Winter Tour: National Parks of Utah

*This post was written in one hour for the first #NatureWritingChallenge.

The most memorable travel moments I have tend to revolve around National Parks.  Winter in Utah’s National Parks is something I will never forget.  It was March of 2010 and my best bud and I were on our last leg of a ten day trip encompassing Death Valley, Arches, (what’s now) Bears Ears, Bryce Canyon, and Zion with Las Vegas as our home base.  We had just left Arches, found our hotel in Monticello, Utah for the night, and the snow started to blanket the ground.  We woke up, another foot of snow had fallen overnight, and our original plans of going to the Grand Canyon were looking dim due to closed roads and more snow for the south rim so we opted for a more clear route to Bryce Canyon.  The route to Bryce was paved with over a foot of snow and we apparently drove through one of the most dangerous roads in Utah which is now encompassed in Bears Ears on Utah 261 called the Moki Dugway.  At the time, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into as we didn’t really have smartphones or much information for the trip.

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It took all day to get to Bryce Canyon, but we arrived and checked in to the Bryce Canyon Lodge.  It was night, but we wanted to drive to the parts of the park that were open to do some stargazing.  The crisp snow and clear sky is something I’ll never forget.  We drove out to the parking lot at Inspiration Point and let our eyes adjust to the pure darkness of the park.  After some stargazing in one of the darkest skies in the country, we went back to the hotel to enjoy some time in the hot tub.  It was freezing, snow was blowing and drifting, but the hot tub was open and it was one of the most amazing feelings in the world.  We had a few drinks, watched the snow blow across the iced-over pool, and planned our attack for the next day.  After a good sleep, we went back to Inspiration Point and walked through the deep snow along the edge to Upper Inspiration Point.  This was our first time seeing Bryce Canyon in person and seeing the hoodoos covered in snow was magical.  When you look out and over the edge and see a vast valley of hoodoos with snowdrifts in between, you just lose yourself for a minute or two.  We got back to the rental car and drove up to Bryce Point to get another view of bright pinkish orange hoodoos poking through fresh snow.

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We didn’t spend a lot of time at Bryce Canyon, but it was one of the most memorable trips of my life to a National Park.  We had been to Death Valley and Arches earlier in the week and experienced new views and hikes at each of them, but nothing like snow covered hoodoos.  Our next stop was Zion which also had fresh snow and the hike there on the Emerald Pools Trail was nothing less than beautiful.  We hiked to Emerald Pools and the Upper Emerald Pool.  The waterfalls were unlike anything we’d seen, and the Upper Emerald Pool had fresh snow to add to the scenic beauty.  I had been camping on BLM land in the winter the year prior, and been to various national forest land in the winter but nothing compared to the beauty of Utah’s National parks with a blanket of snow.

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Seeing can mean believing.

**Seeing can mean believing… more of my opinions on inclusiveness in the parks.**

I know some people who have gone to National Parks.  They have seen the majestic beauty, right along side me, and have proclaimed how beautiful it was aloud.  These same friends, they don’t really go to National Parks that often or at all anymore which is okay.  These people saw the beauty, believe in the beauty, and will remember the beauty of these wonderful places forever.  THIS IS IMPORTANT.

A National Park may not be their family vacation destination every time, but they may return someday.  These people understand the importance, value, and impact these places have on the general population.  They get it – because they’ve been there.  Because these people have been there, they get why it’s important to protect and fund these places.  These people then connect National Parks and the preservation ideals to other natural areas that need preservation.  It can build.

Visiting a National Park, once or twice, has left an impression on these people.  Will they return? Maybe.  Will they remember the good times there and what those parks stand for? Definitely.  It just takes one time, even if nature isn’t their thing, for someone to fall in love with the idea of National Parks, Monuments, Forests, etc.

Plant the seed and see what grows.  We need to continue to get people of all areas of life/status/etc to these place to see for themselves – maybe only once.  Maybe it isn’t their thing, but maybe it is.  Even if it isn’t their thing, they’ll remember the trip and could see how important these places are for our country.

