Week 56: Colorado (before we moved there)

After leaving behind the awesomeness of Glacier National Park and spending a few days moving across Montana (it’s big!), we were planning to go to the Black Hills in South Dakota.  However… how do we put this politely?

We needed some goddamn Internet.

The unlimited Internet hotspot we had at this point in our trip used Sprint’s network.  But there is a giant hole in Sprint’s network coverage in the northern Rocky Mountain area, and that was where we had been living for months.

In the map above, the yellow represents “good service” and the red represents “good luck.”  Note the circled area in the map above.  We were within that circle, or someplace with even less service, between May 6 late July.  Let’s just say the idea of going weeks longer without Internet as we explored the Dakotas was a real non-starter.

No Internet and no civilization make Jake and Heather… something something.

So we called an audible and headed down to the bright yellow at Longmont, Colorado, a little bit north of Denver (where we live now).  It is an area full of brand-new big box stores and strip malls, restaurants, breweries, and — glory of glories — a strong 4G Sprint signal.

Not much to say about the drive there.  Wyoming is huge and empty, and although it can be beautiful, it is also very easy to drive through.  Then we hit Colorado, and suddenly – people!!  It’s an odd feeling to go from days of driving through nothing to gridlock all at once.

We stayed in Longmont’s county fairgrounds / RV park, which was both a good deal and the only open place to stay for about fifty miles.  It was a good spot to visit Jake’s sister Kate in Boulder, and also to explore Denver a little, since it was on our list of possible locations to move to.   And since we did pick Denver, we actually came back and lived at the fairgrounds for a while when we moved out to Colorado, several months later.

It was a pretty great time.  We hiked up the Flatirons, a famous set of vertical plate-like mountains near Boulder.

We hung out at a heavy metal-themed brewery, which was exactly as weird and awesome as it sounds, then caught a Rockies game at Coors Field.

We also caught a show at the iconic Red Rocks amphitheater.  They have movie nights during the summer, and we saw Labyrinth.  You know, that 80s one with David Bowie?  It’s a very strange movie, but Red Rocks is a pretty amazing place to see it.

Plus:  there was a whole David Bowie tribute band competition thing!

Mistakes Were Made

A few days after getting to Colorado, we decided to do what Colorado is famous for:  get high!

Yes, we climbed a so-called “14er” – a 14,000 foot peak – with Kate.  What did you think we meant?

It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds – the trailhead starts at around 11,000 feet.  Still, it is high, and both Fischers have had issues with elevation in the past.  We chose Mt. Bierstadt, a “beginner” 14er.

First note: we got there way too late.  It was almost two hours to get to the trailhead, and we didn’t make it until about 9 a.m.  Getting there early is important because the mountains in Colorado are notorious for afternoon thunderstorms.

Second note: it was a pretty hike.  Very pretty.  And not too steep!

Third note:  Oh god, the elevation!  Heather was relatively unaffected.  For Jake and Kate, every step was basically exhausting… and there were a lot of steps.

Taking frequent breaks, we slooooooooowly made our way to the top.  Halfway up, college-age workers were repairing the trail, moving heavy stones with ease while we quietly panted.  Occasionally, someone wearing Lycra would run past us, sprinting up the trail without seeming to sweat.

We finally made it to the top around noon.  No problem – the clouds were all fluffy and white.  We rested, ate some lunch, and took a few photos of the awesome landscape.

The actual peak was on a small mound nearby.  It required boulder scrambling, but we (Jake and Heather) decided to try it.  We made it up in about fifteen minutes, and assumed we would be just fine.  Jake posed for the cheerfully oblivious photo below.

See those dark clouds behind him?  Yeah…

Storms come fast in the mountains.

About ten minutes after that photo was taken, we were booking it down the trail while pouring rain and hail blasted down around us.  Soon, lightning started slamming down onto the mountains around us.  We took a look around and gulped – we were still above the treeline.  In fact, we were the highest thing around for miles.

