National Parks

You are currently browsing the archive for the National Parks category.

For Presidents’ day weekend we decided to take a trip somewhere snowy that we could do snowshoeing or cross country skiing. We decided on Sequoia National Park since it is not too far of a drive, has plowed and accessible roads, and has some great trails through the Sequoias.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t any fresh snow in the past couple weeks so skiing wasn’t really possible and snowshoes were not entirely required since we had our Microspikes.


But there was definitely enough snow to make the trip worth it and transform the park compared to our earlier visits in the summer. On our first day we visited some of the popular sights including the General Sherman tree, the largest tree (by volume) in the world. Generally in the summer this area is mobbed with people and you have to wait a long time to get your turn with the tree. But in the winter, you can actually get a shot without anyone!


This year we opted out of camping on the snow and got a hotel room just outside the park.  The drive in and out of the park is long and windy, but the view at sunset was worth the drive.


On our second day we did a short hike to Tokopah Falls (3.8 miles) that we realized along the way we had actually done once before. It was a different experience in the snow though, and the falls were more impressive this time around. We also enjoyed the icicles and stream views along the hike.

Tokopah Falls


In the afternoon we decided to do a short hike to Sunset Rock to, as you’d expect, watch the sunset.  It’s a easy 2-mile round-trip hike through the forest and then it empties out on to a giant flat rock overlooking the canyons and of course is a perfect place to watch the sunset.


We hiked back to the car using our headlamps and then drove down the road to Round Meadow to wait for the stars to come out.  Earlier in the day we had picked out a sequoia tree that was singled out enough to make a good silhouette star photo.

(Click on the photo for full screen view, the stars are more visible)


The next day we spent a few hours hiking the Congress Trail, which passes through some impressive sequoia groves properly named The House and Senate.



After this trip we’ve exhausted the main park attractions and probably won’t return to this area of the park for a while.  But we do plan on doing some more exploring in the backcountry of Sequoia National Park this summer… we got permits for the classic Rae Lakes Loop for 4th of July.



Two years ago we took a day trip to Santa Cruz island in Channel Islands National Park with Nathan’s parents and loved it. The steep cliffs jutting into the blue ocean with sea caves and arches were stunning. We decided we’d have to make a couple more trips to the park to camp, see visit the other islands, and kayak. So in June Katharine organized a big group trip with about 20 of our coworkers, friends and Nathan’s parents for a kayaking trip around the Santa Cruz Island.  The trip started at the Ventura Harbor to take the boat to the island. We were escorted on the way by common dolphins playing in our boat’s wake.

Common Dolphin

After a few minutes on the island we were suited up in sun bleached life jackets, bright yellow helmets and slathered with sun screen.


We got a quick lesson in paddling, steering, and how to navigate caves without being crushed against the rocks.


Before we knew it we were paddling out past the breakers testing our new paddling skills.


Benefits of Tandem Kayaks… letting your partner do the work

Unfortunately the swell was too high, keeping us out of the adventurous caves.  Instead we paddled close to a blow hole where during low tide you can actually paddle through.

This was my first time using the GoPro on the water.  I learned a couple things.  First, make sure the camera is straight on your helmet.  Second move your head slowly. Lastly the water tight housing also blocks sound thus the need for dramatic music.  I hope you don’t get sea sick watching the video, enjoy!


We did get to go into a large archway that was made from the unstable rock falling into the ocean.  Some of us were a little uneasy knowing that at anytime boulders could come crashing down.


We then paddled across the open ocean rising and falling with the large waves.  It was thrilling to watch our friends in front of us disappear behind the massive waves then reappear as we sank into a valley of water.


After 3 hours of kayaking we rode the surf in and turned in our life jackets for hiking shoes.

Scorpion Anchorage, Santa Cruz Island

The 2 mile round-trip hike has some amazing views of the island’s coast.


After a long day of kayaking and hiking we headed back home with more dolphins jumping in our wake.


It was a fun adventure with friends and we are already talking about going back to kayak the caves! Plus do a camping trip… and visit Anacapa Island. It’s surprising that so few people in Southern California know about this National Park because it’s so close and has so much to offer!



