Week 53.1: Bozeman, Montana

After three days at glorious, crowded, beautiful, stinky Yellowstone, we had had our fill of the press of humanity for a while.  So we headed to Bozeman, Montana – because if you’re looking for a wonderful place to get away from other humans, it’s tough to beat Montana.

That’s true for most of Montana, anyway.  But Bozeman itself is actually a fantastic little city, a gem of a college town in a seriously rural state.  It reminded us of Ithaca, New York, a place we love, or a smaller version of Boulder, Colorado.  There was an incredibly cute evening farmer’s market, teenagers dressed to the nines; a hip breakfast spot with giant cinnamon rolls; and a funky coffee shop, where we listened in on the world’s most awkward first date.

In fact, the town is so charming that we found ourselves Googling things like “Reasons not to move to Bozeman.”  Turns out that multiple winter days colder than “10 degrees below zero” is a pretty compelling reason, but being there in the summer sure was nice.  The only downside was that we were parked on the edge of town, and somehow got no Internet through our Internet hotspot at all.  Took it out one day to test, and found out we were about 100 yards away from full service.

Ah well.  We were in Bozeman for 5 days anyway, 4 on purpose, and here’s what we did.

Lachingly Beautiful

Montana in general is beautiful, and the area around Bozeman is no different.  The outdoorsy options around here are top-notch.  We drove through a heavily wooded, steeply-sided canyon and parked in Gallatin Canyon for a hike to a place called Lava Lake.

The “Lava” levels were frankly disappointing, but we awarded top marks for “Lake.”  The water at Lava Lake was a stunningly deep blue, surrounded by a pristine pine forest.

It was gorgeous.

We sometimes joke that the best part of hiking is eating your lunch at the top.  Definitely not always true, but it might apply here.  How can you not love a sandwich with a view like this?

Water Sports

We did one thing in Bozeman we have never done anywhere else: give our RV a bath!  True story.  The RV is so large that it isn’t easy to wash – most RV parks forbid washing, so it can only be washed in a special truck wash, and those can be expensive.  Because we were constantly on the move, we just never really saw the point.  But after spending months murdering the insect population of the United States with our overhang—and maybe because we were about to see Jake’s family and had to pretend to be adults again—we decided it was finally time.

Armed with a hose, a long-handled sponge, and a beautiful summer day in Montana, we went to work.  It ended up taking the entire day and an exhausting amount of scrubbing, but it looked fantastic when we were done.

Until we drove through the next insect cloud, of course.

Double Time

It took longer than we expected to get to the next insect cloud.  As we headed out of Bozeman, we started to encounter strange issues with the RV and the tow car.  As it was a busy summer Friday, we had to scramble to find a place that could look at the RV on short notice.  It ended up taking about five hours to get everything fixed.

What was the problem?  Well, a fuse was blown up front, something they fixed right away.  But it wasn’t until they had checked everything else out that they realized that one of the “truck” fuses under the hood was missing.  (There are several empty slots and no legend, so we can understand missing it.)  Where did it go?  How could a fuse just jump out of the RV without causing any other problems?

We may never know the answer.  But since we didn’t get the RV back until late in the afternoon, we ended up turning around and staying at the Bozeman Wal-mart.  As it turns out, it was July 1st, and a year to the day exactly after we did something similar on our very first night in the RV.

Caverns

On our way up to Glacier National Park (coming next, and probably not for a while), we stopped off for a day trip at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park.  “Lewis & Clark” had nothing to do with the park – their name gets slapped on a lot of things out West – but the caverns were excellent, well-developed and full of interesting formations.

That said, it was a nice stop-off, but nothing worth making a trip for.  Maybe if we hadn’t been to cave nirvana at the Caverns of Sonora, we would have been more impressed.  As it was, our favorite part was probably the beautiful hike to the entrance, or the gorgeous drive back to the highway.

Pretty awesome.

Now, on to Glacier!

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Week 53: Yellowstone National Park

After a few days at the glorious Grand Teton National Park, we headed a few miles north to the granddaddy of all national parks, and one of the weirdest places in the world: Yellowstone.

Yellowstone is beautiful, huge, unique, and just a little scary.  One of the most geologically active places on Earth, the park is basically the thin covering over a gigantic super-volcano.  It’s not likely to explode anytime soon (although: if it did, we’d all be screwed), but the volcano’s heat causes underground water to bubble up and burst out through the surface.

Everywhere you go, things erupt, vent, slosh, fizz, or sometimes just lie there looking pretty.

