let your thoughts wander

Category: National Parks

My favorite things in Glacier

For one of our trips in 2014, Bill and I took the Amtrak to Whitefish, Montana to visit Glacier National Park. Below are some of the things I enjoyed the most while we were there.

Mountains in the background reflecting in to the lake in the foreground.

Avalanche Lake

Once you reach the end of the Avalanche Trail – and even along the way – you realize just how spectacular Glacier is. Coming off the trail and viewing the reflection of the mountains surrounding the lake reminds you just how small you are in this world. As we hiked out to Avalanche Lake, I continually pronounced it Avalaunch Lake – which, according to “Planet Earth II”, is the British way of saying it, so I guess I was just channeling that. Throughout our visit, and to this day, I still tend to pronounce it Avalaunch. (It drives Bill crazy.) I don’t know why I do it. I guess Avalaunch Lake just rolls off my tongue more easily.

High Line Trail

A feat certainly not for those with a fear of heights, the High Line Trail affords anyone who dares to venture with amazing views and solitude. It does take some planning, however, as you start at one end and finish in a totally different spot nearly 12 miles away. We opted to park at The Loop (where we would finish the hike), and attempted to take the shuttle to the Logan Pass Visitor Center to pick up the trail from there. Each time the shuttle stopped it was full and we were unsuccessful in securing a ride that way. We did, however, request a ride from an older gentleman who had stopped to use the restroom and was on his way to the visitor center with his wife. It was an enjoyable ride – sharing stories of our travels along the way. Soon we arrived at the Logan Pass parking lot and went our separate ways.

Along the trail Bill and I encountered squirrels, marmots (including one so large we thought it might be a wolverine), a bear (well ahead of us), and panoramic views that will never be forgotten.

As part of the trek, we also ventured up the Garden Wall Trail to Glacier Overlook. This short, .6 mile off chute is quite steep and narrow – certainly not for the ill-prepared – but it was worth doing for the view of Grinnell Glacier!

Just west of the Highline and Garden Wall Trail intersection is Granite Park Chalet. Bill and I stopped here for a snack break. If/when we return to Glacier, we have discussed hiking to and staying overnight at Granite Park Chalet. We can then potentially revisit Garden Wall Trail with fresh legs instead of on wary legs that have been hiking for over 7.5 miles.

St. Mary KOA

During part of our visit, we stayed at the St. Mary KOA, and would most definitely stay there again! Their platform tent sites include beds with custom KOA mattresses that we would love to have at home. It had the perfect softness and was extremely comfortable. Perfect for a good night’s sleep after a long day of hiking. And the rustic furniture had exquisite charm.

Collage of three photos. Cinnamon colored black bear on the left, big horn sheep in the middle, and family of three mountain goats on the right.

Bears, and Sheep, and Goats – Oh my!

All throughout Glacier we encountered wildlife. On the first day (and nearly every day we were in the park) we spotted a few bear. Bear watching is Bill’s favorite activity when we are in National Parks that bears call home – so this made him quite happy. While in the parking lot of the visitor’s center we were surprised by a few big horn sheep who decided to run through. And as we were driving we saw a family of mountain goats standing on a cliff up above the road.

Muesli and Chocolate Chip Scones

One morning we decided to set out for the Lake McDonald area of the park and chose to enjoy brunch at the lodge there. I was delighted by the chocolate chip scones and muesli they offered! I enjoyed the muesli so much I debated asking if they sold it so I could take some with me. I refrained from making the request, but I still remember it to this day!

Young adult female with dark hair in a ponytail wearing a black jacket and sunglasses standing in the foreground with her arm outstretched posing as if she is holding the moose that is standing in the water in the background.

All the Moose!

While Bill enjoys spotting bears, I much prefer to see moose. (Which, of course, is far more difficult to accomplish.) In Glacier, however, we were quite fortuitous. A short hike from the parking lot on Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, Fishercap Lake is an absolute must if you are looking for moose in Glacier. Within two minutes of arriving at the lake, a moose emerged and we sat there watching for quite some time. We returned later and were graced with the presence of two moose! We did not spot any bull moose, but it was still a wonderful experience.

