Warning: include(wp-includes/class-wp-term-connect.php): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/content/71/6757671/html/wp-config.php on line 93

Warning: include(): Failed opening 'wp-includes/class-wp-term-connect.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/usr/local/php5_4/lib/php') in /home/content/71/6757671/html/wp-config.php on line 93
NateKat · Life, Love, and Adventure… and a whole lot of national parks!

We’ve heard many stories about the harsh Alaska winters, abundant wildlife, and many other adventures from Peter, Katharine’s uncle, who lives in Nome, AK.  We had a great time on our honeymoon in Alaska in the summer of 2011, but we always wanted to go back to experience the winter season, so we decided to make a trip of it! We planned for a few days in Nome and a few days in Fairbanks.  Of course if you’re going to Nome in the winter/spring, you have to see the finish of the Last Great Race, the Iditarod!  The 1,000+ mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome can take anywhere from 9-15 days because of the harsh and changing weather.  After 3 flights and ~18 hours of traveling we arrived in Nome on Sunday (3/9) greeted by Peter in a small 1 room airport.

 

Peter gave us a great tour of the small Bearing Sea costal town with a population of 3,600.  While driving around the town we kept our eye open for musk ox.  We found a small herd grazing on the outskirts of town. They were grazing and butting heads as we walked from our car.

 

When they feel threatened they gather together and stand their ground to protect their young.  This of course doesn’t work too well against hunters.

 

This winter was unusually warm and they had gotten a lot less snow than normal.  As we listened to the Iditarod reports we continued to hear about injuries due to the icy and rocky conditions on the trail and Nome was no exception.  We were able to drive 25 miles east on the Nome-Council Rd along the shore to the Safety Roadhouse checkpoint, which is normally only accessible by snowcat, snow machine, or helicopter.  With the mushers (dog sled racers) still a couple days away, the place was deserted.

 

 Safety Roadhouse, the last checkpoint of the Iditarod

Looking Across Safety Sound

Looking Across the Bearing Sea Ice

Even though it was clear and sunny, it was nearly zero degrees Fahrenheit, and the brisk wind kept us from venturing outside the car for more than a couple minutes.  As the temperatures dropped and the winds picked up, we decided it was too risky to attempt anymore trips to the Safety Roadhouse. Drifting snow could block the roads in a matter of minutes and the harsh conditions could be deadly without any means of communication.

We decided to spend Monday exploring Nome, souvenir shopping, and watching last minute construction of the snow chute to the burled arch finish line.

This pretty white snow was trucked in that day

We also took in some of the local activities such as the craft fair, snow sculpting contest, and local eateries.  We also noticed as the finishers got closer, the town’s population grew with tourists, mushing support teams, and even a couple (low profile) celebrities including Ariel Tweto from Flying Wild Alaska and Wipeout.

We downloaded the Iditrod GPS app on our iPad to monitor the mushers progress from the checkpoints Elim, White Mountain, and Safety, as well as the final leg on the way to Nome.  There’s a mandatory 8 hour layover in White Mountain and then it’s just 77 miles to Nome.  Since they were traveling at ~7 mph, we figured once they left White Mountain it would be another 11 hours before they reached the finish line in Nome.  So we followed the top three racers over the next 24 hours:

  • Jeff King, 4-time Iditarod winner
  • Aliy Zirkle, Runner-up last two years, our favorite
  • Dallas Seavey, Last years champ

The following is our account of the Iditarod drama leading to the finish…

Monday 3:00 PM

Jeff King leaves White Mountain rested with a 1 hour lead on Aliy.  It seems like another 2nd place finish for Aliy as we watch her GPS marker leave White Mountain and both Jeff and Aliy progress toward Safety with a consistent gap.  They have 77 miles to go and are expected in Nome around 2am. Dallas is still under the mandatory 8 hour layover and can’t leave for another 3 hours. Peter warns us that it’s still anyone’s race, but everyone seems pretty sure Jeff will win it again this year.

9:30 PM

The sun has set and the winds are picking up.  The official race website is reporting 45 mph winds pushing the temperatures around -40F.  Jeff continues to lead Aliy, but his marker has momentarily stopped.  Dallas has also left White Mountain, but is almost 2 hours behind Aliy.

10:00 PM

Something is wrong with Jeff or his GPS is updating because his dot isn’t moving and Aliy is gaining as he sits just a couple miles from Safety.  We continue updating the app hoping he and his dogs are okay, but also excited about Aliy’s possible comeback.

11:00 PM

They announce Aliy has officially passed Jeff and it’s not a GPS error.  Aliy is the first to check into Safety, but is clearly stopping until the winds die down. The officials are clocking winds at 70+ mph at the Safety check point 22 miles outside of Nome.  With Aliy waiting for the winds and Jeff pinned down we decided to go to sleep and wakeup around 2:00 AM.

2:00 AM

Jeff has officially scratched after flagging down a snow machine for help.  His dogs we’re tangled in drift wood and he wasn’t able to get the organized and back on the trail in the strong wind.  In more surprising news, Dallas checked in and out of Safety at 1:16.  Aliy left in pursuit 14 minutes later.  With still 22 miles to Nome we decided to get another hour of sleep.

3:20 AM

Aliy is gaining on Dallas and they are within a mile of each other.  We slowly get out of bed layering clothes for the brutal temperatures.  We wonder if they can even see each other out there? Does Dallas know how close Aliy is?  With the drifting snow, maybe he doesn’t know.  We eventually get out the door and drive 5 minutes and park just off the finish line.