Yellowstone was the first national park in at least the United States, and probably the world, because it is so freaking crazy.  The density of exploding stuff here has no equal.  In fact, half of all the geological features in the world are located at Yellowstone, and two-thirds of all the geysers.

We spent three days at Yellowstone, and saw almost everything – just barely.  It was a whirlwind of geysers, hot springs, and bubbling pools, but also wide-open plains, wildlife, waterfalls, and a million stunning vistas.  It’s a truly beautiful place, preserved for us all by a far-sighted act of conservation.

And judging by the throngs, approximately 12 billion people visit every day.

We took 2,600 photos here.  Here are our favorites.

Geysers

The geysers area of Yellowstone feels decidedly unreal.  You walk along huge boardwalks past a thousand little bubbling pots of nonsense, each one more brightly and improbably colored than the last.  They all erupt according to their own schedule, which typically means that they will do nothing while you wait and stare, until the exact moment you turn your back or start fiddling with the settings on your camera.

Old Faithful is the most famous of all these geysers, and probably of any geyser.  Its name derives from its consistency – Old Faithful erupts reliably, roughly every 65 or 91 minutes, depending on the length of the previous eruption.  There is a ten-minute window or so in which it is likely to blow each time, marked by a large clock in the ornate hotel a few steps away.

Heather got a prime spot on one side of the large viewing area and snapped away.

Jake… thought he had enough time before the eruption, and was in the bathroom.

Whoops!  The show goes on for a long time, though, and he at least caught the middle and the end.  Plus, we got the nice shot above of the crowds as he ran back to the viewing area.

Pools

Aside from the geysers, the most famous features in Yellowstone are probably the vibrant pools.  Each is brilliantly colored and totally unique.

Many pools have a range of colors, caused by the temperature bands in the water itself – certain bacteria prefer the hotter water in the center, while others live in the cooler areas nearer the edge.  The end result creates beautiful, concentric gradients of color.

The most famous of these types of pools is known as Grand Prismatic Spring, and it is stunning.

Also: crowded.

Also: smelly.

There’s no way around it: A lot of these geysers and pools smell horrific.  There’s a lot of sulfur, and the smell is equal parts “hell” and “rotten eggs.”  It’s constantly wafting everywhere.

At Grand Prismatic, the stinky steam constantly obscured our view.  Worse, the wind blew it all around, sometimes right into our nose and mouth.  Eww.

Some things are better in pictures than real life.

Aside from being pretty and smelly, these hydrothermal features are also wildly dangerous.  Some of the pools and geysers are at or above the boiling point for water, and they’re loaded with dangerous chemicals.  The ground is unstable.  The Park Service has built boardwalks everywhere, which are safe, and every year, people leave the boardwalk and die.

Seriously.  Right before we came to Yellowstone, a 23-year old Oregon man “essentially dissolved” after walking far off the boardwalk and falling into a hot spring.  That’s tragic, but there’s not much danger for more careful visitors.  We walked by the area where it happened: a barren, smoking field, no vegetation, sitting on top of super-heated water loaded with sulfuric acid.  (See the picture above.)

We’d rather walk through a minefield, but people routinely do crazy things here.  In fact, while we were looking at geysers, we saw some international tourists walk off a boardwalk, bend down, and taste the water from a random hot spring.

God!  We think this warning sign says it all.

Hot Springs

The final hydrothermal feature at Yellowstone are the hot springs.  We stayed just north of the park, in Gardiner, Montana – incidentally, the most expensive RV lodging of our entire trip – and we were located very close to Mammoth Hot Springs.

The bubbling springs here have created brightly-colored mineral deposits, and they form in pleasing geometric shapes.  It’s almost like shelves.

Like all the hydrothermal features in Yellowstone, the springs are inherently unstable.  Geysers and pools shift, drain, and refill based on movements deep within the earth.  At Mammoth, the springs sometimes dry up in one place and restart in another, leaving behind a bone-white skeleton.

Canyons

If the geysers, pools, and hot springs were all that there is to Yellowstone, it would be enough for a satisfying vacation.  But frankly, it just scratches the surface of a truly amazing natural preserve.  The scenery here is incredible in a million ways, and the most beautiful part of the park has nothing to do with volcanoes at all.  Instead, it’s a canyon.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

You might not have heard of it (we hadn’t), but the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (“GCOTY”) is magical.  There’s a huuuuuge waterfall, and then some other waterfalls, and the whole thing is framed in this incredibly perfect yellow canyon.

There’s even a constant rainbow!

