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 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 47.2: Zion National Park

Zion National Park is often rated as one of the most beautiful national parks in the country, and with good reason.  Zion is a canyon, or series of canyons, but unlike at the Grand Canyon, you enter from the valley floor.  The valley is lush with greenery, since the Virgin River that cut it still flows through, and if you stand in just the right places, the mountains curve away into the distance in the most breathtaking way.

Our favorite part of Zion were the many beautiful cliffs.  Incredibly tall and sheer, each showcases a stunning gradient of fantastically varied colors.  Zion sits in the middle of what is known as the “Grand Staircase,” a vast rock formation (recently protected as a national monument) which stretches across Utah and Arizona from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon.  The “steps” to the staircase are rock layers – the oldest (bottom-most) rocks at Zion, a dusty vermillion red, are the youngest (top-most) rocks at the Grand Canyon.

As you look up towards the top of the canyon walls, you see ever-changing bands of color that terminate in a beautiful white stone.  In the tallest places, we could even see an eye-popping yellow.  On the top of the Grand Staircase, at Bryce Canyon (coming up next), these white and yellow colors are at the bottom of the deepest cliffs.

Stop – Transit Time

We visited Zion from Kanab, which is a short but not easy drive.  The route requires traveling through the park’s east entrance, an old, mile-long tunnel blasted by the CCC.  The tunnel is quite low and narrow, and it has to be closed to one-way traffic every time an RV or bus goes through, because they only fit if they can drive in the exact center of the lanes.

We were in our car, so we fit fine, but we often had to wait for an RV to pass through.  In retrospect, we wish we had stayed in the town of Springdale, where you can walk directly into Zion. Once you’re in the park, it’s pretty easy to get around – like many heavily-visited national parks, Zion has a free shuttle system to take you to the main sights.  Unusually, use of the shuttle is actually mandatory from spring to fall.  The road into the canyon is closed, and you park on the outskirts and take the shuttle to different spots inside.

Getting around via shuttle can be a little slow, but we didn’t mind.  Zion is a delicate place, and we were happy to help preserve it. As a bonus, we really enjoyed watching the palpable horror some of our fellow Americans felt at having to use public transit.

Razor Thin Margins

There is an incredible amount to see at Zion, with overlooks all over, and it’s a hiking paradise.  We went three times and barely scratched the surface.  In particular, we never got to hike the famous Narrows or the Subway, slot canyons still being carved by the Virgin River.  We really wanted to try them, but the routes were closed.  The river essentially is the hiking (“wading”) trail, and the spring melt had left the water level and flow rates dangerously high.

Don’t worry, we still found plenty of ways to risk life and limb.  We kicked things off with a bang by hiking the also-famous Angels Landing trail, which we knew little about before we started (familiar territory for us).  It starts with a steep, 1,000 foot climb before reaching a plateau with some nice views, and for the adventurous, you can go another half-mile to an incredible viewpoint.

The only catch?  That last half-mile involves hiking on a knife’s edge, with the trail sometimes just a few feet wide, and 1,000+ foot cliffs on either side.  In mountain hiking terms, this is called “exposure,” as in, “you are exposed to dying.”  A single chain acts as both a guard-rail and handhold, but it’s two-way, so you constantly have to let go so people can pass.

Holy hell, that was crazy.  It turns out quite a few people have died doing the Angels Landing hike, something we were happily ignorant of before we started.  It was definitely scary – Jake has spent much of this trip working on his fear of heights, but Angels Landing was desensitization treatment in the extreme.  Even once we reached the top, which was mercifully flat, there was one last walk between cliff-edges, with the wind gusting unpredictably as it tried to push us off.

It was all tiring, and terrifying, and occasionally flat-out insane, but those views…

All worth it.

Bonus story that will make your blood boil: as we headed out into the terrifying chains portion, we passed a family with FOUR TODDLERS coming back the other way.  Like, 3-5 years old, max.  Each one was wearing, essentially, a dog harness, with the leash tied to an adult in the group.  So, points for safety, but we still wouldn’t recommend it.  The kids were clearly exhausted – this was a tough hike for us, and we were pretty much professional hikers at this point – and kept asking when their nightmare death climb would be over (paraphrasing).

Their parents just told them to stop complaining.

Taking It Down a Notch

After our Angels Landing adventure, we decided to lower our risk of death by exploring the canyon floor.  There was plenty to see, most notably the Emerald Pools, a series of waterfall-fed pools that couldn’t possibly kill us.

