Author Archives: Jess B

Jasper National Park

June 5-8, 2024.

Typical driving scene

Photo album

I had been looking forward to Jasper National Park as an alternative to the hectic and overcrowded Banff. I’d heard it had wonderful scenery, great campgrounds (with free firewood!) and lots of incredible hiking. But a number of things conspired against me. First, I was still SICK. Second, the weather was not great. Lastly, it was still early season so much of the hiking was locked up in snow. Nevertheless, we had some great moments in this vast National Park. Here are some high- and low-lights.

Columbia Icefield

After a day of work in a day-use parking lot, we drove excitedly to the Columbia Icefield. I knew there was a giant parking lot where you could camp overnight, and while it wouldn’t be enjoyable we’d at least have pretty scenery.

We arrived in on-and-off snow flurries with no view of the icefield. No matter, let’s head inside, I thought. There must be an interpretive area or visitor center. When we opened the door to the main building, it felt like we had entered a crowded mall. People were standing in line at Starbucks, lingering in the hallways in packs and shoving their way into the gift shop full of tchotchkes. Bored attendants stood behind desks where you could book guided walks, bus tours and other curated experiences. We found the bathrooms and then hurriedly returned to the van. This was not it.

View of Columbia icefield from parking lot

The next morning, the skies cleared enough for us to see the glacier. There it is, and we are outta here.

Kerkeslin campground

After some driving, we found some breathing room by way of the first-come, first-served campgrounds. We pulled into Honeymoon Lake and found it half full, so we continued to Kerkeslin. The sites right near the lake were all full, but the remaining sites were practically empty. We picked a spot with enough of a clearing for Starlink and paid for two nights. It felt so good to be back in some quiet.

We walked to the river’s edge just to stretch our legs. I was absolutely floored by all the wildflowers! I eagerly squatted down here and there to get a look at the local flora. I punched all the clues into my Alberta Wildflower Search app (Android or iOS) to try and identify the unfamiliar ones. I found elephant ear lousewort, paintbrush, vetch, butterwort and a few I couldn’t figure out! The sun’s reflection off the water was so strong I had to look away from the gorgeous river and stay focused on the vegetation. We made a little loop through the woods back to our campsite and made preparations for dinner.

Flowers and river

Before we settled down, we walked to the huge pile of community firewood that’s available to registered campers. We amassed enough wood to last for the night and Aaron started chopping. I made another fire in the morning. Considering how long we’ve been on the road, we’ve hardly made any campfires. This was a rare treat. The sprinkles chased us back in the van both days, but this is a great resource available at many Canadian government-run campgrounds.

Athabasca Falls

We took one detour from the campground to Athabasca Falls. It was beautiful, but it was too overrun with tourists to really enjoy it. There was a tour bus in the parking lot that had flung all its occupants out onto the short network of trails. They were vying for the same handful of viewpoints, not to look at and appreciate the falls, but to take selfies. I was already grumpy upon arrival but this did not help.

I’d recommend coming here early in the morning, before people are out and about. Several walkways offer various viewpoints of the multi-level waterfall, an old rocky river channel and the turquoise river below.

Turquoise water below Athabasca Falls

Town of Jasper

Jasper was far, far, less crowded than Banff and I actually wish we’d chosen to spend more time there. We found an incredible business combo called 3Sheets. There, we shopped for art and stationery supplies while DOING OUR LAUNDRY. The laundromat combos we’ve discovered on this trip are usually on point. This was no exception; they even stayed open late just so we’d have enough time to throw our clothes in. I highly recommend a visit!

Freshly clad in clean clothes, we walked to Syrahs for a nice dinner. On this day, we celebrated Aaron’s last day of work before his one year sabbatical! Truly a cause for celebration. I had an incredible halibut meal and Aaron had a steak. The food was good, service attentive and environment fine. Besides the grocery store (packed, stressful, chaotic) we didn’t really see much else there. It has all the amenities you’d imagine in a tourist basecamp, but for us it was simply a place to do some chores before moving on.

Yum

Jasper Sand Dunes

As we high-tailed it north to the Alaska Highway, I positioned the Milepost on my lap. The Milepost is an extremely detailed guide that covers all the major highways to/from Alaska as well as the Alaska highway system itself. Multiple people told me before starting this trip that I must acquire this book. As Aaron drives, I look up to check the milepost (km in Canada) on the road and compare it to where we are in the book. And sometimes I notice things that are worth stopping for.

As I looked a little ahead on our route, I noticed an entry for “Jasper Sand Dunes”. WHOA! Let’s check that out!

Jasper sand dunes

We found a small dirt pullout with a pit toilet and enough room for several vehicles to park. We exploded out of the van and wandered along the use trails in the dunes. It felt so weird to be walking in the sand in the middle of this massive mountain range. I poked around at the shrubs and flowers, we took in some views of the forest, dunes and snowy peaks and watched a small herd of bighorn sheep grazing on a grassy dune nearby.

That would be our last stop in Jasper, as we had over 2,000 miles to get to Fairbanks by the end of the month.

Johnston Canyon

June 3, 2024.

7.9 mi. |1625′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.

One of many waterfalls on the trail

Photo album

Still feeling crummy, but needing to get out of the van, I decided to take a stroll up the Johnston Canyon Trail in Banff National Park. After surviving the absolute mob scene that the town of Banff was the day prior, I really needed some time in nature. I packed my art supplies and planned on hiking up a short ways to find a nice waterfall to paint.

But once I got outside and my body was in motion, I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t moving at breakneck speeds due to being sick, but I was moving. And it felt SO good. The trail begins along a deep canyon carved by the churning water. A raised boardwalk bolted into the rock wall carries hikers above the foamy river. Along the way, you can look down at endless cascades and pools of turquoise water. It reminded me vaguely of the canyon hike we’d done in Germany years earlier.

Boardwalk

There were people on the trail, but it wasn’t crazy. I passed the lower falls, then the upper falls, then kept hiking. At that point, I lost about 90% of the people on the trail. The refreshing solitude was all the motivation I needed to continue. Climbing away from the river and through the dark woods, I suddenly felt alone. “Hey birds!” I’d say somewhat to myself and somewhat to the imaginary bears in the trees. I remembered that I was in bear country and I put my hand on my can of bear spray to remind me it was there. But it wouldn’t be too long before I heard voices behind me and I relaxed.

