Each and every time Leah and I applied online for an entry pass to Glacier NP we were too late, and we fretted that maybe we made the trip to Glacier for nothing.
Then I learned that if we make a reservation for an activity inside the park, that would guarantee our entry through the gate. So I booked a scenic rafting trip through the Middle Fork of the Flathead River with a third party vendor.
Problem solved…or so I thought.
It turns out our rafting outfitter operated in the village just outside the park gates, and our park entry was still in jeopardy. We could have canceled with sufficient notice, but we were still up for a float,
and decided to go with the flow…
through glacially carved flats,
and formidable canyons walls…
that were ideal for jumping into crystal-clear waters.
But there is another way in, and it’s not really a secret. Just get to the park anytime before the gate attendants arrive at 6AM, or visit the park anytime after the gate attendants leave for the day at 5PM.
We did both, and left tired each day…but satisfied!
There’s very little to say about Glacier National Park that hasn’t already been said. It’s acknowledged by many as one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service since its inception in 1910.
If there was a beauty pageant for National Parks, Glacier would win the crown, and wear it with authority:
There are more than enough peaks to pique a mountaineer’s interest;
plenty of waterfalls to satisfy a photographer’s wet dream,
and a fair share of elusive critters to make one’s heart beat fast.
Sadly, no bears wanted their portrait captured by me, despite ample park activity reported at the time of our stay.
While much of the park’s majesty is projected through its mountains, lakes, canyons and waterfalls, its easy to overlook the shimmering river rocks beneath our feet,
Mount Rainier is so imposing that it makes its own weather, and on most days the mountain disappears under its thorny crown of rain clouds.
In fact, weather analysts calculate the odds of “seeing” Mount Rainier likely hovers between once or twice a week, considering the 189 rain-days per year, producing 126 inches of precipitation annually.
On the other hand, July is Mount Rainier’s driest month, with an average of 7 days of rainfall, amounting to 2 inches on average, which improves the odds tremendously for the millions who live and travel the I-5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle. They invoke a familiar colloquialism that captures the moments when Mount Rainier reveals itself. They say, “The mountain is out today.”
My youngest son Nathan, who lives in nearby Bellevue had arranged long ago to glamp with Leah and me for a summer weekend at the National Park so he could experience Paradise, up close and personal, for the first time.
Happily, during our visit, “the mountain was out,” and it was magnificent!
On our first day together, we sought out a few of the requisite park sites as part of Nate’s Rainier orientation, including:
a wobbly walk across a suspension bridge…
to gaze at ancient trees…
in the Grove of the Patriarchs;
a hike to Myrtle Falls, cascading 72 feet into a rocky gorge;
a gambol across Sunbeam Creek on the Wonderland Trail before it rolls into Stevens Canyon;
tracking iconic, Narada Falls,
as it plunges 168 feet into a canyon of split rocks;
admiring Reflection Lakes, sans the reflection (ruined by wind-swept ripples);
and relishing the trove of jaw-dropping, mountain vistas that seem to vanish into thin air–
which we reflected on while enjoying a soft-serve swirl at the historic Paradise Inn.
The next day, the mountain was still out, and it was a picture perfect day for hiking the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point.
Of all the trails I’ve trekked, I can say with cautious certainty that the Skyline Trail may be among the most magnificent of them. With the sun out, and blooming wildflowers dotting the landscape, there are few hikes that can compare.
We started on a paved path from the Paradise Inn at 5,420 feet elevation, and continued to climb through flower-carpeted meadows for a mile…
until we reached the Deadhorse Creek Trail spur, and looked back in wonderment.
We were now traipsing through packed snow and rocky terrain as we reached the tree line. We paused for a break where other hikers were keenly aware of something or someone through binoculars and long camera lenses. I scanned the mountain for movement through my viewfinder, and discovered the attraction–a team trekking across the glacier on their way to the summit.
Nisqually Glacier was now looming large in our sights.
The spectacle of watching the snowmelt pummeling the moraine below was thrilling.
It seemed to us that Rainier was so close, we could almost touch it.
With one last push, we arrived at Panorama Point, having climbed 1400 feet in 2 hours. I should have felt drained, but I was giddy with excitement with views from the overlook,
while also spotting Mount St. Helens far in the distance,
and capturing the Nisqually River as it meanders through the Rampart Ridge gorge.
On our return trip, we opted to take the Glacier Vista spur for a beauty shot of the mountain,
Returning via the Alta Vista Trail gave us a very different impression of the valley below,
but also prompted us to occasionally glance back to admire the source of all the magic.
I’ve longed to experience Oregon’s rugged coastline in person ever since the 4th grade, when I was assigned to write an essay on Pacific Ocean sea stacks by my social studies teacher. I can remember dutifully tracing the shapes of coastal rock formations from an atlas I discovered at my community library in preparation for the accompanying poster that counted for 50% of my grade.
60 years later, I finally got to see this exquisite landscape with my own eyes, and it was worth the wait. So much so, that I decided to reenact the assignment and create a new poster of my own images.
