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The Coast of California

Aaaaah, Blue! Beaming from the horizon is blue. We are high on the last of the beautiful California hills. Grass and forest pastures mingle and role several thousand feet down towards the coast. This is the first time we see the Pacific all year. So exciting, so beautiful, I work the breaks so as to not lose control of our trusted minivan, as an impatient car screams around us and downward toward the coast.

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Cambria. We sleep without the tent fly able to gaze at the stars on the pleasant night. Michelle wakes me up in the middle of the quiet night… “I think there is something getting into the cooler – must be a raccoon.” She peaks up out of her sleeping bag and is face to face with a skunk! “Ahhhh” I hear. “Duck she wispers hoarsly!” She tucks back into her sleeping bag protecting Ila. What is ducking going to do I wonder? A bit later we look again, the skunk backed away and for some reason it is my job to quietly sneak out of the tent without stirring the skunk and put our cooler in the minivan. It is a standoff skunk vs. man. With a raccoon I would make a bunch of noise to scare the critter but the skunk is a much more delicate situation. In the morning we learn about the destruction…the dexterious skunk somehow, opened the cooler and made off with Michelle, Elias and Ila the eggs, the turkey jerkey and a really good bar of chocolate. Jacob celebrated the miracle that the bacon was still there.

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We pack up and drive north on Route 1 with its mysterious curves and spectacular views. We see an unexpected sign for “Elephant Seal Viewing”. Our curiosity is peaked and we pull over park and head to a boardwalk overlooking a beach completely covered with huge Elephant Seals. Loud thunderous growls, they are hilarious from our comfortable distance. We watch and we learn little Ms. I giggling imitating the seals. What’s next? Wildlife viewing was not on my radar. We head north.

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The hills that our coastal highway is following steepen, as the clouds thicken ahead. “Is there really a road that continues along that coast?” The ocean gives birth to increasingly steeper and more other worldly hills as we enter the fog and I begin to yawn. Yes it has been very busy and very active as of late and I am beginning to feel tired. It’s no longer sunny out as we wind in and out of mountain ravines and ridge lines, why am I so tired? “Whale!” Jacob yells out, we pull over with more excitement of viewing exotic wild life. Three maybe four-hundred feet below there are whales out at sea. We witness one blowing water into the air, haha so cool. Finally we file back into the car and the dizzying ride continues.
Lime Kiln state park is on a creek in a deep ravine with Redwoods that opens up to a cove on the Pacific. We play by a stream from the forest making its way to the ocean, Michelle’s favorite type of confluence, freshwater meeting the sea. Waves splash and happy kids disperse. Camp is set but it’s still early, why are we so tired? Michelle yawns. “Let’s go to the beach, it’s only yards away”. I lie down and drift away to the sound of waves, sea gulls and Jacob and Elias wrestling, running, building with rocks and sand. Now I’m driving in the desert again, driving towards Los Angeles, but now it’s on fire, why am I driving there if it’s on fire? I notice that my wheels aren’t touching the ground but I’m speeding way above the desert and there are piles of animals, they have teeth, they’re like huge crocodiles covering the entire horizon and the snapping noises they make are frightening.

“Daddy, check it out there are Sea Otters out there.”

“What?” I pop up. “Sea Otters?”, “Weird dream” I brush it off when I understand what Elias is yelling and eagerly look through the binocs. Sure enough there are a few Sea Otters floating around on their backs in the waves. “Wow, they’re big.” I concede to make it clear that I’m excited. After awhile I stop watching, I notice Michelle is at camp cooking dinner. “It’s cloudy here.” I think to myself and lie back down. Drifting waves, drifting sounds I am now on the top of a huge cliff. I’m above the clouds. “So this is what it looks like above the clouds”. I think about jumping but then the back of some really big animal surfaces. “I can’t float like that” I think, “I’ll just sink to the bottom.”

“Dinner!” Michelle yells. I realize I was snoring and again work to shake off the sleep.

We stayed at Lime Kiln another full day and night enjoying the otters and the occasional Harbor Seal that popped it’s head out of the water as curious about us as we about it. The spell of the Big Sur coast was impossible to escape as we drifted in and out of different stages of our dreams. Even when I was awake I had to pinch myself, was I really awake? It was probably somewhere between dreaming and awake now that I reflect back on it. On day three the clouds still thick as if they are always there, the noise of sea birds, waves and the rushing creek mingle with the sleepiness. We pack up and drive onward, winding north on Route 1. Slowly, the clouds intermittently give way to the sun. The spell is broken like Rip Van Winkle waking from his sleep we start remembering where we’re heading and began thinking about our itinerary again. That’s right, my cousins in Menlo Park, Michelle’s brother Simon is meeting us in San Francisco after that, our trip is only weeks from over. But it is certainly not over. Today we’re headed to The Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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The aquarium is an absolute treat for all of us. The mysteries of both the deep ocean and coastal life are beautifully explained throughout with jelly fish of all sorts, big, amazing and bizarre fish and answers to our questions about the cool local wildlife we had been seeing.
The Elephant Seal is not only humorous and entertaining to watch but they are incredible. Sometimes weighing as much as 6,000 pounds they can spend more time without air than any other non Cetacean mammal (whales and Dolpins). They have been recorded ad depths at over 7,000 feet deep in the Ocean.

It turns out the whales we saw were most likely the Blue Whales. They are the largest living thing to have ever existed weighing up towards 170 tons. What we probably saw was a mom and her calves, being only a month and a half from peak viewing season it was not an uncommon viewing.

The animal that had our attention the longest was the incredible Sea Otter. The Sea Otter has the thickest fur of any animal in the world. They live in the kelp forests and are sustained by the life within the forest. It is also no surprise that we watched them floating around on their backs because they spend a majority of their lives doing exactly that, floating on their backs. They are one of the only animals in the animal kingdom to use tools, such as their use of rocks to pry open shell fish. They are also a keystone species keeping populations of Sea Urchins in check so they do not destroy the kelp forest. What I think is amazing is how big they are, the males can way close to 100 Ibs. That means that they were surely further than we thought while we watched them at the beach. That’s the same as the Blue Whales. Had they been a different species of whale we probably would never had seen them.

