RealImaginarySmokies Day 7 – Bald River Falls & the Road Home

After packing up at Indian Boundary Campground, we visited Indian Boundary Lake and Bald River Falls in Cherokee National Forest before heading back to I-75. After a stop in Knoxville, we continued north on I-75 across Tennessee and Kentucky to Cincinnati where we picked up I-71. It rained torrentially across much of Kentucky and Ohio before we finally made it home up in Cleveland just after midnight.

Windy Thoughts

I awoke at 4am at Indian Boundary Campground in Cherokee National Forest to a much higher temperature and the wind kicking up…ugh. It had to be at least 60°F, which made me downright uncomfortable until I shed the extra layers I was wearing.

But that wind—it was as if the sky would take a deep breath and then exhale it all in one big long push. The trees swooshed around, and each time I’d tighten up—expecting rain to fall and get our tent all wet just before we’d have to pack it up! I’d hear pattering on the roof of our tent, thinking they were giant raindrops…but they were just leaves. I knew the wind couldn’t be too strong though, because our tent wasn’t flapping like we’ve seen before (De Smet!)—but the pattern unnerved me nonetheless!

With every gust I held my breath, because I just knew we were gonna get it…and then nothing would happen. I wished that I could see a weather forecast or even just the radar…I thought that knowing what’s out there would help me calm down and relax. I kept thinking and working out the physics in my head…I didn’t hear any thunder or see any lightning or smell that ozone smell you get when it’s about to rain…maybe it was just the way wind currents and air pressure worked coming through the mountains? My mind kept racing in circles, so I finally decided to myself that this wind was not going to bring rain right now—it’s probably just a warm front moving through and we’ll be fine.

That wasn’t much solace though. My heart wanted to go along so I could go back to sleep, but every time I’d doze off, the wind would blow hard and wake me up. I started thinking about about how great it would be to sleep in my own bed tonight. Yeah! And I could have cell service, a hard roof over my head, and I wouldn’t feel so disconnected from the rest of the world and all the information I needed to go about my business. Ahhh…yes! It felt wonderful to think such thoughts!

So I decided right then…I was ready to go home. The anxiety of rain, cold, wind, mice, cutting wood, getting stuck with green wood to burn, finding a dishwashing station, not having a clean neat place for a shower…all of that would be gone if we were at home. Home is where my heart is now, so home is where we’ll go! No stop-overs at some other place tonight, just heading straight on home after maybe checking out this area a bit…after all, we were by a lake and among mountains I had not yet seen, no need to waste that. So go see stuff, then drive home. Yeah! It’ll be great!

So when it was light and Becky woke up, we talked about packing up and heading home. She was cool with going back a day earlier than we had to. I know her face still bothered her and made it more difficult for her to enjoy herself. I told her we were only about eight or nine hours from home, but she seemed skeptical. I would have pulled up Google Maps and showed her, but well…you know.

Panos, Wind & Fire

So before we got started on packing up everything inside the tent, I set up my pano rig to get a shot of our campsite with our super-dirty car. We still hadn’t had a drop of rain, but the wind was still blowing and whipping all the trees around, wrecking my shot. I kept running over whenever the wind would die down, but the lulls would never last long enough to shoot all the way around. I eventually gave up and devoted all my energy to cooking some breakfast.

I chopped down some logs to make kindling and got a fire going…sort of. Every time I thought I had it burning, it would die down until it just pathetically smoldered. We got one round of eggs cooked, but for the second round I had to chop up a lot more kindling to get things hot enough again. I had thrown every log but one into that so-called fire and this wood simply refused to burn. I swear that the best way to extinguish any well-burning fire would have been to throw this wood into it! It was the worst firewood we’ve had all year long!!! The label said it was kiln-dried, but I had to wonder if they ever bothered to heat up the kiln…

In the midst of the firewood fighting my fire, the wind died down and just stayed that way. Weird! Thankfully I’d left my pano rig set up, so I ran back over and I think I finally got my shot. At last I can take down the tent!

360-degree panorama of Site 3 in Indian Boundary Campground in Cherokee National Forest. Click and drag to look around. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

A Final Farewell

So with breakfast eaten and our car all packed, there was only one thing left to do. This was the ceremonial burning of our fire-handling logs. They had been pretty good to me, and we’d used them all week. We didn’t do anything crazy…I just rearranged the smoldering wood so I could throw the logs down on top. In my mind, I thought it should be like they were Darth Vader burning on the pyre at the end of Return of the Jedi. Becky and I said nice things about the logs, told them they were good, and watched them burn.

And what a contrast! A minute or two later, the whole thing came to life because of these two little logs…we had a real campfire again! We knew this was too good to waste, so we considered roasting the last of our hot dogs. However, neither of us wanted to dig to the bottom of the car where we’d buried the hot dog skewer…so we said never mind.

Then Becky broke a stick off of a downed limb nearby and fashioned it into a hot dog skewer with her knife…and voila! Hot dog time!

With our completely dry tent in our completely packed car and with our fire now burning brightly…while we roasted our last hot dogs on our last campfire of the season on what was probably our last campsite of the year…a light rain finally started. We were both very happy that it held off just long enough for us not to feel one bit rushed! In spite of our mishaps, the whole week went pretty well overall, and the whole year had brought us a lot of camping in a lot of places and with a lot of friends. It was a fitting finale.