Everyone who has been to Bryce Canyon has always told us “You have to go there, it’s incredible”. And on our trip we learned they are right! You don’t really need more than a couple days to get a feel for the whole park, but it really is a unique place.

After a long drive from LA (with a short stop in Mesquite, NV to get a little sleep), we made it to Bryce and first claimed a campsite. Although we were surprised to find out that it was a national park fee-free week, the campgrounds were not too crowded so we got a nice site at our first-choice campground. Then we put our hiking shorts on, grabbed all our camera gear, and headed to Sunset point for a first look at the Hoodoos and Bryce Amphitheater.


Bryce Canyon really seems to come out of nowhere, you can’t see anything from the road… instead you have to get right up to the rim to see it. We admired the views from Sunset Point, then walked to Sunrise Point along the rim and headed down into the canyon towards Queen’s Garden.


We did a 6 mile figure-8 loop which gave us some great views amongst the hoodoos.  The 6 mile hike took most of the day since we were still getting used to hiking above 8,000 feet so the “photo stops” were a welcomed as we needed to catch our breath.



Portions of the hiking trail are also shared with a horse trail.  For those of you not interested in hiking for 6 hours this could be a comfortable option.  As the sun started to set behind the canyon walls we headed up the steep switch backs to the rim of the canyon.


Because the Bryce Amphitheater faces east sunset isn’t the best time to photograph the hoodoos.  You can see the dark shadows creeping across Thor’s Hammer, a popular photographed hoodoo.


We then went to Bryce Point to get a better view of the entire amphitheater from above and look for potential sunrise locations. Even though the lighting wasn’t ideal, the view point was crowded with visitors trying to get a last glimpse of the unusual landscape.

Bryce Amphitheater at Sunset

We decided to wake up early and beat the crowds to Bryce Point for sunrise.  Even Katharine got up before sunrise, which is a first for her on a camping trip.  There were a couple other photographers with their tripods, but most sane people aren’t willing to stand in the cold and dark setting up their tripods by headlamp.

Bryce Amphitheater at Sunrise

Once the sun was above the horizon and the hoodoos lost the dramatic lighting we left the now crowded view point.  We went back to sunrise point and hiked a couple switch backs down into the canyon where we found several other photographers camped out with tripods taking photos of the glowing hoodoos.

Thor’s Hammer at Sunrise



It’s always comforting when you go to a location and there are 5 other photographers with $5k+ setups; it let’s you know you’re probably on the right track.  When you take the chance and setup your gear alone and then 30 minutes later those 5 photographers show up and have to rethink their location because you’re standing in their spot, it’s priceless.

After sunrise was over, we had breakfast at our campsite and drove to the southern end of the park to check out the bristlecone pine trees which are the oldest species in the world!  The oldest tree is believed to be in the White Mountains of CA (almost 5000 years old), but the exact location is not publicized. In comparison, the oldest bristlecone pine tree at Bryce is 1,600 years young, and in our opinion looked pretty dead. (Apparently it is still growing inside, protected by the dead bark around it.)

A more lively looking bristlcone pine tree

On our way back to our camp we spotted two pronghorn antelope grazing in an open field.  They were obviously rather accustomed to humans and let us within a 100 feet, but were wary if we got any closer.


We ended our time in Bryce by driving back up the park road stopping at most of the view points and enjoying the variety of landscapes. With this trip in mind Katharine bought a new wide angle lens, which paid off with the vast landscapes.

Bryce Canyon certainly did not disappoint; we heard several groups exclaim that they thought it was more impressive than the Grand Canyon. We aren’t sure about that, but it is definitely unique and amazing to see. Next time we’d like to visit in the winter when snow gives a little more contrast to the rock formations.


By Katharine

My cousins Tom and Amy had planned a desert trip to CA for a winter break trip in February and invited us to meet up with them at Joshua Tree National Park for the weekend. We were glad to see we had the weekend free and planned for a short trip (2 days, 1 night). Nathan and I have a lot of interests in common with Tom and Amy (hiking, backpacking, national parks, and photography to name a few) but we don’t often get to see each other besides for weddings and Christmas. So we were excited to finally do a camping trip together! And we hadn’t been to Joshua Tree since April 2009, which was actually my first camping trip with Nathan.