Adult female crossing a small wooden suspension bridge surrounded by forest.

North Shore Josephine Lake Trail

The North Shore Josephine Lake Trail was peaceful, with very few people around. It also had nice scenery, a unique suspension bridge over a creek, and the perfect tree for resting on.

Outhouses

Typically when hiking (in National Parks or otherwise), there are absolutely no restrooms available. In Glacier, however, we came upon outhouses on several of the trails in which we embarked. Not only were they were a welcome sight, but they also had rustic charm!

Glacier National Park is a must see for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. Especially if you enjoy mountains and wildlife. Be sure to add it to your wanderlist if it is not already there.

Amtrak train on the left with a yellow stepping stool outside an open door.

Amtrak Adventure

One of the trips in which Bill and I took advantage of credit card sign up bonuses was booking a Roomette on the Amtrak Empire Builder route from Columbus, Wisconsin to Whitefish, Montana using points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Our final destination was Glacier National Park and its sister park, Waterton Lakes in Alberta, Canada. Having only ever taken the Metra and CTA trains in and around Chicago and the Underground and Metro in Europe, this was uncharted territory for both of us. A new and exciting adventure – and to one of the most beautiful US National Parks none-the-less!

Photo looking into a small bunk room with two blue seats facing each other.

Our room was quite small. Essentially two seats facing each other that folded down into a bed, with another bed that folded down from above. The room also had a large window, tiny closet, coat hooks on the walls, a small shelf, and doors out to the aisleway. This is where we stayed for much of the 40.5 hour trip. With the exception of meal times when we went to the dining car, and the one short visit we made to the observation car.

We met a couple who were about 20 years older than us during our first meal, and decided to continue making reservations with each other for several of the remaining meals on the trip. They were also heading to Glacier to meet up with their daughter. We had wonderful mealtime conversations together. I encourage anyone who is considering taking the Amtrak to do so – and to make friends with others on the train. It enriches the experience and makes even more memorable.

The food on the train is pretty amazing! I still remember the crab cake sandwich I had one day for lunch. I would almost take the Amtrak just to have that again. I would have to plan accordingly, however, as the food options vary from day to day.

Fish with a lime wedge, brown rice, and green beans on a white plate.

Mini cheesecake with strawberry topping on a white plate with a blue line and Amtrak logo around the rim.

Taking in the country’s cities and landscapes from the rails lends a totally different view of life. One that feels more carefree and less chaotic than the day-to-day goings on that keep us busy and in the hustle and bustle of coming and going.

Riding on the Amtrak was an experience I will cherish forever, but being on a train for that long is not something I would be overly excited about doing again. There was one time when an announcement was made that we would be stopped for several hours and could not get off the train. I was on the top bunk and started to get claustrophobic and had a mild panic attack. The thought of being stuck on the train in that tiny room for an extended period of time was frightening.

That delay was the result of a freight train ahead of us being stuck on the tracks and unable to move. I believe we may have been stuck waiting for around 5 hours or so. Thankfully that delay was in the evening and we slept through most of it.

There were several other times in which we would be forced to stop (in the middle of nowhere) and wait for a new conductor – as the conductors are limited on how many hours they can work at a time.

With all the stops and delays, we ended up arriving 11.5 hours later than our scheduled arrival time. Which meant we paid for one extra night at the KOA we had reserved. Not a huge deal, but do be prepared for stops and delays if you decide to book an Amtrak trip.

All-in-all this was a trip I will always remember. Would I do it again? Maybe. You never know where life may take you, afterall!

 

Orange spire-like rock formations interspersed with pine trees.

The Grand Circle

In 2008 Bill and I hoped to travel to London and Paris for our honeymoon, but having paid for our wedding ourselves, we realized quickly that we could not afford to go to Europe. We opted to go to the “Grand Circle” of National Parks in southern Utah instead – and I couldn’t have been happier. Of the 26+ National Parks we have visited, Zion remains my favorite. The stark contrast of the red rock formations against the beautiful blue skies remains with me to this day.