Here at the Monterey Aquarium there was one fish that caught our interest. We never saw the Great White Shark in the wild but we did watch a presentation that was fascinating. First of all they are not a coastal species like previously thought; they only come to the coasts to feed. From there they go out into the open ocean and do things that nobody quite understands as of yet. What we do know is almost all of them travel out to an area between Hawaii and Baja California referred to as the Great White Café. On their way out there they will dive as deep as 3,500 feet below sea level. Once they get there they never dive below 300 feet. It could be that they are mating, or perhaps that they are fishing but the fact remains that nobody knows.

Now back in the car we continue on to see family again and experience a bit of city life.

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Categories: Blue Whales, California, Camping, Car camping, Coast of California, Driving cross country, Ecosystems, Elephant seals, family, Family camping, Great White Shark, Monterey Aquarium, Sea Otters, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Leave a comment

Yosemite

“It was my good fortune to know John Muir. He had written me, even before I met him personally, expressing his regret that when Emerson came to see the Yosemite, his (Emerson’s) friends would not allow him to accept John Muir’s invitation to spend two or three days camping with him, so as to see the giant grandeur of the place under surroundings more congenial than those of a hotel piazza or a seat on a coach. I had answered him that if ever I got in his neighborhood I should claim from him the treatment that he had wished to accord Emerson. Later, when as President I visited the Yosemite, John Muir fulfilled the promise he had at that time made to me. He met me with a couple of pack mules, as well as with riding mules for himself and myself, and a first-class packer and cook, and I spent a delightful three days and two nights with him.”

Theodore Roosevelt

So it was in May 1903 that at a time when Yosemite Valley was overrun with saw mills, sheep herding, saloons, brothels and filth there was one influential man who saw it for what it was, one of the world’s greatest mountain temples. John Muir successfully convinced the president that Yosemite Valley must be protected by the United States. This Three day horse packing trip that Roosevelt was talking about is still considered the most important camping trip in the history of conservation.

Now in May of 2014 Michelle brought Jacob and Elias to see a play in Yosemite Valley, The Tramp and the Roughrider, where this was to be re-enacted and celebrated. Jacob described the premise of the play; “It’s the last evening of the camping trip that Roosevelt and Muir went on together. They had to actually get away from all of the commissioners that currently ran the Valley. They were making great profits from the saloons and businesses and you could tell that t they didn’t want the status of the Valley to change. Most of the time Roosevelt told stories of his personal adventures but you could tell John Muir was working really hard to get the conversation back to the Valley. As the end of their last camping evening approached, John Muir pressed Roosevelt reminding him that they needed to discuss the transfer of the Valley from California to the national government. Finally Muir got Roosevelt to promise to add the valley to the National Park system and they ended the play. I was able to get a great feel for both John Muir and Roosevelt as the actors did a great job portraying them. “

While Michelle had a date with the boys, I had a date with Ila. We took a short walk up to the base of the most awesome wall of rock in the United States, El Capitan. We laid down on our backs, with our hands behind our heads and gazed up. Then Ila began, “What’s that daddy, what’s that?”

“That’s El Capitan.”

“Oh” pause….”What’s that daddy, what’s that?”

“That’s El Capitan.”

“Oh” pause….”but what’s that daddy, what’s that?” Ila continued pointing up at the seemingly endless swath of perfect granite.

This continued back and forth for a bit and finally I struck a deal. “I tell you what Ila. In 12 years you and I will climb that together…..OK?”

“OK”, Ila agreed.

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This promise was based on the fact that the day before I had taken my fast growing, double hamburger eating 12 year old son up Half Dome’s Snake Dike. Nothing quite so big and mighty as El Cap but with 18 miles round trip, 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and a total of 800 feet of rock climbing, I saw that in just two more years El Capitan as a reasonable goal for any well adapted 14 year old.

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In November of 1958 a man named Warren Harding after a year and half of effort topped out on The Nose of El Capitan and made history. Not only was he and his two other comrades Wayne Merry and George Whitmore the first people to ever climb the “unclimbable” wall and not only did the efforts that lead to this monumental climb concoct a stream of innovation in climbing equipment to a level never seen before, but Warren Harding transcended the ages when at the top of the climb a reporter asked, “What does it feel like to have conquered El Capitan?” and Warren responds, “Well, it seems to me that El Capitan is in a lot better shape than I am right now”. With that one comment the culture and stigma around climbing shifted to the timeless fact that the mountain shapes us. And what better place to be forged than on the strikingly beautiful walls of Yosemite Valley?

I have always been careful not to push this stuff on the kids. It’s important that they want to climb in their own right to insure the level of motivation that’s required for such huge climbs. It was in this sentiment that Elias was instantly motivated to go climbing with dad when he watched Jacob soaking in his post mountain adventure high, actually it would have been cruel and unusual punishment not to take him climbing. As promised, Elias and I went to climb several three pitch climbs on the beautiful apron of rock below Glacier point.

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In 1993 our society once again received enlightenment from El Capitan when Lynne Hill “free climbed” the entire route. She was not the first woman to free climb The Nose of El Cap rather she was the first person to free climb the Nose of El Capitan. That feat was on par to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. To climb El Cap with my daughter at any age would be a dream come true…If she wants to.

When Ila and I were done with our date we went to the theater to meet Michelle and the boys and eat ice cream. Sticky ice cream drenched her hands and face when we greeted the gang as they walked out of the theater beaming with smiles. “That was the coolest play I’ve ever seen.” Jacob said in a daze.

Teaching our kids about these great characters and their role in protecting our dignity and land is important to us. We had no idea it would be this easy for them to understand. Really all we needed to do was show up. Just like singer, song writer Greg Brown says:

“John Muir walked away into the mountains. In his old overcoat a crust of bread in his pocket. We have no knowledge and so we have stuff and stuff with no knowledge is never enough to get you there. It just won’t get you there……Two Little Feet to get you across the mountain.”

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Trees!

Our Sierra camp was in the southern end of the Great Basin Desert. Sage brush is the common tree here, a shrub really, with plentiful sage green leaves that are small and soft as you wrap your hand around a branch. It’s virtually impossible to resist the temptation to snap off a piece of sage and smell it. Fresh and soothing and difficult to put down, we collected the sage, keeping it in short bundles to freshen our car and relax.

