In late October we spent two weeks in Yucca Valley, CA. We were able to take advantage of the proximity and visited Joshua Tree National Park on a warm, sunny afternoon.
Joshua Tree is the intersection of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. The park has a vast array of landscape, flora, and fauna with amazing geologic features brought about by strong winds and torrential rain. The Western side of the park – the Mojave Desert – is higher elevation and is home to some spectacular rock features and the famous Joshua Trees. Many of the rock formations are a result of historic weather when the climate was much wetter than it is currently.
We entered the park through the West Entrance and drove the park road to Keys View. National Parks don’t allow dogs on trails, so we were limited in where we could go and do with Snickers. We were able to hop out of the car and walk along some dirt roads, but our visit was mostly limited to what we could see from the car. We also only scratched the surface, mostly limiting our tour to the Western side.
The rock formations through Hidden Valley were amazing. We would’ve loved to hop out and explore. There are some very popular rocks – arch rock, skull rock, heart rock – and we would definitely recommend getting out and exploring if you are able. Surprisingly, we didn’t snag a photo of these, but the photo below is a good representation.
Of course, we have to mention the Joshua Trees. These prehistoric-looking trees are mostly contained to the Mojave Desert, and can be found in California, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. These unique trees often live hundreds of year, with some species living for a thousand.
Keys View is a spectacular vista on the crest of the Little San Bernadino Mountains overlooking Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea. The mountain drops a mile to the valley, and the San Andreas Fault runs right through it. On clear days you can see all the way to Mexico, though the skies were hazy the day we visited.
Seward is a beautiful 125 mile (~2 hour) drive south from Anchorage. As you leave Anchorage, the road runs along the Cook Inlet and Chugach State Park providing both mountain and sea views.
Seward is a beautiful little sea town on Resurrection Bay. During our stay, there was a heavy smoke cloud hanging over the area from the Swan Lake Fire. While we couldn’t see much definition in the mountains across the bay, the smoke lent itself to some interesting lighting for photos.
We stayed in an AirBNB on the main drag, just a few blocks from Resurrection Bay. The first night there we walked along the bay and spent some time watching the otters swimming around. We also grabbed some pizza and beer at Seward Brewing Company. Decent selection of beer, solid pizza, and amazing views over the water.
Water Taxi from Seward to Alkai Glacier
The main reason we headed to Seward was to do some kayaking in the glaciers. We booked a trip with Kayak Adventures Worldwide and they outfitted us with kayaks and gear along with a water taxi ride to the put-in site. We took a cold, leisurely ride from Seward to Aialik Bay and got to see some sights along the way.
Wildlife along the way
There were plenty of seals sunning themselves along the shoreline. Reminded us a bit of the sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco. The guides told us these were adolescents who were testing the waters before returning to the pack.
There were so many otters in the bay! They were so fun to watch since they spend most of their time lying on their backs at the surface.
On the return trip, the taxi took a detour to spot some whales. Seward is a great place to view Orca whales, and there are plenty of options for whale watching tours. We got to see a few groups of Orcas putting on a show.
Kayaking to the Aialik Glacier
We had a gorgeous, sunny, and unusually calm day for our boat ride and kayak adventure. We kayaked about 3 miles to the Aialik Glacier – one of the most active calving glaciers! The glacier was so blue and we could see the lines from where it had moved over the years. What you see in photos is just a small piece; it’s 17 square miles! Fun fact: the glaciers really are as blue as you see in photos. The older the ice, the bluer it looks because it had become so compacted and reflects all other light on the spectrum.
When we got about a half mile from the glacier, we grouped up with the other two kayaks in our group and enjoyed lunch. It was truly an experience to just sit in our kayaks and watch the glacier calve while noshing on a sandwich.
Afterwards we got the chance to kayak around a small island, enjoying the serene landscape. Since our group was pretty strong and fast, we had the opportunity to explore some areas that not many other groups get to see. We kayaked through some islands and into an inlet since the water was high.
We had such a great time in both Seward and Denali. It was definitely a trip for the books, and as we were coming home we were already talking about how we could get back to explore more of the Last Frontier.
This is the second part to our Alaska adventure, read the first post! Here we take you through the land-locked hikes in the Denali National Wilderness.
Discovery hikes are ranger-led, off-trail hikes through the park. These hikes range from moderate to strenuous and can start from anywhere on the park road at the ranger’s discretion. You’ll start with a bus ride ranging from 1-4 hours, hike for 2-3 hours, and then take a similar bus ride back. You have to sign up in person at the visitor’s center a day or two before the hike, and make sure that you have the appropriate gear outlined on their website.
