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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)

Philadelphia

STATE 18 - PENNSYLVANIA

sunny 78 °F

Only 1 of the original 13 colonies did not touch the Atlantic Ocean, but it was also the center of the emerging nation politically and geographically. It is the birthplace of cheesesteaks and soft pretzels. Somehow, this state got the entire nation to watch a rodent predict a late winter or early spring. Megan and I are headed to Pennsylvania!

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Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania, and arguably the best (just kidding Pittsburghers). Philadelphia does have a pretty cool view when driving into the city from the south. The downtown skyline is visible while the Phillies and Eagles stadiums fill the foreground (it was especially cool at night).

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One thing immediately jumps to mind when I think of Philadelphia. You might be thinking obnoxious sports fans, cheesesteaks, or the Liberty Bell, but I can't help but remember the greatest underdog story of all time—Rocky. Our first stop is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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We could see the museum from the hotel room (at the end of the road heading in the 2 o'clock direction) so it wasn't a far walk. Flags from every country lined the side of the road (I'm not sure why). There was a fountain in front of the museum with plenty of statues, Megan couldn't resist posing.

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It was about 6:00 in the morning, and the only people around were either homeless or people working out on the steps. Some were doing yoga and stretching exercises, while others ran up and down the steps. Getting into the Rocky spirit, Megan challenged me to a race up the stairs.

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Upon reaching the top, Megan and I danced around, did a little shadow boxing, and high-fived one another. However one thing was missing, there was no statue of Rocky at the top! Try to differentiate between Rocky, Megan, and me in the following pictures:

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From the vantage point on top of the steps, we spotted the new location of the Rocky statue. After walking back down the steps and over to the statue, Megan dared me to shout "Adrian" while posing for a picture. What you can't tell from the video is that there is a stoplight 15 feet from the statue where 20 cars had stopped on their morning office commute. Needless to say, they all turned to stare at me.

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After getting our Rocky fix, Megan and I crossed through downtown to reach our next Philadelphia destination, Independence National Park. Philadelphia played a huge role in the forming of the United States. Its central location among the first 13 colonies made it a convenient place for the founding fathers to meet. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed in Philadelphia. Philadelphia initially served as the nation's capital, and several presidents had homes in the city. Independence National Park is a preserved area in downtown Philadelphia that contains Independence Hall (the building where the documents were signed and original home of the Liberty Bell), President Washington's house, the First Treasury of the US, a number of era-representative buildings, and the town bar.

Our first stop was the Visitor Center so we could empty our bladders and get a ticket to enter Liberty Hall (you have to be escorted through Liberty Hall at a specified time). The Visitor Center had people dressed up in late 18th century attire, including slaves. People played instruments from the time, and a couple demonstrated common crafts like stitching (it was a little reminiscent of when we were at Colonial Williamsburg). It was a little weird to see US Park Rangers walking around with their wide brim hats, but I guess they wear the same outfit whether they are in downtown Philadelphia or at the Grand Canyon. There were some hints of modern day Philly too, like the Philadelphia Phanatic!

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We had about 2 hours before our scheduled tour of Liberty Hall, so we decided to walk around the park. On the way to see the Liberty Bell, we passed by George Washington's house.

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Well, we passed what was left of George Washington's house. You could see the foundation 15 feet below ground behind a plexiglass wall. The space on top of the foundation was dedicated to a display about George Washington's slaves. It was an interesting display because it didn't mention anything about George Washington specifically, just whatever information they had about the slaves that Washington owned. It seemed like the display was better suited for a Civil War era park instead of a Colonial era park. However, it wouldn't be the last time slavery was discussed during our time at Independence National Park.

The Liberty Bell was located right next to the foundation of Washington's house. Just about every kid knows the story about how the Liberty Bell was the grandest bell in the world and how it cracked when it was rung to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence (although none of that is 100% true). Regardless of the true story of the bell, I was intrigued to see it. Unfortunately, so was just about every other person. People were waiting to see the Liberty Bell in a non-moving line that stretched around the side of the building (surprisingly, foreigners made up 75% of the people in line).

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Seeing bell wasn't important enough to wait an hour in line, so Megan and I continued walking towards Independence Hall. Upon reaching the end of the Liberty Bell building, I saw that waiting in line to see the Liberty Bell was a complete waste of time. The entire end of the building containing the bell was made of glass! Anyone who wanted to see the bell could easily do so without waiting a minute in line. I guess the only benefit of going in the building is to get a little closer or get a better picture with the bell (tip to anyone who wants to do this, they have a perfect replica of the bell in the Constitution Center, and no one will even know that it isn't the real Liberty Bell). Megan and I listened to a short story about the bell, got a picture, and moved on.

