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Our goal for the end of 2013 is to finish off our Epic Trip posts. Not sure we’ll succeed since there aren’t many days left in 2013, but at least we’re getting back into it after too long of a break! So here is a look back at the Zion Narrows, which we hiked in September.

Day 52-54: Zion National Park, UT (9/24-9/26)

Back in April 2011 we visited Zion and spent a whole week exploring the park.  We backpacked the East Rim to the canyon floor, climbed to the top of Angel’s landing, and explored a couple side canyons, so we felt like we got a really good overview of the whole park.  But the Narrows was closed due to flooding, leaving us eager to return during a drier season to hike the most famous part of Zion NP.  The Narrows is a beautiful portion of a slot canyon where the Virgin River has cut through the sandstone before eventually opening up to Zion Canyon. So this year, we were excited to get permits reserved for a 2 day backpack of the entire length. And we were even more excited when we got to Zion and the weather forecast and water levels were looking good! (If you are interested in doing the Narrows, check out our tips at the bottom of this post.)

Our top-down backpack started near Chamberlain’s Ranch and our campsite was #7, almost 10 miles down river.  We got a late start due to some hikers getting on the wrong shuttle, so we were a little nervous about getting to our campsite before dark, but we figured since there’s no uphill, we could keep a steady pace.

The first 3 miles were easy and mostly just required walking through cow pastures and on the banks of the river.  There were a few places you had to cross, but we were able to keep a brisk pace as long as we weren’t shuffling through the river.


After 4 hours and 5 miles we entered the Upper Narrows where the canyon walls start to close in and it starts feeling like a slot canyon.


We stopped to take an arm shot, but soon felt dirt falling on us from the cliffs above.  In fear of larger rocks falling, we ran as fast as we could in the 6 inch deep water with 30 pound backpacks.  The camera continued taking photos capturing blurry images of us running for cover.  It was just another reminder how dangerous slot canyons are as the walls are continued to be eroded.  Luckily the small dirt and rocks didn’t turn into boulders or sheets of rock.


At this point the river spans the canyon, but was pretty shallow and slow moving.


Sometimes you had to get creative and climb around log jams or down rocky side canyons to avoid deep pools.


The bad news is GPS doesn’t work in the canyon, but the good thing is its hard to get lost since the walls are hundreds of feet high without any exit.  We relied on the Zion Adventure Company map which has mileage, landmarks, and general campsite locations.

The “12 foot falls” is around 8.5 miles in and should take about 4.5 hours to reach according to the map.  Since there isn’t any landmarks between the Upper Narrows (~5.75 miles) and the 12 foot falls (~8.5 miles) we were relieved when we finally came around the corner to see the falls.  We were right on schedule according to the map, but that made us worried since that put us at our campsite around 6:30 pm.  The canyon gets really dark as the sun starts setting, and even at 4:30 pm, we found the canyon was getting pretty dark and our cameras were almost useless.


So we put our cameras away and focused on our footing in the dimming light.  If you think it’s hard to hike at twilight, try doing it in a flowing river with a rocky bottom.  We finally made it to our campsite exhausted and sore from 10 miles of wet feet and cobblestone terrain.


Luckily we took full camelbacks and had plenty of water to cook dinner, drink, and make breakfast.  You wouldn’t think water would be an issue considering you’re walking in it all day, but the NPS encourages hikers to go to the bathroom in the river along with the hundreds of cattle upstream.  According to the NPS you should filter out of a side creek or spring that feeds the river because the Virgin River is so contaminated. Even though we think a good quality water filter would be able to handle the bacteria, we didn’t want to take any chances, so we were glad to have plenty of water on hand.

The next morning we started just after 8:00 and were more confident since we had the entire day and only 6 miles to hike.  The first goal for the day was to find Big Springs to filter water.  After what seemed to be the longest 1.25 miles we came across a welcome sight.

Big Springs

The last 5 miles are littered with landmarks on the map for the bottom-up day hikers (since a huge majority just hike up a ways and back in a day).  The last 5 miles are also most impressive of the 16 total since the walls are most narrow there.  When we weren’t staring up at the walls we kept ourselves entertained looking for Sipping Turtle and Hiccup Springs, just a couple of the things to look for (or listen for) along the hike.

The morning sun exposed the various canyon wall layers forcing you to stop and just stare in awe.

