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NateKat · National Parks

National Parks

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We’ve been busy backpacking, which hasn’t allowed us to edit many photos or write up our trip reports… so we’re about a month behind now! We’re hoping to crank out a couple more trip reports before our last backpacking trip in Havasupai!

 

Day 30-32: Glacier National Park, MT (9/2-9/4)

Glacier National Park was one of the bigger parks that we haven’t been to, and we had high expectations.  Everyone we know that has been there has raved about the beautiful landscapes and abundant wildlife, so we were excited to check it out for ourselves.

We only really had two days to explore the park so we decided to day hike the Highline Trail (11.8 miles) along the Going-to-the-Sun-Road one day and the trail to Grinnell Glacier (11 miles) the other. Without the park shuttle running after 9/2, the Highline trail becomes more difficult to do as a through hike… it requires hitch-hiking!  Encouraged by park rangers that it’s totally legal and common, we gathered our gear, made a sign, and successfully and safely hitchhiked from ‘the Loop’ to the trailhead at Logan Pass.  This was a first for both of us, and we felt a bit silly holding a sign and smiling at empty cars as they passed by without stopping.  But after only 10 or so cars passed by, one pulled over and two nice climbers picked us up.  They said they had never picked up hitch hikers before, but we looked pretty harmless.  I’m sure we did with our well maintained hiking gear and smiling faces.  They also seemed pretty harmless as they moved the two kid’s car seats to the trunk of their SUV.  It was a short ride and before we knew it we were at the trailhead.

Of course as soon as we began hiking it started to rain, but we were prepared with rain jackets and pack covers, so a little rain wasn’t going to stop us.  After the first couple miles the rain turned to a drizzle and pretty much stopped, but the dreary gray clouds remained.

 

 

We were quickly distracted once we spotted a small heard of bighorn sheep grazing on the hillside.  Nathan tried to climb the hill but the steep grade, loose gravel, and the sheep’s ability to quickly climb prevented him from getting any worthwhile photos.  Later we saw a kid (baby mountain goat) and its nanny (mother) also grazing on another hillside.  We stopped and watched the little one gallop across the loose rocks as it tried to keep up with its mom.

 

We were really excited to finally see mountain goats and bighorn sheep (especially rams), but we weren’t close enough to fully capture the moment with our cameras.  We continued hiking though the mountains and enjoyed the trail despite the clouds.

 

Once we reached the Granite Park Chalet and we knew the views of the valleys and open hillsides were over and it was just a matter of hiking back down to the car.

 

After driving the Going-To-The-Sun Road toward the east we started searching for a campground.  Usually Katharine has every campground and hotel booked, but after Labor Day, the campgrounds in Glacier become first-come first-serve.  This style of campsite reservation doesn’t work well for us since we spend the days hiking and we only return to the campground to sleep.  We circled all the major campgrounds and they were completely full.

Luckily there was a primitive campground a bit farther from the main part of the park. Since it required driving a few miles on a dirt road and didn’t have running water, we figured it wouldn’t be too popular. Sure enough, there were several sites available when we arrived. Plus, the drive on the dirt road through a cattle and horse pasture was beautiful in the sunset.

 

The campsite was just our style; small, quiet, and had a great view of the mountains.

 

The next morning we headed to the Many Glacier area to hike to Grinnell Glacier. Finally we had a sunny day, but we quickly found the hike had little to no shade.  The first couple miles of trail traveled along side a few lakes, but then quickly climbed to various rocky shelves as it approached the glacier.

 

Suddenly we came to a small crowd fixed on a ram bighorn sheep only 30 yards away.  Nathan and another photographer climbed up the rocks to get a little closer.

You could see the sheep panting in the hot sun, but it continued to forage for food.

While Nathan was taking pictures Katharine was talking to hikers returning from the glacier who said there were more sheep closer to the trail around the corner.  We quickly ditched the other photographer and headed up the trail.  As the other hikers claimed, these sheep were much closer and more active!

 

 

These sheep weren’t too afraid of people as they jumped from ledge to ledge above the trail.  Some hikers were unaware of the sheep until they looked up at which point they usually gasped as they fumbled for their camera.

 

After we took 50+ photos of the sheep we decided to finish the last mile of the hike and check out the glacier, the real focus of the hike.

Grinnell Glacier

 

It was early afternoon and the sun was beating down on us so we thought we would dip our hot feet in the cold glacier melt water. It felt great for the first second until the freezing water felt like needles in your feet.  It took minutes to warm our feet up after just seconds in the water.  Sadly it took several tries to get this photo.

 

It was getting late in the afternoon and we still had 5.5 miles to hike out, and we had forgotten to eat lunch with all the sheep chaos.  We hiked just a short while until we reached a small rest area along the trail which has some rustic benches to sit and eat lunch.  After 5 minutes we were interrupted by three sheep passing through to reach a creek.

 

This of course led to more photos and less eating.  Amazingly these sheep approached us even closer than the ones before, forcing us to retreat because we felt uncomfortable.  It was a bighorn sheep extravaganza!