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Since we still had about 90 minutes until our tour started, Megan convinced me to walk through the rest of the park to see the Rose Garden. The crowd disappeared as soon as we passed Independence Hall. It seemed that most people stayed in the portion of the park between the Constitution Center, Visitor Center, Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall. I tried to follow the map to the Rose Garden, but there were no signs on the cobblestone streets. After wandering through several different gardens, we finally reached the Rose Garden. There was only one bush in the entire garden with roses, and Megan was not impressed.

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We walked to the end of the park, passing by the First Bank of the US, the first US Treasury, several statues, and a variety of historical buildings. The building we really wanted to see was the watering hole of the founding fathers, the City Tavern.

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The City Tavern was closed when we walked by, but it does open for lunch and dinner every day. It would have been cool to get a beer at the same place George Washington once did, but not even the founding fathers grabbed a drink at 9am in the morning.

We headed back to Independence Hall to get ready for our tour. Unfortunately Independence Hall was getting renovated, so the exterior view of the building was not quite authentic.

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The inside however, was kept as authentic as possible. There are two main rooms, one side is a court room and the other is the gathering room where the delegates met. Each room only had furniture from the late 18th century, some of it being the actual pieces that were used by the delegates (such as George Washington's chair and Thomas Jefferson's walking stick).

The first room we entered was the courtroom. The guide told a story about how the seal of England used to be on the wall, but once the Declaration of Independence was announced, it was ripped from the wall and burned in the street. You can also see the cage that the accused man used to stand inside while making his case. Thank goodness the court system has evolved, no one would ever appear to be innocent when pleading their case from within a cage!

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The next room, the Assembly Room, is where all the real action happened. We got a good dose of history on how the delegates were gathered here to debate the Declaration and later the Constitution. The guide went into a long story about how North and South Carolina initially refused to sign the Constitution because it would have ended slavery. I was shocked, I had never imagined slavery was a dividing issue for our country from day 1. Eventually the references to slavery were removed from the Constitution, and it was signed by everyone. The guide pointed out where each delegate sat, and described how the windows were screwed shut to prevent the listening ears of the press from reporting the proceedings until they were finished. At the front of the room sat the chair with the carving of a sun where George Washington presided over the conference, in which Ben Franklin commented "I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I... know that it is a rising...sun."

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After the tour completed, Megan and I made our way back to the car. It was nearly lunch time, and I was starved. I was told there are two options for lunch, Geno's or Pat's, the two most popular cheesesteak places in Philly. We drove out of downtown and decided on Geno's based on a local's recommendation. I ordered an "American With", which means an American-cheese based cheesesteak with peppers and onions. Listening to the next 50 people that ordered, I realized that the most common order was the "Whiz With", a cheesesteak that uses cheez-whiz (which ironically isn't real cheese).

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Our day through Philly was over, but our trek through Pennsylvania was just beginning.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 02:45 Archived in USA Tagged museum historical tour local_food world_heritage_site Comments (1)

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)

Mesa Verde National Park

STATE 13 - COLORADO

sunny 50 °F

I'm in the heart of the Wild West, the 4 Corners. Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah all meeting in one place. I'm surrounded by Indians on all sides. What do I do? Thankfully no gun is needed, the Indians warmly welcome me to see how they live. I'm going to the high desert in Colorado to see how the Pueblo Indians built their homes in the sides of cliffs.

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In North Carolina, we have several different tribes of Native Americans, but only 1 (as far as I know) has a reservation, the Cherokee. I have driven through the Cherokee reservation, but all I remember while quickly passing through was the billboard for the casino. Leaving Arizona, it took nearly 3 hours to drive through the Navajo and Hopi Indian Reservations. As soon as one reservation ended, another started. Once we were in Colorado, we entered the Ute Indian Reservation. These Indians are all Puebloan, having left the their dwellings in the cliffs for lands in the flatlands. There were no trees in sight, and the landscape was pretty flat with plateaus at the horizon. Rock formations appeared sporadically, monuments withstanding the erosion to form artistic sculptures along the roadside.

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Arriving at Mesa Verde National Park, ice capped mountains were in one direction towards the middle of Colorado, while the red plateaus were visible in the distance back towards Arizona and Utah. Driving through the 4 Corners gave a great view of varying landscapes.

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From the entrance of Mesa Verde park, it was still another half hour drive just to reach the first of the old Pueblo Indian residences. Mesa Verde is a slanted plateau covering nearly 100 square miles. The first Puebloan people built their homes on the top of this elevated land. It was very windy on top of the plateau, and the late March air had a sharp, cold bite. Donning hats and gloves, we began to explore the earliest living spaces of the inhabitants of Mesa Verde.