Along with the incredible walls rising above us the water also began getting deeper as more creeks and springs fed into the river and the canyon got narrower.  There were some really deep pools probably 5+ feet, but we always tried to find a shallower route or climbed over some boulders to avoid getting too wet.  The first day we rarely went in over our knees, but the second day we had to go almost waist deep.

After 2.5 miles we made it to Wall Street, the most impressive section with massive walls and rushing water spanning wall to wall.

Yes, we are crazy enough to pack a tripod and setup our cameras in the middle of a rushing river!

This place is so incredible, there are no words to describe it.  After almost 2 months of exploring some of the most beautiful places in the western US we still found ourselves smiling ear to ear in disbelief of the view.

Right when you think you’ve seen it all there is something more incredible around the next turn.

Floating Rock- 3 miles in if you hike up from the bottom.

We made it through Wall Street around 1:30 pm, which meant it took us over 5 hours to go less than 4 miles (because we were taking so many photos and hiking in a river is slow). But we knew we had plenty of time to complete the last 2.5 miles so we decided to take a detour down Orderville Canyon.  The thing with this detour is it required us to climb a 7 foot wall, which normally wouldn’t be too hard with some team work, but this wall had a 4 foot pool of water at its base!

The water was quite chilly (60F), and even though the air temperature was close to 70F, the breeze racing through the canyon in the shade made it a chilly obstacle.  We took turns carrying the packs through the water and passing them to each other over the wall.

Of course the deepest part was right at the base of the rock where the waterfall had eroded the sandy bottom.

We definitely felt tough while people watched us wade into the cold water.  The side canyon was very secluded since only a couple of people were crazy enough to get really wet.  After 15 minutes of shivering we also questioned our detour.  Luckily we had lots of dry shirts and jackets in our packs and spent the rest of the day in our fleeces.

Orderville Canyon

After making it back over/through the obstacle to get back to the main canyon, we quickly hiked the 1.5 miles to the start of the paved Riverside Walk trail, and then finished the last mile quickly thinking about the hot dinner and warm bed waiting for us.

Hiking the Narrows was an amazing experience, and we consider it one of the top 3 things we did on our trip. We think there is something just so incredible about slot canyons in general, (like when we did Buckskin Gulch, an even longer and narrower one) but there is something about the Zion Narrows that makes it special. Maybe it is the right balance of narrowness, but still allowing sunlight in to illuminate the walls. Or maybe it’s the Virgin River flowing wall to wall with deep turquoise pools. Whatever it is, it is absolutely worth the hike. If you ever find yourself in Zion when the river flow rate is low, you should definitely try hiking up river even just a few miles. You don’t need a permit to do that, and you still get to see some of the best parts!

We couldn’t include all the photos in the post so please click on the photos in the gallery and check them out in full screen.

Details for Trip Planning

Most river or slot canyon backpacking trips require permits because the environment can’t handle being overrun by hundreds of people a day.  The Narrows permits become available a few months ahead of your planned trip dates, but are reserved quickly!  Make sure to be on the website at the correct time and day since all the campsites will be reserved within 30 minutes of availability.  But about half the permits are reserved for walk-ups the day before, so don’t despair if you can’t reserve one. The top-down backpacking is a thru-hike and requires a shuttle or two cars.  Once you have locked in the permit, make sure to reserve a shuttle.

Selecting a campsite might just come down to what’s available, but if you have a choice of sites, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is drinking water. The National Park Service encourages all hikers to urinate in the river and there is a lot of cattle upstream of the Narrows. (Yes you heard right, this is one of those rare occurrences that they want you to go in the river! And to answer your next question, WAG bags are provided for everything else 🙂 So since lots of livestock and people use the river as a bathroom, the NPS does not recommend using the Virgin river water for drinking (even with filtration and/or treatment). Instead, they recommend you use the side creeks and springs, so if you can pick a campsite near one of those water sources, you will be better off.

The next thing to consider is how to split up the 16 mile backpack over two days.  From a photography stand point our last 6 miles from campsite #7 were better than the first 10 miles.  We took 190 photos the first day (10 miles) and 433 photos the second day (6 miles).  So if you get an early shuttle, you might want to try to get close to #9 or #10 to leave a lot of time to enjoy the 2nd day. On the other hand, walking through the river was much slower than we expected, and we (and other groups that started with us) found the hiking times on the map to underestimate it. Keep in mind it will most likely take you ~8 hours to hike 10.5 miles to sites #9/10 and your feet will most likely hate you at the end of the 1st day, but that would allow you to really take your time on the second day.