 

Finally feeling like we had enough sheep photos and noticing the sun getting lower in the sky, we started hiking quickly back to the trailhead.  Of course with the day cooling off, more sheep appeared and it became more of a herding activity than hiking.

 

Katharine and one ram startled each other as she came around a tree that it was eating.  Both of them jumped back and paused for a Katharine-Sheep showdown stare.  We slowly backed up and the ram did also until we had reached a safe distance.

 

Check out the sheep in the background

We enjoyed the rest of the hike down paying more attention to the flowers, rocks, and incredible glacier carved valleys.

Glacier park lived up to the hype with the incredible landscapes, flowers, and animals.  We couldn’t have been happier after two 10+ mile hikes in two days.

We couldn’t include all the photos in the trip report so check out more in the gallery below.

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 32
  • Nights in a tent: 22
  • Miles driven: 4563
  • Miles hiked: 133
  • Bighorn sheep photographed: 18
  • Photographs of bighorn sheep: 312
  • Mountain goats: 15

We are currently preparing to start the Teton Crest trail (4 day backpacking trip) tomorrow! Here’s a look back at the last NP we visited in Washington.

Epic Trip Days 25-26: North Cascades National Park (8/28 – 8/29)

North Cascades National Park is the most remote national park in Washington near the Canadian border and we definitely noticed that it was less crowded. We enjoyed the beautiful drive out to the park, even stopping at a roadside farm stand for fresh berries and ice cream. Once we got to the park, the weather was pretty overcast but luckily not raining too much. We stopped at the visitor center, which was perhaps the best we’ve seen so far. The exhibits were great and the rangers were particularly helpful.

After the visitor center, we drove the scenic drive through the park on Rt 20. The mountains were definitely impressive despite the cloud cover, and the glacial lakes were a beautiful teal blue-green.

 

By the time we made it all the way to the Washington Pass at the far eastern end of the park, it was late afternoon. But we decided we still had time for a 4.2 mile hike to Blue Lake, which the rangers said often has mountain goats in the area. For the majority of the hike we were sheltered from the rain sprinkles by the lush forest, which also created great habitat for some unique mushrooms.

 

As the clouds parted, we reached the lake, which was really beautiful. Katharine took photos of the scenery while Nathan tried to capture the small fish rising (rather unsuccessfully unfortunately).

 

By the time we finished the hike, it was almost dark so we drove directly to our campsite on the western side of the park. We arrived after dark (as usual) and set up camp and ate a quick dinner before the rain really started. We had selected the campground (Fishcreek) because it is close to the trailhead for the hike to Sahale Arm glacier, which we intended to do as a long day hike the next day. However, around 2 am it started raining very steadily and when we awoke early in the morning, it was still pouring. We decided to go back to sleep and try to wait it out, but by 7 or 8 it was still raining. We packed up camp and drove to the trailhead to see if the weather was any better there, but no luck. We watched a few couples and groups start the hike (with varying degrees of preparedness and rain gear) but the clouds were dense and the hike would have been a long one (12 miles) so we decided instead to head back to Seattle and use the day to take care of laundry, errands, and other chores.  We later found out the immense amount of rain had cause a mudslide shutting down route 20, which we had driven the day before.  This summer the highway has been closed a few times to clear mudslides.

We definitely want to return to this park sometime in the future. Something about the mountains and lakes really intrigued us, and despite the gray weather, this might have been our favorite park in Washington.

 

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 26
  • Nights in a tent: 19
  • Night camping in the rain: 3
  • Miles driven: 3513
  • Miles hiked: 110
  • National Parks: 8
  • Mountain Goats: 0

We’re back in Jackson Hole spending sometime exploring the valley with Katharine’s family.

 

Epic Trip Day 22-24: Olympic National Park (8/25-8/27)

 

After our 3 days in Rainier, we stayed in a hotel in Hoquiam, WA near the southwestern entrance of Olympic National Park. We were glad to have a shower and chance to reorganize our gear and packs for backpacking. Olympic National Park is pretty large spanning several different climate zones so we planned to visit the Hoh rainforest as a day hike, then backpack Shi Shi Beach in the far NW corner, then head into the mountains (Grand Valley) near Hurricane Ridge.

The rainforest was mossy and incredibly lush as expected.  The moss and other air plants covered the trees and ground.

 

There were many rows of trees with exposed roots due to a fallen tree which then became a nurse tree providing nutrients for the next generation of trees.

 

After our day hike we drove to Shi Shi beach trailhead.  The trailhead is located in the Makah Reservation and there isn’t any official overnight parking provided by the park service so you have to pay a family to park in their front yard.  The hike into Shi Shi beach is a muddy 2 mile long trail weaving through a dense forest.

 

The hike through the mud is slow and dirty, but once you emerge from the forest and onto the sandy beach the view is well worth the hike.

 

We took off our boots and cooled our feet off in the surf.

 

 

We enjoyed our last unimpeded sunset over the pacific ocean.