We opted for a strenuous hike with Ranger Emily that started around mile 30 on the park road. The bus dropped us off on the side of the road, we got a rundown of safety and how to hike off-trail, the ranger picked a point to meet, and we all took off on separate paths to meet there. One main takeaway about off-trail hiking is to not make new trails. Rangers encourage leave no tracepractices including not stepping in another person’s tracks to avoid creating social trails and much more.
Ranger Emily had us climb to a peak on the Igloo Mountain range. We encountered various terrain including tundra and rocky scree. There were a couple of points where we ended up taking different routes after the original path appeared too steep…all part of the fun of off-trail hiking!
We were also able to enjoy the bounty of blueberries, cranberries, crow berries, and other tasty treats for our personal enjoyment and sustenance. In fact, we spent a good portion of the hike bent over filling our bellies. We saw plenty of recent evidence of bears doing the same…
During our hike we were able to stop to enjoy some of the gorgeous scenery. Every few hundred feet we climbed, we could enjoy more of the glory around us! We hiked to a peak where we stopped for about an hour to eat lunch and just enjoy the view – we even did a little coloring while we were there. The hike down took a different route with a lot less scree and a lot more brush. We found ourselves doing a bit of bushwhacking and creek crossing to make it back to the road.
Highly, highly recommend the Discovery Hike.
Savage Alpine Trail
The Savage Alpine Trail is a strenuous, 4.5 mile trail that connects the Savage River Campground to Savage River Day Use Area in Denali National Park. Take the free shuttle bus either from the visitor’s center or the bus depot to the trailhead. We hiked this on a cool, rainy morning and there were very few people on the trail.
The trail gains 1,400 feet of elevation culminating at a lookout point over the valley. We recommend starting at the Savage River Campground since the climb is much more gradual.
The trail winds its way through alpine fields before coming to a rocky tundra. Once you get to the top, the trail descends steeply via a series of stairs to the Savage River. While a bit more grueling than some of the other on-trail hikes in the park, we loved getting up high and looking over the wilderness.
After a strenuous hike, the only thing left to do is head towards the only road in the Wilderness and wait for a bus with available seats. The scenery, even on a cloudy day, makes it a quick wait.
Horseshoe Lake Trail
The Horseshoe Lake Trail is an easy, 2 mile loop in Denali’s front country. We started from the bus depot, which added an additional 3/4 mile along a bike trail, but the bus can drop you off right at the trailhead. The trail descends roughly 400 feet from the trailhead and then it’s an easy jaunt around the lake.
The scenery of this hike was very different than the previous two hikes we did in Denali – it was through pine forest rather than alpine tundra. The coolest thing about this hike is the beaver activity along the trail. There are active beaver dams and we heard that you can often see those busy beavers at work. We did this in the afternoon after we hiked the Savage Alpine Trail and the weather couldn’t have been better.
The sun came out and we had bluebird skies. The lake was so still it was like glass, perfectly mirroring the landscape.
What is an Alaska adventure without a moose??
We have one more Alaska post coming at this. This time we take to the water in the Kenai Fjords!
Alaska offers an abundance of wilderness experiences and a chance for us to get away from the monotonous modern business life. It is a quick, cheap flight from Portland to Anchorage, directly up the Pacific coast.
From Portland into Anchorage
On a clear day looking East you are able to enjoy the splendor of the coastline, ancient volcanoes, islands, mountains, and once further north, glaciers. However, thick smoke hung over most our trip, caused mostly by the large Swan Lake Fire.
We spent the rest of our day and evening in Anchorage which was still under some gorgeous low-70 degree F weather at this time. Save the smoke in the air, it was a perfect time to walk around the city and enjoy the last bit summer. We moseyed over to a highly rated pizza joint, Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria. It definitely did the trick–good stuff!
Alaska Railroad 8-hours North from Anchorage to Denali
First thing the next morning we headed to the Alaska Railroad station to catch the 8am train. Driving a vehicle the 5+-hours to Denali is another viable option–in fact the railroad runs parallel to the highway for nearly the entire trip; however, the train does offer a hands-free and scenic perspective to the landscape that we did enjoy. A vehicle does not give you any extra capabilities in Denali anyway since the town is small and shuttles are provided to and from the hotels to the Denali Visitor Center and National Park buses inside the Wilderness area.
There are two different options when booking the train: the Goldstar Service or Adventure Class. We actually rode in both classes and would definitely recommend upgrading to Goldstar if your budget allows. The Adventure Class ticket includes spacious seats, food for purchase, and second floor open seating with domed windows. You are free to move about the train and explore other cars. The Goldstar Class is more expensive but includes amenities that were worth the upgrade for us. The ticket includes larger seats with footrests, glass domed ceilings, open air deck, two meals, two alcoholic drinks, and upgraded facilities. Either way, you can’t go wrong; riding the train was such a great experience.
