Fuji Mountain

November 2, 2014.

Fuji Mountain Trail from Rd. > summit and back

12.2 miles | 2100′ ele. gain | 4.5 hours | Photos

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I found an opportunity to get out for a solo adventure so I grabbed it. Daylight Savings Time even gave me an extra hour of sleep so I could take off even earlier than I normally would. Early starts make me happy.

When I pulled off highway 58 onto the road that would lead me to the trailhead, I drove straight out of fall and right into winter. The ground was coated in a thin layer of snow that must have recently fallen. The air was justifiably cold, and the sun was hidden behind a thick layer of gray clouds.

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The Fuji Mountain trail took off uphill from the get-go. It was an excellent way to help raise my body temperature on this chilly day. The forest felt exceptionally quiet, minus the crunching and sliding noises coming from my feet. Even the birds were still asleep; they must have missed the memo about the time shift.

I walked through one picturesque scene after the next. Tree limbs bowed under the weight of new snow. There were no human footprints anywhere, as expected. I’d have this amazing day all to myself. As the trail began a long, arcing traverse of the mountain on its way to the summit, the sun began to poke through the cloak of clouds. New light reflected off the snow. The trees became shorter, the trail rockier, and I knew I had to be close.

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Atop Fuji Mountain, there was a gallery of rime sculpture. Knobby ice jutted out from every surface of every tree, shrub and rock. It was suddenly breezy, as the exposed area did not have as much tree cover as the forested trail. I layered up and hunkered down for a quick lunch.

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The clouds hiding Diamond Peak split for a brief moment, then engulfed the craggy summit once again. Then, they settled in for good. I waited several more minutes to see if the weather would change for the better, but it was clear that the best part of the day was now behind me. I packed up and headed down.

Soon after I saw two men walking up the trail in my direction. I was surprised to see them, and they were surprised to have seen my tracks! They were hiking in from the upper trailhead about a mile away, and were planning to hang out on top for a while. Sounded like a cold and disappointing plan. It was novel to see so many footprints in the snow, but they quickly disappeared and I was back to retracing my own tracks back to the car.

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The air temperature was rising, sending pellets of melting snow down the back of my jacket. What was once a lovely winter wonderland was becoming a sloppy, muddy mess. The forest turned from white to brown the closer I got to the road. But the melting snow revealed a variety of plants, fungi and lichen that I didn’t notice just a few hours before. It’s amazing how much the character of a trail can change in the course of a day.

All day I’d passed junctions with other trails marked for winter travel with blue diamonds and signs. This area will  make a delightful snowshoe getaway in just a few weeks. While I’ve had lots of experience snowshoeing a couple of miles away, this is all new territory for me. I know now  that Fuji Mountain and the surrounding areas have lots more adventures in store.

McNeil Point

October 3, 2014.

Top Spur TH >  Timberline Trail/ Bald Mtn South > Timberline Trail > scramble to McNeil Pt Shelter 

9 miles | 2200′ ele. gain | 6:15 hours | Photos

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 I was fortunate to end up with a glorious weather day on this autumn Mazama hike. See, you have to plan these things out way in advance to get a hike on the Mazama schedule so I was rolling the dice. And with a full roster of sign ups I was really hoping for decent weather. Well, I must have made the right sacrifice to the weather gods.

It was chilly when we began, but the steady uphill walk helped to warm us up. Soon, we reached a confusing 4-way junction and chose the section of Timberline Trail that traverses around the south side of Bald Mountain. This way, we had the opportunity to stop and rest at a couple of stunning viewpoints of Mt. Hood. There were several nice cameras among our group, so we took every chance we got to take pictures in the bright sunlight.

After that, we found the shortcut back to the other portion of Timberline Trail that would take us up to McNeil Point. For the next few miles, we gradually gained elevation as we followed the forested trail through the wilderness. Our group was friendly, chatty and very diverse. Among us were visiting students from Chicago, longtime Oregonians and some newcomers to the Portland area.

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The group decided they wanted to take the short but steep scramble route instead of the official, meandering route to the shelter. It wasn’t so bad, and it added some interest to the walk in the woods. We followed rock talus and dirt through ever-shortening trees as we trudged up to the shelter. Once out of the woods, we popped up onto a beautiful overlook above the Muddy Fork canyon. Above us, Mt. Hood rose up majestically, her glaciers gleaming and sparkling in the sunlight. The group split in two, with half of us hanging out right there and the other half adventuring up to the point. I enjoyed a lazy rest near the shelter, eating my lunch, taking pictures and stretching my legs.

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As we rose to head for home, I thought the best part was behind us. We took the long way down instead of retracing our steps on the scramble path. This route switchbacked through one meadow after another, where the red leaves of huckleberry bushes looked like fire. Behind us, the views of Mt. Hood never subsided. It was a picturesque walk; it was hard not to stop and take it all in every few steps. But we were on a mission to return to the trailhead.

On the way down we passed several cheerful groups and families on their way up to enjoy this special place. I felt lucky to be up there on a Friday in the fall, when crowds were surely at their lowest, and our group was able to take over the viewpoint without disturbing any other visitors.

This was a great way to kick off my fall hiking schedule. I can only hope that subsequent hikes can live up to the quality of this one.

Mt. Thomson, West Ridge

August 16-18, 2014.

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Skip to the photo album

It had been about 2 years since I’d even attempted to lead any outdoor rock, and I’d only been to the rock gym a handful of times in that period. So when my pal Rick recruited me to take him up a 5th class route on Mt. Thomson, of course I said SURE!

To be fair, the climbing on Thomson is pretty easy by climbing standards. The hardest moves are rated 5.6, but most of the climbing is 4th class scrambling and easy rock climbing. But the lack of practice with ropework, reading routes and dealing with exposure made me a little nervous about the climb. Nevertheless, I felt confident that I could rally and make the climb work for our little team.