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Vivid Memories.

It’s amazing to me that I can remember so much from such a brief visit to a National Park.  I was thinking back to my first trip to Death Valley National Park today and I can remember it all like we drove through yesterday.  I remember the Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater Basin, and Stovepipe Wells.  I remember hugging my first redwood just days prior up in Redwood National Park.  A year later, I was camping in Arches National Park after an edge-of-your-seat drive through a blizzard in the Rockies on the way there.  I remember the trails we hiked to go see the various arches and landscape views as well as the campsite and the view from the tent.  I remember it being something like 11 degrees and very windy with some icy spots on the trails – and a funny sign warning of falling on ice.  I remember the BLM land on the Loneliest Road in America – US 50 – and the campsite there with snow.  We pitched the tent, dug a trench to divert any melting snow, and made a fire.  That night, the sky was so clear and full of stars.  You could see US 50 for miles, and in that one night I only remember seeing two cars in the distance.

I remember something from each visit to Redwood National Park and I remember our brief drive through Olympic National Park.  I remember the moss growing on the old wood – making everything pop with green.  I can’t recall a more worthwhile hike than the one Delicate Arch, despite not really knowing much about where we were going.  I can still picture Bryce Canyon, covered in snow, from Inspiration Point.  The hoodoos poking through massive snow drifts below is a sight forever burned into my brain.  Snow melting, muddy trails, and the spray of waterfalls in Zion in the early spring only make me want to return.

I could go on, and on, about things I remember without even a picture to trigger it.  I have so many memories from trips to National Parks.  I’ve experienced visits as brief as a drive through with stops at scenic lookouts to camping overnight.  The experience doesn’t matter, as long as it happens.  If we get people that may not be able to or people that don’t really know too much about the parks to the parks, they may have these little memories to hold on to and may be more inclined to help preserve them.  If people can develop memories or find meaning in these places, they may be more willing to join the fight to fund, protect, and expand them.  We must continue to fight to get EVERYONE out to the parks.  We must continue to fight the current administration and their desire to shrink, drill in, and/or eliminate these places.  Together, through collective thoughts and actions we can make these parks accessible to all people and create new ones for the future while securing proper funding.  I believe it is possible, do you?

I fell in love with public lands in 2009.

**Disclaimer: This is a blog entry I’ve put together describing how I fell in love with our public lands and where I think we need to go with them.  I don’t claim to be an expert and this blog entry is strictly my opinion.  My ideas are my own and are subject to change with conversations, education, and experience.  Thank you.**

Late Bloomer.

If we go back to my first National Park, it would be Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore or Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  I am almost sure I went to both as a teenager, with my grandparents, because my parents never took us anywhere out of the county – because of work, money, and time.  I grew up far away from the beauty that was Rainier, Yosemite, Yellowstone, or Rocky Mountain.  I knew not of these places until high school, but really not until college and beyond.  I’ve always had nature, just not public nature.  We had a couple hundred acres to roam, ample state land in Michigan, and plenty of friends with land.  I never really grasped the concept of National Parks, designated wilderness, or the like until college.  I took a course in wildlife management, learned a lot, and within the next few years visited some national parks.  I had student loan money, so I was invincible.  Not really, but it paid the tuition/rent and I had a few bucks left over for a spring break road trip.  I don’t advise on having a few bucks left over – borrow only what is necessary.  I do, however, advise saving hard-earned money for a spring break road trip that isn’t to some beach somewhere.  Traditional spring breaks did not appeal to me – but a road trip with my buds to places people weren’t going sounded amazing.

