On my sixteenth day on the road I woke up to a cold morning and so sore that it took me a few minutes to get out of the sleeping bag. My legs begged me to stay in the tent, but my addiction to caffeine got me up and running for a hot cup of cappuccino at the Canyon Coffee House. With my abilities to think and function restored, I was ready to head to the South Kaibab Trail. Vehicles are not allowed close to the trailhead and the closest parking lot is about a half mile away on Desert View Drive. Shuttle buses are available to drop you off right at the trailhead located south of the Yaki Point on Yaki Point Road, but I chose to drive, park and hike to the trailhead. At busier times of the year or if you are camping overnight in the canyon the shuttle bus is probably a better option as the parking lot is quite small. And not everyone wants to hike an extra half mile on the way out.
I had planned to hike to Skeleton Point at three miles down toward the bottom. My round trip for the day was just going to be six miles, plus the one mile round trip from the trailhead to where I had parked my car. The South Kaibab Trail is two and half miles shorter than the Bright Angel Trail from the trailheads to the Bright Angel Campground by the Colorado River. While the Bright Angel Trail round trip is nineteen miles, the round trip on the South Kaibab Trail is only fourteen miles. Do not fool yourself! Part of the reason for the shorter distance is because of its steepness. The steepness of this trail is misleading as many casual hikers do not realize how far they have gone. Its trailhead elevation is also about 400 feet higher than that at the trailhead of the Bright Angel Trail.
Comparing to the Bright Angel Trail, the South Kaibab Trail gets a lot more exposure to sunlight. The few shaded areas, depending on the time of the day, result from the canyon walls. The views are spectacular! Just about less than a mile in from the trailhead, Ooh Aah Point offers wonderful views of the open canyon. The weather was perfect! The day before when I hiked part of the Bright Angel Trail, the skies were a too little hazy but today the skies were clear and bluer. At the Ooh Aah Point I met Nav and Martina from London with whom I chatted for a while and we agreed to meet in San Diego a week later for drinks. Although there were more people on the trail, it was not overly crowded.
Just a little over half a mile from Ooh Aah Point, Cedar Ridge opens up to astonishing views. At this point it was windy but not as cold as the day before and certainly a lot warmer than just a couple of hours earlier. That’s how much the temperature can vary from top to bottom and fluctuate throughout the day.
Hiking and contemplating the vastness of the Grand Canyon is a spiritual experience and it is impossible not to be moved by the force that carved the landscape and magnitude of its wild beauty. Although the landscape is relatively young, sculpted about five to six million years ago, rocks ages reveal 270 to 1,840 million years in the making: 1.8 billion years. Later that evening I met Michael, a Hopi native-American who shared some of his people’s rich history and their fascinating mythology. He told me that now they are a small nation but the “most important” because they are the oldest and that they originated from mother Earth. Curious about what I heard, later on I looked into the history of the Hopi people and found out that among the people who consider the Grand Canyon their place of origin and homeland, the Hopi are the only people who never left the area. Their religious practices are embedded in the landscape given to them by the deity Ma’saw when they accepted a covenant to earn stewardship of the Earth. It is believed that the Hopi people descend from the Puebloan tribes who inhabited the four corners area thousands of years ago. Deep within the Grand Canyon lies a sacred place: the Sipapu, which means “the place of emergence”. The Hopi people remains the most mysterious and mystical people of all Native Americans, considered outsiders by other Native American nations as they never signed a peace treaty. They carry on the story and the history of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Michael and I talked well into the night while stargazing, sitting outside my tent. Listening to his stories and how after leaving the US Marines and becoming a Forestry Engineer he returned to his homeland to continue and carry on the Hopi’s traditions and cultural integrity, was an eye-opening experience. That encounter changed how I would view my journey from that moment on; it was no longer a sightseeing road trip. Thereafter, I gained the awareness that I was walking on sacred grounds and the connecting with people took a deeper meaning knowing that although I was travelling by myself I was not alone.
Often I am asked which one is my favorite national park? Yellowstone? Yosemite? The Grand Canyon? It is hard to tell! It is almost like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. My response is that they differ from each other and they are great on their own merits for different reasons. For hiking I prefer the Grand Canyon because both the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail rank highly on my top five favorite hiking trails. And what can I add to Yosemite? It is referred to as the mother of all parks and I am not going to dispute that. However, it is one of the busiest national parks along with Yellowstone. Not only the iconic Old Faithful, but the majority of the world’s geysers and hot springs which are preserved in the vastness of the Yellowstone National Park.