We drove out to Joshua Tree Saturday morning and headed into the park to try to snag a campsite. As we got about 15 min into the park, we were surprised to see snow!!

Patches of snow among the boulders

I think I seriously have some sort of snow curse… always plenty of snow when camping but never enough when we want to snowboard. Luckily in this case there were just small patches left, not enough to really affect campsites. Unfortunately we got there about 30 minutes too late to get a campsite, but it wasn’t a big deal though since there is plenty of BLM camping near the park (i.e. camping on a dry lake bed near a local airport runway).

We spent Saturday and Sunday doing a bunch of different hikes and exploring with Tom and Amy. We started with a short hike at Hidden Valley, which included many stops for photos of the joshua trees. We then went to see the chollo cactus and stopped at Jumbo Rocks to scramble on the boulders. We checked out Keys View around sunset and then set up camp and went to sleep pretty early.

Hidden Valley

Chollo Cactus

Nathan and Katharine at the Chollo Cactus Patch

Tom Bouldering

Katharine and Amy

Jumbo Rocks

Keys View

On Sunday we hiked out to 49 Palms Oasis (which seemed much easier than when Nathan and I hiked it 3 years ago) and did another short hike at Split Rock. Tom and Amy headed off to Death Valley and we stayed for sunset before heading back to LA.

Hike to 49 Palms Oasis (Oasis visible top left)

Red Barrel Cactus on the way to 49 Palms

Tom Climbing near Split Rock

Jack rabbit

Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park

It was a great trip and fun to return to Joshua Tree to take some better photos than last time. Tom and Amy also have Canon cameras, so Nathan got to try out a few of their lenses, including a macro one he really liked. Check out the rest of the photos:


We were barely unpacked from Alaska and had just started school but we couldn’t pass up a three day weekend backpack for Labor Day. We decided to go to Jennie Lakes Wilderness, which is in the Sequoia National Forest, between Sequoia and King’s Canyon Nat’l Parks.  Because it wasn’t in a Nat’l Park we were allowed to have campfires using the dead wood found around our campsite.  Also we would be camping next to lakes where we could fish…backpacking, campfires, and fishing sounds like an amazing weekend!!! Katharine as usual planned the entire trip mapping out each day, researching permits and calculating our travel times.

We left early Saturday morning and drove through King’s Canyon National Park, to gain access to the Jennie Lakes area.  The park was full of confused campers that were forced to “dispersion camp” along side the road because all the campsites were taken. One good thing about backpacking is it filters out a lot of people- even on a 3 day weekend you might only see a few other parties on the trail.

The plan was to do a 3 day loop: first day to Weaver lake, second day to Jennie Lake, then last day back to the car.  The first leg to Weaver lake was shorter which was appropriately chosen after spending almost 5 hours driving.  It was a quick 3 mile hike to Weaver lake and we were able to find a nice camping spot along the lake.

Weaver Lake

We sterilized water with our new Adventurer Opti Steripen (3.6 oz) which uses UV light to kill viruses and bacteria rather than using a filter.  It is much smaller and lighter than our Katadyn Hiker filter pump (11 oz) but the Steripen can only purify1/2 liter of water at a times and takes about 5 minutes each time.  The Katadyn pump is much easier to filter 7-8 liters for hydration packs, cooking, and cleaning, but we’re looking at ways to keep our pack weight down so the Steripen was a nice option.

As soon as we finished dinner the sun was setting so we thought we would try our Tenkara fly rod and see if we couldn’t catch a few fish.

After a few casts we caught a fish but soon after the sunset behind the mountains and it was hard to see the fly on top of the water.

The blur is the fish, I swear

Weaver Lake Sunset

We probably could have had better luck by rolling up our pants and wadding out in the shallow, cold, mountain water but staying dry was also nice.