Except… while looking up the Angels Landing death statistics for this post (5 official, many more unofficial), we discovered that the National Parks Service lists 7 deaths for Emerald Pools, more than for Angels Landing!  The lesson: never go anywhere.

The Emerald Pools weren’t even that photogenic, which is why we aren’t featuring pictures of them here.  We did have a fun encounter, however, when a group of college kids asked us to take their pictures using a ridiculous Polaroid-style camera.  To sweeten the deal, they offered to take a Polaroid of us in return.  So we took their picture and had ours taken in return – and it turns it’s still pretty fun to get a physical picture, even if has an image quality somewhere between “prehistoric cave painting” and “mud stain.”

Up And At’em

For our final experience in Zion, we decided to try another long hike, this time climbing up the side of the canyon wall towards the rim.  It was tough, but the terrain was constantly changing, keeping us entertained.  There were valley views, different valley views, sand, switchbacks, a (sort of gross-looking) reflecting pool, and even a small slot canyon with a talus cave!

After we made it to the top, we walked about a mile along the rim, passing the yellow stone we discussed earlier.  We also took a lot of pictures, snapping them whenever the view down Zion Canyon changed ever so slightly.  (We took over 1,400 photos during our three days here!)  We ended up on a large promontory – the literally-named “Observation Point” – which juts out into the canyon like the prow of a ship.

Standing on one of the highest points in the area, we had an incredible, 360 degree view.

You can see Angels Landing in these photos – it’s the large, fin-like “island” in the valley below.  That’s where we hiked with the chain and the exposure and the toddlers-on-leashes.

Someday, we really hope to do it again.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Ithaca, NY, seeing about a million waterfalls.

Next location?  Going down to visit NYC!

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Week 45: Seattle & Vancouver, Eh?

After an impressive showing by Olympic National Park – which earned a gold medal in “wettest national park” and a bronze in “most deserted” – we headed east to Seattle.  With a tour guide assist from a friend, the Emerald City turned out to be a pretty excellent place – as was Vancouver, its friendly neighbor to the north.

Pacific Northwest, you’ve got it going on.

Seattle’s Best

Since we were staying fairly far away from the city center, we decided to tour Seattle in one epic day, just as we did for other favorites like San Francisco and Savannah.  We started out early with some pastries from Pike Place, the famous fish market (it has lots of other types of shops as well), and then wandered around downtown for a bit, enjoying the quiet before the city woke up.  A particular favorite was the Olympic Sculpture Park.

We then tried to stop by the Space Needle, but sweet zombie Jesus it was crowded.  So we bailed, and made up for at an excellent overlook in a tiny city park.  In the background, you can even see the iconic Mt. Rainier.

Soon afterwards, we met up with Eliz, Jake’s old law school classmate, and her husband Rick.  Rick and Eliz graciously volunteered to give us a tour of Seattle, and just like our “local’s tour” in Los Angeles, it was fantastic.  There was some touristy stuff, like the Fremont Troll (located under a bridge, of course), but we also enjoyed just wandering around the neighborhood and a local marina.

The weather was beautiful, so we picnicked on the beach with awesome Cuban sandwiches and freshly shucked oysters.  Later, we headed to a brewery – one of, like, fifty in a four-block radius – and the superb Gas Works Park, created on the site of an old industrial building.  On such a nice weekend, the harbor was busy with boats and kayaks, but we watched in amazement as a Tailspin-style seaplane nonetheless landed on a tiny patch of open water directly in the center of all the activity.

This is apparently pretty common, but, man – gutsy maneuver, for everyone involved.

We finished the day off with some incredible sushi and a drink that was, essentially, alcoholic green tea.  Thanks for showing us an amazing time, guys!

International Suspension

Speaking of day trips to big cities, we decided to hit up Vancouver while we were “in the area,” i.e., about ninety minutes away.  This was actually our first time leaving the country on this road trip, despite being within spitting distance to Mexico in both El Paso and San Diego, but everything went smoothly.

Well, mostly smoothly.  We stopped in Vancouver’s Chinatown to eat lunch, but when we went to pay at the parking meter, we suddenly remembered that… Canada has its own currency.  Oh, right.  Coincidentally, all of our debit cards had just expired and we hadn’t yet received the replacements, so an ATM was out, and Heather ended up circling the block while Jake made a quick exchange at a local bank.

