Friday, September 29, 2006

Vacation Adventure - Grand Teton Part 2

Our two adventurers have just exited the ferry boat and are staring down the daunting climb to the North Fork of Cascade Canyon. The hike isn't terribly difficult as a day hike, but strap a 40lb+ pack on your back and the task at hand becomes more intimidating. Take that task and add to it that you don't have extra time to rest or you'll be searching for your campsite in the dark and you start to get an idea of what we were facing.

We encountered a lot of people in the first couple of miles, as there are two destinations that are within a mile of the boat dock that many people frequent. The first was Hidden Falls, the first of many falls/cascades we would encounter today. The second destination is Inspiration Point, a overlook of Jenny Lake that gives views back towards Jackson Hole.

Jill and I barely paused at the two destinations in the initial mile, as we were anxious to keep moving and to get away from the masses. We made good time as we went, but making sure we kept our head's up to check out the incredible views we were submersing ourselves with.

As we pressed forward we passed lots of day hikers on their way back down from higher points. We stopped and talked briefly with many of them as most people we passed were surprised/impressed we were camping in the high country. Several people we passed mentioned rapidly increasing snow levels as you approached Lake Solitude, which was not that far from our campground.

Despite the warnings and a lot of people using words like "brave" and "adventurous" to describe us as we told them our plans, we kept moving towards the North fork of Cascade Canyon. We moved at a steady pace, but tried to make sure we were enjoying the view up as every turn offered something more outstanding than the previous one. Happy to be under blue skies again, we certainly made sure we were taking in all the sights.

We were moving along pretty good when something caught my attention. In this area, you have to be on your toes as there could be a grizzly bear or bull moose around the corner. I quickly went still and motioned to Jill. Looking over to our right I saw the culprit, which was far from a grizzly.

After 5.5 miles, we hit the fork in the road. The snow was definitely getting deeper in a hurry, but we were within 1 mile of the campsites. We stopped and took a break and then started the final push to the campsite. Since we had not gotten started as early as possible, daylight wasn't plentiful but we should be fine.

The final mile to the campsite steepened up quickly, and coupled with the deeper snow made for a pretty slow trudge. The temps were high and the sun had been on the valley, so the snow on the trail was melting quick, which provided a challenge to us to try and keep our shoes from getting soaked. I had been wearing my waterproof hiking boots, but a blister had forced me to opt for my non-waterproof trail shoes for this hike. Finally we crested a small ridge and got our first glimpse of what would be our temporary home.

A very scenic, albeit snowy, home awaited us. I hiked up ahead trying to scout the campsites to see what looked like our best option. I was genuinely concerned about the 6-8" snow pack we'd be camping on, the 9,000 feet of elevation and the temps that would surely be sub 20 degrees. We picked a camp on the far south end of the camping area, as it was the lowest elevation and we found a small ridge we could settle up next to in case of any winds that night.

Jill & I were both new to snow camping. We had some frantic conversations about our best plan of action. Should we dig out the snow so the tent could be against the ground or should we just put it on top of the snow? Should we really be doing this? Is our gear going to stand up to the test? It was getting serious, as wrong decisions in these conditions can be dire.

After using our garden spade to clear a small area, it was quickly clear to us that removing enough snow to clear an area for our tent was not feasible. Maybe with a shovel, but not with just a garden spade. Time for plan 2, set the tent up on top of the snow. The good news for us was that we had the tent, with a footprint under it, and then Thermarest sleeping pads to help insulate the cold that was transferring up from the snow.

We set up the tent, and immediately turned our attention to dinner. Still a bit disheveled, I walked by the stove and knocked over 16oz of clean water that was to be used for making our dinner. Geez.

Normally losing a little water wouldn't be a big deal, but when you have to posthole in 6-8" of snow to get to the creek it becomes a bigger deal. Anytime you had to venture off the beaten path, your shoes and pants got cold and wet in a hurry. Luckily we had more clean water that we had carried up in a Camelbak bladder and we were able to get it boiling (JetBoil stoves are simply incredible) in a hurry.

As we ate dinner, we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen. The red hues bouncing off the jagged peaks in the Teton Range were things that dreams are made of. Jill & I felt really lucky to have been able to be in this place at this time, regardless of the cold night that we were about to face.

So as the sun set behind us, Jill managed to find the "bear box" to store our food in. After securing our food, we settled into our small, but incredibly light and effective tent for what would likely be our coldest evening thus far. Its an interesting phenomena, that you can actually psyche yourself into staying warmer by mentally preparing for it. The night before in Yellowstone, Jill & I had let down our guard and both gotten cold. Tonight we could not afford to let our guard down.