Most people actually day hike the Narrows, starting at the bottom, hiking upstream and returning the way they came. If you do it this way, you can go as far as Big Springs before you have to turn back (which at 10 miles roundtrip is all you’d probably want to do in a day). We really enjoyed backpacking it and spending a night in the canyon, which allowed us to have more solitude in the morning, but day hiking is a really great option and you still get to see the best parts. So if you aren’t up to backpacking or can’t get a permit, the day hike is a great back up.

Whether you backpack or day hike, we highly recommend renting water socks, shoes, and waterproof camera cases (we got ours from ZAC).  The water didn’t get too deep so our dry bags didn’t get used, but they did provide peace of mind, and the water depth can get much deeper depending on the rain that year. We did use our trekking poles the entire time and were so glad to have them for stability since it’s often hard to see the rocky bottom of the river clearly.  If you don’t have trekking poles or don’t want to use them in sandy water, take the rental company’s wooden staff.

Ok all that being said this was an amazing trip and we recommend it as a place to visit whether you backpack top-down or day hike bottom-up.


Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 54
  • Nights in a tent: 28
  • Miles driven: 6,672
  • Photos taken:  10,430
  • National Parks: 13
  • Miles Hiked: 182


Day 50-51: Great Basin National Park, NV (9/22-9/23)

In our quest to visit all the National Parks at some point in our life, we figured this was a good opportunity to visit Great Basin National Park.  It’s located near the Nevada Utah border, basically in the middle of nowhere.  The Great Basin itself is actually much larger than the park and includes most of Nevada and Utah along with parts of OR, CA, ID, and WY. It’s a unique area because the water does not drain into a ocean.  It is the largest contiguous endorheic watershed in North America!

As a small, not well known park, we were a bit surprised by all it had to offer including some nice high elevation hikes through aspen forests and around alpine lakes.






We also hiked through a grove of bristlecone pine trees which are some of the oldest trees in the world.  We had also seen these trees in the White Mountains of CA during some of our high altitude hiking training for Mt. Whitney.



Although it is a very dry climate, there was a steady stream running near our campground from the mountain snow melt.


The campgrounds were quite nice with several options, and we finally were able to enjoy a campfire.  On a side note there is only one place to get firewood in the Great Basin NP area and that is in the “town” of Baker just outside the park entrance.  There is a high school/college age guy with various locations you can buy wood from on the honor system.  Be sure to check all the roads leading into town since some of the bins may be empty.  There are also some well stocked stores that carry a variety of beer and wine.  We ate tons of marshmallows and drank until the fire was out and it was too cold to sit under the stars.



The next morning we were awaken by a gang of 20+ wild turkeys walking through our campsite.


Although it is a far drive to Great Basin NP no matter where you are coming from, there are enough things to entertain yourself for a few days and the scenery is beautiful, especially in the fall. There is also a cave that they give tours of, but we didn’t have time for it.


Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 51
  • Miles driven: 6,477
  • Miles from our old apartment in Pasadena: 551
  • Photos taken:  9,702
  • National Parks: 12
  • Miles Hiked: 166


Day 48-49: Yellowstone National Park, WY (9/20-9/21)

We had just two days to explore one of the largest and most diverse national parks.  Because of our short time we decided to take a drive-by blitz approach with little hiking or lingering in one area. (Plus, we needed a break after the Teton Crest Trail.)  We had both been to Yellowstone before, and we intend to visit again, so we decided to focus on the geothermal features and look for wildlife along the way. The park roads create a figure 8 which gives the illusion you can easily visit all the attractions, but the park is so huge (466 miles of roads and the park is about 63×54 miles) that it definitely felt rushed in two days. Still, it was great to see so many different things and a lot of wildlife. And we enjoyed the more relaxing style of a driving tour, which gave us a little break after the Teton Crest Trail

Here are some of the highlights.

Artists’ Paintpot

 Mud Pots- bubbles the size of volleyballs were continually forming and bursting



Norris Geyser Basin

 Lone Wandering Bison


 Porcelain Basin


 East Fork Tantalus Creek

 Colloidal Pool

Emerald Spring


Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

Live bacteria mats form on the travertines



Main Terrace Canary Spring



Minerva Terrace

Petrified Tree


This is one of two petrified trees that used to be in this location. The other was stolen, so now this one is surrounded by a fence.  There are other petrified trees in the park, but they are not easily accessible and the exact locations are not publicized to try to prevent more theft.