Indian Boundary Lake

While this moment brought a great deal of contentment, the day was not over yet! The rain only lasted a minute or two, so we ate our hot dogs, put out the coals, and moved along to visit the camp store and check out the lake.

The Indian Boundary Outpost was thoroughly stocked. While not large, it had everything a tenter or RVer would need if something was broken or forgotten—food, firewood, snacks, utensils, air beds, and of course souvenirs. Best of all, they had tons of maps and the lady running it was super helpful at identifying hikes, drives, and waterfalls in the area. She helped us decide to stop at Bald River Falls, a 90-foot waterfall that’s on our way to Tellico Plains and I-75.

We then drove out of the campground to the beach and picnic area on Indian Boundary Lake. It’s not a big lake, but the beach was nicely maintained. There’s a boat ramp and fishing pier across the lake, with beautiful mountains rising beyond.

Indian Boundary Lake this cloudy morning

Bald River Falls

Bald River Falls

We drove back out to the Cherohala Skyway and cut over to River Road/Forest Road 210, which is a narrow old logging road that follows the Tellico River. Just a couple miles east, the road crosses the Bald River on a bridge offering a perfect view of Bald River Falls. There’s a sign next to the road so you don’t miss it, and a small parking area beyond. It was Saturday, so there were lots of motorcycles, several photographers, and a healthy number of people here.

Things were a bit congested, but still nothing like we experienced at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was able to shoot some stills and a 360° panorama just before the crowds built up and the rain started again. Rather than cutting straight back over to the Cherohala Skyway/TN-165, we followed behind a few motorcyclists on River Road/FR-210 as it wound alongside the scenic Tellico River.

Continue reading RealImaginarySmokies Day 7 – Bald River Falls & the Road Home

RealImaginarySmokies Day 5 – Cades Cove & Abrams Falls

In spite of yesterday’s misadventures, we got an early start and headed to Cades Cove. We hiked to Abrams Falls at midday and returned to Elkmont for an early dinner and our biggest fire of the week.

Did We Catch It?

My very first thought this morning was, “Did we catch it?” Yesterday we discovered a mouse had moved into our car and probably intended to spend the winter there. Rather than enjoying a hike here in the Great Smoky Mountains, we spent most of the day rearranging and cleaning everything so we could protect our food and be able to tell if our little friend was still at large. Since he loved my hot dog buns, we used a piece to bait a sticky trap that I placed on the floor behind the driver seat.

I was up before dawn and decided to check the trap before I walked to the restroom. I opened the door AND…the trap was gone?!? What?!? I moved a few things around and found the trap lying behind the car jack under the seat…and the bait was completely gone. There were gnaw marks around the paper with a couple of turds inside, but no mouse. Argh! I tossed the trap and went back to the drawing board…

Our new and improved trap…bait in a bottle, with a sticky trap gauntlet around the neck (Photo by Becky)

Obviously this little guy was stronger and smarter than I realized! While I wanted him out of my car, I had to respect his resourcefulness. We had some empty 12-ounce bottles, so I stuck another chunk of the hot dog bun deep inside on of them, and stuck the opening into the sticky trap. Now he’ll have to get past the sticky trap twice, and he’ll have to risk getting stuck inside the bottle. I actually hope he does get stuck inside the bottle, because it’ll probably be easier to let him go. I wedged my new and improved trap underneath some stuff behind the seat and the waiting game began again…

Assessing Becky

As if battling a mouse living in our car wasn’t enough yesterday, Becky battled with a log she was cutting—and it drew blood. She was OK, but she got a cut inside her mouth when it whacked her teeth, and she had a small cut above her lip. When I saw it happen I thought it would be much worse—but it turned out that there were no teeth missing and no eyes put out. Before this and the ensuing hubbub occurred, we’d planned to get up before dawn this morning to beat the crowds to Cades Cove. This is our last full day here before we move on tomorrow to Cherokee National Forest.

Since we did get to bed early and Becky was doing OK last night, I checked to see if she thought she was still up to going now. She didn’t say much, because things still hurt quite a bit, but she was good to go. So we got on the road at about 7-7:30.

Cades Cove

From everything I’ve read, Cades Cove is the stuff at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve seen a few pictures and read that there are animals and old farms to see, but I wasn’t sure I understood the draw of this part of the park thus far. I figured maybe I would after seeing it with my own eyes.

We pulled in not long after 8am and immediately began the Cades Cove Loop Road, which runs one-way for 11 miles around the area. It was pretty country, with forested hills to the north, mountains to the south, and lots of clearings in between. Some areas were pastured off for horses, and we stumbled across a few deer. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos because I was driving. About a mile or two in, my curiosity took us down a road that turned out to be a cutoff to the other end of the loop…which led us back to where we started by Cades Cove Campground…whoops!

Breakfast at Cades Cove Campground & Picnic Area

At the time I was fine with this, because we could take this opportunity to restock the ice in our cooler and eat some breakfast. While the prices are higher, concession operations at Cades Cove Campground are much more extensive than at Elkmont. The store here is big enough that you can actually walk into it, there’s a small eatery with ice cream and $5 hamburgers, and they offer bicycle rentals. I grabbed a bag of ice and drove us over to the nearby picnic area where we could dump the cooler.