Mt. Thomson looked impressive from the photos I’d seen on the Internet. It lay tucked away, buried deep in the woods (by climbers’ standards) 7 miles from Snoqualmie Pass on the PCT. Rick and I rolled into the trailhead at about 5 pm on a Saturday evening, hoping to make camp by sunset.

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With hardly a few words of conversation, we busted out the 7 miles to camp above Ridge Lake in about 3 hours, barely pausing to admire the famed Kendall Katwalk (shown above) on our way. The lakes below us were overrun with campers, so we were happy to have our own little hideaway just a couple hundred feet up the trail.

We awoke the next morning to a view obscured by fog. We lazily ate breakfast and got our things together to head up the PCT in search of our climber’s trail.

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In about a half mile, we turned straight uphill in a steep drainage to reach Bumblebee Pass. The view from here looked just as cloudy as our view from the tent. We dropped down into the basin from the pass and traversed west across heather meadows and meandering mountain streams to the base of a large talus field. From there, we should have had a striking view of the south face of Mt. Thomson. Instead, we saw the talus rise into a low-hanging, gray cloud. I took out my photo of the route and tried to match up features on the base of the mountain with the view in front of me. We sat and waited for the clouds to rise.

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In the meantime, a couple trotted down from the pass and told us they were also headed up to the West Ridge. We waved them good luck as we continued to wait for a little clearing.

The curtain of clouds slowly began to rise. We ascended the jumbled talus up to the low point of the west ridge. Once there, we attempted to scout the route. After much futzing around, we made one dicey move to get to the belay ledge for pitch one.

And now, the climbing begins

Here’s where the gears in my brain began whirring at a mile a minute. We methodically got rigged up for the first pitch and triple checked everything. I looked up at the chimney, and over at the sloping traverse to get there, noting one very important thing. I’d need a 0.5 cam to protect the bottom of the route and I decided to leave all my small cams at home. Brilliant.

I looked behind me at the other team, waiting in the batter’s box for the two of us to get going. I noticed the leader’s bright, shiny, well-equipped rack. Luckily, he let me borrow his 0.5 and I was on my way. On. My. Way. Well, I’m not sure how long it took me to make that first move, but once I got up a ways and put that cam in, I slowly plodded my way up pitch one.

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The first belay ledge was nice and roomy, with a big tree for an anchor. Yay. Now I was feeling back in the groove again. Pitch two felt a little more challenging for me, with a couple of bulges, not a lot of great pro (I needed those damn tiny cams again) and a lot of zig-zagging, causing too much rope drag. I called it good about halfway up and rigged up a belay station there. Once Rick joined me on the tiny and awkward belay ledge I started up pitch 2.5. I was sure glad I broke up this pitch because soon I was stopped in my tracks by a vertical wall with seemingly nowhere else to go. It looked harder than 5.6, I thought, but maybe that was just my rusty leading skills talking. I located every hand and foot placement I needed to tackle that wall, then all at once worked my way up to the next ledge. Rick told me afterwards that he made some pretty sick Chris Sharma moves to follow me up there. I pictured him gripping the rock tenaciously with one hand, swinging his hips powerfully to one side to plant a toe perfectly on the next rock nubbin, where he’d regain his balance and glide effortlessly to the next hold.

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Pitch three: the slab. Certainly, I was excited to float up an easy slab after all that stressful vertical. Pitch four: more slab and blocky climbing. One account described it as a “5.4 staircase,” although this was not evident from the get-go. The exposure and not super obvious routefinding occupied my brain. I’d forgotten how much rock climbing can dial in your focus and allow you to remain entirely present. That’s the part I love.

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At the top of the false summit, we scrambled down a steep gully along a trail that led to the base of the final pitch. There was one last pitch of easy climbing to reach the summit. Thank goodness. Rick patiently dealt with a serious rope tangle, since I had absentmindedly forgotten to re-flake the rope, while I perched on a nice ledge. I knew a huge notch lay below me, but I couldn’t see the depth of it since it was filled with cloud.

Nearing the end of my rope (literally) I had to stop short of the summit, build a belay with the loosely piled rocks on the ridge and bring Rick up. From there, we untied and meandered over to the summit, reaching the top about 8 hours after we left camp in the morning.

Up until this point I had subsisted on about a half liter of water and an energy bar. I figured it was time to eat some food. We didn’t bring much water, since neither of us wanted to carry it up there, so we’d have to wait for a resupply down in the meadow. Good thing it wasn’t warm today.

Down the East Ridge

Again, our goal was to make it to camp before dark, so we headed into the unknown yet again to descend the east ridge.

We dropped down to the first rappel station, made a quick rap, then saw another tree wrapped with slings and rapped a second time. From there, it was not obvious where to go. We followed a faint path for a short while, then it seemed to disappear. Stupidly, I went to scout the rocky ledges and Rick split off to wander around in the trees. After much yelling back and forth, it was decided that Rick had the route that would work. We found a trail through the heather meadows that followed the east ridge down. My first thought was that the East Ridge as a climb would be boring as hell, switchbacking up a trail 95% of the way to the summit, so I was extra glad that we’d fumbled up the West Ridge.

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Eventually the trail led us to a notch that dropped down into the basin beneath Mt. Thomson. From there we traversed across talus and meadows, refilling our water bottles with stream water, then headed straight up to Bumblebee Pass.

We were both thrilled to catch sight of the PCT once we descended from the pass. That meant we were nearly done. At 7 pm, we crashed back into a soggy camp and quickly began refueling and rehydrating.