No need to linger.  It was bad, but we survived.  Plus, so far as anyone knows, Jake didn’t get hit by lightning and then reanimated in a gross violation of biology and physics.

So.  Don’t need to ask about that.

Rocky Road

We did lots of fun stuff in Colorado, but one other stands out – our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park.  We were fresh off our Glacier high, but being National Park completionists, we couldn’t turn down the opportunity.

The main claim to fame at Rocky Mountain’s name is Trail Ridge Road.  It’s a scenic drive that winds along a deep mountain valley, stunning peaks visible in the background.  Unfortunately it was raining on and off while we were there, but we still liked it quite a bit.

But if we’re being honest… all we could think about was that Glacier’s is better.  (Note: that is not a popular opinion in Colorado.)

We do have to say that we live close to Rocky Mountain now, and we’ve been back a few times and really enjoyed it.   Even better, there’s a lot more to explore.  It might not be Glacier, but if you can’t be with the one you love, love you one you’re with.  – Michael Scott.

Final verdict?  Rocky Mountain is awesome.

(But it’s not Glacier.)

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Week 54: Glacier National Park: Part 2

We’re back with Part 2 of our trip to Glacier National Park, a place so beautiful it makes the background of our pictures look photoshopped.  If you haven’t seen Part 1, check it out here.

Logan Fog

Due to grizzly bear activity, hikes in Glacier tend to close without warning.  That happened to us when we reached Logan Pass, the top of Going-to-the-Sun road, and found the option we wanted was closed.  So, in the spirit of adventure, we persuaded Jake’s family to go on one of Glacier’s most famous hikes:  The Highline Trail.  The Highline Trail starts at Logan Pass, and it runs directly above Going-to-the-Sun road.

Oh, and it starts with a walk along the side of a cliff.

There is a handrail, of sorts.  A chain wrapped in long pieces of garden hose is bolted to the wall, reminding us of a more comfortable version of Angel’s Landing at Zion.  Jake’s mom is no fan of heights, but she got made it through beautifully – perhaps because a massive fog bank made it impossible to look down.

Unfortunately, the fog hung around for more than just the cliff walk.  The actual trail was bursting with birds and bees, Spring flowers and cute little animals, and melting snow (in July!) but we couldn’t see a damn thing more than ten feet away.  The swirls and eddies of the fog would provide tantalizing glimpses of the valley we knew was there, but couldn’t see.

We decided to turn back after a while, but as luck would have it, the fog lifted right before we made it back – and it was a stunning sight.

Incidentally, Logan Pass isn’t especially high by Rocky Mountain standards (6,600 feet), but it does have one thing going for it:  mountain goats!  They hang out right near the visitor’s center, slowing traffic and accomplishing basically nothing.  As far as we can tell, their life consists entirely of licking rocks and sleeping.

Animals after our own heart.

West Side > East Side

After our week with Jake’s family was up, we sadly said our goodbyes – to Jake’s mom and dad, that is.  Nothing Mundane’s official sister, Kate, stayed with us for a few more days, as we traveled around the park to… the East Side.

That probably makes no sense, so here’s the explanation.  Glacier is huge, and the main entrances are on the west side and the east side, connected by Going-to-the-Sun Road.   The west side is near a large tourist town with restaurants, breweries, grocery stores, and the coolest gift shop we’ve ever been to.

The east side has… an RV park, and a gas station.  And that’s about it.

That’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much.  There was a bar, a burrito stand, and the world’s tiniest and saddest-looking miniature golf course, but certainly no brewery or grocery store.  Our Internet connection approximated the AOL dial-up days.  We couldn’t even buy cooking wine, since the area is on the Blackfeet Tribe reservation and it was a tribal holiday (although apparently the bar was fine!).

At least we were able to get reservations at the RV park here.  As it turned out, the RV park itself has its own restaurant.  The enterprise was essentially built by hand by settlers in the 1950s, and there were some interesting mementos.  Our favorite were the guestbook pages laminated into the table.