(Click on any of the images for a full-frame slide show)
When Mount Mazama, a 12,000-foot volcano exploded approximately 7,700 years ago, the mountain collapsed into itself and created a caldera–not a crater.
Subsequently, the caldera–not the crater–filled with rain and snowfall, giving birth to Crater Lake–despite not being a crater.
Craters, on the other hand are formed by the outward explosion of rocks and other materials from a volcano.
Given the current r/age of woke, caldera supporters from around the world have voiced their concern that calderas run the risk of becoming extinct because they’re misunderstood and so often mistaken for craters.
Yet this caldera is not giving up so easily. It may be dormant today, but that doesn’t mean it won’t blow its top in another thousand years if provoked.
And the caldera experts say they have solid, supporting evidence that science is on their side,
convincing them to champion a campaign that calls attention to the ‘Calderas Matter‘ cause.
There are also plans to petition the Department of Interior for a Caldera Lake name change to assure accuracy in earth science, eliminate caldera bias, and restore caldera dignity.
Eventually, a hearing conducted by the National Park Service will help to decide the matter, and weigh the importance of the Mount McKinley/Denali precedent as part of the woke defense.
The strategy may seem twisted to many skeptics,
and naturally, the Caldera Committee members acknowledge the uphill struggle–
considering that Crater Lake (aka Caldera Lake) was declared a national park by Teddy Roosevelt in 1902, which amounts to overcoming 120 years of fake news.
Nevertheless, Leah and I were immediately dispatched by the Caldera Committee to Crater/Caldera Lake for a routine site inspection,
but what we observed was anything but routine.
The day after our arrival, an ill wind blew in from the east bringing smoke from the Bootleg Fire,
which settled over the caldera like a blanket of blur, and interfered with our investigation.
We had little choice but to comb the mountain in search of alternate evidence, and found it on the backside of the caldera in the shape of giant pinnacles that rose up from the ashes to vent the volcanic gases.
Additionally, we followed the Pinnacles Trail to inspect Plaikni Falls,
and observe the habits of local insects.
We also trekked to Annie Creek to judge the wildflower growth…
against the ash canyon.
Ultimately, there will be a public forum on the issue, but the final decision will always come from those in high places.
If it wasn’t for Mount Mazama’s collapse from a major eruption approximately 7,700 yeas ago–which ultimately formed Crater Lake in Oregon’s Cascade Range–
then surely the Lava Lands surrounding Newberry Caldera would have become Oregon’s sacred National Park.
There actually was a fierce debate at the start of the 1900s on which natural wonder deserved this special status. Ultimately, Crater Lake was established as a National Park in 1902, and the Newberry Volcanic arc within Deschutes National Forest was eventually protected through Congressional legislation in 1990, and has been managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
That’s good news for any visitor who may be interested in the widest array of volcanic features of any U.S. National Park or National Monument.
Especially striking is the perimeter trail around Lava Butte–one of over 400 volcano cones and vents scattered over a 1,200 square mile area that’s equal to the size of Rhode Island…
and offering panoramic views of Oregon’s High Cascades,
and the surrounding lava fields and forest.
The current observation tower that rises atop the cinder cone’s rim is an active fire lookout that’s been staffed by the Forest Service since the original structure was constructed in 1913.
Aside from staring endlessly at Paulina Creek Falls as it cascades 80 feet…
from the lip of Paulina Lake,
no other park experience can compete with visiting the Lava River Cave, and taking a plunge into total darkness.
But first, there’s a mandatory briefing...
After listening to Ranger Dan’s orientation on white-nose syndrome and bat health awareness, he lectured us on what to expect inside the cave and cave etiquette.
For instance, Ranger Dan highly recommended that we pee before entering the cave.
“There are no facilities in the cave, nor is the cave to be used as a facility,” he announced. “It will be one-mile in and one-mile out. You’ll know when to turn around because you’ll come to a stop sign. Expect the hike to take two hours. The temperature inside the cave is 42o, so dress appropriately. Also, there is no electricity inside the cave, so take a reliable and appropriate light source with you that is NOT a cell phone. Watch how you step, because you will be walking on uneven surfaces, so I recommend footwear that are NOT flip flops. And remember to duck in low places, because you will come to a low ceiling halfway into the cave called Low Bridge Lane. Lanterns are available to rent at the gatehouse. Any questions before I let you go?”
A young voice from one of the 20 attendees seated behind asks, “Has anyone ever died inside the cave?”
“No human remains have ever been discovered inside the cave, and today is no exception,” predicts Ranger Dan. “So enjoy yourselves as you walk through something special that happened 80,000 years ago.”
First, we peed.
I returned with my flashlight, and Leah took my hand as we started down the first 50…
of 150 steps into darkness,
descending deeper and deeper into the abyss.
That’s when I realized that sharing a flashlight was an obvious mistake. It was a daunting challenge, trying to take photos in total darkness…
while navigating the terrain and guiding Leah simultaneously.
So I enlisted her as my key grip–coaching her to direct my flashlight beam where I needed it most–while I composed the shot, and prayed she wouldn’t run off, leaving me stranded with my cell phone.
