Backyard Birding During Social Distancing in April

We had tentative plans to go to Colorado and Utah this month to visit Arches National Park but that trip was put on hold due to coronavirus concerns. Arches was closed to the public due to the public health crisis in late March.

It has been a quiet month here in Pennsylvania and it will probably be a pretty quiet summer as well since we do not expect to be traveling much. The cheap flights are tempting but at the moment it seems too hard to predict when things will be open and safe. We have been taking walks around the neighborhood as well enjoying the world from our front porch instead.

The spring flowers were a welcome change of pace as we emerged and explored. The tulips were beautiful and a sign that winter was on its way out. We managed to escape this year with only minimal snow – I can only think of a few times when I put down salt and only one minor snowfall required shoveling. Since we acquired a snowblower last year, that was to be expected.

One of our local national wildlife refuges (John Heinz NWR) has closed the parking lot and building but the trails are open so we will probably be venturing there soon again as it looks like Philadelphia is going to begin a phased reopening shortly.

In the meantime, here are a few photos of birds that we took in our front yard and around town:

We have been keeping the bird feeder and suet holder in our front yard stocked. I have been trying to practice my birds in flight photos but I have not managed to take a great photo yet. I am sure it will come with time. I did manage to capture this bird when it landed on the suet feeder.

This bird landed on the fence in our front yard while trying to plan its next move. It decided not to go to the feeder since we were on the front porch and instead flew off shortly after.

We just bought a bird feeder for our backyard as well. It took a few days to get here due to coronavirus shipping delays and has been quiet since we set it up – the birds have not found it.

This is an American robin that we saw while on a walk a few blocks from our house. As I grew up in Michigan and it is the state bird, their appearance is always a welcome sign that spring is here.

The above starling was also seen on a walk. Jayne loves the iridescent plumage of starlings and grackles.

After months of research and internal debate over what camera to buy, I have settled on a used Nikon D800 camera. The D800 was released in 2012 and has been replaced in the Nikon lineup with newer models since then. Nevertheless, the 36 MP sensor will be great for travel photography at the national parks and I have seen photos online of some magnificent wildlife photos that have been taken with this camera model. So I am excited.

Our camera for the past few years has been a Canon SX60, which is in a class of cameras frequently referred to as either a bridge camera or superzoom camera. It was bought several years ago during a black friday deal, and we have taken some amazing photos with it over the past few years. We have passed it back and forth in parks around the country but it is time for us to stop sharing and each have a camera around our neck. I am sure I will miss the amazing telephoto lens on the SX60 while I am using the D800.

I will post more about the Nikon D800 soon once I have had more time to explore it. We just got it and I was only able to start taking pictures with it last night.

More Waterfowl and other Birds at John Heinz NWR

It was a beautiful March day in Philadelphia and John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge was full of people enjoying the weather on the trails. We made our way there on Sunday afternoon and picked up a few more waterfowl that we had been missing from our life list.

One of those birds was the bufflehead. I have been out on a few different trips this year with the hope of seeing this unique sea duck. However, it had escaped me until today.

But I almost missed it again! We were at the two level observation platform when I spied the white head bobbing in the water. I checked it out in the camera with the telephoto lens and I thought it was actually a hooded merganser. It wasn’t until I reached home that I realized that I was mistaken and it was actually my first bufflehead.

We also saw several American coot. They look like ducks but are actually a part of a separate family. These were swimming and feeding when we saw them:

We also saw a group of waterfowl out in the middle of the impoundment which contained new birds for us. There is the colorful head of an American wigeon (below). I thought some of the other birds were lesser scaup but on second look now they are probably ring-necked ducks. You can see them in the photo below too:

We also saw a redhead (below, with the blue beak) in the same grouping floating in the water:

As the sun got lower in the sky, several groupings of northern shoveler flew in and landed near about a dozen mute swans. The best photo of them flying was above – the picture below with them floating in the water was much easier to get:

It was like the waterfowl were putting on a show at this point. This one flapped its wings several times as it lifted its body out of the water:

There were also a lot of gulls at the wildlife refuge today. At one point we were enjoying the solitude and I decided to take a few pictures of the gulls:

We saw a lot of turkey vultures this weekend too (as we usually do when we are either driving to birding or out birding), but we finally got a good photo of one flying on Sunday afternoon:

We may have been there for other birds, but we also managed to see an eastern phoebe and a carolina wren – both pictured below:

We are still working on our sparrow identification, but these two were too good to leave off of our bird photos from the day. Song sparrows?

There was even a tufted titmouse that flew across the path into a tree right in front of us. There was a pretty high angle to the bird and the branch managed to partially block it from view, but you can see it in the photo:

Since it was a beautiful day, I thought that we would end with a photograph of the classic bird of spring for us Michiganders: the American robin.

March Birding at Edwin B Forsythe National Wildlife Drive

It was a sunny day on Saturday (though a bit windy) so we headed over to Wildlife Drive in Edwin B Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey north of Atlantic City. It is about 90 minutes from the Philadelphia area.

Edwin B Forsythe NWR protects about 47,000 acres along the Atlantic Flyway, including coastal wetlands that are an important pathway for the seasonal bird migration. The park extends along the New Jersey coast for more than 50 miles.

We have been trying to get outdoors more now that it is heating up, and birding has been our excuse. We slept in though, since it was the last day before the clocks turned forward. We did manage to see at least three hawks and several turkey vultures before leaving Philadelphia, so the day was looking good from the start!

The highlight of the wildlife refuge is Wildlife Drive in the Brigatine Division. The Edwin B Forsythe NWR Wildlife Drive is an eight mile, one way unpaved road which allows for driving through the wetlands. It reminded me of the Black Point Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. There are trails located near the beginning and end of the drive for those that want to stretch their legs.

The wildlife refuge, which is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, turned eighty years old last year. It was originally known as the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge. The nearby Barnegat Unit (which it would be combined with later) was established in 1967.

In 1984, Congress designated the Brigantine and Barnegat units of the National Wildlife Refuge in honor of Edwin B. Forsythe, a New Jersey Republican who served in the U.S. House of Representives for 14 years. The joint resolution by the 98th Congress noted his leadership in the conservation of the coutry’s natural resources and natural beauty, including sponsorship of the Nongame Wildlife Act and a critical rolse in the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

There are twenty-two (22) numbered marker signs on the drive. Be sure to grab the visitor information map for the driving tour at the visitor center as it explains the significance of each one of the signs. Otherwise, you will not know what you are looking for there.

On arrival, we stopped at the visitor center, where we picked up a map and got the requisite stamp in our passport book. We also found out that there had been sightings of a yellow breasted chat in the area of the Leeds Eco-Trail, and we were on our way.

With our eyes peeled for the bird, we got out of the car at stop #1 for the trail. There is a boardwalk over the marsh and a nature trail through the maritime forest departing from the parking area. We walked down the boardwalk first, and then the trail.

The boardwalk was a bit uneventful, although we did hear and see a few small birds in the distance. One highlight of the boardwalk was that there was a fixed spotting scope (binoculars) which allowed you to see in the distance. We swiveled it to the osprey nest platform, but there were no birds there yet (probably a bit early since it was still early March). There are platforms around the drive – we took this photograph of a closer one later in the drive:

We had better luck for birds on the portion of the trail through the forest, even though we were not on it that long. At the start of our walk, we saw a song sparrow land right on the trail. Before turning back, we managed to see both a ruby-crowned kinglet and a yellow rumped warbler, as well as a few other birds that we were not able to identify.

We did not see the yellow breasted chat, unfortunately. We are definitely going to have to work on our small bird identification as we were only able to identify the song sparrow without looking them up later.

Stop #2 involved a brief detour to reach a viewing platform at Gull Pond, before starting the one-way portion of Wildlife drive. The platform allowed us to see a few mute swans, a few northern shoveler, and a great blue heron. This was the view from the observation tower looking to the south over the Gull Pond area:

We managed to catch this swan eating some of the aquatic plants while stretching its leg out of the water.

The wildlife drive is known for allowing visitors to Edwin B Forsythe the ability to see wading birds, waterfowl and birds of prey from the comfort of their car. We did not manage to see any hawks while we were there, but you should definitely keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, osprey and other birds of prey while you are there.

The gulls were one of the unexpected attractions of the trip. They were picking up mussels and dropping them onto the gravel road in order to break them open and eat them. If you have never seen this behavior, it is quite a sight.

This did made driving a bit more difficult, as you had to keep a constant eye on them since they were always in the road trying to eat. Fortunately, there were not too many of them.

If you are going to see the waterfowl, be sure to take a good pair of binoculars. You can rent them at the visitor center / gift shop when they are open, but you have to return them by the time that they close. The closing time was 3 PM on the day that we went there, so it was not really an option. The drive remains open until sunset.

If you decide to ascend one of the viewing platforms on a windy day, be sure to keep a hold of your hat and other possessions. As I was about to descend the South Tower, a gust took my hat off and blew it in to the road. Fortunately, it was still there when I finished climbing down the stairs and I was able to retrieve it.

This is the south tower:

This is the view to the east/northeast of wildlife drive and the marsh from the tower:

Here were some of the photographs of birds that we took on the first half of the drive:

We did not make it out to Middle Creek this year to see the snow geese, but we did manage to see some along the drive. It looks like one might be a Ross’s Goose instead. There were also a bunch resting in one of the marsh fields at a distance.

We went pretty slow on the first half of the drive out, and traveled back at a faster pace. The sun was getting lower in the horizon, which made it harder to see and photograph the birds in the marsh on the south side of the road. It was probably made a bit faster too by the fact that we had a few snacks that we brought for the trip.

Here were a few of the birds that we saw on the back half of the trip:

The last section of the one-way wildlife drive leaves the marsh behind for fields and the forest. We stopped at the experimental pool overlook, but otherwise traveled pretty quickly through it with an eye to reaching the bathrooms at the visitor center.

Jen’s Trail Area:

Experimental Pool Overlook:

Jayne from the car got a great photo of me attempting to photograph a turkey vulture here!

Since we had a decent drive to get back to the Philadelphia area, we took to the road. We saw two more hawks on the way back (one in flight and one in the tree), as well as a number of other turkey vultures to round out the birdwatching.

Bald Eagle, Northern Shoveler & More at John Heinz NWR

We decided to head down to John Heinz NWR near the Philadelphia airport with our camera again for some March birding.

While we were there, we saw one bald eagle sitting on the nest and the other decided to fly in while we were in the blind on the shore of the impoundment. We were lucky to pick it up very early in the distance, saw it pass the nest, and circle a few times around before it came right at us. We have seen a bunch of eagles in the past year, but I think this is our best photo of one flying yet (pictured above).

The bald eagle ended up landing right next to the blind that we were in! It sat there a while as we admired it, and we ended up getting some great photos!

The impoundment was once again a great place to see ducks and other waterfowl. The northern shoveler was one that we have not been able to photograph before. I have to admit that I thought the first few that we saw were just mallard ducks, but one of the other birders pointed out the one that you see here.

The northern shoveler has a pretty cool beak:

The ring-necked ducks were pretty far across the impoundment. They were having some fun flapping their wings and we managed to get a few good pictures of them despite the distance.

There was also a male and female hooded merganser. I managed to see a few last month but this was Jayne’s first in person.

There were a number of other waterfowl on the impoundment. We are by no means experts in identification, but these appear to be gadwall:

There were still a few swans on the lake (we saw some last time as well), and we got a good photo of this pair:

We believe this is a great black-backed gull in the photograph below:

I was just taking a few photos of the flying gull, but realized when I got home that it was carrying a fish. The fish is visible in the photos from both the front and the back (if you look closely).

We saw a number of great blue herons during our walk. This was the first of them:

We heard the sound of a woodpecker in the woods and we searched around for a bit before locating one. We never saw the classic red feathers on the head, but the coloring of the downy woodpecker is pretty distinct:

After we saw the bald eagle, we continued around the impoundment and saw two more great blue herons. At the south side of the impoundment, we saw this eastern phoebe flying between a few of the branches.

Last time we were at the National Wildlife Refuge, we were crossing the impoundment on the boardwalk on the way back to the car and we just were not able to get a good photograph of the small birds flying back and forth amidst the reeds. However, we saw one of them perched long enough for us to take several photos today of the swamp sparrow:

This little sparrow was sitting not far from the downy woodpecker. I think it is a white throated sparrow although the angle does not lend itself to seeing the color of the throat.

February Birding at the John J Audubon Center

After a brief cold spell in the Philadelphia area, we had another 50+ degree day today and I took the opportunity to walk around the John J Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Audubon with our Canon SX60 camera to take pictures of the birds in the area. I also crossed Perkiomen Creek and walked the trail through Lower Perkiomen Valley Park.

A few months ago, we had the opportunity to walk around the Audubon Center with cameras provided by Canon – a Canon 5D Mark IV and a Canon EOS RP. We posted a few of our photos from that bird walk in October previously, but we definitely missed the superzoom on our SX60, since the incredible 70-200mm F/2.8 lenses that Canon lent to us simply did not have the same reach.

Today was a great day birding as I saw a number of hawks, mergansers, 2 great blue herons, a male and female cardinal, and a number of other birds. The only problem was that it was a bit muddy off the trail today, and my jeans and shoes suffered a bit for it. I also missed both photo opportunities with the great blue herons, leaving me with three blurry tree photos from the first heron and a completely black photo taken with the lens cap on instead of the image that I saw of the heron flying over the river.

Before we get to the bird photos, there was a point where I was walking down to the creek crossing a small stream and came across these flowers just coming out of the stream bed.

The first bird that I saw on the walk was the hawk pictured below. It flew right in front my path and then landed in a nearby tree. I got a few photos of it before it shifted to a different position in the tree, and then a few more photos before it flew away. In total, I saw at least five (and maybe six) birds of prey today.