Seeing all of the GCOTY requires about half a dozen trips down into the canyon from the parking spots along the rim.  Of course, we had to see it all.  But there were a lot of stairs.

It was a whole day of:  Down and up.  Down and up.  Drive 3 minutes, spend 8 minutes parking.  Down 328 steps on a rickety metal staircase suspended over nothing that looks like it was built in 1965 and then never serviced again.  Take some pictures.  Go back up those steps.  Down and up.

We’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Wildlife

Another big draw at Yellowstone is the chance to see some truly big game.  Numerous animals roam Yellowstone freely, most notably American bison (NOT buffalo), but also including deer, bears, bighorn sheep, wolves, and much more.  We were lucky enough to catch some bison, including adorable babies.

We could always tell when an animal was visible from the road.  Yellowstone is crowded to begin with, but roadside critters create massive traffic jams, since people recklessly slam on the brakes for a photo of the (usually unimpressed) animal.

We tried our best not to be those people.  We just snapped pictures out the windows blindly as we drove by, like civilized folk.

When Jake was here as a kid, a large herd stopped traffic by ambling across the road – and around all the stopped cars.  We only really saw one big herd of bison, and they were in a field, but we did see a a lot of individual bison just hanging around.  They’re truly massive, and reasonably mellow.

Tourists do a lot of dumb things – like trying to rescue calves by putting them in the back of their SUV – but the bison seem pretty resigned to the swarms of fools surrounding them at all times.

We didn’t see any bears or wolves at Yellowstone, but there were plenty of deer and other large mammals.  We ended up on the opposite side of a canyon from a herd of mountain goats, which we futilely tried to photograph using our zoom lens.

Our favorite of all the wildlife was the herd of elk that hung out near Mammoth Hot Springs in the evening.  We always passed this area by as we finished for the day, and they were always there, lounging on the grass near the visitor center and paying the rest of us no mind.  Human development has worked out just fine for some species, apparently.

This one appears to be licking a light pole.

Landscapes

Although the geysers get all the attention, Yellowstone is a beautiful place nearly everywhere.  The landscape is incredibly varied, with windswept plains and dense forests, waterfalls, a huge lake and a mountain pass.  We constantly stopped at overlooks, or just pulled over to gawk and take pictures.

There are multiple huge and pristine lakes.  We stopped by Yellowstone Lake, a gloriously deep blue when we were there in June 2016 (yeah – we’re slow).  It’s the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in North America!

More importantly, they sell ice cream there.

HATS!

We’ve mentioned the crowds at Yellowstone a few times, and that’s because there’s no getting away from them.  The park has long been busy, but last year it was exceptionally so.  Before 2015, the record for visitorship was 3.6 million people in 2010.

Last year?  4.25 million people visited.

Everywhere we went, we struggled with overfilled parking lots, long lines, and traffic jams.  Unfortunately, the park is so big that there’s no easy way to get around except by driving.  And also unfortunately, as an international tourist destination, the park attracts plenty of visitors who have never driven in the United States before.  Jaw-dropping maneuvers are common, oncoming traffic be damned.

There is also an ecological cost to having so many visitors, and that cost can be measured in hats.  Yellowstone is windy, and the non-boardwalk areas are toxic.  The combination is lethal for headwear.  At every pool, every geyser, every hot spring, we saw enough fallen hats that we briefly considered starting an entirely new blog, the Hats of Yellowstone.

We’re not going to just give away all that content here.  Consider this your free taste.

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Week 52: Grand Teton National Park

After visiting the Black Canyon, it was time to head out of Colorado for a while (but not forever!).  We traveled west, past Grand Junction and Moab, and stayed overnight in a dusty and quiet RV park in Green River, Utah.  Anecdotal reports (read: some guy at a gas station) suggested that we avoid heading west on Interstate 70 from there, so we took Route 6, an easy ride through typically gorgeous Utah terrain.

With a little bit of time before the events to come, we ended up spending three days in Ogden, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City. You can see pictures from our stay there, including stunning Antelope Island, in this blog post.  Then, still taking it easy, we stopped for an overnight stay on our way north to Grand Teton National Park.

We picked the location based entirely on the name: Lava Hot Springs, Idaho.

We forgot to take pictures, so we borrowed this one from the Internet.  We’ll return it later!

True to its name, the town has several hot springs, along with cold-water river tubing.  To be honest, it was pretty hopping for a Sunday night in an Idaho town with a population of 407!  All of our neighbors at the RV park were partying it up – loudly, outdoors.  Not to worry – we were headed for the springs anyway.