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You can see how the living spaces surrounded the circular kiva. The kiva was the center of the community, a spiritual place where people came together. It was sunk deep into the ground and was entered from the roof. The buildings could be multilevels high, but only the base foundations still remain. You could see forever in every direction being on top of the plateau. The Indians also built reservoirs to hold water for irrigation. Fields surrounded the living spaces, where they grew corn and other crops.

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We continued traveling further into the park, stopping at the visitor center to learn about the Indians that lived here. They were excellent pottery makers and basket weavers, both the men and women participating. Lots of relics were found in the area, abandoned by the Indians 700 years ago.

From the visitor center, we walked down to the Spruce Tree House, a group of cliff dwellings that you can walk through. You can see them in the cliff behind Megan in the picture below.

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After living on top of Mesa Verde for 200 years, the Indians started building villages in the cliffs. Some believe this was for protection against outside hostiles, but that is not the most prevalent theory for the initial move. Walking down to the dwellings, one reason became immediately obvious. The cold bite in the air was nonexistent once you went below the cliff-line. The southward facing residences were warmed by the sun, while the cold wind blew by overhead. The cliff dwellings were still close to the fields, but added additional protection from the elements. The wild fires that often scorch the ground did not reach down into the cliffs.

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The dwellings were in great shape. The National Park Service has a policy of restoring, not rebuilding. The ruins as we saw them are almost exactly as they were when first discovered. You were allowed to walk right up next to the rooms, look down into the multiple kivas, and get a great picture for how these Pueblo Indians used to live. They even had a kiva that you could climb down into through the roof! The local Indians still consider the kivas to be holy places, so it was cool to actually have access inside.

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Fires would have normally been lit inside the kiva, and the smell of incense probably in the air. People would be congregating or weaving baskets. Air vents brought fresh air in through the bottom, while additional vents supplied air to the other kivas as well. The insides were plastered over and painted. There are still bowls carved into the stone where the Indians used to process their corn.

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After exploring Spruce Tree House, we walked back up the trail to the car. Sites just like this one are scattered all over Mesa Verde. We got back into the car to explore them from afar. Since the dwellings were all built on the south side of Mesa Verde, the plateaus of Arizona and Utah were visible off in the distance.

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Spruce Tree House is not the biggest site for cliff dwellings. Another section of cliffs had several groupings of dwellings. These seemed more specialized in purpose. One contained a large open area thought to be used for dancing and ceremonies for large gatherings. Another area was called the Fire Temple, and another the Sun Temple. The largest cliff dwelling is called Cliff Palace, holding over 150 rooms and 23 kivas.

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The last photo is of the most recently built cliff dwelling. It is creatively named Square Tower House. It rose over 4 stories, and was actually part of a much larger multistory structure. There is no easy access to this dwelling, presumably for defense. The whole complex can only be entered through a single underground tunnel. Towards the end of the time the Puebloans inhabited Mesa Verde, it seems the Indians started building the dwellings for defensive purposes.

We didn't just get to see old buildings at Mesa Verde, there was plenty of wildlife too. On the drive back from viewing some of the other dwellings, we ran into a group of mule deers. Most scattered when stopped, but a couple stayed to have their picture taken. We also passed by a prairie dog, popping out of its hole.

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It was a 45 minute drive to exit Mesa Verde, but it gave us a chance to take in the beautiful views. We stopped at the mountain overlook for a quick bite to eat, and then turned south to head into New Mexico.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 18:01 Archived in USA Tagged mountains animals hiking historical national_park world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Hiking the Grand Canyon

STATE 12 - ARIZONA

sunny 65 °F

The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, one of the largest US National Parks, and one of the most awe-inspiring places in the country. It also gives Megan a chance to prove that she can make it out of a giant canyon without the help of a mule. We're off to the Grand Canyon State, Arizona!

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The drive out to the Grand Canyon seemed to drag on forever, not because of the distance (it was only about 2 hours), but because of the anticipation and excitement. There was a little bit of nervousness mixed in too. It has been nearly a year since we hiked through the Colca Canyon in Peru. Megan had been training like crazy, whereas I had not made any changes to my normal workout routines. The view on the road was pleasant enough, we were out in the middle of nowhere. Rarely did we pass another car, and even more rarely passed an intersection or building of any kind.

