Saturday, September 14, 2019

Summer Western Adventure August 2019

9 National Parks, 14 locations, 150 miles of hiking, and 3,500 miles of driving through Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, New Mexico, and infinite memories. 

DAY 1 Wednesday 14 August Scottsbluff, Chimney Rock, Carhenge

       We were dressed, out the door, and in a cab by 5:50am heading for LGA and our 7.30am flight. This was no easy feat for 2 fast-growing teenage boys, not to mention their mom. Not bad, given we had been out on the town last night, attending a performance at the Joyce Theatre of BĂ©jart’s Songs of a Wayfarer staged by Maina Gielgud, former Director of the Australian Ballet. Max was very much inspired. Who knows, perhaps one day he will dance Songs and have the privilege of working with Maina too. That is a lovely thought to ponder.
     After our 4-hour flight to Denver, we took the shuttle bus to Sixt Car Rental, acquired a cushy Jeep Grand Cherokee, and were on the road at 10:30am making our way toward Scottsbluff. A brief stop at Target for supplies at 11:45 and we were on our way. The terrain, changed dramatically as we drove through Nebraska. Flat grassy plains transitioned to rockier terrain. We arrived at Scottsbluff, the boys changed into shorts in the back seat, and we set off to climb the Saddle Rock Trail. It took us all of 60 minutes to climb the trail to the Scottsbluff summit and down. A piece of cake.
At our next destination, Chimney Rock, we decided against the walk to its base. The track was extremely overgrown, perfect rattlesnake territory. Our next stop, Carhenge (the American version of Stonehenge) with its planted grey painted cars provided Max with the perfect opportunity for a handstand pic and vid. Max felt very happy with the outcome.
      The remainder of the day flowed smoothly with a drive through the Nebraska National Forest culminating at our Best Western in Chadron and dinner at EJ’s BBQ. Not too bad for a first day’s adventure.

Day 2 Thursday 15 August Mammoth Hot Springs, Crazy Horse, the Black Hills: Little Devils Tower Trail, Mt Rushmore

       The Mammoth Museum proved very interesting. Despite living across the street from the Natural History Museum, it brought home to us the reality of how enormous those wooly mammoths really were. It was interesting to observe trace fossils such as footprints as well as the massive amount of half-excavated bone. The site is well maintained and has a great deal to offer paleontologists.
      Traveling north along the US 385 we passed by Crazy Horse Monument, still in the process of being constructed. He is huge and when complete will be very impressive.
As we entered the Black Hills the temperature dropped 20 degrees and it began to rain. The change of weather did little to deter us from our hike on Little Devils Tower Trail. The weather passed as quickly as it appeared and Little Devils Tower hike ( 7 miles return) proved to be the perfect choice for the day.
       The long winding Needles Highway with its numerous switchbacks, narrow tunnels, and spectacular views (several of Mt Rushmore) provided copious opportunities for pics and had us arriving in Keystone by late afternoon.
       After dinner, we headed to Mt Rushmore, a 5-minute drive away. The main walkway to the viewing area was under construction, so instead, we walked the President’s Trail which was on our agenda for tomorrow. It provided wonderful views of Mount Rushmore and the 4 Presidents - Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. The afternoon turned to dusk and the Presidents on Mt Rushmore changed color with the setting sun, eventually becoming illuminated artificially, reminding us of Niagara Falls lit up at night. Beautiful in a different way.

DAY 3 Friday 16 August Black Hills: Mt Baldy hike (narrow crevice); Badlands
      We woke this morning well rested, enjoyed a FREE breakfast, packed our bags, and made our way to the Wrinkled Rock parking area near the base of Mt Baldy, our first destination for the day. We had read that the trail is not well marked and it was not. We hiked a substantial distance on a deer trail before retracing our steps. The true path revealed itself at a junction point about 15 minutes later. We scratched our heads, wondering how we could have missed it. The trail headed East onto Mt Rushmore land and wound its way around the base of Mt Baldy.  
       We made our way up the steep granite inclines that provided some serious rock scrambling to reach the summit. I had reached my personal best early, but the boys pressed on, squeezing through an extremely narrow crevice to reach the top. They were rewarded with spectacular 360° views of the back of Mt Rushmore and the surrounding terrain. They shimmied back down through the very narrow crevice 20 minutes later, and we were united again. Before making our way down, we picnicked in a lovely grassy shaded area just beneath the summit, then bid farewell to the Black Hills and Keystone and headed toward the Badlands.
       The 47 million-year-old Badlands has some of the wackiest terrains we have ever encountered. As we drove along the Loop Road, Riley awoke from a nap and exclaimed, “What happened? Last time I looked we were in the grasslands, and now we are in Alien-land.” He was right. The grasslands had given way to barren and crumbling rock formations, layered with different colored sediment and fossils at every turn in the road. We stopped at Pinnacle Point and admired the strange sweeping vista before heading toward Cedar Lodge.
After check-in, we debated getting ice cream but opted for a short but strenuous hike up Saddle Pass Trail. We slip-slid up and slip-slid down. I, of course, was scanning for rattlesnakes the whole way. Finally, we took the short boardwalk hike on the easy Door Trail.
       We were glad to return to our clean, rustic cabin decked out with everything we could wish for. After dinner, it seemed fitting to pull out one of our carefully chosen vacation movies and complete the evening watching North by Northwest.