Eventually, we reached the end…together,
where I stopped to reflect on our tandem accomplishment before u-turning…
Inevitably when hiking together, Leah walks ahead, as I’m more inclined to go at my own pace, taking photos. It drives her crazy that I’m deliberately slow at times: either waiting for the light to improve; or I’m busy framing an image; or I’m manipulating settings on my camera. However, Leah has come to accept my pokey photography habits. She realizes that she can explore ahead of me instead of waiting for me. Besides, I always catch up to her.
But this hike was different. With only one light source between us, we were forced to stick closely together and work as a team. And that made all the difference getting back to start.
There is a lake in Oregon’s high Cascade Lakes region that was created 3,000 years ago by a lava flow that burned and dammed a forested valley. Then it filled with fresh spring water from Mt. Washington snowmelt and the McKenzie River springhead that percolated up through pumice and lava rock. The water is so pure and cold enough throughout the year that algae has no chance of growing, allowing remarkable visibility–up to 100 feet below the water’s surface. Hence, the name Clear Lake.
But even more remarkable is the standing forest of sunken petrified trees that time and alpine freshwater has preserved in pockets of the lake.
We arrived at Coldwater Cove to survey the scene with the option of launching our origami kayaks to explore the depths for its underwater secrets.
But Leah preferred to hike the 5-mile trail around Clear Lake, thinking that the water would be too cold.
So we set about on foot, through the lava fields on the eastern shore, and walked around the south side of the lake, crossing the McKenzie River…
to an inlet where the water was mirror still.
At this point, I was perfectly happy to backtrack to the pickup to reconsider our kayaking option, but Leah wanted to finish the loop and talked me out of it.
The trail hugged the western shoreline, providing amazing views of the water…
until we reached the resort area, where a boat concession reminded me of my missed opportunity—
to be paddling on the open water with the others.
We pit-stopped at the resort store and filled our water bottles before pushing on, past the lakeside cabins to complete the second half of the hike…with the light beginning to fade.
Just as I was wondering out loud that we’d lost sight of the lake, we came to a bridge over a creek that directed us to the McKenzie River.
“I really think we should take the bridge and follow the water, because the trail we’re on is taking us away from the water,” I advised.
“But there was never any indication that we ever wandered off-trail,” Leah countered, walking past the bridge, “and besides, if that was the way back, it would be marked that way.”
“Okay, but if this trail is supposed to be a lake loop, then where’s the lake?” I followed up, as I was following her footsteps.
“How should I know? I’ve never hiked this trail before. Besides, you’re just bitter,” she said.
“Fine! Have it your way! But for the record, I think we should have taken the bridge,” I reiterated.
We continued to walk for a mile or so until we noticed changes to the forest. The trees grew thicker and taller, and light was struggling to penetrate a dense canopy of spruce. The mosquitoes must have sensed my uneasiness; they were feasting on the backs of my legs.
According to Leah’s iPhone, we had already exceeded what was to be a 5-mile loop.
“I think we’re lost, and if I only had a spark of phone service, I could prove it!” I said.
“Do you want to go back and take the bridge?” Leah offered.
“Are you serious or seriously joking?” I asked, wondering if Leah was really surrendering.
“In fact, we could also walk back to the resort, and bum a ride somehow,” she suggested.
“Who in the world is gonna pick us up and drive us back to our truck?” I sighed.
“You never know,” Leah snapped, “I can lure them with my wily ways.”
That’s when I heard the sound of traffic. There was a whoosh and it was gone. Then another whoosh, and another. The road had to be close by, but now the trail was leading us to the right, away from the road noise, but onto a single-lane gravel road with marker NR-2676. We followed the road north and around the bend, which brought us to a McKenzie Hwy turnout.
“Do you know which direction to go?” Leah asked.
“We have to cross to the other side to go back to the resort,” I advised. “Maybe you’ll have a chance to charm a ride from someone who’s rented a kayak for an hour or two.”
There wasn’t much traffic in either direction, which meant the park at 7PM was past its peak busy period. We walked along the roadside, occasionally stopping to flag down oncoming traffic but no one had any interest in slowing down.
“You realize it will be dark by the time we reach the truck,” I figured.
“What if I fake a limp, and maybe someone will feel sorry for us and stop.” she said, badly imitating someone with a bad knee.
“I’m not sure I want a ride from someone who pretends to feel sorry for us,” I mused.
That’s when a gray Toyota Avalon sedan slowed and pulled off the road, fifty feet ahead of us.
“I told you it would work,” she declared.
Leah didn’t know whether to run, or limp, or limp-run.
A burly middle-aged man with thinning gray hair exited his car, and opened the rear door.
“I’m gonna make some room in the back for you. Don’t mind the dog on the floor. He’s old and harmless,” he assured.
Leah took the middle seat beside his sullen son, and I wedged myself behind the driver’s slouching seat. A mangy terrier sat between our legs while our driver drove us to Clearwater Cove where our truck was parked.
His mother was animated in the front seat during the ride. She explained to us how special it was to “see the sights of nature” with her family.
