing on the grass. I wanted to get closer to them, so we figured we would head out to the most remote trail in the park (and theoretically where the most wildlife would be).

Our destination was Garr Ranch, the home of the people who originally used the island as grazing land for cattle. Although the land is now a park, the ranch is still in use as a ranger station. No cows are on Antelope Island anymore, but a different type of livestock is raised here now. The park actually introduced the bison, and annually round up every single one to do vet check-ups. They try to keep the number of buffalo around 400-700, and sell off the extras. The island really was pretty big. It took nearly 25 minutes to drive to Garr Ranch on the other side of the park.

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In one of the barns next to the ranch, a museum of old tools and signs are on display. Utah didn't become a state until almost 1900, the US government not ready to accept a state that allowed polygamy. In fact, Brigham Young had to be removed from his position as governor by the US Army because he was becoming so influential and powerful. The museum was OK, but we were more interested in seeing something that was still alive.

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It didn't take long in our hike to see our next bison. He was huge! It was as close as I had been to one since I saw buffalo in Deer Park in New Zealand, only this time I wasn't in a car.

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As the trail came over the rise of a steep hill, we saw our first antelope. They turned and ran up the hill as soon as they saw us.

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The trail was 5 miles long to the top, and it offered great views down both sides of the ridgeline that divided the island. More buffalo were visible on the sides of the hill. A fire was visible across the lake, the tall orange flames clearly visible even from miles and miles away.

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We walked back down the trail to the ranch. Earlier in the day we had been the only car on the road. Now other cars and cyclists were winding their way through the park. It was a beautiful day, and it seemed like everyone was making the most of it. We passed more antelope and bison visible from the road as we left the park. Since we had enough hiking for one day, we sat in the car to appreciate the scenic view and the grazing animals.

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Eventually we made our way out of the park and back into the city. It was time to explore the urban side of Salt Lake City.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 15:26 Archived in USA Tagged mountains animals hiking state_park local_food Comments (0)

Arches National Park

STATE 15 - UTAH

sunny 75 °F

Plateaus, canyons, mountains, forests, deserts, and one giant salt lake. National parks, national monuments, national forests—over 65% of the land is owned by the federal government. One of the most beautiful states in the nation. The final stop in our western road trip takes us to the state of Utah.

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After my narrow escape with the law at the end of our trip through Denver, we continued east through the state of Colorado. I had finally made it to some real mountains, going right through the heart of the Rockies. Snow covered the ground in every direction. We passed the ski-towns of Aspen and Vail. Not long after the sun rose over the mountains, we decided to pull off the interstate and grab a bite to eat. Our options were pretty limited, not many restaurants lined the sides of Interstate 70. After days of eating hotel waffles, breakfast burritos, and fruit for breakfast, I wanted a taste that only McDonald's could satisfy, a southern-style chicken biscuit. I walked up to the counter, mouth watering with anticipation, and ordered. The McDonald's employee looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. After a quick scan of the menu, I realized that, for some reason, this McDonald's did not serve chicken biscuits. I mean really, what's the point of making biscuits if you are not going to put a piece of juicy chicken in the middle? Severely disappointed, I ordered the sausage biscuit instead. When I unwrapped my biscuit in the car, my disappointment sank even lower. The biscuit wasn't even fresh made, but rather was a mass produced frozen biscuit that is just plopped in the oven. Western Colorado probably doesn't even know what it is missing. The whole experience reminded me of when I realized there are no biscuits in Australia. Come on down to North Carolina, and you'll never be able to go long without a real biscuit again.

We came down out of the mountains of Colorado and entered Utah. To the right (northeastern direction), stretched elevated plateaus. To the left (and southwestern direction), snow capped mountains dominated the landscape.

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There was absolutely nothing in the area. Miles and miles went by with hardly even encountering a sign on the side of the road, much less an exit or intersection.

Our destination was Arches National Park, which contains over 2,000 arches in the 80,000 acres of the park. The Moab Fault also lies next to the park, adding to the unique landscape. The park was humongous, and we wanted to see it all.

The nice thing about Arches National Park is that it has roads that can take you close to the biggest attractions, so you can see a lot more without having to hike all day. Excellent viewpoint areas allow you to see large portions of the park at one time, which is important since most of the arches are gigantic. Our first stop was called "Park Avenue" since the rock formation looked like a city skyline.