Once the cooler was taken care of, I put together a turkey sandwich while Becky made a protein shake. I’m sure glad she brought her protein powder, because her mouth still hurt too much to chew anything. Her lip was pretty swollen, and her cut would bleed a little, but it was starting to heal up. After our peaceful little break, we got back on the road at close to 10am.

Gridlock, Thy Name Is Cades Cove

By now, however, hoards of people had arrived to bask in the splendor—and the gridlock—of Cades Cove. The speed limit on the hilly winding loop is 20 miles per hour, which seemed totally realistic an hour or so ago. Now things had slowed down to a 5 mile per hour crawl. Copious signs indicate that slow-moving and stopped traffic must pull off to let others pass, but few actually do. Most people looked over the age of 55, and drove like they had all the time in the world.

We did see more than brake lights and full-sized cars though. Besides spotting a few more deer, we saw a bear that had been tranquilized by park rangers. Alas, Becky was not yet up to driving, so I was unable to get any photos.

The traffic really killed the experience for me though. Most people drove like aimless wanderers, starting and stopping and slowing down for no apparent reason, not paying attention to the road, and completely oblivious to everyone else. I know I could have moved faster on a bicycle, but that too would have been terrifying because of all the absent-minded motorists. I really feel like the driving sucked any joy I might have felt over Cades Cove completely out of me. Some people may hate me for saying this, but I really hope that one day soon, Cades Cove will be restricted to shuttle buses, bicyclists, pedestrians, and horsedrawn carrages at the busiest times. I don’t think an 11-mile traffic jam should be a national park experience. My thought is that if you don’t enjoy traffic, and you can’t get to Cades Cove at the crack of dawn or during the off-season, don’t even bother with it—it’ll just suck the life out of you.

Abrams Falls Trail

Abrams Falls Trailhead, on the far end of the Cades Cove Loop Road

Now we finally get to the good part of the day! After rounding the halfway point on the Cades Cove Loop Road, I told Becky there was a trailhead coming up where we could hike 5.2 miles to a waterfall. She was game, so we took the turnoff and found a spot in the gravel parking lot. We were still dressed for the chilly temperatures this morning, so we took off a few layers of clothing besides filling our water bottles and packing some trail mix for the hike.

The Abrams Falls Trail starts out around 1,700 feet, much lower than our hike from 5,000 feet at Newfound Gap two days ago. The trail doesn’t really gain elevation, but it does sink 600 feet or so by the time you reach the falls. The trail follows Abrams Creek, straggling some very rocky terrain. You’ll definitely want to wear a good pair of shoes for this hike. The trail rolls along at first, but then you go down and then back up two fairly strenuous hills before you go down a final hill that puts you by the falls. That last hill is a doozie on the way back, but the hike and the waterfall are worth it.

The trail crosses some very rugged terrain. At the top of one hill, you have to cross this notch in the rock to continue!

At the bottom of each ravine you cross a stream on a log like this one.

The trail offers a few vantage points high above Abrams Creek and the forest canopy.

Continue reading RealImaginarySmokies Day 5 – Cades Cove & Abrams Falls

RealImaginaryWest Day 15 – Colorado Springs & Pikes Peak

We took a short drive to spend the day with our friends, Lexi and Joe, in Colorado Springs. After going to the top of Pikes Peak on the cog railway, we got lunch and visited the penny arcade in Manitou Springs. Afterward, we visited Helen Hunt Falls and Garden of the Gods. We headed back to my cousin’s in Denver not long after dinner.

Starting for Colorado Springs Early…WAY Early!

We got up and on the road at 6am today. We were headed to Colorado Springs to spend the day with our friends, Joe and Lexi. They wanted to get a jump on the crowds heading up to Pike’s Peak, so we agreed to meet at their house at 6:45. Neither Becky nor myself are what you call “morning people”…but in three days, we would be back home—in the Eastern Time Zone, which is two hours ahead of Colorado. So as much as we’d have loved to sleep in, it really was practical to get going way early.

The sun was already cracking the horizon by the time we got on the road. The air was a little hazy, but that only added to the dramatic look of the golden light and dark shadows on the terrain ahead of us, and on the Rocky Mountains to our West. Though we were heading from one major city to the next, the drive was a mere 45 minutes, thanks to my cousin’s house being as close to the edge of Denver’s suburbs as you can get. The farther south we went on I-25, the more it felt like we were in the foothills rather than on the plains like in Denver.

Becky with Lexi and Joe

Now Lexi and her family are originally from Cleveland. I met Lexi on the exact same day as I met Becky for the first time, actually! She was already a good friend of the family by then. Becky’s sister, Rachel, was actually in Lexi’s wedding three years ago. Lexi ended up in Colorado Springs with her two brothers when her mom remarried a few years before that. Lexi’s husband, Joe, was good friends with Lexi’s brother, who recently married one of Rachel’s best friends after he moved back to Cleveland. Lexi came in for our wedding, and we met Joe when they both came in for her brother’s wedding. So yeah…we know Lexi and her family…but today would be our first time really getting to know Joe. So far he seems like an OK guy…

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

We pulled into Joe and Lexi’s driveway a minute or two after 6:45. They both rushed out and told us to jump in their car so we could get to the train in time to get good seats. For the rest of the day, Joe did all the driving, which was an awesome break for us!

