Monday, September 14, 2015

Labor Day Backpacking: Central District of Shenandoah National Park

We helped our friend Wildtype, finish section hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) through Shenandoah National Park over Labor Day weekend. We hiked the 35 miles of the central district from Swift Run Gap to Thornton Gap. The shelter spacing worked out a bit awkwardly. Our first day, to Bearfence Hut, was only 9 miles, but our last day, from Rock Spring Hut to Thornton Gap, was 15 miles. We have done a fair bit of backpacking this year, but 15 miles with full packs was a little bit ambitious.

Day 1: Swift Run Gap to Bearfence Hut: We started out in the clouds at Swift Run Gap. After a couple of hours, they cleared up, though. We climbed steadily to Lewis Mountain. There aren't really any views to speak of in this section, but it is a pleasant walk. We heard from other hikers that the spring is somewhat unreliable at Bearfence Hut, so we topped off our water at Lewis Mountain and got cold drinks from the camp store. After a quick mile to the shelter, we had cold cider and beer with dinner.
Starting in the clouds at Swift Run Gap.
 Solanum carolinense (Horse Nettle). This member of the Nightshade family was blooming in several places along the trail.
Chicken of the Woods fungus on a log.
Switchbacks coming down off of Baldface Mountain.
Ferns, moss, and lichen along the side of the trail.
An interesting fungus on a log.
We pitched our tent at one of the tent sites just south of Bearfence Hut. We thought tt looked "flat enough." We were badly mistaken. We spent the entire night trying not to roll down the hill.
Bearfence Hut.

Day 2: Bearfence Hut to Rock Spring Hut. We had eleven miles to do on our second day. We couldn't have asked for better weather. It was a beautiful, bright and sunny day.
We made a short detour about a mile into our day to hike up to the top of Bearfence Mountain. Michael and our friend are on rocky overlook near the top. Back on the AT, on the way down Bearfence Mountain, I caught my heel on a rock and turned my ankle pretty hard. For a few minutes, it looked like we might have to call the hike off. Michael wrapped it up and, after a few minutes,  I gingerly continued down the trail. We were going to have to hike a half mile to the next road access anyway. Slowly, the pain diminished and I made it all the way to Big Meadows, seven more miles, where we took a long break. After some discussion, we decided to continue. I won't lie, the last two miles weren't much fun, but we made it to the shelter just fine. We were treated to the sight of a bear in the woods near Rock Spring Hut while we were cooking dinner. That sounds scarier than it was. It was skirting wide around the shelter, avoiding coming too close on its way over the ridge.
The AT near Hazeltop Mountain.
A butterfly on a Cirsium vulgare (Bull Thistle - I think. I didn't get a very good picture of the leaves).
A Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.
The view from the rocky overlook behind Big Meadows campground. The trail skirts around to the west of the campground and mostly stays out of view of it. It is actually one of the prettier parts of the trail through this area.
Looking north towards Hawksbill Mountain from Big Meadows Campground.

Day 3: Rock Spring Hut to Thornton Gap. Another day of great weather and this was probably the day we got the best views. Initially, the plan was to hike to Skyland Resort, four miles away, where I would wait for Michael and our friend to go get the car and come back and get me, which would allow our friend to finish his hike. As we started hiking, though, my ankle felt much better and by the time we hit the coffee shop at Skyland, I decided to keep hiking. We got really lucky as we were returning to the trail after our coffee: we saw a mother bear with her cubs in the woods. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any clear pictures because of the shade in the forest, but lets just say, they were so cute! The rest of the day went pretty smoothly. The last couple of miles were hard, but that was mostly because we haven't done that distance in a long time.
 Sedum telephoides (Wild Live Forever) on one of the rock slides on Hawksbill Mountain.
 We had lunch on Little Stony Man Mountain.
Near Jewel Hollow Overlook, we found this Timber Rattlesnake right beside the trail.
 Another look at it.
The trail near the junction with the Mary's Rock trail.