3:55 AM

We can hear the crowd yelling and cheering as we shuffle across the polished icy roads.  Not knowing where the finishers are we run along side the crowds of people lining the chute looking to see if anyone has finished.  Then the announcer yells out Dallas has just come off the ice and onto the street! We fight for place at the rope and look down the street.  The crowd begins to cheer and suddenly we see a team of dogs trotting across the snow and Dallas running along side.

Dallas Seavey

The crowd goes wild and the rope can’t hold the people back as they surround the chute and the 2014 Iditrod champion is named Dallas Seavey!  A couple minutes after the announcer yells and there’s Aliy!  Now the crowd really errupts with cheers.  The officials string out the rope holding the fans back and soon another dog team passes and a smiling Aliy high-fives fans as she glides to the finish line.  It seemed like everyone was rooting for Aliy, ourselves included, hoping she could avoid another 2nd place finish. She was a good sport and spent a lot of time with the fans and taking care of her dogs before she left the chute to get some much needed rest and probably think over her strategy and decision to wait at Safety.

Aliy’s Finish

Kids leading the way for Aliy’s dogs after the finish

We left and went back to Peter’s thinking of the agony she must be in missing 1st place by just minutes because she decided to wait.  She was 12 minutes faster over the last 22 miles, but didn’t have enough distance to overtake Dallas.  Dallas however was exhausted and didn’t even realize he was the first to leave Safety.  He thought Aliy’s light behind him was his father in 4th and his goal was not to lose to his father.  He was shocked to find out he was the winner.  We were still amazed how a 8 day race could finish with just minutes between 1st and 2nd.  Peter was right, it really was anyone’s race.  White Mountain to Nome is 77 miles of unpredictable terrain and weather, and it can often allow last minute lead changes.

We spent the next couple days tracking mushers as they left Safety Checkpoint, headed for Nome, so that we could meet them along the trail. The Nome-Council road follows the trail for several miles, so it was easy to drive a little ways out of town and wait in the warm car to see them racing across the open tundra or sea ice. As they’d pass we’d cheer them on and take photos, then we’d drive a little ways farther, leap frogging past them, to repeat the cheers and photos. This way we were able to see each musher 3 to 4 times as they headed into Nome.

Sonny Linder (5th Place)

Sonny on the Bearing Sea Ice

The conditions changed rapidly from hour to hour and depending on the location of the trail.  Some mushers fought whiteout conditions with drifting snow.

Martin Buser (6th Place)

They all had to cross the wind polished sea ice which we saw many mushers slide, fall, and dogs stuggle to maintain any traction.

After they went through the final check at the finish line the dogs were given treats and the mushers were greeted by family and friends.

In the chaos some clever dogs stole some extra treats

The dogs also go through routine vet checks throughout the race including the end.

The dogs then get to rest on straw beds until they are flown home.

While waiting for other finishers we also walked out on the sea ice.  It was slippery and you can see the buckling effects of the strong winds and moving tides beneath the surface.

We also watched migratory buntings outside of Peter’s house and even caught a glimpse of a fox.

Jessie Royer (7th Place)

Somehow the sea ice seemed particularly slippery as Jessie came across. Nathan had gone down to the ice to get some different perspective shots of the dog team, and as Jessie headed towards Nathan, they both struggled to gain traction on the ice. A couple minutes of hilarity ensued as Nathan slipped on the ice had to crawl out of the way as Jessie’s dog sled team slipped and slid just several feet from Nathan.

Nathan was extremely embarrassed, only moment ago voicing his concern for the possibility of slipping on the ice and getting tangled with a dog sled team.

Hans Gatt (9th Place)

At this time of year there was about 12 hours of daylight from 9:30 am to 9:30 pm.  We could hear the air raid sirens sound throughout the night and morning as the mushers approached Nome, but sadly it was hard to get motivated when you knew it was dark out and they would be hard to photograph.

Robert Sorlie (21st Place)

We also learned there are actually several races that use the Iditarod trail including a bicycle race.  They started a week before the dog sled teams, but they are clearly crazier.

They had signs of frost bite and open cuts on their faces after falling many times. They said the winds and drift conditions were the worst between Safety and Nome and they had fallen over the handle bars into the drifts multiple times. We also heard there were people running the 1,000 mile race, but we didn’t see any runners finish.

The last night we had an incredible king crab feast with Peter. It doesn’t come much fresher than being caught right out of the Bearing Sea.  We cooked 2 huge crabs giving us each almost 1.5 lb of delicious crab meat!

The last morning after we dropped our bags off at the airport we watched one more musher arrive.

Kristy Berington (30th place)

After the first 10 finishers Nome starts getting back to normal and the crowds die down and sometimes you forget there’s even a race happening.  We saw dog sled teams weaving around traffic down Front Street as they made their way to the arch.

Like most finishers their faces were frozen, but they were happy to be done.  Kristy’s eyelashes even had ice coating them.

Musher’s Mascara

We were to be able to borrow a car from Peter and Jean, which allowed us to greet and follow the mushers into Nome.  We also were thankful for the fur hats they lent us which by far out-performed any synthetic hat we had brought.

It was an incredible 4 day experience.  We have a greater respect for people who enjoy living in Nome and it was great fun to watch the Iditarod finishers, but we were out of time and off to Fairbanks!

We couldn’t include all the photos in our post so check out the rest below.