DAY 4 Saturday 17 August Badlands

       We slept like logs, woke sleepily, breakfasted slowly, and headed out for some scenery and rock scrambling through the Badlands National Park. The Notch Trail, an estimated 1 ½ hr hike, was super easy. We scaled the 30-foot wooden ladder with ease, explored the surrounding terrain from above, and noticed the rock shapes seemed vaguely familiar, reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss book, Oh the Places You’ll Go, The Things You Will See.
We followed the trail to its end and were treated to a panoramic view. On the way back some of us flirted with off-trail paths and Riley scored a few unwanted scrapes along the way. But boys being boys, they all bounced back brilliantly.
       We reconvened back at the car to refill water bottles and reapply sunscreen but the sun was now high overhead and we were feeling it. We opted for Castle Trail which began as flat grassy plains, circumvented rocky hoodoo-type land formations then back to grassy flat plains once more. Shelter was hard to find and the sun and heat were unrelenting. There were plenty of holes and potential homes for slippery rattlesnakes and I must admit I was very happy to return to the car without having met one along the way.
       By the late afternoon, the wind had picked up and the weather changed. Riley stayed in the cabin whilst Charles, Max, and I decided to explore the Fossil trail. Moving on, we walked the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail that looped around a juniper forest, then we went back to meet Riles for dinner.

DAY 5 Sunday 18 August - Cabela’s, Devils Tower, Sheridan

       We woke in sync with the rising sun as it peeked in through the cracks in the wooden blinds. After a bagel brekkie, we packed and were on our way by 8am heading towards Devils Tower accompanied by a podcast describing theories as to how the Cretaceous era ended.
       We made a quick stop at a Cabela’s in Rapid City to purchase Bear Spray (hooray!) and found ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of handguns, shotguns, rifles, and ammunition before our eyes. A foreign presence to us, but not so foreign subject given the gun violence that is so prevalent today in America. 
       Passing across the border from South Dakota to Wyoming the terrain changed again. We noticed the yellow, orange, and red of the limestone that provided a vibrant backdrop for the bright green pines. As it came into view, we were amazed at the immensity of Devils Tower, the huge iconic monolith, massive, magnificent, and not unlike Uluru (also considered sacred by indigenous people) in that rises majestically seemingly out of nowhere.
       The trail around the base provided several launching pads for adventurous rock scramblers (that’s us) who are permitted to scramble up to a designated boundary. I chose to leave the 2nd scramble to the boys and this time they headed up and disappeared into the foliage. They were gone for a good 40 minutes but I was treated to their stories upon return.
       Apparently, they missed the “go no further” sign and went right to the base of the basalt columns. There they saw their first snake which slithered past a few feet in front of Riley and spoke to some climbers who were impressed with the enormity of our Western trip. I was glad to have missed the snake part.
       Leaving Devils Tower driving west, we stopped to take a few pics of the cute prairie dogs popping up from mounds that spanned a huge field. The country opened up to the high plains of Wyoming -- green and flat. Approaching Buffalo we had a great view of the undulating Big Horns in the distance, A quick stop at Fort Phil Kearney left us a bit nonplussed about the efficacy of the US Calvary and its 1860s administration from Washington. Fort Phil Kearney was the site of the worst military disaster of the era save Little Big Horn. The Fort only lasted 2 years until technology (the railroad) made it obsolete. The Cheyenne burnt it to the ground as soon as the soldiers abandoned it.
       When we arrived in Sheridan, the Trail’s End Motel was very much a trail’s end place. Charles promptly made a call to a Best Western and booked us into a family suite. We had an enormous room, a pool, a laundry, and a restaurant. (Max was very happy to swim.