Scenery along US-191 in Montana’s Yellowstone country
How to plan a visit to Yellowstone? What to see and do depends on how many days one plans to spend in the park. The options abound and it is hard to choose which attractions to explore. On a morning in the Spring of 2016, I was headed to Yellowstone not knowing if I would stay one, two, or three days. It all depended if I would be able to get one of the first-come, first-serve basis campsites and how many days would I be able to get.True to what I have written before, one of the joys of a road trip lies on the fact that it is not only about the destination; it is also about what we see on the road.
Having driven from Glacier National Park in northern Montana, on my way to Yellowstone I spent the night in Bozeman. After a couple of days of rain and snow, I woke up to a beautiful, sunny morning. The skies were bright blue and the views were simply amazing. Driving in scenic Yellowstone country is one of a kind drive! Since one of the campgrounds open in early Spring is Madison, I had to use the west entrance to get in the park. I drove south on US-191 passing by Big Sky and driving along the west edge of Yellowstone. Passing through Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, this highway not only cuts through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, but it is perhaps the most scenic highway in the United States. A road trip along this highway is memorable, regardless of the time of the year.
It was my lucky day! I arrived at the Madison campground just in time to get one of the last campsites still available. The campsite itself was good and well located. However, it is a rather ‘busy’ campground. With a lot of RVs and trailers, it has a lot of traffic. Moreover, for the lack of shrubs or trees, there is no privacy or protection from the wind and the dust the comes with it; something that could not go unnoticed because it was a particularly windy day. In fact, the wind was so strong that a couple of tents in a site nearby had been blown away. Setting up the tent under strong gusty winds was a bit tricky, but I secured it with extra pegs. Yet, as I drove to Big Sky to meet a friend for lunch at the Lone Peak Brewery, all I had in my mind was whether or not the tent would be still there when I came back later.
My planned three days stay at Yellowstone did not include plans to hike because of the minimum three people for hiking. I would spend three days of sightseeing; and there is plenty to see in Yellowstone for days! Just driving through the many roads that crisscross the park offers the most spectacular views. Nonetheless, as the National Park Service publication warns, travel hazards and delays are to be expected. Driving cautiously and defensively is a must! Road congestion are not only caused by the number of vehicles but by the wild life in the park that has the right of the way. In the early hours of the day and before sunset, herds of bisons can take the entire road bringing traffic to a halt.
In a 2.2 million acres park with so many attractions, planning what to see based on how long one is visiting Yellowstone is essential. It is tempting to try and cover as much as possible. However, I would not recommend overstretching the list of things to do and attractions to see if time is limited. For a one day only visit, I think that it is intuitive to visit the Old Faithful area and walk around the geyser basin. The Old Faithful is undeniably the poster boy for Yellowstone. For a one day visit, one can add one of the other hydrothermal areas, such as Norris, West Thumb, or Mammoth. Quite frankly, they are my favorite features. With two or more days to spend at Yellowstone, one can explore one area of the park more in depth. That’s what I did! However, it is hard to concentrate in one area knowing that there are so many great features to see and areas to explore.
I had crossed the United States from New England to the Southwest and Southern California, and driven along the Pacific coast to the Pacific Northwest in roughly two months. Now it was time to head back east. I left Seattle to the Glacier National Park in Montana, knowing that the chances of camping and hiking were not that great due to wintry conditions. In Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, where I spent the night, I learned that some roads in the Glacier National Park were open. I also found out that a couple of campgrounds were open. Despite the uncertainties, I chose to take my chances. Driving across eastern Washington, through northern Idaho, and into Montana offers breathtaking views of mountains, valleys and lakes. If for anything else, if you love road trips, driving through that region is an experience of a lifetime.
Coming from Idaho into Montana and heading northeast toward the Glacier National Park, the drive through the Flathead Nation territory is visually astonishing. The landscape stand like paintings in the horizon. Passing by the Flathead Lake I could not resist not to stop alongside the road a few times to take in the breathtaking views in the Flathead Valley. The Flathead valley gets its name from the Salish “Flathead” Indians who inhabit the Flathead Indian Reservation, which is located at the southern end of the lake. As I wrote in South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, my exchange with a Hopi who spoke about his people and his ancestors was a turning point in the early stages of my road trip. In that article I described how my hiking and camping trip took on a more spiritual connection with the landscape around me. It was the moment when the soil and rocks underneath my hiking boots were more than a path; they were sacred grounds for American ancestral peoples.