As it turned out, the hot springs were very nice, but the “lava” part is not entirely an exaggeration.  It was hot enough that we could only spend a little bit of time in the water before hopping out to cool down.  After repeating that process about four times, we walked back to the RV, which was parked approximately one hundred yards away.

Not sure it would be worth planning a vacation around, but Lava Hot Springs was a pretty nifty place to spend an evening.

Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right

The next day we got to our real destination.  Well, close to it, which is to say, Victor, Idaho, population 2,000. As it turns out, Grand Teton National Park is not the easiest place to get to. It is literally built into a mountain range.  Victor is on the western side of that range, and our drive in involved switchbacking up and then down an insanely steep mountain, eventually bringing us into Jackson, Wyoming.

We were glad we stayed in Victor, because trying to get over that mountain in the RV would definitely have landed us in some kind of viral video.

View from the top of the pass.  F the Old West, indeed.

We spent our two days in Victor visiting Grand Teton National Park, and it was glorious.

On the first day, we drove the big scenic loop drive, taking approximately one million photos and swearing continuously at how gorgeous everything was.  Even the visitor center was awesome!

If you’re not familiar with the park, it has two main parts. One part sits on a broad, shockingly flat plain (there’s even an airport!) between mountain ranges, dotted with beautiful trees, rivers, and lakes.

This valley is called Jackson Hole.

Eponymity

The second part of the park encompasses the mountains themselves. “Grand Teton” is both the name of the park and the name of the highest peak (the one in the middle below).  It’s a handsome, brooding crag, and you’re about to see it in the background of a lot of photographs.

The scenic drive took us past the peaks and then back, showing us Grand Teton and his friends from a thousand angles in a thousand shades of sunlight. We were fascinated with photographing the mountains, long past the point where we normally get bored, and the park just kept showing off in new and stunning ways.

Room With A View

We could spend forever naming these places, but we’ll just show off a few, like this awesome picnic spot near Jackson Lake where we munched our lunch. (We were champion lunch-packers by this point in our trip, by the way.)  It was mid-June, the weather was amazing, and there were flowers everywhere.

Rough life.

There was also the beautiful Jenny Lake, which Jake’s family fell in love with during a trip out West in his early teenage years.  Owing to parking issues and some off-camera construction, the experience in person was a little lackluster this time, but you still can’t beat that view.  The water here is a preposterous blue.

(Incidentally, Jenny Lake features in a beautiful story written by our friend Maggie.)

If you’re wondering, Jake’s bright blue shades were purchased in the gift shop after his existing pair broke – and yes, they do say “Grand Teton” on them.

Effing Gorgeous

Everything at Grand Teton was stunning, but our favorite of all was probably Oxbow Bend. Even though this picture turned out really well, it was truly awe-inspiring in person.

Remember how we mentioned swearing at the beauty a lot?  Well… this was definitely a 4-letter view.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

We saw most of the tourist-friendly stuff on Day 1, so Day 2 was spent doing our favorite national park activity: hiking! We drove a few miles down a bumpy dirt road (a common Jake and Heather refrain) before getting nervous about the road conditions and parking in a random dirt lot.  We thought we were close to the trailhead… but we were actually a mile away.  D’oh!

After finally making it to the trail, we set off through a dense pine forest which just smelled amazing.  Soon, we emerged to a glorious view of… well, whatever this lake was called.  “Lake Something.”  Or maybe… “Something Lake.”

Whatever.  It was pretty.

(Note from Heather: It’s Phelps. Phelps Lake.)

We knew this was supposed to be a difficult hike, but getting to the lake was easy.  We decided at this point we were just so badass that it felt easy.  Then… we started going up.

And up.

And up.

Friends, this is what happens when you choose to hike up something named “Death Canyon”: you get your 3-letter word kicked. The hike ended up being 10+ miles round trip, most of which was spent going straight up a mountain, before turning around and heading right back down.

Oh, and as a fun bonus? The trail runs directly through grizzly bear habitat, and as it happened, we coincidentally went about an hour in the morning without seeing any other humans.  It was just us, a can of bear spray, a walking stick, and some very close vegetation – making lots of worrisome noises.

We never did see a bear, though – at least not at Grand Teton – and the closest we came were some frolicking marmots at the top.  The scenery was unparalleled, as was the feeling of hiking through the huge, U-shaped glacial valley.  We enjoyed another picnic lunch with a view, sitting near a mountain waterfall and a cool old log cabin, before enjoying the bear-free scenery on our much easier descent.

It was a tough but satisfying day, and who would know if we later saw a bunch of young children scampering up that supposedly-difficult trail with infuriating ease?  Certainly not our readers.