The retreat

The next morning, the clouds had released their grip on the valley and a beautiful sunrise brought us out of the tent. It was going to be a bluebird day.

We took our time on the return trek, taking the opportunity to actually see the area we’d just spent a day and a half in. There were beautiful peaks, glassy lakes, and stunning vistas. The Kendall Katwalk, which had been mired in fog just two days before, looked a bit more like the pictures I’d seen (albeit still a little disappointing).

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While we didn’t set any speed records on this trip, I’m glad we made it happen. I felt great getting back onto alpine rock and facing head on all the challenges it brings. It’s not always glamorous; in fact I find it so rare that people actually write about the hard stuff. Everyone’s always ready to inflate their ego retelling the epic awesomeness that they achieve on exotic and aesthetic climbs. But even the “easy” climbs present problems that need to be overcome. I appreciate the opportunity to be challenged, to be humbled and to be forced to think on the fly. Alpine climbing is truly an opportunity to apply everything you’ve learned and practiced, recognizing that the textbook placements you studied and easy as pie sequences are not always realistic.

I hope that Rick will again entertain the thought of spearheading another alpine adventure and force me to get out of my comfort zone again.

Glacier Peak Wilderness Backpacking

July 27-30, 2014.

N. Fork Sauk Trail > PCT > Kennedy Creek and back, plus a side trip to Portal Peak

37 miles | ~8500′ ele. gain | Hike photos

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Backpacking. It’s one of those activities on par with cleaning the basement, doing my taxes, and going to the dentist. It is not one of the things I prefer to do with my precious time off. However, this was supposed to be a mountain climb, and I was invited to go by two people I was really interested in meeting. So I blocked off some time and met up with my shiny new hiking partners in preparation for a 4-day climb of Glacier Peak.

Day 1: the approach

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Day one was hot and long. We set off along the North Fork Sauk River, gaining roughly 1000′ in the first 5.5 miles to the Mackinaw Shelter. This was the easy part. In the next four miles, the trail rocketed up 3500′ in a series of switchbacks leading to Red Pass. The lower portion of the trail kept us relatively protected in the shade of the forest, but as we climbed higher, we entered longer and longer stretches of wide open meadows. The meadows were green, lush, and dotted with colorful wildflowers. But the sun felt extra hot here. I was overjoyed when we hit the PCT. The grade mellowed, and we were on the home stretch.

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When we crested Red Pass, we dropped our packs and took a deep breath in. The scenery was magnificent in all directions. Behind us, Sloan Peak stood out from the numerous snow-capped ridges and hills stretching in all directions.  Over the pass, a broad, snow-filled basin provided a look at some new features on the south side of Glacier Peak. As the sun set, we prepared dinner and then nestled into our sleeping bags for a good night’s rest.

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Day 2: search for the climber’s trail

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We got off to a late start the next morning, and began hiking in the heat of the day. From the pass, the PCT dropped over 2500 vertical feet in the next five miles. It was depressing to lose that much elevation after working so hard to get up there. We trudged along, through bright meadows and dark forests, along snowmelt trickles and rushing streams. We were on the hunt for the Sitkum Glacier route. We had a couple of maps and a little bit of beta to go on, but no recent trip reports with updated conditions or directions. Regardless, we hiked for several more miles to the WC trail. Here we kept our eyes peeled for a cairn, a brushy trail, or any other indication of the climber’s route.

We found no such clue, and found ourselves eventually at a broken bridge over Kennedy Creek, which we knew was too far along the trail. We then headed back the way we came, scouring the trail for any sign of the way to go. I sat down for a while while my partners wandered through the forest. It was almost 5 pm. We had 3500′ to climb to get to the basin. Tonight. I knew it wasn’t going to happen.

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I had to be the Debbie Downer to break the news. We were all exhausted and frustrated. But we’d recently passed a sweet backcountry campsite, so we returned there and set up camp for the night.

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A quick wash in the river followed by a fire-side dinner brought our spirits up. We chatted until well after the sun set, then retreated to bed.

Day 3: splitting the group

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After a nice long sleep in, I bid farewell to my hiking partners and began the trek to Red Pass. They had already planned to circumnavigate the mountain post-climb, so their journey led north and mine led south. I walked in solitude back through the woods and meadows I’d traveled the day before, seeing everything from the reverse perspective. Again, it was brutally hot and now I was headed uphill. My legs were tired and I just couldn’t drink enough water. As lunchtime approached I desperately looked around for an adequate spot to rest and refuel. After passing a few so-so locations, I stumbled into the most perfect location for lunch. A small stream tumbled down a green meadow dotted with snowfields. The huge basin beneath the pass fanned out before me, and Glacier Peak stood like a sentinel over the whole scene. I inexplicably broke into tears, the combination of adrenaline, hunger, thirst, fatigue, and awe spiraled out of control. I wiped my face, broke into a smile, then quickly got to work filtering water and setting out my lunch.

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From here, it was a quick walk up to the pass. The easy switchbacks of the trail allowed me to move steadily, despite the intermittent snow. The Crocs handled like a champ. As I approached the pass, I saw a couple of humans and their huge dog. This was the first sign of life I’d seen since leaving camp. I worked up a friendly conversation starter in my mind as I continued up, but was startled by their dog who’d bolted down the snowfield towards me. It barked and growled, running circles around me as I stood and shot an angry look towards the couple. They made a half-ass attempt to get control of the dog, which failed. I waited, prepared to wail on the beast with my hiking poles if it got any closer, but they finally grabbed its collar and pulled it in. I walked by with a brief “hi” and kept on going until I reached my camp. What a horrible encounter.

Portal Peak

Two nights ago, while camping at Red Pass, I’d eyeballed Portal Peak. From the pass, it looked to be a stone’s throw away, just about 400 feet of elevation gain and a quarter of a mile’s walk. I was dying to get a summit, so I made this my goal.