DAY 6 Monday 19 August The Bighorns, Devils Kitchen, Cody
       We set off from the Best Western rested, with clean clothes, and with full bellies from our free breakfast. Our first stop was King Saddlery, Western-ware heaven; saddles, tack, whips, lassos, knives, caps, and boots. A good spot for Christmas gifts. Back in the car we zoomed passed the Trails End Motel (all agreeing we had definitely made the right choice of accommodation for the night) and headed toward the beautiful Big Horn Mountains. We stopped briefly at Shell Falls observing the power of the water carving a great S-shape through the canyon walls, then drove onward down through the canyon with its strangely beautiful massive chiseled walls parading shades of yellow and red at every turn -- spectacular. After our descent, we turned left onto a rough dirt road that led to the Red Gulch Dinosaur Site.
       The Dinosaur site was hot and dry. We were the only people crazy enough to be there that hot day. We had expected an information booth or a Ranger to inform us of the Dinosaur footprints location and meanings, but instead, we were greeted with warning signs announcing “Rattlesnakes and Scorpions in the area” -- not the greetings we had imagined. Needless to say, our stop was short.
       Next stop, Devil’s Kitchen to hunt for gastroliths. On the way, we were greeted by 3 spritely antelope and we discussed the idea that perhaps antelope travel in groups of 3 as do the sheep in Iceland. We arrived at Devils Kitchen, parked the car on top of the bluff, slid down a small embankment and walked out to a thin ledge wondering how we might descend into the deep hollow below. There was no clear path. This didn’t deter us in the least from our purpose, to search for gastroliths. We hopped back in the car and carefully drove around the perimeter over a makeshift road to the opposite side where Charles had thought we might be able to get into the “Kitchen”. We were rewarded with relatively easy access walking into Devil’s Kitchen and discovered the reason for its name. The heat down there was almost unbearable. We could have fried an egg on the hot rocky surface most certainly.
       Our journey wasn’t without reward. Charles found a gastrolith in the gypsum at the bottom which delighted him to no end making the bumpy ride and intense heat worthwhile. Charles was like a kid in a candy store. He collected prize specimens, both of gastroliths and, perhaps, coprolite (fossilized dinosaur poop, yes, really). We were collecting dinosaur poop. Who does that? You guessed it, the Barker Family. In keeping with his theme, Max found an excellent place to do a handstand. His handstands started with his legs spread then slowly he would bring his legs together. There were many imaginative and stunning backgrounds to Max's handstands. It became a theme for the trip.
       We spent as long as we possibly could in the intense heat of Devil’s Kitchen. We didn’t fancy becoming baked statistics. The cool air-conditioned car was heavenly relief as we climbed in and headed toward Cody. On the way, we stopped at a 60s style A&W Root Beer drive-in. It really hit the spot. There’s nothing better than an icy cold root beer float or chocolate shake to quench the thirst after a dry exploration in the Devil's Kitchen, Wyoming.
       We checked into the charming Irma Hotel which has a long history and also a personal family history. Charles's dad stayed there with his parents in the 1930s and now Charles is staying here with his boys.
       At 6pm we watched a “Wild West Show” from front row seats. It wasn’t a Broadway performance, but it was light and entertaining with a little history thrown in to boot. We met Hanna’s sister Ruth, and her husband Keith for dinner in the Irma’s old fashioned restaurant furnished with a huge oak bar given to Buffalo Bill by Queen Victoria. After dinner, we took a short stroll down Main Street before retiring for the evening.

DAY 7 Tuesday 20 August Yellowstone 1

       We rose early, well, some of us earlier than others. Charles and Max had visited the emergency room at the hospital in Cody at 5am. Max woke with a pain in his eye and not sure of the cause, they ended up in the emergency room. He suspected he had left a contact lens in but was diagnosed with conjunctivitis and sent away with antibiotic drops and reassurance. Not much fun at 5am. But the good news, we were in the right town and just 5 blocks from the hospital, so all was well.
       Max went back to sleep and Charles, the ever foresightful generous father and husband, stocked our supplies (water, sunscreen, and a visit to Starbucks for coffee and egg-bites) all while Riley, Max, and I were still sleeping. The coffee and egg-bites were very much appreciated. We dressed, packed the car, took photos with the bronze Buffalo Bill, and were on our way to Yellowstone NP by 9:30am.
       Avalanche Peak comes up quickly after you enter the park. Charles asked the Ranger if she had any advice for us climbing it and she replied, “Got your Bear Spray?” This wasn’t too reassuring for me. The climb wasn’t easy, we were sweaty, both from the physical exertion and me from shakey nerves (the nerves were all mine). We had our trusty Bear Spray, but even that didn’t seem to keep my nerves at bay. We met 2 lovely German couples with whom we tag-teamed up the steep slopes. I must say that helped me immensely. The trail’s steep upslope begins immediately. From the car park, we crossed the road and were greeted immediately by a large sign. “Be Bearware. This is Bear country. Have bear spray and travel in groups of 3 or more. Make noise” -- not completely reassuring. My rattlesnake fears quickly became bear fears, but I did my berry best to overcome them. The boys were ever adventurous and embraced the hike wholeheartedly.
       The steep pine forest opened up into a pretty meadow speckled with sprays of yellow and purple wildflowers. Above the meadow we reached the tree line and the terrain became barren and rocky. We mountain-goated it to the summit where we were rewarded with breathtaking views. It was worth every ounce of sweat and nerves.
       We shared our picnic spot with some friendly cute chipmunks who were obviously looking for more than 1 tiny PayDay peanut. The agility with which they bounded down the scree and over the rocks was truly impressive. The descent went smoothly even over the loose rock paths at the top. We were very pleased with ourselves and I was pleased not to have encountered any bears.
       Once back in the car our plans to check into the Snow Lodge changed as we were early for check-in. We drove directly to the Mystic Falls trailhead, stopping briefly for a pic at the Kepler Cascades. We walked the boardwalk trail through steaming geysers of varying shapes and colors -- bizarre, yet somehow beautiful. We took the Mystic Falls trailhead toward the falls. The trail forked at a point and we had some ambivalence as to whether to take the trail to the lookout point at the top. In hindsight, it would have been ok to turn around at the base of the Falls (that’s if we had been able to find the falls. They were rather elusive.) instead we wove our way up. Max’s eye was bothering him and we were all pretty spent after our Avalanche Peak hike.
     Tired and a touch cranky we made our way to the Snow Lodge which was also rather elusive. The signs, or rather lack of signs, frustrated our driver. A steaming hot shower, a viewing of Old Faithful (which true to its name erupts magnificently every 90 minutes) and delicious meal at the Obsidian Dining Room fixed everything. Four tired hungry bears now felt much better (as the boys used to say when they were little, “I’m all better now”).
       Before going back to the room we headed out for another viewing of Old Faithful and soaked in the majesty of the vast Milky Way beginning to emerge above us. How small we are in this big picture we call life. Old Faithful and the beautiful night sky will still be here long after we are gone. Yellowstone is like ‘The New York City of The West’ with all of its different “pockets” (Boroughs) -- Roosevelt, Mammoth, Old Faithful, Canyon Village, and West Thumb, each so different from the next.