Once the stars came out we took some awesome star/sunset photos with our tent on the beach.  It was a coordinated effort with Katharine painting the inside of the tent with a headlamp while Nathan adjusted the camera settings.

24mm, f/4, ISO 400, 30 seconds [Click to enlarge and see the stars]

The next morning we hiked a mile down the beach to Point of Arches.  It was a long walk down the beach, and we started to doubt our secluded camping location but as we approached the Point and saw how many people were camping in the area, we decided the solitude was worth the long walk.  We spent an hour exploring the rocks and tide pools.

 

We then packed up camp, hiked 2 miles back through the mud and then drove inland to the Grand Valley trailhead to start our next backpack.  As we opened the doors to get our packs, it was quickly apparent that we were not at the beach anymore.  It was raining, windy and in the low 40’s. We had gotten a later start from Shi Shi and the drive took longer than we expected, so it was late in the afternoon and we still had about 5 miles of hiking to reach our campsite.  It started raining harder as we finalized organizing our packs and we realized that we were not really all that prepared for backpacking in the rain (mentally or gear-wise). Given that it was 42 degrees and quite late in the day, we decided it wasn’t the right situation to try rainy backpacking for the first time, so we instead drove down the mountain to a warmer and dryer car camping site.

The next day we did our intended backpacking trip as a 10 mile day hike.  When we started the hike the weather was still miserable and the treeless ridge line left us exposed in the cold wind.

 

After a couple miles we felt confident about our decision to forgo the backpack.  The gray clouds hiding the Olympic Mts and the lack of marmots and other animals made the valley seem a bit desolate and unfriendly even when we reached the lakes at the bottom.

 

We saw hundreds of marmot holes, many in the middle of the trail, but not one marmot! We did see a couple deer and this intriguing looking frog.

 

As we headed back up out of the valley, it had warmed up quite a bit, even allowing us to wear t-shirts. The hike back up felt tougher than we expected, but gave us a sense of accomplishment. As we reached the top and looked down at Badger Valley, we definitely saw the potential of the area and hoped we’d have another chance to see it in better weather conditions.

 

 

 

 

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 24
  • Nights in a tent: 18
  • Miles driven: 3357
  • Miles hiked: 106
  • National Parks: 7
  • Nights camping in the rain: 2

 

We are currently in the Chicago O’Hare airport on our way back to Jackson Hole, WY after spending the weekend here to celebrate Katharine’s friends’ wedding. We had a great time in Chicago, but we are excited to get back to the mountains!

 

Epic Trip Day 19-21: Mt. Rainier National Park (8/22-8/24)

We spent about a week in the Seattle/Washington area using Katharine’s cousins Tom and Amy as a home base to explore the three national parks. Our first mini trip was to Mt. Rainier, and Tom and Amy joined us for a few days of day hiking and camping in the park. After almost a month of hiking on our own, it was fun to have some new hiking buddies and people to chat with along the way.

 

Mt. Rainier – Sunrise Area

We started in the northern Sunrise area of the park and Tom and Amy helped us pick a really nice loop trail to do. We had somewhat cloudy weather but were lucky enough to see the mountain for a decent portion of the hike.

 

 

We were also lucky enough to avoid getting rained on despite the ‘doomsday’ clouds rolling in.

 

 

We were often distracted and slowed down along the trail by marmots and pika… Nathan and Tom both had their telephoto lenses and creeped up on the mountain rodents to capture their cute faces.  The marmots were lazy and seemed to enjoy being photographed while pika were very timid and were hard to see amongst the rocks (but easy to hear).

 

Hoary Marmot

 

Pika

After the 7 mile hike, we realized we needed gas so we headed to the nearest town to fill up and had dinner at a dive bar. While we were gassing up, we saw our first elk of the trip… after spending days in Redwoods trying to see them, we got to see elk on the lawn of a motel across the street… not exactly the most wild experience, but it’s still always fun.

 

 

The next day we drove to the Paradise area of the park, which is the most popular for good reason. We did another loop hike and saw an amazing display of wildflowers.

 

The meadows were filled with marmots, including some babies, eating as many flowers as they could while others napped on rocks.

 

 

 

As we climbed a bit higher to Panorama point, the weather got very cloudy and foggy, so we didn’t actually see Mt. Rainier at all that day. But the marmot-palooza definitely kept us entertained!

On our third day we did a hike along a stream with several very impressive waterfalls. The trail description hadn’t really emphasized them, so it was a pleasant surprise.

 

 

 

Just as we reached the top of the climb and came out into the open in the meadow, Mt. Rainier was peaking through the clouds with a brief spot of blue sky. Within five minutes though, a new batch of clouds rolled in and completely covered it for the rest of the afternoon.

 

 

It turned out to be a great hike with enough of a climb that we felt like we really earned our view of the mountain. When we got back to the trailhead Tom and Amy headed back to Seattle and started driving towards Olympic NP.