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With not much more than a water bottle and camera, I scrambled up rocky ledges and heather meadows to the top of the peak. I was overjoyed to see a summit register and USGS marker, as well as an unobstructed view of Glacier Peak. I hung out up here with the butterflies and wildflowers as I scanned the horizon trying to identify the mountains. I was completely out of my element; it was my first trip to this area. I thought about all the PCT hikers who had walked just a few hundred feet below this spot but never paused to leave the trail and take in this view. Amazing.

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Day 4: back to the car

I awoke to a beautiful sunrise, finally an early wake-up. After breakfast, I packed up and began the descent. The early morning air was cool and breezy. But that didn’t last long. The summer sun picked up and I shed layers. I was under no time crunch to get back to the car, but I really wanted to be done.

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On the way back down I passed by a trail crew working to clear vegetation and divert water from the trail. I also passed a ton of hikers coming in, and a train of mules and horses carrying gear. It felt much different from my wilderness solitude the day before. I was pretty ecstatic when I saw the trailhead.

And now, for something completely different

I had a couple of days before I would meet up with my next climb team near Stevens Pass so I planned to do some car camping along the river. I drove just a few miles back along the North Fork Sauk River and found an excellent dispersed campsite on the left side of the road. There were no other campsites nearby.

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I spent the rest of the afternoon and the following day relaxing by the river, reading, stretching, and basically doing as little as possible. It was a perfect end to a strenuous trip. Car camping in the right place can feel just as much a wilderness experience as camping in the backcountry. The roaring river drowned out any noise from passing cars, the canopy of trees offered respite from the summer sun, and the soft, flat ground provided a comfortable, low-impact place to pitch a tent. A nice, big fire ring gave me a safe place to build a campfire and ample deadfall in the area provided the fuel. If I’d only left a couple of beers in the car, it would have been the perfect end to a lovely trip.

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Hiking the Leutasch and Partnach Gorges in Germany

April 22, 2014.

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We’d done our fair share of being city tourists in France and Germany, and were excited to take advantage of some hiking opportunities in Bavaria.

Leutasch Gorge

Our first hike was close to the cute little town we stayed in last night: Mittenwald. This picturesque little village sat alongside the Alps, offering views of great rock faces and dark, forested hillsides. A short drive brought us to a time-limited parking space. The only reason this was notable was due to the fact we had to place a little paper clock on the dashboard showing what time we’d arrived. The clock was provided by the rental car, and thankfully Aaron had read about this quirky fact before we took our trip. With the clock in place, we set off for the trailhead.

The waterfall hike was closed, so we scanned the map and crafted a loop that was roughly a few miles long. The map was so detailed that trail segments were measured in meters, so we practically walked the entire trail system there.

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The Goblin trail was the most fun and interesting, as it took us along metal walkways and bridges that put us right on top of the gorge. This crazy network of “trails” was manufactured right into the rock. We could look beneath our feet to the river, a couple hundred feet below us in some places. I was happy that our early start meant that no one else was out there; it would have been much more scary if the walkways were mobbed with people.

In addition, there were several signs along the way that detailed how the gorge was formed, what animals lived there, how to identify plants, and lots of other interesting facts. Each sign was colorful and written in a few languages, so we actually learned a thing or two.

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After finishing the gorge walk, our hike looped back through the forest. At some point we found ourselves briefly in Austria, as indicated by a small sign. No passport required there!

With just a half mile or so to the car, the weather suddenly changed and a passing storm dropped hail and rain on us. We ducked under the roof of a nearby lodge (closed) and ran into a young girl who had also taken shelter out of the storm. She chatted us up in English as best she could, and when the rain relented the three of us walked back to the car. We bid our new friend adieu as she rode her bike back into town. On to the next adventure.

Partnach Gorge

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The second hike was much different than the first. It was located near the Olympic Ski Stadium in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a buzzing hive of tourist activity. We were on a time schedule to get our rental car to the drop-off in Munich, so with that in mind we picked up a map at the Tourist Information desk and started walking towards the gorge.

The paved road leading to the trailhead was busy with other people walking, biking or taking a horse-drawn buggy to the gorge entrance. When we finally made it there, we found a little ticket booth with a woman collecting a 3.5 € entry fee per person. She told us the hike was a loop, so we started straight ahead as instructed.

I was surprised at how many people were shoving their way against the flow of traffic. “What loop??” I thought, as families and couples retreated towards the ticket booth. I was doubtful we’d have enough time to complete this hike.

This trail, in contrast to the previous hike, was just above the water coursing through the gorge’s rocky walls. In many places, a trail tunnel was blasted into the rock. In others, the trail was made of steel beams. Handrails protected hikers from falling into the swirling river, or being pushed in by the madding crowd.

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Water dripped down on us from above, and spray from the fast-moving water blasted up from the river below. It was raincoat time. After we exited the claustrophobic, yet beautiful, gorge, the trail climbed up an open hillside and brought us to a wider and more gently flowing part of the river. This appeared to be where many people stop for lunch and then turn straight back. We continued up, determined to make our loop, switchbacking up the hill to an even more idyllic setting. The sun blazed high in the blue sky, brightening the grassy meadows and clusters of wildflowers. The high peaks of the Alps formed a beautiful backdrop on the whole scene, which felt quite like a movie set.

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People were milling about up here as well, but as soon as we dropped down the other side of the hill, we were on our own. We walked past a curious sign that announced “Way only for practiced” and discouraged children from using the path. “Cool,” I thought. Now we’re on for an adventure.