Well that’s it, the photos have been sorted through, the stories archived, and the trip reports finally published!  We hope you all enjoyed following our stories and adventures.  It was a truly a trip of a lifetime, and we are so glad we had the opportunity to take some time off and make it happen.

Over the course of our 70 day trip, we drove 10,502 miles through 18 states, which averages to about 150 miles per day. But there were a lot of days that we didn’t drive at all (or only from our campground to a trailhead), and there were only 6 days that we spent all day driving (without any fun stops). We took 12,638 photos and Nathan basically looked at every single one. He narrowed it down to about 1,080 that were edited and posted to the website.

We visited 15 National Parks (10 of which we had never been to before): Pinnacles, Yosemite, Lassen Volcanic, Redwoods, Crater Lake, Mt. Rainier, Olympic, North Cascades, Glacier, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Great Basin, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Hot Springs. We hiked 239 miles on 44 days of the trip. We did 6 backpacks, all of which were spectacular and top highlights of our trip. We camped almost half the time (which saved us a lot of money), spending 33 nights in a tent, 24 nights in a hotel, and 13 nights staying with family.

We saw some of the best views and natural wonders in the western US including waterfalls, caves, geysers and mudpots, mountains, valleys, canyons, beaches, forests, glaciers, alpine lakes, granite cliffs, red sandstone walls, volcanoes, and more.

We saw all kinds of wildlife including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, black bears, grizzly bears, bison, pronghorn, elk, deer, marmots, pika, foxes, coyotes, quail, turkey, grouse, rattlesnakes, banana slugs, sea stars, sea anemones, tarantulas, and scorpions.

We had a lot of good luck on the trip including great weather pretty much the entire time except in Washington (what else would you expect?) and of course the snow that surprised us in the Tetons. Our car (Subaru Outback) never broke down or caused us any major trouble, although we did do some maintenance along the way including an oil change, new headlights, and new tires.

The trip took a lot of planning to design the itinerary, get hiking permits, make campground reservations, and coordinate with family and friends (Katharine spent 8 months pretty obsessed with every detail). In the end, we don’t think there’s much we would have changed, except maybe making it longer and doing more backpacking!

 

Our route

 

After we finished our trip, we got a lot of questions about our favorite parts, parks, adventures, etc. It’s really impossible to pick, but here are a few highlights.

Favorite National Park – This one is really hard to pick. We think maybe Glacier, since it was our first time there, and it had it ‘all’ – wildlife encounters, amazing hiking, beautiful mountain views, glaciers and glacial lakes, rugged terrain… all without excessive crowds. We can’t wait to go back and do some backpacking!

Glacier National Park

Favorite backpack – Another tough choice. Our 4 day backpack on the Teton Crest Trail was definitely the most adventurous since it hailed or snowed every single day. On the other hand, Zion Narrows was just incredibly beautiful, and it was such a unique experience to hike down a river through the stunning canyon.

Snow on the Teton Crest Trail

Virgin Narrows, Zion National Park

Favorite hike – See above. Although we did some great day hikes, our backpacks were definitely the highlight.

Best wildlife encounter – Up close and personal with the bighorn sheep of Glacier NP.

 

Best sunset – Camping on Shi Shi beach in Olympic National Park.

 

Scariest part – Climbing the cables on Half Dome definitely took a lot of concentration, and there’s no question it’s scary. But we were mentally prepared for Half Dome… whereas when Nathan had to slide to a stop to avoid stepping on a rattlesnake, the surprise and and quickness of it got our adrenalin pumping. Luckily he was safe, but we knew a rattlesnake bite when we were miles from help is no joke. Since those both occurred on our backpack through Yosemite, that must make it the scariest backpacking trip we’ve done!

Half Dome Cables, Yosemite National Park

Best unplanned stop – Definitely the balloon glow at the Albuquerque Balloon Festival. A complete coincidence that we were there at the right time, but it was amazing.

 

Favorite hike not in a National Park – While we didn’t do too many of these, there were a few good contenders. But Havasupai was by far our favorite.

Beaver Falls, Havasupai

Favorite city – We surprised to love Nashville so much, but its great food, whiskey, amazing live music, and friendly atmosphere totally charmed us.

Best story – The story of Stuart, the mouse that invaded our car and made us crazy, is probably one of our favorites to tell.

Biggest disappointment – Overall our trip went really smoothly with very few issues, but we were definitely disappointed that the federal government shutdown made us miss 6 additional National Parks (Petrified Forest, Saguaro, Big Bend, Guadalupe Mts, Carlsbad Caverns, and Mammoth Cave). Guess we’ll just have to do another trip!

Least favorite part – Two contenders for this: Having to deal with a walk-in campsite and the frustrating park shuttle in Yosemite after our brutal descent down the Mist trail… we were completely exhausted (physically and mentally) and just not up to extra mile or so of walking or the logistics of setting up our campsite far away from our car. We learned from that mistake and from then on always booked a hotel for the night after finishing a backpack. The other least favorite part was having to do estimated tax returns on the trip… taxes are never fun, and we just did not feel like dealing with life’s realities while on our trip.

And to end with something a little more upbeat…

Favorite Photo – This would truly be impossible to pick. Even trying to choose our favorite landscape, wildlife photo, portrait, action photo etc would be too hard. Instead, we can just say that Zion Narrows was our favorite place to take photos… it felt like around every bend in the river we came upon another amazing and unique scene that we just had to capture.