After lunch, we toured around downtown before checking out the Lions Gate Bridge and Stanley Park.  Stanley Park is a gorgeous area with a great view of the downtown skyline – a view that we got to see twice, since we totally missed the exit from the 15-minute, one-way scenic drive on our first attempt.

As we said… mostly smoothly.

Our final stop made up for all the mistakes.  Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is one of the coolest theme parks we’ve ever been to, because the theme is “trees.”  It’s set in an old-growth forest, and numerous elevated walkways stretch between the ancient giants.  It was a very fun place to explore, and we were happy to see that all of the bridges are secured by pressure-fit collars, so nothing harms the trees.

There was also a huge river gorge, crossed by the namesake Capilano Suspension Bridge.  It’s 450 feet long and pretty impressive in person – as well as, umm, bouncy.

Even cooler was the steel-and-glass Cliffwalk, a beautiful architectural marvel that made us gulp just a little bit, despite being hardened by previous cliffside hikes like Camelback Mountain and Pinnacles National Park.  Luckily for us, the bolts held firm, and we have to say: this was one of the coolest things we’ve done on this trip.

Natural Selections

There was plenty more in the Seattle area, including a visit to the spectacular North Cascades National Park – blog post coming next – and a pretty hike to a local waterfall.  (If you’re read our prior blog posts, you may have noticed that the Pacific Northwest is big on waterfalls.)  We’ve collected a few pictures from the hike below.

Before we sign off, we’d like to note for posterity that the drivers we encountered in the Seattle area were exceptionally great – polite, patient, and careful.  In other words, the complete opposite of drivers in NYC, Boston, and Los Angeles.  Thanks for restoring some hope for humanity, Seattlers!

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Madison, Wisconsin, donating an unhealthy amount of blood to the local mosquito population.

Next location?  Chicago!  And then… somewhere.

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Week 43: Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon is a pretty magical place, and the City of Roses immediately became one of our favorite cities. We had high expectations to start with, and it exceeded them all – at least, until it started raining.

PNW Fever

Hang on, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. We stayed in Portland for a while, by our standards (10 days), in no little part due to the fact that the RV park we stayed at had amazingly fast internet. For your wilderness-living correspondents, this was as exciting as having a chocolate fountain right outside our door.

Well, maybe not that exciting. But still, pretty exciting.

On top of the fast internet, the weather when we arrived in Portland was unusually beautiful – sunny, dry, mid-70 degree temperatures. The city itself is also very pretty – lots of trees, everywhere – so the whole experience was outrageously pleasant. In fact, on our first day in Portland, we saw a double rainbow in the grocery store parking lot.

We took advantage of the beautiful weather to scope out the city, and our love kept growing. There were delicious Voodoo Doughnuts, a waterfront market, food trucks as far as the eye could see, and the International Rose Test Garden – a testbed for experimental roses, free to stroll.  We were a little early for the roses, but the rhododendrons were in full bloom.

On top of the great weather, everyone in Portland is friendly and laid-back. It must be mentioned that they’re also a bit eccentric – along with Brooklyn, Portland is ground zero for modern hipsterism – but we got along well with everyone we met. As far as we’re concerned, the more handlebar mustaches in this world, the better.

We finally got our Honda Fit fixed, for real (previous issues chronicled here and here), and the friendly mechanic mentioned that the pervading worry in the town was about rising rent prices and the influx of professionals. “They’re trying to turn us into a real city,” he said, sadly.

Real city or not, there is an abundance of fun stuff to do in Portland. Our friends Autumn and Aaron happened to be visiting, along with their cute baby and Autumn’s parents, so we met up with them for lunch at the Deschutes brewery (yum).

Later, we headed to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (“OMSI”), an awesome museum featuring an exhibit on video games (!) with dozens and dozens of playable games (!!). Pretty sweet, but the permanent exhibit was equally cool, with “hands-on” science toys like a Van de Graaf machine, water-pressurized soda bottle rockets (Heather was good at those), a chemistry lab, a vertical wind tunnel for paper airplanes, a crazy kinetic sculpture, and much more.

Science is just the best, isn’t it?  The friendly and knowledgeable volunteers were even kind enough not to mention the fact that we were adults playing with exhibits clearly intended for children.