In 2007, my two friends and I, set out on that spring break road trip driving from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Denver and through the Rockies and beyond.  We went right past Rocky Mountain National Park and visited a friend in Grand Junction, Colorado.  We drove down through Utah, right past the Arches and Canyonlands, and onward to Texas.  We drove past EVERYTHING because we didn’t know much about it and one of us wasn’t into the outdoors.  The next year, my outdoor friend and I insisted on a better, more thoughtful trip that included national parks.  We went from Grand Rapids to Seattle, down to Redwoods NP, and onward to Death Valley.  We saw two parks the entire trip – which was better than nothing for us;  we had to compromise for time and interest of the parties involved.  I mean, forget that we drove right by Badlands, North Cascades, Olympic, Crater Lake, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Petrified Forest.  If 2017 me went back to 2008, I’d punch myself in the face for being so dumb.  Anyway…

In 2009, my buddy and I drove out to Arches and camped – determined to see more of our public lands this year.  We traveled onward to some BLM land in Nevada and then over to the Redwoods.  Up the coast, we went to the Olympic Peninsula – which was pure magic.  Saw more, stopped more, spent more time on public lands – really understanding what they were now and what they meant to me.  This trip was the one that really cemented how important these places were.  When 2010 came around, and we were half in college, half not sure what life was all about, half employed, we naturally decided to go to Vegas in the spring.  Sin City was exciting, but I feel the real excitement was about the road trip to various national parks.  We hiked in Death Valley, saw the sights from high to low, and I saw how big that place really was.  From there, we went to Capitol Reef, Arches, and Zion before flying back to Michigan.  If 2009 cemented it, 2010 sealed that cement.  I was in love with our national parks.

In 2011, after moving to Texas I met a new friend and we went to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in October.  It is hard to put into words how I felt about the views, the yellow leaves, and the crisp air.  In love?  Probably.  2012 brought a revival of the random road trip with my outdoor buddy (since he moved to Texas) and we ended up in Tucson at Saguaro NP.  2013 Included Carlsbad Caverns, Arches again, and the Grand Canyon South Rim.  In 2014, we went to Big Bend in January and Rocky Mountain NP in August.  In 2015, my other half and I took our friend on a road trip to Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, and Zion.  Later in 2015, we went to the Arch in St. Louis.  In 2016 I made my return to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with visits to Redwoods, Oregon Caves, Point Reyes, and Golden Gate.  This year, we’ve visited Kenai Fjords, Redwoods again, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon.  It’s true love.

In the past few years, I’ve spent more time exploring public lands than I had my whole entire previous existence.  I’ve hiked in national forests, visited the parks mentioned above, and have plans for so visiting so many more public lands.  I was lucky to find the parks in 2008 and luckier now because I can afford to visit more frequently.  The more I visit, the more I love these places and value their existence.  The more I visit, the more I want to fight to keep them public.  The more I visit, the more I see that they may be all of ours, but they’re really not available to everyone.  The more I visit, the more I want to use my privilege to open these parks to those who have never visited or can’t visit due to distance, cost, or any combination of reasons.  I can’t imagine the level of passion and devotion I’d have if I’d been visiting these parks since I was a kid.  It is absolutely VITAL that youth of all backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, and age groups be exposed to (and educated about) these places.  Maybe these lands are not for everyone, but maybe a few of them will grow up to protect, love, and fight for them.  We need to work to include everyone in the outdoor world.  We need to diversify the DOI and hire people from all walks of life.  We need to designate more parks/monuments/etc in more places representing the spectrum of Americans that exist.

I’m not sure quite how to accomplish the tasks at hand, but I’ve decided a vital step is to find a way to get more people involved and interested in our public lands.  I need to immerse myself in projects, organizations, and maybe even a career shift to building a diverse following for our public lands.  It may be a new love, but it’s a true love.  I feel as though I’ve finally found my place in this fight to make sure our public lands are open to all and I’m determined to make a difference.

You can always find somewhere to hike.

Earlier this week, one of my favorite people that I’ve never met based solely on photos and brief interactions, posted a lovely photo and some words on Twitter basically saying that despite not being able to get to the mountains due to life being busy at times, he was thankful to have local trails and preserves to enjoy between mountain visits.  And damn, if that doesn’t speak to my life goal, I don’t know what does.  Never stop exploring, appreciate what is around you, make the best of every situation, and learn to love where you live.