I drove up the mountain to enter the Glacier National Park through the west side. I still had a couple a few hours of daylight when I arrived at the park but there were no personnel at the park’s entrance. I located one of the open campground in the Lake McDonald Valley where I could pick a campsite and self register using the registration drop box. Perhaps, due to the weather conditions there were plenty of great open spots. I set up my tent, collected firewood while a couple black bears roamed the area. With everything set up for the night, I went for a hike to the landing area at lake McDonald. The view was spectacular despite the fact that it was overcast, gloomy, and cold. The still water in the lake mirrored the snow covered mountains at the far edge of the lake in a serene, peaceful setting.
Lake McDonald Valley is the hub of activity on the west side of Glacier National Park. Once occupied by massive glaciers that carved this area thousands of years ago, the valley is now filled with spectacular sights, hiking trails, diverse species of plants and animals, historic chalets, and the grand Lake McDonald Lodge. The lodge was still closed for the season and except for a couple of fishermen at the landing on the lake shores, I had the lake to myself. Ten miles long and nearly 500 feet deep (152.4 m), Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park, is a direct result of glacial carving. High peaks surrounding the lake all show evidence of the power of glaciers to carve even the hardest of rock. The powerful glaciers that carved the broad “u-shaped” valley that Lake McDonald sits in also carved smaller hanging valleys with wonderful waterfalls that are accessible by numerous hiking trails.
Hiking alone was not something that was advised. The guidelines for hiking at the Glacier National Park suggest hiking in groups of three people, as it is the case in many national parks. Besides the number of hikers guideline, the trails were mostly covered in snow with more storms in the forecast. When I returned to my campsite to stargaze by the fire, I noticed that I was no longer alone. A couple of guys had taken the site next to mine, although the distance separating the campsites are bigger than in many other parks that I have camped. It was not until the next morning that we spoke as they prepared to leave the park. They were from Minnesota, a place they recommended that I visit in the future. Perhaps because I told them that Minnesota is one of the only two states of the United States’ fifty states that I have not visited.
My campsite neighbors from Minnesota told me to try and camp in the east side of the Glacier National Park because the views were far greater than the views in the west side of the park. They had just camped in the east side of the park and they told me that it was sunny with bright big skies. Since the weather was getting bad that morning with sleet and rain, I decided to dismount camp and head over to the east side, where I was promised bright, sunny blue skies.
Located a half-mile west of the St. Mary entrance near St. Mary, Montana, about 33 miles northwest of Browning and less than 20 miles south of the Canadian border, St. Mary campground is the largest in the east side of the park and it was the only one that was open at that time. There was no vehicle restrictions, but driving up over the Logan Pass was a bit trick. In the few miles that separate Browning from St. Mary, I experienced all different types of weather conditions. First, sunny and clear in Browning. Then, flurries that turned into large snow flakes in the size of a golf ball, rain that turned into sleet and ice, and temperatures that dropped more than 20 degrees in just a few miles. Strong winds and densely foggy conditions made the drive up to St. Mary very dangerous. Not surprisingly, I was the only driver on the road to St. Mary.
Arriving at St. Mary visitor center, I was informed that camping was not recommended due to a major snow storm on the way that night with the possibility to continue on for the following days. However, the park ranger told me that if I chose to stay and camp for the night he would allow me as long as I had food supply for five to seven days. He explained that at that time of the year they do not rely on weather forecast so much because the weather conditions can rapidly change. He was not sure what was going to happen and the pass could be closed for days if the storm became a major storm. With all that in mind and the fact that except for black and grizzly bears, the campground was empty, I decided to turn around and spend a couple of days in Browning.