 

Mt. Rainier NP is understandably centered around and focused on the mountain, but since the weather didn’t fully cooperate, we were more impressed by the flowers and wildlife. John Muir also visited Rainier, and his most famous quotation was actually about the flowers, not the mountain itself. So we’d definitely love to return and get a chance to hike (or snowshoe) around when the mountain is backed by blue skies.

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 21
  • Nights in a tent: 16
  • Miles driven: 2630
  • Miles hiked: 91
  • National Parks: 6

We are currently driving from the Seattle area to Glacier National Park in Montana after over a week in Washington. It’s our first time we will be driving more than 8 hours in one day for the whole trip so far!

Day 16-17: Crater Lake National Park (8/19-8/20)

After 15 days in California, we finally crossed into Oregon! We noticed the first major difference when we had to stop to get gas… Oregon is one of the 2 states that does not allow you to pump your own gas, an attendant must do it for you (NJ is the other state). When we first pulled up Nathan realized he was at a full service pump and almost started to move the car to a different one when we kind of realized they were all full service. It was a bit awkward and clumsy the first time… we forgot to open the gas tank door, we almost forgot to tell him premium fuel for the Subaru, and we had to stay focused so as not to drive away before completing the transaction. But by the end of our time in Oregon, we kinda got used to it, and one guy cleaned our windshield better than at the car wash so that was nice.

Our first real stop in Oregon was Crater Lake. We managed to make it to Mazama campground before dark (barely) which was good because the campsites were really tightly packed and the last bit of light helped us select our tent position. We would have had a very comfortable night for sleeping, but the couple next to us had a baby that cried through the night and kept Nathan up… Ever since then we feel like several of our campgrounds have had crying babies, so we are hoping this does not turn into a pattern!

We really only had one full day to spend in Crater Lake, so we decided to drive the loop around the lake and make stops at the viewpoints, ending at Watchman Peak, a nice location for sunset.

Our first stop on the loop was Vidae Falls before we even saw the lake itself. It’s a quite impressive little waterfall right by the road, and the flowers were blooming all around.

As we wound our way up to the edge of the lake, the mountains on the other side of the road caught our eye, with a really nice layering effect in the morning light.

Finally we saw the lake and its amazingly blue water. All of our photos show the blue as it really was, not enhanced to saturate the blue color. The lake is incredibly deep (approximately 2000 feet deep, the deepest in the US) and the water is also the cleanest. Since the lake is in a collapsed volcano, the rim of the lake is elevated above the surrounding terrain and so no rivers flow into it. The only source of water is rain and snow falling directly into the lake. The depth and clarity make the water look so blue.

First view of the lake with Phantom Ship island – some say it looks like ship sailing away from the shore

From there the Rim Drive veers away from the lake and we took an offshoot to visit the Pinnacles, more remnants of volcanic activity.

We continued driving counter-clockwise around the lake stopping at view points along the way for different angles of the lake.

By afternoon we made it to Cleetwood Cove, the only access to the surface of the lake. We hiked down the steep slope (~1.1 miles, 700 ft) and walked past the boating area to a cropping of rocks that wasn’t too crowded. Some people were swimming and we were determined to do so as well even if the water was freezing. The water was definitely very cold (the deeper areas are 48 degrees year round), but the surface layer was warmed by the sun and it actually felt quite a bit warmer than the pools in Yosemite. So we each did a quick swim… although it took Katharine about 30 minutes of wading before she worked up the courage to take the plunge.

Katharine ‘enjoying’ the cold water

After we finished swimming and were mostly dry, a wind started to pick up, making it feel much colder… we were glad we swam when we did! We explored the area a little more and found a pretty high rock that people were jumping off of… people braver than us, that’s for sure. We watched an entire family do it one at a time… first the father, then three kids ranging in age from 10 to 16. We were impressed, but a little nervous that they were only barely jumping far enough to clear the rocks below.

We prepared ourselves for a slow hike back up to the top, but we actually made it back up in less than 30 minutes, which gave us plenty of time to make our way to our next stop. We had decided that we wanted to climb to Watchman Peak to get a nice view of the whole lake for sunset. The sky gave us a pretty nice show and the vantage point definitely seemed to be best, giving a sense of the shape of the lake and including Wizard’s Island.

Since we had been living in the outdoors for the last couple weeks, we knew the moon was going to be nearly full.  As for all sunrise and sunset photography sessions, we packed our warm clothes and headlamps and arrived early to get a good tripod location. Soon after we arrived at the top, others started trickling in until the overlook area was quite crowded. After the sun set, the moon quickly rose over the horizon.  The audience was captivated by the bright moon, oohing and ahhing, but they soon realized it was getting cold and dark fast.  We were glad to have our jackets and headlamps for the hike down.  On the way down we listened to a traveler from Alabama who takes a 3 week long vacation each year to visit various regions of the US.  It is always interesting how the National Parks can intrigue people (including ourselves) so much that they dedicate a decade of vacations exploring the US.

We drove to a picnic area to make a quick dinner while we waited for the sky to get dark enough for some night photos. The moon was nearly full, so we couldn’t capture the stars very well, but the moonlight gives a different feel to the lake.