DAY 8 Wednesday 21 August Yellowstone 2

       Today was brimming with erupting geysers, gushing waterfalls and wildlife up close. We began our day with a stroll along the Biscuit Basin Boardwalk and the Upper Geyser Basin first viewing of Old Faithful from below then hiking to Observation Point to view the many geysers (apparently there are 180 of them in total) from above. What we had imagined as a short ½ hr walk ended up taking 2 hours. By the time we had walked the length of the Biscuit Basin Boardwalk viewing the MANY geysers along the way, we had covered a total distance of 5.1 miles. It’s not surprising we were tired when we arrived back in our room. And that was just the beginning of our day.
       Next, we walked the boardwalk at Grand Prismatic Springs. It was packed with tourists and not surprising at all. We were treated to gorgeous colors - shades of vibrant blues, greens, and oranges. We were particularly taken by the patterns in the ground, the reflections of the sky and clouds in the water, and swirls of steam in the air. Tomorrow we plan to hike to the observation point for a birds-eye view.
     Our next point of interest, the Norris Geyser Basin was a little more sulfuric (a reminder of our stinky Iceland day) but well worth braving the stink for. After a quick lunch in the car, we were walking along Porcelain Basin aptly named for its milky whites, opaques, powdery baby blues, and the occasional emerald greens. Norris Geyser Basin was spectacularly different from the Biscuit Basin and Grand Prismatic. We hiked the Porcelain Basin then over to the Back Basin to view Steamboat Geyser (the biggest/tallest erupting geyser in the world). We, unfortunately, missed its eruption, which was last year, but could hardly complain given the number of geyser eruptions we had witnessed today. Having had our fill of erupting geysers we were off to see some gushing waterfalls.
       The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was spectacular with its varied shades of yellow on the massive canyon walls. We parked and hiked along the North Rim for an unbelievable view of the Upper Falls, then backtracked and drove to the Lower Falls and Artists Point for another spectacular view.
     On the return drive to our Snow Lodge, we passed through the Hayden Valley hoping to see wildlife. It must have been too early in the evening because the valley was basically empty. However, we did strike it lucky a little further on after visiting Mud Volcano. An enormous male bison came crashing out of the woods by the side of the road. He was one BIG guy.   
       Charles reversed so we could get a closer look and take some pics. The buffalo didn’t even bat an eyelid. As we slowly drove on he followed for a way seemingly unperturbed by our presence. Farther along toward the West Thumb junction, we passed our first female elk and further along, a 12-point bull elk feeding just by the side of the road. We parked the car to take some pics up close.
      Dinner at the historic Old Faithful Lodge was very fun. Charles was entertaining and had us in stitches and the waiter was very accommodating.

DAY 9 Thursday 22 Aug   Yellowstone 3

       This morning we slept in. A lazy late start. It felt REALLY good. We parked in the Fairy Falls parking lot at Grand Prismatic Spring and hiked to the overlook. The cloud cover prevented us from seeing the true beauty of the colors, but we took some great pics anyway. Apparently, it is the sunlight upon the water that produces the vibrancy of color.
       Returning to the car we drove North on Firehole Canyon Road toward Mammoth. Tidbit of information - 65 species of bacteria and algae live in mammoth hot springs, 2 tons of travertine are deposited daily. The oranges, browns, and greens are due to thermophiles that prefer hotter temps. The greys are where water has stopped running.
We first drove the one-way loop road that goes to the top of the cascades but not finding a parking spot we made our way to the parking lot at the bottom of the Springs then walked the boardwalk up from there zigzagging left and right observing each unique Spring. We enjoyed the white and orange of Cupid and Canary Springs, obviously named for their color (bright yellow bacteria), the mostly dormant Blue spring, the multi-layered Cleopatra Terrace, and the Minerva Terrace (a highlight) named for the Roman Goddess of artists and sculptors.
       The “possible” swim in Boiling River became a real swim as we drove 3 miles north crossing the Montana border. Riley stayed in the car to catch up on summer homework and recharge his batteries whilst Charles and Max took a refreshing 20-minute soak where the very hot Boiling River enters the Gardner River. One side of the creek was HOT, the other COLD! I acted as the family videographer. It was obvious this could potentially be one of the highlights of our trip, at least for Max. He is always looking for the next swimming pool. Riley, on the other hand, is looking for the next blue oasis to inspire and elevate him. It seems both Riley and Max are water lovers in their own unique ways.
       Once back in the car, we headed for the Roosevelt area stopping to take pics of the first real bison herd we had come across. The weather had clouded over and it was late in the day. We decided against hiking to the Specimen Ridge and opted for a drive traveling east through the Lamar Valley in the hope we would spot the wildlife it’s so famous for. We were not disappointed.
       We came upon several groups of people parked by the side of the road with high powered telescopes and binoculars trained on a buffalo carcass being picked apart by a bald eagle. They were waiting for the wolves to scare the eagles away, then grizzly bears to scare to wolves away. It was a bit like a club environment!
       Upon leaving Lamar we headed South in the direction of Tower Falls. After the Grand Canyon yesterday it would be hard to find a waterfall as gorgeous anywhere in Yellowstone. Tower Falls gift store did give us the opportunity to enjoy some huge delicious ice creams though and buy a few gifts.
       The drive south toward Canyon Village was so beautiful. It wove its way through the Canyon providing incredible views of Yellowstone and the Washburn Range. We detoured to the trailhead to the Mt Washburn hike which was one of the hikes we had contemplated doing. With elevation similar to Avalanche Peak, it was on the top of our list. With time on our side, we hiked a short way up to observe a magnificent view before returning to the car and heading for the Hayden Valley. We passed by Canyon Village, contemplated stopping but continued on in the hope we would view some more herds of bison and other wildlife. Hayden Valley treated us with a few lone bison here and there but very little wildlife compared with the Lamar. The views between Canyon Village and West Thumb showed Yellowstone in very fine form. The Yellowstone Lake, the light, the clouds, the rainbows- very pretty landscape and colors of dusk.
       Charles navigated the winding roads and the erratic weather extremely well as the sun went down. It was 9pm when we arrived back at Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Just enough time to squeeze in dinner. Tomorrow we move on to Jackson.