There is a downside to being a family run business, however, not to mention being the only game in town.  The waiters and waitresses may literally have never been to another restaurant, because their service was so terrible it was almost impressive.  They genuinely could not have cared less whether we enjoyed our meal.  Jake also learned that, while “chef’s choice” may get you something good and unique at a high-end sushi restaurant, it gets you “a pile of whatever crap we couldn’t sell this month” at family-run RV park restaurants in northwestern Montana.

Learning is fun.

Ice, Ice Baby

Undeterred by culinary atrocities, we struck out with Kate on a hike to Iceberg Lake.  The trail cuts through a beautiful alpine meadow teeming with wildflowers, set against a backdrop so magnificent we can’t possibly do it justice with words.   Just take a look at the pictures.

We passed through a dense forest with few people around, which made us slightly nervous because this is grizzly bear country.  We certainly didn’t want to surprise any grizzlies, so we clapped and talked loudly as we went.  (Some people wore bells for this purpose, but several different rangers later confided in us that these are worthless.)

No bears were encountered – maybe they didn’t like our singing – and we soon reached the lake, surrounded on three sides by sheer mountain cliffs.  It was July, but icebergs were floating in the water.

The waters here were crystal-clear, and very cold.  A few people were taking a dip anyway, but we decided that discretion is the better part of valor and politely declined that option.  We had a lovely picnic by the lake, made a photosphere, and headed back.

There was a lot of beargrass here – tall, white, fuzzy flowers, like huge cottonballs on a stick.  They were allegedly named beargrass by Lewis & Clark, who saw some grizzlies playing in a field of beargrass and assumed the bears must love them.

We have no idea if that’s generally true.  Buuuuuut… we did come close to a grizzly bear on the way back!

It was foraging just off the trail, nearly invisible becuase it was downslope and around the bend from where we were walking.  Jake caught a glimpse of someone down the path gesturing wildly, and somehow correctly interpreted it as, “bear nearby – proceed with caution!”  He stretched out his arm for Heather and Kate to stop.

Heather assumed someone was just taking a picture, and tried her best to barrel through Jake’s arm (and into the waiting paws of the grizzly up ahead).

Luckily she stopped in time, and no mishaps were had.  We waited a bit, then edged around the trail, bear spray in hand.  We were relieved to see the bear had dropped lower down the slope, and we quickly scooted past.  It had probably been just a few feet off the trail you can see below.

We reported the bear sighting, like good junior rangers.  And we took the opportunity to visit one of Glacier’s many beautiful chalets, set in a preposterously beautiful location right by an alpine lake.  We have no idea what it costs, but wow.   This would be a rather nice place to stay.

Light At The End of the Tunnel

After Iceberg Lake, Kate left to head back to Colorado, and we decided to stay one more day for one more hike.  Many camping spaces at Glacier are first-come, first-served, so at 7 a.m., we drove down to the park and snagged one of the prettiest parking spaces you’ll ever see.

The trail we picked is called the Ptarmigan Tunnel, named after the bird (the “p” is silent).  The first two miles or so share the trail with the Iceberg Lake hike we had just done, but we didn’t mind – that’s a view we would happily see every day.

The trail then branched off and became considerably less populated.  We trekked steeply uphill through an even denser, more enclosing forest than the day before, making us more than a little nervous.  A guidebook we read described this area as “natural grizzly bear habitat,” and we were grateful for our hiking prowess as we pushed hard to get out of the danger zone.

Then things opened up, and we picnicked for lunch near a beautiful alpine lake.  (Glacier has a lot of those.)  Several marmots – like beavers without the big teeth – frolicked nearby, cute, furry, and utterly unafraid of humans.  There was a lot of wildlife on this trail, all habituated to visitors – we even walked along the trail behind a deer for a little while.

Eventually, we tackled the final stretch of the trail.  The path switchbacks up an incredibly steep mountainside, almost a cliff.  Thankfully it was a relatively short distance to the top, because this was probably the most punishing stretch we ever hiked.  We were more or less delirious in the picture below.