The hawk that I got the best photos of hit the ground across the street from me while I was on the trail. It must have done a dive bomb after some food and came up short. It looked around a bit while it was standing on the ground and then jumped up onto a branch lying on the ground.

After a while sitting just off the ground, it moved into a nearby tree. I was able to take a bunch of photos and reposition twice to get a better view of the hawk.

When I was down by Perkiomen Creek on my walk, I saw a few merganser on the water and some Canadian Geese. The merganser were pretty far away so I wasn’t able to get a great picture of them. On my way to the other side of the creek, I ended up seeing the profile of another big hawk (I thought at the time it might have been an eagle). I didn’t get any great photos of it, but I did see this pair of nesting hawks fly out of their nest and sit in a nearby tree:

This hawk was the last I saw on the day, sitting above the trail in a tree as the sun was setting. Since the sun was behind the hawk, it was tough to get a good photo of it at first. However, as I passed underneath it on the trail, I was able to take a few better pictures with the setting sun to my back:

It has been a while since I have been able to get so many close hawk photos in one day. Two of the new birds that I saw today were the hooded merganser and the common merganser:

There were also a half dozen or so Canadian geese near the dam in the creek, and I was able to get a couple good shots where the goose was reflected in the water:

I missed a ton of photo opportunities with smaller birds today. I probably took a couple dozen photos of blurry birds and tree branches across three hours. There was at least a ten minute period where I focused on a single bird flying between the trees in front of me and I never did manage to get an in-focus photo where the bird was not behind some twigs or tree branches. I did manage to get a good shot of this woodpecker at another point since there was one point where there were a half dozen or more in the surrounding trees:

When I was trying to solve the problem of how to improve the photographs on the final (then backlit) hawk of the day, I did take a moment to admire the beautiful sunset behind the tree.

We grabbed dinner on the way home where I recapped the days events to my lovely wife and showed her the photos that I took today. She has been taking more and more of the photos lately, since she has the steadier hand and we are almost always shooting near the limits of the superzoom telephoto lens.

January Birding at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

We made our first trip down to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge for a walk and some bird photography this weekend. John Heinz NWR is the nation’s first urban refuge, established in 1972 to protect Pennsylvania’s largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh, Tinicum Marsh. It is located in Southwest Philadelphia near the Philadelphia airport.

We have passed by the refuge hundreds of times over the years and realized a few weeks ago that it is the top spot in the Philadelphia area on eBird. After delaying a day due to a rainy Saturday, we grabbed our Canon camera and our national park passport book and headed down. After a quick stop at the visitor center, we headed out on the trails. It was a beautiful day when the sun was out, but a little chilly when it was behind the clouds or the wind picked up.

We saw a number of birds in flight during our walk, including two bald eagles that were busy flying in and out of their nest. We also saw this hawk and turkey vulture fly overhead. The hawk was higher and crossed first, followed by the turkey vulture flapping its wings to gain altitude.

Below was one of the bald eagles sitting in the nest. You would need binoculars, spotting scope or powerful telephoto lens to be able to see it this close up as it is pretty far away from the trails.

We have seen more eagles in the past month than we have ever seen before, thanks to our trip to Michigan. I also saw another local pair fly into another nest in Philadelphia recently.

We saw countless Canadian geese and mallard ducks on the walk around the water. We also saw two separate pairs of mute swans early in our walk and what I believe were American black ducks.

We watched this great blue heron hunt for a bit. It was basically right off the trail in the water hiding behind some cover. It was very intently searching for fish in the water. We saw another great blue heron flying toward the end of the walk, but there were branches between us and the bird that impeded photography of its flight.

The killdeer was at the end of one of the boardwalks in the marsh. There were mostly gulls around, but Jayne got this photo before the wind picked up and the birds quieted down.

We spied a woodpecker in the trees just off the trail. It was more active than most woodpeckers that we see, busily flying between trees and hopping around searching for food. It looks like a female downy woodpecker.

We saw this bird just after we stepped out of the car in the parking lot. It was in a tree on the far side of the parking lot. Jayne jumped out of the car and started taking photos. This was the best of them.

I saved my favorite picture for last. I thought it was going to be one from the photos right at the end of the walk, when we were on the boardwalk with a few other birders trying to get a good photo of a swamp sparrow and a marsh wren, but never managed to catch a clean picture. Our best picture was of this song sparrow shortly after we started walking on the trails in the morning. I love the look of the reflecting water as it sits on the log.

Our birding trip took a bit more time than I expected, but we had a lot of fun at John Heinz NWR and as you can see, we saw a number of birds in the park. We did miss some waterfowl that people saw earlier in the morning, including a bufflehead, but we will just have to go back another time.

Bald Eagles at the Dafter Dump in Michigan – December 2019

We took an hour in December 2019 to see and photograph bald eagles at the Dafter Dump in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, not far from Sault Ste Marie. We went up north to visit family after Christmas and saw a report that there were 25 eagles spotted at the landfill the day before. So we made the short trip on Saturday morning!

In the past few years, we have spotted a number of bald eagles at national parks – including sightings in the Everglades, Acadia, and Grand Tetons National Park. However, we have never seen more than one bald eagle at a time. Dafter proved far different.

A few years ago when we went to the Soo in December, we were lucky enough to see four snowy owls around the Rudyard area. However, we did not manage to make that trip again this time due to time constraints.

The Dafter Sanitary Landfill is run by Waste Management on 12 Mile Road outside of Sault Saint Marie. If you are going, park at the office and check in. If you are walking around, you need to wear a safety vest which they will give to you. There was no cost to the visit.

We could see on walking up that there were lots of gulls and we quickly spotted the bald eagles flying over the landfill among them. There were a number of adult and immature birds. Jayne quickly grabbed the camera and started taking pictures, even as we were walking up. We were pretty far from them above the top of the landfill, but they were within reach of the telephoto lens on our Canon SX60.

We never stopped to count precisely how many bald eagles we saw – the report the day before said there were 25 and the landfill employee at the check-in said they usually have about a dozen.

They eventually landed in some large trees on the edge of the property. That is how Jayne got the featured photo of the solitary bald eagle as well as the photo below with three in the same tree.

Jayne managed to get a few great action shots of the birds.

At one point we saw a bald eagle land on the top of the garbage heap. We took a few pictures, but it did not seem appropriate for this icon of the United States which has been on the national emblem since 1782.

We were so pleased to have seen so many eagles in one place that we gave each other a high five on the way out and headed home to finish the day off with our family.

Here are a few of the other photos taken of eagles soaring that day:

Biscayne & Everglades National Park in November 2019

We were in Miami for a few days for a wedding in November and decided to complete our visit to Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. It was a quick trip but we managed to pack in pictures of Stiltsville (on the north end of Biscayne National Park), a semi-private boat tour with snorkeling and paddleboarding near Adams Key in Biscayne Bay, and then a 90 minute boat tour of the Everglades from Flamingo Marina.

A few years back on our way to Dry Tortugas National Park, we were able to complete the Shark Valley Tram Tour, the Anhinga Trail and Pa-Hay-Okee Lookout Tower. However, we ran out of time and were unable to stop at Biscayne or make it all of the way down to Flamingo Visitor Center. Two days after the wedding gave us the time that we needed to round out a few more things at the South Florida parks.

We had a few hours before the Saturday wedding and found our way (despite intermittent rain) to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Bill Baggs is at the south end of Key Biscayne in Miami Dade County. The park houses the Cape Florida Light lighthouse, which marks the deepest natural channel into Biscayne Bay. There has been a lighthouse on the site since 1825 and the present version dates back to 1878. We were not able to make one of the guided tours, but we were able to walk around and enter two of the buildings used by the lighthouse keepers.

We also walked down the trail to the bay and were able to see Stiltsville. Stiltsville is a collection of wood stilt houses located in Biscayne Bay about one mile southeast of Cape Florida. The first were built in the 1930s and there were 27 in the community at their peak in 1960. The houses are abandoned and the area was deeded by the State of Florida to the federal government as part of Biscayne National Park in 1985. Seven buildings remain since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Bring binoculars or a powerful telephoto lens to have a better view of Stiltsville from shore. However, since they are located in the middle of the water over a mile away, it is tough to pickup much detail. We used my Samsung Galaxy Note 10 to capture a few pictures despite the rain and clouds.

The next morning we headed down to Homestead for the 10:30 departure of our trip to Adams Key for snorkeling and paddleboarding. Since Biscayne National Park is 95% water, the best way to experience it is by boat. Biscayne National Institute runs boat cruises and eco-adventures which depart from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. Advance reservations (available online) are recommended.

They offer a twice daily boat cruise to Boca Chita, 3.25 hour Snorkel Experience, a six hour Snorkel and Paddle Eco-adventure, and a sailboat trip (with snorkeling and paddleboarding). The boat cruise to Boca Chita is the most popular trip, but we decided to spend more time on the water with the Snorkel and Paddle Eco-adventure. We had a blast and have some great stories to tell as a result of our choice.

Key things to remember:
– Bring reef friendly sun screen, a lunch, snacks and water.
– There are no bathrooms on the boat for the eco-adventure. There are bathrooms on Adams Key during the lunch stop.
– They have snorkel gear to rent if you don’t have your own.

After the trip across the bay, we went snorkeling near Billys Point off Elliott Key. We worked our way down the shoreline near the mangroves and were able to see plenty of fish as well as the underwater portion of the complex mangrove root systems.

We had our GoPro Fusion with us so we captured some great 360 degree video while swimming in the water with the fish as well as exploring the mangroves. We also obtained a great story as the GoPro was dropped and sunk to the bottom of the bay just as we were getting off the boat and needed to be retrieved. Fortunately, the water was only 7-8 feet deep at the time and it had a bright yellow handle which made it easier to locate.

We stopped at the dock at Adams Key for lunch. Adams Key is a day use area with dock, picnic pavilion, restrooms, and a short trail for exploring the island. This is the picnic area where we ate lunch:

After lunch, we made our way down to Jones Lagoon for exploration on inflatable paddleboards. Our guide led us around and it turned out to be a beautiful and serene day on the water. When we got into a particularly quiet area, our boat captain / guide helped us to touch a jellyfish in the water.

Once we were back on the powerboat, it was time to settle in for our return trip across the bay. We did manage to see a group of pelicans diving into the bay for fish which is always pretty cool to watch.

When we got back to land, we spent a few minutes exploring the visitor center and then took a walk out on the boardwalk.

There was a decent crowd as it was the Sunday of Veteran’s Day weekend. We made it out to the end of the trail and then walked back to our car.

We were starving and headed into Homestead to find dinner and a place to stay for the night before resting up for the rest of our adventure in Everglades National Park.

These were a few of the birds that we saw and photographed during the day:

We got an early start the next day with a stop at Robert is Here for smoothies just after they opened. Since my name is Robert, it has become an obligatory stop to take a photo of the sign while we are in the area. Since it was early and not very crowded yet (particularly compared to the last time), we actually managed to meet Robert as he was working in the store.

After grabbing our smoothies, we entered the park. We saw this bird right at the visitor center near the entrance, and later in the day Jayne photographed the blue jay at the visitor center too.

We proceeded to make our way down State Highway 9336 to Flamingo. It is roughly a 45 minute drive, but we wanted to make sure that we had enough time to get there as we missed out on it the last time. Our first stop once we were there was the restrooms outside the temporary visitor center. The Flamingo Visitor Center is closed for restoration following hurricane damage. They have a temporary visitor center setup across the parking lot in trailers.

Our next stop after the visitor center was the marina. The marina offers boat tours and a small store. We were in exploring mode so we walked along the docks and watched the osprey and vultures fly back and forth. We also saw a group of manatees that were in the marina area.

Pro tip: If you are going to visit Flamingo, be sure to bring something to cover your car (or at least your windshield wipers), as the vultures in the area are known to attack rubber on cars. We asked why this was and learned that they apparently put fish oil in such products and the birds are attracted to it. We didn’t know so we were not prepared for it but there were a number of grocery bags on windshield wipers in the parking lot. We heard a few stories about the vultures tearing into cars in the area.

We had some time to explore the area while we were considering whether we had time to go on the Everglades boat tour so we headed down the road to the Eco-Pond (above) and the amphitheater area near the Guy Bradley trail. We saw a number of birds on the way including two osprey and an American Kestrel.

These birds were near the amphitheater:

The amphitheater was overrun but we did get a nice photo of Florida Bay:

It was a beautiful day so we decided to take the backcountry boat tour. The cost is $40 for adults and includes a 90 minute trip up Buttonwood Canal through Coot Bay (second pic below) and Tarpon Creek into Whitewater Bay (third pic below), then back to Flamingo Marina.

The boat trip presented us with some great birding. We saw a bald eagle, an osprey, great blue heron, anhinga, wood storks, egrets, a kingfisher and more.

We also saw plenty of crocodiles including a few young crocodiles like the one below (zoomed in).

After the boat tour, we started the journey back to Homestead. Jayne jumped out on the other side of the marina to photograph a crocodile mom and her babies:

We made a quick stop at Nine Mile Pond to look around and take a few pictures. Nine Mile Pond offers canoeing and kayaking with rentals available at the Flamingo Marino. The boats are stored at Nine Mile Pond.

Next up was a short hike on the boardwalk at Mahogany Hammock Trail. The Mahogany Hammock is a slightly elevated area in the wetlands where Mahogany and hardwood trees grow. It is a short loop trail with the largest living Mahogany tree in the United States.

We headed back to the visitor center and then the hotel – it was tempting to repeat some of our previous adventure but we had other plans for the afternoon and were travelling to see family the next day.

The PA Grand Canyon for Columbus Day Weekend 2019

We headed down I-80 into Central Pennsylvania for a weekend of fall foliage, state parks and camping. If you are looking to leave cell phone coverage behind, the PA Grand Canyon is a trip we highly recommend!