Our journey started at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, flying to Las Vegas from there. After staying one night in Vegas, and enjoying dinner at The Eiffel Tower Restaurant (next best thing to actually going to Paris), we took our rental car (a silver Chrysler Sebring convertible) and headed for Hoover Dam. From Hoover Dam, we continued on to the Grand Canyon and then beautiful Southern Utah.

Aerial photo of dam and adjacent parking lot.

Grand Canyon

My first view of the canyon was not quite as awe-inspiring as I had imagined it would be. Sure, it was an amazing sight to see, but I wasn’t exactly overcome with any special feeling – I was actually mildly disappointed. But the photos of us looking into the canyon were certainly worth it!

Couple sitting on edge of the Grand Canyon with their backs to the camera.

While exploring the South Rim, as we came around the corner of a trail, I was greeted by an elk standing right in front of me. Talk about being startled! Hiking along the peaceful trail and then suddenly coming face to face with an elk – that’s enough to wake you up. Luckily the elk stayed where it was and Bill and I were able to continue down a path that was a comfortable distance away from it.

Elk facing camera.

The next day – without much of a plan – we stopped at one of the gift shops, purchased a few snacks and a couple large bottles of water and started down the Bright Angel Trail. We past a few rangers, receiving the same warning each time – be sure you have enough water and sunblock with you and expect it to take twice as long to hike back out as it took to hike down. While we were not exactly experienced hikers at the time, we did know to heed those warnings. We hiked down three miles, and although we wanted to continue, we knew we needed to turn back, so we did.

Looking up at red rock wall.

The day we left, we also visited the Desert View Watchtower. I was nice to get a different view of the canyon, but it was very windy that day so we did not stay long!

Looking down path leading to stone tower on the left.

I think we will go back to the Grand Canyon someday and do more hiking and exploring. Having planned to visit all of the National Parks on the Grand Circle in a two week trip, we did not allow ourselves much time in any given place.

Antelope Canyon

Having seen photos of Antelope Canyon, we decided to book a tour to check it out in person. We were not disappointed! The artistically shaped walls rising far above your head and enveloping you as you walk through. The variation of color created by the interaction with the sunlight making its way through the top. The canyon was stunningly beautiful and now we have our own photos to cherish and remember it by.

Canyonlands

If I remember correctly, there were no gas stations within several miles of Canyonlands and as we approached we realized we needed gas. Long story short, we paid around $6 a gallon at the gas station just outside the park! Supply and demand at its finest. Canyonlands was more of a drive through visit for us. Which is unfortunate, as many years later I came to read Aaron Ralston’s “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, and wish we had explored more of what the park has to offer. Next time for sure!

One thing we did see while we were in the Canyonlands area was Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument. This was the first petroglyph sight we had ever visited. We have since visited several others, including one in Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s so interesting to see the symbols that were used for communication throughout history, and to try to decipher what they mean.

Rock wall with petroglyphs etched into its surface.

Arches

Let me start off with the restaurant Bill loved in Moab, UT – The Broken Oar. To this day he still talks about wanting to go back and have another burger. Now for the park highlights. We decided to go to the park very early in the morning, and it is a good thing we did! At one point we looked down toward the entrance and saw a line of cars that extended for miles. It would have been pretty agonizing to wait in that line to get in.

Line of cars backed up waiting to enter Arches National Park.

We did a bit more hiking in Arches than in the previous parks. However, when we arrived at the parking lot for Delicate Arch we chose not to walk up to get close to it. I guess that just means we will have to go back here as well.

We were fortunate, however, to see Landscape Arch, and nearby Wall Arch – which collapsed less than three months after we were there! I am just glad it didn’t fall while Bill was standing beneath it for a photo. How interesting to think that we were able to see a geological formation that had (knowingly) been there for over 50 years and disappeared very shortly after we were there. Nature is a wondrous force!

Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef was another drive through visit. While I enjoyed Arches, Capitol Reef was where I really started to fall in love with Southern Utah. The tall red rock walls against the bright blue sky were a feast for my eyes to see. I still remember sitting in front of the homestead, eating our bread and strawberry jam, and being awestruck at the natural beauty that surrounded us. The homemade bread and jam were very enjoyable as well.

Bryce Canyon

It snowed while we were in Bryce Canyon. And, unfortunately, Bill had packed only shorts for the trip. (We were a bit preoccupied trying to take care of everything for the wedding while also packing for the trip.) Try as we might to find pants, they were just far too expensive for our budget at all of the specialty outfitter stores that were available in the area. No Walmart out here! None-the-less, The hoodoos at Bryce Canyon were formations like none we had ever seen. And the vastness of the area they covered went on and on. I wish we had been able to explore more deeply into the park, but between the cold temperatures and our lack of time and energy for hiking, we decided to stick to the more easily accessible areas. Again, one we will have to go back to.

Orange spire-like rock formations interspersed with pine trees.

Zion

We had a couple days in the Zion area, and that likely contributed to my falling in love with it. We attempted to hike to Angel’s Landing, but I chickened out once we hit an area where the trail was very narrow and there was two way traffic. I didn’t want to be the one stuck on the outside edge of the trail with the possibility of falling off the 30+ foot high cliff! Not to mention I had grown out my fingernails for the wedding and had not yet cut them off, so gripping onto the chains against the rock wall was interesting in and of itself. Although we didn’t make it all the way out to the end of the trail, we did get great views along the way.

Valley surrounded by red rock mountains.

We stayed at the Best Western in Springdale while we were visiting Zion. The character of the hotel was perfect for the area.  And the views of the rock walls from the shared balconies, inclusive of rocking chairs, was something I will never forget.

The Grand Circle area in Southern Utah continues to hold a firm grip on my heart. I hope to live in Arizona someday (escaping the cold, snowy winters of the midwest) and be able to visit these parks whenever I feel the urge.

Photo looking down at medallion with location coordinates for Biscayne National Park with two sets of feet surrounding it.

Florida’s National Parks

One of my Wander List goals (inspired by Bill) is to visit all of the National Parks in the United States. To date, we have visited 27 of the 59 parks. We only started visiting them in 2007 – that’s an average of more than 2 parks a year! It does help that they tend to be clustered together. The parks in Florida (more or less) fit into that category.

When Bill set his sights on visiting Dry Tortugas, one of the most unique National Parks, it afforded us the opportunity to visit three in one trip – Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas. To get there, and around, we flew in and out of Miami and rented a vehicle after we arrived. Below are some key highlights of  the parks.

Biscayne

Unfortunately our visit to Biscayne was not everything it could have been. Through our research before the trip, we found out the boat concessioner who was working with the park had ceased their services, and we would not be able to shuttle out to Boca Chita Key and Elliott Key – the more historical and scenic portions of the park. The good news is that it appears they do have boat tours back in service at the time of this writing. (In case you are considering a trip to see Florida’s National Parks.)

Biscayne National Park sign with sculptural relief of fish.

When we visited Biscayne, free guided kayak trips were available (this no longer appears to be the case), so we signed up for one of the morning time slots – in hopes to still make the visit at least a little more interesting. However, it was extremely blustery that day and we were certain the kayak trip would be canceled. We still prepared, ensuring we were dressed appropriately and covered in sunblock. When the visitor center opened and we went to check in for the tour, our assumptions were confirmed – the kayak tour was canceled for the day.

We were offered to sign up for another day/time, but in our typical fashion, our itinerary did not allow for wiggle room. We had booked a fan boat tour for the afternoon and had to move on down the road.

We walked around the part of the park we could visit – saw fish, geckos, jellyfish (below), enjoyed the rocking chairs on the porch of the visitor center, and were on our way.

Small jellyfish near the surface of the water.

