Wednesday, September 2, 2009

August 16th Travel to Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah

We didn't rush out of Craters of the Moon National Monument in the morning as we knew we had a full day's run down to the Timpanogos Cave National Monument area which is south of Salt Lake City in Utah. We traveled down some pretty lonely roads while we were in Idaho all the while keeping an eye out for deer and pronghorns in the ranch lands around us. The scenery started to change as we passed into Utah and not for the better. Utah (at least in the Salt Lake City area) is rapidly growing and there are lots of developments lining the highway where all of the expensive houses sit on postage stamp sized lots and they all look exactly the same. I wonder how folks find their own house in this type of ghetto (oops! I mean development). As we approached Salt Lake City the highway changed from two, to three, to four, to five and then to six lanes on each side and the traffic was horrific! I swear the Mormons believe that god is watching out for them so they don't bother to look or yield when they enter the highway which made for a pretty scary drive for us. We both breathed easier once we got through the city and found the turn off to American Fork Canyon where Timpanogos Cave National Monument is located. We passed through a couple of towns that looked like they had just been built in the last year. All new strip malls, housing developments (each which centered around a newly built church) and chain restaurants. These towns are just yuck in my opinion as there isn't any diversity in the building styles and the houses are piled on top of each other. Anyway once we entered the national forest the scenery was spectacular with gigantic cliffs surrounding us and a swift moving river beside us that the road followed. Even though it was late in the afternoon we stopped at the visitor center for Timpanogos Cave to make reservations for a tour the following day. We were able to score the 9:50am tour and were told to be hiking up the 1.5 mile trail to the cave's entrance by 8:20am - I'll provide the details on the hike in the August 17th post so stay tuned! After we left the visitor center we secured a campsite in the Little Mill National Forest campground which is just a couple of miles down the road from the cave. Little Mill is one of the nicest campgrounds I've ever stayed in with paved sites, concrete pads for the picnic table and raised cement fire pit. And the view of the cliffs and river is icing on the cake! All this for $17.00 a night, a huge value. After we setup camp we took the truck back into one of the towns right outside of the national forest and found a self service car wash where we spent some time scrubbing dead bugs and dirt off it's finish. Boy was it good to have a semi clean vehicle for a change. As it was late we decided to spurge on a dinner out and it took us three attempts to find a restaurant that had a bar. The second restaurant we stopped at was a Chili's, and it didn't have a bar! Seems pretty darn un-American to me. Finally we found an Applebees which had a bar where we ate a nothing special meal with a couple of expensive and not so great drinks. We found out from the bartender there that Utah has some interesting rules about bars, you cannot just purchase a drink, you must purchase a substantial portion of food along with it which is why so many restaurants don't bother having a bar (Note to self, do not move to Utah). After dinner we headed back to camp to retire because we'd have an early start in the morning.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