We had a good hike, it was fun to meet the other section hikers at the huts, and we really enjoyed helping Wildtype complete Shenandoah National Park.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Wyoming & Montana, Part Four: Cycle Greater Yellowstone

The second week of our trip was spent on Cycle Greater Yellowstone (CGY). CGY is a Cycle Oregon-style ride, fully supported, but much smaller. There were about 350 riders this year. Although not quite as organized as its older sibling to the west, it was reasonably well-run and, when it really counted, the organizers did a great job. The food...well, it is tough to feed that many people. It was hit or miss, but we didn't starve by any means.
We started in Red Lodge, Montana, camping in the city park the night before the ride kicked off.
Our first day of riding was 58 miles to Absarokee, Montana. It was pretty easy riding through farmland in the Yellowstone and Sillwater River valleys. I might have set a new personal record for that distance that morning. We were done with our ride by noon.
Sunrise in camp in Absarokee on day 2.
Day 2 took us towards the Beartooh Mountains. Unfortunately, smoke from wildfires to the west obscured them a bit. It was still a pretty ride out to Nye, Montana. From there, we returned to Red Lodge.
The way back to Red Lodge took us through rolling, grassy hills. The weather was also steadily deteriorating. Somewhere along here, I got stung in the forehead by a yellowjacket. This did not improve my general level of morale.
We had to cross a major construction site on the way to Red Lodge. They had us wait on the side of the road until the pilot car led all of the vehicle traffic ahead of us. Then we followed behind the last car. The road was completely torn up (no stopping for pictures), so we rode on gravel and got to dodge random construction equipment. All of this went really well, which is a credit to the ride organizers and the flexibility of the construction crews.
Day 3 involved climbing over Beartooth Pass (10,947 feet). The climb just to get to the east summit is 28 miles long. The night before, we were told that a weather system would be moving in, but that they thought they had a window until about 11 a.m. They wanted everyone on the road by 6 a.m. and over the pass by 11 a.m. If riders didn't make it to the rest stops at mile 10 and 21 by a certain time, they would be shuttled over the summit. They also let us drop a bag of warm clothes that we could pick up at the west summit and gave us chemical handwarmers.
Our friend and I climbed pretty well. We skipped the first rest stop, but we did stop for pictures fairly regularly. At the 21 mile stop, we got a bit of food and continued. We were well ahead of the cutoff times.
Looking back down the pass towards Red Lodge. Note the low clouds.
This is at the east summit, crossing from Montana into Wyoming. About ten minutes after we left the 21 mile rest stop, around 10:15 a.m., it started snowing. By the time we got to the east summit, it was 25 degrees and snowing pretty heavily (well...for August, anyway. I'm sure it is worse in January). We started down the short descent before another short climb up to the west summit and quickly realized that we were in trouble. Both of our hands were frozen within a mile. My glasses froze over, so I couldn't see. We stopped, but then we are sitting at 10,500 feet in the cold wind. Since we had been climbing all morning, our clothes were damp from sweat and melting snow. It.Was.Cold. Our warm, dry clothes were all at the west summit. We wound up flagging down the support ambulance after about ten minutes. By the time we got in, I was shivering. They picked us up along with two other women who were in a similar state. The EMTs in the ambulance gave me a heat pack. After that and some food, I was doing quite a bit better.