The woods were serene, peaceful and beautiful. Everything was lush and green. Just as I was getting really wiped out from all the uphill climbing (with no poles, this would be a casual hike, I thought!), I checked the map. Downhill to the geologic feature ahead called the “Inkpots.” At that point, I decided I’d go the whole way.

Peek-a-boo

Just before emerging from the thick trees, I got a peek-a-boo preview of the mountains to come. Then, out of nowhere, I arrived. The Inkpots are spring-fed pools with wildly different colors, an illusion created by the type and amount of suspended sediments in the water. Green and rusty yellow meadows filled the spaces between the brilliantly colored pools. The whole scene was surrounded by a ring of craggy mountains. Idyllic, to say the least.

I chose a bench overlooking the pools and started painting. In my bleary state this morning, I’d forgotten to throw my snacks in my backpack so I had nothing to eat but a hard candy that’s lived in my bag for over a year. I focused on trying to capture the landscape in front of me. I got the perspective and scale all wrong, but I did my best to get some of the colors right. Just as I started to paint, I felt sprinkles coming down from the thick layer of clouds. Not again! I pushed through and the sky relented, even offering up a few sunt breaks between gray masses of moisture.

Inkpot

With my painting complete and my nature time achieved for the day, I hurried out of there. All I could think about was making myself a nice lunch when I got back to the van. The crowds swelled as I got closer and closer to the trailhead. I held on really tightly to the memories of quiet woods just a couple hours before. As I pushed myself through the last throng of people, I burst out into the parking lot and collapsed into the van. I don’t remember what I had for lunch, but it was probably the best lunch I’d ever had.

I’ve either deliberately or accidentally not packed snacks for what I thought would be a “quick” hike a few times now on this trip. Never again. I’ve learned about how strongly I’m pulled into longer adventures than planned, and that I should always have something to eat to quell the hanger that grows so quickly. At least I brought plenty of water!

Upper Kananaskis Lake

June 1, 2024.

8.3 mi. | 1085′ ele. gain | 5 hr.

Photo album

We stopped into a visitor center the day before this hike to get information on the Kananaskis parking pass (which we needed for both camping and hiking in this area) and to ask for hike recommendations in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Clearly, it was still the shoulder season for visiting, so I wanted to find a trail that would not be inundated with snow. The folks working at the center were extremely friendly and knowledgeable. One of many of the hikes they circled on the map was this one. Based on how lousy I was feeling from being sick, I knew I needed a hike without a steep elevation gain and this fit the bill.

Just to be certain, we stopped into yet another visitor center the morning of the hike. When we inquired about our plans, the volunteer behind the desk could barely contain his excitement: “I just hiked that one yesterday!” He continued to let us know that the south side of the lake was still buried in snow, so we should plan to do an out-and-back on the other side. We had a well-informed strategy!

As soon as we stepped out of the van, we were in for some big, mountain views. Snow-capped peaks towered over the enormous lake, which just seems par for the course in the Canadian Rockies. I wasn’t complaining. Aaron managed to find another beautiful fairyslipper as we slowly walked up the trail, but the forest was mostly still in its winter slumber. I prepared myself for a views and birdsong day instead of a wildflower one.

Fairyslipper

The trail hugged the lakeshore for the first two miles. There were some gentle ups and downs. The view changed slightly as we traced the edge of the lake. I made a note of the spot I’d want to come back and do some painting. There, some Canada geese were patrolling a shallow wetland between the main body of the lake and the trail.

When we reached the narrow strip of land separating the upper and lower lakes, we paused to admire the view. More water, more mountains, more ohmygosh can you believe this is real?

We turned to head west at the top of the lake, passing a huge warning sign above a heavily overgrown trail. It warned us that the trail crosses prime grizzly habit, and they’d prefer it if you’d like, not use it. Message received, I thought, as I paused to look down at my bear spray. We began talking loudly again.

Soon after, we came to a trail junction and decided to take the upper trail. I thought we could make the tiniest of loops by following this trail slightly up into the woods and then returning on the parallel trail just below it. Based on the map, I could not imagine there would be much difference between the two, but I was about to be proven wrong.

All the elevation gain came during this section, and by all of it I mean about 300′. It just felt like it came out of nowhere. We slowed down to catch our breath. But then we slowed down for another reason; the most spectacular mountain came into view. The dense woods opened up to a huge talus field. Above it, a huge tilted face climbed into the sky. “That looks so fun to climb!” I thought. Sheer rock faces at various heights and angles filled my field of vision. It was not only spectacular in and of itself, it was also such a dramatic shift from what we’d been looking at during the hike. I pulled out my phone to learn the name of that peak: Mt. Indefatigable.

Mt. Indefatigable

At the next trail junction, we decided to rest, snack and sketch. I chose a cool squiggly tree for my subject while Aaron dove into his book. I’m having so much fun with my daily ink sketching practice and it’s a bonus when I get to do my sketch out in nature!

On the other side of our mini-loop, we had to cross more talus and scree. In the rocks, I was delighted to discover some hardy vegetation, including (probably) a sedum and a draba. It wasn’t much, but at this time of year, you get what you get. We rejoined the main trail and hiked to the painting spot I identified earlier. We layered up and sat down for our final break. Not long after I began adding paint to my sketch, it started to drizzle. I worked as fast as I could to cover the page, but I didn’t get to “complete” my painting as I’d envisioned it. Regardless, we had to pack up and hike out. I got some fun effects from the raindrops hitting wet paint, but it otherwise looked childish over all. I determined to finish it later, but we all know that won’t happen!

I am happy with myself for choosing a hike that I knew would match my energy level. Even this felt like a bit of a push for me today. However, the views were amazing, I did two pieces of art and I laid eyes on that majestic Mt. Indefatigable.

But the highlight of the day came much later, on our drive back to the campground. As we drove north on highway 40, we noticed the car in front of us slowing to a stop. At this point in our travels, we knew what that meant: wildlife ahead. I turned to the right and there it was: a grizzly bear! The bear was totally into munching on dandelions, so much so that it hardly lifted its head. We pulled off the road, put our hazards on and watched the bear for a few minutes. It was so close and so in its element. What a treat!

Grizzly bear

Waterton Lakes National Park

May 26-29, 2024.