By the time we got back to our campsite it was nearly midnight (and the baby was still awake). Even so, we planned to get up for sunrise the next morning. We succeeded and were the first people at the lookout point. This is proof that given the right conditions and encouragement (and promise of hot breakfast at the local restaurant), Katharine really can get up early if she puts her mind to it!

Time Lapse Photographed by Katharine

It was a beautiful sunrise and a great way to end our stay in Crater Lake. We enjoyed a great breakfast at Annie Creek Restaurant, then packed up our stuff and headed on to Eugene and Portland.

 

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 17
  • Nights in a tent: 14
  • Miles driven: 1982
  • Miles hiked: 71
  • National Parks: 5

 

Day 13-15: Redwoods National and State Parks (8/16-18)

 

The drive from Shasta to Redwoods took much longer than we expected (in part due to brush fires shutting down the 5 freeway), so we arrived to our campsite in the dark (again, as usual). Even in the dark though, it was immediately obvious that we were in a different climate. The campground felt like a jungle, with a dense canopy of trees over our heads and much more humid air than we are used to. Also, lots of mosquitos! Nathan immediately put on bug spray, but still got a few bites while Katharine remained untouched even without any bug spray.

On Friday we woke up and were amazed by the lushness all around our campground. We had a sense of it the night before, but it was more impressive in the daylight. There was moss everywhere and giant old growth trees towering above us.

 

Our first stop was at the visitor center. Redwoods is a combination of national and state parks that are managed together as one unit. But they still have distinct areas and are not contiguous, so it was a bit complicated to research ahead of time. The rangers gave us some tips for hikes and pointed out the areas with old growth forests. We decided to start with the southern most park (farthest from our campground) which turned out to be the national park section.

 

 

We did some scenic drives through the forest then emerged into a meadow where we hoped to see Roosevelt elk. Sadly, there were none to be seen, but the meadow and rolling hills were still fun to explore.

 

We also stopped and did a quick hike/walk through the Ladybird Grove of Redwoods. The forest was so lush, with giant clover (technically redwood sorell), tons of ferns, and again, moss is everywhere!

 

That night, we enjoyed another night in the forest and had our first campfire of the trip, complete with marshmallows!

 

The next day, we planned to do the middle section of the park, Prairie Creek Redwoods SP. We had a couple hikes planned out and some other scenic stops, but after a long drive down there (long due to the 101 having a couple one lane sections that were backed up), we were disappointed to find the park closed. Apparently there was an armed robbery and car jacking, and the armed suspect was somewhere in the park, so they closed it while they searched for him. At that point, we didn’t really have many great options for the day, so we returned to some of the meadows where elk tend to frequent. Sadly, no elk, but there were tons of blackberries!

 Katharine was very excited for berries

We picked a few, then headed back to our campground, stopping for a quick walk through the Stout Grove.

 

For dessert that night, we enjoyed our fresh picked blackberries and ice cream!

 

The next morning we got up a bit earlier to do the first real hike of our time in Redwoods to the Boy Scout Tree in Jedediah Smith Redwoods SP near our campground. It was only 5 miles, but had some decent elevation gain so we felt like we finally got a bit of a workout.

 

After that, we took a quick shower and headed to our first stop outside of California on our Epic Trip, Crater Lake NP, OR.

 

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 15
  • Nights in a tent: 12
  • Miles driven: 1544
  • Miles hiked: 67
  • National Parks: 4
  • Number of bug bites: 5 (all on Nathan)

 

 

We are currently enjoying the lush forests in Redwood National and State Parks in the far northern area of California. But here is a look back at our last days in Yosemite.

Day 5-7: Yosemite National Park, Backpacking (8/8-8/10)

The major highlight of our time in Yosemite was the three day backpacking trip we did from Cathedral Lakes to the valley floor via Clouds Rest and Half Dome. It was definitely a tough three days of hiking about 30 miles, and if we had been in better hiking shape, we probably would have enjoyed the last few miles a bit more, but it was absolutely worth it.

Our first day was a long 10 mile hike from Cathedral Lakes trailhead to Sunrise Lakes. We had a decent amount of elevation gain (2400′), but it was split up into various ups and downs, so it didn’t feel quite so bad.  We took our first break at Cathedral Lakes, which was a nice alpine lake, but the wind made it really cold, so we didn’t stay too long.

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The trail passed through several beautiful meadows, and it was interesting to see how well-worn the trail was. We were traveling on an early section of the John Muir Trail, so it must see a lot of hiker traffic, but we were actually surprised how few people we saw all day. We realized the crowds of Yosemite don’t seem to venture much into the backcountry.

 

 

Finally, just before sunset we made it to our camp for the night at Sunrise Lakes. There were a couple other groups camping there and doing a little fishing, but we were so tired we just ate a quick dinner and pretty much collapsed.