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A portion of the drive took us through the Coconino National Forest. However, this was the most pathetic "forest" I had ever seen. Most of the trees struggled to get over six feet tall, and they were not very thick. I'm sure there is some reason this area is protected by the US Forestry Service instead of the National Park Service, but it seems like "forest" was a pretty generous term to describe the area. Despite the small trees, the landscape was pretty, especially with Arizona's highest peak off in the distance.

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We finally reached the park entrance, and instead of driving directly to the trails, we decided to drive by some lookout points and get a first view of the canyon. Not long after entering the park, we turned a slight bend in the road and there it was. The canyon was HUMONGOUS! I knew the canyon was a mile deep, but I was unprepared for how wide it was across.

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We took in the sight of the canyon for a couple minutes, and then I tried to convince Megan to climb over the wall to stand in front of the canyon for a picture. She was not happy about the whole situation, especially as I tried to encourage her to stand closer to the edge. It was a little freaky being that close to a sheer drop, especially since the wind was whipping around us.

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We drove a little further down the rim to see some other viewpoints, including a quick hike out to Grand View Point. It was after noon now, and we still had to hike down to the canyon floor before night settled in. We drove by the visitor's center to fill up our water bottles and change into our hiking gear. We parked the car at the top of the Bright Angel Trail and boarded a shuttle to take us over to the South Kaibab Trail. We would be hiking out of the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, even though it is a little longer, it has a place to refill water on the trail. The South Kaibab trail, our intended path down, covers more varied lookout points, so theoretically it would be a nicer view on the descent.

The shuttle arrived at the trail head, and we were finally ready to start our Grand Canyon Hike!

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The top of the South Kaibab Trail (and the rest of the rim of the canyon) was covered by patches of snow and ice. It was chilly, especially when the wind came blowing up the canyon wall. I was surprised at the number of people hiking into the canyon, especially wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes. The trail was slippery, the snow had melted to form ice and semi-frozen mud on the steep trails. The people coming up the trail were breathless, and some looked like they had just gone through pure hell. I realized that would be me with 24 hours. Here's a view looking down during the first portion of the hike.

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Here is a picture showing how steep the wall of the canyon is, it almost drops straight down. You can also see the ice and snow clinging the walls of the canyon.

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It didn't take long to get the first lookout. The trail came to a point that allowed a 270° view of the canyon. We took off our packs and crawled out between two boulders hanging over the canyon. You can't really see it in the picture, but I'm straddling a 2 foot gap in the rocks that goes down a couple hundred feet.

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In the picture above, you can see the next lookout point on the ridge just to the right of me. This was the destination of most of the people in the blue jeans and tennis shoes. It was about an hour into the hike down, and it offered the first real resting spot. A little plateau formed a flat area with a great view into the canyon. Lots of people were here soaking in the warm sun, and some were even lounging around shirtless (although I think this was more so their shirts could dry off instead of due to the warm weather). Megan and decided to scramble over the rocks of the thin ridgeline to get the best view.

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Some birds and squirrels could be seen here, apparently realizing this was the best area to grab the bits of food dropped by the resting hikers. I was anxious to leave the small crowd of people and get back on the trail. Megan was ready to continue only after a picture with a tree that she thought "looked really cool".

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For the next hour or so, we moved steadily down the trail occasionally stopping for a drink or to take in the view. The canyon seemed to change color as the sun kept moving further down the horizon. I told Megan to walk ahead so I could take here picture with a wide shot of the canyon in the background.

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I took the picture, then began making my way down the trail after her. Just about then, I heard a Megan-pitched squeal come echoing up from below, something like "EEEEEEEIIIIIIIIKKKKKK!". I hustled down the trail thinking that she was standing face to face with a mountain lion or something worse. As I turned the corner, I see her crouched down with her camera in her hand. She had found a lizard.

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It wasn't that she was scared of the lizard, she was excited that she could take the picture of one and show it to the six year-old she nannied. Thankfully the lizard scurried away so that we could continue our hike down the trail.

Here are some more views from the middle portion of the hike.

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It was starting to get later into the evening, and we still had a couple more miles until we reached the canyon floor. Just as I was wondering if we would make it to camp before the sun went over the wall of the canyon, I saw three guys come walking up the trail. They were easily 3 hours from the top at a quick pace, weren't carrying any water, and were all sunburned. They barely acknowledged us as they passed, and I think they realized the difficult hike out in front of them, especially as night was falling.

Until this point, we couldn't really see the Colorado River. The sounds of the rushing water had been echoing up off the canyon walls. We finally reach a ridge that presented us with a view of the river and the bottom of the canyon. Some buildings were visible, presumably the ranch at the bottom of the canyon.

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We reached one last resting spot that offered an overlook of the canyon. We stopped to refuel on some crackers and watch the sun sink lower. The air was much warmer down here as compared to the rim of the canyon.