The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania is a 47 mile gorge carved by Pine Creek through the Allegheny Plateuu. It is also called Pine Creek Gorge. Pine Creek is protected as a Pennsylvania Scenic River and the area includes Tioga State Forest, Leonard Harrison State Park, Colton Point State Park and Little Pine State Park.

We explored the gorge on Sunday after we arrived. We even stopped in at the Waterville Apple Butter Festival which we stumbled across. Unfortunately, it took a long time to make the apple butter (and the pre-made was sold out early in the morning) so we did had to leave before it was ready.

We camped for the night at Happy Acres Resort, which is near Little Pine Creek State Park. This is the view from the Little Pine Dam and Vista in the state park:

Here are a few more pictures that we took of the fall foliage and Pine Creek on Sunday:

On Columbus Day, we woke up in the morning and headed up to Leonard Harrison State Park, which offers an overlook of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.

On our way back to Philadelphia, we stopped at Hickory Run State Park. Hickory Run is located in the foothills of the Poconos Mountains near the intersection of I-80 and the Northeast Extension of the PA Turnpike (I-476). It was named one of the 25 must-see PA state parks by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. We explored a bit and made the hike down to Hawk Falls, which is a 25 foot high waterfall.

In total, Hickory Run State Park has more than 40 miles of hiking trails and the park contains 15,990 acres. It also has a 16 acre boulder field which is the largest in the Appalachian region, and which we will have to see next time. The light was setting on the day so we simply ran out of time for this impromptu adventure on the way home.

Canon Birds in Focus at the Audubon Center in PA

Jayne booked us a morning bird walk at the Audubon Center in October 2019 because Canon was going to provide some of its premium Canon cameras and lenses to participants. It ended up being a pleasant but overcast October morning in the Philadelphia area.

I ended up shooting with an EOS RP mirrorless camera and Jayne went with the Canon 5D Mark IV. The lens attached to the end was a 70-200mm F/2.8. We were walking around with several thousand dollars in Canon camera equipment each and it would be an understatement to say that we were excited. Normally, we shoot on a Canon SX60HS. The walk was joined by a Canon rep to answer questions about the cameras as well as an Audubon tour guide to talk about the birds.

The Audubon Society maintains more than 100 wildlife sanctuaries and nature centers throughout the United States. The John James Audubon Visitor Center in Audubon, PA is a museum run by them. The location at Mill Grove is on the site of a historic 18th century farm where John James Audubon lived when he first came to America in 1803.

We saw a number of birds on the walk including a great blue heron in Perkiomen Creek. We didn’t get a photo though. We were able to capture a photo of this blue jay in the first few minutes:

We did not compensate enough for the grey skies with the camera settings. But we were still able to capture a few amazing photos. Here was one with the blue jay in flight:

It wouldn’t be a hike without at least one texture or flower photo. Enjoy!

At the end of the walk, a few of the employees / volunteers brought out a few of the birds being rehabilitated for us. This was one of the hawks that we photographed:

We will be going through the photos that we took with the Canon cameras and posting them soon!

The one thing that we were disappointed in was that we didn’t get there earlier and obtain one of the larger telephoto lenses. Since we are used to shooting on our superzoom, 200mm was just not enough reach for us! At one point in the hike, Jayne even pulled out our camera to take a picture of a bird that was just too far away for the 200mm lens.

Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon (South Rim) in 24 Hours in September 2019

We had an extra day after a Las Vegas conference at the end of September to do some sightseeing and decided to make a quick road trip out of it to see the Grand Canyon. Since the Hoover Dam is on the way, and neither of us had ever been there, we also stopped there for some photos!

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is a bit of a jaunt from Las Vegas. There is no direct route between the two (other than by air), so the trip requires going southeast to Kingman and then across on I-40. The exit for the Grand Canyon is in Williams, which is located about an hour south of the park. The one way trip time (without stops) from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon South Rim is about 4.5 hours.

We picked up the rental car at the off-airport rental location in Las Vegas and headed toward Hoover Dam in the evening. The Hoover Dam is about 45 minutes from the Las Vegas airport, so we made it there before it was dark. The major thing that we noticed on the way there were the rows after rows of power lines between the city and Hoover Dam.

Shortly before the exit for Hoover Dam, there is the impressive Robert L. Mendenhall Scenic Overlook which provides a view of Lake Mead.

The highway exit coming from Las Vegas is about three miles away from the Hoover Dam. There is a short stop at a security checkpoint and then (absent sightseeing traffic) you are at the Hoover Dam pretty quickly. There is a parking garage and visitor center before you reach the dam, with the cost of parking in the garage is $10.

You can also drive across the dam and park in one of the parking lots on the other side. We ended up driving across the dam and parked for free (although this would not have been possible if there were more visitors there as it was not a large lot).

After parking, we walked back down to the dam to take pictures. One of the things that we noticed was how far below the high water marks the Lake Mead water level was at the time. The spillway (pictured below) which is necessary to divert water around the Hoover Dam during high water, has not been needed since 1983.

There is a bypass bridge for US-93 traffic called the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge which opened in 2010 and crosses the canyon just south of the Hoover Dam. It was the first concrete-steel composite arch bridge constructed in the United States and is the second highest bridge in the United States. It can be seen from the Hoover Dam.

After you finish at the Hoover Dam, you can backtrack north from the dam to the highway to take it across the canyon – which is what we did – but it really was not worth it in our opinion due to limited visibility. There is also an entrance to and exit from the highway south of Hoover Dam.

Hoover Dam is a popular site for visitors, with around seven million people annually visiting and one million of them taking the Hoover Dam tour.

The Hoover Dam was constructed in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River during the Great Depression. It sits on the border between Nevada and Arizona and forms Lake Mead, which when full of water is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume.

Lake Mead is 110 miles long when full, with a depth of approximately 500 feet at its deepest point. In 2018, Lake Mead National Recreation Area saw 7.5 million visitors according to the National Park Service, which made it the sixth most visited unit in the entire National Park Service system.

Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim)

The sun set as we departed from the Hoover Dam to make the journey to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Our destination for the night was Tusayan, which is located about 15 minutes south of the Visitor Center at the South Rim. The Tusayan hotels offered more affordable accommodations then staying in the park. We arrived safely and turned in for the night with our alarms set for an early wake up in order to get to the Grand Canyon before sunrise.

In the morning, we made the quick drive to the Visitor Center parking area and then walked to Mather Point. We ended up walking along the rim rather than directly to Mather Point because Jayne simply could not wait to see the Grand Canyon any longer. It was her first time to see it in person and her excitement set the tone for the morning.

Our arrival at Mather Point was not early enough to get one of the premium spots along the railing so we settled in on the far side to watch the sun hit the canyon walls. It was beautiful to watch it light up the landscape.

After the sun rose, we dashed back to the hotel to enjoy a bit more sleep, take a work call and have breakfast. We checked out and headed back to the park.

We checked out the visitor center and made the walk on the Rim Trail from Mather POint to Yavapai Point. We took photos for a while at Yavapai Point, and then headed back to the car to drive over to Grand Canyon Village.

On our way, we stopped at the Canyon Village General Store to do some souvenir shopping and ended up buying some Grand Canyon trail mix.

We found a parking spot near the Grand Canyon Railway. We ended up taking a bunch of photos of the Grand Canyon Railway trains, since one had just pulled in, and the railroad station.

We worked our way along the canyon from El Tovar to Bright Angel Lodge, where we stopped for a quick snack lunch. We also encountered the squirrels here, which were not afraid of humans and we had to constantly guard our lunch from them while we were eating outside.

We were also looking for California condors here as it was a beautiful day and we were watching them (or maybe just turkey vultures?) fly back and forth. It is a beautiful landscape.

After lunch, we worked our way through Mary Colter’s Lookout Studio and the Kolb Studio. The Kolb Studio was located near the Bright Angel Trailhead, so we took a few photographs here as well. We both want to hike down to the canyon floor sometime. There was just not enough time to do so on this short one day trip over.

It was already early afternoon and we had a 4 hour trip back to Las Vegas to drop off the rental car and catch a flight, so we started walking back to the car. We did stop in El Tovar to check it out as well as the Hopi House, before getting in the car and beginning the drive out of the park.

Most of the trip was focused on seeing the canyon, but, in addition to the squirrels, we did manage to see some other Grand Canyon wildlife, including elk and take a few different photos of birds while we were there.

More to come including more photos!

Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey to San Francisco in June 2019

We took the Ford Mustang convertible (rental car) up the Pacific Coast Highway (California Highway 1) and explored Natural Bridges State Beach, Shark Fin Cove and Beauregard Vineyards on our way from Monterey to the San Francisco airport at the end of our San Francisco trip.

Here are some of the photos – we will post the complete summary of the day soon.

Entering in Monterey.

Our first stop was Santa Cruz:

Natural Bridges State Beach:

Shark Fin Cove:

Landscape along the way:

Beauregard Vineyards:

Driving by Pigeon Point Light Station:

Here were some of the flowers that we encountered on our trip up the Pacific Coast:

Pinnacles National Park (West Entrance) in June 2019

We visited the West Entrance of Pinnacles National Park on Day 7 of our honeymoon for an hour – and it was action packed!

Pinnacles may receive the award for the National Park over which we have argued the most. There are two sections of the park and there is not a direct route to drive between them. We were traveling between Sequoia National Park and Monterey, California so we had to decide whether we were going to do the East or West Entrance. We did not have time to do both as we were meeting family in Monterey. The online reports indicated that the East section was more developed (visitor center, campground and nature center) and we were concerned that Pinnacles West would not have a stamp for our passport (since it only has a contact station).

After a bit of debate, we ultimately called and posed the question to the Park employee, who was very helpful. After the call, we ended up going to the West Entrance. We were assured that the visitor center was going to be open on the day we were there and that they would also have the passport stamps for the park. We also found out that Pinnacles West was the preferred location to drive in and see the Pinnacles Volcanic Formation.

So, obviously, the Visitor Contact Station was our first stop – where we got our passport stamp.

Our secondary reason to visit the park (beyond seeing the Pinnacles) was to try and see a California Condor. It is one of the world’s rarest bird species with under 500 living in the wild or in captivity in the world. About two dozen of them are in and around Pinnacles.

Viewing one proved harder than we imagined as it was tough to tell the difference between the turkey vultures and the California Condors in flight. We eventually ended up confirming that we indeed saw a condor at home after examining the photos taken with our telephoto zoom lens. We took a picture of the profiles at the contact station in order to help us identify them. Here is the photo of the condor:

Here is a photo of the chart that was at the contact station which helped to identify that the bird was a California condor and not a turkey vulture:

In addition to our constant quest to confirm a condor while in the park, we saw a number of other birds even though we were only there for a very short time. We definitely should have planned to spend more time here!

After stopping at the contact station, we headed to the end of the road which contains a parking area at the Chaparral Trailhead. The trailhead parking has a picnic area and provides a view of Resurrection Wall, High Peaks and Machete Ridge. Even if you do not have much time, we would highly recommend that you take a quick trip from the parking lot out to Juniper Canyon Trail. This was where we saw the condors!

We were only there for an hour but there was so much to see near the trailhead. We were not on the trail for five minutes before we saw a bird of prey speed past. We couldn’t get a picture though. If we were lucky, it was probably a prairie falcon or a peregine falcon. Both nest in the cliffs of the park.

We also saw a goldfinch. It’s not particularly clear to us whether it was a Lesser Goldfinch or an American Goldfinch, but we got a few photos so maybe one day we can actually identify it.

We were then mystified by the hummingbirds and bees in one of the trees. It was the neatest old tree. We spent a while watching them fly back and forth, and enjoying the beautiful, sunny day. We never got a photo of the hummingbirds, but did manage to take a picture of the tree and the bees (tree only below):

We later saw a California Scrub Jay right off the trail in a tree. It was much easier to find then the Florida Scrub Jay in Canaveral National Seashore, which involved a one hour hike through a mosquito infested marsh area and the birds were so far away that we could only identify one as our target later when zoomed in on the computer). This Scrub Jay was so close we barely needed the telephoto lens at all.

Pinnacles National Park now holds the honor for the national park that we have spent the least time exploring from among those that we have visited. Do not worry though – we plan to go back! We still need to do the east entrance as well as hike to the top of the Pinnacles.

As you can see from our photos, it was absolutely beautiful in mid-June:

We also saw plenty of pretty wildflowers on the drive in and while hiking around. Jayne took lots of pictures of them:

For those looking to visit:

The gateway city for the west entrance of Pinnacles is Soledad. Soledad has a population of 25,000 and contains both local restaurants and national fast food chains along Front Street for those looking for civilization outside of the park. To extend your time around Pinnacles, also consider the tasting room for the Chalone Vineyard which sits right outside the west entrance.

If you are looking for somewhere to stay in the area and are looking for a national hotel chain (which it doesn’t look like you will find in Soledad), try King City to the south of the park or Salinas to the north. Both cities are about thirty minutes from the park. King City portrays itself as “The entrance to West & East Pinnacles” and is about 40 minutes from the east entrance as well.

We were going from Sequoia National Park to spend the evening in Monterey Bay, so we did not spend much time exploring the area. Hopefully we will get a chance to do so when we go back!

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park in June 2019

We spent a day in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park after our stay at Yosemite National Park. We took the tour at the General Grant tree, drove through Kings Canyon to the end of the road at Copper Creek Trailhead, explored the area around the General Sherman Tree, drove under Tunnel Log, climbed Moro Rock, and had breakfast at the Grant Grove Restaurant.

It was a pretty long day. We woke up early in Fresno with a big day ahead of us. We had a reservation the prior night at the Hume Lake Campground but our hike in Hetch Hetchy meant that we did not get down to Fresno until the sun was setting. We decided that it was better to drive into the area during the light since we did not really know where we were going and there were a lot of twists and turns on the map which usually signals an elevation change. So as we were watching the sun set in Fresno we decided to abandon that plan and stay a night near the Fresno airport. After the free breakfast in the morning we were ready to go!