We built a snow wall around the edge of the tent vestibule, where the gear would be stored and lined the outer walls of the tent with all the left over clothing and gear we could find. Any insulation from the outside world would be a good thing. Jill had been very fortuitous and packed us good, warm sleeping clothes. Having completely dry sleeping clothes would prove essential. We talked for a bit, and faded off into the deadly silent, starry night and hoped we wouldn't get too cold.

What's the point of an "adventure" if you don't feel poor decisions could be life threatening right?

Vacation Adventure - Grand Teton Part 1

As we said goodbye to Yellowstone and hello to Grand Teton, we finally got some good weather. Not just good weather, but fabulous compared to what we had experienced so far. Things are looking up. As we drove, we stopped at many pullouts and overlooks to take in not only the gorgeous mountain views, but the much welcomed blue sky and sunshine.

Final glipmses of Yellowstone, with some clear skies.

Finally a pic with some blue skies

Views on the north end of the park

Lunchtime views

The Tetons pale in comparison

Views are abundant in the park

We drove up the Signal Mountain overlook, and snapped some pics at the top before heading back down. From Signal Mountain you can get great views of Mt. Moran, the Tetons and the lakes. Jill convinced me to do a couple more "Beauty and the Beast" posed pictures with her.

Posin' till closin'

We grabbed some lunch (a very good lunch) in the park to fuel up for the upcoming grueling hike we were about to face. Jill started packing the backpacks as I went to talk to the Ranger about getting a back country permit and the conditions.

That canyon in the middle of the photo would be the start of today's journey

The first thing the ranger told me wasn't what I wanted to hear. He said the words "snow" and "several inches" a couple of times. Not so good. I describe our plan, mentioning camping on the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, doing a day hike the next day, then proceeding over the Paintbrush Divide (10,500ft) on our way back to the boat. His response was "No one has been over the Divide yet, so finding the trail is going to be difficult".

Time for Plan B. I asked if we needed snowshoes and he assured me we didn't, that it wasn't that bad, just be prepared for some snow. He didn't seem to be too concerned about us heading up the canyon or the conditions up there, so I signed up for the permit and headed back to the car to help Jill finalize our packing.

Once we were packed up, we went up to the Jenny Lake boat dock to catch a ferry boat ride across the lake. The fairy would cut off almost 2.2 miles of hiking with 40lb packs, which made it well worth the $9/person round trip price.

So as I leave you this time, our two heroes are set to board the boat and head across the lake to the Canyon of DOOM! Actually its Cascade Canyon, but Canyon of DOOM! sounds more interesting, no?

Vacation Adventure - Part 3

So we pull the quick UTurn and dash back towards the Norris area where we can get through to the Canyon area of the park. The Canyon area features the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, as well as two large waterfalls and some great overlooks. Off we went with daylight fading to see the rest of the park.

As we passed through the Norris area, we stopped briefly to evaluate the campground. Jill & I have learned that campgrounds at National Parks are slightly less noisy than a Frat house during Rush, but with little daylight our hands were pretty much tied. The Norris campground was surprisingly empty, and pretty scenic. We didn't grab a spot, but we made note of it so we could compare the conditions in the Canyon area and make a decision.

As we started driving to the Canyon area, it was quite evident we were gaining elevation quickly. Snow was much more prevalent, and the outside temp was dropping quickly. This may make our decision that much easier, especially consider tonight was supposed to be even colder than the previous night we had spent.

On our way we got stuck in one of the traffic jams I mentioned in an earlier post...

When the traffic jam broke up, we found ourselves with our first views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We stopped at several different vistas and proceeded to get great views of Upper and Lower Falls. With the exception of Niagara Falls, Lower Falls is probably the biggest waterfall I've seen, impressive setting for sure.

After seeing the Canyon area attractions, we made the call to forgo back country and head back to the Norris area to setup camp there. We arrived in plenty of time to get camp setup and get dinner cooked before the sunlight faded. As we had a surprisingly scrumptious dinner of beef stew and pasta primavera, Jill pointed out some thermal features just a bit north of our campsite.

Shortly after dinner we hiked up to go check out the nearby thermal features. A bit of a tricky hike led us to an open field where we saw this feature pictured below. The colors don't even look like something that should exist on this planet, which seemed to be pretty typical of Yellowstone.

After getting back from our brief hike, we settled in for the night. Of course as we started to get ready for sleep the campground was invaded by masses of people scrambling for a place to stay for the evening. Suddenly our open area where we setup camp was surrounded by bumbling campers trying to solve the mysteries of setting up there tents in the dark.