On my way down to Browning it was snowing heavily in the higher elevations with light snow in valley. The news the following morning was that three feet of snow had fallen in the mountains overnight. One of the reasons I wanted to stop by in Browning was to visit an old friend from my college days who was living in Montana and teaching at the Blackfeet’s school district. However, as I turned up in Browning earlier than I had planned, I missed visiting my old friend from New York. The day I arrived he was involved with organizing a field trip with his students to the great plains for the big event that was about to take place. Then he and his wife were heading to Helena to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Nonetheless, my stay in Browning was productive and educational. I learned a lot about the history of the Blackfeet and part of the history of the colonization and expansion into the West. It was a complete coincidence to have arrived in Browning just before the return of the buffalo to the plains. More than one hundred years after the disappearance of the buffalo from the plains, as a gift from the Canadian government to the Blackfeet nation the buffalo was being reintroduced to the Blackfeet territory in Montana. The event was being celebrated the following day after my arrival in Browning. Bus loads of school children were taken to the plains to witness the event. I would not have known about the magnitude and importance of the event if I had not overhead two journalists interviewing a Blackfeet chief at the Museum of the Plain Indians. He was probably in his eighties and he had many stories to tell. They were stories he heard from his grandmother and other elders when he was a child. They were fascinating stories that covered the period circa 1870 when the buffalo extinction took place.
On my way to Bozeman, the drive was relaxing. It seemed that I had the road all to myself and the sunset in the big sky resembled paintings on canvas. The only difference is that this was a gigantic canvas extended in the big open skies. I had made peace with the fact that the heavy Winter that had prolonged well into mid Spring became a spoiler to my plans. However, it did not mean I was going to interrupt my road trip. All there was to it, was that I had to adapt and change plans according to mother nature’s unpredictable ways. The Glacier National Park was the last of my destinations in the northern part of the country. I had decided that from there I would head south to Utah and into Arizona for the following couple of weeks to avoid the extended forecast’s prediction of rain and snow storms in the north. I was getting tired of hearing from locals that “this is unusual for this time of the year.” However, I still had to put up with at least one more week of rain.
Before leaving Oregon to Washington, I would make a day stop at Fort Clatsop. The fort that was the winter encampment for the Corps of Discovery from December 1805 to March 1806. Fort Clatsop is a unit of the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks where the trailheads for the Fort to Sea Trail and Netul Trail are located. And just to make it clear, because I have been asked before if I would hike the Lewis and Clark trail, one cannot hike such trail because the Lewis and Clark Trail voyage of exploration was mostly done via waterways. However, one can hike the trails that were created to access supplies to maintain the needs for the daily life of the fort inhabitants.
The day before heading to Fort Clatsop, I spent a quiet day in Astoria, Oregon. My day began with an interesting, exciting surprise encounter at a café in Astoria. After looking online for a local place to have brunch, based on reviews and recommendations I decided to go to the Astoria Coffee House and Bistro. The coffee house was busy when I arrived and because I was by myself, the hostess asked me if I wouldn’t mind to sit at the bar because otherwise the wait time for a table would be close to an hour. Not only I agreed to her suggestion, I preferred to sit at the bar because I wouldn’t like to sit at a table by myself. Someone sitting across the bar caught my attention because of his attire. His outfit seemed to be from the 1920s or 1930s. Also, he looked familiar to me. Being so far away from home in New York, I did not think that I would bump into someone I knew and quickly the possibility that I knew that person. He was with to other people with whom he was having an animated conversation. His laughter was adorable and captivating. The bartender at one point leaned toward me asking me if I recognized the young man across the bar? As I responded that he did look familiar but I did not think I knew him, she said “yes, you know him! That’s Elijah Wood!” Oh my God! It was him! I was having breakfast a few feet away from my idol from the Lord of the Rings! And yes, I was dying to go ask him for a selfie, but I am too shy for that. Just when I was leaving the coffee house, he returned by himself and left again only to disappear in the quiet streets of a Sunday morning in Astoria. By the way; breakfast was fantastic and probably the best Bloody Mary I ever had.
On Monday morning I took my tent down, packed and left Fort Stevens to Fort Clatsop for a visit of the Lewis and Clark Fort and day hike of the Netul Trail and a portion of the Fort to Sea Trail. The visit to the fort was educational, rewarding, and relaxing. There wasn’t a lot of visitors on that day and the park was quiet and peaceful. Seeing firsthand the fort installations and learning about the challenges of living in the fort during the long Winters of the Pacific Northwest, sitting on the beds that Lewis and his expedition crew once occupied was an incredible experience. The fort which is kept in incredible conditions 200 years later, offers an insight in the history of the mission of exploration, study, and expansion of the continental United States.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition that began in May 1804 reaching the Pacific Ocean in September 1806, known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, was the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States. It began near St. Louis, made its way westward, and passed through the continental divide to reach the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The Corps of Discovery comprised a selected group of U.S. Army volunteers under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend, Second Lieutenant William Clark. Having Clark in the expedition was one of the conditions imposed by Lewis to accept leading the endeavor presented to him by President Jefferson.
