New Zealand – Milford Sound and Queenstown

Last part in our New Zealand trip series.

Our last planned stop on the drive across the southern island of New Zealand was Milford Sound. However, the week before we went, there were some serious storms that caused rock slides and made the road very dangerous. The Department of Conservation closed the road to vehicles, only allowing a few convoys of tour buses a day. While not something we would typically do, we opted in for the chartered tour of Milford Sound. This included a bus ride from Te Anau and a boat ride around the Sound. We booked directly with Jucy – the company we rented the van from – but there were plenty of options for guided tours.

Into Milford Sound

The 3 hour drive from Te Anau into Milford Sound was beautiful. Perhaps it was due to the lack of cars due to recent rock slides, but it was a very enjoyable, scenic ride. There were so many amazing vistas of fields buffered by soaring mountains. We stopped a few times at Mirror Lakes and Hollyford Valley on the way out to stretch our legs and allow people to take photos – many scenes from Lord of the Rings were filmed in this area.

Once we got closer to Milford Sound, there was an amazing tunnel straight through the Darran Mountain Range. The Homer tunnel runs 1.2km at a 1:10 gradient down into Milford Sound. It is a single-lane road and the inside of the tunnel remains unlined granite. To dig out the tunnel, two crews worked from either side of the mountain, meeting in the middle. The crew on the Eastern side was paid more due to the extra work it took to haul the granite up and out of the hole…it’s hard working against gravity!

Boat ride around the sound

Once we made it to Milford Sound, we took a 1.5 hour boat trip. Milford Sound is a fjord on the Western coast of New Zealand, created by glaciation over millions of years. It is one of a few fjords that still sees glacial activity. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we took a million photos. Every direction has an amazing view, including moss-covered rock walls and waterfalls. We never got to the ocean, but it was a nice trip around the sound.

Queenstown

After 6 nights in the campervan, we were more than ready for a proper hotel in Queenstown. After a long, hot bath and shower, we found the closest brewery for some food and beer. Afterwards, we enjoyed the evening sunshine with a leisurely walk along Lake Wakatipu. The atmosphere was laid back and there were plenty of people hanging out along the shores.

We ended up grabbing some cocktails after dark (who are we?!) at a couple of fun cocktail bars tucked into the alleys around town. The town is very quaint with plenty of pedestrian-only streets that make it easy to explore on foot. We had such a great evening, we would have loved to stay another day and tramp around Queenstown.

It was hard to leave, but our vacation was over and we had to head back to reality. We took a quick flight to Auckland and then hopped a red eye back to Los Angeles. New Zealand is a trip we won’t soon forget and encourage anyone with an appreciation of the outdoors to get out and explore its beauty.

New Zealand Hiking, Post 2

We wanted to provide a light-hearted and photo-filled read to get your mind off of everything life is bringing to us all. This is part 2 to a multi-part post about our trip. Enjoy!

We enjoyed quite a few hikes in our short time in New Zealand. It was the perfect way to move around and take in the spectacular scenery. One fun thing about New Zealand is that trails are called tracks and hiking is referred to as tramping 🙂

Mt. John Walkway – Tekapo Lake

Before we get to the hike: Tekapo Lake features an amazingly photogenic church. We were hoping to get some great night shots of the church, but it was a full moon and the pictures look like daylight with long exposures.

Mt. John Walkway at Tekapo Lake is a moderately strenuous hike that takes you up to the NZ Dark Skies observatory overlooking this turquoise lake. If you choose to do the full loop, it’s an easy descent and finishes on a flat portion along the lake.

Sealy Tarns Track to Mueller Hut – Mt. Cook/Aoraki National Park

The road to Aroki National Park is an amazing 45 minute drive from the bottom of Lake Pukaki to the foothills of several glacier-covered mountains.