 

 

The next morning we got a pretty early start and started the climb to Clouds Rest, one of the best viewpoints in Yosemite at 9,926 feet. The trail to the top wasn’t as hard as we expected because it was nicely switchbacked and not too steep, so we had some extra time to soak in the views and watch the chipmunks beg for food. We were also able to see Half Dome from the side where the cables go up, which made us only slightly more nervous for our climb the next day.

 

 

On our way down from Clouds Rest, we were feeling good and cruising at a pretty fast pace. Suddenly Nathan stopped short in his tracks, practically falling to the ground. Luckily he kept his balance (thanks to his trekking poles) and backed up quickly, because he had stepped just inches next to a Rattlesnake. The snake was not pleased with being disturbed, and it continued to rattle as Nathan recovered from the adrenalin rush and then quickly started taking photos.

 

 

Luckily we were able to pass it by safely and continue on our way down to meet back up with the John Muir Trail. That night we camped right near the trail along Sunrise Creek.

 

 

We selected our campsite based on its proximity to Half Dome (only 2.5 miles away) because we wanted to climb it first thing in the morning the next day before the crowds got to the cables. Most people hike Half Dome as a day-hike, starting at the Valley floor and hiking straight uphill for 7-9 miles (depending on the route). The very last part of the climb to the top of Half Dome, is the infamous cables section. The cables help you ascend the very steep part of the back of the dome and are quite dangerous, especially as they get crowded. About 400 people climb it every day, so at the peak of the day the cables are apparently quite congested with people trying to go up and down on the same cables. When we were at Clouds Rest, we had chatted with a couple who had climbed Half Dome the previous day and they told us the first wave of day hikers seemed to arrive around 9:30 am. Based on that, we planned to get up and on the trail by 5:30 am, so that we could climb Half Dome and get back down the cables section before 9:30 am.

We managed to get on the trail just a few minutes behind schedule (despite Nathan’s alarm being set for weekdays only… at it was a Saturday) and we quickly covered the 2 miles up to the sub dome. The sub-dome is sort of like a shoulder on the side of Half Dome, and the trail is very steep with huge granite steps and requires some rock scrambling at the end. It is the first sign of what you are about to get yourself into.

 

 

Around 7:15 we reached the base of the cables and had our first up-close and personal look at the cables. They were actually more intimidating and looked steeper than Katharine expected, but Nathan was pleasantly surprised to see 2x4s between the posts, acting like a ladder and giving you a place to ‘rest’ along the way. (As usual, Katharine already knew about these rungs from all her research for the trip). We finished our breakfast as we watched a few people start the climb up the cables and developed a strategy for our own ascent.

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Finally we felt mentally prepared, put on our mechanics’ gloves (an absolute must for the cables), and started up. Katharine was in the front, and we alternated as we each went up one rung at a time. The cable poles and rungs are about 6-8 feet apart, so this was a pretty slow way to do it, but kept us focused and since there was no one else around, we didn’t feel rushed. We stayed just one or two rungs apart so that we could talk throughout and keep each other on track. Neither of us looked down once during the ascent. We were more concerned about our safety, so we didn’t take any photos while we were on the cables.

 

 

The middle section of the cables is the steepest and most challenging. You are ascending almost entirely using your arms pulling yourself up on the cables, and the granite is smooth and worn from so many people before you that your feet tend to slip and slide. Each 2×4 rung was a welcome relief (although a couple were not quite as stable as we would have liked) and you still have to always hold on tight to the cables. The span between each rung was slightly different due to the rock face and how the cables were strung, so we never really got comfortable with what we were doing.

As we were almost done with the tough middle section, two guys passed us coming down. They were very encouraging and considerate as they passed, making sure to do so safely, which we greatly appreciated. Other than that, we didn’t come across any others on our way up.

After about 30 minutes of mentally intense climbing, we reached the top safely! The sense of accomplishment (and relief) outweighed the amazing views from the summit. There were only 5-7 other people at the top when we arrived, so it was nice to have plenty of space, but also other people to share the experience and take photos for each other.

 

 

Just when you think you are crazy, someone else is willing to go a little farther.

 

Before we knew it, we had already been up there 30 minutes and it was getting close to the time that we expected to start seeing the crowds of day-hikers so we got ready to head back down. We were almost more nervous to go down because you have to look down at where you are going, but you actually go down backwards as if you are rappelling down. Once we got our technique figured out, it really wasn’t too bad though. On our way down, we passed a guy headed up by himself who was doing it for the fifth time. He said he does it about every other year, which gives him enough time to forget how scary it is. He also mentioned that before they implemented the strict permit system, the cables were so crowded that people going up were between the two cables and people going down had to be on the outside. Just the thought of stepping outside the cables made our stomachs churn.

When we got to the bottom we both looked at each other in relief and agreed we’d probably never do it again. It was a rewarding experience, but we think once is enough.

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At the base of the cables, we watched as the day-hikers started to arrive and start up the cables. We noticed one couple that didn’t seem to have gloves, so we insisted they take ours. They were very grateful, but we’re sure they were even more thankful halfway up. We also realized that if we had been 30-45 minutes later, we would have had to pass three times as many people on the way down. As we headed back down the sub-dome, we started to see much larger groups of people and everyone was asking how crowded the cables were. We could definitely tell that soon it would be very different from the calm experience we had on the cables.