The Pikes Peak Cog Railway station in Manitou Springs

In 20 minutes we were at the station for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in the mountain town of Manitou Springs. Parking was painless, and we were in line for good seats for the first train of the day, which departed at 8am. The station was rather compact, with just enough room for a ticket office, a gift shop, small restrooms, and an area to queue passengers boarding the train. Unfortunately, they do not allow outside food or drinks—not even water bottles—and therefore the prices remind you of what you’d pay in a movie theater. Joe was kind enough to buy each of us a 32-ounce bottle of water, but my eyes popped out when I saw it cost him $13!

Speaking of water, I was glad that we were on the first train, and therefore there was not double the amount of people because of returning passengers. I’m sure the small restrooms get quite a bit of use since there are no restrooms aboard the trains. Altitude and hydration were still foremost on my mind, being that even on the ground we were already at 6,000 feet. Since it’s a 60-90 minute trip each way, I knew that managing my drinking and peeing would be critical to my comfort today.

As we waited for the train, we could see splendid examples of the reddish colored Pikes Peak granite all around. This rock was everywhere in and around Manitou Springs, and really contrasted well with the green of the pines and aspens all around us in the golden rays of the low morning sun.

Up!

Passengers enjoying the view as we ascend Pikes Peak on the cog railway

Tree-covered slopes give way to rocky ones as we ascend toward the tree line, where the climate is too harsh for trees to grow.

We were on the train and out of the station at 8:07am. From here on up to the top, the conversation amongst ourselves was intertwined with that of our conductor and tour guide, Luke. Luke was a young man who looked to be at most 25, but easily could have been much younger. He shared quite a bit of history on Pikes Peak and the railway. He shared that Pikes Peak had several names before it was finally called Pikes Peak. The mountain is named after Zebulon Pike, who mounted an expedition to climb to the summit, but failed. And while Pikes Peak is but 1 of Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners”, or mountains over 14,000 feet, there are very few mountains between it and the Great Plains. This makes it the most prominent mountain in Colorado’s Front Range, making it appear to stand alone for hundreds of miles over the Great Plains to the east—all the way to Kansas.

As Pikes Peak has a story that is unique among Colorado’s mountains, the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway also has a unique story among Colorado’s railroads. Back in the 1880s, railroads were built primarily for industrial purposes to take advantage of the state’s many mining opportunities. After a ride to the summit of Pikes Peak on the back of a donkey, Zalmon Simmons of Kenosha, Wisconsin and founder of the Simmons Beautyrest Mattress Company, saw a business opportunity. He decided to build a railway to make it way easier to go to the top of Pikes Peak, and he did it purely for tourism. He went home and lined up investors, and two years later he was taking people to the top of Pikes Peak for a cool $5 each—that’s $125 in today’s money. The railroad was a hit back then, and since our early train was completely full, I’d say it’s still a hit today. The good news is that the cost of tickets has not kept up with inflation, as round-trip tickets cost only about a third of $125—and that may be why they sell water at $3.25 per bottle.

Anyway, there are three cars on each train heading up and down the mountainside. There’s an aisle down the middle with three seats on the left side going up, and two seats on the right side. The seats are arranged front-to-front and back-to-back, meaning every passenger faces another passenger. Before we embarked on our 18-day journey, a friend back home warned us that we want to get seats that angle up rather than down. And about 15 minutes up the mountain, Luke suggested that we introduce ourselves to the folks across from us—we were heading into our first 25 percent grade, and we’d probably be getting more familiar with them as a result. This was easy for us, because we knew each other, but we followed his advice nonetheless. Becky and I were angled down on the way up, though, and we really didn’t have any problems staying in our seats.

Joe points out at something when we are well above the tree line.

Each set of seats facing each other has it’s own window. On the bottom, the windows are all open, and it’s easy to see over them and take pictures. By the time you pass the tree line into alpine elevations, the temperature is decidedly cooler, so Luke told us we could close our windows and turn on the heater for the rest of the trip. The heater made things quite comfortable in spite of the 36°F temperature at the summit. I would still recommend having at least one or two extra layers of long sleeves handy though, not just for the trip, but the summit too.

Before we reached the top, Luke advised us that we’d have a little less than an hour there, and that the train whistle would blow ten minutes before departure. He said it was important for round-trip passengers to be on the train at departure—Otherwise we would “slowly transform into hikers—and what a hike it is! Thirteen miles in one direction from the summit back to Manitou Springs. And for you runners out there thinking, ‘thirteen miles!’, yes, they do have a marathon each year, going up and back down the mountain.”

The Summit of Pikes Peak

The view at the top!

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 15 – Colorado Springs & Pikes Peak

RealImaginaryWest Day 10 – Grand Canyons, Geysers & Grant Village in Yellowstone

After packing up camp at Canyon Campground, we hiked to the brinks of Lower and Upper Yellowstone Falls and had a late lunch at the Canyon Lodge Dining Room. We then took a drive to Norris via Virginia Cascades and drove the southwestern section of the Grand Loop Road on our way back toward our new campsite in Grant Village.