Lamar Valley


Bison at Sunset

Lots of people pulled over for the chance to see a grizzly. Check out the girl with a huge telephoto on top of the Outback. We’re hoping that’s us in a few years!


Bear Sighting! Lots of expensive camera lenses lined up


 Grizzly Bear Sow and 3 Cubs

There was a steep ravine and river between us and the bears so we (and the other 100 people) were pretty safe. There was also a male in the shadows near the river eating a rotting bison kill, but it was too dark to really see or photograph him.

Canon 7D with 70-300L (300 mm, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/320 sec)

The sun had set and the bears were bedding down for the night. Dim light situations makes us jealous of the fixed $10,000+ telephoto lenses around us.


Mud Volcano Area

Dragon’s Breath, which really did sound like a dragon sleeping in a cave…very creepy


West Thumb

 Bull elk were in rut trying to herd and compete for their harems.


Keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle!


Old Faithful


 Old Faithful draws a huge crowd every 90 minutes



Midway Geyser Basin

Certain stops would get very crowded when a big tour bus had just arrived. We figured it’s often better just to wait for the busload of people to leave since getting bumped off the walkway could result in sever burns.

Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the most beautiful thermal features with amazing colors from the bacteria. There was too much steam to get a really good view of it, so we’ll be back on a future visit. We also learned it’s possible to hike up one of the nearby hills from the Fairy Falls trailhead to get a better view looking down.

Check it out on google maps

 Pool nearby Grand Prismatic


Near Madison River


Scavenging Coyote

Bull Elk

As always, to see more photos, check out the gallery below. There were way too many to fit them all in the post!

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 49
  • Miles driven: 5,532
  • Photos taken: 9,278
  • Grizzly bears seen: 4
  • National Parks: 11

Day 33-35: Chicago, IL (9/6-9/8)


After Glacier NP, we drove to Jackson, WY to park our car and fly to Chicago. Katharine’s good friends from Kenyon, Kathryn & Joe, were getting married and we couldn’t miss the wedding!

We arrived on Friday morning and got to spend the day with Katharine’s friend from study abroad in Munich, Melissa. We had a great time just hanging out in the city, eating excellent sushi, and enjoying some delicious wine that Melissa selected. We also appreciated having a friend’s place to stay Friday night after the Rehearsal dinner!


The wedding was on Saturday in a beautiful chapel in downtown Chicago. Then we headed to the Ravenswood district to the Architectural Artifacts for the reception. The Architectural Artifacts was a really great venue with tons of interesting items for sale, most out of our price range, but it was such a cool collection. We had a lot of fun exploring while the wedding party took photos during cocktail hour.


Great guestbook idea






The reception was really fun with lots of dancing and a chance to catch up with some old friends from Kenyon.


It was great to see old friends and well worth the side trip!


Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 35
  • Number of airplanes used on our road trip: 2


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’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 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


It’s officially an annual tradition!  Second year in a row that my dad and I have left sunny southern California for a wintry Iowa to do some pheasant hunting.


Last year we tried to visit some old hunting grounds that we used to cover while I was a kid, but recently there has been a sudden decline in the pheasant population so we ended up at a pheasant reserve.  This year we decided to stack the deck in our favor and just head for the reserve for two half day hunts.  This allowed us to go in early March, which is a nice time after all the holidays, but if you know Iowa the weather doesn’t always cooperate.  Some how we got lucky picking a weekend with 40 degree temperatures, a few inches of snow on the ground and blue skies!


We arrived late Friday night/ Saturday morning got a few hours of sleep before we picked up Ken and headed to the reserve!  Ken is an old friend, local Iowan, and avid big game hunter, but is always up for the challenge of knocking down a pheasant.

Ken taking his best shot at a passing rooster

The reserve guarantees birds in the field, but Paul Wehr our professional guide and his dogs guarantees birds within range. Although it wasn’t guaranteed we got our limit both days and gave the meat to a couple local friends.

Paul Wehr and his German short-haired pointers

Can you spot the hen in the brushes?

Last year I tried to juggle a shotgun and a 5 pound camera and ended up missing a lot of good photos.  So this year I made the tough decision, on the first sweep of the field to leave the gun in the truck and head out into the field with only my camera.  The photos that I got this year were well worth the sacrifice.