Go Fisch

Our final note from Grand Teton has nothing to do with scenery. Jake’s great-uncle on his father’s side moved out to Idaho with his family many years ago, and as it turns out, they all still live out in this area.  We met up for a fantastic home-cooked dinner at the home of Jake’s cousin (once-removed), which turned out to be in… Victor, Idaho.

In fact, after getting lost and driving around aimlessly for a few minutes, we realized her house was basically directly across the field from the RV park we were staying at.  Imagine a Family Circus cartoon, and you’ve pretty much got our driving route.

Courtesy of xkcd

All’s well that ends well, though, and we did finally make it.  It was great to reconnect and, in Heather’s case, meet the other half of the Fischer family for the first time. This was the end of a very long stretch of time in which we saw literally nobody else we knew, so this was a special and much-needed night for us.

We forgot to take a group picture to commemorate, but we did leave laden with food, so we’ll call it an A+ evening on the whole.  Thanks again, Idaho Fischers!

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Week 51: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

After our short but fascinating visits to Mesa Verde and Hovenweep, we headed northeast through western Colorado to a town called Montrose.  This was easier said then done: the high Colorado peaks typically run north-south through the state, but between Cortez and Montrose there is a spur, which is to say, “very high mountain range.”  In the spirit of adventure – and after some thorough research – we decided to take the direct-and-scenic route directly through the mountains via Highway 145.

We were a little nervous after our disastrous drive on Utah’s Scenic Highway 12, but Highway 145 was smooth sailing.  The views were magnificent the entire way, and when we stopped for a quick picnic lunch at the highest point, Lizard Head Pass, we just had to take a picture.  The result was one of our favorites from the trip.

As usual, getting back down from the mountain pass was trickier than getting up, but careful braking and our RV’s extremely non-aerodynamic profile helped us descend safely.  We soon made it to the wide-open RV park near Montrose, and if the CVS in Cortez had been exciting, the big-box stores here made us positively giddy.  It had been over a month since we had been in any kind of real city (Salt Lake City), and the dusty tourist towns of Moab and Kanab just can’t quite scratch the itch.

We will happily wander for 40 days in the desert, so long as there’s a Target at the end.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

We stayed in Montrose to visit the nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a national park with a foreboding name.  Although obscure, it turned out to be well worth visiting.  The Black Canyon is named because it is so deep and narrow that sunlight almost never reaches the bottom.  The deepest spots receive only 33 minutes of sunlight per day.

The “Gunnison” part of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a swift-flowing river, and it carved the canyon over the course of millions of years.  Unlike the rivers that created most large canyons, however, the Gunnison did not have the luxury of cutting through soft sandstone and limestone.  Instead, the Gunnison carved the Black Canyon out of an incredibly hard type of rock called schist.

Because the rock is so hard, it lasts.  The oldest schist here is approximately 1.75 billion years old.

It all adds up to some rather striking views.  Can you spy Jake in the picture below?

The only reason the canyon is even possible is because the Gunnison flows with incredible fury during the late spring and summer.  At times, the flow rate of the water can exceed 8,000 cubic feet per second.  For reference, wading through the famous Narrows at Zion National Park is prohibited as too dangerous if the flow rate surpasses 150 cubic feet per second.

So, yeah.  8,000 cubic feet per second is a lot.  Venturing in is not recommended.

The Black Canyon looked amazing in person, but it’s tough to photograph because the angles are so sharp. It’s all knife edges and sheer cliffs, and the bottom really is dark.  On top of that, most of the rock is a uniform dark grey, although here and there it is slashed with beautiful seams (“dikes”) of lighter-colored pegmatite.

There are many, many overlooks, mostly between 100 to 300 yards away from the road (for some reason everything at the Black Canyon is demarcated in yards).  As national park completionists, we stopped at every single one, and we’ll just say – 300 yards each way may not sound far, but it adds up to a lot of walking!

We really enjoyed one overlook near the end where the canyon widened a bit.  The cliff wall you can see in these photos is about 2,500 feet high. That’s more than 833 yards!

We also took a short but satisfying hike along the outer rim of the canyon.  The elevation was high so our breath was short, but the views out over Western Colorado were magnificent.

After checking out every overlook, we drove down to the Gunnison river itself.  The route there is called East Portal Road, and it is incredibly steep.  The road continuously switchbacks, and even so, it descends at a ridiculous 16% grade.  That’s far more than you’ll ever see on a highway, but our Fit handled it just fine, albeit only in first gear.