Now we head south leaving the Great Basin and into the Mojave desert. Low and dry we continue through Mojave creosote flats. Finally we turn to the West heading up and over the Southern ridges of the Sierra. Joshua Trees are the signature plant of the Mojave Desert, a Yucca, yes, but like no other. Close by, J-trees grow in thick forests on the southeast slopes of the Sierra with trunks as big as I’ve seen them anywhere, some more than a foot in diameter. Growing upward like a tree and branching out in all directions in comical and chaotic ways, the green tufts of sharp and pointy yucca leaves disguise the thickness of the branches then continue down the branches giving way to dead leaves of yellowish and then black color.

When I say growing upward “like” a tree, I say that because although they resemble trees, they are not tree. Trees are what we need right now. When I see communities living in these barren lands, living with tree like cactus and giant branching yuccas I am fascinated, but not envious. “How do you live without trees?” I can’t help wonder. A good tree soothes the soul like a mother’s embrace and eases the spirit like a much needed rain. After months of desert living, our little family is in need of trees.

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Up and over the first few ridges we arrive in Kernville. These shrubby and grassy hillsides will not do. We do our laundry, buy groceries and head onward, up the Kern River and higher into winding mountain roads. The hills are mostly covered by an increasing number of short shrubby green that gives the steep mountainsides an elegant luxurious texture with increasing numbers of clustered pine groves as we head higher and…..hupla! We head over a final defining ridge and into a thick forest, familiar, with thick green shade provided by fir and cedar, grassy and moist understory with water loving plants everywhere.
“Trees!” Ila yells out.

We were in a mysterious mist. Our curiosity spiked when we finally stopped. With no other people around we hop out of our cars excited for a little stroll in an ancient forest. We walk slowly and carefully through the casual trail flushed with big smiles and wonder, the kind that comes with new discoveries and affirmations….that the world is in fact as mysterious as you had always hoped. Our big wild ride takes us all the way back to when even us grownups were small children, a time when our imaginations were the main lens in which we viewed the world through, when we believed in dragons and fairies and magic and mysterious enormous trees that move around when nobody was there to watch. The trees where so big that there was surely a door somewhere on the back side that leads into a well furnished home. Walking through the trail of 100 giants we explore each and every giant sequoia we came to searching for the hidden secrets.

These are the largest trees on earth. Some say the largest living things. They are also older than is easy to imagine. The lives of these trees were being played out here in this forest while the entire story of Ancient, Classical, Medieval, Renaissance and Modern world history was being played out. Some of these living trees that we were walking amongst were born at the time of Jesus Christ, while others were saplings before Rome was an empire and Alexander the Great was pushing into India. But, the biggest and oldest of these trees, trees towering above us right now, towering higher than we can properly gauge were alive when our oldest written stories of the old Testament and of Homer’s Iliad were being played out in real life. “How is that even possible?” I think to myself as I look around at the tiny new Sequoias in the forest and wonder about 3,000 years into the future. To think that time is only accelerating now, our lives changing by the day, my computer updating every five seconds. “Do we even let things live that long anymore?”

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We hop back in the car and head to our camp near the small community of Nelson. This entire area is protected as a National Monument otherwise none of these trees would stand a chance. Some of the largest remaining old growth groves of Sequoias are found here in this low key National Monument. Three days we camp and explore the forest. We are visiting on the off season and there are no other visitors, just green forests. On the third day we pack up and head down in the Valley.

Heading into California’s central valley from the higher forest is to undertake yet another ecological journey. Down into the Oak Groves, at first steep forested mountainsides turn from conifers to varieties of deciduous and live oaks and then as the steep mountain-scapes turn to rolling hills the forests turn to woodlands and then prairie. The prairie quickly shifts to citrus fields, then busy and crowded farm land. We drive north for about 30 minutes through the most heavily cultivated land in the west. We set up camp in Visalia California poised to head up to Sequoia National Park, but first we need to resupply, shower and wait out a big much needed rain. A cool Pacific storm drops a half inch of rain on the valley and we hear rumors of snow up high. Back towards the mountains now we watch the reverse again: citrus, prairie, oak woodlands and then forests. We set up camp in the Oak forests of Sequoia National Park.

Of all of the trees the Oaks are my favorite. These Oak forests are teaming with life and the trees overflowing with character. At night we heard the scream of a mountain lion and the hoots of owls. In the middle of the day Jacob and Elias shockingly watched a Bob Cat take down and devour a squirrel. On one hike the trails were literally littered with huge bright red salamanders from 4 to 8 inches in length, at one point we had to run and jump over an immense pile of bees. Every moment we spent here was rich and green.

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These are the Foothill, or Blue Oak but there are also the large Valley Oaks with large luscious leaves and far reaching canopy. Among these forest are many other hardwoods such as Ash and Maple and Walnut but the Oaks are the most abundant and coolest. With their thick trunk leaving the ground there is no way to know which way an oak tree will grow. They twist and turn without a hint of reason other than pure joy of tree poetry as they grow. They are the best trees to climb or hang a swing from or just lacksidazicly relax beneath as we create, draw, color and write. But our time in the oaks would not last forever, we wanted to go up higher and see the giant forest in a way we had not seen before, all covered in snow.

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Cloaked in white, the Giant Sequoias carry that distinct feeling of ancient nobility and strength like nothing else. Timeless as they seem, I can’t help but wonder, how much snow can they hold before this giant falls over? I reflect on deep winters back at home. There was one particular ski tour in our old growth Hemlock and Cedars in North West Washington, impossible amounts of snow spraying all around me with every turn down the steeply forested mountain side. The heavenly winter feeling was sharply interrupted by a huge rumbling fear. I heard and then saw mass destruction through the forest as I watched 500 year old trees not as much as half the size of these Sequoias giving way under the suppressing tonnage of snow, trees big and small being crushed all around and I could not ski fast enough back to the car. But these Sequoias won’t fall under this snow. There will be heavier snows that come and go, there will be fires as well. Fire is required for a Sequoia to release the seeds to continue the cycle of life. These fortress like trees seem timeless and in the white coat completely unreal and indestructible.