Once we got to the base of the sub-dome, we were greeted by two park rangers checking for permits with an iPad to cross-reference. We had started up so early in the morning that we had beaten them there. We did see them turning away anyone without a permit, including a guy who came all the way from France.

We made it back to our campsite for lunch and took an hour or so to relax and rest our feet before starting the long backpack down to the valley floor. Although it was only 7.5 miles, it was incredibly steep downhill with tons of granite steps along the Mist Trail. We knew the John Muir trail would have been an easier (less steep) option, but the Mist Trail was our last chance to see a waterfall in Yosemite, so we took it. The jury is still out on whether this view of Vernal Falls was worth the pain. We can say for sure that the trekking poles from Katharine’s coworkers were a lifesaver!

 

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 7
  • Nights in a tent: 6
  • Miles driven: 627
  • Miles hiked: 44

 

Day 4: Yosemite National Park, Glacier Point (8/7)

On our second day in Yosemite, we spent most of the morning preparing for our 3-day backpacking trip.  Our gear and food was organized for car camping and we had to readjust for backpacking sorting through all our gear and food, double checking we didn’t forget anything.  We rode the shuttle around the village picking up backpacking permits, food, and fuel, which gave us a better sense of the crowds and shuttle stops. We also made a quick photo stop at Valley View, which has a great shot of El Capitan and the Merced River.

Valley View

In the afternoon we made the drive towards Glacier Point, which gives you an amazing view of the Valley and Half Dome. On our way, we stopped to do a short 5 mile loop hike to Sentinel Dome and Taft point. The hike had some outstanding views as well as some bold deer along the trail, and it was just what our legs needed after the long hike the day before.

View from Taft Point

As it got closer to sunset, we headed to Glacier Point and set up to do some time lapse photography of Half Dome in the evening/sunset light. The sun didn’t fully cooperate, but we got a short period with nice color on the face of Half Dome.

Half Dome during sunset

While we were there, an energetic and experienced ranger gave an impromptu 20 minute explanation on how the Yosemite Valley was formed, engaging kids as props to act out different geological events. As is often the case in the evenings, we were properly bundled in down jackets and hats, while many others were shivering in their t-shirts and shorts.

It was a great way to spend the evening and gave us a bit of a view of where we would be backpacking for the next 3 days.

 

Trip Stats:

  • Days: 4
  • Nights in a tent: 3
  • Miles driven: 627
  • Miles hiked: 14

We are currently in Weed, CA near Mt. Shasta, enjoying a couple nights in a hotel (first real bed since we left San Diego over a week ago!). We finally have reliable internet, so we can post some of our previous stops including Yosemite.

Day 3: Yosemite National Park, Upper Falls Day Hike (8/6)

We arrived in Yosemite in the early evening after a pretty long drive from Pinnacles and were glad to set up camp in the daylight and get organized for a couple of days of day-hiking. The first thing we noticed besides the beautiful granite cliffs was the number of people in Yosemite Valley. It was definitely more crowded than when we were there a couple years ago in the snow and we definitely saw a lot of families with kids. But we’ve always heard how crowded Yosemite is in the summer, so we expected it, and really, it was pretty similar to any popular place in LA so it wasn’t that bad to us.

On our first morning in Yosemite, we woke up and made a hearty breakfast of eggs/omelette/scramble and packed lunches for the trail. We decided to do the trail to Upper Yosemite Falls since at ~7 miles with 2700′ gain, it would be a decently challenging hike to get us in shape for our backpacking trip in a couple days. The first few miles went well and we enjoyed some views of Half Dome and the Valley below.

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But as we got our first view of the falls, we were disappointed to see it was barely a trickle.

Can you see the very small stream of water?

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We probably should have known that ahead of time given the very low snowfall this year, and it almost made us just head back and try another hike, but luckily we continued on because it was worth it.

When we finally got to the top of the falls after what seemed like a never-ending climb in the heat, we were treated to some amazing views of the valley.

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We had our lunch and were considering heading back when a couple came up some steep stairs near the edge and told us that there were some really nice swimming pools below. We had seen people who had clearly been swimming and a couple people had mentioned them, but it wasn’t exactly clear where they were (or if we’d have time to hike to them). But with this new info, we quickly decided to check it out, and it turned out to be a highlight of the hike.

There were two beautiful deep pools in the small valley where the river would typically be rushing through just before going over the cliffs.

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Since the water was so low, we could actually enjoy them safely. The water was shockingly freezing, but we each jumped in, immediately climbed out, then dried off on the warm granite rocks. I think we agreed getting to go swimming here was worth not seeing the waterfall.

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After sufficiently cooling off in the water, we started the hike back down to the valley floor. Even though it was only 3.5 miles, the downhill took a toll on our knees and feet and we were completely exhausted at the end. That made us a little nervous since the first day of our backpacking trip would be 10 miles with similar up and downhill, while carrying a heavy pack, but we figured we’d deal with that when we got there a couple days later.