Photo album

I first learned about Waterton Lakes National Park back in 2019, when I was beginning to plan a trip to Glacier in the summer of 2020. We all know what happened that year, so Waterton remained on the back burner until now. It felt weird to book a campsite in a town inside a National Park, but this appeared to be our best option. I signed up for an account at Parks Canada, checked the calendar and typed in the number of the debit card I specifically ordered that has no foreign transaction fees. We were set!

Townsite

Our drive from Glacier across the Canadian Border was smooth sailing. No lines, no inspections, just a few questions plus our passports and we passed through. Soon, we arrived at the entrance to Waterton National Park, purchased an annual parks pass and headed into town. I’d read about the wind here, and as soon as I stepped out the van door, confirmed the rumors. I zipped up my coat all the way and we walked around the waterfront to get oriented. Since we were a little early to check into our campsite, we picked up lunch at a cafe, grabbed coffee and wandered through a few gift shops.

On first glance, our campground seemed pretty bleak. It was your typical RV park with angled parking slots lined up one after another, with just a little grass and a few small trees scattered about. But once we settled in, I realized it was actually pleasant. I enjoyed watching the flurry of ground squirrel activity as they ran about the lawn.

Bear’s Hump

We decided to hike from our campsite to the Bear’s Hump trailhead for our first excursion in the park. That added a short, relatively flat warm-up mile before the steep climb. As soon as we reached the parking area, we got our poles out in preparation for the 700′ of vertical in less than a mile. Since this is a very popular hike, I was glad that we’d waited until after dinner to start walking. The lot was almost empty.

Bear’s Hump as seen from the Townsite

As we huffed and puffed up each switchback, I took time to enjoy all the lovely Canadian wildflowers: paintbrush, clematis, baneberry, Canada violet and more. Each time we visit a new place I am excited to see some familiar plants while also searching for new ones.

As we came around the final turn up to the summit area, we were thoroughly blasted with wind. “And you thought it was windy at the lake?” the mountain seemed to say. We placed our bags carefully beneath the benches atop the rock outcrop and braced ourselves against the wind to take some photos. It was breathtakingly beautiful looking down at the lakeside campground, surrounded by mountain peaks. It was definitely worth the effort and weather to get up there!

Townsite as seen from the Bear’s Hump

We casually walked back and returned to the van well before sunset, despite having started at 7 pm. It’s so great to have this much daylight for playing outside and being able to start walking right from camp.

Red Rock Canyon and Goat Lake

Our trip to Waterton was a little early for many of the classic hikes due to snow in the upper mountains. But based on our conversations with the ranger, we thought we’d give Goat Lake a try. The hike begins from the Red Rock Canyon area, which is also a destination of a scenic drive. However the hike turned out, I knew we’d have a great day.

Red Rock Canyon

We arrived to a parking area that was buzzing with activity. We geared up for our hike and decided to immediately do a short detour along the Red Rock Canyon Loop, a paved trail around the aptly named little canyon. The rock was very beautiful, as was the plethora of wildflowers all around. Many others were there enjoying the canyon, so I was a little itchy to start hiking up the trail.

As soon as we veered off to hike towards Goat Lake, we were stuck behind a group of birders excitedly pointing their binoculars up to the trees. As we sneaked past them, I listened closely to figure out what the hubbub was about. A western tanager. We got some distance up the trail, then stopped, looked and listened. There! He was the first of many birds today.

The trail follows an old fire road through some gentle ups and downs and a couple of creek crossings. We learned that the entire area had burned in a 2017 fire that impacted 80% of the park! We looked through the charred remains of tree trunks for evidence of bears, elk or any other large animals but never found anything more notable than our tanager.

Huge mountains with sheer rock faces created a horizon line far above the treetops. It was a stark, beautiful landscape. Once we left the birders behind, we didn’t encounter anyone else heading up the trail. There was peace in this solitude.

Meadow-rue

We reached the junction with Goat Lake Trail and immediately began hiking uphill. We tried to pace ourselves as the trail climbed relentlessly. The grade seemed to get steeper and steeper as we went. Along the way I found many wildflowers that had taken root after the burn: blue-eyed Mary, clematis, pasqueflower, meadow-rue, avalanche lily. As the trail traversed the upper slopes, we crossed a few small snowfields that, if they’d have been any bigger, would have caused us to turn around. The consequences of slipping would have been a fast ride to the bottom of the canyon.

Steep hillside and waterfall

Snow completely filled the lake basin and the trail just beneath it. We stepped in other people’s postholes that we’d hoped were on route. Just as we were feeling like turning around, we spied the partly-frozen-over lake. I scouted out a dry patch for us to sit down and recover a bit before the hike down.

Not much of a lake

There were no goats at the lake, but Aaron spotted a few sheep above the trail just after leaving our resting spot. Once we got back to the fire road, we started seeing lots of hikers who had finally made their way up the trail. I was glad we didn’t have to pass or be passed while we were on the steep, exposed trail near the lake!

I can imagine this trail is a real stunner once the wildflowers peak in the bloom. But it also must be devastatingly hot at that time. You get what you get, I guess?

Cameron Falls

With not much time left to explore the park, we fit in one more short walk to Cameron Falls. But first, ice cream. The best park about camping in a town is ready access to all the amenities, so why not stop for an ice cream cone first? We stopped at Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlor, then walked at a casual pace to Cameron Falls. It’s literally right in town, so there’s no need to drive. We walked to the viewing area at the top of the falls, then back down to the bottom. The thick, gray clouds in the sky threatened to rain on our parade, so we didn’t linger too long. We looped back to camp through a park and giggled at the ground squirrels the whole way back. It was a great way to wrap up a day.

Cameron Falls

Highlights

I loved Waterton Lakes National Park. In the exit survey I completed for Parks Canada, I gave it high praise. But I noticed that most of the questionnaire revolved around how I felt about overcrowding and finding parking. Since there were barely any crowds on this visit, I wonder how crazy it gets during peak season. I am grateful that I got to experience this park without a glut of visitors. While I am sure you can access more hiking and see more wildflower meadows later in the season, that comes with the pressure of being surrounded by mobs of tourists. Honestly, I’d rather see it off-season.