Fresno is a little over an hour from Grant Grove Village and the Kings Canyon Visitor Center, our first stop in the park. After a bit of souvenir shopping, we hit the road again but quickly got detoured by the sign for the General Grant Tree.

The General Grant tree is the second largest tree in the world and is estimated to be about 1650 years old. It is reached by a 1/3 mile paved loop from a parking area. We got there just as a free park ranger tour was starting, so we tagged along.

We heard a number of interesting stories along the way, including the story of the “California Hoax” during the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 – where a sixteen foot section of a sequoia tree from the General Grant Grove was cut down and the people did not believe the outer shell reassembled for the exhibit was from a single tree. We also learned about the massive root systems of the sequoia trees, and the importance of fires in their development.

The General Grant was the number three tree in volume in the world until the Washington tree in the Giant Forest Grove in Sequoia National Park partially collapsed after a heavy snow in 2005. The General Grant is also the widest tree known in the world with a 40 foot diameter at the base.

If you listen carefully while you are there, you will probably hear the woodpeckers striking a tree. We were fortunate to see a pileated woodpecker striking one of the trees while on the tour. It was not our first sighting though – we saw a few earlier in the year when we were down in Congaree National Park in South Carolina.

We checked in at the Hume Lake campground and then continued on our journey. We stayed at the campground because there were not any available reservations at either Sequoia or Kings Canyon for the night (it was still early in the season) and we wanted to make sure that we had a place to stay. The hosts were friendly and it worked out well.

We continued past the campground and set off to descend into Kings Canyon on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway for the rest of the morning.

Kings Canyon is one of the deepest river gorges in North America. At more than 8,000 feet deep in some spots, it is actually deeper than the Grand Canyon. You can see the road widing its way down in the next shot:

The Kings River was running fast through the gorge from all of the melting snow runoff, making for some beautiful scenery.

We made our way down past Grizzly Falls to Cedar Grove. Cedar Grove is the location of Cedar Grove Lodge (we grabbed lunch at the market there and ate on their balcony), four campgrounds and the Cedar Grove Visitor Center. After lunch, we worked our way down to the road’s end, and then did a short walk around Zumwalt Meadow before heading out of Kings Canyon and over to Sequoia National Park.

We retraced our steps to make our way to the Generals Highway – headed for the Lodgepole Visitor Center, General Sherman Tree, Auto Log, Tunnel Log, and Moro Rock.

We stopped to explore the Lodgepole Visitor Center and grab a quick lunch at the Market Center, before continuing on to General Sherman.

We used one of the park shuttles to access the General Sherman Tree. We parked on the lot for General Sherman Tree off Wolverton Road. We got off the bus at the upper drop off and walked down the half mile trail through the sequoias. We then picked up the bus at the stop at the handicapped parking area and took it back to the parking lot.

After admiring other large trees this year (first at Congaree, then Muir Woods and Kings Canyon), it was really surprising how much fun we had walking through this grove. The General Sherman Tree is incredible and a must-visit for any adventurer through the national parks. Walking among what many consider to be the largest living organisms on earth is simply amazing.

There is no way to adequately describe the size of General Sherman – you simply have to see it for yourself.

After retracing our steps to the parking lot, we headed down the road toward Moro Rock, admiring the many other large sequoias alongside the drive. Our next stop was at Auto Log, where visitors once drove their vehicles onto the fallen sequoia. This is no longer possible, but we did enjoy taking a picture of the historic site.

We then drove under Tunnel Log. If you are looking for a great picture spot during a road trip for your family and car, this is one of THE places to go. A “tunnel” has been carved through the fallen giant sequoia so that you can drive your car through/under it.

Climbing Moro Rock was a bit crazy. This is one of the most popular hikes in Sequoia National Park, and it should come as no surprise since the view after the 350+ steps in the quarter mile climb was totally worth it. Moro Rock rises 6275 above sea level but the hike only has an elevation change of 300 feet from the parking lot. However, if you are afraid of heights or have small children, there are a few places where you may be concerned, as there are not guardrails against the drop off in a few areas.

The viewing platform of Moro Rock provides roughly 360 degree views of the surrounding area including the Great Western Divide, a subrange of the Sierra Nevada mountain range

One thing to know about Moro Rock is that you should be prepared to find photographers situated at the end of the platform in anticipation of sunrise or sunset. We were there as the sun was waning and the photographers already had their cameras setup on tripods for the sunset.

Since we had at least an hour to get back to the campsite, we did not stay around for the sunset. We arrived back at our campsite just after dark, and quickly setup the tent and searched for the restrooms.

We took a moment in the morning to walk down to Hume Lake, enjoy the quiet, and watch a duck cross the lake.

Then we packed up our campsite and headed to breakfast at the Grant Grove Restaurant. We chose the buffet and filled up before setting out across the state to Pinnacles National Park. Check our next blog post for more information on that part of the adventure!


Yosemite National Park in June 2019

After we spent a day exploring San Francisco, we drove over for three days in Yosemite National Park. We stayed in the canvas tent cabins of Half Dome Village and explored Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, Taft Point and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

We arrived into Yosemite Valley around mid-day via 120 and Big Oak Flat Road after plenty of winding up and down. We were also delayed a bit as they were asphalting the road and it was down to one lane in a section in the park which had traffic backed up.

It was definitely worth the wait! I was a bit disappointed while planning the trip that the season’s heavy snowfall meant that we would not get to explore Tioga Pass (which was still closed in mid-June when we were there and did not open until June 21). However, the waterfalls were running hard since the snowfall was still melting and this made up for it! The Merced River which flows through Yosemite Valley was raging as well.

It took us a while to work our way through the valley because we were stopping to take pictures of all of the waterfalls against the gorgeous landscape.

After parking and checking in to our tent cabin, we grabbed some pizza at the Curry Village / Half Dome Village Pizza Patio. We+ then made the hike up to Mirror Lake. Mirror Lake became famous for its reflections of the landscape in the broad shallow pool formed in Tenaya Creek when there is sufficient water.

On our way back, we took the bus down to the Ahwahnee Hotel (formerly the Majestic Yosemite Hotel) to grab a drink at the bar, but we did not have a good experience. We ended up getting our drink (and dinner) at Yosemite Valley Lodge instead.

In the morning, we headed over to the Yosemite Visitor Center to get the stamp in our passport. We also grabbed breakfast and coffee at the Market before making the trip to Yosemite Falls. We also did Bridalveil Fall, since Jayne still had her bridal veil from our wedding the Saturday before..

As we worked our way over to Glacier Point, we stopped at Tunnel View to enjoy the scenery and take a photo pictures. Tunnel View is a classic stop for any traveler coming to the area, and has two parking lots just outside the tunnel.

Glacier Point is located at an elevation of 7,214 feet, a distance of 3,200 feet above Half Dome Village. It offers unparalleled view of Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley. It is accessible by road in the summer via bus or with a drive of about an hour. There is a parking lot at the end of Glacier Point Road, but it fills up at this popular spot in the park.

We spent a while here, taking in the scenery. It was simply incredible and I will just let the pictures do the talking.

We also saw a Steller’s Jay, which was pretty cool too.

After finishing up at Glacier Point, we decided to do the hike to Taft Point on the way back. The Taft Point trail is a 2.2 mile round-trip hike with an elevation change of 240 feet to a spectacular overlook of the Yosemite Valley. The trail ends in a steep cliff with a railing to permit hikers to get right to the edge. If you have a fear of heights, this is not the place for you.

There were two parts of the trip that gave us pause which are worth noting for future travelers in the area. First, there was a sign marking the trail as closed due to snow. However, in June when we were there, the only part which had snow was a few sections through the forest. We were able to follow the trail with only some minor backtracking at times. The other concern that we had in going to this widely photographed spot was the warnings about fissures in the ground. We successfully avoided them as they are mostly near the terrain’s edge. You did not have to step over any fissures in any way to get to Taft Point. We did look down through a few of them though.

Since we had dinner reservations at the Ahwahnee Dining Room, we hustled back to Half Dome Village to change. Despite our experience at the bar the night before, dinner was wonderful and we would highly recommend to others. Particularly pleasant was the piano player, who deserved five stars by himself.

We also managed to capture the iconic photo of the sun illuminating Half Dome during sunset.

We packed up our tent cabin in the morning, had breakfast at Half Dome Village, and made the trek up to Hetch Hetchy. Hetch Hetchy is the name of a valley and reservoir north of Yosemite. A dam was built there in the 1930s to provide water to San Francisco. Before it was filled with water, John Muir called it a “remarkably exact counterpart” to Yosemite Valley.

The first views of Hetch Hetchy on the drive in are breathtaking. The two waterfalls were roaring and the clean blue water was simply sparkling under the bright sun and skies of the day. The views of Tuolumne downstream from the dam are wild. We had planned to simply stop after walking across the dam, but we ended up doing a 5 mile roundtrip day hike past Tueeulala Falls to Wapama Falls and back. The trail was closed at Wapama Falls due to the force of the waterfall so we couldn’t have gone any farther even if we had wanted to do so. The hike was tiring (and we really should have brought more water for a noon hike) but it was well worth delaying our trip down to King’s Canyon to spend a few hours exploring Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Here are some of our photos from Hetch Hetchy:

On our way out, we decided to get out of the park as soon as possible rather than retrace our steps from the previous day toward Glacier Point, and set the GPS for Fresno. We didn’t quite make it to Hume Lake, where we had a campsite reservation, before dark, so we stopped at a hotel near the Fresno airport.

Check out our next blog post to see our photos from King’s Canyon and Sequoia.

We will post more about our honeymoon adventure soon!

From the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods in June 2019

Our first full day in San Francisco saw us make a whirlwind trip through Fisherman’s Wharf, across the Golden Gate Bridge, to Point Reyes National Seashore and Muir Woods National Monument.

We arrived at San Francisco airport on a late Sunday night flight and after a stop at the rental car agency (where we got a Ford Mustang convertible) we headed to the hotel – the Comfort Inn by the Bay.

I was looking for something affordable where I could get a view of the Golden Gate Bridge at night – and we were able to secure a view on an upper floor despite our late reservation. The sunrise was worth every penny!

After the short night’s sleep, we walked down to the wharf and our first stop was the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, We walked out onto the pier to enjoy the views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf.

We then made our way down the waterfront, stopping at an electronics store to pick up a memory card and charger for the camera battery (which we accidentally left at home in the rush), before going to Pier 39 to see the sea lions. There was a big crowd there watching them, but we were able to get a few photos thanks to the telephoto lens on our Canon SX60 camera.

We also stopped at the Krispy Kreme in Fisherman’s Wharf, which is apparently the biggest franchise location in the United States.

It was about time to check out of the hotel, so we headed back, enjoyed breakfast, and planned our day. We found out that we needed to make a reservation for parking at Muir Woods National Monument, and we were fortunately still able to get a mid afternoon time (probably because it was a Monday!). We sketched out the rest of our adventure – a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and up the coast to Point Reyes National Seashore before returning to downtown San Francisco for dinner with family after the stop at Muir Woods. The timing would be tight but it seemed possible.

We jumped into the convertible, put the top down, and we were soon driving across the Golden Gate Bridge! We had a packed day already so we did not stop at the overlook, but this is something that we would encourage of everyone when you are there. It looked to be very popular and pretty.

There was some traffic until we made the turn for the Pacific Coast Highway, but it was smooth sailing after that. The section along the coast was incredibly beautiful and the convertible was the perfect way to enjoy it. We left the Pacific Coast behind when Highway 1 passed Stinson Beach and Bolinas Lagoon, but we were soon to be reunited with the Pacific Ocean.

Point Reyes was our second visit to a national seashore. We already spent some time at Canaveral National Seashore when we were in Florida.

We found the Bear Valley Visitor Center, but discovered that it was not very close to the beach at all! After getting our passport stamp, and still determined to dip our toes in the Pacific Ocean for the first time despite being a bit short on time with Muir Woods, we drove to Limantour Beach.

After parking, the beach was close but this was where we ran into some trouble. We made the dash across the sand trail to the beach and the sand was so hot! It was a heat wave and the sand was burning up. The hot sand was getting trapped in the sandals and there was simply no relief at all. Jayne eventually decided to remove her Keens and make a run for it, which was not a smart move. The dip in the ocean was pleasant, but on the way back we found out that Jayne really burned her feet.

We spent less than 10 minutes at the beach as we had our timed parking reservation at Muir Woods which was still a significant drive away. We really didn’t do the seashore justice, but that was all of the time that we had. We were only about a half hour late getting to Muir Woods and we did not have a problem getting in despite being late. The attendant waved us right in and we worked our way to the back of the lot for a spot.

The one thing that will always stick with me about our trip to Point Reyes and Muir Woods was the smell. It was unbelievable and relaxing.

We spent about an hour at Muir Woods, making our way down the trail to Founder’s Grove, although we could have easily spent much more enjoying the serenity.

Muir Woods National Monument was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. The land was donated by Congressman William Kent to protect the coastal redwoods, and he requested the park be named in honor of John Muir, a naturalist and conservationist who was an important advocate for protecting the wilderness of the United States.

The coastal redwoods are the planet’s tallest living things, with the tallest in Muir Woods reaching 258 feet. They are a close relative of the Giant Sequoia which we saw later in our trip at King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Park. Perhaps one day we will also have to go find the tallest coast redwood (named Hyperion), which stands at nearly 380 feet tall and is located not in Muir Woods but in a remote area of Redwood National and State Parks.

Our trip back over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the city happened in the middle of rush hour, so there were plenty of traffic delays. But we weren’t too late for our dinner plans, so the day worked out well.

After dinner, we went back down to Fisherman’s Wharf to get some dessert at Ghiradelli, but after we drove down Lombard Street (the Crookedest Street in the World) and stopped to watch the sunset, we ended up missing the ice cream shop since it closed (way too early for the summer) just before we got there.