Along the route we got our first view of the great Mt. Denali peak. The mountain range is over 60 miles away and from this distance it is a rare site (visible less than 20% of the time). However, on this day it was visible in all its glory standing at over 20,000 ft above sea level, which is about 16,000 ft above surrounding base! Also visible on the left are the lower peaks of Mt. Russel and Mt. Foraker.
The smoke from the Alaska wildfires followed us everywhere. We got a very up-close experience with the 3,000 acre McKinley Fire (50 times smaller than the 160,000 acre Swan Lake Fire mentioned earlier) that ran along the Alaska Railroad for several miles. The train slowed to a crawl to give way for the forest firefighters who were containing the still-smoldering areas that we captured.
As we approached Denali National Park we come to Hurricane Gulch which spans 914 ft and stands 296 feet above the valley floor. This bridge is among the oldest in the area, built in 1921.
Denali National Park
We spent a little time near the hotels, getting to know our surroundings. There are plenty of hotel options near Denali National Park. Be aware that you may pay a bit more, especially during the summer season. We booked a hotel as part of a package with the railroad. It was a good deal, but we wouldn’t recommend that particular hotel. If you have a large budget, there are also lodges in Kantishna – the center of the park.
If you choose to take the train, chances are you’ll need some way to get around. Luckily there are plenty of free shuttles that run to and from the park and town. “Downtown” is really just a short strip of road with a few restaurants and shops – it’s a very short walk to many hotels from there.
Even if you have a car, you’ll need to ride a bus in the park. There is one road that runs 92 miles through the park. In order to keep the land as wild as possible, vehicles have been limited on park roads since the 1970s. Personal vehicles are allowed in the first 16 miles of the National Park Road, but if you want to go further you have to purchase a ticket. There are also free shuttle buses that will go to mile 16 (Savage River) if you don’t have a car.
There are two types of buses running through the park: green Denali park buses and white tour buses. The green buses are non-narrated while the white busses are narrated. The price of a ticket varies based on whether or not you choose a narrated bus as well as the distance you want to go into the park. These trips usually range from 5.5-12 hours round-trip if you don’t get off the bus. The buses make stops every hour or two for bathroom breaks, but be sure to take your own food and water.
Visitors are encouraged to get off the buses and explore the park. Be aware of wildlife and follow the safety precautions. When you’re done hiking and ready to go back, simply flag down a green bus and hop on.
For the Ranger Discovery Hike we took the disco bus to nowhere
Denali National Park offers a boundless many activities, but most of them are centered around very wilderness-oriented activities. We opted for the Ranger-led Discovery Hike as our first introduction into the Denali Wilderness. It gave us the confidence to explore the back country with an experienced guide, so we could get our bearings.
Sightseeing on the disco bus before the hike
We started the trip on the disco bus, 1.5-hours (about 30 miles) into the park early in the morning. On that early trip, we were able to catch some wildlife along the way. There are over 150 species of birds in the park as well as plenty of mammals and even one amphibian (it literally freezes solid in the winter!). These caribou are a common site, but these large males had particularly impressive racks. We were also able to spot some brown bears (grizzly bears), from a safe distance. They were digging for roots along a river bed. It was moose rutting season while we were there, and we got to see quite a few moose.
Further up the road we were able to get some fantastic shots of Mt. Denali. This for the second time in 2 days–a rare treat!! Even near the end of summer those peaks are completely snow-covered and frigid. So many people visit Denali and never get off the bus. The scenery and wildlife is so amazing that you don’t have to, but we highly recommend hopping off the bus for some hiking.
There is so much to do in Denali and Alaska; this was just the start of our adventure. Our favorite part in Denali had to be the off-trail hike we did – stay tuned for a recap of that! And in Part 2 (?) we venture south to Seward and the Kenai Fjords.
Mostly for posterity, because thinking back I couldn’t for the life of me remember what we did January-March. We had a great year and are excited to see what 2019 has in store.
We don’t have many photos from early in the year. We spent the first few months in Louisville, and January was marked with some snowy walks and finishing up the garage (I think we finished the siding at this point and were able to park inside!).
Downpour on Alakai Swamp Hike
Pihea Trail to Alakai Swamp
Wheel on a SUP
Sunset in Poipu
Matt ran the electric to the garage and learned a new skill in the process. We went on a trip to Hawaii, and even though it was rainy we did some amazing hikes, ate way too much poke, and tried stand up paddleboard yoga for the first time!
In March we: had a fire, it snowed a bit, we crashed a wedding, and drove across the country (again)!
We moved to Utah, I got a new job, we spent a lot of time at the pool, and we did a lot of mountain hikes. Looking back at these pictures I forgot how green Utah was in the spring; by the time we left in September it was completely brown.