That being said, I would be interested in going back during the peak of the summer, but perhaps with a backpacking route in mind. My hunger to see all the flowers must be balanced with my deep need for solitude. I felt great about all the times I had to myself on this visit, including the painting session I sneaked in during a gloriously non-windy weather window one morning.

On our very last day, we parked near the hotel so Aaron could work and while we were there, a black bear super casually strode across the parking lot. He waved his hands and pointed so I just caught a glimpse of the bear as it disappeared over a hill. It was exciting to get an animal sighting as our parting gift from Waterton.

Glacier National Park adventures

May 22-26, 2024.

Photo album

Arriving at the park

It was not my intention to visit a national park on Memorial Day Weekend. It never has been, and never will be. However, our route itinerary just happened to put us at Glacier National Park for this time frame, and I racked my brain to figure out how to make the most of our visit. If you’re not interested in trip planning, skip to the next section.

I was still sick; I’d been sick for the last couple weeks. All I wanted to do was sleep. But I spent a bunch of time looking up camping options and untangling the complicated reservation windows, driving distances, park closures and all the other annoying logistics that comes with camping at a national park. It’s hard to believe people do this for fun for their one vacation of the year.

I knew that the east side of the park was less popular, so we put ourselves in position to arrive on that side. I also knew that camping was available at St. Mary Campground (the ONE option) by reservation only starting May 24. We planned to be there from May 21-26. So that was a problem.

I found out that the sites are first-come-first-serve before the reservation window. But there was no way to tell how busy this campground would be before we arrived. And after talking with two rangers (and then just figuring it out on the confusing website on my own), while the reservable sites appeared to be completely booked, I learned that a number of reservable sites are released a few days ahead of time. I set a calendar appointment on my phone to remind me to go online the instant they were released. Then I snagged a site for the dates I needed.

Last obstacle: I just had to hope there was an open campsite when we rolled into Glacier well after dark, after driving several hours. We pulled into the campground, saw site #1 was open, parked and breathed a huge sigh of relief. We’d made it.

Welcome to bear country

Despite having hiked over ten thousand miles in the course of this lifetime (no, really, I have a spreadsheet), I’d never really spent time in bear country. Thus, leading up to this trip, I did a ton of reading about the subject. I’d listened to podcasts with experts on bear behavior. I’d learned from stories of survivors of bear attacks. I knew a few general principles of travel in bear country, but now it was time to put the knowledge into practice. Here’s official guidance from the NPS, if you’re interested in learning more.

When I got up the next morning and saw snow-capped mountains towering above me, I knew I needed to go for a walk. I still felt very sick and unmotivated. However, I couldn’t sleep forever. I decided to walk from the campground to the visitor center on a little connector trail and then see how much energy I had.

Hiking solo is not recommended in bear country, but I thought since I would be in the main area and not off in thick, brushy forest I’d be okay. Nonetheless, I made a few bear-aware choices: I carried bear spray on my hip belt and I made noise while hiking.

I thought the latter would be a challenge. I generally like quiet when I’m hiking because I listen for birds and other animal sounds. How else would you enjoy the trickle of a stream or the rustling of aspen leaves? But I found out that I normally do make noise when I’m hiking. Naturally, I talk to the birds, chatter at the squirrels and squeal when I find a new flower. I didn’t know I’d carried bear repellent all along.

Going-to-the-Sun Road by bike

Feeling a little better the next day, and knowing this trip would blow by really fast, I decided to take a bike ride up the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. The road was closed 13 miles ahead, which gave me plenty of miles to explore.

I only had a couple hours anyway, so I filled up my water bottle, packed an extra layer, put on my helmet and started pedaling.

Immediately, the mountains captivated me. I was lucky that there were not many cars out early in the morning, so I could ride comfortably in the road without fear of being hit. In fact, the vehicles that shared the road with me were all extremely bike-aware and gave me plenty of room while passing, which I appreciated. People generally drove at slow speeds and I even had a car sit patiently behind me as I climbed up a hill with a blind corner and waited for a safe opportunity to pass. I never felt pressured to get out of the way and had a really positive experience on this ride. This is rare and notable to me.

As I rode up the road, mouth open and eyes wide, I tried to see and feel everything. I stopped to gawk at this patch of wildflowers. I veered into a pullout to see the sweeping overlook above a gigantic lake. Then, I pedaled faster to see what was around the next corner. Everywhere I looked was a new kind of magic. I texted Aaron, “I’ll turn around soon to make you lunch!” If I hadn’t had that chore to do, I would have gone all the way to the road closure.

Since I hadn’t planned on riding so far, I had no food with me. I never do that! I sucked on a throat lozenge, one of two that I packed for the ride. As I coasted into my final pullout, I layered on a wind jacket for the ride down. I hoped the slight decline would help me get back to the campground in less time than it took me to get here.

What I didn’t realize is how much I climbed on the way up the road. Gravity eased my decent back to the van; at times I felt like I was flying. Please note that I’m a climber: I enjoy going uphill in all things, whether its on foot, on skis or on a bike. And I don’t like speed. So it was an exhilarating return ride. I stopped to savor that second throat lozenge and continued all the way back in time for lunch. My only regret was that Aaron didn’t get to see the scenery, which we remedied later that day.

Going-to-the-Sun Road by van

After work, I told Aaron he must see this road. And in the van, we could go all the way to the closure. We took an evening drive through somewhat finicky and tumultuous weather. We made several stops, including a few brief walks to get a closer look at the flowers, water features and mountainscapes.

My favorite stop was the Sun Point Nature Trail, where we saw a ton of flowers, including a variety of fairyslipper that doesn’t grow in Oregon. Despite seeing many thousands of these flowers in the past, I was overjoyed to see the unfamiliar yellow throat of this cute little guy. We also saw one sheep, learning that they like to come down to the road for the salt. It was odd to find him vigorously licking at the road stripe when he had this whole majestic landscape in which to roam.

Grinnell Glacier Trail hike

After taking a full rest day, we took the park ranger’s advice and drove to the Many Glacier area to hike the Grinnell Glacier Trail. She warned us that it would be closed by snow at some point so we could not complete the hike to the upper lake. But, since I was still feeling under the weather and the clouds looked ominous for the day, I’d be happy with any distance of walk we could do.

In fear of Memorial Day crowds, we left camp early to grab a parking spot at the trailhead and made breakfast there. By 8:30 am, we hit the trail.