 

So that’s a final look back at our trip… we knew as we started planning that it would be ‘epic’ and it certainly did not disappoint!

Of course if you are family, friend, or just follow our blog, you know this won’t be our last adventure.  Next weekend we’re off to Alaska to greet the finishers of the Iditarod in Nome and hopefully see the Northern Lights in Fairbanks!

For a little fun, here’s a look at how we loaded up our car pretty much every day on the trip… it took careful organization to get it all to fit! 

For the final days of our trip, we had to cover a lot of mileage, but we still managed to fit in a few interesting stops along the way.

Day 65: Amarillo, TX to Host Springs, AR (10/7)

We spent the day driving 568 miles east across the pan handle of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  The drive and scenery were uneventful.

Day 66: Hot Springs National Park, AR to Nashville, TN (10/8)

Hot Springs National Park is essentially main street in Hot Springs.  It is a row of bath houses that draw on the natural springs in the area and were once very popular in the 1800’s before modern medicine.

 

 

The many springs in the area are combined into one supply producing over 750,000 gallons per day.  The water temperature is about 143F and is potable without additional filtering and is publicly available at several fountains.

 

We tried some of the water, but because it was so hot it took a while to cool off.  We spent the day walking up and down the main street, but weren’t able to explore the visitor center / museum because the federal government was still shutdown. The privately-run bath houses were open, so Katharine was able to try one of the traditional treatments. It was an interesting experience, but not something she’d want to do on a regular basis.

Overall, Hot Springs was definitely our least favorite National Park, which is not surprising given that it really seems like it should be a National Historical Site. After a few hours we were ready to leave Arkansas and head to Tennessee. We decided what better place to stop for BBQ than in Memphis.  We ended up at Corky’s BBQ, which did not disappoint.  We ate a full rack of baby back ribs along with hushpuppies, baked beans, coleslaw and pie for dessert.  Not only was the food amazing, the prices were low, and the, service was prompt, humorous and refreshing.  We knew our trip was on the right track again as we left for Nashville

Day 67: Tennessee (10/9)

Considering Nathan enjoys the occasional Jack and Coke what better place to visit than Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, TN.  It’s about 90 minutes outside of Nashville, but it’s a beautiful drive through the Tennessee country side, which was dotted with well maintained horse farms.

We didn’t know much about how Tennessee sipping whiskey was made until after our extensive, entertaining and educational tour. Our guide, Jason, took us through the process and history of Jack Daniels from the original iron-free cave spring water that is still used today to the building that houses the barrels of whiskey.

The tour was memorable and we still try to impersonate Jason and his Tennessee accent while saying “Our whisky mellows through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal, because we aren’t making bourbon here… we’re making Tennessee sipping whiskey”.

 

The amount of history you learn on one of their tours is amazing.  You can’t take pictures inside their distillery, but you can outside where they make their own charcoal.

Only famous people get to sign the walls.

 

They also still have an REO speed wagon, which was once part of their on-site fire department.

 

You also learn about Jack’s stubbornness to go to the doctor after kicking his safe, which would later lead to his death.

 

At the end of the tour, we enjoyed a small tasting of different varieties of JD whiskey. We are now loyal Jack Daniel’s customers and whenever we order whiskey we think of our visit to Lynchburg.

 

We then headed back to Nashville and stood in line outside the Bluebird Cafe.  For those of you into country music (or watch the TV show Nashville) you know the Bluebird is a well known cafe/ bar where musicians like to frequent to try new music and play in a round.  This unique style puts the musicians in the middle of the room while everyone else enjoys dinner and drinks along the outside, but it is a small and cozy space only fitting a hundred people or so.  We enjoyed the evening listening to Pam Rose, Lisa Carver, Liz Rose and Jill Johnson.  They sang some of their old classics while trying out some new songs.  It was refreshing to see four talented women singing and playing acoustically for fun instead of large scale produced concert.  We loved the experience and hope to find more opportunities to hear live music in a small setting.

 

Day 68: Louisville, KY (10/10)

The next morning we drove 175 miles north to Louisville, KY.  The original plan was to visit Mammoth Caves National Park, but with the government still shutdown, we enjoyed an afternoon walk along the waterfront of the Ohio River.

 

Lincoln Memorial at Waterfront Park

It was a perfect day for a walk as we strolled across a old rail bridge that was refurbished into a pedestrian bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio.  The renovations weren’t quite finished so we couldn’t step foot in Ohio to add another state to our list.

 

 

We enjoyed some fine dinning and Kentucky bourbon while we reflected on the trip as it neared the end.

 

Day 69-70: Natural Bridge State Park, KY to Pennsylvania (10/11-10/12)

We drove 130 miles from Louisville to Natural Bridge State Resort Park where we took a ski lift and a short hike to see the unusual rock formation.

Under the Natural Bridge

 On Top of the Natural Bridge Looking Toward Lookout Point

The hike was short since we had to get back on the road.  We then drove 600 miles through Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and a corner of Pennsylvania!  We arrived late that night / early the next morning completing the Epic Trip just in time for Will’s (our nephew) 1st birthday party! 

It was crazy to think that the trip was finally over… luckily our photos and memories will last a lifetime!

Day 64: New Mexico (10/6)

After 63 days of exploring the west it was time to head east.  The original plan was to visit a number of National Parks along our route to Pennsylvania, but the federal government was still shut down.  So while in Gallup, New Mexico, we visited Red Rock State Park for a quick hike. The park was pretty empty and we lost the trail several times since the ‘trail’ was mostly rock scrambling across the red sandstone.