Oregon is Gorges

While staying in Portland, we explored the nearby Columbia River Gorge. A crucial but treacherous path to settlers on the Oregon Trail, the gorge cuts through a lush and mountainous region just north of Mount Hood. Years later, an excellent-but-narrow scenic drive was created that follows the river past numerous waterfalls. (Seriously, there are an unreasonable number of waterfalls here.)  Want to see some pictures? Of course you do.

At the end of our drive we hiked up the hill behind Multnomah Falls. It was a tough climb, but the half-dozen beautiful waterfalls and striking views of the gorge were well worth it. Jake was particularly enchanted with a section of trail that passed through a high forest, lit by late afternoon sunbeams filtering through the canopy overhead. It remains one of our favorite hikes.

The icing on the nature-cake was Multnomah Falls itself, a towering waterfall with a picturesque viewing bridge installed in front of it. After the quiet of the woods, it was tough to deal with the crowds at the base of the falls, but we can’t really blame them – this is one of the most scenic waterfalls in the country.  Selfie away!

The Hood

Our final visit in the Portland area was to Hood River, a small town to the east situated on the Columbia River gorge. It’s a town known for two things: its extreme sports activities, and its beer. We killed two birds with one stone by eating lunch on the patio at Full Sail Brewing, which overlooks the river.   While we feasted, we watched dozens of windsurfers swoop, glide, and even flip across the water, an intricate and endlessly fascinating dance.

Pretty amazing. We have to say, based on our visit, the Portland area truly seems like a great place. After three days of sunshine, we were ready to live there forever… and then there were about six straight days of cold, constant rain. It was a chilling reminder that Portland’s mild winters can still be, well, chilling.

So Portland might not be perfect – but it’s still on our post-trip shortlist.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  The great and empty state of North Dakota, exploring some cool badlands at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Next location?  Fargo, then Minneapolis, as we head east towards Chicago!

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Week 39: Yosemite National Park

After eating our way through San Francisco, we headed back to nature to walk a few pounds off.  Southeast of San Francisco is the famous Yosemite National Park, and we visited for two days in late March.  Although much of the park was still closed due to snow, we loved it there – once we got away from the crowds.

Intro to Yosemite

For anyone that hasn’t been there, Yosemite was one of the first national parks, and its beauty is staggering.  Because of road closures, we spent most of our time in Yosemite Valley, a huge, impossibly lush valley that sits between towering cliffs.  It looks a little like something from the Land Before Time movies, and everything about it is spectacular.

El Capitan, near the entrance to the valley, is a sheer, 3000 foot high cliff. Half-Dome, seen in many of our photos, outdoes that with an incredible 4,800 foot rise from the valley floor.

But it’s not all cliffs – Yosemite has a higher concentration of large waterfalls than any other place on earth.  Or rather, sometimes it’s both; Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America and it has a 2,400 foot drop (in three stages).

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Camera

Yosemite is also known for its groves of giant sequoias.  Sequoias are not just the largest trees, they are the largest single organisms by volume, anywhere in the world. They are incredibly huge, and they live for thousands of years.  In fact, giant sequoias are so badass, they release their (surprisingly tiny) pine cones only during forest fires – which they then survive easily.

Unfortunately, sequoias only grow in a thin strip of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Like their taller but more slender cousins the coastal redwoods, very few are left due to logging activity, and all known trees are protected by state and national parks.

Sadly, the 200+ sequoias at Mariposa Grove at Yosemite are off-limits for all of 2016 due to restoration efforts.  We therefore hiked down to another grove, which has only 25 sequoias.  A little disappointing, but we were awed by the few we saw anyway.

Trip to the Top

Yosemite’s most famous hike is the notoriously brutal Half-Dome, but that was closed for the season.  We’re not sure whether we would have tried it, but in any event, we ended up on another legendarily difficult hike: The Upper Falls trail. This hike climbs to the top of Yosemite Falls (pictured below), rising up 2,700 feet in just 3.5 miles via an unending, unrelenting series of switchbacks over loose, rocky terrain.

Friends, the scenery was incredible, but this was the toughest hike we’ve ever done.

We’re still not sure how we made it up, but we did.  Once we reached the top, we walked down to the viewing platform near the falls, which requires a slightly terrifying walk along a narrow, extremely windy ledge holding only onto a pipe railing.  To be honest, the small and unsatisfying viewing platform, combined with the wind, may not have been worth it.