With plans to start the next day by driving into Yosemite, we headed east and crossed the Bay. We ended up stopping for the night in Oakdale and went to bed with dreams of Yosemite dancing in our heads.

We will post more photos of the giant redwoods in Muir Woods and the rest of the day soon!

Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie and Charleston in April 2019

We finished off our trip to Congaree National Park with two days in the Charleston area. We explored historic downtown Charleston, Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, Francis Marion National Forest, Hampton Plantation State Historic Site, Santee Coastal Reserve and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. It was a busy two days and there was plenty that we did not get a chance to do so we will have to plan to come back.

We will write more soon! Here are some of our photos:

Congaree National Park in April 2019

We planned a canoe trip down the Congaree River through Congaree National Park from Columbia, SC to the 601 bridge in April 2019. Unfortunately, it was rained out as too many April showers led to flooding throughout the park.

We made the trip to the park anyway and spent two days camping at Congaree, exploring the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. We also ventured into Columbia and did a quick hike in Congaree Bluffs Heritage Park before spending two days in Charleston. It was a beautiful, quick spring adventure even though we will need to go back to do our canoe trip some day!

Our trip to Congaree National Park will go down in history as the first which was poorly planned. My fault. Simply put, it was derailed by weather, as April showers resulted in the Congaree River overflowing its banks and leaving nowhere to camp along the river in the national park. So rather than a leisurely canoe trip down the river with fishing and backcountry camping, we were limited to camping in the frontcountry campsites and walking around the boardwalk (which was flooded in select areas when we got there). We were not the only ones that weekend which the park rangers had to tell that it was not advisable to begin a trip. We listened.

It was still a fun trip. It is the largest intact old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeast United States. The trees are … large. They are not as large as the redwoods and sequoias of California but we did not get out to see those trees until June. The forest in South Carolina is … big, also. Congaree is known for its champion trees and for a swamp so thick and confusing that you would need a GPS to navigate it. In addition to its mosquitoes and lightning bugs.

The mosquitoes were not as big of problem as normal due to the floods, although we still needed insect repellent when at the campground. And the synchronized lightning bugs would not start for another month, so it was predominately trees and woodpeckers for us. There were plenty of loblolly pines, mangroves and pileated woodpeckers.

Congaree is also thought to be one of the places where the possibly extinct Ivory-billed woodpecker may be hiding. The Ivory-billed woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world and is native to the bottomland hardwood forests and temperate coniferous forests of the southeastern United States and Cuba. The last confirmed sighting was in the 1940s in Louisiana, but there have been a number of potential sightings since then. The thought that we might see one while standing in Congaree was exhilarating, and I have to admit that my heart skipped a beat every time we saw a pileated woodpecker.

We didn’t end up seeing any owls either, which are another reason to explore the park, though we definitely heard them at night and once in the morning. We did not really look too hard for owls though.

The first part of the trip went well – travel to Charleston. We flew into Charleston airport bright and early on Saturday morning, picking up the rental car not long after. Since we were flying on Frontier credits received for a previous trip delayed overnight, it was a great start to be on time. It was cheaper to fly into Charleston then columbia and we could get their direct on Frontier.

We made the hour plus drive to the park. But as soon as we got to the parking lot under the Highway 601 Bridge and saw that the river was over the banks, we knew that the canoe trip was definitely not going to be possible. We were able to enjoy watching the cliff swallows under the bridge fly in and out of their nests

Fortunately, we had a reservation for a campsite the first night in Longleaf Campground so all was not lost due to the weather. And we made a reservation for a different campsite in the campground shortly thereafter.

We stopped at the visitor center to talk to a park ranger, which confirmed our suspicions that they were not issuing backcountry camping permits for the park.

We then explored the areas of the boardwalk which were not flooded, marveling at the quiet of the forest and the size of the trees.

When we returned from our hike, we set up our tent before heading into Columbia to get some supplies. It was actually a pretty leisurely drive, as we stopped to eat in Five Points in Columbia and explored the downtown area a bit.

Sunday morning was spent relaxing in the hammock, before we moved the campsite. Since the flood waters had receded a bit, we ended up making it all the way around the boardwalk. We also made the hike over to Bluff Campground, the hike-in campsites which are located past the Visitor Center.

When we finished, we lounged around a bit and then went in to Columbia to do early dinner and a movie. We ended up having barbecue and watching Captain Marvel, which was amazing. There was a series of thunderstorms scheduled to roll through the area so we had decided rather than ride it out in the tent we would hit up the movie. We didn’t even notice any of the storms move through while in the theater, but we saw them on the weather radar after we got out.

At night, I ended up watching Game of Thrones from the tent because, for once, I had cell coverage in a national park. It was the first episode of Season 8 – Winterfell, so it was an important one. I did not have cell coverage past the visitor center, but my Sprint phone did work in the campground which was pleasant.

Monday morning we slept late, packed up the camp, and then went to Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve. We had high hopes that the overlook would be incredible. We hiked down to the overlook, but it was just ok. The trees in the Heritage Preserve have grown and it is not quite high enough to give you as spectacular of view as I anticipated from reading about it.

Still, it gave us a different view into the park and a perspective on the forest that is not possible from the boardwalk. We then went down to the Congaree River since the national park was too flooded to reach it on the hiking trails, and dropped in a fishing line before going back up to the parking lot.

We then started our drive back to Charleston for the second stage of the adventure, stopping for lunch at a Waffle House in Orangeburg.

It definitely was not our standard national park adventure, and the first that did not go anywhere near as planned, but we got our passport stamp, enjoyed exploring it, and it preceded a really fun day exploring Charleston.

Check out our photos from Charleston on the next blog post!

We will post more photos of Congaree soon!

Birding and Fall Foliage at Hawk Mountain in September

We have been going to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in the fall for a few years now. Hawk Mountain is a wild bird sanctuary located along the Appalachian flyway north of Reading and west of Allentown. It is known for its spectacular views, hiking trails and, of course, the birding. On a good day, thousands of raptors can be seen heading south for the winter as part of the bird migration that happens across North America.

Since we are pretty busy in the fall, our day there has usually been a regular occurence in November after we realize the good days left in the year are limited and we need to head outside more! But this year, we had a free weekend in mid-September with the right conditions for migrating hawks and we made the drive after learning that they had seen over a thousand the previous day. You can call their hotline to get the prior day’s bird count from their staff/volunteers at North Lookout – and this sealed the deal for us.

We grabbed my mom for the adventure this time. She once drove to Hawk Mountain from Michigan to watch the bird migration, so this was a much easier trip now that we all live in Philadelphia.

On our way up, we unfortunately saw a few spotted lanternflies. The spotted lanternfly is native to India, China and Vietnam. It was my first encounter with this creature which was identified in Pennsylvania in 2014. They are an invasive insect that can adversely impact crops and the woods. If you see them outside their current zone you are supposed to report them.

We enjoyed absolutely beautiful weather and great views at Hawk Mountain (since the fall foliage was just starting to turn). Since we got a late start, we headed right up the trail to North Lookout (after stopping in the Visitor Center to use the bathroom and pay, of course). The view of the trail:

When we arrived, we found out that we had already missed over two thousand broad winged hawks. I didn’t know, but the hawk migration is strongest in the morning and the birds were really funneling out of the area between 10 AM and noon. Next year we are just going to have to plan ahead and wake up earlier! However, we did get some great views.

We still had a great time though, seeing more than a dozen hawks in our roughly two hours there. It has been a while since I have been birding with my mom – I had forgot that she was so good at spotting them! Additionally, one of the great parts of Hawk Mountain is that you are much closer to the birds at this elevation as they fly by. It is well worth the trip if you are considering it.

If it is your first time there, you may be wondering whether the owl sitting on the pole is real or fake. It looks so lifelike, but it is fake. It will attract hawks close to it – we saw two or three come in to dive bomb it as they were passing through before they realized that we were there and continued beyond it.

Also, don’t forget to bring binoculars and water/snacks! Although you can see some birds with the naked eye, some of them are very far away. We were taking photos with our Canon SX60 which has a long telephoto lens and makes everything look much closer than it would appear otherwise.

After a few hours of birding, we decided to make our way down the trail back to the car and head home. It was a great day to be outdoors in Pennsylvania, and we’ll just have to make the trek up there earlier in the morning next year! How could we know that they would see more than 1,000 birds an hour for two hours before we got there ???

72 Hours in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Early August

We live about 12 hours from the nation’s most visited national park, which is Great Smoky Mountains. More than 11 million people visit it every year. We finally made time to go down there this year in early August for a long weekend and a very special occasion.

We were a bit concerned as we were planning the trip because the weather forecast said there was going to be two straight weeks of scattered thunderstorms. However, this seems to be pretty normal for the summer there and we were optimistic that we would have a great trip that wasn’t disturbed by the weather too much. We were used to pretty frequent afternoon thunderstorms that would move through the region quickly when we were at both the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. As it turned out, there was a torrential rain that moved through the area for the two days (and which we had to drive through some of to get there) but it was done by midday Friday and set up a beautiful weekend of great weather and wonderful waterfalls.

We started the drive down after work on Thursday night. Our initial plan was to stop somewhere around Front Royal at the Gateway to Shenandoah National Park. We made it a few hours south of there though before we turned in for the night at a hotel. It was a short five hour or so drive on Friday morning before we got off the highway to make the trip past Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to the entrance to GSMNP.

We were fascinated by the many tourist attractions along the road and took pictures of a handful of them on the way down. But we were eager to get into the park and the only place that we stopped was Cabelas to pick up a fishing license. We did spend more time than we intended there, though. Somehow, I always do.

We took the bypass around Gatlinburg and stopped at an overlook to enjoy a fantastic view of the Great Smoky Mountains as well as the city. The rivers flowing along the roads were going fast and furious downhill from the rain over the past forty eight hours.

Our first stop was at the Visitor Center to pick up some brochures and other reading material about the park. It was a little busy but we found parking, got our National Park booklet stamp and picked up enough reading material to occupy us for the entire weekend.

We thought about going to check in at the campground, but decided to head south to Clingmans Dome and check out the view instead. After all, the weather seemed good and we weren’t sure how many beautiful days we were going to get over the weekend. It was only a few minutes from the visitor center when we saw our first bear on the right side of the road. This one seemed so small compared to the ones that we had seen before in Yellowstone and Shenandoah. We thought it must be a baby or one-year old, although we learned later that female black bears in the park usually average around 100 pounds.

We continued south after the brief bear jam to Newfound Gap. Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is located at the Tennessee and North Carolina border. It is a historic spot and a popular place for photos. President Franklin Roosevelt formally dedicated the park in 1940 at the Rockefeller Memorial there in 1940.

From Newfound Gap, we headed up the road to Clingman’s Dome and started to see some of the area’s rain at elevation. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the national park and the highest point in Tennessee as well. As we got to the parking lot, we decided that we would head up the half mile trail to the observation tower despite the modest mist in the hope that some portion of the view from the top would be clear. We had to rest multiple times on the way up despite the cool temperatures as there was very little reprieve during the climb up the trail. When we got to the top, there were a few moments where a small portion of the view was available. Otherwise, it was all clouds during our quick photo taking session from the top. We laughed about how the view wasn’t worth the effort of the climb, and headed our way back down eager to check in at our campsite and unpack.

We had a reservation for the weekend at a campsite in Elkmont Campground. It took us a while to get down the mountain and over to Elkmont. We made it with about half an hour left before the rangers left, but they had closed for the day an hour early (half an hour before we got there) so we bought some wood and went to our campsite and set up our tent.

Since it was our first night in the Smoky Mountains, we decided to check out Gatlinburg and find dinner there. This was perhaps a little optimistic on a Friday night in August in a tourist town with a lot of pedestrians, but we plunged enthusiastically right into the traffic. We quickly ascertained that parking might be a challenge too, so we found a lot on the south end of town. We ended up putting in our name at Calhoun’s and grabbing a drink at the Smoky Mountain Brewery. The BBQ at Calhoun’s was worth it and we decided to use the last few hours of daylight to check out the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

There are a few trails off the driving tour but we didn’t have time to do them on Friday. Instead, we explored a few of the buildings along the way and enjoyed the views before it got dark. We did manage to see another small black bear along the side of the road along the trail before we headed back to Elkmont Campground and turned in for the night.

We weren’t sure whether we were going to get up to see the sunrise when we went to bed, but we did set an early alarm. We rolled out of bed shortly after it went off and headed out for the sunrise, but we only made it a few miles down the road before the sun was coming up. We did manage to enjoy it from a scenic turnoff between Elkmont and the Sugarlands Visitor Center. We mulled our plan for the day over while grabbing a coffee in Gatlinburg (which was pretty dead on Saturday morning compared to the busy Friday night we had just experienced).

We decided to head east and see if we could find the elk herd at Cataloochee. We had heard that it was once of the best places in the park to try and see them. We definitely took the scenic road and got off the beaten path to get there.

Cataloochee is a valley in North Carolina between the mountains which was once home to an Appalachian community. It is pretty far off the beaten path and took a while to get there, but we had a lot of fun touring some of the old buildings there and seeing the slower life of early American history.

We didn’t find any elk in Cataloochee Valley, so we decided to head west through Maggie Valley and get on the Blue Ridge Parkway to return to the park through one of the southern entrances. We knew that the Parkway is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the country, but we were still stopping at nearly every one of the scenic overlooks.

Before we reentered the park, we backtracked for a bit to get to Mingo Falls. Mingo Falls drops nearly 200 feet down granite boulders and is one of the tallest in the Southern Appalachians. With only a short .4 mile hike to reach it from the parking areas, it was well worth stopping.

After our detour to Mingo Falls, we reentered the park and found the Elk herd in the valley by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. There was quite a crowd taking photos, so we stopped for a few minutes before continuing on our way. We used the restrooms at the visitor center and continued north to take in more of the scenic views of the Great Smoky Mountains.