After a couple hours, Jill & I both overcame the noises and got to sleep. What we would realize the following morning was that even though we chose lower elevation, we should have realized camping that near a stream would make for a chilly evening. We both mentioned the cold the next morning as we packed up camp and planned a course for Grand Teton National Park where our we would turn the adventure knob straight past 10 all the way to 11.

More to follow...

Vacation Adventure - Part 2

As we arrived back at the parking lot, we noticed found our snow covered car and started the process of unpacking and repacking on the go. We grabbed some food from our food cache in the car and immediately hit the road. Our plan for today was to drive the big loop around Yellowstone (something like 100 miles) and then find another backcountry campsite that we 4-5 miles in that we would call home for the evening.

We had camped in the Old Faithful region the previous evening, and our ultimate destination tonight would be the Canyon area. The ranger at the back country permit office had told us the wildlife was abundant in the Canyon area, including wolves & bears two things we were interesting in catching a glimpse of while in the park. That meant our route for the day would be Old Faithful area to Madison to Norris to Mammoth Springs to Tower Falls and finally to Canyon. Yellowstone is a big park, and we were doing the accelerated tour per the usual for our vacations.

We stopped at the big attractions in the area, checking out what we could see. The big problem we were having is that due to the chilly temps and the super hot thermal features most of the large geyser pools couldn't be seen very clearly as the steam arising from them made viewing very difficult. We did our best to try and catch a bit of wind to carry the steam off briefly so that we could get a closer look, but it was pretty clear that we wouldn't be seeing Yellowstone in the best conditions this time around.

We made our way to the Norris area, taking in the views and hitting a couple scenic driving detours along the way. I've heard horror stories about Yellowstone roads becoming gridlock in the peak tourists months, but we had little problem zooming in and out of parking lots and side roads.

As we blazed through the park we got to witness lots of animal activity. We saw tons of elk, buffalo, deer and a couple moose on the first day. We kept our eyes open in all the open fields and valleys looking for the elusive bear and wolves, but no luck so far.

I've seen hundreds, probably thousands, of buffalo in my life but something about seeing these creatures in the wild made them feel very different this time. On our first back country hike to our campsite Jill had walked to within about 30 feet of one without even noticing it. We had been warned multiple times that buffalo were by far the most unpredictable animals in the park and to steer very clear of them. When you see one in the back country and realize how enormous they really are, that warning about running 35mph and goring people becomes very prevalent in your mind.

We continued north reaching the area surrounding Mammoth Springs just after lunch time. There are a lot of things to see between the Norris and Mammoth area. A lot of Yellowstone isn't what I'd called "pretty", its almost a scorched Earth looking place at times, but the landscape is certainly interesting and worth checking out. Finally we got a glimpse at some of the amazing and unusual colors the thermal features offered, but as you can see the weather was still pretty nasty.

As we started to leave Mammoth Springs township, we got to see a big herd of elk grazing on the lush grass near the establishments. One big bull elk was king of this heard, bugling to let all know this group was all his.

What happened next was not only quite unexpected but VERY eye-opening. As an older gentlemen in a PT Cruiser drove up to the curb to get a close shot of the elk. Without much provocation, the bull elk came sternly charging towards the PT Cruiser. Jill & I were literally about 15 feet behind the PT Cruiser waiting to turn left as traffic passed. The elk put his enormous antlers down and starting crushing the passenger side of the PT Cruiser. Confused, and I'm sure a bit scared, the older gentlemen started to get out of his car. Everyone in the area shouted at him to get back in the car, and thankfully he did. The elk proceeded to just gouge the side of his car before the guy finally figured out to get the heck out of there. Picture that guy on the right of the picture below smashing the side of your car. Not fun I'm sure.

As we witnessed this event, I was thinking "We're next in line if this guy drives off". I was anxious to get the heck out of the way of that elk, and luckily I caught a break in traffic and zoomed away from the scene. After that incident though, Jill & I were both much more cautious. Its easy to get lulled into thinking wildlife see enough people/cars to not be threatened, but these are still wild animals and mating season can be a tense time for these guys.

After grabbing some lunch at Mammoth Springs, we turned east and headed toward the Tower Falls area. The drive between these two areas was easily the most scenic views of the park, and this area really has some beautiful countryside. One thing you can be assured of in National Parks is that when you see a bunch of cars stopped on the side of the road, there is some wildlife that is causing the stoppage and Yellowstone is certainly no exception.