We moved to Portland. I ran the Elk-Kings 50K. We did some hikes and watched the leaves turn. We went to a Timbers game.
Land’s End – SF, CA
Sightglass Coffee – San Francisco, CA
Crater Lake National Park
Salt Creek Falls – OR
Bald Mountain Trail – OR
We slowed down a little this month. Fewer hikes and fewer runs. We settled into our apartment. Beth and Casey came to visit and we drove down to San Francisco to visit Heidi and Brian. We had some good coffee and payed virtual reality games. We stopped at Crater Lake National Park, but it was closed due to snow. We went to a holiday beer festival in downtown Portland.
Forest Park – Portland, OR
Kings Mountain – Tillamook Forest
Kings Mountain – Tillamook Forest
Kings Mountain – Tillamook Forest
Heidi came to visit/dog sit and we tried some delicious food and drinks. We hiked a little, it rained a lot. And we celebrated the holidays in a very low-key way with just the three of us.
Summer 2018 was the summer of National Parks. Yellowstone and Grand Teton marked our 7th and 8th National Parks of the year. We drove up to Wyoming the weekend after Labor Day and stayed at a cabin just outside of Yellowstone. The mornings were crisp and cool and the days were sunny and warm. It was a perfect weekend to get out of town and enjoy nature. Without further ado, a massive photo dump from our weekend:
The second week in July, we hit the road for Moab – about 230 miles, or just shy of a 4 hour drive southeast from Salt Lake City. Maybe it was a bit crazy to hike in the desert when the temps were in the 100s, but we were hell-bent on visiting the two National Parks in the area: Arches and Canyonlands.
Arches National Park
Arches is located on the Colorado Plateau near the Colorado River. With over 2,000 arches, it has the largest concentration of natural arches in the world. The majority of the rock in the park is sandstone. The arches are formed as water seeped into cracks and through the freeze-thaw cycle ice created pressure breaking off parts of the rock. As wind cleaned out loose particle, fins remained, which further give way to water and wind and became arches. You can see the some of the progress below – the pictures on the right shows the fin stage while the one on the left shows an arch. Fun fact, Skyline Arch (pictured in the photo on the right below) was actually only half that size until 1940 when a boulder fell out and doubled the opening. While we didn’t get to the most famous arch in the park – Delicate Arch – there are so many other beauties to see.
Fins at Arches
We went in the evening to beat the heat, and while it was still in the 90s the shade made it much more bearable. We drove through the park stopping at Balanced Rock and Skyline Arch before hiking through Devil’s Garden. We passed the Landscape Arch, which is one of the longest arches in the world, before climbing up the rock face to head back toward Double O Arch. We ended up turning around before we got there because the sun was setting and we didn’t want to be scrambling in the dark, but we were able to stop at the Partition and Navajo Arches on the way back. In the dark, we pulled up to the Delicate Arch viewpoint to try and capture it with a long exposure.
Delicate Arch at night
Corona Arch is located along a trail in a side canyon along the Colorado River. The arch is partially free-standing and has an impressive 140 ft x 105 ft opening. The trail is relatively easy with only a few short, steep sections, and is 2.3 miles round trip. It’s easy to follow with cairns and green paint to mark the way. While summer is probably not the most ideal time to hike in Moab, we went early in the morning before the sun got too high in the sky. This allowed for some shade along the way from the canyon walls and we were able to finish before the trail got too crowded. We ended the hike with a quick splash (for the dog) in the Colorado River.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park covers over 330,000 acres of land in southeastern Utah. It is one of the more remote National Parks with very little for services throughout; the NPS encourages you to take anything you might need for your visit with you due to the remoteness. The park is divided into three “districts” that are bounded by the Colorado and Green Rivers. You cannot access the different areas from within the park as there are no roads that cross the rivers. To get from one district to the next is anywhere from a 2-6 hour car ride.
The three districts that make up Canyonlands are: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Island is the Sky, with its proximity to Moab, is the most highly visited area. Island in the Sky is a sandstone mesa that sits over 1,000 above the surrounding terrain. We visited the Grand Viewpoint, which is at the southernmost point of the scenic drive. It gives a great vista of the White Rim – a sandstone formation above the river convergence, as well as The Needles and The Maze.
The Needles is east of the Colorado River and is named after rock pinnacles that can be found in the landscape. The Needles was once the home of Pueblos, and there are still traces of their heritage including well-preserved petroglyphs. The Maze is located to the west of the Colorado and Green Rivers and is the most primitive area in Canyonlands. It is also one of the most remote and inaccessible areas in the entire United States, which has led to it being called on of the most dangerous places to hike. It has many geological features unique to the area including Orange Cliffs and Golden Stairs.