We hadn’t yet been on a hike through the Smokies, so we decided to return to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to do the hike to Grotto Falls. Grotto Falls is a 2.6 mile roundtrip hike to a 25 foot waterfall that is the only in the park that you can walk behind. If you continue on the trail, you can reach either Brushy Mountain or Mt. LeConte. We decided to turn around at Grotto Falls, after I got down on one knee and asked Jayne to marry me. She said yes!

We were exhausted from the day, so after we finished calling our parents to give them the news, we headed back to the campsite to cook up some dinner and turn in for the evening.

We knew we had a long drive ahead of us on Sunday, so we slept in a bit and cooked a massive breakfast to enjoy. After packing up the campground and saying goodbye to our home for the weekend, we did a little fishing in a scenic spot of the Little River. We didn’t catch anything, but we got some wonderful memories.

We headed west from the Campground to Cades Cove to finish off our tour of the park. We only had a few hours before we needed to get on the road, but we didn’t want to leave this area unexplored. Cades Cove contains a popular ten mile driving tour with scenic views, historic buildings and wildlife viewing. We stopped at a few of the historic buildings to explore before we encountered our first black bear in a tree. We ended up seeing more than a half dozen black bears on the loop, which caused some severe bear jams. But we eventually made it around to the Cable Mill Visitors Center where we enjoyed the historic buildings, used the restrooms and prepared our lunch.

It was past noon and we had a 12 hour drive ahead of us, so we finished the loop tour as fast as possible, made our way back past the campground and headed northwest towards Townsend and Pigeon Forge.

We spent most of the drive home (when we had cell service) calling our family and friends to tell them the good news. It was an action packed trip that left us with some great memories of America’s most visited national park.

Our Afternoon Kayaking at Tyler State Park in PA

We made a quick trip north of Philadelphia to Tyler State Park in Bucks County for July 4th today! We’re still getting used to paddling our new Advanced Elements inflatable kayak so we thought it would be a great opportunity to get some more practice. Plus, it is over 90 degrees so spending some time at the river sounded much cooler than hanging around in the city for the fireworks.

Tyler State Park is a 1,711 acre Pennsylvania state park in Newtown and Northampton Townships. To get there, we headed north on I-95 out of the city and it was only a few miles to the west of the highway. Neshaminy Creek cuts through the park on its way to the Delaware River.

Once you enter the park, the drive down to the river passes a few different fields. We saw a young deer and a bluebird in the fields on the way out (sorry, we had put the camera away at this point!). We did take a picture of one of the fields on the way in however.

Since we were getting there late in the afternoon, we headed straight for the boat launch area. We managed to follow the signs without any problems. They have a boat rental there where they rent stand up paddleboards, canoes, and kayaks (both single and double). The cost is $20-30 for the first hour and between $50-80 for up to 4 hours (depending on the type of boat that you are renting). But we have our own kayak and gear so we didn’t have to worry about this.

There is a small dam and walkway bridge just below the boat launch, which was popular for fishing and swimming (despite the no swimming sign). This isn’t a full drive down boat launch – if you are bringing your own canoe or kayak you are going to have to carry it down a grassy strip of land. Boats go upstream from there, which wasn’t a problem for us due to the slow current.

We took a quick walk around first to orient ourselves. On our way back up to the car to grab the kayak, we saw this American Robin which had just found a worm. It took a couple pictures for us to get a great one to show you:

We had two different people comment on our kayak, one just before we were about to inflate it and one while we were on the water (they were in a rental canoe). Everyone thinks it is fantastic.

We timed it this time to see how fast we could get it ready for the water. We took a video to be able to show people and it lasted just over 7 minutes from taking it out of the bag until it was completely inflated. It really only takes us about 3 minutes to blow it up with our Intex manual air pump – the rest was talking into the camera and unfolding it.

We had a great afternoon on the water, rowing upstream and then just drifting back down. It was July 4th, so there were plenty of people on the water in the park, but we still managed to enjoy the serenity of the river despite its higher than typical usage by people.

How many people were there? Well, the rangers had put out signs instructing people to use one of the higher parking lots because the two parking lots closest to the river were full. We decided to ignore the signs because it was late in the day and we needed to unload the boat anyway (rather than drag it so far) and it worked out well because we got a parking spot near the boat launch. But if you are planning to use one of the PA state parks near Philly on July Fourth, you should plan to get there early. For example, there was a sign on I-95 as we were driving up around 3:30 PM that Neshaminy State Park was closed because it was at capacity (too many people/cars!). Tyler worked out well for us though!

We didn’t have time to make it to the Schofield Ford Covered Bridge, which we hear is one of the main attractions in the park. But since it isn’t too far away from us, we will be back to take a few pictures of this bridge built in 1874 sometime soon.

We’re sitting at home now enjoying some BBQ and waiting for the fireworks. We can’t wait to tell you about our next adventure in a park!

Birding, Manatees and the Beach at Merritt Island NWR and Canaveral National Seashore in June

We were supposed to make a quick trip down to Biscayne National Park during our trip to Florida, but because of uncertainty about the weather due to the forecast (scattered thunderstorms in the forecast), we decided to spend the day at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore instead.

The weather ended up being perfect for the trip and we had an unforgettable day of photography, birding and the beach.

We woke up ridiculously early in the morning to make a dash for the Atlantic coast from the Orlando area (where we were staying) for the sunrise. We attempted to make it there last year when we drove down to Miami but we got up too late then and missed it by an hour or so. This year we had better luck. We made it to Sunrise Park about 15 minutes before the sun started peaking over the ocean.

We watched the pelicans, crabs and other wildlife (plus people) as the sky turned orange and the sun came up! Vacations always make time feel so much slower than ordinary life.

Once the sun was over the clouds on the horizon, we continued our way north on Route 1 toward Canaveral. Shortly thereafter, we discovered one of the highlights of the trip – the osprey. We stopped counting around thirty or so over the day – more than either one of us had had ever seen before. We usually saw them sitting on manmade nesting platforms on the poles/towers next to the road, although there was one with babies nested on top of a shopping plaza sign that we found hilarious.

After we accidentally made our way to a restricted entrance of the Kennedy Space Center and had to make a turn around, we made our way through Titusville and across the Indian River to the Merritt Island NWR.

Our first stop was at the Visitor Center, where we found out that we needed to go to the Canaveral National Seashore entrance to buy an annual national park pass with a credit card. There was a short nature trail at the Visitor Center which we enjoyed after watching an osprey on a nest through their spotting scope. The trail took us past their two small ponds / marsh as well as through a nearby wooded area.

Once we had completed our purchase of the annual pass at the Canaveral entrance, we backtracked a few miles to get to the start of the Black Point Wildlife Drive. This is a 7 mile, one way drive through the marshes of the area that allows for a variety of wading birds to be seen from your car. There are a few observation areas, although two of the ones that we went to were closed due to hurricane damage.

After we completed the drive, we made our way up to the Manatee Observation Deck. We had been told by someone that we would be lucky if we were able to see one due to the heat of the day. However, when we pulled up and parked, we found that there were dozens in the water right in front of us! They were so cool to watch but it was sad to see so many scarred by the motors of boats.

On our way back from watching the manatees, we decided to stop at the Scrub Jay Hiking Trail and try our luck (and test our eyes). The Florida Scrub Jay is one of only 15 birds endemic to the United States. It is unique to Florida and protected as a threatened species due to its loss of suitable habitat to survive – they require at least 750 acres of contiguous scrub for their long term survival. We got pictures of a promising bird immediately after exiting the vehicle, but due to poor lighting conditions we couldn’t be sure of the birds identification until we reviewed the camera pictures on the computer later. We spent most of the time listening for their call, and we eventually did capture a photo of one on the camera (it was too far away to really identify by the naked eye).

Our birding complete, we headed over to Canaveral National Seashore and its popular Playalinda Beach in order to enjoy some time on the sandy beach of the park and in the ocean. There are about a dozen parking lots with changing stations and entryways over the dunes. Since it was a weekday, there was plenty of available parking and space to spread out on the beach.

When the clock hit the late afternoon, we had to leave to head to a BBQ with our family. Our day at the Merritt Island National Widlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore was a memorable one as we were able to see dozens of different bird species as well as my first ever wild manatees.

24 Hours Around Ithaca Waterfalls in June

I have been telling Jayne that I would take her up to Ithaca and show her Cornell University (my alma mater) for most of our relationship. So when the first weekend in June rolled around this year and we were facing a rainy weekend in the Philadelphia area, I proposed we get out of town and see what Ithaca had to offer. It was already early afternoon when we made the final decision so we had to hustle home and pack. It took us some time to get ready since we hadn’t been on a road trip in a while, but we eventually grabbed our gear and hit the road around four for a whirlwind 24 hours at my alma mater.

Ithaca is located in upstate New York about four hours from New York City, and is actually quite a pleasant drive from Philadelphia. We reached Ithaca as the sun was setting and parked not far from the store (since it was summer) and walked over to the edge of Libe Slope near Uris Library to catch the sunset. It was beautiful and the perfect way to start our time in Ithaca. We did a quick spin around campus to show Jayne the sights as well as my north campus dorm building for the first two years.

We didn’t have any plans or a hotel reservation, but we were hungry, so we headed down to drive around the Commons and see what could be seen. It turned out that there was a festival and music concert happening there over the weekend, so it was packed. But we managed to find a parking spot and walked around for a few minutes to find an outdoor dining spot. We ended up grabbing a margarita and some food at Viva Taqueria and enjoying the beautiful early summer weather of upstate NY.

After we finished our drinks and food, we decided it was time to find a hotel and turn in. We found a decent option with a free continental breakfast past the Wegmans, and headed there for the night. So much had changed in the nearly twenty years since I had gone to school there!

After a good nights rest (and some food), we were ready to explore! We made our way first to Buttermilk Falls State Park, which was just down the street. Buttermilk Falls is an 800 acre park with five hiking trails, waterfall, lake and campground. Since we had a busy day ahead of us, we spent our time there watching Buttermilk Creek splash down the hill as it has done for the past 12,000 years. I often enjoyed the falls of Ithaca, so it was a great way to introduce Jayne to the wonders of Ithaca.

Our next stop was Taughannock Falls State Park. Jayne really enjoyed the drive along the lake as we talked about how nice it would be to spend some time at one of the houses there with a great view. It wasn’t long before we reached the state park. Taughannock Falls is the highest single drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains – 215 feet down into a 400 foot gorge.

We decided that we were going to the overlook on the north rim of the gorge and that was our first sight of Taughannock Falls. It was everything that I remembered (maybe more since it had rained recently!) and Jayne was impressed. After we took a bunch of photos, she even decided to buy an Ithaca is Gorges t-shirt at the souvenir shop.

While we were on the overlook, we saw a bunch of people that had hiked down to the deck at the base of the waterfall. I admitted that I had never actually done the hike and Jayne and I quickly agreed to break new ground with her. It was a nice walk through the woods along the river to the pool and falls. Just about the time that we started wondering how much farther it was, we were there. There was a small crowd but we got some great pictures and had a lot of fun in the beauty of the outdoors.

We didn’t spend too much time there because we had a lot to explore, but we were definitely enjoying the weather. After the hike back to the car, we headed south back into Ithaca and found one of my old haunts not far from Ithaca Falls. After wandering around a bit, we parked and took the trail back to the waterfall. You can see it from the bridge, but we wanted to get an up close view. After we took a few photos, we enjoyed watching a great blue heron go fishing in the river that I used to fish in. We even saw it catch a fish and got some great photos.

We made our way back up the hill past Gun Hill (where I used to live for a year) and stopped at the Johnson museum to walk out onto the suspension bridge across the gorge. It was fun – although there is a lot more safety netting than I remember!

I had also never been to the Johnson Museum of Art while I was there, so we went in and walked around for a bit before going to the top floor for the wonderful views of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake. I remember them fondly from an 8 AM math class my first year of college.

We were getting hungry, so we jumped back in the car and headed up to the Dairy Bar for some sandwiches and ice cream. The ice cream is made there at Cornell’s very own dairy processing plant. It was just starting to rain a bit so we took our time, and there was absolutely no crowd since it was in the middle of summer. The coffee, sandwiches and ice cream were perfect.

We had one last stop planned in Ithaca – Sapsucker Woods. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is just outside of Ithaca, New York and was part of the reason that I went to Cornell in the first place so many years ago. We had a ton of fun checking out the various exhibits, watching the many birds at the feeders, and walking around the pond as it rained on us.

When we were sufficiently wet and finished up with the birds, we got back in the car and encountered a family of canadian geese and their babies which we watched dry themselves on the side of the road for a few minutes. They eventually walked into the field and we left for one more unplanned stop – nearby Triphammer mall. Armed with some Cornell souvenirs and facing a four or so hour drive home, we decided to get on the road. But it was a wonderful trip to Ithaca and one that we will never forget.

Memorial Day at Evansburg State Park

We made a day trip up to Evansburg State Park to celebrate a birthday with family and friends. Evansburg State Park is located in southcentral Montgomery County near Collegeville and Skippack.

This 3,349 acre PA park tracks Skippack Creek as it meanders toward Perkiomen Creek. It wasn’t meandering when we were there, however, because it was smack dab at the end of this year’s unusual May rains. But it turned out to be a beautiful, sunny day in the park.

We rented a covered pavilion for our family and friends to join us at the park for a BBQ. They have one that is for 60 people and one that is for 200. Reservations are accepted through Reserve America and there is a fee associated with it. If no one has reserved the pavilion, then they are open for usage by others.

When we arrived at the park, we started with a quick driving tour of the area. It turns out that it is hard to get down to the river from the pavilion area, particularly with mud on the trails from all of the rains. There is an interpretive center with small garden.

When we finished touring the area, we drove down to the southern end of the park where the fishing pier is located. Shortly before we got there, we saw a small pedestrian bridge that crosses the river.