Loaded up with bear spray, art supplies and plenty of food, we began our hike on the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail. Later in the summer, boat shuttles schlep hikers across two large lakes adjacent to the trail, shaving about 4.5 miles off their round trip distance to the lake. Without that luxury, we walked along the scenic lakes. Considering I would have greatly preferred being curled up in bed all day, this was a great option.

The trail was lined with flowers. Birds sung complicated songs all around us. Using Merlin as our helper, we identified Pacific Wren, Wilson’s warbler, Townsend’s warbler, Northern waterthrush, fox sparrow, song sparrow, yellow warbler and golden-crowned kinglet! We also saw some birds in the lake: Barrow’s goldeneye and common merganser.

A few other hikers passed us on their way up the trail. We took our time, stopping several times for rest breaks, especially on the steeper sections. If I’d been in full health, this trail would have felt a lot easier. But I honored what my body needed that day and dialed it way back.

We ended up going further than I anticipated: all the way to the snow closure. This had become the theme of Glacier National Park! The landscape compelled me to do more than I wanted to do at the start. I knew I had only so much time here and I wanted to make the most of it.

And it was a legitimate snow closure. The trail disappeared under deep, wet snow just before traversing a steep hills with high-consequence drop-offs. Even with no illness, traction and an ice axe I would not have continued on this route. We stopped for a quick snack break as now the clouds were spitting rain and it was getting miserable up there.

On the hike back, we passed many more people. By the time we returned to the van, the lot was full. Our bodies felt cold and damp, so we changed into warm clothes, made lunch and cocoa, and relaxed in the comfort of the van for the rest of the afternoon.

Becoming a Junior Ranger

As soon as the visitor center opened, we picked up a copy of the Glacier National Park Junior Ranger booklet. All you have to do is ask someone there. Over the course of our visit, we did the activities in the book. Some involved answering questions about the park, others required some coloring or drawing and all of them had elements of fun and discovery. We brought our completed booklet back to the visitor center on the way out of the park. The ranger on staff that morning asked us a few questions about our work in the book and then swore us in as “Junior Rangers.” Although the booklets are designed for children middle school age and younger, we have found the activities to be enjoyable, too. They also encourage us to pay attention to things that we otherwise would have skipped.

I’ve done a few of these books at other parks too, including Saguaro National Park and Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas. They’re extra fun to do with friends or family instead of on your own. At Saguaro, two friends and I collaborated on inventing a desert animal and writing park-inspired poetry, for example. If you naturally don’t connect with your creative side (believe it or not, you have one) or child-like wonder, these books facilitate both of those things.

I’m so glad we visited Glacier National Park in the shoulder season and on the less busy side. I’d still like to return in the summer to see the high country, even if that means more planning and likely backcountry camping permits. This is a really special place.

Lewis and Clark Caverns

May 19-20, 2024.

lewis and clark caverns

Photo album

Caves

I was excited to explore a new cave. We arrived in the morning to secure a campsite and pick up tickets for a cave tour at Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana. Still feeling pretty run down from my latest illness, I was not excited about the hike *to* the cave. But, I survived the three quarters of a mile uphill to the opening, being the first to arrive. We enjoyed scenic views of the moody mountains, with threatening gray clouds slipping between the distant ridgelines.

Views on the way to the caverns

Our enthusiastic tour guide gave us a comprehensive history of the cave and its previous caretakers before heading inside. She casually slipped in several local references that went way over our heads. I wonder how many of the people in the tour group picked up on anything related to this remote area. Still, I enjoyed her charisma and extensive knowledge of all things related to the park.

We stepped inside the cave, staying to the back of the group. I looked in awe at the many cave formations. The tour guide’s description of the geology faded into the background, as I had seen these things before. But every cave is a little different. This one had a small cluster of bats clinging to the ceiling right new the entrance! In most parks I’d visited before, they close the cave passageways that contain bats. Not here!

Turquoise pool in the caverns

For the next hour or so, we wandered through room after room of new shapes, colors and features. At one point we had to slide down a passage on our butts. Other portions of the cave had staircases and other built features to allow people to travel through it safely. At the end of the tour, we had a straight, flat walk back to where we started. I calculated before today’s outing that I’d hit the 10,000 lifetime hiking miles mark, so we stopped for a quick photo op before finishing up. Ten THOUSAND miles. That feels like a lot. I was a little annoyed that I didn’t reach this milepost on some ridiculously epic adventure. But then I reminded myself that every opportunity to get outside and walk is a joy and a privilege, and why not cross off that goal in this stunning landscape after an interesting and educational tour?!

10,000 lifetime miles hiked.

By the time we returned to the visitor center, I was wiped. Luckily, there was a small cafe attached to the gift shop, where we dug into bison burgers, chicken fingers, fries and a local huckleberry soda.

Wildflowers

Against my better judgment, I decided to go on a second hike along the nature trail. It would be easy, of course, in my normal state. But my body was still pretty angry as it fought off whatever bug decided to ruin my trip. Knowing this would be my last chance to hike this trail before leaving, we went for it anyway.

The forecasted rain still hadn’t come, so we enjoyed a partly cloudy walk at a casual pace. Along the way, I found what I’d been looking for: fairybells, buttercup, shooting star, balsamroot and yellow corydalis, among other things. No bitterroot, but I knew that would be a long shot. No bears either, another long shot.

Yellow corydalis! A new one for me.

When I worked on my Hike366 project, I learned that every hike counts, no matter how long or short, fast or slow. This really helped me savor every step of today’s short and mellow hikes in the cave and on the nature trail. I’ve also come to learn in the past few years that the slower you walk, the more things you SEE! I’m enjoying my time spent learning about all the wildflowers and being able to identify them as I hike. Even when I’m in excellent help, this curiosity about the natural world ends up slowing me down. Why rush when you’re surrounded by so much cool stuff, anyways?

And then, art

Later that evening, I completed my first ink sketching class in a series of five. I also did my first practice sketch in a 30-day sketching challenge. It felt so good to be working in black and white, and I can already tell that I’m beginning a love affair with the ink brush. I’m so interested to see what I learn and where this new tool takes me.

Ink sketching, day 1

Pueblo, Colorado

April 26-28, 2024.