Where I live in Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth metro area) isn’t the prettiest, to me, in terms of natural landscapes but it does have a few redeeming qualities.  First, I’m thankful for local parks in the DFW metro area – they serve the purpose of partially escaping and disconnecting.  Second, I’m fortunate enough to have several worthwhile places that are within a few hours of the metro area by car – within Texas, up to Oklahoma, and up and over to Arkansas.  Third, If I’m feeling adventurous, I am lucky to have an array of majestic places within 12 hours by car that include mountains, forests, desert landscapes, and flowing water.  DFW is a hub for American, which gets me across this great nation at a reasonable rate with many nonstop options.  Dallas is a hub for Southwest, which includes two checked bags for gear, and they’re always offering reasonable rates to many of my favorite destinations.  I feel lucky.  While Texas isn’t my favorite place (and hopefully not my final destination), I am going to continue to embrace the positive aspects and make the most of it while I’m here.

My journey on 52 Hikes With Mike has been about embracing where I live and taking as much of it in as I can.  By participating in the hiking challenge, I managed to branch out and actually learn about the outdoor culture in my area and beyond.  It has awakened a part of me that went dormant years ago and connected me with many like-minded people in just the nine short months so far.  Here’s to many more miles and seeing more trees than people!

It’s March, already?

I hate March.

March is my least favorite month because it’s that month between winter and true spring that just hangs out.  I hated March more when I lived in the North because it was never sure if it wanted to snow or rain.  In Texas, it’s always rain, and that’s more okay I guess.

The only part of March I ever loved, was spring break.  In 2007, we started a new spring break tradition of driving across the country to get a glimpse of what was out there.  We started this tradition as we were nearing the end of our college careers, so it carried on afterwards when we took post grad stuff and worked shitty low-paying jobs.

In 2007, we (Myself, my best friend Kevin, and our friend Matt) didn’t have a plan.  We rented a car, a 2007 Chevy Impala with a sunroof, and just drove.  We had concert tickets for a show in Chicago, a friend living in Grand Junction, CO, family staying in Gulf Shores, AL, and a hockey game to attend in Detroit, MI.  Some firsts from this trip included: crossing the Mississippi, seeing Mountains, swimming in an ocean, having an ocean front hotel room, renting a car, seeing palm trees, and visiting all of the states beyond MI/IN/IL/OH.

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In 2008, we had a plan.  We drove to Seattle, 32 hours or so, and down the coast to San Francisco.  We saw the Redwoods, coastal beauty, and big cities.  We moved inland, saw the desert and Death Valley, Las Vegas, and the rest of the middle of nowhere.  This trip included seeing a movie, Wild Hogs, in Iowa and then finding the town it was based on in New Mexico on the way home.

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In 2009, Matt had a real job and so Kevin and I invited my BFF Molly.  Kevin and I rented a Chevy HHR – long story short, we had a snafu at the car rental place – and headed west.  We camped at Arches, hiked and drove through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, took the Loneliest Road through Nevada and camped along that, and picked up Molly in Sacramento.  From there we hit the coast again, going north to Portland and Seattle and then home via I-90 towards Michigan.

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In 2010, Kevin and I flew with friends to Vegas for a few days.  We stayed there, did the Vegas thing, went to Death Valley, Hoover Dam, etc.  We then visited Zion and Bryce Canyon with hopes of getting to Grand Canyon.  The snow was too much, and we had to change our course.  We traveled some scary roads, hiked some icy trails, and flew back to Michigan much happier.

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In 2015, my better half and great friend Nikki utilized their spring breaks and went west.  We drove to Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, Vegas, and hit Zion on the way back.  We hiked and enjoyed nature and city alike.

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My hope for 2018 is that I will use my vacation during my better half’s teacher spring break (he has a conference this year) and we’ll adventure somewhere by car again.  Maybe Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite.