August 15th Craters of the Moon National Monument: A weird and wonderful place

We froze our bums off during the night, I could not believe how cold it got! We hadn't turned the furnace on in fact I had a window open and the outside temperature had dropped to a low of 38 degrees (and the inside of our camper wasn't much warmer). Lucky for me Leon got up first, closed the window and fired off the furnace. He then served me my coffee in bed while I laid there with every spare blanket we brought on the trip piled on top of me. Leon finally got me moving (out of bed) as we planned to attend a 9:00am ranger hike through one of the lava tubes in the park. We arrived at the meeting spot with two minutes to spare and were surprised to see we were the only ones there besides the ranger. The ranger decided to hold off starting the walk for a few more minutes and finally some additional folks showed up. I guess they were as cold as I was when I first woke up and they found getting out of bed hard to do! Anyway, the ranger who is a very nice college student who is studying geology provided us with the history of the Great Rift, the different periods in time lava has escaped through the rift and a overview of the sights we were seeing (cinder cones, splatter cones, lava flows, the areas where the Great Rift is pulling the land part, etc). As our group walked towards the lava tubes the ranger told us we would be exploring the "Indian Tunnel" lava tube with him and he recommended we take some time after our tour to explore one or two of the other lava tubes on our own. I thought this was a good idea so Leon and I decided to check out "Boy Scout Cave" lava tube because the ranger told us it's floor was still covered in ice and we thought that would be pretty neat to see. We reached "Indian Tunnel" and began our group exploration of the tube. "Indian Tunnel" is the largest of the lava tubes at Craters of the Moon and only one you do not need to use a flashlight. The lava tubes have not been improved, meaning no stairs, railings or lights. If you want to explore them you must crawl over fairly sharp lava rocks and make your way through rubble (boulders) that have fallen from the roof of the tubes. It was a good workout for us and also very interesting because our ranger knew his stuff! Once our tour was complete Leon and I headed to "Boy Scout Cave" which is much smaller and required us to crawl down into the dark, nearly on our hands and knees. There were two ways we could go once we got inside and we selected to turn right because there was a second, natural exit to this lava tube. It was hard work and the tube was totally without light. I was glad we had brought our flashlights so we could find our way through. When we finally got out of the cave I looked at my Earth Shoes and discovered that the sharp lava rock had chewed right through the soles - my shoes were ruined and I was bummed because they were my favorite pair. Oh well, I'll just need to purchase new ones when we get home. After we finished with the lava tubes we headed back to our campsite for some lunch. We hung out there for a while, reading and resting before we headed back on the loop road to travel to the "Tree Molds Trail" for a 2 mile round trip hike to view lava flows that have the impression of trees that fell into them when the lava was still hot. We had a pleasant walk with just a few steep areas and at the end of the trail we viewed the tree molds. I must say I was unimpressed with the molds but the view of the lava flows themselves was worth the walk. When we were done with the Tree Molds Trail we headed over to the "Devils Orchard Nature Trail" and did it's short walk where we learned about the different types of plants and animals that call Craters of the Moon National Monument home. Towards the end of the day we went to the visitors center to take in a photography seminar and then we returned to camp to enjoy some dinner. At 9:00pm we attended our last ranger program of the day at the visitor center and right after that we retired for the evening because we were pulling out first thing in the morning to head to Timpanogos Cave National Monument which is just south of Salt Lake City, UT.

August 14th Last day in Grand Teton and travel to Craters of the Moon National Monument

We were hooked up and pulling out of our campground by 7:30am. Our plan was to travel through the "Antelope Flats" section of Grand Teton NP in the hope of spotting the park's bison herd before heading over the mountains towards Idaho. We traveled quite a few miles on the "Antelope Flats" road without seeing any buffalo so we were beginning to think we'd been skunked when we turned a corner and met up with the herd! Like in Custer and Yellowstone the bison are free roaming so they were on the road, on the side of the road and crossing the road. It was a striking sight to see them with the beautiful Grand Teton range as a backdrop and I was sad to be leaving them as I knew that this was the last time we'd see bison on this trip.
By mid morning we were heading over the mountains towards Idaho. We took Route 22 which was pretty darn scary! Major switchbacks, 10% grades and steep drop offs (there were guardrails though). I was very relieved when we finally made it to the valley in Idaho. Our commute from then on was easy. We passed through INL territory (Idaho National Laboratory) which is 85% the size of Rhode Island and appears to be very well guarded. Not a place I'd want to break down in! As we neared Craters of the Moon National Monument we began to see basalt / lava rocks in the ranch lands and once we got to the monument we felt that we'd been transported to another world. We secured a campsite and parked our Airstream on it's black cinders and after we completed setting up we decided to explore the loop road as was only 16 miles round trip. One of the first stops on the loop road was the Inferno Cone which we climbed. It was a short, steep walk up the side of the cone and once we got there the wind was so strong we could lean into it without falling over! From the top of the cone we could see other cinder cones lined up along the Great Rift. It was an awesome sight. After we climbed back down we continued our drive of the loop road stopping to view two splatter cones along the way. One of the splatter cones had snow and ice at the very bottom, boy were we ever surprised to see this because the lava rock that is exposed to the sun can heat up to 150 degrees during the day. After we completed our drive we enjoyed dinner outside on our picnic table and then attended a 7:00pm ranger walk and the 9:00pm ranger talk before retiring for the evening.