 

 

 

The trail eventually leads to Church Rock, but we had to get back on the road. The goal was to cross New Mexico and stay the night in Amarillo, TX!

 

After 2 hours of driving some of the most visually spectacular terrain (sarcasm) we stopped at a McDonald’s in Albuquerque to use the bathroom. As we sat in the car checking our map, Nathan looked up and saw a newspaper dispenser displaying a free paper, which had a hot air balloon on the front.  We knew Albuquerque has a huge balloon festival, and had even discussed wanting to visit it at some point, but thought what are the chances it’s going on the day we happen to be passing through Albuquerque?  We did a quick google search and discovered that it in fact was! Not only that, there was one of the best events going on that night. As we drove through a quiet downtown, we were amazed to find not a single sign, banner or indication of the massive balloon festival just a few miles away!  We finally found out where the open field was, which most likely was where the entire city’s population was hiding.

 

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest balloon festival in the world! The first festival was held in 1972 with only 13 balloons. Over time it grew to more than 1000 balloon, but in 2013 the festival limited the balloons to 600 and has various events over 9 days. The day we visited was the launching of the helium gas balloon long distance contest and the balloon glow.

 America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race – Launching

The winner of this year’s competition landed in Ontario, Canada a couple days later covering 1,430 miles!

The balloon glow is a spectacular event where the balloons stay on the ground, but light up the night sky with their brilliant colors.  It was fascinating to watch the small teams unravel and inflate their balloons.

 

 

 

There were a mix of colors, shapes, and sometimes corporate sponsored balloons.  At first it was just a few teams and as the sun started to set, we wondered where all the other teams were.  The spectators gathered around the first few balloons as they fired their burners and breathed hot air into the thin fabric.

 

 

We were so fixed on this one balloon we didn’t look around to see 20 to 30 balloons being inflated all around us. What was an empty field just minutes ago was suddenly filled with trucks, teams, and balloons. It was chaos trying to capture all the different balloons while the sun was quickly setting.

 

Soon there were over a hundred balloons in rows.  There was no way to see all of them so we picked a row and watched as the flames lit up the balloons.

 

 

Soon all the balloons were inflated slowly swaying in the night sky.  We could hear a countdown over the loud speaker as we looked at each other puzzled.  Suddenly the roar of hundreds of propane takes and flames broke the silence and lit up the field.  It was visually stunning, but hard to capture in a photograph.

 

 

Right when you think your camera settings are right the glow would stop and you would be standing in complete darkness.  Luckily we had our headlamps and could see as we walked down rows of balloons.  The occasional solo balloon burn would light up the ground, keeping the balloon from deflating too much.

 

 

 

We could hear the count down again.  We froze, adjusted our camera settings, and aimed at the balloons.  This time the balloons alternated giving a flashing pattern as flames pulsed across the field.  After hundreds of photos we paused and stood together in a field of balloons and just watched pointing out different ones.

 

 

There was a coordinated burn every so often for about an hour before it was over.  As fast as the balloons appeared, they also disappeared.  They were deflated in the dark and quickly rolled up, and soon the field was empty again.  Although the backpacking and wilderness part of our trip was over, the Epic Trip continued to live up to its name. This was definitely one of our favorite coincidences of the whole trip!

 

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 64
  • Miles driven: 7,903
  • Photos taken:  12,426
  • Miles Hiked: 239
  • Hot Air Balloons: 650!

Day 61-63: Havasupai, AZ (10/3-10/5)

We saved an amazing experience for the last backpack of our Epic Trip. Havasu Canyon, a part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, is known for its remarkable blue-green water and beautiful waterfalls. We had seen pictures of it before our trip and couldn’t believe the water really is that color, but it really is that blue! It did not disappoint, it’s an amazing place that we highly recommend.

The trip does require permits for camping overnight which can be hard to get in the peak season (particularly long weekends like Memorial Day), and sometimes it can be difficult to reach the Havasupai Tribe’s tourist office on the phone, but back in May Katharine was able to get permits for October. We decided to reserve 2 nights so that we would have plenty of time to explore the canyon. After we finished the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim earlier than expected, we were even able to move our reservations up by a couple days, so apparently they weren’t totally sold out. In the end, that worked out great for us because we hiked out on Saturday, which allowed us to avoid the apparent weekend crowds.

Since the government shutdown was still in full-force, we were very glad that this amazing place was on tribal lands and still accessible. It is possible to hike to the Colorado River and enter Grand Canyon National Park, and while we considered doing it just to be in the park briefly during the shutdown, we decided it wasn’t worth the extra 8 miles of hiking. Instead we enjoyed a very leisurely 3 day backpack.

 

A view from Hualapai Hilltop, the start of the trail to Supai

This adventure starts by driving down the remote Indian Road 18 to a parking lot with a helipad in the middle of the desert on Hualapai Hilltop.  The only way to the Supai village is hiking or riding a mule 8 miles through a canyon or via helicopter. All supplies and everything needed in the village are transported one of those ways.

The trail descends about 2,000 feet to the canyon floor, most of which is in the first couple miles.  The canyon walls were the traditional red sandstone, but after backpacking Zion and Grand Canyon we weren’t as impressed.  We only took a few photos of the hike to the village, which definitely improved our hiking time.