William Clark resigned his commission on July 4, 1796 and retired due to poor health, although he was only 26 years old. He returned to Mulberry Hill, his family’s plantation near Louisville. In 1803, Meriwether Lewis recruited Clark, then age 33, to share command of the newly formed Corps of Discovery. A slave owner known to deal harshly with his slaves, he brought York, one of his slaves, with him. The indigenous nations treated York with respect, and many of the Native Americans were interested in his appearance, which “played a key role in diplomatic relations”. Although Clark was refused a promotion to the rank of captain when Jefferson asked the Senate to appoint him, at Lewis’ insistence, he exercised equal authority, and continued the mission. Clark concentrated chiefly on the drawing of maps, the management of the expedition’s supplies, and leading hunting expeditions for game.
President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to explore and to map the newly acquired territory, to find a practical route across the western half of the continent, and to establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it. The campaign’s secondary objectives were scientific and economic: to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and to establish trade with local Native American tribes. With maps, sketches, and journals in hand, the expedition returned to St. Louis to report its findings to Jefferson. An interesting anecdote and aspect of the expedition is that when Lewis and his men reached the Pacific Ocean, only half of the expedition mission was completed. According to President Jefferson, the other half was to make sure that all the discoveries, diaries, and notes were brought back to him.
After two months on the road and hundreds miles of hiking, my hair and beard had grown and friends back home were starting to call me the ‘mountain man’ and ‘caveman’. I had shed any fat that I may have had in my body. At that point I had to make a stop at REI in Portland to purchase new hiking pants because my waist had gone down to a mere 26 inches. The planned road trip route was now in question due to the weather conditions in the Pacific Northwest’s National Parks. Before crossing the state line into the State of Washington, the last stop in Oregon was mainly cultural and recreational for me. The visit to Fort Clatsop fit in that category, but I could not resist the temptation to hike a few miles that day.
I started by hiking the 1.5 mile Netul River Trail southbound from Fort Clatsop to the Netul Landing, which marks the final landing of one of the final destination branches of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The graveled trail that runs along the river is a flat, ease terrain which is used by most of the visitors to the fort. On that morning, I encountered a few of the visitors while hiking the Netul Trail which connects to the 6.5 mile Fort to Sea Trail, which is a lot more challenging trail. On this trail a higher hiking skills level is required as portions of the trail has abrupt elevations followed by sudden drops. In other words, it is full of ups and downs! The round trip to the sea is 13 miles. This was the trail used by the fort residents to reach the pacific on their fishing trips in the Spring and Summer when they stored food for the long Winter.
The Fort to Sea Trail winds past forests, coastal bogs, farms, an active military training center and crosses a mini-version of Portland’s Fremont Bridge before reaching Sunset Beach State Recreation Site. The crossing of U.S. 101 in via an underpass. With one end on federal land and the other on state, and with other land holders in between, the trail is a metaphor for what makes the Lewis and Clark park unique in the Pacific Northwest. The vegetation here is abundantly green and full of vitality. With part of its natural trees reintroduced to recreate the original habitat after the ending of the logging industry, the park’s forest is managed by both the National Parks Service and State Parks.
It was quite late in the day when I returned to the fort. I was exhausted because in order to complete the day’s 15 miles hike I had to keep a fast pace. However, I still wanted to get to the Puget Sound area in Washington, about four hours away if I stopped at least once for a thirty minutes break. Although I had no intention to spend too much time in Seattle, I wanted to visit a couple of friends in town. As I crossed the state line into Washington, there was still some daylight left and the driving conditions were good. At one point I came into a foggy and rainy area, reminding me that I had reached the Pacific Northwest.
From this point on, relying on weather forecasts was just as suggestion. Being close to a rain forest where weather conditions can and do change suddenly, and can display different patterns in just a few miles due to different altitudes and other variables, would almost certainly bring a few surprises. Nonetheless, I felt that I was prepared to adjust my plans and adapt to nature’s whims. Before moving to New York, I had lived in Seattle for five years and I was accustomed to the weather in the Pacific Northwest.
It was past ten when I arrived at my friend Raquel’s house about thirty minutes southeast of Seattle, where I would spend a couple of days catching up and taking a break from the woods.