At least we got good gas mileage on the descent!

At the bottom, there was a diversion dam for the Gunnison irrigation tunnel and a tiny information and picnic area.  And… nothing else.  After poking around for a few minutes, we headed back up East Portal Road disappointedly, apologizing to our Fit the entire way as it churned its way back up the mountain.

This time, our gas mileage wasn’t quite so good.

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We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settled down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

Our trip to the Black Canyon was on June 14, 2016.

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Week 50: Mesa Verde & Hovenweep

After a week in Moab and visits to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, we continued on our roadtrip, heading southeast into southwestern Colorado.  We had originally planned to visit the famous Monument Valley at this point – it appeared in Forrest Gump, along with many, many westerns – but it didn’t work out.  The area around Monument Valley is incredibly remote, and with so few services, we had been planning to just park in the desert for free.  However, with triple-digit temperatures every day, no air conditioning, and a living space that heats up like a greenhouse, we decided to save Monument Valley for “next time” and head for cooler climates.

Well… air conditioned climates, anyway.  We stayed in Cortez, Colorado, just northeast of the Four Corners (which we did not visit because it is a horrible tourist trap).  From Cortez, it was a short but winding drive to visit Mesa Verde National Park, and a longer but much straighter drive to Hovenweep National Monument.

One exciting development, by the way: Cortez had real stores!  Safeway, CVS, a place to change the oil on our RV – all very welcome for your weary correspondents, who had spent the last month in small towns in the Utah desert.

Mesa Verde

We only had two days in Cortez, but we made them count.  We first visited Mesa Verde National Park, a little-known park set, like Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky, on top of a giant plateau.  Unlike Canyonlands, however, the scenery is not the draw here (although the views were gorgeous).

Unique among national parks, the main draw of Mesa Verde is the huge number of archaeological sites.  In particular, this is the finest place in the country to see Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, located along the edges of valleys like the one below.

The area around the park has been settled since approximately 7500 BCE, but most of the cliff dwellings were built between 750 and 1300 CE.  They are amazing in person, surprisingly large and in excellent condition due to the dry desert air.  (It’s worth noting that many were also restored from ruin by the park service.)  We previously saw cliff dwellings at two locations (one and two) in New Mexico, directly to the south, but the buildings at Mesa Verde blow the ones we saw out of the water.

Much of the park involves a self-guided driving tour, where we looked at various preserved archaeological sites.  This frankly wasn’t all that interesting, but periodically an overlook would provide a view down into a nearby canyon, and we would excitedly point out a visible cliff dwelling.  They’re well camouflaged, so we probably missed some – the park holds more than 600 cliff dwellings in total.

After the drive, we had tickets to take a ranger-guided tour through the Balcony House, one of Mesa Verde’s three largest ruins.  The tour group was huge, but we all fit inside the incredibly well-preserved main room.  In our photos, you can see different rooms – used for storage and sleeping – as well as the large central “kiva,” the round cut-out in the floor that served religious and ceremonial purposes.

The most important part about Balcony House is actually hidden.  In the back of the cave, there is a small, muddy pool of water, fed by a spring in the rock.  Access to drinkable water was hugely important in such an arid region, and all of the major cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde were built around such natural plumbing.

One other fun thing about Balcony House is that the Native Americans who used it did not use ladders or rope.  Instead, they climbed up and down the sheer cliff walls via tiny finger-holds carved into the rock.  Crazy!  Tours today are a little more forgiving, but we did still have to squeeze through a small tunnel in the rock near the exit.

If you ever decide to visit Mesa Verde, you might want to hit the gym first.

After escaping the crowds, we took one last stop to check out the Far View Sites, a short trail that links several ruins that are on the top of the mesa. These ruins are about 200 years older than the cliff dwellings, making them over one thousand years old (!). We were pretty much the only people here, other than a ranger stationed near the trail head. Ah, sweet solitude. Our favorite way to explore.

Hovenweep

On our second day in Cortez, we stopped at the excellent Anasazi Heritage Center*, where the friendly volunteer staff answered all of our dumb questions and even gave us some chocolate bars.  (One thing that became clear to us on our trip: most of our nation’s parks and museums run on volunteers!)  The artifacts on display fascinated us, especially a seven-thousand-year-old basket, as well as the beautiful examples of modern-day basket weaving. And, of course, there was another archaeological site – ruins from the 12th century.

* The preferred word for these peoples now is Ancestral Pueblo; the term “Anasazi” comes from opposing Native American tribes, and was essentially a slur meaning “Ancient Enemy.” 