We were so relieved to get back to the truck, and so was their dog, because It followed Leah out the door and refused to listen to its owner, our driver. Leah and I spent the next 10 minutes chasing, corralling, and eventually luring the dog back to the car while everyone watched from inside the car.
Nevertheless, Leah and I are immensely grateful to you and your family for stopping to help us in our moment of need. You saved us the time and trouble of walking an extra 3.5 miles.
We certainly need more moments like this in our lives, if only to prove to ourselves that humanity is about community, and mistakes make us more human.
P.S. I regret that I never learned your name during our brief exchange, but I remember giving you my card. If by chance, or design you happen to be reading this, I hope you’ll post a comment so I can thank you by name.
If the Three Sisters are the most dominant feature of central Oregon’s landscape, then we must be in Bend. In fact, these three volcanic peaks comprise the centerpiece of the Oregon Cascades.
Leah and I stopped at a roadside turnoff to capture their beauty while on our way to Broken Top–a damaged volcano who forever defends his spinster Sisters from the 6-inches-per-day glacial advances of Mt. Bachelor.
Our mission was to drive and hike our way to Tumalo Falls to admire a waterfall plunging 97 feet…
over a channeled canyon wall…
that was shaped by ice 20,000 years ago,
and to our benefit.
Leah and I followed the 6.5-mile Tumalo Creek Trail upstream for a short distance before turning back.
Nearby, under the watchful gaze of Mt. Bachelor sits Little Lava Lake–created by its ancient lava flow,
and the origin of the Deschutes River, which runs through the city of Bend–providing its residents of all ages with a familiar recreational pastime.
Which begs the question,
“How does anything get done in Bend, if everyone’s out on the river?”
Equally as telling that we’re in Bend is our visit to the last Blockbuster on the planet,
where hundreds of DVD-heads, curiosity seekers, and nostalgia collectors drop by daily…
to pay homage to a cultural icon by capturing a selfie at the entrance…
or participating in the next 80’s fashion redux.
It all adds up to good times, and a good reason to Bend over backwards to visit this outdoor wonderland.
Extreme heat is baking the northwestern states in July, and historic highs are being set with every new day. Murphy, Idaho is no exception. Triple-digit heat has become the new normal, and we were about to cross that threshold, as we continued our journey across the Snake River Plains to Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey, where temperatures reached 104° the other day with no foreseeable break in the heatwave.
Originally, the plan was a sound one–we would travel across Idaho, from Craters of the Moon to visit a raptor sanctuary. But at the time, we never considered that booking a Bureau of Land Management campsite (the only campground in the vicinity) would expose us to unbearable heat inside the Airstream, as most all BLM campsites are primitive–meaning NO services.
Leah and I needed to adjust our plans accordingly and without delay if we were to remain on course and on schedule, but we had to find a worthy substitute for the next couple of days. We thought about staying in Boise (it was nearby), but we had little interest in visiting Idaho’s largest city (pop. 230,000); we were looking for something more adventurous and outdoorsy.
After checking area state parks, I discovered that Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park was close by (1.5 hours away) and available with water/electric hook-ups. There would be no sightings of prairie falcons or golden eagles at Bruneau Sand Dunes, but if we closed our eyes, we could imagine them in air-conditioned comfort. …and lots of sand…again (seeGreat Sand Dunes National Park).
We arrived to a nearly empty campground on the edge of the “tallest ‘single-structured’ sand dune in North America,” with a peak rising 470 feet above the surrounding desert floor. The park also touts its own observatory within a Dark Sky Place, searching the sky with Idaho’s largest telescope (25 inch diameter) for public viewing.
My first inclination was to compare it to Great Sand Dunes National Park, but I was determined to curb my skepticism and see what surprises awaited us inside our new backyard/playground…for the meantime.
The following day, we went exploring. Unlike a couple of coeds and a dog, we immediately dismissed the notion of climbing the dunes in extreme heat.
We were looking for a more sedate hike that required less elevation. Rather than follow the 6-mile self-guided hiking trail step-by-step, we improvised, skipping the Big Dune ascent, and followed the trail around the dune base,
where we discovered water, and that made all the difference.
We circled the lake…
and crossed over a few of the lesser dunes,
until we reached the observatory.
I was eager to stargaze that evening, but the observatory was closed until further notice due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, the only celestial offering on-site was a human sundial created by Girl Scout Troop 140 in 2015.
I was curious about the design, but I required a human to test its accuracy.
Leah stood on the current month (July), for the sun to cast her shadow on the current time of day. Checking my watch, I recorded 10:24 AM, which from the looks of her shadow, validates her as human and punctual.
The rest of the day, we played by the water, and enjoyed the air-conditioned comfort of our Airstream, never giving Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey a second thought.
Craters of the Moon is a deceptive name for a National Monument and Preserve. After all, the craters of Idaho don’t resemble the surface of the moon.
On the contrary, the upheaval of 600 square miles of basaltic lava as recently as 2,000 years ago was caused when the Great Rift fissure reawakened. Nevertheless, it was NASA’s preferred location to train Apollo astronauts to search for rock specimens because its harsh terrain is akin to a lunar landscape.