August 13th Day two in Grand Teton National Park

I didn't have a good night and was feeling pretty ill in the morning so Leon let me sleep in. It took me quite a while to feel good enough to want to go out exploring so we didn't get going until well after 1:00pm. We decided to take it easy and just do the loop road and it's scenic pull outs and boy was the scenery ever breathtaking! The mountains rise up from nearly flat land so there isn't anything to obstruct the view of the range except the trees along the way. As we traveled the road we stopped at the Jenny Lake, Moose and Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve visitor centers so I could get my NP Passport stamps (this is an addicting hobby for sure). In the Laurance S. Rockefeller area we took a walk and experienced a bit of rain and wicked high winds so we decided to make a run for it in the hope of getting back to our truck before the skies opened up. As we began to drive out of LSR the skies cleared and the wind died down. We were laughing about this sudden change in the weather when I spied a small critter running down the road. It was a pine martin! He stayed on the road for about 200 yards, at times turning to see if we were still following him. Finally he had enough of us and he jumped into the woods. I was very excited to have seen him! We traveled the loop road back to Colter Bay Village where our campground was located and as it wasn't too late in the afternoon we stopped at the tavern there for a drink and appetizer before heading back to camp for a light dinner. We hit the sack around 9:00pm because we wanted to get an early start the next morning as we were on a quest to locate the bison herd that is maintained within Grand Teton NP.

August 12th Day one in Grand Teton National Park

We pulled out of Earthquake Lake campground about 8:00am and headed back into Yellowstone for our commute down to Grand Teton National Park. As we drove through we once again admired its thermal features, mountains and many bison. Boy, I love everything about Yellowstone except the large crowds of tourists. I'm thinking it may be time for the park to limit the number of visitors that are allowed in each day or to come up with some other plan that would reduce the number of vehicles that travel the main roads within the park. While we were there we sat in a buffalo jam, it wasn't the bison that were blocking traffic but the tourists who stopped in the middle of the road to take photos of the beasts. After a few hours we made it through the south entrance (exit) for Yellowstone and entered the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway which connects Yellowstone to Grand Teton. We stopped at the little visitor center for the parkway so that I could collect my NP Passport stamp and then we got right back on the road only to end up being stuck in our second traffic jam of the day. This time it wasn't caused by tourists or bison but by major road construction that was taking place on the parkway. It was a dusty, noisy and hot 30 plus minute wait before we were given the signal to pass through the construction area where our truck and trailer were covered with the dust and grime from the temporary dirt and rock road. Man, was I ever glad to finally get out of that mess and enter into Grand Teton National Park. While we were at the park's entrance booth we inquired about the availability of campsites and the ranger directed us to Colter Bay which still had plenty of space available so we traveled down the loop road about 16 miles (catching glimpses of the beautiful and rugged mountain tops through the trees) to the campground where we paid our fee and set up camp. After we enjoyed some lunch we headed out to the visitor center so I could collect my first Grand Teton NP Passport stamp and to see what ranger programs were being held that night. After the visitor center we went down the road a bit to the Jackson Lake Lodge which is considered a historical site. We got there to find it is a hotel that was built in the 1960s which is not one of my favorite eras for architecture and besides that it could use a good scraping and paint job. Oh well, we decided to have a drink at it's bar so that we could enjoy the spectacular view of the Grand Teton range. After we were done at the lodge Leon wanted to travel down the loop road to do some exploring but I was not feeling 100% so we returned to camp. We both read for a good portion of the afternoon and for dinner I just threw some leftovers into the oven. Leon spent his time in the early evening outside watching a doe and her little fawn grazing just a few feet from our trailer. I stayed inside, feeling pretty crappy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