Dogs on Point

My Dad Knocking Down a Rooster (full sequence in the gallery below)

Retrieving A Chukar

The second time out in the field I traded my Canon for a Beretta and had no problem knocking down my limit of birds.  The first day was perfect; good weather, lots of roosters and good company.  We spent every hour out of the field traveling house to house seeing old friends and catching up on the local news.


The second day my Dad and I spent the day shooting birds over Paul’s dogs.  I’m guessing we were the most dedicated photographers Paul has ever guided in the field, but luckily he’s also a photographer and was patient with us as we traded the shotgun for the camera back and forth getting some great action shots, we could have only wished for more roosters.  Although it’s legal to shoot hens on a reserve the feeling and photos just aren’t the same.

Hen Busting Through the Weeds

Hen Jumping Out in Front

You have to click on this picture to see the hen flying up behind me!

Leaving No Tree Line Untouched

We kept the tradition of hiking mile after mile leaving no bush or tree line untouched and after returning to the lodge we were teased by the elusive rooster that always knows when the hunt is over.  I think next year if there are more roosters in the field I might have a chance at a Pheasants Forever photo submission!


Even though we traveled thousands of miles and spent lots of money to recreate a weekend past time the memory for this year is the hours spent in the airports.  Of course the plane delays and layovers were miserable, but if anyone knows my parents they are goofy and when goofy is mixed with hours of waiting and an audience, hilarity will ensue.

This time it was my dad and I playing on the moving walkways in the Denver airport.  We theorized, could two long-lost friends see each other on opposing moving walkways and some how maintain a conversation?  We soon found ourselves walking in-place on opposing treadmills trying to keep a conversation while weaving between confused stationary travelers.  I’m sure we got a few looks, but it was hard to tell trying to look to the side while dodging people.

Per usual my dad wanted to see if he could get a reaction out of any of the serious travelers so he briskly walked against the flow of traffic on the moving walkway with serious, but worried look on his face mumbling “I’m not going to make my flight” as he kept looking at his watch.  He got a couple puzzled glances, but in today’s society most people are trained not to show any expression.  All was not lost as we boarded our plane and while standing in the plane’s aisle a lady pointed at us and said “you two are hilarious and made my day!”  We smiled and thanked her as we loaded ourselves in the last row of the sardine can.

Some of the photos in the gallery are a series of shots and are best viewed in order, enjoy!

Last year we checked out the elephant seals and monarch butterflies around Pismo Beach.  It was a fun trip and pretty amazing seeing the unusual seals and butterflies, but we were a little late for the prime viewing.  This year we thought we would go a little earlier to catch the thousands of migrating butterflies and the seals giving birth.



Although there were tens of thousands of butterflies they were so dense they only cover a few branches, which didn’t look that impressive.  At first its hard to see the butterflies because they are so close together and their wings are folded with the lighter underside exposed.  


Also the branches they chose to rest on were 30 feet in the air, which is probably wise with all the curious people around.  As the sun rose and began to shine through the trees small sections of the brach began to warm up and flex their wings. After an hour there was a couple hundred butterflies fluttering around.

We then headed up the coast to check out the seals near Piedras Blancas.


We quickly noticed there weren’t as many seals as last year, but there were more spectators.  We stuck around and watched the cute new borns huddle next to their moms, but we didn’t witness any births.


It may have been the difference between seeing the seals in the evening rather than the morning, but the bulls were not actively guarding their harems.


As we drove back along the coast on the two lane highway we noticed many hawks perched on the fence poles.  It was too good to pass up so we stopped and I got to use my new 70-300mm L lens to capture these birds of prey in the sunset glow.


It’s interesting what you capture at 8 frames per second when you’re not sure what the animal is going to do next…


It eventually did take off and I got a couple OK shots, but I would have liked my shutter speed to be a little faster to catch the tips of its wings.


Although its flight path wasn’t ideal and the next frames had the barbed wire fence across the bird it still provided some good practice for future birds in flight (BIF) photography.

All in all it was a nice and relaxing trip for us and a great way to start off the new year with some wildlife photography.



I tried out my new Canon 70-300L lens while the guys spent their Christmas afternoon fishing.



 Fish on the Line




Robins Taking a Bath


70-300L @140mm, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/250, 7D Body

I took this photo handheld, standing 10 yards away, knee high in a running creek… gotta love image stabilization.

Cropped from the photo above.

The sharp lens combined with the 7D sensor allows me to crop without losing too much quality.  The fact that you can see the scales on this fish is amazing.  I can’t wait to take some wildlife photos this year!

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