Sleeping In (Sort Of)

Even though I didn’t get to sleep until midnight last night, I still woke up at dawn, this time with a headache. I get those sometimes, mainly from muscles in my back and neck being messed up by car accidents and too much sitting for work. Usually I apply pressure in the right places and my headache subsides, but today that wasn’t working for some reason…so I just took it slow and endured the pain.

I looked over at Becky, still sleeping. Yesterday we got up at 5:30am, but I had kept us go-go-going so much that we got to bed too late to do it again today. Becky needed recovery time, and I was glad to see her getting it. She and I were both up and about around 8am. I started a fire so we could have a real breakfast and so Becky could make some real coffee. I also took the opportunity to set up my pano rig so I could get a 360 shot of our campsite.

This was just not our morning though. The late morning lighting conditions weren’t working for me, and I kept forgetting steps in creating my 360 shot. Becky’s campfire coffee percolator got too hot on the fire and the handle melted. Our frustrations were getting the better of us. My headache still lingered. We still had a lot of packing to do. And I still hadn’t talked with Becky about how to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s Yellowstone Mania. All this anxiety got us super grumpy, but things were good once we let each other chill out for a few minutes. Once we really got to packing, the day got steadily better.

360-degree panorama of Site J193 at Canyon Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Despite my frustrations, this actually turned out well! Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Packing Up at Canyon Campground

This pack-up was messier than the last one though. It had rained quite a bit while we were out yesterday. We got some water inside our tent, but by now everything was dry. The outside, however, was still wet in spots and the tarp underneath was completely wet with tree debris stuck all over it.

This is where I’d like to leave an endorsement for a $2.07 hand broom and dustpan set I bought over 15 years ago when I moved into my first apartment. It wasn’t great for sweeping my kitchen floor back then, but it works perfectly for so many things when you’re camping! Every time we pack up the tent, I use it to sweep all the fuzz and debris on the floor. I use it to brush off all the bugs, needles, and leaves on the outside of the tent. I can even use the brush to help my tent dry faster by spreading out the water beads.

Unfortunately for my trusty dustpan, I overestimated its abilities. When we arrived, I used it to shovel ashes out of the center of our fire ring and it worked great. I actually made a pile of them next to the ring so I could use them if I needed to put out a fire. Unlike back East, it’s very dry throughout much of the West, making everything from the grass to the brush to the trees quite flammable. As a result, campers are instructed to extinguish all fires before they leave their site or go to sleep for the night, either by dousing with water or covering with dirt. After cleaning out the tent, I thought that I better shovel those dry ashes from our first night onto the fire to put it out. Easy peazy, right?

Well, the rain had soaked my dusty ash pile and turned it into something more like hard clay. I didn’t expect this, and so I dug in hard and shattered my faithful dustpan. 🙁 I was so angry! I still needed this thing for the rest of our trip, and now it was broken. Becky doused the fire with water after this fail, leaving a pool of boiling water but no smoldering ashes behind.

OK, so maybe it was actually after we put the fire out that the day really started to improve. One of the last things we packed up was our tent and tarp. As I folded each part of the tent, I used the hand broom to clear off the tree junk and a towel to wipe it dry. For the last little bit, Becky just held the tent up for me while I brushed and dried it. After the tent was neatly in its bag, I swept off the picnic table at the vacant campsite next to us and draped our tarp over it so I could brush off one side. I then folded it in half to brush debris off of the other side and off the table again. Then I flipped the tarp and cleaned the other side. Finally, I had a relatively clean, dry tarp to fold and put into its bag.

So on a big or a little trip, never underestimate the usefulness of a good hand broom and dustpan!

Back to Yellowstone Falls

Ravens were a common site anywhere they could find scraps…either from humans or other animals in the park.

Now that our campsite was packed into the car, we drove out to the main road and back over to the parking area near the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls. It was a late start for us, arriving about noon. I wanted to hike in and see more of the canyon, including the Upper Falls. I popped open the trunk and began rummaging through my photo bag, thinking of which pano head and lens to bring.

That’s when I remembered the day before and said to myself, “Screw it! I’m tired, and I need to just relax and have some fun, and stop trying to be a documentarian for every hour of the trip.” I decided I’d bring my camera and only my 24-70mm lens, which is plenty versatile and won’t get me too hung up shooting panos.

I informed Becky of my decision. She smiled and replied, “I like ‘Screw It’ Day!”

She thought it was cool for me to grab a camera and shoot stuff, but that the day be more about us and less about the ‘photo shoot’. I liked the sound of it too.

A Bug’s Life

Before we got going, Becky made preparations sitting in the passenger seat of our car with the door wide open. While she was looking down intently, I saw this big black bug with giant antennas land on the dashboard almost directly in front of her! In a hopefully unstartling tone I told her, “You might want to look up, there’s a big black bug in front of you.” She sorta freaked out and slowly backed out of the car. I was in no position to reach it. It stayed where it landed for the most part. Becky grabbed a map and tried to scoop it away, but it crawled deeper into the car! It stopped in a little nook on the side of the center console, but it was dangerously close to crevices where it could hide behind the dashboard. This required a better approach, or this thing was going to die somewhere back there and possibly stink up the car (glad it wasn’t ours).