This patch of scorched earth along the Snake River Plains is still considered active, although unlikely to erupt in the next hundred years or more–which gives all of us plenty of time to explore the lava fields…
for stellar examples of lava craters,
and cinder cones.
Trudging up the steep gravel pile to the summit of Inferno Cone gave us sweeping views of the Snake River Plains,
an overview of the volcanic basin,
and a distant impression of the Pioneer Mountains.
Next attraction to explore on the 7-mile Loop Road was the Indian Tunnel and neighbor caves, stitched into an underground network of collapsed lava tubes.
Before arriving at Indian Tunnel, Leah and I consulted a ranger at the Visitor Center who helped to plan our day. She also permitted us to enter Indian Tunnel (stamping our park map), but not before allaying her suspicion that our clothing, shoes, and all personal accessories were carriers for spreading white-nose syndrome to a vulnerable bat population.
Traditional stairs and railings led us to the brink of the cave, but we were soon on our own–finding our footing over and around immense basalt boulders–as we descended deeper into a pit surrounded by colorful walls.
Available light came from a open dome whose ceiling had crumbled hundreds of years ago.
We scrambled through rock piles, feeling our way through the tunnel, until we reached another lit opening, signaling our exit.
We rounded out the day’s visit with a stop at Devil’s Orchard, a nature loop trail winding through cinder beds and hearty vegetation,
although, flourishing flora was more the exception than the rule.
The following day, Leah and I drove through the Craters of the Moon Wilderness,
taking a dusty, rutted, gravel road to the edge of civilization.
We were completely isolated in a desolate wasteland. Only the livestock had a half-hearted interest in our visit.
We were eager to find something significant on the drive, but we quickly reconsidered after discovering Piss Ant Butte in the distance.
At last we reached our objective: the end of the road, and Snowdrift Crater, a landmark detail on our map.
Back at Arco, I captured the edge of town beneath a cloudless sky, and I had low expectations for any kind of a sunset.
And then the winds pick up…
They’re gusting at 40, 50, mph…
and baby pinecones are peppering the aluminum rooftop…
and a storm cloud passes directly overhead, shooting crazy lightening…
and Leah is tracking the storm on her phone…
and the TV announcer is cautioning viewers to prepare for tornadic thunderstorms…
and I’m standing outside with my camera, wondering if the lava fields have come alive, after all.
Kissing the edge of the Ashley National Forest at the intersection of Wyoming and Utah lies Flaming Gorge.
Once underwater and formed over a billion years ago, the Precambrian Uinta Mountains showcase the dazzling red cliffs of a glacial gorge cut from a river system that also carved the Grand Canyon, courtesy of the Green River.
The Green River ends at the dam wall constructed in 1958,
and completed in 1964 as one of four storage units for the Colorado River Storage Project.
The dam impounds Wyoming’s largest reservoir,
providing water storage and hydropower generation to seven states,
and offers 91 miles of water recreation bliss behind its wall.
But scenically, the clear cool water is the perfect foil for a mesmerizing landscape of vivid colors and mountain formations.
Following the footsteps of Major John Wesley Powell and company, who explored the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869, Leah and I set off on our own geologic survey…
for a closer inspection of castle rock…
and notched peaks…
which is more than enough to inspire future geologists.
There’s a lake that straddles northern Utah and Idaho that boasts a turquoise-blue color that rivals any Caribbean beach, and it’s all due to the refraction of calcium carbonate (limestone) deposits suspended in the lake. The intensity of the color also shifts with the sun’s position, the wind direction and the current, to where it becomes dizzying, trying to frame and capture patterns of varying shades of blue through a camera viewfinder.
Leah and I camped in two of several neighboring Utah State Park campgrounds to round out our visit. When initially making reservations, the Rendezvous Campground only had openings for the last two of our three nights, so we took up residence at South Eden Campground on the east side for the first night, with an understanding that it was a primitive site.
To our surprise, the facility had been upgraded with water and electric service over the past year. Of course, we would have preferred to stay for the duration of our visit, but that’s not how reservations work at a busy summer resort.
Moving to a new site after one day was not a relaxing proposition, but with so much running around over the past two months, we owed ourselves some down time from traveling, and Bear Lake seemed like a good fit, despite the campground fuss.
Aside from the splendid color of the water, our beach was far from beach towel-friendly, with broken shards of shale, shell, and limestone liniing the shoreline…
and beyond, making hard-sole, water-shoes essential footwear.
But what mattered most to me at the moment were the clouds that were moving in and out of view.
Would there be enough cloud cover to support a world class sunset?
Armed with a camera and a silent prayer, I waited anxiously on the beach as the sun kissed the sky goodbye.
And then came the explosion I’ve come to expect. I would have my sunset, after all!
The following day, we moved to Rendezvous Beach on the west side of the lake, where the accommodations were as advertised: modern facilities and tighter sites,
followed by uncrowded sandy beaches? Where were all the people?
I later learned that all the “missing” were running their boats up the lake from the Bear Lake State Park Marina. And I’d like to personally thank each of them for the onslaught of wake that made for an average time kayaking in open water.