We got a ride to Cooke City, Montana - our next overnight town - in one of the SAG vehicles. We had to leave our bikes by the side of the road when we got picked up. SAG support picked them up later and brought them to town.We might have been able to finish the ride that day had we had access to our warmer clothes at the east summit, but it is hard to say. Conditions were pretty tough. A number of people did make it, though. The organizers did an amazing job considering the conditions they were working with. It must have been terrifying for them to have riders strung out all over the mountain. Even the caterer managed to turn on a dime, serving hot soup for lunch that day (not something riders would normally want).
It rained on and off all that afternoon in Cooke City. We were treated to a rainbow in the evening.
Sunset in Cooke City. Cooke City has a large grizzly bear population, so we actually had a night watch at our campground that night. We were camped on the local baseball field. Members of the ride crew patrolled the perimeter all night with bear spray.
There was a hard frost that night, leaving everyone's bikes covered in ice crystals to start Day 4.
Day 4 was much better - sunny and clear and eventually warm. This is looking back towards Cooke City. Out of all of the days we rode, this was my favorite day of the bike trip. The climbing was challenging and the long descent into Cody was a lot of fun.
We rode through the sunlight basin, which was absolutely beautiful.
Riders got pretty spread out that day, so at times, it was like were were riding on our own, without anyone else.
The big climb that day was on the Chief Joseph Highway. The weather made up for the storm the previous day and we had a great climb.
Probably my favorite sign of the entire ride. The entire descent was actually quite a bit longer than 11 miles.
As we approached Cody, Wyoming, the landscape got much drier and the vegetation completely changed.
Day five was the layover day. There was an optional ride or you could do other activities or nothing at all. We opted to ride. The BLM opened up a road that is typically closed. It follows the North Fork Shoshone River to Buffalo Bill Dam and Reservoir. It was a pretty ride through the canyon.
After leaving the dam, we fought headwinds uphill for 30 miles towards the east entrance to Yellowstone. It was a tough ride. As the morning progressed, the wildfire smoke got thicker, too.
At mile 37, we finally decided to turn around. It had taken us more than three hours to ride that far because of the wind. Now pedaling in the opposite direction, we had a tailwind! It was like being on two different rides that day. On the way out, we had been struggling to get our speed above 11 or 12 miles an hour. On the way back, we were doing a steady 25 mph. We had so much fun on the return ride. The picture above shows how much the canyon had filled with smoke.
We spotted a herd of Pronghorn near the reservoir.
That night, we went to the Cody Rodeo, which was fun.
On our last day of riding, we did 80 miles. It was pretty flat, which was nice after several days of climbing and fighting headwinds. The ride went fast. I think I may have set another personal record for an 80 mile ride.
Ridges and fields near Powell, Wyoming.

After a night of listening to 50-60 mph winds, we opted not to ride the last day since it would have involved almost 70 miles straight into the same winds. They did not abate much in the morning sun. We might have considered riding, but we had a nine hour drive back to Denver that night. As it was, by the time we got our bikes packed up, retrieved the car, and had lunch in Red Lodge, it was 1 a.m. before we got back to Denver. Had we ridden, it would have been much later.

All in all, it was a great ride under some challenging conditions.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wyoming & Montana, Part 3: Yellowstone National Park