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One single lifetime of these Sequoias is difficult enough to fathom, but what’s even harder to conceive of is how long the species has been around. These few groves found mainly here in the National Park and further south in the National Monument are some of the last remnants of trees abundant over 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. The last ice age destroyed most of them isolating them to just a few specific areas. Fortunately their logging was stopped and the land they are on protected before they were completely wiped out. There are only three subspecies left and two are found in California. The Coast Redwoods, the Sequoia and the Dawn Redwoods in SW China are all that’s left. We can’t help but wonder how much longer they’ll be around, millions of years? Thousands? Hundreds? Decades? What matters most to us right now is not the past or future but spending this time right now together amongst these trees as they are now imprinted on our minds forever.

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Death Valley

When Pacific storms slam into California they are liable to drop healthy amounts of rain along the coast before moving inland and getting relentlessly forced upward in to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As the wet air is driven higher it becomes thin and unable to hold moisture, therefore causing it to condense into clouds. These clouds then condense into rain. Once the moisture gets high enough the rain turns to snow, lots of snow. The largest snow falls in a given winter storm are on average larger here than anywhere else in the United States. The air continues to rise because in the Sierras there is nowhere else for it to go but up. The Sierra Nevada runs like an impenetrable fortress wall down the eastern side of the state of California with peaks higher than anywhere else in the contiguous US. Only the burliest storms make it over the spine of the Sierra and then down the other side where the moisture evaporates and leaves just wind for the lonely basins on the  east side. What moisture does make it to the there is forced up once again over another range of mountains almost equal in height, only to go bombing down the other side even drier and further down until it bottoms out in Death Valley, the lowest, driest, and hottest place in the United States.

Our drive towards Death Valley took us through dreary and lonely looking desert valleys and over craggy desert mountains of the Basin and Range province. We crossed into California and soon after the border, into Death Valley National Park where we found ourselves starring down into a frightful giant tear mark in the earth’s surface. We continued to descend with feet working the breaks trying to keep our overloaded minivan happy in low gear.

The rock formations that the road twisted around were stunning. Stories of very ancient mountains were quickly laid out in the crazy scenery as we rushed onward. Even though the stretching of the Basin and Range began only 16 million years ago the rock that has been exposed is over a billion years old.  The elevation continued to drop until we hit sea level and kept descending. This big broad flat valley was made up of giant lakes back in the last ice age.  Now the water that leads down here heats up, evaporates and leads to nowhere. What’s left is salt, a vast flat expanse of salt. There are no major river ways that drain the Basin and Range Province. To put this in perspective, this entire region: eastern California, southeastern Oregon, southern Idaho, western Utah and the entire state of Nevada, is without a major river drainage. Mountain ridge lines collect snow and rain, it flows down hill like all water should but then poof, it’s devoured by the basins.

When we made it to a sign that read -150 below sea level, we parked our car in the salt flats and greeted the 100 degree heat. Curiously, we all walked into the sea of white salt and pulled shoes off to feel the comfortable crunch under our feet. The walking led to jogging and then regardless of the heat, to sprinting. You could run as much as you wanted in any direction and it would not matter if your eyes were open or closed. The crunchy white salt was uniform throughout the valley bottom. We played in the salt flats and our skin and spirits felt gritty and good.

 

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Back in the car we charged on towards our destination driving by towering sand dunes where Jacob pleaded with us to stop and explore. The temperature was even warmer when we got out and walking around felt like a huge effort. As we drove further and began the climb up and out of the valley the family was still, content with their books on tape or sleep as I quietly noticed warning signs that suggested we turn AC off so as not to let the engine overheat. The poor van pushed  4, 5 almost 6 thousand feet back up and out of the valley. The AC blasted as I thanked our faithful car for the big push. We continued down the other side on a road that cut through yet another lonely basin with nothing in it except the large expansive natural shape of the mountain and valleys flowing together as one with giant dunes on the northern end piled high just as it had been for several thousand years.

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Michelle and I bonded without speaking with our hands and our smiles while we deeply absorbed the freedom of endless scenery. Topping out on the last mountain ridge the Sierra Nevada stood in front of us reaching up into the heavens. They reminded us that not all mountains look like these dry basin and range hills. Their steep noble mountain slopes were flanked with the beautiful clean look of granite walls and ridges. It was like a fortress of the heavens and we had finally arrived. Snow etched the stately and tall lines which lead up to the summits which were crowned with clouds. The first clouds we had seen for weeks.

 

Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, adventure travel, Death Valley, Desert, Driest Desert, Driving cross country, Ecosystems, Great Basin, Hiking, Lowest Point, Sand Dunes, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vegas

From Zion we drive down Interstate 15 which takes us off of the protected and cohesive layers of the Colorado Plateau and the strict codes of the Church of Latter Day Saints. We descend steeply into the Virgin River Gorge and into a very low and dry landscape where we admire the flat expansive views with lonely looking mountain ranges on the horizon. The expanses are never quite flat but are curved upward ever so slightly so you can see just how empty the landscape is, a landscape that is actually being stretched apart. The basins are in the process of sinking and the mountain ranges are like the stretch marks, holding ancient stories of the past. This is the Basin and Range, the desert is the Mojave, the driest in the US and the city that resides at the bottom of this sinking basin we are heading towards is Las Vegas.

Also flowing into this Great Basin off of the Colorado Plateau is the Colorado River just finishing its job of carving the mighty Grand Canyon and poised to take its last lazy float down to the Gulf of California like it has for millions of years. But in 1931 that was all changed when a giant hydroelectric dam was built corralling the largest reservoir in the country. This ambitious project took place hundreds of miles from anywhere and anything, thousands of workers were needed and over a hundred died to build it. The result was the down trodden water stop of Las Vegas, sprung up to service the needs of all the lonely, homesick workers. This was the 20th century so most states of the nation had laws against hired love and or leaving all of your hard earned money up to chance, but in the great state of Nevada there was almost nothing and nobody. Laws were voted on for the workers, by the workers. Eventually word got out beyond the scope of the Hoover Dam project and the Nevada State Lines that there was a place where everyday common moral rules did not apply. Large scale gangsters and businessmen came in from LA, Chicago and New York. They happily collected money from those addicted to chance. This quickly sped up the city building momentum and financed bigger and more luxurious hotels, casinos and shows – some of the biggest shows in show biz with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and of course Elvis Presley. Soon a powerful man in the aviation industry, Howard Hughes, came for a visit. Instead of leaving his room in his hotel he bought the hotel and then most of the city. It became internationally known as Sin City, a place of high class adult entertainment and a hot spot for famous musicians, entertainers and show biz. Finally by mid 90s Las Vegas’ destiny of becoming one of the biggest tourist destinations for seeing a live show in the entire world was attained.