The final evening of our stay, we drove into Laketown for ice cream and a sunset. We found a quiet side street that dead-ended at the waters edge, and we waited…
“Not as brilliant as the other night, but not terrible,” Leah assessed. “C’mon, we need to go before the town shuts down and we miss our chance at ice cream.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry. Wait for it. Otherwise, you’re gonna miss the best part. The sky is still developing,” I predicted.
I got the sunset I wanted, but not the ice cream, as most of the town had shut down by 9 PM. With only one late spot open, we opted for flavored milk shakes and called it a night.
The moral of the story: A Saturday Night Sunset beats an Ice Cream Sundae!
While spending time with friends in Cheyenne WY, Leah and I scheduled a side trip across the state line to visit Scotts Bluff in Gering, NE. Nebraska was not originally part of our travel plan, nor did we consider Nebraska when we set out to explore America four years ago, but we caved to public opinion and we are now happy to endorse Nebraska as a state with a meaningful attraction.
This Bluff is a Butte, or this Butte is a Bluff? It don't amount to a hill of beans.
A wide range of arrangements are only future cliff-hangers for cave-dwellers.
Making mountains out of molehills or taking the high road, We all plateau on the summit or the plain.
Monumental achievement can only be measured at the peak of a towering task.
Just north of New Mexico, in the San Juan Range of the Colorado Rockies, Canby Mountain snowmelt and multiple mountain base streams join forces to form the Rio Grande. On its 1900-mile journey to the U.S. southern border, the Rio Grande passes through the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, having carved out the 800 foot canyon over the past several million years.
Beyond Questa, NM, a dirt road bordered by sagebrush scrub distinguishes the gateway to the National Park.
It’s high desert all the way, as the road winds through 10 miles of overlooks, campgrounds and trailheads…
until its terminus at La Junta Trail–currently closed for maintenance.
While hiking into the canyon wasn’t possible due to trail closure,
the overlook provided a closeup of native flora,
and a distant glimpse of the confluence of Red River and Rio Grande.
But like so many others, we were not settling for amazing…we were looking for spectacular. So we drove a few miles north of our campground on US-64, and waited patiently for sunset on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, an engineering masterpiece.
For the many who contemplate diving from the bridge,
there are strong warnings…yet sadly, two or three a year will never make the call.
With the sun fading, the sidewalks on the bridge begin to populate—
each of us patiently waiting for Mother Nature’s final curtain before we resume our sacred lives.
With Amarillo behind us, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque to visit Leah’s family. Earlier in the week, Leah had made preliminary plans with Carrie, her daughter to take the grandkids to Santa Rosa, NM to visit a popular water park the day after our arrival.
But not so fast!
We were driving on I-40 West with very light traffic, and had just crossed the border into New Mexico when a couple in a pickup pulled along side me and grabbed my attention. The woman in the passenger seat looked concerned. She mimed a circle with her finger while shaking her head, and pointed in the general direction of our Airstream before the pickup sped away.
“Oh, shit!” I grumbled. “There’s trouble back there.”
“What do you mean, trouble?’ Leah asked.
“I don’t think she was playing Charades…hopefully nothing serious” I answered.
I slowed to a crawl–pulling off the road to inspect our rig.
The original set of Goodyear Marathons looked nearly new upon general inspection, and I‘d only pulled the Airstream about 5,000 miles since starting out on our Great American Road Trip. Thank goodness for tandem axles. As for the blown tire, the tread was gone and the cord plies were shredded, but miraculously, the wheel and wheel well were still intact.
“We need a new tire,” I sighed. “The one that used to be there looks like spaghetti.”
“So now what? We’re in the middle of Bumfuck,” she panicked.
“Not exactly,” I tried to reassure.
“And on a Sunday to boot!” she continued.
“You’re not helping,” I advised.
Analyzing our location on GPS, I responded, “It’s showing that we passed a truck stop the moment we crossed the border.”
I called Russell’s Tire Center and learned that Cole was on-call. He agreed to meet us at the shop in half an hour. He also advised that he would be charging his travel time back to me at $95/hr. in addition to the emergency repair at $95/hr. It was a different kind of highway robbery, but I was out of options since I lacked the tools to lift a 7500 lb. trailer.
“There! It’s arranged,” I crowed. “We just need to get to the next exit and head back.”
“How are we gonna do that without a tire, genius?” she asked.
“Slowly and carefully,” I suggested.
It seemed like forever, but we limped along at 20 mph with flashers flashing until we approached the next westbound exit. Ironically, Jennifer (our GPS voice) routed our return along Route 66–parallel to I-40 West–as if she knew that slow-going was ill-suited for Interstate travel.
We got to Russell’s first and waited for nearly an hour when Cole arrived. He got straight to work. With the wheel off, I discovered what became of the tread. Luckily, no harm was done to the shock or the brake system.
Feeling insecure about using the spare under the Airstream, I opted for a new tire. When all the dust had settled, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque after a 2-hour layover and $300 in expenses. But I was feeling weary from the incident and wary behind the wheel, knowing that the other tires needed to be replaced.