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The trail here was muddy in sections but it was well built and had several sets of stairs and handrails to guide hikers through the roughest bits. I thought it was a pleasant walk. The scary sign kept everyone off the trail, so we were able to finish the loop in quiet solitude. It was the polar opposite of the tourist trap we just scrambled out of.

We returned to the ticket booth, checked the time and hoofed it down the trail to get back to the car. There was no time to waste.

How not to return a rental car

We had just enough time to drive to Munich and return it at the train station by 4 pm to avoid being charged for an extra day. We’d never been to Munich before, as we’d picked up the car in Frankfurt and were just driving the one way. We plugged the train station into the GPS and were on our way.

Racing down the Autobahn was fun for Aaron and scary for me. But I’d no idea it would get so much worse when we entered the city. In the city, we hit traffic. Traffic of all sorts: cars, trucks, bikes, pedestrians. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a man on a camel in the middle of the road. We scrambled to find a gas station to fill up, detouring around construction and trying to interpret all the German signs we’d barely become familiar with. Miraculously, we navigated the gas station and drove to the train station. Traffic congestion increased at an exponential rate the closer we got to the station. People were all over the road. Lanes inexplicably split off in all directions, with one-ways, train tracks, bike lanes and all sorts of other confusion muddying up our drive. To top it all off, we couldn’t figure out where the car drop was.

We circled the train station several times, once mistakenly turning ONTO the train tracks, until we found an underground parking area. We parked the car, ran into the train station, and asked the first English-speaking staff person we could find to direct us to the rental office.

The man at the rental counter kindly gave us a map and directions to the car drop site, which would have been very helpful to have had at the start of our journey, and we ran back out to the car.

Tension was high in the car as we barreled out of the train station and followed the new directions to the car drop. We pulled in, Ace Ventura style—”like a glove”—and breathed a sigh of relief. It was 3:50.

It was really nice to have a car for this leg of the trip. We had the freedom to come and go as we pleased, travel to areas we couldn’t walk to, and see some of the German countryside from the comfort of a car. But I absolutely stressed about this car return. I’ve learned a few things about how to better prepare for next time. At this point I was so ready to be back to being walking distance from everything in the city. And we’d finish our trip with a couple of days in Munich, Germany…

Black Crater

July 13, 2014.

7.8 miles | 2500′ ele. gain | 3.5 hours | Hike photos

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After seeing some early morning lightning and hearing ominous thunder from our dispersed campsite near Clear Lake, we decided to take a drive to McKenzie Pass to see what the weather had in store for  the day. From the expansive viewpoint at the Dee Wright Observatory, our fears were confirmed: the mountains were under attack by a number of dark storm systems that were laying down rain and hail in addition to the lightning strikes. Forest Service crews were standing by to keep an eye on brewing forest fires. We looked at each other and said, well, let’s go hiking.

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We decided to head to Black Crater because it was just a bit east of the worst of the storms. The trailhead was empty, so we parked and started walking uphill at a brisk pace. Most of the trail to Black Crater is buried in the forest. We trudged along, listening to the sky grumbling, wondering if we’d get stuck in the rain, or worse, in a fire.

Shortly after pondering this, rain began coming down on us. Aaron, of course, had his raincoat and pack cover on in a flash. I hadn’t packed a rain shell for this trip, but I did grab the footprint for my tent and stuffed it in my pack for just such a predicament. What followed was the assembly of a functional poncho for myself and my backpack.

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We moved ahead with confidence, pushing through the rain and hail no problem. The next obstacle, predictably, was snow.

It began as a few short snow patches, but as we reached treeline, we hit more persistent and deep snow. We managed along just fine, barreling straight up a steep snow slope when the trail’s switchbacks disappeared beneath it. While the distant skies were still gray and dramatic, the skies overhead began to show patches of blue and friendly, puffy clouds. We enjoyed the final stretch to the summit, traversing across beautiful rock gardens and passing by twisted whitebark pines.

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I had become fully engaged taking pictures of and admiring the tiny, bright, alpine flower beds. But when I lifted my head to look in the other direction, I shouted “holy crap! The Sisters are RIGHT THERE!” So close I felt I could throw a rock to North Sister.  But as we continued, the views got even better, clearer, and more spectacular. With all the exploring I’d done in Central Oregon, I was completely blown away that I’d overlooked this tremendous hike.

Just below the summit, a broad, cinder plateau offered a nice photographing opportunity. The clouds cooperated just long enough for me to capture a photosphere.

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Then we hiked up a narrow catwalk to reach the summit proper, atop a small cliff. Here were the remains of the old fire tower lookout. It must have been a pretty amazing place to be. As we quickly downed our lunches, the gray clouds began to swallow up the Sisters. We knew more weather was heading our way, so we boogied out of there.

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But the rain never came. In fact, the sun began to break through and we began seeing other hikers coming up the trail. Things had taken a turn for the better. Back at the parking lot, we ran into a family of hikers who said they were behind us but turned back due to the snow. With confident feet and a capable hiking partner, I thought, that snow was no big deal. I felt lucky that we were able to enjoy some solitude on one of Central Oregon’s most perfectly perched viewpoints.

Middle and North Pyramid

July 4, 2014.

North Pyramid Trail > Middle Pyramid Trail > Summit > Traverse to North Pyramid 

about 9 miles | 1900′ ele. gain | 5:15 hours | Hike photos

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On my last trip to Scar Mountain, along the Old Cascades Crest trail, I became intrigued with the idea of linking up the Three Pyramids. I couldn’t find any trip reports online describing such a hike. Pulling out the maps, I learned a little more about the terrain. Only the Middle Pyramid had a trail to its summit, the former site of a lookout tower. North Pyramid was only a short ways off of one trail, and the toughest looking bit looked to be the South Pyramid, at least a one mile walk from any trail.