I have been visiting this region for almost two decades and I love it here. But when I come I spend very little, to no time in Sin City. I fly in and then head out of the Las Vegas basin as fast as I can and into one of my favorite mountain ranges in the United States which is most commonly known as Red Rocks.

On this visit we began the Vegas experience by camping and climbing in Red Rocks. Red Rocks is made of the same awesome sandstone layers as Zion National Park but around 16 million years ago it broke off from the rest and has been increasingly surrounded by a sea of Mojave desert basin. The result is that Red Rocks is a paradise of some of the greatest climbing in the US. We spent our time on the single pitch rock but there is everything here up to 2,000 foot big wall wilderness ascents, all taking place on rock that was forged almost exclusively for those of us who love to rock climb. There are easy climbs, moderate climbs and extremely difficult climbs. There are climbs that have been done thousands of times and there are spectacular swathes of rock perfection that have never been explored.
After three days at our camp we were ready. The kids just can’t wait any more and I really can’t figure out what they can’t wait for. “Why in the world am I taking my kids to Vegas?” I can’t help but ask myself again.

We move our camp from Red Rocks to a giant Hotel, Casino, spa, resort monstrosity in the south of Vegas. Jacob’s good friend Walker and his mom Janet flew down to play with us for several days. Why were we showing the kids Vegas? Part of this trip is about sharing iconic America that means “Vegas baby”. Las Vegas is as American as Superman and Johnny Cash. It’s where the ultimate American dream can be realized. To party hard like a rock star and return home a super hero. That’s the American Dream….damn it! Wads of cash stuffed in my pocket.

The mission while here was simple: Take many showers, watch movies, eat lots and observe. Here Jacob explains his experience:

“When Walker came it didn’t seem like 8 months since I’d seen him last. He and Janet surprised us not only with Rocket Donuts from Bellingham but with Janet’s homemade Challah, our families’ favorite especially as they came on Shabbat. Together we went bowling at this huge bowling alley inside of the hotel. We also went to see movies in a giant movie theater also inside of the hotel. It was the first movie in a very long time. The food at the buffet wasn’t very good but it was still fun to eat as much as we could. We had a tiny breakfast and a huge dessert. I got so full but still wanted more and I literally couldn’t fit more dessert.

The Casino was overwhelming because there was a ton of people smoking, yelling and gambling. I couldn’t believe that these old people sat at machines for hours and gambled all of their money. I saw the same people at the same machine for more than a day. Some were sitting in corners playing cards and smoking huge cigars, they looked like that was where they lived.

After Walker left we stayed on the strip with Aunt Libs. The hotel was awesome but I am pretty sure if the strip was rated it should have been XXX. There were billboards with more XXX images everywhere. There was an M&M store and we bought tons of multi colored and flavored M&M’s until we realized that a pound of M&M’s was close to $8. It was still fun because we were with Aunt Libby. It’s always a party with Aunt Libby. The hotel we were staying at had a posh pool on the roof that frowned on noise, laughter and smiles. We visited the Bellagio gardens and fountains, the Liberace Museum and explored the craziness of Vegas. After months of camping, Vegas was shocking and a blast but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

The first Hotel Casino Jacob was talking about was called South Point Hotel and Casino. It was a mega complex complete with hotel, casino, bowling alley, super mall, buffets galore, mega swimming pool, spa and horse arena and stables. That is correct, yes, the largest indoor horse arena and equestrian center in the country actually. Not sure why they built it indoors since the weather outside is almost always perfect except of course in the dead of summer. Michelle and Ila went to watch the final round of the International Arabian Breeders World Cup. Ila witnessed Qatar’s beautiful example of horse perfection grace the arena and ultimately crowned champion. What a buzz.

Michelle’s Aunt Libby flew in to play with us after Walker and Janet left putting us up in the Polo Towers right smack in the middle of the Strip. “If it’s good enough for them than it’s good enough for me!” Aunt Libby said with gusto as we were checking in, (by them she meant the mob). Later we met up with Libby (and Michelle’s) Cousin Jon, Vegas entertainer and wine maker extraordinaire. They reminisced telling old colorful stories about their childhood.

I spent most of the time enjoying the view of the strip from the 33rd floor. While I caught up on work Jacob, Libby and Elias went and had regular adventures in this NC 17 City. Speaking of which, Vegas is now being touted as one of the leading family getaways in the country. It all makes sense… No, I’m not talking about the fact that Las Vegas is a great place to teach your daughters that above all else they are a sex symbol and all other aspirations in life should be secondary. I am not talking about the Vegas you go to, to get absurdly drunk and obnoxious anywhere and anytime of day no matter what and that’s totally cool. I am talking about the Vegas where you give away ALL of your money. That’s right. You no longer need to leave the kids with some family member back at home you can bring them with you and stay longer. Do really neat “family” stuff by day and then neatly tuck the kids into bed and head back down to Casino by night.

Friends, family, entertainment, beds and so on, Michelle and I left with very little desire ever to visit again, that said, we had a great time with friends and family and it was a hell of an adventure. We’d been roughing it in the wilderness for some time now and we found an antidote. Now we couldn’t wait to go back into the wild for a big strong cleanse.

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Land of the Lost

As we climbed into our car our intention was to head directly for Wyoming’s Dinosaur Museum located about 45 minutes North in the town of Thermopolis.  To our delight after about 3 minutes down the road we entered one of the largest naturally occurring natural history museums in the world.  The road clung to the side of the steeply carved Wind River Canyon.  Here, the Wind River carved through a concise story book that displays almost the entire history of life on earth in impeccable chronological order.

The journey began with some of the oldest exposed rock on earth. Cambrian shale and limestone were at the start and held countless fossils of life forms from 450 million years ago.  As we sped down the road winding through tunnels and hugging tightly next to cliff and roaring river we passed signs marking the type and the age of the rock.  One after the other, a sign highlighted different notable formations for example “Such and such formation, Permian, 290 myo (million years old).”  At the time the numbers were so big that it didn’t mean anything.  As we drove on peering 2,000 feet up crumbly walls to the sky it began to sink in that this was no ordinary canyon.  It turns out the Bighorn Basin is notable for being one of the most complete hotspots in the world for preserving the story of prehistoric life on earth.