90 minutes of drivetime took us to Santa Rosa, NM.
“Wait a minute! Aren’t we scheduled to drive here tomorrow with Carrie and the kids?” I asked.
“That’s right,” confirmed Leah.
“But we’re already here. Why on earth should I drive another 90 minutes to Albuquerque, only to return here the next day with your family,” I reasoned. “Why can’t they meet us here instead? They could even camp with us tonight if they want. Besides, I’m exhausted from this expensive mini-adventure.”
“Not a bad idea, Einstein,” she quipped.
Good News! Google confirmed that 2 walk-in sites with services were still available at Santa Rosa Lake State Park. Jennifer navigated us to the park campground, where we looped around twice to locate the open sites as advertised. Turns out, one site was handicap reserved; the other site was reserved for camp host.
As with most self-help campgrounds, Leah put our payment in an envelope and dropped it into a paybox at the entrance kiosk. After plugging into the host site, it was a relief to finally kick back with a cold beer and a blast of A/C to melt my stress level.
But not so fast!
Two park rangers have approached Leah, and it didn’t go well. We have been evicted, unapologetically.
So we rolled back onto Route 66 and found an overnight spot at a local RV park. Leah made arrangements with Carrie, who eventually drove to meet us and spend the night car camping with Devin and Gabe outside our Airstream window.
The next day, we drove to the Blue Hole—
–ready for excitement.
When we arrived, I had this nagging feeling of déjà vu.
“We’ve been here before,” I mentioned to Leah.
“I would have remembered this place,” she disagreed.
“I’m telling you, this place is very familiar to me,” I insisted.
“Maybe you were here with someone else,” she theorized.
“Nope! You were with me, and I can prove it,” I stated emphatically.
I scrolled through the picture gallery on my phone, as if by chance…until…
“There it is!” I insisted. “We were here on October 18, 2017! And here’s the picture to prove it!”
“Congratulations! You’re right again, as usual,” Leah said without conviction.
“We never went in the water,” I said, “But that’s about to change today.”
It took some coaxing, but eventually everyone braved the 61o F temperature…
except me. I was going for the whole enchilada.
I watched as several youngsters scrambled to the ledge 20 feet above the Blue Hole and jumped,
which was all the preparation I needed for my jump.
The water was freezing–enough to take my breath away. But at least I left with bragging rights.
P.S. After we reached Albuquerque, our Airstream got a new set of shoes…
Humans have been taking baths for millennia. The practice of releasing toxins in hot springs dates back tens of thousands of years to the Neolithic Age, when nomadic tribes would soak in thermal waters they accidentally discovered when seeking relief from winter weather.
And there is archeological evidence from the 1900’s from Pakistan, where the earliest public bathhouses were discovered in the Indus River Valley around 2500 BC.
In, fact, every known culture around the world has demonstrated a special bathing ritual with roots in therapeutic cleansing of body, mind and soul.
No doubt, Native Americans enjoyed the 147o F waters that flowed from the lower western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas. This area was first occupied by the Caddo, and later the Quapaw, who eventually ceded this territory to the U.S. government in an 1818 treaty.
70 years before the National Park Service was established by Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs the first federal reservation in 1832, intending to protect this natural resource.
Scientists ran measurements and evaluated the springs’ mineral properties and flow rate. In journaling their finding, they numbered the springs and rated them according to temperature.
Immediately after, bathhouses began springing up around town to indulge the many guests who would travel to Hot Springs to avail themselves of the water’s restorative powers.
But trouble was brewing closer to the mountain. Ral City emerged as a community of indigents who had no use for fancy bathhouses, and subsequently dug pools beside the springs so they might enjoy the thermal water.
But not before the government put a stop to that and instituted policy that “preserved” and regulated the springs. Fearing contamination, the reservation superintendent ordered the pools filled in, and the transients relocated to a distant spring to appease the bathhouse owners in town.
Enterprising businessmen like railroad magnate, Samuel Fordyce saw potential in Hot Springs, and invested heavily in the town’s infrastructure. He financed construction of the Arlington Hotel in 1875–the first luxury hotel in the area…
and vacation residence to every known celebrity, movie star and gangster of the era.
Fordyce also imagined an international spa resort that could rival Europe’s finest, and opened the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse in 1915.
The National Park Visitor Center now occupies this bathhouse–which has been painstakingly restored to reflect the gilded age of health spas, and how turn-of the-century America tapped into Hot Springs’ healing waters to bathe in luxury and style.
There were many different ways to indulge in water treatments…
But a menu of ancillary services was also available, such as: massage, chiropody, facials, manicure/pedicure, and exercise, etc…
Bathhouse Row quickly filled with competition along Central Avenue,
each one designed with classic architectural details.
and anchored by Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center on the south end of the street.
Formally known as the Army-Navy Hospital, it was the site of the nation’s first general hospital for Army and Navy patients built after the Civil War–treating the sick and wounded through World War II. Subsequently, it became a residential resource center for training young adults with disabilities, but state of Arkansas shuttered the facility in 2019, and the building is now derelict and fallen into disrepair. Currently, it stands as the world’s largest raccoon hotel.