Here’s to March and making the best of it.

California Trip – June 2016

Wednesday, June 1 & Thursday, June 2

We departed Texas and started the boring part of the drive until nightfall.  I slept most of the way through the state and some of New Mexico.  I started driving at dark and we made our way through Arizona, and Southern California.  Light broke as we were getting to Bakersfield, no real treat there but at least we were in California.  Made our way through the boring parts of Cali – Central and the 5 – and then up towards the Golden Gate via a nice state road through golden hills.  We went through Silicon Valley and crossed the Golden Gate.  We took the 101 up, up and away.  Stopped for lunch in Santa Rosa and drove to Leggett and decided on a whim to go to a “drive through” tree park.  It was evening, it wasn’t busy, and it was our first taste of the trees and tourism of Northern California fort this trip.  Drove through a big redwood, took some pics, had our first encounter with big trees, and hit the road north to Arcata.  We arrived at the Red Roof Inn, a total dump, and checked in to our room.  I had to deal with a crazy man in the lobby, obnoxious smells in the hallway, and a generally worn down and unclean room.  We were exhausted, but hungry so we had to choose a place to eat.  We found a place in Arcata called Crush which featured local brews and food along with entertainment – it was trivia night when we happened upon the place.  With some research, we learned that Arcata passed an ordinance/zoning law allowing only a small portion of all restaurants to be chains – to encourage local growth.  Sleep felt so good after 33 hours in a car – even if the hotel was shit.

 

Friday, June 3

Woke up, hit up the Starbucks (in the neighboring town) and headed north.  We got up to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and stopped for a bit to see if we could see any elk.  We hiked down the Lost Man’s Creek trail for a bit, and continued our drive.  We hiked around the Big Tree and Chandelier trees, and just took a few other short trails.  Spent several hours driving and hiking around, and had lunch at the Harvest Café in Crescent City, CA.  It was a nice, clean place to eat with a variety of items.  We were pleased, and would go back.  After lunch, we loaded up and took off to do a scenic drive.  We found the Howland Hill Road, a narrow dirt road through a redwood grove for about 11 miles.  It was a very scenic, slow-paced, and relaxing little drive – even in a Chevy Cruze.  We wound our way through and eventually followed, then crossed, the Smith River and came out on US 199.  We decided to follow US 199 North and see where it took us.  The scenery along the Smith River was breathtaking, the roads were winding, and the trees were plenty.  The traffic moves quickly, so we turned out a lot as we were in no hurry to get anywhere.  Eventually, we ended up crossing into Oregon and found ourselves in Cave Junction, OR.  I had recently applied for a job there, and knew about the National Monument/Park called Oregon Caves, so we went the 17 miles east to the caves!  We did a cave tour with a nice Park Ranger that had a degree in geology.  Our group was okay, but there were some teenagers trying to prove something with their words.  Overall, the caves were amazing and cold.  It was a nice break and an unexpected destination that will be recommended to all of our friends.  The road up to the caves was a trip, and the scenery just amazing.  We made the trek back to Arcata, got some shitty fast food, and went to bed very early at 9:30.

Saturday, June 4

Another morning and I was up early due to the early bedtime the night before.  I waited a while, eventually woke the partner up,  and we left for the Avenue of Giants.  We found the scenic route and some hiking spots along the way.  We stopped within the first 500 feet of the drive, to check out some trees and groves, and then stopped again at a nice loop known for berry picking later in the season. We managed to go down to the riverside and saw where the locals swam and partied, along the South Fork Eel River.  We then went to the Rockefeller grove and saw the trees.  Sat on a log by the river, listened to the stream flow by, and just took it all in.  We drove out to Ferndale, CA and saw the historic Victorian homes and quaint little town that it is.  We saw a neat cemetery on a hillside, the big park, and took a mountain road for a bit to enjoy some scenery.  We attempted the trek to the Lost Coast, but it was a bit too far and traffic was intense on that little road.  We ended the day with lunch-dinner at Lost Coast Brewing in Eureka, CA.  The beer was okay, all kind of mellow and low alcohol, and the food was tasty.  We went to bed VERY early, nearly 7:30 I think, and have zero regrets about that.