We tried our luck fishing for a few hours but we didn’t catch anything. Skippack Creek is stocked with trout but the river was pretty high and brown from all of the recent rains. We saw a few other people fishing there, so there definitely must be some fish. But we ended up having much better luck birding, enjoying watching this northern flicker dust in the parking lot and then climb on a nearby tree across the river.

When we called it quits on fishing, we headed to the pavilion, where our friends and family were already gathering. There was plenty of grass to spread out, a play area with jungle gym for the kids, and a huge grill which was capable of cooking up a true feast with enough charcoal.

After lunch on our way out of the park, we stopped for a few minutes at Keyser’s Mill to walk around the property and down to the stone arch bridge. Keyser’s Mill is a 2.5 story stone and stucco mill built in the 1800s and restored in 1985-86. It was built as a grist and plaster mill but the machinery and wheels have been removed.

The old miller’s house is just down the street.

We walked down to the Skippack Bridge from here, a historic stone arch bridge built in 1792 with eight spans covering 202 feet. It carries traffic on Germantown Pike across Skippack Creek and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970.

Even though the water was pretty muddy upstream, it was beautiful here.

It was getting a little late in the afternoon and we were stuffed from all of the hamburgers, hot dogs and other food (plus CAKE), so we headed home. We can’t wait to tell you about our next adventure!

Our Spring Day at French Creek State Park and Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

On the opening day of trout fishing season, March 31, 2018, we headed up to French Creek State Park to fish in Scotts Run Lake, and we visited nearby Hopewell Furnace NHS while we were there. It was the first time we had been to either park, and we were excited to explore a little on our first adventure of 2018.

We have taken part in the opening day madness of trout fishing in southeastern Pennsylvania for the past few years, but we haven’t had much luck actually catching fish. Fishing opens two weeks ahead of the rest of Pennsylvania here due to the fact that the weather is usually nicer sooner in this part of the state.

In the past, we have fished Wissahickon Creek, Pennypack Creek and Tohickon Creek. But we decided that we were going to try our luck this year on one of the Philadelphia’s nearby stocked trout lakes. After looking at our options, we settled on Scotts Run Lake in French Creek State Park. It was definitely a popular choice among other anglers.

We came from the direction of 422 and Douglasville, so we entered via Shed Road to the East Entrance of the State Park. We passed the campground and quickly found the entrance to Scotts Run, which had cars parked along the loop road leading down the lake – there were a lot of people excited for the start of fishing season! We found a spot just past the vault toilets and walked around a little to see the lake and scope out a good spot to fish from. There were people of all ages fishing from around the shore, across the dam, and from canoes and kayaks all across the lake.

We decided on a spot, Rob put on his waders, and we made our way down to the shore and cast out. We had seen a few people on our walk with fish on their stringers, but they eluded us today, despite seeing them quite a few times as we were fishing. We actually did have one bite right after we got there, but it managed to free itself before we landed it. A fish was landed to our left, as well as to our right, but we were not that lucky. Still, it was nice to be out on the lake, the weather was sunny and mid-50s so it was pleasant sweater weather, and hey, it was the start of fishing season!

We spent a couple hours on the lake before heading back to the car and driving the short distance over to Hopewell Furnace to make some sandwiches (there is a nice area with picnic tables at Scotts Run Lake, but we wanted to keep moving). There is an orchard on either side as you drive in, and a picnic area on one side of the parking lot up on the hill. We sat on a bench overlooking everything, wondering what was below waiting for us to explore, eating our sandwiches and recharging before the next leg of our adventure.

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is an intact example of the iron plantations that helped transform the United States into an industrial giant. The park protects 848 acres including the historic structures and surrounding land.

We headed into the visitor’s center, which was pretty typical of what we have seen at other NPS sites, with a desk for the rangers, a small gift shop, an auditorium, and a small museum. There were a few options for informative videos, with four short films being exhibited on a screen in the museum and one longer video in the auditorium. We explored, talking to the rangers, reading the exhibits and watching the videos, before heading down the path from the visitor center to the historical buildings.

We followed the numbers self-tour on the map/guide book, first exploring the arythricite furnace, then moving to the charcoal (making site), which we knew from the videos inside was the main way of making iron ore at the site, as well as the last location of charcoal made in this manner in the United States (it ran until 1883, when the entire operation was closed). On this site, colliers tended about 8 charcoal (pits) around the clock, carefully turning up to 6000 cords of wood a year into the charcoal needed at the furnace. Making charcoal was a delicate practice, one that involved carefully stoking the (pits) to ensure the flames were at the correct level, before carefully extracting the charcoal from the pile. It was then transferred over to a cooling shed before being shuttled, one cartload at a time, over to the cold-air (pit thing) where it was added to iron ore and limestone.

It was really interesting to learn about the water wheel, which helped generate power at this site for to force air, through bellows, into the furnace to help the heat rise to about 3000°F and ensure the iron was melted properly. There are three types of water wheels, and this one was called a “breast” wheel, which means the water comes in halfway up on the side of the wheel and flows downward, pushing the wheel away from that point (other water wheels have water pushing from the top or from the bottom). It pushed two bellows, each inside enormous wooden barrels, up and down to generate air, which was piped in near the bottom of the furnace.

As the molten iron came out the bottom of the furnace, an employee would scoop it up and either pour it into molds on the ground to make pig iron, or it would be carefully poured by artisans into a number of molds to create cooking tools such as cast iron pots and skillets, bigger pieces such as stoves, and other specialty pieces. There were several examples of Hopewell Stoves around the museum and in the Big House where the owner lived. Hopewell Stoves were known world-wide for their quality, and they were quite beautiful to look at, with intricate designs on the sides. They were available in a number of different sizes, and stoves like this made it easier to run a household, because instead of carefully tending a fire for all the cooking that needed to be done, a smaller fire was maintained inside the stove, and food could be cooked on a shelf inside or on top.

There was also a blacksmith shop on site, which was important for an industry that relied so heavily on transporting heavy items (such as bulk loads of charcoal, iron ore, and iron products) via horses.

The blacksmith would have made pieces for the wagons, such as wheels and bridles (?) as well as horseshoes and other items. The video in the visitor’s center helped to bring the blacksmith’s shop to live, showing how an anvil was utilized to shape different pieces, and the process used.

Many of the workers lived on site, either in tenant houses they rented from the owner for $15-25 a year, or for a few single workers, living on the top floor of the “Big House” where the owner lived.

Other employees, like miners, would have lived closer to the mines, with their families. There was also a company store onsite, where employees could shop for food and other household goods without heading into town. The shop functioned as a bank, with the worker’s wages tracked there for use in the store or to withdraw as cash to use in town or elsewhere.

It was starting to get late into the afternoon, and we had a bit of a drive to get into Center City before Michigan basketball’s game against Loyola in the NCAA March Madness Final Four, so we decided to call it a day. We had a lot of fun exploring the historic buildings at Hopewell Furnace, but we’ll have to make another trip back to explore some of the surrounding trails and further exploration of French Creek’s day use areas (as well as its other lake!)

We saw a Snowy Owl outside Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan!

We spent the morning of December 31st searching the Rudyard area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for our first ever snowy owl sighting. As you can see from the photos, it was a success! We saw four snowy owls in around an hour.

Snowy owls are typically found in the Arctic tundra but some migrate south to Canada and the northern United States in the winter. In some years, snowy owls migrate farther south in greater numbers. This is usually referred to as an irruption.

I found out that the winter of 2017-2018 was a good time to see them after watching the bird-watching movie Big Year and doing some online research about them. Since I haven’t ever seen one, I was excited that this might be the year. There were a few found near where we live in Philadelphia. We were also planning to be in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan briefly at the end of the year and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to see one in the wild. It happened!

We left Sault Ste. Marie around sunrise to make the drive down I-75 to the Rudyard exit. The thermometer in the car said it was a brutal -16 degrees Fahrenheit when we got started. By the time we got back, we were experiencing a heat wave: it was around -11 degrees.

Rudyard and Pickford are located about halfway between the Mackinaw Bridge and Sault Ste. Marie. There is a lot of farmland in the area and snowy owls sightings have happened there frequently in the past according to reports on the Cornell eBird website.

We didn’t have to wait too long. We took the Rudyard exit off I-75 and then turned south on S Centerline Rd. We were scouring every possible perch in the area but didn’t have any immediate luck. We made a left when we reached M-48 and then we saw our first on the south side of the road on a pole near the I-75 overpass. We had only been looking in the area for less than 15 minutes!

Our First Snowy Owl

We actually almost drove right by it at first. We weren’t positive it was a snowy owl sitting on top of the pole. But we decided to stop and check it out anyway. As you can see from the below photo, it isn’t always easy to pick them out on top of the poles.

We jumped out of the car and once we found it in the telephoto lens of our camera we knew we had found our first snowy owl! You can see the close up photo that we took of our first snowy owl above. After a bit of celebrating, we got cold and decided to jump back in the car, warm up, and continue driving.

Number Two and Three

There were a few recent sightings near Pickford so we decided to drive over there and keep looking. The second bird was sitting just south of the intersection of M-48 and M-129 north of Pickford.

The third one was sitting on a pole by a chiropractor. We had found our second snowy owl in a mile just north of Pickford.

The Last Snowy Owl of the Day

We decided that we were running out of time and should backtrack as we kept looking. The final one was sitting on a pole in a field as we were about to return to I-75. I noticed that there was a small white speck on top of a pole some distance across the field that could not be found on any of the surrounding poles.

Can you see it in the photo? We moved down the road a bit closer and brought out the telephoto lens. It was clear that it was our fourth snowy owl of the day.

We couldn’t get a great picture because the distance was so far and we haven’t bought a tripod yet. But after realizing how important it is when trying to take these photos it will be one of our next purchases.

We were pretty much out of free time for the day and decided to call it quits and head back to Sault Ste. Marie. We had a family holiday event to attend and we had already accomplished what we set out to do. I don’t think we will ever forget the morning, though. I was definitely celebrating our success like a giddy schoolboy for the rest of the day.

Afternoon at Valley Forge National Historical Park in December 2017

We decided to spend the afternoon at Valley Forge National Historical Park today. Located only 25 miles from downtown Philadelphia, it is one of the nation’s most significant historical landmarks from the American Revolution.

Nearly 240 years ago, on December 19, 1777, Washington’s army marched into Valley Forge where they would stay for the next six months. They had been defeated at Germantown and Whitemarsh as they ceded Philadelphia to the British. Although there would be no battle at Valley Forge during their six months there, they lost around 2,000 soldiers to disease, from the approximately 12,000 that started the winter. A number also deserted, while others’ enlistment ended and they returned home.

The winter at Valley Forge is often referred to as a turning point in the Revolutionary War. In the first battle after Valley Forge, the Continental Army demonstrated vast improvement as it fought the British to a standstill at Monmouth, New Jersey and the British withdrew from the field after dark. While at Valley Forge, France also entered the war as an ally of the United States against the British.

Valley Forge is not one of the 59 national parks. Instead, it is listed as one of the 40+ national historical parks in the country. The designation is shared with Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Appomattox Court House, Harpers Ferry, the Klondike Gold Rush, Nez Perce and many other sites of historical significance.

Valley Forge was originally Pennsylvania’s first state park, created in 1893. The area was transferred to the National Park Service on July 4, 1976, the Bicentennial of the United States.

It was a beautiful day for our visit with a high of around 51 degrees and the park contains 28 miles of authorized trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, so it was probably a bit busier than the ordinary winter day. However, it was clearly not as busy as the park gets at its peak, since the park ranger at Washington’s Headquarters told us that more than 1,000 people will go through there on a busy day.

We made our way to the visitor center at first to orient ourselves to the park and pick up a map. We also found out there is a cell phone audio tour with details about a handful of important locations around the park, so we didn’t buy a recorded audio tour like we did at Gettysburg.

While at the visitor center, they announced that the next video about the park would be starting in the theater, so we made our way up the stairs and over to the next building. It was about a fifteen minute video and gave us a great overview of the park and the events of that winter.

(the theater)

Much of the park is accessed by a one-way road, so with our map in hand we made our way to the second stop (the visitor center is the first stop on the audio tour), which isn’t too far away. Here, we found a redoubt and replicas of the soldiers’ quarters. Although we saw the soldiers’ quarters a few years ago, they had made substantial improvements to them as an educational learning tool. There was even a park employee in one of them with a fire going and dressed in a soldier’s uniform to answer questions.

Above is a cannon that was located in one of the redoubts near the soldiers’ cabins not far from the visitor center.

We made our way next to the National Memorial Arch. This sixty foot high arch was created by Congress and dedicated in 1917. It was designed by Paul Phillipe Cret and is modeled after the victory arches of Ancient Rome. Cret is also known for designing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

We stopped briefly near Wayne’s Woods. Anthony Wayne was a prominent Chester County resident in the Pennsylvania legislature who raised a militia unit to fight with the Continental Army. The sun was setting over the field and it was beautiful.

Our next stop was Valley Forge Station and Washington’s Headquarters. We parked, made our way around the small circle of historical buildings in the lower section and then got back in the car as the sun was setting. (The park closes each day at dusk.)

The train station was created by Reading Railroad in 1911 to provide a point of entry for visitors to the park from Philadelphia. The building which served visitors through the 1950s was restored in 2009 and is now an information center about the area and Washington’s headquarters.

Washington’s headquarters was a rented home where up to 25 people were living during the army’s encampment in Valley Forge. Washington and his aides worked in the two first floor offices and his guards lived in a nearby set of log cabins. The home was purchased in 1877 by the Valley Forge Centennial Memorial Association.

Valley Forge is a must see location for any Philadelphia visit to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Given its proximity to our home, we’ll definitely be back again in the future!

We Bought Camping Air Pads to Review Next Year

We picked up some extra sleeping pads and cots from REI this weekend to test and review. We were able to buy a pair of the REI Kingsman Cot 3, an Exped Megamat Duo 10, a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite, a Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus, a Sea to Summit Comfort Plus, a Big Agnes Q Core SLX, and a Nemo Tensor. They were running all of their sleeping bags and air pads on a buy one, get one for (around) $6 sale.