You can’t see it in that picture, but we were facing the Ptarmigan Tunnel.  Created in the early 1930s by the CCC using dynamite, it passes through the very top of the mountain.  Due to massive winter snows, the rough-hewn tunnel is sealed by a large iron door for nine months out of the year – and it had just opened.

On the other side?  Paradise.

Friends, we had been on the road for over a year at this point.  We had seen the country’s most beautiful mountains, deserts, beaches and plains, but nothing – nothing – ever stopped us in our tracks like this.

It was the most fantastical thing we have ever seen.  At that moment, tired, sweaty, and half-delirious, we knew we had reached the pinnacle of our trip.  There were more places to visit, and a lot more pictures to take, but nothing would ever come close to this view.

We wandered around for a few minutes, taking photos and another photosphere, and prepared to leave as a storm began forming in the distance.  Before we turned, Jake took a look at the trail, which continues on, across the mountainside and down into the valley beyond, and made a promise to himself.


We passed back through the tunnel and found the storm clouds had already blotted out the view from the other side.  It felt fitting somehow, like nothing else deserved to be seen after the beauty we had just experienced.  And then it was a long, tired walk back to our car.

On the drive back out, we spotted two more grizzly bears, foraging in a meadow near the road.

Nearby, another pristine lake beckoned, its shores lined by brilliantly colored rocks.

Perhaps there was more left to see, after all.

Thanks for an amazing visit, Glacier.  ‘Til next time!

Roadtrip Time Travel

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.

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Week 54: Glacier National Park: Part 1

Glacier National Park is the best place in the country.

That is a bold statement, to be sure.  And we can’t deny that the Grand Canyon is vaster, Yellowstone more unique, and the Redwoods more majestic.   However, we accrued a certain level of expertise in our travels around the United States, and we feel confident saying that Glacier beats all of them.  If the national parks are the gems of the United States, Glacier is the crown jewels.

The views were jaw-dropping and the hikes were the best we’ve ever done.  We spent a long time here, and we missed it as soon as we left.

Long RV Runnin’

Glacier is in the extreme northwestern corner of Montana, very close to the Canadian border.  It’s not the easiest place to get to.

We drove up from near Bozeman, Montana.  It was a long but beautiful drive around pristine Flathead Lake.

This was a very exciting trip for us because Jake’s family met us there!  Jake’s mom Ginny, his dad Jack, and his sister Kate have all made previous appearances in this space.  This time, we rented a house for a week and had a fantastic (but way too short) time in the outdoorsy perfection that is northwestern Montana.

Speaking of outdoorsy, it turned out the house was out in the boonies.  We were a little further away from the entrance to the park than we expected (about 45 minutes), but such is life.  However, Jack, coming in a rented vehicle, did come surprisingly close to dying in the wilderness when Apple Maps sent him down a wrong turn.

He was less than 100 yards from the house when it sent him the wrong way – but a long, long, long way from cell service.

We arrived late in the afternoon, and after some slope-based difficulties turning the RV around (see pic below), we managed to get it parked in the driveway for the duration of our stay.  The owner of our house was a cowboy, as all Montana residents are, and there were quite a few horses staying in the yard right outside.

Heather later discovered that the horses stayed behind the thin, wire fence because it is electrified.  She would prefer that we not mention how she discovered that.

We had been on our road trip for just over a year at this point, and were starting to feel decidedly feral.  Aside from a brief meetup with some folks we met online in Moab, the last time we had seen anyone we knew was in Seattle, two months prior.  A week of actual human contact, plus the magic of long, hot showers and stable WiFi, was just the thing we needed for the home stretch.

Stairway to Heaven

The main attraction at Glacier is the road that cuts through it, called Going-to-the-Sun Road.  The name is either based on a Native American legend, or completely made up to sound fancy, because history is whatever you want it to be.  More to the point, the road is freaking amazing.