I began my trek from the North  Pyramid trailhead, the same starting point for the Scar Mountain hike. Almost immediately, I got lost among a jumble of short, overgrown gravel roads. I angled into the woods in the rough direction I thought I needed to go, and stumbled across a nice looking trail. The trail led downhill to a small bridge and a thickly overgrown, streamside meadow. Bushwhacking through face-high ferns and salmonberry bushes, I followed the sound of the creek to find a second bridge. Once on the other side, the trail was easier to follow.

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I continued uphill and crossed road 2047. The trail continued along in spurts of uphill sections and traverses. Eventually, the trail climbed up through a series of switchbacks to gain the ridge between North and Middle Pyramid. At the saddle between the two, the trail provided a sunny view of the mountains. Looking back, I could see the summit of North Pyramid. It looked totally do-able on the way back, if I could avoid the rocky cliffs.

I finished the walk up to Middle Pyramid, ending up at what appeared to be another saddle between two bumps. I mistakenly took a left, scrambled to the top of a rock pile, and looked south to see a post on the other bump, presumably the true summit of Middle Pyramid.

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I quickly made it over to the post and settled in for an early lunch. This gave me a great vantage point to both North and South Pyramid. The south side of the summit dropped sharply to what looked like a cliffy and steep ridge to South Pyramid. The summit block of South Pyramid also looked blockaded by rock cliffs. It would have been too much for me on my own today, so I took a bunch of pictures and put that Pyramid on hold, for now. Looking at the map, a southern approach looked to be a better way to get up there.

Oh, and the views from the old lookout site weren’t bad, either.

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Returning the way I came, I veered off the trail about halfway along the high traverse and followed the ridge north. The forest was gently sloped and open, with trees and beargrass lining the ground. On the east side, the forest gave way to steep, rocky meadows, and eventually I was pushed up to a blocky ridge that was overgrown with moss. Following the path of least resistance, I eventually reached the end of the ridge, and had spectacular views towards Mt. Jefferson. I looked around for a summit register, but couldn’t find anything.

It was a nice little place to sit and hang out, with the exception of all the biting ants. Once they got used to my presence, it seemed, they left me alone. Anyways, the views up here were tremendous, with nothing obscuring the sightline to Jefferson. pano.JPG

Plus, I got a nice vantage point to look at Scar Mountain, the last place I went hiking.

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Not wanting to retrace too many of my steps, I angled back along the ridge for just a short while before descending the steep, western face. I intended to pick up the trail at the switchbacks, but the lay of the land forced me a little too far north to do that. Instead, I ended up walking and sliding down a gully, grabbing on to trees and bushes for balance as I made my way back to a nice, gentle section of trail.

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I was heavily assaulted by mosquitoes along this particular section of the bushwhack, which was unusual. I had hardly seen a mosquito all day long.

Back on the trail, time flew by. Once I reached the bridge over the creek, I stopped to collect salmonberries for the Fourth of July BBQ I’d hit on the way home. Unfortunately, the bushes were growing right at the creek’s edge, with the only access being from the creek itself. I slipped off my socks and shoes and walked through the ice-cold, ankle deep water. The berries were flourishing, ripe, and tasty.

On the way back to the car, I completed the short section of trail that I missed on my hike out. Turning around, I saw a barely noticeable brown post marking the start of the trail as it left one of the brushy roads. Easy to miss.

Back at the car, I noticed that the parking area was ringed with ripe, wild strawberries. I had a tiny bit of space left in my berry container to gather a small handful of strawberries before taking off.

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Although I just read an article in the Salem Statesman Journal about the Middle Pyramid hike (from another trailhead), I’m sure this area does not see a ton of traffic. Certainly few people take the longer route that I did, although it’s not that long and it’s quite nice. If I someday become interested in backpacking, I’d love to traverse the whole Old Cascade Crest trail.

Exploring the Romantic Road in Germany

April 18-19, 2014.

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See the pictures from our trip to Bavaria here.

We took a train from the south of France up to Frankfurt, Germany, where we began the second half of our trip. In Frankfurt, we rented a car and set off to travel the Romantic Road through Bavaria.

I’ll skip over the stress of figuring out how to operate an unfamiliar vehicle in a new country with an operating manual and navigation system in German.

I’ll also skip over navigating through narrow, congested city streets with little understanding of the strange street signs and confusing directions.

I’ll dive straight into the blissfully idyllic country drive through rolling hills, yellow fields, and puffy clouds. The Germany we pictured when we dreamed up this magical vacation.

Since we arrived in Germany in the evening, we bolted straight for Rothenburg ob der Tauber, where we had a place to stay for the night. We pulled in around 7 pm, driving down narrow but uncongested streets, as the city had quieted down for the evening. I admire the Rick Steves guides for the small, practical tips they offer; one of these tips was to spend the night in Rothenburg, since most of the visitors are day-trippers. He was spot on with that tidbit. We had a lovely meal at a nearly empty restaurant, I downed my first glass of German beer, and we took a peaceful stroll down darkened streets. We retired to a comfortable and spacious hotel room that felt like a four star suite after the crap hotels in France.

On the city walls of Rothenburg

All hotels in Germany include breakfast in the price, so we got up early and headed straight to breakfast. We were treated, unexpectedly, to a bountiful spread. This was no cheap, American continental breakfast. We had our choice of eggs, bacon, lunch meats, sliced cheeses, breads, rolls, jam, muesli, yogurt, fruit, coffee, and juice. We ate until our cheeks were stuffed like chipmunks, then rolled out the front door for a walk.

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The town of Rothenburg is encircled by an old rock wall. It is still nearly intact; visitors can walk around the perimeter of the city almost entirely on this medieval barrier. We began our tour at an old church with colorful gardens and bubbling fountains. It was a gray and foggy morning, but we enjoyed some views of the valley and nearby countryside. It looked very much like a scene from Monty Python: Search for the Holy Grail.