Becky acted fast and cut the top off a big empty water jug we hadn’t yet thrown out. She then easily scooped him up and let him go outside of the car. We kept the scoop in case we needed it again. The bottom of the jug fit a loaf of bread perfectly, so we used it to protect our bread from getting smashed in the back. So I suppose you could say she killed two bugs with one jug!

Brink of the Lower Falls

People gathering to look down from the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls

It’s a 600-foot drop but less than a half-mile hike to get to the top of Lower Yellowstone Falls. This area was far more congested than anywhere else we’d hiked so far. We could definitely tell this was like the Disney World of national parks with the casual manner in which several people took the paved trail. I had three people nearly collide with me on the switchback down, and Becky just missed getting hit in the face with a selfie stick.

In spite of the number of people and the rudeness of a few of them, the top of the falls was incredible! It’s amazing how fast the water moves through the upper canyon toward the Lower Falls. The sound of the water was just enormous. And the view of the canyon with a partly cloudy blue sky above was just awesome and unforgettable!

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River from the brink of the Lower Falls

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 10 – Grand Canyons, Geysers & Grant Village in Yellowstone

RealImaginaryWest Day 9 – Hot Springs, Overlooks & Oversights in Yellowstone

Our first full day in Yellowstone took us to Tower Fall in the morning and Mammoth Hot Springs at midday. We grabbed lunch outside the park in Gardiner, Montana, then found some wood and a moose on our way back to Canyon Village. We closed out the day at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and ate a late dinner back at camp.

Our First Full Day

Has a full week already past? Are we only on Day 9? Just yesterday I told Becky that 1 week and 2 hours ago (because of the time change) we left! It also doesn’t seem possible that today was Friday and that we still have more than a week to go…wow…we planned all this??? I don’t know how we did it, but I know we could only have been this successful from working together! I know I couldn’t have done this as well without Becky!

Today’s entry starts with the end. Right now I’m sitting at a biggole fire that took longer than I hoped to build, but I’m feeling content that I am warm, our tent is still good, we haven’t run out of money, and we are doing OK. It’s been tough sometimes and we’ve gotten in each other’s hair occasionally, but we have really enjoyed ourselves over the last week. We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve gotten to see a lot of the country!

I feel like we’ve done really well so far, but today I know my “OMG Yellowstone!” mania pushed Becky way too far. We were up at first light this morning in time for sunrise. We were out before the tourists wake up to clog all the roads and scare away all the animals. And then we ran almost all day without much downtime. It’s almost midnight now, and we still aren’t quite in bed. The original plan for tomorrow was to start early like we did today, but I know I ran Becky ragged, so I doubt it will work out that way.

Enduring the Cold

Let’s rewind and go back to how last night went. Becky was super cold, and had to cover her face with the top in-between blanket. It was by far the coldest night we’ve ever slept in. We’re up around 7,900 feet in elevation here at Canyon Campground, which means the atmosphere is much thinner and the temperature in turn stays much colder—often only in the 60s for a high and down into the 30s at night, even in July. By contrast Mammoth Campground, near the park’s North Entrance, sits at about 6,200 feet and experiences temperatures that are roughly 10 degrees warmer. I was concerned about whether we’d get rain or wind on top of the cold at night, but thankfully the winds calmed after dark and it only rained during the day.

Layers are key to beating the cold. Becky and I both wore at least 2-3 layers up top, and I had two on the bottom. We had two blankets between our sleeping bags and our air mattress to insulate us below, and then another one inside the sleeping bags to keep us warm on top. Without the extra blankets, we would have been unbearably chilly! But as it was, everything was rather comfortable for me, so long as I kept my hoodie up to keep my ears warm.

Yellowstone Mania

Steam rises from Wabash Hot Springs at sunrise.

Tower Fall

The Yellowstone River as it passes out of its grand canyon

Now I wanted to be up early enough to get some photos of sunrise at Yellowstone Falls, which is very close to our campground. Becky agreed that she’d get up at 5:30am and we’d be ready to go at 5:45. We got going right on time. The weather was definitely brisk, but the mostly cloudy sky looked to make for interesting images so long as the clouds didn’t completely block out the sun. After shooting the falls, we planned to go back to camp to shower up, then hit Mammoth Hot Springs and come back to camp again for early dinner and maybe a nap. Later, we’d go back to Yellowstone Falls in time for sunset.

When we drove out to Yellowstone Falls, however, there was a thick blanket of fog over the entire canyon :-(. This would not do, and I wanted to take advantage of the early light, so I decided we’d upend everything we’d planned and drive an hour to Mammoth Hot Springs right away. My mania had kicked in, and it wasn’t even 6am…

A few miles down the road from Canyon Village, we stopped at the Wabash Hot Springs Overlook, since it looked like our last good opportunity to take advantage of the sunrise. As I set things up, it was awesome to watch the sun cast its first light on mountains that had to be miles and miles away.