Oh man, where to start with the Sealy Tarns Track. This trail is located in the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, and it was HARD! We had intentions of going to the Mt. Olivier peak – a 7 mile round trip hike – but called it once we got to a glacier field roughly 2.7 miles up. We ended up only doing 5.5 miles, but it was more than enough. The track climbs 3,000 feet straight up the mountain; the first 1.75 miles are narrow stairs and the last mile is a rock scramble. We definitely felt the elevation on this hike, which was 2,700 feet at the base and just under 6,000 at the highest point. Despite our slow pace, we were constantly in awe of the vistas.

It was a brutal scramble to the summit after the Sealy Tarns halfway viewpoint. It was a combination of large boulders and loose gravel for a hands-and-knees scramble. The high altitude and cold breezes made the activity that much harder. However, Summit offered some amazing views into a glacier-worn valley–the pictures don’t do it justice.

Sealy Tarns trail at Aoraki mountain

At the end of the day we stayed in the Lake Pukaki Overnight Parking area that has some great views of the mountains over the lake.

Views of Aoraki / Mt. Cook across Lake Pukaki from the overnight camping area

Kepler Track – Te Anau

When we got to Te Anau, we immediately hit the trails. We headed to the Kepler Track, which is a 60km loop in the Fiordland National Park that is normally done as a 4-day, 3-night hike with developed campsite areas along the way. We obviously did not do the entire loop, but we did a 7 mile out-and-back tramp starting at the Te Anau Lake Control Gates and heading south. It’s a flat, tree-covered route that would be easily runnable for a 2-day fast pack if you have your legs on you!

The track ran along the Waiau River through lush, dense forest. It reminded us a lot of the PNW. The section of trail we completed was mostly flat – we only gained 500 ft over 7 miles – and was an easy walk in the woods. It was lightly trafficked the day we went, and while there were no vistas through the forest, it was very serene… if you like rainforests. 🙂

Joshua Tree National Park

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.

Source: Jeff Goulden

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.

Alaska water adventures, Kenai Fjords

Welcome to the wrap-up of our Alaska adventure, be sure to visit part 1-getting to Alaska and part 2- hiking Denali.

Exploring smokey Seward, AK

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.

Jellyfish washed up on an old dock in Seward, with heavy smoke hanging in the air

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.

Lions seals sunning on the rocks in the Kenai Fjords

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.

Busy otter in Resurrection Bay near Seward, AK

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.

Orca making a splash outside the Kenai Fjords

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.

Denali National Park Hikes

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 hike

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.

Standing on the Denali wilderness on a gorgeous day

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 trace practices 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.

Need a ride in Denali? Just catch a bus!

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.

Horseshoe Lake in Denali

Finally…

What is an Alaska adventure without a moose??

Moose in Denali!

We have one more Alaska post coming at this. This time we take to the water in the Kenai Fjords!

Alaska, end of summer outdoor adventure – Part 1

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.

Mt. Denali from the Alaska Railroad, peak over 60 miles away

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.

Burn area from the McKinley fire along the Alaska Railroad

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.

Hurricane Gulch from the Alaska Railroad, 300 ft above the valley floor

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.

Getting around

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.

2018 Year In Review

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.

January

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!).

February

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!

March

In March we: had a fire, it snowed a bit, we crashed a wedding, and drove across the country (again)!

April

We spent April in Phoenix and enjoyed the warm weather. We visited Petrified Forest National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Sedona. Ralph and Jan came to visit. We did some desert hikes and spent some time hanging out with friends.

May

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.

June

We spent more time at the pool and exploring Salt Lake City. We hit up some new breweries. Matt turned 33! We hiked some more. Beth and Casey came to visit and we went to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. And we went to a professional rugby match.

July

I started training for a 50K. Ralph and Jan came to visit and we took a trip to Moab to see Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. We did lots of hiking including our first sunset hike on Antelope Island. Matt went to Vegas for the first time and I went to Boston. I turned 32.

August

More hiking and running in August. Matt went to Canada. The weather got really hot. We spent more time at the pool. I ran my first marathon distance in Park City and saw some moose on the trail.

September

We did more running and hiking and tried to keep cool (the Utah summer was HOT). We went to Wyoming to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. We went to the Utah State Fair. I started another new job. We moved to Boise for a few weeks.

October

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.

November

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.

December

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.