 

There were a few differences we noticed from hiking in the Grand Canyon and other National Parks.  For example, the mule trains supplying the village were much larger and the mules were loose, relying on herding techniques. Of course the canyon walls do much of the herding, but there are several areas where the canyon is rather wide and there are multiple different paths to follow, so sometimes the gear-laden mules would split up and the herder on horseback would go one way and rely on his dog to go the other. This was fun to watch, but did force us to take cover behind rocks or climb up a small ledge to get out of the way. This is not a trail to put on headphones while you hike… you need to be alert!

We noticed that backpackers were in the minority here… while we only saw a few people riding mules, most people used the mules to transport their gear. Given that it’s a pretty long hike for most people (10 miles to the campground) with a lot of elevation loss/gain (depending on your direction), we totally understand why most people use the mules to transport their packs.

 

 

After 8 miles (which felt longer since there was a lot of sand to hike through), we reached the village of Supai, where we checked in at the tourist office to get our wristbands and permit tag for our tent. The village was tough to walk through because although it is located in an internationally-renowned hiking destination, it is also a grim reminder of the poverty and remoteness of the village.  We didn’t take any photos in the village because many of the conditions were so poor, and we felt it would be disrespectful. Mostly there was a lot of trash, but we also saw malnourished horses and many wild (but mostly friendly) dogs roaming the dirt roads hoping for food hand outs. On the other hand, the school building was very well maintained and the grocery store had a lot of postings for community events. We couldn’t imagine living in such a remote community.

The last 2 miles from the village to the campground seemed like they took forever, but we were encouraged by the blue water of Havasu creek and finally knew we were close when we came to Havasu Falls. The turquoise water pouring over the cliff into a beautiful deep pool was as amazing as all the pictures show it. We decided to leave exploring the falls for the next day since the sun was setting behind them, so we continued on to the campground.

Havasu Falls

At the campground, there were some obvious differences between the National Park and the tribal lands. Here there were no assigned campsites, and a recent flash flood had completely reshaped the area and left many picnic tables stranded in the river. We were amazed how many picnic tables they had made or transported down there, and the campground was clearly meant to hold hundreds of people, which was definitely more than the NPS would have allowed, but certainly makes getting permits easier. Limiting access to protect a place like this is such a tough trade-off, especially when tourism is the main source of income for the tribe. Unfortunately there was quite a bit of trash left by all the campers, which is always such a shame to see. On the other hand, the tribe had an impressive number of solar toilets that were quite good shape and we noticed they were serviced every day. They also did check permits on every tent to make sure that everyone had checked in. As rule-followers ourselves, we like to see permits enforced because there are plenty of people who ignore the system on the chance they won’t get caught. We’ve only had our permit checked in a National Park/Forest once in all our years of backpacking (it was in the Grand Canyon actually).

 

Picnic bench washed away during a flash flood

Lasting effects of the flash flood

The campground was also different because there were lots of dogs roaming from campsite to campsite begging for food. We didn’t feed the dogs, but others did which would cause more dogs to gather at their campsite and sometimes break out in small skirmishes over food. Luckily though they didn’t seem too aggressive, and there were plenty of people, so if you didn’t give them attention they left pretty quickly.

 

We had the entire next day we to explore Havasu Falls and dayhike to Mooney and Beaver Falls (8 mile round trip).  The water in Havasu Creek percolates through layers of limestone picking up high concentrations of magnesium and calcium carbonate, which gives the water an unusual blue color and builds striking travertine dams.  The 100 ft Havasu Falls is quite a sight, and we were glad to return to explore it a little more, but the 190 ft high Mooney Falls was even more impressive. The surrounding walls are minerals built up over many years and the water changing its flow around the walls.  The falls were named after a miner who fell to his death on the falls in 1882.  They were never able to retrieve his body, and it is now encased in the walls.

Mooney Falls

Reaching the bottom of Mooney Falls is actually quite a challenge, especially for those with a fear of heights. It requires climbing down the walls through a series of tunnels, chains, and wooden ladders, all of which were cold and slippery due to spray from the waterfall.  Once again we were reminded that this is not a National Park, and the maintenance and safety of the trails are not guaranteed. All hiking beyond the campground is at your own risk.

 

 

The narrow tunnels and ladders can get crowded and we watched as many people became stranded in the cold spray from the falls.  Keep in mind, most people are headed down in the morning and up in the afternoon.  Trying to go up in the morning will be nearly impossible.

 

But once you get to the bottom, you realize the climb was well worth the wait and effort.

 

We ate a quick lunch and switched to our water shoes to hike to Beaver Falls.

 

 

The creek flow and depth varies and some areas are easily traversed while others are quite deep.  Our Zion backpacking trained us quite well to identify deep pools and find unique routes around them.

 

 

The trail is unique since it crosses the small water fall travertines, fields of vine-like bushes, makeshift bridges, and ladders.

 

 

 

 

After hours of photography and hiking we reached Beaver Falls in the afternoon.

 

It’s almost impossible to get lost because you are just following a canyon, but you can get on the wrong side of a deep pool or waterfall making it more difficult to continue on to Beaver Falls.  One of the only directions we heard was to look for a single palm tree.  You want to make sure you hike on the side with the tree and at that point you’re getting close to the falls.

The single palm tree

We saw a lot of people turn around before reaching the falls, and by the time we reached the falls many people had left and we had them all to ourselves! Unlike Havasu and Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls is more of a series of smaller falls, which makes it easier to explore and get up close.

The view from above Beaver Falls

Many people also just enjoy the view from above Beaver Falls, but we hiked down to the bottom then back up the travertines.