Photo album

I hadn’t originally planned to spend so much time in Colorado, but several events converged that required us to be within spitting distance of Denver. But it’s expensive to stay there and there are hardly any camping options nearby. Plus, the weather started looking really bad in the area. I looked at the forecast, then opened my Boondocker’s Welcome map to see if anything looked good.

The storms seemed less severe in southern Colorado and there was a host available in Pueblo. I scored a spot there for two nights then desperately began researching what Pueblo, Colorado is all about. It turns out that the city regards their chili peppers as superior to Hatch chiles. That was something to test in real life. Then, I found a bunch of volunteer events for the Great American Clean Up and registered us for trash pickup duty. The weekend was coming together!

We checked in with our hosts, who were very friendly and eager to get us oriented to Pueblo. I was just happy with a quiet, free place to park just on the outskirts of a town.

Thunderstruck

Thunder and lightning reigned all night and into the morning. I emailed the volunteer coordinator to see what would happen to our event. She replied that they had rescheduled the cleanup for the next day, but the afterparty was still happening, so come on by!

We killed some time that morning with a visit to the El Pueblo History Museum. There, we learned about the town’s location being on an old borderland with the same clashes and history of places like southern Arizona. It was/is a place where indigenous Mexicans, immigrants from Europe and people moving west from the relatively new United States all found themselves living in the same place. Violence and oppression rooted in concepts like manifest destiny and colonialism characterized the climate of this region. Being completely unfamiliar with this area, I entered this museum not at all expecting to learn about border conflict. So I was glad we had the time to check it out and fill in more gaps in my historical knowledge.

With another hour or so until party time, we decided to take a stroll on the downtown riverwalk. There we enjoyed interpretive signs about the river system as well as stunning bronze sculptures. I could have sat and looked at the woman with a star quilt sculpture for the whole day without getting bored. Perhaps another day.

The connector

At last we arrived at Walter’s Brewery, another famous institution I’d never heard of, for our not-so-hard-earned pizza and beer. There we met the volunteer coordinator, Susan, who we quickly learned is one of Pueblo’s main connectors. She knows everyone and is involved in everything. As we sat and chatted over pizza, we became fast friends and she adopted us for the rest of the day. Susan drove us to see some of the huge murals painted on the levee that runs through town. She got us into a part of the Pueblo Film Festival (for free) so we could see a few Pueblo chili-focused films. Then, we all went out to dinner at the Cactus Flower so we could try Pueblo’s famous dish, the SLOPPER (it has its own Wikipedia entry)!

What is a slopper? It’s a cheeseburger, smothered in green chili (which usually contains pork) topped with chopped onions, lettuce and tomato. It’s served on top of the bun, open-faced. There are many variations from restaurant to restaurant, but this seems to cover most of the important points. I was really anticipating this after watching the movie about sloppers and it totally lived up to my expectations! The chili on top was to die for, I could have eaten that straight out of a bowl for a week without getting sick of it. The combination of the whole meal worked incredibly well. And I had lots of leftovers to stretch out my slopper into a second meal!

With full bellies, we returned to our van and thanked Susan for an exceptionally full and fun day.

Bike tour

The next morning, we decided we wanted to spend more time along the river looking at the murals. And what better way to explore a long, flat, paved path than by bike! We parked at Runyon Lake, the location for our trash pickup later that day, and saddled up. Under blue skies, we started pedaling towards the levee. The sun felt wonderfully warm as we rode along the bike path. We stopped several times to read the signs, examine the beautiful art and enjoy this lovely day. After a couple of miles, we turned back, circled the edge of the lake and returned to the van. All in all, we got a nice six-mile bike ride in with plenty of time for lunch and a nap before volunteering began.

Trash pick up

We helped Susan unload supplies from her truck. Then, armed with trash grabbers, trash bags and plastic buckets we started walking the perimeter of the lake. It didn’t take much work to find garbage because it was everywhere. I couldn’t believe how many people were sitting at the lake’s edge, fishing and hanging out with their families, completely ignoring the trash they were surrounded by (and in many cases, contributing to). There were cups, plastic wrappers, beer cans, fishing line, straws, toys, water bottles, you name it. The trash mostly accumulated along the lake’s edge but there was plenty up on land as well. The whole time we spent filling our trash bags, I thought, what if every family spent 10 minutes on trash pickup each time they came here? The place would be spotless!

I left feeling a bit discouraged and hopeless but I was glad to have made some positive impact. I tried to refocus my energy: on all the volunteers who showed up, on Susan, who easily wrangled in new volunteers from people just passing by, from the park staff person who was so eager and happy to support our work.

One more stop

We said goodbye to the clean up crew, gave Susan a big hug and hit the road. On the way back to Denver, we stopped at Fountain Creek Regional Park. At the pizza party the day before, we’d learned all about Fountain Creek from a guy who just wrote a book about it. So, I wanted to see it in person. This park was absolutely beautiful with trails, mountain views and lots of water. Many folks were out and about enjoying the sports fields, picnic areas and walking routes. I picked a trail and started walking. Eventually my exploration led me to the Cattail Marsh Wildlife Area, which was off limits to dogs, bikes and horses. This meant it was mostly devoid of people too, perfect.

As the sun sank lower into the sky, I slowly walked from interpretive sign to interpretive sign. A few straggling photographers also wandered the wildlife area. We leapfrogged each other a few times, then one woman stopped me to ask: have you ever seen an owl’s nest before?

No, I replied, and she pointed up. I expected to see a big pile of sticks, but what I saw were two huge floofy owlets!!! I could barely contain my excitement. We shared a few minutes together, watching the owls in awe. I asked her so many questions. Apparently she hikes the area somewhat regularly and learned of the nest from another visitor. I do miss having a “regular” park to go hiking, since you really get to know a place that way. I’m a perpetual out-of-towner now. But that has its benefits too, as everything is new and interesting. We parted ways and I finished the trail. Then I quickly texted Aaron to see if he wanted to visit the owls, too. Of course he did and we hiked back together juts before sunset.

What a magical visit to this previously unknown-to-me part of Colorado. I truly enjoy these spontaneous and serendipitous explorations of new places. America is vast and diverse and there is so much to learn here. And in general, people are quite eager to share their love of their home.

Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area

April 22-24, 2024.