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After about 25 minutes we exited the canyon and arrived into Thermopolis, its name inspired by the hot spring state park located in the city limits.  That day held temperatures in the 90s therefore our interests were not on the hot springs.  With an unquenchable curiosity sparked by the run through Wind River Canyon we headed to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.

It turns out that this region was host to a succession of prehistoric swamps, coastal regions, oceans and seas mostly teaming with life for hundreds of millions of years.  Over time each era became compressed and preserved:   Limestone and Dolomite which make up a large portion of the rocks is essentially compressed sea and coastal life.  Sandstone, also abundant, was created during this prehistoric era.  Dinosaurs didn’t really show up until about 240 million years ago.  They were on the scene at first as the recovery species directly after THE largest mass extinction of life that the world had ever seen, and then taking center stage as the world’s dominant life form about 180 million years ago.

During this epic tale, the landscape continued to gather and stockpile the clues of life on earth due to its variation of mostly shallow sea and coastal life.  At about 80 million years ago the landscape started to change in a way that this region had never experienced.  Due to the slow and shallow subduction of an ancient Pacific plate under a North American plate, the middle of North America began pushing upward.  Lasting only about 20 million years it was during this era of land contortion that the dinosaurs died off almost completely, a time most commonly referred to as the Laramide Oraginy.  For this region it means that the perfectly chronologically stacked sea life rose into one of the Highest regions of North America also known as the Rocky Mountains.

It has been the popular opinion for quite some time that the Dinosaurs were rendered extinct via a large meteor from outer space.  However evidence keeps pointing towards another earthly inspired mass extinction caused by an overwhelming amount of Volcanic activity rendering the air poisonous.  During the Dinosaurs final golden years over 60 million years ago we saw some of the most famous dinosaurs such as the Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus Rex reign supreme over the land only to die off in some of the largest mass dinosaur graves ever found here in the Bighorn basin.

From here on, as prehistory turned to history this region would take on a few more major changes, including major cooling causing several successions of glaciers to carve at varying depths into the landscape then finally becoming windswept and arid, leading to and eventually arriving at present day with a climate and landscape of preservation.  Currently, this region has a very low human population leaving most of the land under federal management.  It remains very dry due to its ideal location, just out of reach of almost all major weather patterns that crisscross the country.  It’s actually so easy to find fossils here that one of the attractions offered to visiting tourists is the option to go on an archeological dig and find your very own fossil souvenirs.  Unfortunately we were here on a National holiday so we didn’t get to do this…”next time”, I had to explain to a very disappointed Elias.

From here we were to head only an hour or so north and east into the Big Horn Mountains and the climber’s jungle gym at Ten Sleeps!

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Grand Tetons

Driving into the Grand Tetons there was a general consensus in the air that we needed a big dose of high adventure.  We pulled up to the back country permit office and were blessed to meet our favorite park ranger ever.  She was like everyone’s adored grandmother, so sweet and encouraging.  We explained that we have a one year old, a 7 year old and an 11 year old and we want to go on a four day trip.  Prior to arriving we had been recommended a variety of different hikes that were (similar to the 3 Bears) too easy, too short, or entirely too boring.  Most people do that.  The majority of people will give you the experience light recommendation.  But this sweet little ranger knew exactly what we needed.

From the permit office we headed down to the String Lakes trailhead with 3 large bear canisters, 2 bear sprays and permit in hand for a 4 day 3 night trip up Paintbrush Canyon over the 10,800 foot Paintbrush Divide and down the very scenic Cascade Canyon, a 4,200 foot climb and descent over 20 miles of sub-alpine and alpine wonderland.  The pass was almost the exact same height as Mt Baker, the big mountain that sits over our home town which helped make our mission relevant and enticing to the boys.

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As we packed the car the mood in the air was electric, literally.  Deep rumbling accompanied the darkening clouds forming over the Tetons as we attacked the mammoth job of packing our packs for the trip.  We did a great job of not talking about the weather.  We simply saddled packs and mozzied onward and upward to greet the storm.  The kids did an amazing job of hiking fast through the open meadow land while the lightening storm was wreaking havoc.  Finally as the thickest of it was above our heads and the hail was storming down, we stopped to huddle up and soak in the fullness of this big crazy adventure.

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The hiking somehow happened harmoniously, mostly.  Jacob had a full pack including a loaded bear canister of food, a big boy now for sure.  Joseph had a ridiculously large amount of stuff including an extra satchel thrown over his shoulder.  Michelle had a full backpack……and Ila on shoulders, front or back depending.  Elias carried a cute little pack with the trowel in one side pocket and water bottle in the other.  Together we greeted the hike as a desired challenge after a mellow visit to Yellowstone.

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Our camp on day one was worth writing home about overlooking the deep valley below. Although Michelle expected to see a Grizzly or Black Bear around every tree, we were bear free. We cooked above camp on a rocky ledge and arranged the food canisters lodged among large boulders. The kids played and scurried like Pikas among the rocks.  On the second day we had a leisurely mile and half hike or so up canyon and there we found Paradise.  The rest of this day was spent frolicking and lollygagging around in Alpine meadows and lakes.  It’s a tough job but that’s why alpine meadows exist.

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That night was weird though.  I (Joseph) kept dreaming about ghosts and finally woke up to the tent smelling like smoke.  I went outside and couldn’t see the outline of the peaks that surrounded camp anymore and ashes were flying around everywhere.  I became very concerned and after some thought based on past experiences mostly in the North Cascades decided that the smoke had moved in from the big fires in east central Idaho and went back to bed.  The previous summer during the month of July I experienced the worst forest fire haze ever.  It turned out that during the month of July 2012 there weren’t any forest fires in the region but rather the haze was moving in from Siberia due to the worst forest fires Siberia had ever had on record.  Now back to our tent in the Tetons, I woke up later to the smell of fresh air again and allowed myself to fall back into a deep sleep.

The next day we awoke to crisp clear skies – no hint of smoke – with the intention of heading over Paintbrush Pass.  The hike up to the pass was challenging, but you couldn’t tell if you were just watching us.  The Anderson family was on a mission and we were bound to it.  The last bit was steep and well, steeper with glacial scree and ice.  This is where Ila had decided she didn’t want to be held anymore so Michelle got to wrestle this little and strong bundle as she negotiated the most precarious and dangerous part of the hike.  This is extreme child rearing ladies and gentlemen.