Everglades

The Everglades ecosystem paves the way for a plethora of animals to thrive! And if you want to see Florida Alligators, look no further than the Anhinga Trail in the Royal Palms area of Everglades. There were alligators everywhere you looked. In one area there were at least 20 alligators hanging out together!

Large group of alligators in a marshy area.

At one point along the trail, we stopped to watch the herons and ibises catch their dinner. Shortly after we decided to continue on, we heard quite a commotion coming from where we just where – birds were squawking, you could hear movement in the water, and then what sounded like the click of a jaw. We returned back as quickly as we could, but saw nothing. Needless to say, we are pretty sure we missed a bird getting eaten by one of the gators.

Blue Heron with a fish in its mouth.

That same day, while visiting one of the visitors centers, we noticed a “Wet Walk” listed on the schedule of events. We inquired about the trek at the desk and were informed that it was a guided hike through knee-high water – taking you through a part of the park that is not accessible without a guide. Knowing this was something we would potentially never have the opportunity to do again, we decided to sign up.

As we approached the area where we would be wading through the water, the ranger explained to us that the hill we saw off in the distance was not actually a hill at all. It was a grove of trees called a “cypress dome” that was thriving due to the water supply in that area.

Grove of trees off in the distance with flat prairie land in the foreground.

The closer we got to the trees, the more water we started to encounter and we knew there was no turning back! Using the sticks that were given to us when we met up with the group, we did our best to stay in “shallower” water and out of mud that was too deep to walk through.

As we observed the herons and egrets in the treetops, and Bill climbed on top of a large downed tree, our guide warned everyone that the tree may be home to an alligator. Soon after, a member of our group pointed out an alligator no more than 30 feet away from us. And then we spotted another that was even closer. Needless to say, Bill got down from the tree and the group decided to start heading away from the gators and their home. It’s a little unnerving when you are knee deep in water and mud, knowing it will be difficult to get away very quickly!

Alligator floating in the water near a log.

Dry Tortugas

A park like no other. Located 70 miles West of Key West, on an island that houses Fort Jefferson, a former military fort, Dry Tortugas is the most isolated National Park Bill and I have visited to date. We were fortunate enough to camp there overnight during our visit – although one night was certainly not enough! Next time we will have to stay at least three nights to enjoy it longer. Accessible only by boat or sea plane, Bill and I chose the less expensive option and booked a boat shuttle to the island. (Boats are also the required mode of transportation for anyone camping overnight.)

Dry Tortugas National Park sign

During the day, Dry Tortugas is fairly inundated with visitors – almost like a theme park. By night, everything is calm and quite – almost as though you are there by yourself. While staying overnight, the night skies are definitely worth taking in, although there are some lights on the island that lessen your view.

During the time we were at Dry Tortugas, there was a salt water crocodile living in the moat around the fort. Apparently he had been blown in by a hurricane a couple years earlier. He didn’t have a name, but one of the rangers had mentioned the name “Rocky” and that was what stuck with Bill and I during our time there. It was fun checking to see where he was as we explored around the fort. That evening, as we waited for sunset, we saw Rocky leave the moat and swim off into the ocean. He did not return before we headed back to the mainland – I still wonder if he ever came back.

Salt water crocodile wading through the water in a moat.

During that same time, as we waited for sunset, someone alerted us of something else in the water – it was a hammerhead shark! That was a sight to be seen for sure. I’m just glad we weren’t in the water at that time. The shark swam right through the area where we had been snorkeling earlier in the day. As if my scare with the barracuda wasn’t enough!

Looking down through the surface of the water as a hammerhead shark swimming through the ocean

Of the Florida National Parks, Dry Tortugas was definitely my favorite. Everglades does have a lot of amazing things going for it, too – but if I were to choose only one to return to, it would most certainly be Dry Tortugas. I highly recommend it!