Photo album

I dropped Aaron off at the Denver Airport early in the morning. While he attended a work trip for a few days, I gallivanted off to Nebraska. My first stop: Panorama Point, the highpoint of Nebraska. This was not a hike; I drove on back highways and long gravel roads for a awhile to an entry to a private bison ranch. I dropped my $3 entrance fee in the box and finished the drive to the parking area.

Since leaving Oregon nearly a year ago, I’ve visited the summits of three state highpoints: Black Mesa (OK), Taum Sauk (MO) and Mt. Sunflower (KS). While I was way out in the middle of the country, I figured I may as well grab Nebraska’s highpoint. I might not be in spitting distance anytime soon. Now I’ve got nine peaks out of 50, which is not much to write home about, but I’m much closer to completing the list than I was last year!

Flora and fauna

By the time I arrived at the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, I was so sick of driving. I booked a campsite for the next two nights and settled in. My spot had a couple of trees perfect for setting up a hammock, so that’s the first thing I did. Looking up from my relaxing perch, I noticed quite a bit of bird activity. I spent the afternoon switching between reading, napping and birdwatching. I noticed a pair of mountain bluebirds gathering up nesting material and bringing it to their hole in a snag near my hammock trees. Then I observed as a pair of finches flew in and out of their nesting site in a jumble of mistletoe right over my head. And on the ground, several chipping sparrows bobbed their cute little red heads up and down searching for snacks.

I had spent so much time on the go lately that I didn’t even know how much I was craving this down time. My body melted into the hammock in a way that was so soothing and natural. Tomorrow, I thought, I’d gather myself up to explore.

The next morning, I set off on a nature walk. Well, after coffee in the hammock, of course. Along the way, I met many birds: mountain chickadees, pine siskins, red breasted nuthatches and even a turkey. I searched relentlessly for cactus flowers. While I never found a single one, I did make a wonderful discovery: SAND LILIES! I was very excited to see them, since they are one of my favorite Central Oregon wildflowers. I love how I get to visit the Oregon natives even while out of the state.

Much to my surprise, I was also delighted to see dandelions because of what else was attracted to them: bees and butterflies. I spent quite a bit of time crouched down in a squat watching them gather pollen and nectar.

Having no agenda

The best part of my day was not having to move the van. I really embraced having so much downtime with nowhere to be, no reason to be productive and no one to answer to. Aaron is an extremely easy person to live with, but things just feel different when I’m totally on my own. I found out today that he bumped his flight back out one day so he could visit with a friend in the Portland area. Great, I thought, I just got another day to enjoy having no agenda. The Wildcat Hills, kind of a bleh place that’s managed primarily for hunters, ended up being a decent spot to see wildlife and flowers while mostly relaxing under shade trees (did I mention it was HOT).

It’s important in life in general, but also while doing long-term travel, to have some days as nothing days. As a recovering Type-A planner, this is a lesson that I’ll likely need to learn a few more times before it truly sticks. But, it’s becoming easier the longer we spend on the road to go with the flow and not try to jam-pack every day with activities and/or driving. A relaxing hammock day is just as valuable, and necessary, as a double-digit hike day or long drive to some epic destination.

Ozark Trail to Taum Sauk Mt

April 11, 2024.

20 mi. | 2850′ ele. gain | 10 hr.

Scour TH > Ozark Tr > Taum Sauk Mt > Hwy 21 TH

On the way to Taum Sauk Mountain

Photo album

When I realized we’d be in the general vicinity of the Missouri state highpoint, I dove into the research. Sadly, I found that you can drive to within a quarter mile of it. But…I learned that it is located off the Ozark Trail, which has multiple access points. I chose to get there via a long and scenic stretch of the trail with Aaron acting as my shuttle driver. I began my journey from the Scour trailhead located in Johnson’s Shut Ins State Park. I waved goodbye and set off into the forest.

It took me a while to settle into a rhythm, since I kept stopping to ogle unusual wildflowers that I was not used to seeing, like the bright red petals of the fire pink and some alien-looking trillium flowers. The forest was still waking up from its winter slumber, so much of my surroundings were damp leaves, barren deciduous trees and slimy rock. The area had gotten an incredible amount of water lately, so everything was overflowing. I was glad I decided to start the hike in my Bedrock sandals.

In the first five miles, I slipped and fell twice. That doesn’t count the innumerable times I wobbled, slid or otherwise lost my footing but did not smack the ground. The trail in these conditions were pretty treacherous despite having the right footwear and hiking poles. This seemingly chill Missouri trail was going to make me work for it.

There are no big peaks here, but the Ozark trail makes you feel like you’re in a rugged mountain range. The trail goes up, down, up, down, ad infinitum. And the surface of the trail never felt flat. Between the slippery leaves, rock boulders, gravel, roots and other obstacles, I had to watch every single step. Meanwhile, the birds were singing, the sun rays filtered through the barren trees and my smile grew and grew.

Many miles passed before I reached my first landmark: Devil’s Tollgate. Then, Mina Sauk Falls. This section of the trail was very beautiful and very, very wet. The trail felt like a stream and the stream felt like a river. I had to do a few wet crossings and I was again glad to have worn my sandals today.

Reaching the highpoint

Just before reaching the summit of Taum Sauk Mountain (a misnomer imo) I heard “peeppeeppeep” get louder and louder and louder. The sound became deafening. It was the loudest cacophony of spring peepers I’d ever heard! I ventured off trail a little bit to the pond in which they presumably had set up shop. But I never saw a single one of them. Frogs have such incredible camouflage; I often hear them and rarely see them.

I reached the paved trail leading to the plaque and summit register. I signed in, sat on the bench and ate a snack. It was 4:30 pm. I knew I still had about seven miles to go in order to meet Aaron at our pre-determined pickup location. Before setting out on this hike, I planned three possible hike lengths based on how I felt and how much I was enjoying the trail. I settled on the longest of the three because I was having such an amazing time! But as the sun started casting longer shadows and my poor feet began barking, I questioned my sanity for making that decision. Could I do it? Well, yeah, but should I?

What I’ve learned on this van trip is this: take the opportunities you have. So, I decided to stick with the plan and go for the long day. The weather was good, I had enough daylight, I had a supportive ride waiting for me who would change plans without question if I sent the signal. I reminded myself, “I can do hard things.”