Gluttons for punishment (and maybe delusional from endorphins), we then somehow decided to do a “slight” extension to our hike by heading up to Yosemite Point (it’s the cliff in the upper left of the photo below).

Only a half-mile each way, we didn’t realize this would entail walking further up a mountain through giant melting snowfields, the trail utterly lost beneath the snow.

While hiking in the snow was challenging, it was pretty fun, especially since it was warm out. We tossed a few snowballs around, and it didn’t even occur to us that we were hiking next to, then above, the rapidly flowing river that becomes Yosemite Falls.

Even though we lost the trail a few times, our hike to Yosemite Point was well worth it. The views were spectacular, and almost no one else was around.

The way back down, however, was a different story. We did it gracefully, and definitely not by sliding on our butts down the hill and getting snow in every crack and crevice.

Definitely not.

From there, it was still another 5+ miles back to our car.  Although it was downhill, hiking at this point was truly exhausting, and our feet and knees were screaming by the end.  Plus, Jake drank a full three liters of water on our climb, and there were no bathrooms or private spaces on the trail, so… he was very motivated to reach the bottom. Heather stopped to take a few photos of the valley and check out our fitbit stats, while Jake made a beeline to the facilities.

Crowding Around

Yosemite is amazing, but the unfortunate truth is that it is also very crowded. Even during March, with half the park closed, we encountered very long line at the entrance station.  Inside the Valley itself, there were thousands of people at any given time.  National parks are usually quiet, but Yosemite has its own federal courthouse inside the park.

We don’t mean to give the wrong impression – it’s great that so many people are out visiting such an awesome park.  But we saw so much bad behavior as a result of the crowds, stuff like slamming on the brakes in the middle of a 45 mph roadway – with no warning – because something looks pretty.  Or double- or even triple-parking in the closest parking lots, rather than walk 100 yards.  At one point, we saw an obese person driving around in a motorized Rascal with a basket full of snacks (seriously).

Again – this was in March! If you visit, and you should, we definitely recommend you go during the off-season.

Prospecting For Jerks

While visiting Yosemite, we stayed in the small town of Mariposa, which is about 45 minutes away (and a gorgeous drive). Mariposa is cute, with a “prospector” shtick, based upon its days as a mining town.  We stayed in the Mariposa Fairgrounds, which is basically a giant, empty grass field with power plugs.

We didn’t have much Internet, but everything was fine, until the biggest RV we have ever seen pulled in.  So large, it was pulled by a tractor trailer cab!  And… it parked right next to us.  Despite the fact that we were the only other people in a 100+ yard empty grass field.

We thought that was annoying, but they topped it by pulling forward to unload their ATVs from the back of their RV.  Instead of then reversing back into a spot, they ran extension cords out to their rig, which was now parked in the center of the field.  So despite nobody else being around, they managed to find the only possible way to be uncomfortably close to us.

Amazing stuff.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Ogden, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City.

Next location?  The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks!

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Week 38: San Franciscan Days

After a sodden weekend in Monterey and Big Sur, we headed further up the California coast to San Francisco and the Bay Area.  Neither of us had been to San Francisco before, but we both loved it.

Foreshadowing!

Power Trip

Before we got to visit the city, we had some RVing issues to deal with.  The first issue was finding a place to stay: as you might expect, San Francisco is not the easiest city to find close, comfortable, and inexpensive RV parking.  We did end up finding a campground that was cheap, comfortable, and close to San Francisco “as the crow flies,” but it turned out that getting there “as the RV drives” required a half-hour detour around a mountain range.  D’oh!  At least the drive was pretty, as was the campground.

The second issue was an electrical problem in our RV.  Every time we plugged our power cord into the brand-new power pedestal* at our campground, the pedestal’s circuit breaker tripped, so we couldn’t get any electricity in our motorhome.   A friendly mobile RV service technician came out and, unbuttoned pants barely hanging on his body, diagnosed our problem: an incredibly tiny fault in our electrical ground wire.  It was so small that only this brand-new power pedestal could detect it; we have stayed at dozens of other campgrounds without a problem.

The technician wasn’t able to fix the problem on-site, so he just disconnected the ground wire completely – and warned us not to use our toaster in the shower this week.  That did the trick, and we had sweet, sweet electricity again.  Maybe a little unsafe, but we re-wired everything when we left (and then fixed it for real later on).

Back in action!  Time to explore San Francisco.