Things were starting to warm up, but my stomach started asking for food and Becky started asking for coffee…so we stopped by the Tower General Store. It was too early for it to open, so we made use of the time and hiked the short trail to 132-foot Tower Fall.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 9 – Hot Springs, Overlooks & Oversights in Yellowstone

RealImaginaryWest Day 8 – Buttes, Sulfur & Bear Traffic in Yellowstone

After packing up at the Ponderosa Campground, we got breakfast and hung out a bit in Downtown Cody. Then we stopped by the ginormous Buffalo Bill Center of the West—which was way way bigger than we expected! Next, we drove into Yellowstone National Park, making a quick stop at the Lake Butte Overlook to watch a thunderstorm across Yellowstone Lake. Lastly, we got stuck in bear/bison traffic near the Sulphur Caldron and Hayden Valley on our way to camp at Canyon Campground. This taught us that carpe tempore is the rule when passing restrooms…or trees……

Calm Night in Cody

Today we go from roughly 5,000 feet in elevation at the Ponderosa Campground in Cody, to 7,900 feet at Canyon Village in Yellowstone National Park. Altitude tends to catch up with flatlanders like us above 7,000 feet—also the days and especially the nights are much cooler…eek!

The sun was up around 6am at the Ponderosa Campground, and so was I. We were both fairly well-rested thanks to the calmness of the night. Not only was the weather perfect, but our 60 young neighbors from Teens Westward Bound were awesome too. It was clear that this was a great group of kids! At 6:30 they received their wakeup call from the trip captain: “It’s time to get up, little darlin’s!” she repeated kindly in her North Carolina accent, walking about the camp. I got a chance to talk to her later and ask a few questions. I was especially interested in how they handled inclement weather, as De Smet a few days before was still fresh in mind. They all camped out in the open on tarps and sleeping bags, which meant even less shelter than we had in our tent.

She explained that they had about a week left on a 23-day road trip. They were headed back home to Charlotte, North Carolina through the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, after already touring the Southwest and California. Young people are not selected willy nilly for this program—these were responsible, academically successful youths. The group from the looks was about 70% girls and 30% boys. Everyone was taught to tarp up properly so that nobody got wet or blew away. The whole purpose of the trip, besides seeing the Western United States, was teaching each and every one of them, from high school sophomore to entering college freshman, that they could do pretty much anything they set out to do!

From what I could see, that thought had sunk in. The group was two weeks from leaving home, and they each awoke without a complaint, in spite of possible homesickness, and even if some of them looked like they could have used a couple more hours asleep.

It was time for Becky and I to get started too. We got in rather late and very tired from the big day’s drive from Rapid City and the rodeo the night before. I was so tired I didn’t even get a chance to take advantage of the electricity available here to dump my camera’s memory cards and charge a few batteries. So I took care of that while we packed up the tent. We got ourselves to breakfast at around 7:30 or 8am.

A Few Hours In Cody

Clouds rolled over Rattlesnake Mountain toward the historic buildings of Downtown Cody early in the afternoon. Peter’s Cafe is on the right about halfway to the first traffic light at 12th Street.

Becky picked out this place in Downtown Cody called Peter’s Cafe & Bakery. All of Downtown Cody is very well put together, with plenty of historic architecture along its spacious main street, Sheridan Avenue. Peter’s was in one of the old buildings here, with a standard American breakfast menu at reasonable prices. The bacon strips were huge and everything on our plate was cooked perfectly. They had a couple of book racks with great titles for customers to read while they eat, like How to Stay Humble When You’re Smarter Than Everybody Else, The Joy of Being Broke, and the one that first caught my eye, How to Share a Bad Attitude, all by Ben Goode. Hilarious stuff! I’m gonna have to check this out more when I get home.

Before we left downtown after breakfast, I shot a couple of panoramas and Becky perused some shops. We have plenty of charming old business districts like this back in Ohio, but few are this large and vibrant—and of course none have the Western flair of Cody. I particularly liked 12th & Sheridan because of the Irma—the hotel opened by Buffalo Bill Cody himself back in 1902.

360-degree panoramas of the central business district of Cody, Wyoming. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West

The humble South Entrance understates the magnificence and expansiveness of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Before we left town, we followed a tip to check out the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. We went into the small South Entrance to pay admission, and found out that this museum is so extensive that each ticket is actually a two-day pass! We explained to the lady at the front desk, Rosalee, that not only would we not be here for two days, but we really only had two hours at most before we drove to our campground in Yellowstone National Park. She was very kind and offered for us to take a few minutes to look around without charge, in order to get a feel for all they had there so we could plan to visit on our next trip.

Let me tell you, this museum is first class, and it is huge! It is actually five museums in one. The Draper Natural History Museum explains the geology, animals, and everything else on the prairies and in the mountains of Wyoming. The Plains Indians Museum shares the history of the native tribes who inhabited the West and the effect of United States settlement. There is of course a museum about the life and legacy of the town’s namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody. They also have the Whitney Western Art Museum and the Cody Firearms Museum as well as special exhibitions. The current exhibition was a firearms loan from the Smithsonian, way back East in Washington—which felt a world away after spending a week in the West.

I’d heard the Buffalo Bill Center was a great museum, but that was an understatement! I had no idea it was on par with museums in big cities like New York or Chicago. Everything I saw here was impressive, and certainly a bargain for the price. Next time we pass through Cody, we’re certainly spending quality time here.

Before we left, I shot a couple of 360-degree panoramas outside, including the Main Entrance where the statue of Buffalo Bill stands. Afterward we re-iced the cooler and refueled to head into Yellowstone.