DAY 10 Friday 23 August West Thumb, Grand Tetons, Hermitage Point Trail, Jackson
On the road from Old Faithful to West Thumb Geyser Basin, we stopped by the side of the road to view a magnificent male Elk. He was hungrily munching away not at all perturbed by the many people stopping to take pictures and videos. We spent a good 15 minutes watching him and he was CLOSE, probably only a half bus length away. (The NPS measures viewing proximity in bus length!)
       We parked at West Thumb Geyser at around 11am and it was well worth the view. We took a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk which provided a peaceful view of the steaming springs, the pines in the distance, and Yellowstone Lake. Black Pool and the Abyss were particularly striking displaying vivid blues and greens.
       West Thumb has many different types of springs and geysers, some gently percolating, some bubbling, some steaming; all foreign and beautiful in their volcanic way.
       The Hermitage Trail to Observation Point took us through pine forest, past lakes and meadows, all the way to a secluded pebbly beach for lunch with a spectacular view of the Grand Tetons. They are magnificent; tall and majestic, and still slightly snow-capped. Armed with Bear Spray and equipped with Riley’s classical music in the wooded paradise it was a magical walk. We hiked over 10 miles in total today. When we returned to the car, we were tired puppies.
       Jackson was a quick 30 miles from Colter Bay and the drive was very pretty. The Tetons are rugged and fierce against the sky. Our hotel (the Hampton Inn) was at the south edge of Jackson. It was quiet, clean, and close to the grocery store which had a Starbucks attached. There was no pool but there was a jacuzzi which we all enjoyed. We were wiped out after today’s hike so had a mellow night in. Tomorrow our boot-camp leader, Charles, has us hiking the Cascade Canyon Trail. We take a ferry across Jenny Lake then the fun begins.

DAY 11 Saturday 24 August Grand Tetons, Cascade Canyon Trail
       We woke early, ate free breakfast, made our way to the Moose Road turn off, and the Grand Teton National Park. Charles dropped me off at the Rangers Visitor Center whilst he and the boys parked the car. I asked a few questions and was given a bear spray demonstration by one of the Rangers. I actually learned that it’s best to spray toward the bear's feet, not the face, as it clouds up as it hits the ground. Also, 2 seconds is all that may be needed. The ranger said that should be all that is needed to deter a bear. Besides, it’s always good to have a spray in reserve for the next potential bear.
       Charles and the boys met me at the Visitor Center then we made our way to purchase tickets for the ferry ride across Jenny Lake. The ride across the lake takes 4 miles off the full hike, plus there was the added beauty to behold as we traveled to and from Cascade Canyon. Cascade Canyon was gorgeous with breathtaking scenery at every twist and turn.
We disembarked the ferry with the rest of the hikers but let them all run ahead while we organized our packs and shoes. We headed up past Hidden Falls toward Inspiration Point with its gorgeous views across Jenny Lake. From here the terrain leveled off as we hiked through alpine meadows and beautiful pines following the creek up the canyon. We were graced with majestic views of huge peaks, waterfalls, and glaciers. The path was well maintained but even still we had to be careful to navigate the odd rocks and boulders as we ogled at the lofty views on either side of us.
       Charles found a basketball-size stone that had a white squiggly line running through it. Turns out it was a folded dike with a fun name: Ptygmatic!
       Given this is probably the most popular trail in The Tetons it was not surprising there were many hikers along the way. Regardless, there were plenty of opportunities to feel as though we were the only hikers on the path. We still had our trusty bear spray but it was somehow reassuring to have people both ahead of and behind us.
       We arrived at the junction and turn around point and flirted with the idea of hiking to Lake Solitude (another 2.7 miles on, which would add an extra 5.5 miles to our already 10 miles for the day). Whilst enjoying our lunch perched on rocks by the river we debated our course of action. The majority of 3 to 1 (Riley being the 1), had us reversing our steps and backtracking the canyon to the Jenny Lake boat launch and a very welcome ferry ride across the lake. We bought a refreshing ice cream from the store before heading back to our Hampton Inn.
       Feeling the need to experience just a little of the main part of town, we found a great burger place, seated ourselves on the balcony overlooking the street action, and wolfed down 4 huge burgers. After dinner, we sauntered back to the car, along the wooden sidewalk under a lavender sky. It has a certain small-town charm about it, artistic, and crafty.