After having our fill, we decided on the advice of the locals to check out Hovenweep National Monument, a tiny, extremely remote park located on the border between Colorado and Utah on the Utah side.  It’s absolutely barren all around – we were frankly surprised to find that the visitor center had electricity.

But Hovenweep protects something very, very cool: the ruins of dozens of ancient brick towers, built hundreds of years ago by Native Americans – and then abandoned.

The towers at Hovenweep were built between approximately 1200 and 1300 CE, mostly along the canyon edges, with some on the canyon floors.  Nobody really knows why the towers were built, or why they were abandoned.  The largest are three stories high, the precision-cut stone and mortar still holding strong in the desert air.

You can get right up close to many of the towers, with others only visible in the distance.  With so many unique and arresting shapes, it’s a photographer’s paradise.  It was also quiet and still, as only about 4 other people were around in the entire area.  For the first time, we broke out our zoom lens and tripod, trying to capture the somber, slightly awed feeling we felt at being among the ruins.

We probably still didn’t do it justice, but we hope you like the pictures.

Roadtrip Status

We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settled down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

Our trip to Mesa Verde and Hovenweep was June 10-11, 2016.

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Week 49.2: Canyonlands

Sorry, friends, it’s been a while since we posted one of these.  But now we’re back!

Let’s return to early June.  As our final day trip from Moab, we headed out to Canyonlands National Park, the final of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks.  Canyonlands is split into three districts, and we visited the most popular and well-developed district, “Island in the Sky.”  We had also planned to visit The Needles, another district to the south which focuses on hiking, but we ended up skipping out due to the constant 100+ degree temperatures.

Canyonlands’ third district is known as The Maze, and it is a natural preserve devoid of services, “one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the United States.”  We weren’t too keen on recreating the events of 127 Hours – which took place just to the west of Canyonlands – so we decided to stick to Island in the Sky.

We have no regrets.  Island in the Sky’s evocative title is fitting: this section of the park encompasses a massive, flat-topped mesa, and the district’s scenic drive took us around the rim of the plateau for stunning views in every direction.  The park reminded us of the Grand Canyon, and although the vistas may not be quite as spectacular, they are much more varied and weird.

And we like weird.

You Got Your Arches in My Canyonlands

We started things off with an incredible view – through an arch located on the edge of a cliff.  It was pretty early in the day, so we probably didn’t fully appreciate how cool this was at the time.  But that’s why we take photographs!

Awesome.  After the arch, we had fun climbing around on some giant, spherical mounds that arise out of the center of the plateau.  They connect to each other on each end, looking a bit like a giant stone caterpillar or snake.

We also hiked around Upheaval Crater, which scientists believe is either (1) a collapsed salt dome, or (2) the impact crater of a large meteorite.

To be honest, it wasn’t that thrilling in person, but the surrounding terrain was beautiful.

As you can see, we took a lot of nifty photos of each other standing on cliff edges at Canyonlands.  For the below shot, we wandered slightly off the trail to take some cool adventure shots.  Jake had everything lined up when a Swiss hiker saw what we were doing and decided to get his own photos.

He did this by walking directly into the frame, then up next to Heather – where he proceeded to stand and obliviously admire the view for about ten full minutes.  Seriously.

That’s fine, random Swiss guy, take your time.  We’re just standing around here, holding a camera and posing and glaring at you, for your own amusement.  At least the photos turned out pretty well, once he left.

I can see for miles and miles…

After the crater, we stopped for lunch at one of the prettiest picnic spots you will ever see, located right on the edge of the plateau.  The pictures don’t quite do it justice, unfortunately.

From there, it was just one stunning overlook after another.

If you need an awesome picture for your Facebook profile, we recommend Canyonlands.

Roads go ever ever on

On our way out, we stopped at an overlook we had skipped in the morning.  (As crafty national park veterans, we knew its east-facing view would be better once the sun had risen higher.)  There was a rather cool cliff to stand on here, and walking the narrow ledge to get there was only slightly gulp-inducing.

We love that shot, but we mostly wanted to draw your attention to the road you can see running down the canyon.

That’s White Rim Road, a crazy, 100-mile dirt road that you can drive with a 4×4 vehicle.  We actually saw someone driving it in a jeep.  It takes 2-3 days to drive the whole thing, at which point we assume you are helicoptered out because you had to saw off your own arm.

Here’s how you get down.

Dead Horse Point State Park

OK, so you’ve already gotten the cliffside arch, the stone caterpillar, the crater, the overlooks, and the crazy dirt road – but wait, there’s more!  Right next to Canyonlands is Dead Horse Point State Park, which was named after early settlers herded wild horses onto the plateau, tamed a few, built a wall to hold in the rest… and then inexplicably left all the horses to die of thirst.