Occasionally, we’d see a person or two standing on the wall, taking pictures with their iPads or some nonsense. This was rare; inevitably there was a staircase within twenty feet of the people. It seemed like we were the only ones actually exploring much of the wall.

That meant there were lots of opportunities to look at stuff, take pretty pictures, and have a little fun.

After making a lap around Rothenburg, we wandered into a little bakery to try a Schneeball. We’d seen them in the shop windows the night before, and figured they were made for tourists but they looked really damn tasty. They were. Fried dough and sugar is always a winning combination. Plus, they had a funny name. Win-win.

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The city was starting to buzz with people and I felt a little anxiety bubbling up. We made one last stop in St. Jacob’s church before leaving. The interior of the church was very different from those we’d seen in France. The walls were cement gray, plain and smooth. There were some elaborate stained glass panels, but most of the windows contained clear glass and were framed by straight bars and metal circles. The plain walls served as an excellent backdrop to feature the intricate wood carvings, huge pipe organ, and perfect, symmetrical border details. It had a different style of beauty, but it still looked a little unfinished.

Around lunch time, we bailed out of Rothenburg. I’ll skip how insane the traffic was as we tried to get out of the walled city, which is not well designed for hordes of cars.

Instead, the story continues on the peaceful country drive. Aaron was behind the wheel and I frantically flipped through our guidebooks to try and pick another stop. There were too many quaint, historical towns for us to see in only a day and a half. I decided on Nördlingen, a walled city inside a crater. It sounded pretty awesome. Clearly, many other people had the same idea, and the place was jam-packed. We found a spot in a two-hour parking zone, so we had to prioritize our visit. We walked to the center of town and climbed the 90 meter tower at St. Georg’s church. It was 2.5 euro for the privilege of walking up the tower. The ascent up the old spiral staircase was dizzying, and the view was excellent. But it was bumper-to-bumper people traffic at the top, so we had to wait for someone to leave before we could get out on the deck.

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Wieskirche

There were so many more towns to see, but we had to get to Schwangau that evening. We skipped back to the freeway and I pored through the books to choose one last stop. I decided on the Wieskirche, a rococo-style church that had ridiculously high reviews. It was all alone, outside a small village with apparently no other attractions. And, there was no entrance fee.

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Upon arriving, it was clear we were at the right place. Not because the church was all that stunning, but because there was a pay-parking lot and there were vendors selling trinkets everywhere. A truck drove past us and rolled down the window. A German lady inside handed us her parking ticket, which was still good for an hour, and motioned for us to use it. We mumbled a danke schoen and watched her drive off. It was an omen!

The outside of the church was unremarkable. It was a big, white, plaster structure with a bell tower and some moderately interesting external architecture.

But once we got inside, the entire character changed. Every surface of every part was exquisitely decorated with gold leaf, vibrant paint, and three dimensional structure. Only a few plain, white strips of wall remained to draw attention to the painted details. The ceiling was most impressive of all, with finely detailed paintings of the “scourged savior,” showing scenes of Christ’s suffering and redemption. Religious or not, one could hardly ignore the craftsmanship and beauty of the church’s interior.

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We finished the drive to Schwangau, a little mountain town near the Austrian border. The majestic Alps dominated the view from the deck of our perfectly perched hotel room. It seemed mellow at the hotel and the town felt empty, but as soon as we tried to go out for dinner we were shut down left and right. We ended up at the bar in a tiny Italian restaurant, which was not exactly what we were looking for. After dinner, we explored a little city park near the hotel, where we could see two castles in the mountains: Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, our destinations for tomorrow.

Can you see them in the image below?

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Resources for Visitors:

Romantic Road

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Wieskirche

Pont du Gard

April 17, 2014.

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Click to view the photos from Nîmes and Pont du Gard

The Pont du Gard is a 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct that is a short bus ride from Nîmes. There are only a handful of buses heading there each day, so we boarded the early bus and arrived before the museum and shops had opened.

The aqueduct

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A quick walk brought us to the Pont du Gard. The sheer size of the structure was hard to comprehend. It was made of huge, golden blocks neatly stacked and formed into arches. Three stories of arches gracefully spanned the Gardon River. At the top, a narrow channel once permitted the flow of drinking water from one side of the river to the other.

We walked across the bridge and explored the trails on the other side. A sign pointed to a hillside viewpoint to the right, but dirt paths led off in all directions. We spent a good portion of the morning chasing trails, “finding” bits of stonework and ruins, and searching for secret viewpoints. Eventually, we made our way to a cute, little wildflower meadow that had an excellent view back to the Pont du Gard.

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One of the best parts of this impromptu exploration was that no one else had decided to go exploring, or so it seemed. We had our own private hiking trails for hours.

 After some creative scrambling we made it down to the river and hopped along the rocks to get a view of the underside of the aqueduct. We could hear lots of people on the deck above, but no one was down on the river. Again, it felt like our own special place. The river was running slowly and smoothly. Swallows flitted above our heads, diving in and out of the nests they’d built on the aqueduct. The giant structure provided welcome shade in the heat of the day.

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Back on the other bank of the river, we walked up to the fenced off upper portion of the Pont du Gard. We could clearly see the path that water used to flow thousands of years ago.

Museum

We made our way back to the main entrance and walked through the museum. It was overrun with groups of French schoolchildren, but we managed to weave our way through the exhibits that were not occupied. Although it was poorly lit and somewhat strangely designed, the museum had lots of informative and interesting exhibits that told the story of the ancient Romans. A combination of ancient artifacts, modern replicas, and historical photographs showed the Pont du Gard throughout time.