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Arriving at the pass was very gratifying for me.  I am always in these alpine environments.  Up high, big views, feeling healthy but something is always missing:  Jacob, Elias, Ila and Michelle.  Frankly that’s all I really want.  Why not go to the best places with your favorite people?  A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to have Jacob along for an ascent of the Becky Route on Liberty Bell Mountain, which is one of our super classic alpine climbs back home.  What a blast that was.  Now I had everyone, even my little girl.  Everyone was buzzing with giddy accomplishment. We ate ridiculous amounts of protein via tuna, bars and jerky. The boys couldn’t get enough calories down. We concluded the alpine feast and continued onward and downward.

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We trucked down to Lake Solitude, laid around for awhile in the very comfortable grass, watched Ila do her Ila show, then moved down canyon to another unique and lovely camp with cascading water flat rocks to rest on and a mini wilderness to explore.

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The last day was huge.  It was an 8.5 miles mostly downhill/cross country hike and a big push for Mr. E.  Several times on this last day we spotted moose which was a thrill for the whole family.  We also watched an Osprey mama feeding her large Osprey babies in a very big nest only 45 feet or so above us.  Then chug, chug, chug, chug, chug allllll the way to the car.  There the kids basked in the shade as the grownups did the crazy task of blending our backpack lives back into our car lives.  “Mission Accomplished!” as our 43rd president would say.

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From here we rolled on to the ranger station where the kids finished up the remainder of their Teton’s Junior Ranger Packets.  We also acknowledged the boys great backpacking efforts with a wolf journal for Jacob (the super storyteller – I think he told Elias stories for about 18 miles of the hike) and a tracking book for Elias (the scientist/tracker/thing finder).

Hopping into the car blasting east we had a very pretty drive up and over Togwotee pass, which is the Southern end of the Absoraka Mountains.  Then down into the strange arid landscapes of North Central Wyoming.  We found Jacob a promised hamburger in Riverton and by 11pm we made it to a very nice camp on the Banks of Boison Lake.

Good Night.

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Yellowstone

Bozeman has been an important place in the past for us as it was there over 12 years ago when we found out that we were going to have our first child, Jacob.  It was then that Michelle and I enjoyed a winter visit down to Yellowstone with our Bozeman friends and were lucky enough to see a wolf pack not too far off the road with a fresh winter kill.  It was a wild, wild scene extenuated by the whiteness of winter, the reality of life in the wild hit hard with the red blood of the elk coloring the entire wolf camp.  The landscape so cold and wild I felt almost embarrassed to be an observer. Our friends are no longer there but the idea of visiting for a bit was enticing.  In practice we found that resupplying and moving on as quickly and efficiently as possible was by far the best thing to do for our motley little crew.

With full rations we headed south through Galletin Canyon to the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park.  Yellowstone is the first National Park in the world.  At 3,468 square miles it is a huge land area and with just about all large Rocky Mountain animals present and heavily protected or even re-introduced it has become the top animal viewing National Park or the “Serengeti” of North America.    This area was originally set aside because of the geysers and massive hot springs spread all over the park.  The park averages 7,000 – 8,000 foot elevation and holds the most geyser and hot spring activity in the world and is in fact now considered the worlds largest super-volcano.  Some geologists believe that it is in fact due for an eruption at any time that could destroy almost all life in North America.  IMG_0315

We pulled into the west entrance of Yellowstone around 7 in the evening.  After a few miles of driving we ran into the first of the classic Yellowstone animal viewing car scene with a traffic jam of people franticly stopping in the middle of the road and getting out with giant cameras to photograph the unnaturally tame Elk heard bimbling about.  This brought me back to another memory of Yellowstone. When I was about 18 or so I was traveling through Yellowstone with a group of friends when uncontrollable sulphuric belches and farts billowed from me as we were entering the park in a jam packed Astro Van.  Eventually I had to hop out and my quickly on setting Giardia took a tight hold of my facilities and there I was on the side of the road in Yellowstone……Gone Wild.  The cars piled up to take pictures of the man loosing it from both ends.

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Onward to our campsite we were jammed into the tightest most expensive camp of our journey to date which was odd compared to the amount of wild area surrounded the campground.  We quickly set up and off we were to the spectacular upper Madison River meandering just out of camp.  Fishing rods in hand we decompressed on the river for the rest of the evening.  The next day we packed up and headed down the road towards the south end of Yellowstone Lake.  The section of road between was within the great Caldera which is the center of hot spring and geyser activity in the park.  Our son Elias, the naturalist/scientist of the family was beside himself running along the boardwalks that trailed the hot spots, oozing mudpots colored rust, golden, greens and blue from iron blue, spouting steam and water geysers.

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The following day we headed into the valleys to the North of Yellowstone Lake where we had a blast.  As we drove through the herds of Buffalo the memories of my first visit to Yellowstone came flooding in.  I was 16 the first time that I ever saw the Rocky Mountains.  A family road trip brought us clear up to Fargo North Dakota to join up with my Aunt and Uncle and cousins.  We drove across the Plains via Billings and drove in through the Bear Tooth Mountains.  I had spent time in the Alps which did not prepare me for this level of Wildness. Driving up over the highest continual road in the states and into Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is living proof of our countries great ability to maintain and preserve the mountains (even in modern consumptive America) allowing nature to continue to exist and flourish on some sort of modern compromise.

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On this day as we drove north with my family I cast aside all personal embarrassments about nature as a source of entertainment and jumped in full heartedly.  The Bison did not disappoint and the kids were psyched!  They were everywhere and we had so much fun.  There were ample opportunities to create a strong learning environment about the animals the history and the landscape. While in Yellowstone, we took well advantage of quite a few “adventure schooling” opportunities including the evening presentations by resident rangers on many park subjects on Wolves, Bear and Moose.  The boys participated in the Junior Ranger Program and earned their 3rd or 4th badge of the trip.