Yes, we hiked with our tripod and remote!

As the sunset behind the canyon walls we made the lonely hike back to the campground.

Keeping with our desert hiking tradition, we also saw a snake.  It wasn’t a rattlesnake this time, but still startling.

After our long 8 mile day hike, we made it back to the campground and enjoyed some local fry bread!  The local vendors are just outside the campground and are very friendly.  To our surprise, the young locals we talked to had never been past Mooney Falls!  We were shocked that you could listen to thousands of people from around the world rave about the creek and falls and never go explore them in your backyard.  We were also surprised to find the two fry bread vendors were quite competitive and did not work together to fix prices… the stand we went to was relatively new and had driven prices down. The fresh fry bread was less than $5 and tasted amazing after a full day of hiking!

We left early on a Saturday morning passing almost a hundred college-age kids backpacking down the canyon.  It definitely seemed like the campground would feel very crowded that night, so we were glad to be on our way out. The hike out wasn’t too bad, but it definitely got hot once the shade disappeared.

When we got back to our car, we found a tribe member sleeping in the shadow of our car, apparently waiting for someone/something!  Nathan gently woke him up and pointed him toward the next shady spot, which he crawled to and went back to sleep.  Just another reminder this was a different world!

We highly recommend visiting Havasupai… and since the mules can carry you and/or your stuff, it’s quite accessible for anyone. They even have a lodge in the village if you aren’t up for camping.

Although we were sad that this was our last time camping as part of our Epic Trip, taking us to a total of 33 nights in a tent, this was definitely a great place to finish it off! And we were still excited for the final leg of our trip, taking 6 days to make the remainder of the drive from AZ to PA.

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 63
  • Nights in a tent: 33
  • Miles driven: 7,475
  • Photos taken:  11,834
  • Miles Hiked: 237
  • Water crossings: countless

Check out some more photos of this amazing place! 

Day 59-60: Sedona, AZ (10/1-10/2)

What do you do when you got a couple extra days of vacation in northern Arizona and the federal government is shutdown? You head to Sedona! Since we got our permits for the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim so early, we had a few bonus days before our scheduled permit for Havasupai. We initially thought we would go check out Petrified Forest National Park, but with the government shutdown, that wasn’t an option. But we have always heard great things about Sedona, and it did not disappoint.

We spent an afternoon hiking around Cathedral Rocks, which turned out to involve more rock scrambling than hiking.

 

 

We hiked up to the base of the towering rocks and admired the red walls as they started to glow in the late afternoon.

 

 

We then hiked down and around the rocks to catch them at sunset.

 

As we were being eaten by mosquitos and running down the trail we ran into this bug…!

 

Still not sure what it was, but it moved really fast and was about 6 inches long! Definitely a creepy-crawly…

 

After dinner we returned to the rocks to capture the milky way over Cathedral Rocks.

 

The next day we spent a few hours at Slide Rock State Park.  Although the water levels were low and temperatures weren’t ideal, we braved the cold and enjoyed the natural water slide. It was really fun and quite the ride.

 

 

 

 

It was nice to have a couple unscheduled days to explore and take it easy (aka let Katharine sleep-in). We can definitely see why people love Sedona!

 

 

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 60
  • Miles driven: 7,375
  • Photos taken:  11,441
  • Miles Hiked: 209
  • Scary bugs: 1
  • Runs on the waterslide: 6

 

Day 55-58: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ (9/27-9/30)

We are starting to build a pretty extensive hiking/ backpacking resume since we started about 3 years ago, and one thing we were very excited to add was hiking across the Grand Canyon. There are a lot of different itineraries/schedules that people follow (including many who hike it in a day), but since we aren’t speedy hikers and we like camping in the backcountry, we decided to do it as a leisurely 3 day / 2 night backpack.

We entered the permit lottery a few months before the trip, but were not lucky enough to get a permit, so we left plenty of extra days in our itinerary to make sure we’d be able to get a walk-up permit.  For some reason, after going back and forth with the rangers on the south rim they gave us a permit on the first day we arrived!  Although we were excited and relieved to get a permit, especially with the impending government shutdown, we were surprised and weren’t really prepared to start the next morning. Our feet were still tired from hiking the Zion Narrows the day before and our gear was in disarray. So we spent the night preparing everything in freezing temperatures at night by head lamp.  While packing we met a new friend, Karen, who was also doing rim to rim in a couple days.  We stood around her campfire warming our hands and sharing adventure stories.

The next morning we parked our car near the Bright Angel Lodge, walked through a small group of elk in rut (and past a park employee who was pretty scared of the elk), then boarded our shuttle/ van for a 4 hour drive to the North Rim.  There were 9 others in the van and we listened to the driver ramble on and on about random stories as if silence was forbidden.  Most of the other people in the van had just finished the Rim to Rim and were taking the shuttle back to their cars. We could definitely tell who took 5 days and who did it in 1!  The couple who day hiked across were young and fit, but they were slow to walk as their muscles and feet were extremely sore.  This confirmed our choice to take 3 days and 2 nights to traverse down the North Kaibab Trail (8,241 feet, 14 miles) then up the Bright Angel Trail (6,850 feet, 9.9 miles) totaling 23.9 miles!