Sorry, horses, that’s some pretty terrible stuff.  Today, the park exists as basically a single, $10-per-vehicle overlook, piggybacking off of the national park next door.  But man oh man – what an overlook!

One of the prettiest views we’ve seen.  If you’re curious, the bright blue water in the last few photos is from a potash factory.  Obviously unnatural, but kind of beautiful anyway.

That’s the end of this blog post, and as it turns out, the end of our stay in Utah.  Stay tuned for a quick diversion to Colorado before we get to the biggest, baddest parks of them all.

Roadtrip Status

We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’ve settled down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

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Week 49.1: Arches National Park

As a day trip from Moab, we headed in early June to the fourth of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, Arches.  Actually, we did this several times!  Arches is just a few minutes from Moab, and since it was insanely hot, we decided to do multiple, shorter trips in the mornings and evenings.  (National parks: the only good reason to wake up early.)

Arches is a desert park chock full of huge, stunning rock formations.  The most famous formations are the natural rock arches, but there’s quite a lot more, sprinkled seemingly at random throughout the otherwise empty landscape.  For example, near the entrance is a formation called Park Avenue, a massive – but thin – rock wall which evokes Manhattan skyscrapers.

Another famous landmark is called Balanced Rock, visible throughout much of the park’s scenic drive.  The eponymous rock is the size of three school buses, and it somehow sits on an impossibly small pedestal, 128 feet above the desert floor.  Someday it will fall – but hopefully not while any tourists are nearby.

Arches Square

Park Avenue and Balanced Rock were cool, but we came to Arches for one thing: arches!  The park is well named, with over fourteen billion natural arches present inside its boundaries (approximately).  Beautiful arches were found practically everywhere we looked.  Our favorite of these was the magnificent Double Arch – note how small the person in the photo appears:

There were a lot more arches to be seen, all with unique names that we have since forgotten.  Arches is definitely more fun to show than tell, so check out a few of our favorite arch photos below.

Most of the arches were found along the Devil’s Garden trail, an extremely cool hike which took us through, around, and over tall rock formations that looked much like shark fins.  Well… maybe not entirely “cool,” since it was 100 degrees by noon, but we endured for the sake of adventure.

A Utah Delicacy

After roasting on our Devil’s Garden hike, we took a break from the heat for a couple days before returning to Arches one evening near sunset.  Our aim was to visit the most famous landmark in all of Utah: Delicate Arch.

You may not have heard of it, but this iconic arch shows up everywhere in the state.  It’s even on their license plates!  And although we were prepared to be disappointed by the hype, we found that Delicate Arch more than lived up to its reputation.

The arch is gorgeous in person.  It really is a perfect arch, tall, thin, and gracefully proportioned, and we were lucky enough to capture it during an incredible sunset.  We took a lot of photos on our trip, but our Delicate Arch pictures are some of the best.

One thing you don’t see in our photos are people, but trust us, it was crowded.  Arches is a pretty busy park in general, and Delicate Arch particularly so.  We had to snap our pictures during the brief windows between selfie-takers, which isn’t that unusual but does add a degree of difficulty.  There was quite a crowd sitting in the amphitheater-like area overlooking the arch, just watching and enjoying the sunset.  It made for quite a silhouette.

Twinkle Twinkle

It was dark as we headed back from Delicate Arch, so we decided to try something we’d been meaning to do for a while: night photos!  We stopped near Park Ave., got out our tripod, set up the camera, and… realized we had no idea how to take night photos.

Luckily for us, a young man on a motorcycle stopped to take his own photos, and he noticed us peering at the buttons on the camera and Googling things like “night photo how” on our phones.  He was kind enough to give us a quick tutorial and help us get set up, something we’re eternally grateful for.   And with a little help from our new friend, the night photos we took at Arches turned out pretty well!  They’re a little blurry and digitally “noisy,” but we’re still happy with how they came out.

It doesn’t look it in the photo, but it was almost pitch-black outside.  However, the camera collects enough starlight over thirty seconds to light the entire shot.

By the way, after our photographer friend left to go further down the path, there was silence for a moment.  But he must have found another group, because we soon heard him patiently give the same tutorial to another group of clueless newbies.

Something tells us there’s a business opportunity there.

Previous Post: Week 49: Moab, Utah

Next Post: Week 49.2: Canyonlands

Roadtrip Status

We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settling down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

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