Going-to-the-Sun Road hugs the mountain on an incredibly long, curving climb that offers spectacular views.  (You can view Google’s satellite render here.)  The mountains here are jagged and indescribably beautiful, banded with bright colors and painted with forest and snow.

On top of everything else, July is the height of spring in Glacier, and there were millions of wildflowers. Snowfall melting up above created delicate waterfalls everywhere we went.

This far north, summer comes slowly, like at North Cascades.  Parts of Going-to-the-Sun road receive an accumulation of more than 100 feet of snow per year, which is then painstakingly removed each Spring by road crews using avalanche spotters on skis.  It takes months; the road doesn’t usually open until mid-June.

You may also have noticed our picture of the red “Jammer” cars that give tours along the road.  We didn’t take a Jammer, but we were happy to use the shuttle after driving the road once.  It’s not the scariest drive we’ve ever done, but it’s hard not to notice that you’re driving next to a sheer cliff with only a small retaining wall.  In fact, due to hairpin turns, vehicles over 21 feet in length or 10 feet in width are prohibited (but we watched someone try in an RV anyway!)  See here for more on the road, an engineering marvel.

Wake & Lake

In addition to the mountains, Glacier is known for the beauty of its lakes.  We are happy to confirm that beauty.  Lake Macdonald was huge, pristine, and utterly clear, showcasing the colorful rocks that can be found throughout Glacier.

We were amazed by the perfect reflections off the water.  Nearby was  one of Glacier’s many lodges, which are in the Swiss chalet style and all exceedingly charming.

Even the boat at the end of the dock was scenic.

Jake also had some fun when we stumbled upon someone piloting a surprisingly realistic looking RC boat.  Look at how big those mountains must be!

On the other side of Going-to-the-Sun Road is St. Mary’s Lake, where we took a boat ride and ranger-guided tour.  The mountains above are a vibrant red, while the water is tinted brilliantly blue by “rock flour,” tiny bits of suspended particles ground down by the glaciers above.  Even the waterfall flowing into the lake had a blue tint!

We hiked around one side of the lake, and at first, we were bummed that the “forest” we were walking through was really the charred remains of a recent forest fire.  Interestingly, though, this meant that were an incredible number of wildflowers, because light could now reach down to the forest floor.

Later, we hiked through a spooky, 500-year-old forest to Avalanche Lake, where numerous glacier-fed waterfalls cascade down to the waters below.

Sadly, due to global warming, the park’s glaciers may be gone in as little as ten years.  If you or someone you know denies that climate change is happening… just visit Glacier.

Better hurry, by the way:  “In 1850, at the end of the Little Ice Age, there were an estimated 150 glaciers in the area that is now Glacier National Park. By 1968, these had been reduced to around 50. Today the number of glaciers in the park is 25, many of which are mere remnants of what they once were. Rapid retreat of mountain glaciers is not just happening in the park, but is occurring worldwide. If the current rate of warming persists, scientists predict the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be completely gone by the year 2030, if not earlier.”

(More examples at: USGS Repeat Photography Project)

We did our part to preserve the view.  We took an insane number of photos at Glacier, over 3,600, and we can say without conceit that most of them are amazing. Close your eyes and snap a photo, and the results were usually good enough to frame.

Heather had a very painful job choosing the pictures for this post.   We couldn’t squeeze it all into one post, but we’ll be back soon with the rest.  They’re even better!

Room with a View

Incidentally, we planned on taking a horse-riding expedition with our cowboy/AirBnb host, but unfortunately were rained out.  Instead, we took a gondola ride up nearby Whitefish mountain, where we gawked at mountain bikers speeding down the slopes and watched the impending storm slowly roll in.

We weren’t too sure what to do once we got to the (very chilly) summit, but it turned out there was a ski lodge there!  We stopped in for some quick refreshments, because when the opportunity arises to have a beer at the top of a mountain – you get a beer at the top of the mountain.

Roadtrip Time Travel

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.

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