We reached the trail head just after 12:00.  As we tightened our boots and checked our gear we were surprised by three young guys staggering up the trail, stopping their stop watches, then collapsing around the drinking fountain.  They had just ran across the Grand Canyon in just over 4 hours!!  This is one of those times when you think you’re crazy, but are inevitably upstaged by someone else.  Just as we were about to head into the canyon, the three runners abruptly got up and took off down the canyon… that’s right, they were running rim-to-rim-to-rim in one day! (total ~50 miles)  We laughed as we slowly trekked down the switchbacks as we could see them hundreds of feet below us already weaving around other hikers.

 

Our goal for the first day was to reach Cottonwood Campground 6.8 miles down trail descending 4,000+ feet.  As the sun began to set behind the canyon walls the massive walls glowed red and orange

 

 

Since it was the weekend and the temperatures were mild, we actually came across a lot of people day hiking rim to rim south to north.  We came across many exhausted hikers eager to know how much further.  Some people were a part of large groups all wearing the same t-shirt others had a different type of uniform…

 

As you can see this girl had a tutu on because her group had all picked Disney characters.  Minnie Mouse had just passed us and we later saw a few characters from Peter Pan, Brave, and Alice and Wonderland.  I’m not sure what drives people to hike almost 24 miles across the largest canyon, but to do it in costume just boggles our minds.  It did bring a smile to our face every time we saw a costume hiker and it did seem like they were enjoying themselves, so to each their own.

We reached Cottonwood after 3 hours of hiking down a well maintained downhill trail.  The campground was small, simple, and most people went to sleep pretty early.  The next morning we got a later start, but knew we had time to spare hiking to Bright Angel Campground just 7.2 miles and dropping another 1,600 feet.

 

It was near freezing at the top at night, but down in the canyon it was much warmer, probably close to 70 or 75 degrees during the day.  We were happy to have time to make a side trip to Ribbon Falls, which is a strange but beautiful waterfall.

 

 

To be honest, when hiking in the canyon, the views weren’t as incredible as we expected.  The stereotypical Grand Canyon views are from the rim or Plateau Point.  As you can imagine, you can only see the two massive rock walls on either side of you, but it doesn’t have the narrow slot canyon feel of the Zion Narrows.  On the other hand, that could have just been our jaded feeling as we approached the end of our trip. Either way, we didn’t take too many photos on the second day.

 

After 5 hours of hiking we reached Phantom Ranch around 2 pm, and the temperatures had risen significantly.  Many people ride mules from the south rim to Phantom Ranch, where there is a restaurant and small cabins.  For non-hikers, it definitely sounds like a great way to experience the Grand Canyon, but you have to plan ahead since they take reservations up to 13 months in advance and they sell out immediately.

 

 

We setup our camp in the crowded Bright Angel Campground. It is a far cry from the secluded backcountry wilderness that we typically seek out when backpacking. They even had flushing toilets! But it was well-run and clean, and we were happy to have a nice place to set up our tent.

 

 

Then we spent the afternoon exploring the black bridge and the banks of the Colorado River.

 

 

Cooling off in the cold (but brown) water of the Colorado River

 

While making dinner at our campsite we noticed a critter trying to get under our tent!

 

Not really the type of visitor we wanted crawling around our camp.  After we gently encouraged the tarantula to leave our campsite, kids hovered around as it creepily walked across the sand.

 

Just after sunset we went to hear a ranger give a talk on the stars above the canyon. He was very knowledgeable and entertaining as he told us about the stars and the park.  During his talk he mentioned that people could stay after for a scorpion hunt.  I think most people thought he was joking (Katharine included), but we had to find out.  We headed to the empty mule corral where the ranger scanned the rock pillars with a black light.  Within minutes we were staring at a glowing scorpion.  These scorpions glow bright green under UV light which helps them stay out of the sun during the day.  We found 8 scorpions that night and were shocked at the ability to find them, but were now a bit scared to crawl in our sleeping bags.  We also shook out our boots really well in the morning!

We had been mentally and physically preparing for the last day for a while, expecting the 9.5 miles and 4,380 feet of gain from Bright Angel Campground to the south rim to be really challenging, especially considering the likely heat. Despite all our experience hiking in SoCal, we do not do well in the heat.  So based on recommendations and research, we packed up our gear very early in the morning and hit the trail to beat the rising sun and heat.  By 6:20 am we were crossing the Colorado River on the silver bridge.

 

Even with our full packs we found ourselves racing up the canyon.  The trail was well maintained and had lots of switchbacks, making it an easy grade (designed for mules).  We were also surprised by the number of bathrooms and water refill stations along the trail, they were nicely spaced out and made for great mini-goals and rest spots.  We were worried about dealing with a lot of mule trains headed down, but we only saw a few and they were quite small and very calm.

 

 

As we climbed up closer to the South Rim, the views kept getting more and more amazing. It felt incredible to look back and see the bottom, knowing that we were just there earlier that morning.

 

We reached the rim around 12:15 feeling great, very proud, and a little surprised that we had just climbed 9.5 miles out of the Grand Canyon in under 6 hours with fully loaded backpacks!  Keeping with tradition, we treated ourselves to a nice dinner and watched the sunset over the canyon, then treated ourselves to a night in .  It was quite accomplishment and will be something we think back on for many years to come.

 

 

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 58
  • Nights in a tent: 31
  • Miles driven: 7,283
  • Photos taken:  11,164
  • National Parks: 14
  • Miles Hiked: 206
  • Scorpions in our boots: 0 (thank goodness!)

Check out the rest of the photos!

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

Gallery:

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

« Older entries § Newer entries »