* A power pedestal is basically a shielded box full of outlets that the campground provides for your parking space. 

Day Trip

After months dealing with the endless traffic in California, we were excited to visit a city with public transit.  We left our car behind and took the BART train in, spending the entire day walking and bus-hopping in a big loop through San Francisco.  It was glorious.

Here’s the details, for the interested.  We started out by grabbing some Blue Bottle iced coffee and walking to Union Square, then on through the dragon gate to Chinatown.  Quality ethnic restaurants are often in short supply on our trip, so we binged on some dim sum (yum) before working it off with a walk up to the famous Lombard Street.

We admired Lombard’s craziness, then headed down towards the water and Ghirardelli Square.  We strolled along San Francisco’s national historical maritime park and the Embarcadero, then stopped for a snack: an adorable, turtle-shaped piece of sourdough from the Boudin bakery.  (Check the pictures below.)  Despite its cuteness, we savaged its doughy body, and then hopped on a bus for the Golden Gate Bridge.

Then, we hopped off, spent 30 minutes figuring out the bus system, and hopped on the correct bus to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge is a beautiful landmark, but it doesn’t take long to see if you’re not crossing over it.  We took another bus back into the city, south to Golden Gate Park, where we strolled the meandering paths and admired the grounds.  It’s a really nice park, although I (Jake) hated the look of the De Young Museum, a deeply ugly monstrosity that does the exact opposite of blending in with its surroundings.  Heather was excited to see the museum, since she learned about it in architecture school, and she thought it was beautiful. Just kidding!  She really wanted to like it (emphasis hers), but ultimately had to acknowledge it puts the “ug” in fugly.”

At this point, tired of walking, we realized our bus ticket had only been vaguely stamped with the date – not the time – so we reckoned it should be good all day to do whatever we wanted.  (Also, nobody ever checked it.)  We took another bus down to the Painted Ladies, of Full House fame:

From there, another bus took us to the famous Castro district.  We really enjoyed the rainbow crosswalks, as well as the, um, “subtly” dirty shop names.

Finally, we walked to the Mission district and got burritos from La Tacqueria, winner of fivethirtyeight.com’s burrito bracket.  We have to say, the restaurant lived up to the hype – these were some amazing burritos!  Finally, after 10 miles of walking and eating our way through the city later, we took the train back, and enjoyed not having to drive (for once) while we listened to some Silicon Valley business nerds enthusiastically discuss “six sigma.”

Mystery Trip

We fulfilled a promise to our pre-roadtrip selves by taking the hour-long trip down to San Jose (quietly America’s 10th largest city) to visit the Winchester Mystery House.  The Mystery House is a huge mansion built by Sarah Winchester, widow to an heir to the Winchester gun family fortune, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  She apparently believed she was being haunted by the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles, and so she built the house to appease and confuse the spirits.

Yes: “confuse the spirits.”  The Winchester Mystery House has doors that open onto brick walls, windows in the middle of rooms, and a staircase that leads directly into a ceiling.  We should note that it’s not clear to what extent these were intentional choices, as opposed to mistakes during design and construction.  Ms. Winchester designed the house herself, with no training, and built it ever-larger over the course of nearly forty years.  The home was under construction 24/7, and no blueprints exist.

The Mystery House may not be the most efficient of structures, but it is beautiful and unique. (We weren’t allowed to take photographs inside the mansion, so the last few pics are from here.)

Earth Trip

We planned to visit some bars and restaurants in San Jose after visiting the Mystery House, but as we drove through the city and saw a sea of green t-shirts, we suddenly realized that it was St. Patrick’s Day.  Whoops!  (We were barely aware it was March.)

In any event, we certainly weren’t going to brave the crowds of drunk-by-3-p.m. revelers just for the sake of it, so we headed back to our campground.  We ended up hiking around the park we were staying in, and were treated to some lovely views and what appeared to be a whole flock of endangered condors, right by a lake.  (Take that, supposed Pinnacles condor viewing!)

We don’t have pictures, but it was fun to watch them swooping and circling around us overhead.  Although to be honest, there were some moments when we thought they looked very curious as to whether we might be food.  In any event, we’re grateful for and really enjoy these kinds of random nature experiences.  It’s one of those things we always felt was missing in New York City.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Heading out of Moab, Utah, for Cortez, Colorado, and Mesa Verde National Park.

Next location?  Montrose, Colorado, to see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

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