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We hiked into the valley between the towering rock skyscrapers. The picture above is a little of an optical illusion. We are actually on top of a lookout overlooking the valley (which is cut out of the picture, you might be able to see the people hiking in the valley behind Megan). The rocks are actually hundreds of feet tall. Megan spotted a rock along the top of the rock ridge she thought should definitely be called "Balanced Rock".

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Looking out of the canyon between Park Avenue, you could see snow-capped mountains way off in the distance.

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We left Park Avenue and drove through the expansive middle portion of the park. We stopped at a couple lookouts for 360° views of an area known as the Petrified Sand Dunes. In fact, sandstone covers the majority of the Arches National Park. The area was formed by an evaporated sea leaving a thick salt bed, which was then covered by layers and layers of sandstone from different time periods (leaving different colored layers in the rock). Rain filled holes in the rock, slowly chipping away tiny bits. The wind cleaned out the cracks, allowing the rain to penetrate even further. Eventually the softer sandstone eroded leaving arches of rock. These arches are still being carved out, as one of the main arches in the park fell down in 2008. Another portion of the largest arch in the park has also fallen recently. I tried to not think about thousands of tons of rock falling on me as we began exploring the arches closer.

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Passing the Petrified Sand Dunes, we went further into the park towards the first set of arches. We came across the real "Balanced Rock" as named by the park service. Megan thought her rock was better, and I agreed just so I didn't have to enter an argument on which rock was "more balanced".

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After 15 more minutes of driving, we finally reached our first arches. We parked the car, and started out on the trail to get to Double Arch. It was very impressive, the arches were huge!

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We didn't just stop and look at them, we climbed right up into the middle of the arches.

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I climbed up to the top of the second arch to see the view back toward Park Avenue. The wind was gusting and a little chilly as it was funneled through the window of the arch. The view wasn't anything to write home about, it was pretty much the same view view from the ground, but the climb was still pretty cool.

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I climbed back down to the entrance of Double Arch to take Megan's picture under the main arch. I have pictures that are more zoomed in, but I think this picture really shows the true size of the arches. Megan is standing in the middle with her arms raised, can you see her?

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I took another picture of Megan's preferred technique of getting down out of the arches. While most people used walking sticks or balance to help them get back down the steep incline, Megan preferred the "butt crawl" technique. She intentionally slid down the steepest portions on her butt.

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We hiked away from Double Arch and headed towards The Windows. Here two arches allowed easier access and offered viewpoints to the mountains in the background. We walked up to the first arch, and then hiked down a trail to see the other arch.

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The last arch on this trail had a specific name, but I can't remember it because Megan kept referring to it as "OK Arch". Megan thought it looked like a hand making the okay symbol.

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Megan hiked inside the middle of this arch and back again without having to use the "butt crawl" once.

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We got back into the car and drove further into the park to see the most famous arch, Delicate Arch. Although not the largest or most impressive arch, Delicate Arch is the most picturesque. The mountains in the background create a cool backdrop for viewing the arch.

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We hiked back down the trail and again headed deeper into the park. We drove past Fiery Inferno, a series of cool-looking rock formations, but opted to skip that hike since it was getting later in the day. The last trail we wanted to tackle was a several mile path that offered viewpoints to a number of different arches. The park was starting to get crowded, and parking spaces were at a premium. We began down the sandy trail, passing kids playing in the shady canyons. Various arches were viewable off in the distance, and it was neat seeing the far end of the park. Towards the end of the portion of trail we were on, we encountered the most impressive arch in the park, Landscape Arch. Landscape arch is nearly 300ft long. It is amazing that the rock stays in place. It is the second longest arch in the world. Who knows how long it will remain standing, as 3 large sections of rock have fallen away since 1991.

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On the way out of the park, Megan hijacked an earth-mover that was being used to stabilize a series of steps. All it took was a stern look from the park ranger for her to jump off. It was time to say goodbye to the arches, we still had another 4 hours of driving to get to Salt Lake City for dinner.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 07:02 Archived in USA Tagged hiking national_park Comments (0)

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