DAY12 Sunday 25 August White Water Rafting, Salt Lake City
       We woke up late and ate a hearty breakfast then headed for the Jackson Hole White Water Rafting pick up point, a short distance from our hotel. LJ our bus driver, piled us into the bus, (Max and I traveled on the bus and Charles and Riley drove behind.) and we sped to the West Table Boat Launch where we were given life jackets, oars, and a routine safely talk as we climbed into the raft to begin our journey down the Snake River.
       The water was emerald in color and alternated between calm and rapid. We saw bald eagles and osprey along the way, flexed our muscles as we dipped our paddles in the water, enjoyed periods of calm and periods of excitement as the river became turbulent, just enough to give us a very slight adrenaline rush. Danger, without the danger. Anna, our raft guide was perfect, entertaining, and safe.
       Charles had arranged for us to be dropped back at the boat launch area after the rafting so we could continue south to Salt Lake City, cutting 90 minutes off our trip. Ever forwarding thinking is Charles. Brilliant.
       We left Wyoming and entered Idaho (the land of the potato) navigating ridges and bluffs following the lay of the land, past open fields filled with grazing cows and occasionally, bombarded with swarms of flying grasshoppers. As we entered Utah we scouted out possible Starbucks locations. We located one 90 minutes away. A Frappuccino certainly sounded good, and it was, in Clearfield, Utah.
Continuing on about 30 more minutes, we arrived in Salt Lake City. Sunday was an excellent day to go as we had less traffic to deal with as we drove into the city. Google Maps took us to the Mormon Tabernacle which Charles was eager to see. He had booked us a tour, but as usual, we had made excellent time arriving in Salt Lake City ahead of schedule. We canceled the tour, walked around the perimeter, then headed for our hotel. The Hilton Garden Hotel Sandy was clean, cool and conveniently covered by points Charles has made through his work with Pittsburgh. We had a relaxing evening, enjoyed cooling off in the pool and jacuzzi and an enormous pizza fit for 8, for dinner. We were happy to be in for the evening. Tomorrow, a 3 ½ hour drive to Bryce plus an afternoon hike.

DAY 13 Monday 26 August Bryce National Park

       The Hilton Garden Hotel Sandy provided us with a very comfortable night’s sleep and delicious FREE breakfast. We were on the road by 10:30am speeding south toward Bryce National Park. A beautiful day, 75 degrees and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. As we neared Bryce Canyon we found ourselves remembering the familiar rocks formations, tunnels, and colors. Only the absence of snow gave it quite a different look.
       We found our Best Western Plus across the highway from Rubys where we stayed the last trip 4 years ago. The ‘Room God’ was particularly kind today, we were given an enormous room with extra living space and couches and were able to check-in early. There was time to relax and even take advantage of the pool and spa. Max was excited to use the exercise room too.
After lunch, we headed out to hike the Fairyland Loop trail. We were eager to experience what we had missed on our last trip to Bryce. The trail wove up and down left and right before finally ascending to the Under the Rim Trail and back to our car. 3 ½ hours and 8 miles later we were back in our air-conditioned car and heading for the hotel. Wiped out, we didn’t even make it to dinner. The hotel doesn’t have a restaurant which would have meant another car trip and more exertion. We were happy to stay in and munch on “pizza crackers” and our supply of snack food. A family meeting ensued and we came to the conclusion that tomorrow would be a flexi-day -- not too strenuous.

DAY 14 Tuesday 27 August Bryce Canyon 2

       Our decision NOT to hike the Riggs Spring Loop Trail this morning was a good one. We drove to Rainbow Point at the southernmost part of the Park, skipped Riggs Spring Loop and opted for a vista at Yovimpa Point and the short Bristlecone Loop Trail. Easy. Great views. Elevation 9115ft.
From there we drove to Natural Bridge which is really an Arch. Apparently, a bridge is eroded by water whilst an arch is eroded by wind. From Natural Bridge we returned to the northern part of the Park, parked at Sunset Point, and hiked into the Canyon. We chose a slightly shorter trail to yesterday’s, a very popular trail, and it was obvious to us why as we made our way down the steep switchbacks of Wall Street, along the Navajo Trail which intersects with the Queen’s Garden Trail and culminates with a brief walk along the Rim ending back at the car park. We had breathtaking views of the hoodoos at every turn. The rich shades of reds, oranges, yellows, whites, and greens set against the bright bold blue Utah sky were strikingly spectacular.
       We rolled out of Ruby’s and drove back into the National Park to watch the sunset at Sunset Point. Max took another handstand vid, right on the edge of the canyon. Yikes.
       Riley and Max visited the hotel gym for a workout when we returned whilst Charles and I caught up on emails, blogs, and video editing. I would say today was a day of great decisions all around.
       Our 2 days in Bryce, with substantial hikes and intermittent resting periods, peaceful sleep and free breakfast have been very much enjoyed. Tomorrow, The Grand Canyon. The perfect way to celebrate Charles's birthday and the last few days of our vacation.