August 11th A long day of towing back to the Yellowstone area

We got a fairly early start out of Glacier National Park as we had a long day of towing in front of us as we wanted to reach the Yellowstone area by late afternoon. We once again headed down Montana Rural Route 89 through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation (watching for loose cattle and horses) and then into the rolling ranch lands. I enjoyed the stark but pretty scenery while listening to bugs splat against our windshield (there sure are a lot of bugs in Montana). As we traveled I was able to pick out three missile silos and one launch site. Our missile defense system is truly hidden in plain site! Once we crossed back into Wyoming we stopped at a visitor center to dump our holding tanks and fill our fresh water at the free RV waste station then we prepared lunch and ate in the visitor center parking lot before heading back on the road. Around 4:00pm we started to look for a National Forest campground and we came upon was at Earthquake Lake which is about 30 miles outside of Yellowstone. Here's the story about this interesting place: On August 17th, 1959 an earthquake near the Madison River triggered a massive landslide. The slide moved at 100 m.p.h. and in less than 1 minute, over 80 million tons of rock crashed into the narrow canyon, blocking the Madison River and forming Earthquake Lake. After we setup camp we took a walk around the campground and then we hiked down a hill where we could see the lake with its dead trees and a portion of road underwater. On the water we saw many white pelicans, American coot and Canada geese floating around the dead trees and as we were heading back to our site we saw a doe with her fawn grazing on the hillside near us. Once we got back to camp we made dinner and then retired for the evening as it had been a long travel day.

August 10th Day two in Glacier National Park

Well, we had the best intentions to get an early start on the "Going-to-the Sun" road in Glacier but ended up not leaving camp until 9:00am. The "Going-to-the Sun" road spans about 50 miles and is the highlight drive within the park. We started at the east end, passing by beautiful (and choppy) Lake St. Mary and began the climb into the mountains. The scenery was truly spectacular, every turn brought a different, more breathtaking view of the mountain range and it's many wildflowers. As we were traveling east to west on the road we were hugging the side of the mountain (rock side, not drop side) so I wasn't concerned about how high we were getting and after about 18 miles of travel we made it to Logan Pass which has a visitor center, museum and a boardwalk trail which leads to unbelievable views . Located at 6,646 feet above sea level Logan Pass is along the Continental Divide, and is at the summit of Going-to-the Sun road. This is the highest point at which visitors can drive their vehicles and boy was it's parking lot full! We explored the visitor center / museum (I also got the Logan Pass / Glacier NP Passport stamp) and we then walked the boardwalk trail. Man was it ever cold on the boardwalk trail! And the wind was whipping to boot (burrr). As we walked the trail we saw a young deer grazing on wildflowers and a hoary marmot hanging out on a rock. I couldn't believe how many wildflowers there were, they were just everywhere! After our walk we continued on the "Going-to-the Sun" road stopping at the many turnouts to look for mountain goats, view the wildflowers and admire the snow fields that dotted the mountainsides. It was quite the pleasant drive and I said to Leon that the loop road here in Glacier was not nearly as scary as the loop road in Rocky Mountain National Park. We finished the east to west drive on the loop road right around lunch time so we had our picnic near the famous and historic Lake McDonald Lodge. After lunch we did a self tour of the lodge, what a beautiful place! I thought it to be even nicer than the lodge at Many Glacier. Though the Many Glacier Lodge has the best scenery. We completed our tour of the western section of Glacier National Park by visiting it's bookstore which is located outside of the park (which I thought was wicked weird) where I got my Lake McDonald and West Glacier Passport stamps. We then headed back to the "Going-to-the Sun" loop road, now traveling west to east. The drive was wicked scary as we were on the outside lane with sheer drop offs without guardrails! My knees were knocking together! I couldn't really enjoy the scenery as I was too terrified due to my big fear of heights. At long last we exited the loop road and we beat feet to get back to the Many Glacier section of the park so that I could get it's Passport stamp. We made it to the ranger station in the nick of time, they were about to lock the door when I ran in. I quickly stamped my book and exited the building and the rangers promptly locked the door behind me. To celebrate my getting the Many Glaciers Passport stamp Leon and I stopped at the lodge and had a couple of drinks before heading back to camp for dinner. After dinner we strolled through the campground loops and then retired early as we had a long tow ahead of us the next day.