All the exhibits focused on one thing: water, and how to move it from one place to another. This reminded us that we were pretty darn thirsty, and hungry too. It was about lunchtime.

Picnic in the park

We grabbed some sandwiches and sodas from the cafe and ducked into the woods to get away from the crowds. We enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch, consuming the most un-American items we could find: baguette sandwiches, “Nature” chips, and a carbonated drink called Panach’.

Aaron took one sip of the aforementioned beverage and handed it to me, asking for a trade. As it turned out, Panach’ is made by Heineken, and contains a mixture of lemonade and beer. While I wouldn’t ever order it on purpose, it made a nice accompaniment to a warm spring picnic.

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A garden surprise

After lunch, we walked through the Mémoires de Garrigue, a Mediterranean garden located in the park near the Pont du Gard. A signed route led us through the many pathways in the garden. Here, I really wished my French was better. There were something like eighty stations scattered throughout the park, offering historical photos and facts at every station. I could tell that the signs told a story of the people in times past, and how the land was used to support the community. We made our best guesses about the stories on each sign, using help from Google Translate and the context of each sign. We learned frequently used words such as hill (colline), abri (shelter), manure (fumier) and récolte (harvest). It felt somewhat like a scavenger hunt. Again, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

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Visiting the Pont du Gard and surrounding trails and gardens was one of the highlights of the entire trip. It had it all: natural beauty that begged for exploration, incredible architecture, and educational exhibits that added depth and background to everything we saw. While the Pont du Gard was not on my to-do list heading out to France, I can’t imagine doing this trip without making the effort to visit this site. Sometimes last-minute plans turn out to be treasures.

Resources for visitors

Mémoires de Garrigue
Pont du Gard

City walk: Nîmes, France

April 16, 2014.

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Click to view the photos from Nîmes and Pont du Gard

When we were planning this trip, I really had no idea what I wanted to see or where I wanted to go in France. I asked a more experienced travel buddy where I should go and she mentioned Nîmes. As I did my trip research, I found the city of Nîmes to be somewhat elusive; it’s not in the France travel guide from Rick Steves, and no one else I’d spoken to had really heard of it. All these  were omens that spoke to me : “I really want to go there.”

Nîmes has a rich history. It was an important city in the first few centuries AD, under Roman rule. The Romans constructed an array of impressive buildings, some of which remain in really good shape today. Nîmes is much smaller than Lyon or Paris, so it is perfect for exploring by foot. The city also provides quick access to the Pont du Gard, which I’ll cover in another blog post.

Les Arenès de Nîmes

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Right in the center of town, we found the big arena. This was a great starting point for our travel back in time to the ancient Roman era. There is a self-guided audio tour provided to visitors, so we walked at our own pace as we learned about the long and twisted history of the arena. The arena was used for entertainment purposes, which often involved lots of blood and death. Over centuries, the events changed from animal hunts, prisoner executions, gladiator fights, and bullfights. We learned all we ever wanted to learn (and more) about the various types of gladiators and battles. We were so inspired by our visit that we watched the movie “Gladiator” on our train ride from Nîmes  to Frankfurt.

Jardins de la Fontaine

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These sprawling, carefully designed gardens served as a backdrop to our take-out kebab lunch. There were palm trees, pools, fountains, lawns and flower beds. Children were taking pony rides, school groups were playing, people were out strolling and generally enjoying the sunshine. It was a beautiful place to just hang out.

The original centerpiece was a natural spring used as a foundation for the first Roman settlement. Today, the spring bubbles up into a stone pool connected to other channels and pools leading out of the garden. The modern structures were designed and built in the 18th century. Back home, we’re lucky to have a couple of old, rickety park benches along the edge of a lawn of grass. I think we could learn a thing or two from the city planners in Nîmes.

Temple de Diane

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Within the Jardins stood the remains of a temple. To this day, the purpose of the temple remains a mystery. It stood behind a metal fence with a French interpretive sign. It was interesting to walk in and around it, noting the centuries of graffiti and little flowering plants poking through every crack they could.

La Tour Magne

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The only reason to visit this tower is to enjoy the view from the top. The tower itself is nothing special, apart from the fact that it’s about two thousand years old. It was originally built as part of the town’s defense system. We showed our entrance ticket and walked up the tall, spiral staircase to the viewing platform nearly 60 feet above the ground. It feels much higher on top, since the tower was built on a hill overlooking the city. From there, we had an excellent view of the arena and central boulevard as well as all the rooftops of the city. The platform was pretty small, however, so as soon as another group came up we had to leave.

Maison Carée

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We saved the Maison Carée for last. From the outside, this is an impressive structure. It gleamed bright white in the sunshine. Its tall columns erupted out of the earth. Its clean lines and stout structure made it look like it was just completed yesterday. A huge courtyard set it apart from the busy streets and modern architecture all around it. It was magnificent to behold.

When we went to go inside, we were told that a movie played roughly every half hour, so we’d have to wait for the next showing. As we entered, we noticed that the place was completely modernized, containing a small theater for watching the movie and nothing else. The movie itself was not worth waiting for. The only reason it was remotely interesting was that we’d already visited many of the places featured in the film and had some sense of the history and locations. It would have been a terrible way to start our tour of the city.

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On top of all the sightseeing, we had some incredible food in the restaurants and from the street vendors. I loved the smaller feel of Nîmes, the clash of modern and ancient architecture, the friendly locals and the comfortable climate. I had no idea that my visit to Nîmes was just about to get even better with a visit to the Pont du Gard…

Resources for travelers

Amphitheater of Nîmes, Maison Carée Tour Magne
Finding Nemo in Nîmes (Rick Steves)
Pont du Gard