We visited Hot Springs during Memorial Day weekend, and the sidewalks were teeming with families and couples who were happy to return to the land of the living after a year of coronavirus hibernation. Businesses were enjoying record crowds, and the bath houses had finally reopened to the public.
Unfortunately, Leah and I were too late to the party; there were no spa reservations to be had. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
So we took a hike up the mountain, spotted a turtle in the middle of the trail,
and continued to the Mountain Tower,
offering majestic, mouth-watering views of hidden springs beneath us, while we massaged each others’ neck and shoulders.
The Caverns of Natural Bridge can’t be more than a 15-minute walk from the Natural Bridge State Park parking lot. Along the way, it’s impossible to miss the Natural Bridge Hotel poised on it’s perch across the road…
where very little has changed as a popular destination for tourists since its rebuilding in 1964 after a doomsday fire.
Continuing up the road and around the corner, stands a rustic cabin set back from the parking lot that’s been open for business since 1977.
The attendant tells us that this is a quiet time for tourists–middle of the week, before Memorial Day–and that’s fine with us. In fact, so far, we are the only spelunkers to have signed up for the 2 o’clock tour. As the hour draws near, only two other women have joined us. But as a party of four, Brian, our guide assures us that we can linger longer at each attraction, since our group is so small.
We are descending into a wet cave (as opposed to a dry cave),
34 stories below the earth’s surface…
where an underwater spring still feeds the formation of speleothems (e.g. stalactites and stalagmites).
The temperature is a humid 54o F, and with masks on…
my glasses can’t help but fog with each breath I take. It’s never been so frustrating looking through a viewfinder to frame a photograph.
But as we snake our way through low overheads…
we are surprised to see boxwork, an uncommon, venous formation of calcite residue…
which forms when calcium carbonate dissolves within the cracks, resulting in unusual honeycomb patterns.
While not the biggest cave system (that belongs to Mammoth Cave), or the most ornate (that belongs to Carlsbad Cavern), Natural Bridge has a pleasant complement of columns…
and detailed domes,
and no shortage of surprises between the cracks and crevices.
If you’re searching for a town that’s so proud of their community attraction that their town is named after it, look no further than Natural Bridge, Virginia. It’s an unincorporated town tucked within the Shenandoah Valley…
that unsurprisingly features a rock bridge of limestone located in Rockbridge County.
Leah and I masked up, and approached the Georgian-styled Visitor Center to surrender $18 to view this natural wonder.
Our downward trail followed a moss-laden terrace of twisted roots and vines laced with wisps of water…
descending into enchanted dripping pools falling on flat rocks…
until we reached a T-shirt concession at rock bottom and an imposing graphic…
that tells the story of Natural Bridge:
The arch is composed of solid grey limestone. It is 215 feet high (55 feet wider than Niagara Falls) 40 feet thick, 100 feet wide and spans 90 feet between the massive walls.
The span contains 450,000 cubic feet of rock. If man had scales to weigh it, the mass would balance about 72,000,000 pounds, or 36,000 tons. The rocks that compose the bridge are early Ordovician, about 500 million years old. The internal forms of these rocks that break and fold in the layers were imposed on them during the Appalachian Mountain building process toward the end of the Paleozoic Era, more than 200 million years ago. At its highest point, the bridge is approximately 1160 feet above sea level.
This was Nature’s working material. Her tool, Cedar Creek–a simple mountain stream flowing toward the sea. With these, Nature achieved her miracle. She painted her masterpiece with dull red and ochre, soft shades of yellow and cream, delicate tracings of blueish-grey.
Before white men came to our shores, the Monacan Indians considered this ancient wonder a sacred site, and called it “The Bridge of God.”
According to legend, in 1750 the youthful George Washington, engaged by Lord Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia, surveyed the surrounding acreage of Natural Bridge. During his visit, he scaled some 23 feet upon the left wall of the bridge and carved his initials, which may still be seen today.
On July 5, 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased Natural Bridge and 157 surrounding acres from King George III of England for the “sum of twenty shillings of good lawful money” (about $2.40). Jefferson visited the bridge often, surveyed the area, and even drew a map in his own hand. In 1803, two years before becoming the President of the United States, he constructed a two-room cabin on the grounds.
From the literary classic Moby Dick, to such paintings as The Peaceable Kingdom, Natural Bridge has been used to portray the ultimate wonder. Edward Hicks, one of America’s foremost folk artists, used the Natural Bridge in his oil painting of about 1825-30.
Amongst many artists to paint or sketch an image of the bridge was Frederic Edwin Church, followed in 1860 by Davis Johnson, a second generation Hudson River School artist.
In later years, Natural Bridge became a merchandising magnet.
Personally, I was equally as intrigued with Cedar Creek as I was impressed by the monolithic bridge…
Even today, Lee Highway (U.S. Route 11) runs across the Natural Bridge, and that’s a very good thing, because we crossed many times to access our KOA campground down the road, and more importantly to visit Elvis at the Pink Cadillac Diner.