Of course with all campfires you have to have marshmallows so we packed 10 marshmallows which we throughly enjoyed.  Eating marshmallows around a fire near a lake with the next campers over 100 yards away on a 3-day weekend…pretty awesome.


We also packed our iPad and tried to use the Star Walk app to identify constellations amongst the thousands of stars.  As the fire dwindled we headed for bed knowing tomorrow we had to hike 9 miles with some elevation gain.


We hiked 9 miles with 1,000 feet of elevation gain in 6 hours which is unusually fast for us.  Considering we were hiking uphill with our packs and stopped for lunch that would normally take us close to 8+ hours.  We didn’t take as many photos which may have played a part in our quick pace.

Jo Pass 9,400 feet

We only saw one other couple on the entire 9 mile trail and they were headed the other direction.  When we arrived at Jennie Lake it was apparent that most people just hike directly to Jennie Lake and don’t attempt the loop through Weaver Lake.  Many of the campsites were taken from the previous day but we were still able to find a nice campsite with a rock fire ring.  We spent the evening fishing and caught at least 4 fish, which probably frustrated the guy next to us who had brought complicated spinning rods and extensive tackle boxes but didn’t seem to be having much luck.

Fishing Off a Log in Jennie Lake

Although next time I should bring my Leatherman fishing instead of leaving it in my pack.



We ended the evening with another fire under the stars.



Sunrise at Jennie Lake

We packed up our camp and headed to “Poop Out Pass” which is a difficult up hill hike coming into Jennie Lake luckily we were headed out down hill.

Packing the Rainfly

There were some interesting flowers along the way but the vistas were not as amazing as Alaska which may have resulted in another day of very few photos and a quicker than average pace.  We covered 6 miles in a couple hours allowing us some time to visit King’s Canyon.

We visited the General Grant sequoia tree, second largest tree in the world next to the General Sherman, which we’ve seen in Sequoia National Park.  It stands at 267 feet tall and is estimated to be 1,650 years old.  There was also an old fallen sequoia that you can walk through but beware of the active bee hive in the roots!

Katharine Walking Through a Fallen Sequoia

Overall it was a nice and relaxing trip with fishing, campfires and 18 miles of hard earned exercise.

We spent our last full day in Alaska back in Denali NP. Since we had gone so far down the park road the previous day (requiring lots of time on the bus) we decided to only go as far as the Eielson Visitor center so that we could have more time to hike. We didn’t see as much wildlife this time, but it was a great day for landscapes since the wind had blown the clouds and fog out of the valley.



There was some impressive landscapes as the clouds passed over the Alaska Range

We shortly forgot about the mountain as Katharine pointed out a grizzly cub running along side the road from the bus.  It was definitely picking up a scent in the wind as it ran down the hill into the braided stream.


We came around the bend and suddenly Denali came out in full view. It was windy out but well worth getting out of the bus to take a few photos in the cold.

Olympus E-PL2, ISO 200, 34mm, f/9.0, 1/200 sec

On our way back towards the park exit we got off the bus to hike some more in the open tundra. This time we didn’t see any bears though. We also took advantage of Nathan’s tripod and remote shutter.



Again, berries were everywhere, blanketing the ground.


Once we were back on the bus, the last animals we saw were a moose and her calf.


Our last day in Alaska was a perfect end to an amazing trip full of wildlife sightings, amazing mountains, and some great hiking. We can’t wait to go back!!


We spent day 10 driving almost 7 hours from Seward to our cabin outside of Denali National Park.

Rainbow spotted on the way to Denali

The next morning we had to wake up early for our bus tour which is the only way to travel in the park.


Denali NP has a unique bus system where you ride on school buses on the only road through the park. At any point you can choose to get off and hike around, then just go back to the road and flag down a bus to get back on.  For our first day we booked tickets to Wonder Lake, nearly the entire length of the park road, which takes about 11 hours round trip if you stick with the same bus the whole day. Given how many hours you simply spend on the bus, we were glad to have long days so that we still had time to get off and explore on our own a bit.