We came upon a huge herd of buffalo near a pond toward Tower Falls. We stopped and snapped some pics as we watched the herd amble along.

We hopped back in the car leaving the traffic behind and headed off towards Tower Falls. As we left Mammoth Springs I thought I had noticed a sign mentioning a road closure between Tower Falls and Canyon, but I wasn't 100% sure so we pressed on. Jill double checked the park map, which simply said the road between the two areas was "Closed until at least 2005". Interesting development, but we kept going as we were determined to cover the park as best we could. Besides we were in a rental car, so if we needed to jump a bridge or off-road to get to our destination we could right? Maybe I should have gotten that insurance....Hmmm...

As we got to Tower Falls, our fears we confirmed. The road between Tower Falls and Canyon was closed, due to some unknown reason. Not so good as daylight was fading fast. We were only about 10 miles from the Canyon area, but since we would have to backtrack around, it would likely take us at least 2 hours. Back country camping this evening was not looking like a reality.

And if you can believe it, despite all the pictures and endless babble this only gets us to about 3pm. I'll add the conclusion to the story in Part 3, followed shortly by Part 4 (The Grand Teton Experience).

Tune in then, same bat time, same bat channel.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Beginning of the Adventure - Vacation Part 1

Jill & I always travel during the "shoulder season". We have also been hitting the various National Parks in our general area. Since moving to Colorado, we have hit Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde and Rocky Mountain National Parks. Next up for us was Yellowstone and Grand Teton, an easy day's drive from home for us. Since Yellowstone is such a huge park, and is really crowded we decided to go a bit later in the season hoping to find some solitude amongst the park.

The initial plan was to spend 2-3 days in Grand Teton, then hit up some Yellowstone attractions for the next 3 or so days. Well that plan was turned upside down before we ever left the house as several low pressure systems passed through the area in rapid succession. So much for the glorious weather we've enjoyed during the "shoulder season" thus far.

So with a new plan of action, we headed off. Day 1 was driving to Jackson Hole, WY where we would enjoy our only taste of luxury as we stayed in a posh resort hotel at the bottom of the ski area. We ate fine cuisine at the Rendezvous restaurant, which served up some amazing Alaskan Halibut. The next morning we headed north through Grand Teton as we made our way to Yellowstone.

The weather was drab, dreary and pretty much deplorable. A gray, rainy day with an extremely low ceiling meant that we never even got a glimpse at the looming giant mountains just to our west as we passed quickly through the park. We got to Yellowstone, took in a few sites and then headed to Old Faithful to do our obligatory viewing of its eruption. Of course, the snow and very cold temps made it pretty difficult to see what was going on, but we watched as the snow fell anyway.

We procured our back country permit, and as the snow fell fast I double checked with Jill that she wanted to head into the wilderness knowing what faced us. We loaded up our packs and hit the trail about 3:30pm knowing we needed to make pretty good time on the trail to make sure we had some daylight.

Our hike to our back country site wasn't too bad at 4.3 miles. Along the way we would pass a tremendous amount of "thermal features" in the park. As luck would have it, just as we arrived at the biggest feature on our trek, Lonestar Geyser, it erupted (happens every 3 or so hours) and we got to take in that event without having to wait around.

As we continued on we tried to ignore the less than favorable weather and just enjoy the hike and features. Everywhere you looked you could see the steam rising from the countryside, a surreal experience for sure. We hiked along taking in the mud pools, geysers, and springs as we went.

We arrived at our campsite with plenty of daylight, and started the process of setting up our home for the night. Since grizzly bears are a real concern, you have to store your food hanging from a tree about 10ft off the ground. We boiled some water for the coming day, cooked our meal and settled in. We put our Nalgene bottles in the nearby creek and tied them to a tree so we would awake to clean, cool water or so I thought...

As we went to sleep, we could hear the snow falling hard as we drifted off. To our surprise we awoke to several inches of snow blanketing the grounds the next morning. A chilly start to the morning was made a bit worse by the discovery that somehow the 50lb test nylon cord we used to tie up our Nalgene bottles had snapped leaving us without good water. Ugh.

We used our remaining Nalgene to gather some more water and cooked up some rather disgusting scrambled eggs. After taking in some breakfast, we quickly packed up camp and headed out so we could see some more more sights within the park.

We made quick work of the hike on the way out, hitting the car at 10:30am leaving us plenty of time for the day. A quick check of the thermometer in the car showed a brisk temp of 32, and that had surely increased from when we had gotten up at about 6:30.

That leads us into the 2nd day of our adventure, which will be detailed in another never ending pontification coming to this blog soon.