After our backpacking trip, we headed to Yellowstone. We stayed at Canyon Village campground for four nights. It took us forever to drive there from Grand Teton National Park because we kept stopping to see all of the cool things along the way. We kept saying, "we really need to just focus on getting there," and then we'd come around a corner to something amazing and throw that idea out the window. That basically started at the entrance sign and continued all the way until we pulled into the campsite.
The Lewis River at the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
Lewis Falls.
We stopped at the West Thumb Geyser basin. This mud pot is in the parking lot. It was actively bubbling and spewing sulfurous steam.
One of the pools in West Thumb Geyser Basin. I think this area was my favorite of the developed thermal areas that we visited while we were in Yellowstone. We happened to be there when it wasn't horribly crowded and it sits right on Yellowstone Lake, which made for a pretty backdrop.
Yellowstone Lake from the West Geyser Basin boardwalk
Mimmulus guttatus (Monkey Flower). These little guys were growing right next to a thermal feature where nothing else was growing at all.
Black Pool in West Thumb Geyser Basin
Yellowstone Lake from Pumice Beach.
A bison bull in Hayden Valley.
Our second morning in Yellowstone, we took a guided wildlife tour. It was fabulous (we paid for the tour). Our guide, MacNeil, did a great job and we learned so much about the park from him. Right off the bat, we saw this bull elk near the road. 
Another view of him. The stringy thing hanging over his eye is actually some of the velvet that he's been rubbing off of his antlers.
Hayden Valley in the morning light.
A bison bull along the Yellowstone River.
Lamar Valley. We didn't wind up seeing any wolves or grizzly bears, but like I said, the wildlife tour was absolutely worth it. We did see bald eagles, sandhill cranes, a badger, a weasel and lots of bison.
After our tour, we went up to Mammoth. This is above Canary Spring. The red color is from algae growing in the heated water.
Canary Spring.
A Western Tanager near Canary Spring.
We had dinner in Gartiner, Montana. On our way back, we drove Blacktail Plateau Drive. We had asked a ranger in the Mammoth Visitor Center about the drive and he pretty much said, " is another hill." We drove it anyway and did not regret it. It is quiet and we had great views up there.
Our last stop of the day was Tower Falls. When I was there in 1998, you could hike down to the base of the falls. Not so, anymore. Apparently, mud slides in 2004 resulted in the closure of the trail. It was pretty anyway and since we were there late in the evening, there were very few other people there.
On our last full day in Yellowstone, we did two short hikes. The first was a loop that began along the south rim of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We followed the river for a couple of miles out to Artist Point. We took a side trip down Uncle Tom's Trail, which leads down a series of metal stairs to a stunning view of the lower falls. Since we were there early in the morning, we had the viewpoint to ourselves and we had great light. It was definitely worth the hike down and the climb back out.
The Lower Falls from Artist Point. This was the only crowded place on our hike. By the time we got there, the tour buses had arrived. From there, we took a right and immediately entered the Yellowstone backcountry. Within about 25 feet, we had left all of the madness behind and had the place to ourselves.
One of the features of the loop we did was a backcountry thermal basin. This one is small compared to some of the others, but it was neat to hike through one without boardwalks (stay on trail!) or crowds. I would have liked to have spent a bit more time here, but it was pretty exposed and there was a thunderstorm passing through.
The end of the hike took us up on a ridge overlooking Hayden Valley. Storms were passing through the area, making for dramatic photos. We saw a bison bull near here, but I didn't get a good photo of it. It is a completely different experience to see one when you aren't near your car (we did not get close). Not bad for a hike finished before lunch.

As an aside, since we had our own food, we had lunch in one of the picnic areas along the way to the other side of the park. The picnic areas might be the best kept secret in Yellowstone. We wound up eating in three of them. They were all pretty and away from the madness of the dining facilities in the park.
After our morning hike, we drove to the other side of the park to see some of the more famous thermal features. This is Grand Prismatic Spring. We hiked from here to Fairy Falls and back. Unfortunately, although Grand Prismatic Spring and Fairy Falls were very nice, in between was like hiking through a pine plantation. The area burned badly in 1988, so all of the trees are the same age and are pretty dense. It isn't a bad hike, but it was a lot of walking through pine trees that are twelve feet tall.
 Fairy Falls.
One of the few views along the trail to Fairy Falls.
Old Faithful. This was as crowded as one would expect, but Michael had never seen it.
After dinner, we drove Fire Hole Lake Drive. Again, going in the evening meant it was quiet. There were thunderstorms rolling through again, so we sat out and tried to photograph lightning.
I got lucky once and captured a lightning strike - the first time I've ever been able to get one.
On the way back to Canyon Campground, we were treated to an incredible sunset. What we didn't realize at the time was that the brilliant red was due to smoke from wildfires to the west that was rolling in. More on that in the next post.
On our last morning, we did laundry, dried out gear from the previous night's storm (Michael spread the gear out in the parking lot of the general store and wound up being photographed by tourists as they drove by...seriously). We drove out through the Lamar Valley towards Red Lodge, Montana, and happened to see this bison bull rolling in the dust. It was funny to see such a large animal throw himself down on the ground and roll around.

So, after spending three days in Grand Teton National Park, I want to go back and backpack for a month there. I have the same problem with Yellowstone. I need to go back and do some actual backpacking there. So many cool things to see, so little time. 

Next post: the bike trip.