While riding on the bus you are encouraged to point out wildlife (and to shout ‘STOP’ when you see something so that the driver can help show others), but it takes a few animal sightings for people to get the confidence to yell at the driver. Our first animal sighting was a grizzly bear grazing on berries.


Since the bus system is the only way to get through the park, there are hardly any hiking trails, and back-country camping is strictly controlled, Denali is kept as a wilderness area and animals aren’t used to humans, so they are usually seen far away from the road (which is different than most National Parks where you might see moose grazing right by the side of the road).  After a while the driver also encourages people to yell stop for any good photo opportunities like this landscape.

The bushes and tundra were just starting to turn colors for the fall which made for amazing photos.


View from Eielson Visitor Center of the Alaska Range

After we passed the Eielson Visitor Center we got off the bus for a hike through the tundra and blueberry patches.  Katharine spent most of the time picking and enjoying the unlimited supply of ripe berries while Nathan kept a paranoid watch for grizzly bears.

After a while of walking through the thick tundra, we headed down to the stream bed for some easier terrain.

Nathan’s fears quickly turned from grizzly bears to spooking moose in the willows.  As we walked we could see moose tracks all around us and the willows (moose food) became thicker and thicker so that we could often only see 100 feet ahead of us.  At one point we could see the park road ahead about half a mile away and a bus was stopped.  A stopped bus could only mean one thing…ANIMALS! The bus was up against a steep hill so we knew they were looking our way.  We paused trying to figure out what they could be looking at then suddenly a fox or a small wolf ran past us just on the other side of the stream bed.  Now our minds were racing trying to remember all the animal safety rules…grizzly bear you stand your ground…moose you run away…pack of wolves…they never said anything about stumbling on wolves! Luckily the wolf/fox had run by quickly and was soon far away. But multiple buses were still stopped – meaning they were looking at something else. We decided to climb out of the willows to higher ground to get a better view.  We reached the hill opposing the buses with a wide valley between us and sure enough we spotted grizzly bears!

They were still quite far away, probably about a quarter of a mile, but a mother and her full grown cubs weren’t something we wanted to take a chance with. We sat and ate berries as we watched them casually walk into the hills, and then we headed down into the valley towards the road.  Denali has few to no official hiking trails because by allowing everyone to hike in random areas they preserve the overall terrain.  Sometimes it’s fun to explore the wilderness on your own but other times you wish you had a nice trail.

Thick willows that sometimes are above your head

Starting in the afternoon, “The Mountain”, Mt. McKinley aka Denali, began to show through the clouds barely.  It is actually uncommon to see the mountain and extremely rare to see it from top to bottom without any cloud cover. As we headed back to the road after our hike, we looked back and could see the clouds had fully cleared around The Mountain. Sadly we were already headed back and past the best view points, but we still got a couple nice shots.

By the end of the day we had spent about 14 hours in the park and couldn’t wait to go back the next day, which would also be our last “fun” day in Alaska.  We saw caribou, 5 grizzly bears, moose, arctic ground squirrels, pika, dall sheep, wolves, possibly a fox, and The Mountain. Only in Denali!

On our 9th day we slept in after many early morning flights and boat trips.  We decided to hike along Exit Glacier to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park.  The hike begins at the valley floor and climbs 3,500 feet along side the glacier for about 4 miles.  It’s not every day you get to see a glacier and it certainly isn’t every day that you can hike the length of one all the way to the ice field that is feeding it.


For the first mile the trail was very lush and green, almost like hiking through a jungle.  Then we started to emerge out of the dense trees and were greeted by a steep slope of colorful flowers.


The open meadows and about 1,500 feet of gain gave way to some incredible views overlooking the mountains and the valley below where we started.


As we started up a steep incline with lush grasses on each side of the trail I spotted a marmot sticking his head up out of the tall grass.

I tried to get as close as possible…

He calmly ate grass while I was able to get a few photos.  After we left you could hear their high pitch whistling signal as noisy hikers approached.


The vegetation began to disappear and the landscape became a rocky moon-like surface.  We could look across the glacier and see the icefield and knew we were getting close.