DAY 15 Wednesday 28 August Grand Canyon Day 1 Time Zone change.

       We bid our farewells to Bryce National Park and headed south towards the Grand Canyon, passing out of Utah and into Arizona excited to drive the Grand Canyon North Rim Highway. We drove through pine forest woodlands and the many wide-open meadows of the Kaibab Plateau.
       Our plans to hike the Widforss Trail changed today when we arrived at the North Rim about 1pm. Charles tried to check in earlier but we ended up with an hour or so to wait. We ended up eating a delicious lunch in the dining room with a spectacular view. After lunch, our cabin was ready so we unloaded the car, settled into our cute rustic cabin with a view of the canyon, a tiny bathroom between 2 separate rooms (the boys had bunk-beds), minimal sockets for plugs (providing a needed reprieve from our devices), and a fridge (with just enough room for our milk and waters) -- perfect. We had hoped for a porch, but they were all taken so we were happy to be tucked further away with more privacy. It was so peaceful. The only noises, those of the chipmunks scratching here and there.
       While Riley and I continued unpacking, Charles and Max visited the Ranger Centre. They found out the Widforss Trail road was closed due to the fire we passed on the way up. The ranger said it was possible to hike the North Kaibab Trail for quite a ways down this afternoon as it had clouded over. Most people either hike down into the Canyon in the early hours of the morning until 10am when it heats up to over 100 degrees. Then they wait for 4 -6 hours until it cools down to hike their way back up. But now it was cloudy and cooler so that clinched our decision to descend.

We headed down the North Kaibab Trail first on a sandy path that eventually turned red avoiding the mule poop that seemed excessive for the 5 mules we saw. Our first stop at Coconino Overlook gave us a spectacular view down into the Canyon. Spectacular colors of whites, reds, greys, and greens. We descended the switchbacks through Supai Tunnel, crossed the Bridge, and onward along a narrow shelf to a place just shy of Roaring Springs. The hike down was fairly easy, the hike up not quite as easy. The hike in total was only 7 miles but we were tired when reaching the top. Next was dinner at the Lodge, stargazing, water bottle filling and sleep.

DAY 16 Thursday 29 August Grand Canyon 2, Widforss Trail Charles Birthday

       Charles's Birthday began with a pleasant sleep in followed by a hike on the Widforss Trail, a 10-mile round trip, at 8000 feet. It took us along the rim of the transept through a mixed spruce tree forest to a spectacular view of the Canyon. We passed by towering Ponderosa Pines with their thick peeling bark, white fur, blue spruce, and Aspen trees with white trunks and shimmering leaves. We observed bedrock fossils and meadows filled with colorful wildflowers ending at Widforss Point where we lunched with first-class views of the Canyon. After lunch, we retraced our steps ending back at the car park 4 hours later. It was a wonderful hike, challenging, varied, interesting and rewarding. A great way to celebrate Charles's birthday.
       We clambered into our Jeep Grand Cherokee and wove our way past the firefighters who were making sure the fire was completely out, then along the Cape Royal Road to Point Imperial, the highest point of elevation in the Grand Canyon. The views were nothing short of breathtaking. Vast, immense and “Grand” in gorgeous shades of orange, ochre, green, and white.
       From Point Imperial, we returned to our cozy cabin, showered, wrote college essays, blogs, edited photos, and played Minecraft. We lay on the bed, and soaked in the sun afternoon rays and a light breeze coming in through the open windows and wished just for a moment, time could stand still. Charles and I, with our 2 rapidly becoming young adults, have this heavenly place to breathe in, yes, if only time could stand still.
       Before sunset, we headed to Bright Angel Point, a short stroll from the restaurant, down a paved path and up onto some boulders to watch the changing colors and evening storms perform spectacularly off in the distance across the vast expanse of the plateau. As the light faded we headed back toward the Lodge and took seats outside in deck chairs to view the first stars beginning to twinkle in the night sky.
       Charles's birthday dinner was hearty, a Buffalo Burger, Ponderosa Smoked Brisket, and pasta with shrimp finished off with a Supreme Brownie with caramel sauce with its single understated birthday candle. The real birthday cake is in Charles's future when we return home. We will christen our new oven and bake a cake worthy of our spritely ever young kid at heart, strong and spirited dad and husband, Charles.
       It will be sad to leave this peaceful place. The enormous beauty and our time here in the Grand Canyon have been a gift we will cherish. I have a distinct feeling our boys will be back here again, with their own families and loved ones, reliving some of these experiences again in their own way.