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The evening before leaving we were soaking in a quiet evening on Yellowstone Lake each child happily doing their thing.  Jacob fishing, Elias making sand castles and Ila…..playing in the pools adjacent to the Lake.  Later when we got back to camp we found a leach on Ila’s foot.  With further inspection we experienced a panic when we found many more on her body.  I immediately went to the visitor’s center and they sent me a few serious looking emergency dispatch rangers who (thankfully) confirmed that the leaches were harmless and to not worry.  Alas it was time for us to leave Yellowstone and move south to our next adventure in the Tetons….

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Climb On

Driving out of Glacier National Park one immediately enters the vast expanse of prairie that’s owned by the Black Feet Native Tribe.  We learned about the Black Feet and other Nations at the Plains Indians Museum in Browning, MT a low key museum full of original artifacts, clothing and stories. The drive onward was important as it was the first time that the kids ever saw the Great Plains. The first time I (Joseph) drove through the Plains was driving from East to West where the subtle changes from flat Midwest woodlands to Great Plains vastness occurs over hundreds of miles.  Here, where the two landscapes collide, may well be one of the most spectacular transitions of scenery on Earth.

We moved on to Great Falls to visit the Lewis and Clark museum and replenish our reserves before we continued south to a highly recommended rock climbing area just east of Butte Montana called Spire Rock. This area is comprised of a cluster of granite domes and blocks in the mountainous regions east of the Continental Divide.  It sits at about five thousand feet elevation and is completely undeveloped.  There are networks of National Forest roads that wind around the area and you can set up and camp where ever you want.  The forest consisted of some of the Fir species we recognized from further north but there was a well defined increase in Rocky Mountain species found clear down to Arizona, including Pinyon Pine, Juniper, and of course Sage.  There was sage everywhere and it smelled delightful.

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Over the next four days, we relaxed into the landscape rising to the new day with strong coffee, stretching and yoga.  The kids joined as they chose.  By mid day we meandered to the rock outcroppings and enjoyed clean granite crack climbing.

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Spire rock is notable as it was Ila’s debut to rock climbing. She eagerly donned her full body harness and asked to go “up up”.  She smiled and hung out on the rock about 4-12 feet off the ground at which time she signaled that she was ready to lower.

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She easily transitioned to napping as we walked back to camp which allowed for the rest of us to work on lessons, different projects and relaxing.  At some point we’d start prepping dinner and eat.  Each evening ended with tickle fights, wrestling, song circle of kid’s songs and different variations on the family pile ups until it was just too dark to see.  This is what we did everyday and frankly if the choice was all mine this is what I would do every day for the rest of my life.

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Alas, laundry needed to be done, food and water were running short and we were eager for more adventure so we packed up camp and headed on.  From here the plan had changed though.  Previously we saw ourselves spending several days in the Bozeman area but realized that a succinct resupply of food, used books, knitting needles and ice cream was in order and then off to Yellowstone…

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Glacier

As we drove in to Glacier we had our sites set on Avalanche camp which is nestled in the deep valleys of the Cedar and Hemlock forests.  These forests were a spitting image of the mountains at our own home of the Mt Baker region.  Everything just a little smaller and no tree moss really to speak of.  Above you could catch glimpses of towering peaks which reached 4 thousand feet above.  The peaks were calling so we didn’t want to call it a day yet but set up camp and headed up to the famous Going to the Sun Road.

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With its high point at Logan pass (6,600 some odd feet) Glacier was spectacular.  I need to point out that tourists were swarming like flies on camel snot but that’s OK.  Logan pass is above tree line and although peaks are very sharp and jagged as well as valleys tend to drop steeply for thousand of feet, the rolling meadowy landscape that wrapped itself around surrounding peaks was good medicine for the whole family.   From Logan pass we hiked up to a higher pass above and caught a view of Hidden Lake…See photo.  The Logan Pass hike included many mountain goats, mamas, kids and papas with horns only steps away from the trail. Elias made friends with the Columbian Ground squirrels that scurried across the trail.

The walk felt really great for everyone.  There was a bit of excitement in the air as this was really the first time we had hiked on the trip and the scenery was spectacular on quite an unreal scale.

Camping at Avalanche Creek, the following day we hiked as a family up to Avalanche lake.  Good fun and spectacular but the feel of being at Disney world had it’s day so we packed up to see what we could find on the east side of the mountains.

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We then traveled to the east side of the park to camp at Two Medicine Campground, a quieter and more remote spot in the south east corner of Glacier. We immediately noticed the stark change in vegetation as we traveled over the divide and welcomed the new flora. Something really amazing about the forests here is you have four different ecosystems that rarely meet coming together in the mountain range:  From the west  the most eastern stands of the North West forests push their way up to just shy of the Continental divide.  As big and magical as these thick forests are they are also thick and it’s not as easy to see all the big and awesome terrain above.  Once you’re just shy of tree line and rolling over from the east side, the Northern Rockies and Southern Rockies forests meet and mingle cascading down the eastern slopes.  Pushing in from the lower sections of the east side of the range is the Steppe or the “Prairie” creating a very pretty mosaic of grasslands and forests which also lends itself to the big scenic views of giant alpine peaks literally rising right out of the Great Plains.  In some places the grasses of the prairie seem to have no distinct boarder or perhaps only hinted by some small stands of Aspen forests.

Inspired by the magnificent views at Logan pass and from the Going to the Sun road, with bear spray in hand, we attempted to get backcountry camping permits but where sold out.  Instead we settled on day hikes and based out of Two Medicine campground.  This place was stunning.  The camp was located on a picture perfect lake and mountains towered on all sides.  Easy living.

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The next day we hiked around the North Shore of Two Medicine Lake with the bulkiness of Sleeping Wolf Mountain looming over four thousand feet above.  Once we were beyond the 3 mile long lake we continued up one of the valleys to the stunning Upper Two Medicine Lake.  Here we hung out for quite some time, swimming, sunbathing, skipping rocks and sunbathing some more.  On the way down we wrapped around the south side of the lower lake and found patches of the best huckleberries ever.  Finally back at camp we clocked in as a total of 12 mile loop. The kids were incredible. We discovered the deliciousness of thimble berries which are different from the ones in the Cascades and the variation of blue berries and huckleberries on the trail.

Overall visiting Glacier was great but it was in the Two Medicine region that things felt magical.  Everything was so crisp and refreshing and there was a wildness that we finally found.  As we spent several days enjoying in soaking it in, the bug to keep exploring was constantly buzzing and the laundry started to stack so we packed it up and moved on.

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