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Instead of hugging the canyon wall, the trail began weaving through boulders and rock formations near the canyon floor. The trail was still steep at times, but we no longer followed a lot of zig-zags. We were definitely getting closer to the end of walk downwards.

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We eventually reached the Colorado River. Up close you could see how fast the water was moving through the canyon. This was not a lazy river winding through the canyon, but a powerful, gushing river that had carved tons and tons of rock to form the canyon over the last 17 million years.

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Crossing the river, we passed by the ruins of a village from the Indians that used to live in the canyon. You can see the square rooms lined up next to one another and the circular, sunken common space that was used for religious purposes.

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After walking one final, flat mile, we reached Phantom Ranch lodge. Phantom Ranch has a common space for serving meals and four separate bunks (2 for males, 2 for females) with 10 beds in each. I was surprised that the ranch actually had flushing toilets and running water for a fresh shower. Megan and I had passed on the meals and chose to hike our own food to the bottom of the canyon, $40 a piece was a little too pricey for the convenience of hot food.

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After a refreshing shower and a picnic dinner, we walked down to the banks of the Little Colorado. Phantom Ranch lies off the Little Colorado river, which runs into the Colorado river near where we crossed the steel bridge. The water was crystal clear, and some people were soaking their feet after the long hike. We walked further down stream towards the ranger house to catch the nightly presentation, which that night it was about the California Condors. It was surprisingly an excellent presentation, and really the only thing to do to pass the time since it was pitch black in the camp. Megan and I wandered back towards the bunk, pausing to lay down on the ground and stare at the stars. One of my life goals is to see the Milky Way (living in Raleigh doesn't provide clear enough nights), but it was the wrong time of year to see the it. However, there were more stars than I had ever seen (even in the middle of the Australian Outback).

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We decided to get to bed early (although we were the last ones each to make it to our bunks). I slept like a baby on the cheap mattress. At 5am the next morning, someone came by to bang on the door to wake up those who had paid for a hot breakfast. I got up, put on my boots, and waited for Megan outside. The sun still wasn't up, but I was eager to get on the trail. Megan came down to the picnic table and began to gingerly eat some crackers. I told her she needed to eat a heartier meal to have enough for the energy out, but she resisted defiantly saying she wasn't hungry. Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, we started off from the camp.

We made it back to the bridge, and the rushing water providing the only sound early in the morning. The sun just started coming up over the ridge of the canyon.

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We had picked to hike up the Bright Angel Trail because it was longer, and therefore theoretically less steep, but I realized that wasn't quite the case. The trail winded along the Colorado River and through a shallow canyon for several miles. Streams cut across the trail at several points, providing tricky maneuvering for Megan.

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A mule deer ran across the trail, directly in front of us, which startled me because I hadn't expected to see something so big on the canyon floor. The ranger had warned that mountain lions are in the area, but still I didn't seriously consider that a large animal could survive in the bottom of the canyon.

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After about an hour into our hike, a loud thumping sound could be heard coming up the trail behind us. A mule train was making its way up the trail at a vigorous pace. We scrambled off the trail just as the mules ran past. They had large bags on either side of them that could easily knock you off the trail. They were already soaked with sweat in the cool morning, obviously the driver was eager to get them out of the canyon before the trails got too busy.

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We took a break, and again I encouraged Megan to eat the rest of her breakfast. She was not happy at my nagging, and then glared at me like a little kid who has been told to eat her vegetables. She then got up, and started away at a pace matching the mule train.

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The gently sloping trail suddenly turned steep, and the real work began. We paused occasionally to take in the view, but we were both more eager to make it out of the canyon.

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The trail zig-zagged up the same cliff face, allowing us to measure how high were going since the view staying pretty much the same for the steepest part of the trail. Here is pretty much the last 3 hours of the trail.

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Once we got to the last mile, the trail got thicker with people doing a quick hike from rim. The air was much cooler, and the trail got muddy and icy. I was glad I had boots on, and felt sorry for those wearing nice tennis shoes through the slippery, goopy mud. At one point, I started to slide down the ice to the edge of a cliff, but thankfully I regained traction. After seeing that, Megan was a lot more cautious climbing up the icy path.

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We finally reached the top, gave each other a quick hug, and then found our way to the car. We had hiked 18 miles through the canyon, 1 mile vertically down, and 1 mile back up. It had taken 6 hours to hike out of the canyon, but we still had 5 hours of driving to do that afternoon. Our next stop is Colorado and the high desert!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 15:25 Archived in USA Tagged hiking national_park world_heritage_site Comments (0)

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