DAY 17 Friday 30 August Monument Valley, Four Corners

       We drove north from the North Rim then east and south, circumventing the northern tip of the Grand Canyon, along the Vermillion Cliffs Scenic Road. The early morning sunlight shining upon the massive Vermillion Cliffs illuminated their beautiful shades of red -- just gorgeous.
       We passed the cliff dwelling town of Hatch and Marble Canyon, crossed the Colorado River via the Navajo Bridge, then headed south toward Tuba City. We blew through Tuba City (it only has one traffic light), then onward to ogle at the magnificence of Monument Valley with its grand rock formations springing up from the earth as if from nowhere. We drove through Bluff, Arizona, a small town which could have been right out of The Flintstones cradled amongst its huge buff-colored boulders and stopped briefly at the 4 Corners, (intersection point of the 4 states-Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado). The stifling 98-degree heat provided little option other than to seek the refuge of our air-conditioned car and head east to Mesa Verde.
      Charles had hoped we might be able to book a Ranger tour of the cliff dwellings tomorrow and as luck would have it there were spaces available for the 10am tour of The Balcony House, the “most dangerous tour”. With tour booked, we checked into the Far View Lodge which true to its name, had a view as far as the eye can see.
       We spent some time relaxing and reconnecting with Wi-Fi and friends and enjoying the view from our balcony. Max practiced his handstands in the vestibule. Charles had made dinner reservations at the Metate dining room for 8pm. The dining room also had a view and the meal was delicious.
       Tomorrow is our last full day of vacation. We find ourselves conflicted in emotion. Partially ready to go home and partially not. It’s been a whirlwind vacation, larger than our wildest dreams. We will take home rich experiences and memories to cherish for years for a lifetime.

DAY 18 Saturday 31 August Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dune NP

       We were very happy to spend the night in the Far View Lodge, Charles and Max in particular. They liked that we had a balcony, and what’s more, a balcony with a beautiful view. This morning as the sun rose and whilst enjoying coffee on the balcony we spotted 3 young male deer grazing nearby. Nature at our backdoor.
       It was a beautiful day. We loaded the car and set off for our Balcony House Tour around 9.15am. Our group of about 40 people was met by the park ranger who obviously loves his job. He was quirky yet informative and gave us more than the allocated time. We climbed ladders, squeezed through narrow tunnels, stepped inside one of the well-preserved cliff dwellings set in the canyon wall (a sacred space) and imagined how it might have been to live there all those years ago -- simple, yet very difficult living. When the tour ended, we took a few pics, then scrambled through another very narrow tunnel and climbed to the top.
       At the park entrance, Charles ran into the Ranger Centre to donate our bear spray. Thankfully we didn’t have any bear encounters on this trip. I am VERY happy about that. Max, on the other hand, was looking forward to the $100 Charles promised him if we even saw a bear.
       We left Mesa Verde behind us and zoomed east toward the Great Sand Dunes NP to hike the High Dune Trail. Durango delighted us with its Starbucks, a caramel frappe and bonus -- free pizza, chips and dip, and strawberry shortcake. We passed through the San Juan Mountains, Chimney Rock National Monument, Pagosa Springs, South Fork, and Del Norte, to the Dunes.
       Against the rugged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the massive sea of dunes covering 30 square miles appeared impressively before us. Apparently 440,000 years ago the dunes were formed when Lake Alamosa dried up due to climate change. The combination of water and winds keep the dunes preserved.
The hike into the dunes was hard going. We gave it our best but blustery winds got the better of us. We have learned that we may not be “desert lovers”. A trip to the Sahara Desert may not be on our radar in this lifetime. But having said that, we did see beautiful vistas and marvel at the beauty of the cascading dunes from the comfort of the car.
      Goodbye Great Sand Dunes, Hello Walsenburg. Walsenburg is pretty much a skeleton of a town with its many closed restaurants and dilapidated homes and hotels. The Best Western (an exception), provided a comfy place to rest our heads on the last day of our HUGE vacation. 2 bedrooms, enormous King beds, soft sheets, a swimming pool, and Jacuzzi, and laundry to wash our sandy clothes.

DAY 19 Sunday 1 September Colorado Springs, Travel Day, NYC
      Today we sleepily rose, enjoyed a FREE breakfast packed our bags and headed to Sixt Car Rental in Denver to return our car. We made a brief stop to look at the Chapel at the Air Force Academy campus in Colorado Springs. Charles compared the architecture to the Sydney Opera House, and it was amazing. We turned in the car and check-in for our 3.50pm flight to LGA to New York City.
       They say all good things must eventually come to an end, and so our wonderful vacation has come to its end -- 19 jam-packed action-filled days, 150 miles of hiking, 7 States, 14 locations and 3,500 miles of driving,
       We made it. Our Great Western vacation has not been without its minor hiccups; red eyes, bloody and blocked noses, fear of potential bear encounters, the extreme exercise of limbs, heart, and lungs (there were a few ‘Puffing Billy’ moments, not surprising with the huge changes in elevation). What an amazing journey. How grateful we are for this special family time together, for the incredible places we’ve been and for the knowledge we have acquired. We are richer for our experiences and have memories to hold dear forever.
       Our incredible tour guide, dad and husband, Charles, has surpassed himself. This Western Family Vacation takes the cake. It’s been nothing less than a Mountainous, Monumental, Grand, Highly Adventurous experience. Thank you, Charles. You are one of a kind. How lucky we are.

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