Sunday, October 14, 2012

Top 5 US National Parks - #3 Grand Teton

Before moving down to LA from the Bay Area to begin my Master of Public Health program at UCLA, Allyson and I decided to take a road trip for almost a month (July 16 through August 9, 2009). We traveled through 7 states, including California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. We visited 4 national parks, including Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Crater Lake. On top of that, we were in multiple national forests and state parks (including Mt. Hood National Forest and Moran State Park). Needless to say, we finished this trip with many road and trail miles under our belts, pint glasses from many breweries we hit up along the way, and many, many wonderful memories (and a few not-so-great memories like our car not starting in Glacier National Park with no cell phone reception). Grand Teton National Park was the first one on our trip, and it might have been my favorite. We saw a lot of this park, but there is so much more to see. I definitely hope we can make another trip back there some day!

We arrived in Grand Teton National Park mid-day and checked into our campsite at Gros Ventre campground. I highly recommend this campground if you don't want super crowded. Also, you can walk a little way through the trees, right from your campsite, to the Gros Ventre River. Yes, it's cold. But it was so fantastic to rinse off after a couple days of driving.

The first of many bison we saw right from the car!

Our original plan had been to do the Cascade Canyon/Paintbrush Divide Loop, but some of the higher elevation parts of the loop were still completely snowed in. Without the proper equipment, we didn't feel prepared to tackle the snow. Instead we planned to hike up Cascade Canyon Trail, first head north to Lake Solitude (9.4 miles), then head back the other way going south to Hurricane Pass (8.3 miles), and eventually head back out Cascade Canyon (12.3 miles). 

On Day 1, we started off at String Lake Trailhead, and worked our way through a burned forest along the shores of Jenny Lake to Hidden Falls (about 2.2 miles) and Inspiration Point. Many tourists take a shuttle boat across the lake, and then it's a very short hike to the falls. Therefore, the falls are busier than most backpackers would like. We got there pretty early in the day, so it wasn't too bad. 

Hidden Falls

Jenny Lake from Inspiration Point

All of Cascade Canyon is breathtaking, with lots of great spots to stop for lunch. Below is where we stopped for lunch. We walked to a little sand bar in the middle of the river to sit and eat lunch. After lunch, we continued up the trail and then headed north on North Fork Cascade Trail. 

Our lunch spot along Cascade Canyon Trail

Lake Solitude (elevation 9035 ft)

 Chillin at our campsite in the North Fork Cascade camping zone

 Pica! We could hear these little guys the whole time we were hiking on the North Fork Trail.

 On Day 2, we took North Fork Cascade Trail back the way we came and then continued onto South Fork Cascade Trail. We got all the way to Hurricane Pass, but then it was pretty snowed in. We found the most incredible campsite that I think I've ever seen at the edge of a cliff at about 10,000 ft elevation and then took our packs off and explored the area a bit.

When we got back to the site, the sky had completely changed and we started hearing thunder. This may have been the most terrifying night of my life. Yes, our campsite was awesome because we were right at the edge of a cliff and could see views in all directions. And yes, our campsite was really not the best place to be during a thunderstorm (there were even a couple of trees on the site that showed evidence of previous lightning strikes.) We hid in our tents for the rest of the night. Me with my eyes closed tight and trying to follow conflicting instructions I'd heard about what to do in a lightning storm. Allyson with her eyes wide open watching the tent light up from every direction and praying that we didn't get struck. I can't really tell you when the storm finally passed because it felt like I was freaking out in the tent for days. However, we made it and the next day was as beautiful as the last.


A storm's a brewin'

Glacier Lily

After the backpacking trip, we ended up getting a campsite at Colter Bay Village. This was basically like Disneyland. It wasn't bad because we were so tired, it was nice to get a shower and eat some real food at the little restaurant there. However, it's always hard to be back around that many people after seeing so few for a few days. 

The next day, we wanted to take it easy but also make the most of our last day in the Grand Tetons. We got up early and hit up a few spots that are considered "must photograph" spots. At the time, I only had my $100 point and shoot camera. Even with that, you can see why these are deemed great photograph locations.

Schwabacher's Landing

Snake River Overlook (If this looks familiar, Ansel Adams took his famous photograph from this exact location!)

Before heading up to Yellowstone later that day, we took the moderate 6.4 mile Two Ocean Lakes hike. It didn't feel that moderate being as tired as we were, but the views were outstanding and the wildflowers were absolutely incredible (as were the bugs). 

Up Next: Zion National Park (#2) and Joshua Tree National Park (#1 because it's where everything started with Allyson and me and there is just something completely unique and special about this place!)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Top 5 US National Parks - #4 Sequoia National Park

I really should not have made this a top 5 list. I keep thinking of additional national parks that I would like to include. Also, there are some parks, like Yosemite, that I haven't taken pictures in for a very long time but still rank up there as possible favorites. However, I do have pictures from the trip Allyson and I recently (well, two years ago now) took to Yosemite's neighbor, Sequoia National Park. It was a short weekend trip, so we planned on just camping and doing some day hikes. We got there on Friday night, and all the campgrounds were full. They directed us to a road way north of the entrance (I think it was the road you take to Big Meadows campground, but I can't be sure) where you can just pull over and camp. Because we got there so late and it was pitch black, we spent the first night just sleeping in the back of my S10 pickup. The second night we got the same "site" and pitched our tent. If you are cool without bathrooms, I highly recommend figuring out where this is. No crowds and super quiet. 

On Saturday, we hiked the 14 mile round trip hike to the top of Alta Peak (elevation 11, 204 ft). The thing I remember most about this hike was the ever-changing weather. I'm currently reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, and am reminded of the unpredictability of the weather in the Sierras. It can be hot and sunny one minute, and freezing mist the next. That's exactly what we got this day, but it just made it that much more exciting! We could actually watch the storms coming across the mountain range, as you can see from the pictures below. 

I'm going to be honest. This hike wore us out. But those are the days I love the best. When you are so worn out and maybe didn't eat quite enough on the trail, so what do you do? You find the pizza place in the national park, that's what! Stony Creek Lodge has a pizza restaurant with outdoor seating. Perfect after a long day of hiking, and only a few minutes from the spot we were camping. 

Our "campsite"

The next morning, we did the touristy hikes, like the General Sherman Trail and Moro Rock (amazing views of the area we had hiked the day before). Both are worth getting out of your car and taking a walk. Moro Rock is pretty challenging but short, and the trails around General Sherman and the other big trees are easy to moderate with some paved trails. 

On Sunday afternoon, we headed back to Los Angeles via Highway 198 West and stopped for lunch along a rushing river at the Gateway Restaurant & Lodge. Lunch was decent and it was a great place to finish up a wonderful weekend outdoors.