Sunrise over silhouette of a mountain in the foreground

Sunrise above 10,000 feet

In bed by 8pm the night before and up before 3am, Bill and I got ready, gathered our head lamps, winter head coverings, hot water for our tea and hot chocolate, and breakfast items and were on our way – driving on hour through the switchbacks of Highway 378 and ascending 7,000 feet to the 10,023 foot summit of Haleakalā.

Arriving around 4am – the fourth car in the parking lot – we unloaded the beach chairs and blankets we had packed into the Jeep the night before and headed up the stairs to stake our claim on where we would sit to watch the popular spectacle of sunrise over Haleakalā. So popular, the National Park Service implemented a required, $1.50 per vehicle, reservation process on February 1, 2017.

After reaching the top of the stairs, the stars greeted us with a warm reception. We’ve witnessed dark night skies before, but this landscape, and the fact that we were fortunate enough to be here during a New Moon, made for a sky that was reminiscent of the night skies that are depicted inside the domes of planetariums. It was remarkably awe-inspiring. To pass the time, although we were only armed with our cell phones for photography, I did my best to collect evidence of the celestial scene – the best shot including what I believe may be the Southern Cross.

White stars against a black sky

As we waited, Bill enjoyed his hot chocolate and I drank my hot tea with our pineapple macadamia nut pound cake. More and more onlookers arrived – nearly all of them having the same reaction upon setting their gaze on the star filled sky. (If only they would be better informed to aim their lights toward the ground and not out in front of them – into other people’s eyes and creating disruptive light for those trying to photograph the unbelievable scene.)

For 2.5 hours we sat and waited. Although we are from the Midwest, where temperatures of 30 degrees or below are typical during the winter months, it was definitely cold sitting there in the 40+ degree air with little movement (and no gloves) for that length of time. I did my best to bundle up with the two blankets I had, and Bill resorted to pulling his blankets up over his head to help trap all the heat he could. At one point I heard a man to my right say something about the two of us appearing to have experience with coming to watch sunrise, because we were well prepared with our chairs and blankets. Ultimately, we were so well prepared thanks to our host, Michael, at the Upcountry Bed & Breakfast.

Upon our arrival at the B & B the day before, Michael gave us the introductory tour. Starting at the front door, he showed us the basket of warm clothes and blankets, and the many beach chairs – instructing us to take a chair for each of us and “the whole basket” of warm items as we were the only guests planning to drive up for sunrise the following morning. We chuckled, but did decide to take the whole basket with us. With our philosophy of traveling as lightly as possible, we had only brought our winter head coverings – my Everest Base Camp hat (a token from our trek last fall), and Bill’s The North Face headband. The following morning, as we debriefed Michael on our trip up the day before, he made sure to let us know that he laughed when he noticed we had actually taken him literally and took the whole basket with us. We apparently were the first to have ever done so in the 17+ years he had been hosting guests.

Around 6:15am, light began to slowly permeate the sky, and the stars began to fade. Ten minutes later, the first slivers of color started to illuminate the horizon – the show was beginning! As the sun began to appear, I quickly got up and moved to the south, to capture the views I had seen in other photos – with the sun shining up over the peak that had been sitting in front of us the whole time – leaving Bill to capture the sunrise from our original post on his own.

Silhouette of mountain landscape with dark yellow, orange, and blue sky in the background

After the show was over, and the sun was high enough in the sky, I rejoined Bill and he pointed out the shadow of the mountain behind us. We took a few photos and then loaded everything into the Jeep so we could head down to the restrooms and embark on our hike for the day.

Photo looking through a window to a lake with mountains in the background

Thinking of Glacier and Waterton

It makes me so sad to know about the devastating fires that are happening all over North America right now. My heart is especially heavy for Glacier National Park and its sister park, Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada.

Having seen the terrible news of the Sperry Chalet in Glacier being reduced to rubble, and knowing the fires are threatening the Prince of Wales hotel and many other historic structures in both parks, it makes me anxious. I hope the fires smolder soon so my concern for these relics can be put to rest.

I am ever grateful that Bill and I have had a chance to visit these places and see the splendor that they are, and I hope they will stand the test of time so we may revisit them again someday!

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