And off I went. I continued watching my steps very carefully, as the trail tread was still very uneven and very wet. I passed a few people who were cheerfully coming up the trail with overnight packs on their backs, raising the number of humans I’d seen all day to ten. I walked by cool rocks and plants without stopping, because I was on a mission now. To make it out before dark.

Are we there yet?

With each step, my feet got crankier and crankier. Honestly, I was glad they had performed so well in sandals all day after not doing any long hikes in quite awhile. But eventually my long-ago broken left foot told me that enough it enough.

Within a mile from the trailhead, I stopped and put on my trail shoes that had been waiting their turn patiently on my backpack. This made an enormous difference and I picked up my pace as I finished the hike back to the van. Luckily, this part of the trail was not completely underwater, so I was able to keep my feet dry for the rest of the hike. When I reached the parking lot, I checked my mapping app: I had traveled 19.9 miles. I threw my pack on the ground and raced around the perimeter of the lot until the app clocked 20 miles!

I hope to come back to this area to hike more of the Ozark Trail and to see it later in the season when more flowers are blooming. I absolutely loved the landscapes, the rocks, creeks, flowers and solitude. When we planned our big road trip, Missouri was NOT on my mind. But now it is, and we’ll have to be sure to plan a return visit.

By that point, I was totally wiped out and ready for dinner. Aaron had scouted a nearby hotel restaurant that we could get to before closing. What a gem (both Aaron and the restaurant). I finished my long day with a burger and beer, then we rolled into a free campsite for the night.

Total solar eclipse 2024

April 8, 2024.

viewing the total solar eclipse
Not sunset.

Photo album

Since we foolishly missed the total solar eclipse that came within a few miles of our house in 2017, we began planning to catch the next one. This year’s eclipse crossed many US states, giving us an array of options to choose from. Aaron wanted to find a meet-in-the-middle type spot so we could camp out with his sister and nieces. They’d be coming from North Carolina. He did some weather and geographic research and landed on northern Arkansas.

Planning

From that point, it was up to me and his sister to find a place to camp. Of course, even several months in advance, it was nearly impossible to find a site that wasn’t totally booked and/or charging an outrageous rate. It’s unbelievable what some people will pay to camp. Not I! I checked all the apps, zoomed in and out on the map a bunch of times and ultimately found a private ranch listed on Hipcamp (never used it? Here’s $10) that had room for two camper vans. And it was only $25/night, which is less than what most state and national parks charge! I frantically texted with the owner of the site and then with Aaron’s sister so we could secure our spots. With that big hurdle out of the way, I just had to figure out how to get there.

If you’ve followed the rest of the road trip to this point, you’ll recall that from Oregon we crossed down into California and Nevada, meandered around the southwest and then made a beeline across the midwest. I gave us about two weeks to get from Albuquerque to our campsite on the border of Missouri and Arkansas. That way we had time to enjoy the ride.

Sheep everywhere

We arrived at the ranch, where large, enclosed plots held many sheep. It was lambing season, so there were tons of new babies about. Several more were born while we were there! The owner of the ranch, who ripped around in his four-wheeler wearing a shirt that said “Sheep daddy,” excitedly let us know when the new babies were being born. We delighted in watching the animals is various states of learning how to walk. Then, we stood dumfounded as we saw lambs who were just wobbling to their feet in the morning burst across the fields in a full run by the afternoon.

BABIES!

There were just a few errands to do in town before the main event. After breakfast, we drove in to the local grocery store for last minute supplies. Back at the ranch, we arranged our chairs, poured lemonade and got our eclipse glasses out. We were in position an hour before totality, when the moon was scheduled to begin passing in front of the sun.

Eclipse time

I remembered this part from the two partial eclipses we’d seen in the past. Every few minutes, we put on our glasses and look up. The sun slowly disappeared more and more each time. Within minutes of totality, the air got noticeably cooler and the light got…weird. It’s hard to explain. People describe a “360 degree sunset” but to me it didn’t feel like that at all. The sky doesn’t go to total darkness and the light is not like a normal sunset. I’m no photographer, so I didn’t attempt to capture these fleeting moments with any seriousness. I preferred to experience it and hold on to the memories that way. Truly, an eclipse is something you must experience in person. The pictures are cool but they don’t really paint an accurate picture of what it’s like to be there.

Staring at the sun.

That being said, when totality arrived I didn’t bother taking pictures. I knew we only had a precious 4 minutes to stare at the sun. It was a really surreal moment. I remember the quiet, the chill in the air, the not-quite-right sense of lighting. We all looked to the sky, noting the red blotches on the edge of the sun that turned out to be solar prominences, not solar flares like we’d assumed. It’s been well established that astronomy is my least favorite science so I’m not surprised that I didn’t know that!

Taken at 1:56 pm

In a flash (literally), the sun reappeared from behind the moon’s dark cloak. We rushed to get our glasses back on. In minutes, the light and temperature got back to normal and it was just an ordinary hot, summery afternoon. Later that day we made some crafts, played games and hung out. It was the first time we’d all gotten together in years, so we wanted to spend every minute enjoying the opportunity.

Aftermath

Early the next morning, Aaron’s sister and kiddos had to start the long drive back home. We said our goodbyes, then moved the van to Mammoth Spring State Park. While Aaron got back to work, I took a slow stroll around the water, where I found a ton of birds, a muskrat and the coolest water snakes. I saw the first one as it was swimming across the water’s surface, making a series of beautiful S curves with its long body. Later, along the lakeshore, I saw tiny heads bobbing above the water. I followed the heads below the water, where I saw vertical snake bodies receding into the depths (video)! These were the first water snakes I think I’d ever seen, and I delighted in watching them as they waited patiently for prey. Or, perhaps they were just breathing in the pleasant morning air.

Muskrat at Mammoth Spring

All in all, I think a total solar eclipse should be on everyone’s bucket list. I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to plan to see another one, only because my bucket list is already SO long :). But I couldn’t be happier with how this trip turned out. We got to see the phenomenon, with beautiful weather, on a quiet farm with people we love. We didn’t have to deal with high prices, bad traffic, stressful air travel, nasty weather or any of the other obstacles that plague lots of eclipse-chasers. I’m happy to put this experience in my back pocket and carry on exploring the world and finding new things to learn about.