360-degree panoramas outside the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Heading Up To Yellowstone

It was just after 1pm when we left Cody, and the weather was transitioning from morning blue skies to early afternoon storms. US-14/16/20 is designated as the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway from Cody to the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Almost the entire route follows the Shoshone River through the Absaroka Mountains, passing by Buffalo Bill Dam, its giant reservoir, Buffalo Bill State Park, and eventually through the Shoshone National Forest.

Just outside Cody, the US highway enters Shoshone Canyon, snakes its way along the river, passes through three tunnels, and finally emerges just past the dam next to the Buffalo Bill Reservoir. The reservoir provides irrigation for agriculture throughout the area. It’s really gorgeous here, even on a rainy day! There are tall mountains all around with gentle brown and sagebrush prairie sloping gently upward from the lake. There were beautiful houses perched partway up the mountainsides with what I’m sure were spectacular views of the river and reservoir amid the mountains. Most land around the north side of the reservoir was part of Buffalo Bill State Park.

Beyond the reservoir, we passed into Wapiti Valley. There are plenty of guest ranches and campgrounds along the highway here that no doubt take advantage of their proximity to both Yellowstone and Cody. After a relatively straight shot from the reservoir, the valley narrows into a canyon and the road begins to wind as we enter Shoshone National Forest and the heart of the Absaroka Range. The road hugs and criss-crosses the North Fork of the Shoshone River for several miles…

Shoshone Canyon, just downstream from Buffalo Bill Dam

We got excited as we approached these two tunnels…but before we knew it, we’d already passed through more than one tunnel. When we realized another tunnel was hidden in between…we got really excited!

US-14/16/20 along the north shore of Buffalo Bill Reservoir

Driving toward the western end of Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Wapiti Valley

Just inside the Shoshone National Forest near Wapiti Wayside

And finally we saw the sign for Yellowstone National Park! At long last I had been able to achieve a nearly life-long dream to tour one of the largest, finest, most renowned parks in the world! It had taken me almost exactly 38 years to finally make the trip. Almost exactly 7 years ago I made it to my first big western national park, Yosemite, and it was positively magical! I’d hoped that Yellowstone would prove to be in its own way just as majestic, profound, and inspiring.

Entering Yellowstone National Park

The East Entrance gate at Yellowstone National Park. The entrance fee here gets you into both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Alternatively, you can get an Annual Pass like the one we bought back at Badlands National Park that gets you into all of the parks for an entire year.

The first thing I thought about when we reached the East Entrance was that it was very quiet! I expected a lot more traffic, especially in the middle of July. Maybe everyone entered through the North Entrance from Montana or flew into Jackson and entered from the south? I was pleasantly surprised to see that the park was mostly uncongested…and I was happy to know that there was a nice little campsite waiting for us in Canyon Village.

Stone guardrails like this one on the East Entrance Road line the steep edges of most roads in Yellowstone, rather than the metal ones typically used. A park should look prettier anyway, right?

Along the way in, you pass deep into virgin mountains, with the only evidence of the hand of man being the road you’re traveling. Rather than standard metal guardrails, most roads here have stone guardrails that remind you that you’re in a national park! After emerging from the giant mountains of the Absaroka Range, the view opens up and you catch your first sight of Yellowstone Lake. The lake was much much larger than I expected it to be, and the terrain around more mountainous. I don’t know why I expected something smaller…maybe it’s because any video I’ve seen just can’t do this place justice.

The entire landscape is covered mostly with sloping grasslands and forests, with occasional rock outcroppings. This was unlike what I saw frequently in the Sierra Nevada, where bald domes and half domes of sheer granite accompanied by spires decorated the landscape like a castle or cathedral.

Just 16 miles to our campground at Canyon Village! No problem, right!?

We stopped along the way at the Lake Butte Overlook, several hundred feet above the shores of Lake Yellowstone. We got an awesome view of an afternoon thunderstorm making its way down mountains on the opposite side of the lake. The area all around has obviously been burned out by a forest fire in the last few years. It felt like a worthy place to first set foot in Yellowstone National Park. After a few moments to look out and around and shoot some panoramas, we headed back down to the East Entrance Road. The road runs right below the overlook and along beaches on the lake’s north shore before coming into Fishing Bridge. We had some rain down along the beaches just before we caught the Grand Loop Road north to Canyon Village.

360-degree panoramas of the Lake Butte Overlook in Yellowstone National Park. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Traffic Was a Real Bear

Who knew a few animals could cause such a stir?

I was able to fill the frame with this bison, it was so close to the road.

Along the road to Canyon Village, bison and elk grazed peacefully in the meadows. Motorists also sat peacefully with their cars, as we ran into our first traffic jam. So much for the park being uncongested! I knew going in that girdlock was fairly common in Yellowstone, and that it usually had nothing to do with bad driving. More often than not, traffic snarls because animals are close to the road, so massive amounts of people stop to take a look and get pictures. Sometimes the animals are on the road—and there’s no coercing a 2,000-pound wild bison to keep moving—so you just have to wait for them to cross. This traffic jam was stop and go for what seemed like miles though…so something big must have been happening!

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 8 – Buttes, Sulfur & Bear Traffic in Yellowstone