We had to rush to get back and shower at a nearby campground because we had dinner reservations at the Ahwahnee Restaurant to celebrate our 2 year anniversary. It’s a pretty fancy place (especially for a lodge in a national park, it even has a dress code for dinner), so we were excited for some good food after our tough hike. Unfortunately it was kind of a disappointing experience. The dining room was freezing cold, the service was very slow and not particularly friendly, and the food was only decent. At >$150 for dinner, we definitely were expecting something better. But oh well, we were just glad to be celebrating our 2nd anniversary in Yosemite.

Happy Anniversary to us! (our wedding cake topper)

 

Later that night Nathan did some star photography on our way back to the campground. The moon was nearly new, so we were able to get a silhouette of Half Dome with all the stars over head.

Click on the photo to enlarge. Half Dome is on the right

 

Trip Stats:

  • Days: 3
  • Nights in a tent: 2
  • Miles driven: 578
  • Miles hiked: 9
  • Waterfalls: 0

 

Back in late April, (yes, we are behind on our posts) we headed to the Channel Islands for another attempt at kayaking in the island caves.  Our first attempt was last spring with a bunch of coworkers and Nathan’s parents, but the swell was too high so we couldn’t go in the caves.

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Although we had a great time on that trip, we really wanted to get the full cave experience. So this time we figured we would hedge our bets with two days of kayaking with Aqua Sports, which meant camping on Santa Cruz island for one night. This time we also just went with Nathan’s parents since the logistics were more complicated with camping.

The early morning ride to the island (via Island Packers) was rough with a very high swell between the California coast and the islands (causing many people some sea sickness), so we were not too optimistic about the kayaking condistions.  As we entered the channel’s marine sanctuary we were greeted by a humpback whale with her calf, which distracted us from the lurching boat for a bit.

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As we arrived at the island we were lucky to find very calm water (protected by the island) and low tide, giving us nearly perfect conditions!

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We spent the day kayaking in and out of caves with our own personal guide Andy who is very knowledgeable about the ocean conditions, caves, and island history.

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The water was so clear we saw hundreds of sea stars, urchins, a few seals, and even an abalone!

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We must have explored a dozen different caves, so many that it became difficult to remember them individually. Some caves were actually more like tunnels that you could paddle all the way through while others just went straight deep into the island.

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A couple of the caves extended hundreds of yards into the island and it felt a bit disconcerting when the ceiling began to lower and the light from outside disappeared. We had headlamps but weren’t always prepared to battle the ocean swell inside a dark cave while trying to avoid brushing up against the sharp barnacle-covered walls.

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Every cave had its challenges and we were extremely glad to have a knowledgeable guide with us who could judge our abilities and check out the safety of the caves before we would venture in.  Set waves can quickly rush into a cave reducing the ceiling height from 6 feet to 2 feet in a matter of seconds.  Also timing was critical when riding waves through small gaps with rocky bottoms. But Andy kept us mostly calm and confident, and made sure we were always having fun.

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The pictures just can’t quite capture the feeling of going in and out of the caves, it was a really unique experience

After 4 hours of kayaking we had covered a few miles of coast and returned to the launch. We had a quick lunch before hauling our camping gear a mile to the campsite.  There is a nice clearing with large eucalyptus trees that shade many campsites that you can reserve on the NPS website.

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We setup camp and walked up and along the ridge-line of the coast for sunset.

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Camping on the island is close to backpacking because there is no electricity, campfires, or cars.  Luckily the island does have bathrooms and fresh drinking water.  Nathan’s parents got a taste of our traditional Mountain House freeze dried meals we are used to eating while backpacking.  By 10 pm everyone in the campsite was asleep except Nathan and his mom, who spent the evening playing with the headlamps and long exposure photos.

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The next morning Nathan spent the morning chasing island foxes around trying to get the perfect photo.  Although the foxes are wild they are used to people and have very few predators. Campers spend a lot of time chasing off the foxes and keeping them out of the food.

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The next day we started kayaking earlier heading out along the coast toward Potato Harbor.  The tide was much higher keeping us out of a lot of the caves but the wind was at our backs making the kayaking a breeze.  At one point though, Nathan’s dad was struggling to keep up and after a 1/4 mile of frustrated paddling we finally noticed he had snagged a 20 foot long piece of kelp and had been dragging it all this time!

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We stopped at lunch at Potato Harbor, a beautiful cove that looks more like a tropical island with white sand a clear shallow water than what you’d expect in SoCal.  Around the corner we kayaked near a sea lion rookery and watched the curious sea lions swim under our kayaks and play with each other.  We have some videos of our kayaking trip which include some underwater video of the sea lions playing under our kayaks, we’ll have to post that soon.

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As we headed back after another beautiful day of kayaking, the wind changed direction and pushed us back.  It was a successful, memorable, and exciting weekend! We highly recommend it as a unique must-do activity for any one in LA!

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