Sunday, June 5

Our intention was to wake up early, but we still managed to lay around for a bit.  Got up, and did leave before 8:00 to head south toward Leggett again.  In Leggett, we can take the California 1 (Shoreline Highway) west and south and follow the Pacific Ocean.  Had a nice jaunt through the mountains to the coast and we stopped at a little park near Fort Bragg.  I could immediately smell the ocean and feel the salty air when we exited the car.  It was amazing.  We go from redwoods to the ocean in minutes.  Soaked it in, got back in the car, and went on our way down the coast.  Plenty of little towns and quite a nice drive if you have the time – which we did – that follows the in and out of the rocky cliffs through groves of trees and cow pastures.  We only saw 3 free range cows near the road, but we did see plenty of other happy cows in fenced areas.  The further south we got on the California 1, the busier it got.  We hit Marin County and it was slammed with people and festivals and congestion.  We made our way down to the Golden Gate via the Point Reyes National Seashore.  We proceeded across and down to Campbell, CA where my friend currently resides.  We checked in to the Campbell Inn, a much nicer and quainter hotel with a nice pool and an excellent breakfast.  We met up with my friend, whom I haven’t seen in eight years, at a place called Orchard City Kitchen.  It’s a high quality, high priced place that I would recommend again – with caution.  I spent a lot of money there, because the food was good and the drinks were strong.  You could get away with a decent bill if you stick to a few things overall.  A bit of an elaborate experience overall, but very fun indeed for meeting old friends and getting a little tipsy.  They have a huge selection of booze – from the fancy to the fanciest to accompany any type of food.  We went back to the hotel, walked that is, and ordered pizza because we’re fat kids.  I regret the pizza, a lot.  To bed we went.

Monday, June 6

I woke up feeling like I was going to die at 3:00 due to all the excess of food, abundance of salt, and probably the alcohol consumption.  I proceeded to toss and turn for another six hours.  We finally got motivated and went to San Francisco around 10.  We went to the Golden Gate, explored the Marin Highlands on the north side of the 101, and then parked in Daly City and took the BART into the lower financial district.  Found some grub at Super Duper – a burger place – and then continued our exploration down to the waterfront.  We explored the market, saw Sur La Table, and wandered through the city streets.  This portion of the trip makes us want to revisit the city – and allocate enough time to enjoy the city.  From here, we took the BART to the car and headed back to Campbell.  We went city streets via Palo Alto, Mountain View, and other rich suburbs.  It was a nice drive, filled with Tesla dealerships and a fun game of spot the Tesla on the road.  We met up with my friend and walked to downtown Campbell for dinner and relaxing.  The town of Campbell is quaint and yuppie, which is perfect for visitors.  We settled on a place called Sushi Confidential for dinner with some ice cream nearby for dessert and some coffee after that.  Overall, it was a nice night to close our trip in California.  We headed back to the hotel, snuggled in and went to bed with intentions of leaving by 6:00 in the morning.

Tuesday, June 7 & Wednesday June 8

Well, 6:00 came and went and we hit the road about 9:00.  We opted to take the route skirting Los Angeles and going through Phoenix and Tucson on the way home instead of the way we came through Flagstaff and Bakersfield.  It was an interesting drive, with car fires in the desert hills and carpool lanes working to our advantage.  My favorite sign was when we hit the desert and it just said “other desert cities” as shown below. We got to Phoenix about sunset, and the rest was a dark history until morning came and we were still only in West Texas.  We made a detour to Granbury, TX to stop by an eye doctor and visit our friend’s new house quickly.  I got to sleep about 4:00 and slept for about 3 hours on top of the naps I took in the car.  Work was happening at 10, regardless if I wanted it to or not.