At the top is a emergency shelter which is a small one room log cabin.  This photo was taken at the shelter and you can see the valley down below and the snow patches we had to hike through.  It was pretty surreal but an amazing accomplishment when you look down at the valley 3,500 feet below.


The Harding Icefield is 300 square miles and receives over 400 inches of snow a year!  It is one of only only four Icefields in the United States.


It is also the largest Icefield that is entirely located in the US feeding 40 different glaciers.


We also saw 10 or 15 mountain goats on the mountain side enjoying the view.  There are a couple photos in the gallery at the end of the post.  The sun started to get “lower” in the sky and less people were coming up so we decided it was time to head back down.  As we left the moonscape and headed to the meadows we could see hikers ahead of us stopped and pointing.  When we caught up to them we could see a black bear grazing in the meadow.


We took to some high ground above the bear and waited for him to pass.


After 15 minutes the bear had passed and we headed back down the trail.  Within 10 minutes we looked up and saw the bear on the ridge 100 feet above us, we shouted at him making our presence known and he glanced at us and then walked over the ridge.


We made it back finishing the 7.5 mile hike and 3,500 feet of elevation gain before the sun fully set.  This hike reaffirmed that we were made for each other.. who hikes 7.5 miles up a mountain on their honeymoon and has a smile at the end?!




After a pleasant night in Seward, we took our third and final boat trip through Kenai Fjords National Park.  For our last trip we decided to take the Captain’s Choice Tour, focusing on photography and wildlife. This was the smallest tour boat but there was also only 20 guests on board.  The highlight of the trip was when we came across a pod of orcas!


After 10 mins of following the orcas one breached twice putting on an amazing show.  It was hard to judge where the orca was going to surface next so we didn’t get the best photos, maybe next time.  After 20 minutes the boat left the orcas because of laws regarding disturbing the animals’ natural behaviors.  It’s understandable, but it was frustrating to watch a pod of orcas swim away as the boat changes direction.


The rest of the trip was mostly spent visiting bird nesting sites along the cliffs which yielded some nice photos.

Tufted Puffin (280 mm, f/5.6, 1/800 sec, ISO 1250)

Horned Puffin (280 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1250)

Purple Ochre Starfish

After the tour we watched the sunset outside of Angel’s Rest, which was the best accommodations of our entire trip.

Looking East toward the town of Seward (44 mm, f/18, 3.2 sec, ISO 100)

Moon rising over Resurrection Bay

More photos

Day 2 of the trip was our only full day in Gustavus / Glacier Bay National Park so we made the most of it – we started with a 8 hour boat tour through the bays narrated by a NPS ranger. The weather cooperated by not raining although it was still chilly and gray most of the day. But it made for some nice cloud photos on the water.


We got to see 5 tidal glaciers, all of which start in the Fairweather Mountain range, which has peaks over 15,000 ft high. The tall mountains right along the ocean were a spectacular sight.



Can you spot a goat on the cliff in the above photo? Nathan was able to get some nice shots with his telephoto lens.  Kudos to the ranger for spotting them, I totally would have missed them.


The glaciers themselves were also very cool – the face of Lamplugh Glacier was the bluest, while Grand Pacific Glacier periodically would calve pieces into the ocean. It was also interesting that Grand Pacific is one of the few advancing glaciers in the US- meaning it’s actually growing/lengthening slightly every year.


The small islands in the bay were covered with birds, which quickly separated the “Birders” from the rest of the tourists.  We were never ones to get excited  about gulls or cormorants but it was fun to see the occasional tufted puffin.


We also saw a lot of marine mammals – Otters, humpback whales, seals, and sea lions – but the lighting made it tough to get any really amazing shots. Luckily we had better luck later on in the trip.


After our 8 hour boat ride we rented bikes and headed into town for pizza (10 miles one-way).  We ran into another porcupine crossing the road, but he was a little to fast for me to get a good photo.


It was a fun bike ride through the forest on a flat and empty road. By this point we started to realize how much more you can do when you have 15 hours of daylight!


More photos from the day


« Older entries § Newer entries »