We have been carrying a pair of Klymit sleeping pads for the past two years. We love them but since we have both tossed and turned a few nights while on them, we thought it was worth trying to upgrade. We have also been doing a lot of car camping, so suffering a bad night’s sleep when we have plenty of space in the car to carry a bigger air mattress seems pointless.

We didn’t go to REI to acquire hundreds of dollars of sleeping pads for camping. But REI was having a big three-day Garage Sale so we decided to add to our gear while they were selling these returned items at a great price. We started by falling in love with the Kingsman Cot 3, a pretty luxurious foldable camping cot. And before we made our purchase, we decided that we were going to review some of the most popular sleeping pads on the market for backpacking and car camping here at Parkcation.

We hope you find our camping gear reviews helpful as you make decisions on what items to buy. If we can find cheap sleeping bags, tents and other items in the future, we’ll probably be doing it again.

Here is a look at what we now own:

Klymit Static V

The Klymit has been a great air pad for us for the past two years. We bought them after our first night in a tent in Pennsylvania in April. In the run up to our camping trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, we did a quick weekend trip to figure out what we were missing. We split a foam pad between us for the evening (one not designed for camping) and it was a pretty awful night of sleep. We quickly realized the error of our ways.

The Klymit Static V is a compact, light and affordable inflatable sleeping pad for backpacking and camping. It has served us well. They have been pretty durable for us with no major leaks over twenty days of use in the past two years. They roll up into a compact bundle ideal for backpacking. They are priced at right around $50 on Amazon and have a more than 4 star rating after 2,000+ customer reviews. We would definitely recommend them to anyone looking for an entry level sleeping pad.

The problems with the Static V are that it isn’t one of the thickest or most insulated pads on the market. When I’m tired, I don’t have any problem falling asleep on it. But if I wake up during the middle of the night, it can be a little difficult to fall back to sleep.

REI Kingdom Cot 3

These will remind you of the lounging chairs at a pool with the addition of a cushion that you typically find on outdoor furniture. The reason we fell in love with the Kingdom Cot 3, though, is the comfort. We’re both eager to put these out in a campground and try them for a night. We have high expectations.

On first glance, the problem with the Kingdom Cot 3 is its bulk. When you first try to put the boxes in your car, you’ll understand what we are talking about here. We are hoping that they take up less space when they are removed from the box and that there is still plenty of room in our SUV for the rest of our gear. There’s also no way that they are going to fit side-by-side in a standard two person tent, or even our two-plus. We’re planning on picking up an inexpensive tent that will fit them when we are doing car camping.

Exped Megamat Duo 10

We have been thinking about a camping air mattress for couples for some time now. When you are sleeping on two individual sleeping pads on the ground, it is hard to snuggle. The pads separate and at least one person usually ends up lying on the ground instead of on the cushions. We are hoping the Megamat Duo fixes this problem for us.

The Megamat is one of the thickest camping mattresses on the market and is designed to lie completely flat. The Duo completely fill a wide 2-person tent and is the length/width of a queen mattress. We have heard it compared to sleeping on your mattress at home.

This is definitely for car camping. Exped makes another two-person sleeping pad, the Synmat Duo, which is more appropriate for backpacking. If you are looking to compare the Megamat Duo to another mattress, we have heard it is best compared to the Thermarest DreamTime, another luxury mattress on the market.

The one thing that we have already noticed about the Megamat Duo is that it is not a one person mattress. If you are lying on it by yourself, you tend to sink to the ground. The weight of a second person helps to maintain the air underneath you rather than surrounding you.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite

This pad is one of the lightest on the market and has gotten rave reviews in the past from other websites. It is shaped like a mummy to conform to your body, and is known for its thickness and comfort at an extremely light weight. We bought the women’s version though, so it is shorter than some of the other sleeping pads we are testing. But we can still see why it garners great reviews. Based on our preliminary testing of this pad, I would have no hesitancy in recommending this one for anyone that wants a mummy pad or a similar Thermarest rectangular pad (like the NeoAir Trekker).

Big Agnes Q Core SLX

This is a rectangular sleeping pad and one of the thickest inflatables on the market. The 25L is a great size for a big person and I had high hopes that it would be my favorite until I realized that it was leaking air due to a hole somewhere. We will have to patch it up or send it back to the company for repair. There was a repair kit with our purchase, so we will have to try it at home first. The instructions say to submerge it in a bathtub or swimming pool. Alternatively, Big Agnes will attempt to repair it for a fee. According to their website, they do not warranty items bought at the REI Garage Sale. Update: We have found and patched the hole!

Thermarest ProLite Plus

The Prolite Plus is a self-inflating pad with memory foam that is popular for thru hiking due to its durable nature and low cost. This is the smallest mummy pad that we are testing (in terms of area) and we saw many that had been returned to REI because of the size/fit. We will let you know how it compares to the Klymit and some of the higher priced pads we are testing.

Sea to Summit Comfort Plus

Our first test of this pad hasn’t impressed us. We think that at this price point the NeoAir and the Big Agnes are more comfortable options. We will let you know if our opinion changes next year as we try it out more.

Nemo Tensor

This sleeping pad ranks similarly to the Big Agnes Q Core SLX in our initial comfort testing. We will let you know which one we prefer after we have had a chance to try them both out.


It is still far too early to say which one is our favorite. We are going to be sleeping on these air pads a lot more over the next year in order to determine which one is our favorite. We have a good range of styles and manufacturers represented to try. We will be sure to link to our reviews here.

Columbus Day Weekend in Acadia National Park

We took a trip up to Acadia National Park over Columbus Day Weekend. Neither one of us had ever been to Maine and we were hopeful that the early October trip would be late enough in the year to give us some brilliant fall foliage as well. It certainly did!

Fall is typically a great time to go to the national parks because there are fewer people going to them and the weather is usually still pretty nice. The four busiest months in Acadia are over the summer: June through September. We knew that the three day weekend would probably bring more people than the average October weekend, but we also wanted a chance to explore Bar Harbor before too many places started shutting down for the end of the season.

We drove up Friday after work. It’s quite a hike from Philadelphia to Bar Harbor. If I remember correctly, it is supposed to be just under a ten hour drive. We took our time and it ended up being more like 12 hours. Our GPS system also ran us right into a nearly one hour construction backup in the middle of Connecticut.

We unfortunately couldn’t see much for most of the way up since it was dark. When we woke up early Saturday morning at daylight near Portland though, we were excited to see some of the trees had changed colors! The fall foliage reports earlier in the week had put color at less than 10% on the coastal region, with some more color inland (but not peak). We still had a few more hours to get from Portland to Bar Harbor that morning, but the drive seemed to go much quicker while we were checking out all of the fall foliage. There was still enough green that it definitely wasn’t peak foliage, but we didn’t care. The Philadelphia leaves were still almost entirely green when we left.

After we turned onto US-1A to get to Bar Harbor from Bangor, we picked up a little traffic and we started getting excited as we knew that Acadia was close. The worst spot of traffic was at a bridge over a small river. More than a dozen cars had stopped at the side of the road. We though there might be a moose in the river but we quickly realized that everyone was just looking at the brilliant fall foliage in the background. People talk about the brilliance of New England fall foliage, but seeing it in person was something else. By the end of the trip, the police had posted temporary no stopping signs all over the bridge. We definitely weren’t the only people to stop and admire the view. As you can see from the photo above, it was absolutely gorgeous!

It wasn’t too much longer until we were crossing over to Mount Desert Island. MDI is the largest island off the coast of Maine and the sixth largest island in the contiguous United States at 108 square miles.

After a brief stop at the Thompson Island Information Center, we made our way into Bar Harbor to stick our feet in the ocean. Earlier this year, we also dipped our toes in the Atlantic down in Florida. So it has become a bit of a tradition for us. We were eager to check-in at our campsite though so we didn’t linger too long in Bar Harbor. Just a short stroll along the shore – enough to admire the ocean views and the beautiful architecture.

After a short stop at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, our next stop was Blackwoods Campground. We had grabbed a reservation in early September for one of the last available spots in this 281 site campground with group, tent and RV sites. The campground is off Maine’s Route 3 not far from Otter Creek. It is a short drive from Bar Harbor, but still pretty convenient to most of the park. If you want to camp in the park near loop road, then this is the campground that you want.

After setting up our tent, we went to take advantage of the great weather and start exploring loop road. We had originally discussed going to Southwest Harbor on Saturday, but we were worried that we weren’t going to get another day with such nice weather to explore the loop road.

We thought that the Jordan Pond House might be a nice place to grab lunch, but we couldn’t find a parking spot in either of it’s two lots around mid-day Saturday. Instead, we made our way up to take in the surroundings from Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on MDI. We were planning to return Sunday morning before the sunrise, so we wanted to have a general idea of what we would find when we were stumbling around in the dark. While you can drive all the way up to the top, it took us a little while to make it to the top as there was a traffic jam due to people waiting for parking spots.

From October 7th to March 6th each year, Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the United States to see the sunrise. It is a pretty popular activity in the summer, too. Because the number of people going before sunrise can fill up, the campground ranger recommended that we leave our campsite an hour before the sunrise to make sure we got a parking spot (with the drive to the mountaintop, arriving around 30 minutes before sunrise was the goal). There is also a parking lot just before the summit which faces to the southeast for sunsets, but we never got a chance to take it in during the evening due to the weather. It was very pretty during the day.

These are the views to the south from the lower parking spot:

This is the view of Bar Harbor from the top:

After we made our way down the mountain, we started our journey through the eastern portion of Park Loop Road. This turns into a one way road taking park visitors to Schooner Head Overlook, Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliff and Otter Cove. If you are here to see the coast of Maine or climb the Beehive, then this path will take you there.

We spent a while taking photos here and there, walking around on Sand Beach and exploring Thunder Hole. The weather was great and we weren’t in a big hurry. We managed to finish up and make it back to the campsite before dark.

This is Sand Beach, one of the few cold-water, shell-based sand beaches in the world:

Overlooking Sand Beach is the Beehive, where a popular trail leads to the top of the 520 foot mountain.

While we were eating dinner at our campsite, we saw an ad for the Dog & Pony Tavern on an MDI map that said they had a bunch of TVs, so we assumed they would likely have the Michigan football game on. So after dark, we drove into Bar Harbor to catch the game. We found some other Michigan fans and watched the first half before making our way back to the campground. These fans had visited a few other bars looking for a way to watch, and could confirm that the Do & Pony was a great option for finding a variety of games on at once while visiting, as some of the other places in town only had a TV or two.

The alarm went off Sunday morning just after 5 AM. Not long after jumping in the car, we encountered fog. We were hoping that we still might be able to see the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain, but it was covered in fog too. We sat on a rock with everyone else for a little while hoping that the fog might clear, but to no avail. We only saw the rays of the sun peaking out from around the clouds once we drove down the mountain.

Since low tide was right around sunrise, we made our way down to Bar Harbor to check out the crossing to Bar Island. This is an island in Frenchman’s Bay that is accessible by foot at low tide. The land bridge is found from Bridge Street and it is a short walk across. If you don’t make it back before the water rises, you get stuck on the island until the next low tide (or you call the water taxi). As we walked across, we spent a while watching the seagulls, checking out the rocks, and dreaming about what it would be like to have a house on the ocean there. We didn’t really spend much time on Bar Island (for fear of getting stuck), and we made it back in plenty of time. If you get there early enough, there is a 1/2 mile hike across the island.

We made our way to Jordan Pond next. Since it was early, there was plenty of parking. We walked down to the lake and then along one of the carriage roads on the island. In addition to the beautiful scenery on the walk, we watched a baby squirrel peak out of a hole in a tree to scold us, in a rather memorable incident for us.

After a stop at the campsite for breakfast, we started our journey back to Thunder Hole. On the way, we saw a few people stopped on the side of the road at a lake and we realized that they weren’t just looking at the leaves – they were watching a Bald Eagle perched on a log in the lake. We watched for a while as it moved from a log on the water to a perch in a tree. It really stretched the limit of our zoom, but what a fantastic sight!

Thunder Hole is a spot in the ocean where the waves crash into a small cave among the rocks of Acadia. The best time to experience the sound is two hours before high tide. We showed up then, but we weren’t lucky enough to get to hear it. We suspect that the impending rain lead to a higher water level than normal, and if the water is higher than the cave, it doesn’t crash and make the same loud noise. We’ll have to try again another trip to see the spectacular waves and booming thunder sound it can make, but until then, we’ll remember the sound it made Saturday afternoon.

It started to rain on us, so we started our drive over to Southwest Harbor. We wanted to go to the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse on the other side of Mt. Desert Island as well as get a lobster roll. We stopped at Beal’s Lobster Pier and ate on their dock. They’ve been in business for more than 80 years, and will even ship a lobster to you if you want. We had the garlic and the buffalo lobster rolls, which were excellent.

We managed to get over to the lighthouse before the post-rain crowd showed up, and got a parking spot right away. (On the way out, there was a long line since it is a small parking lot.) The lighthouse is the only one on Mount Desert Island and marks the entrance to Bass Harbor. It belongs to the U.S. Coast Guard. We walked down the southern path to get to the lighthouse to start, and then the northern path to make our way down some stairs to the rocks below (and a different view of the lighthouse).

When we left, we drove our way back along the shore, passing Seawall Campground and spending a few minutes walking around the natural seawall accessible from the picnic area as well as the road. On our way back to Blackwoods, we also stopped at a little pond near the harbor in Somesville where there were a bunch of ducks. After taking a few photos and borrowing the library’s wifi, we realized that the most photographed bridge in Maine was right behind us. Surrounded by fall foliage and reflecting across the tiny pond, it was a remarkable gem to discover.

On our drive back, we stopped in to a bakery in Northeast Harbor to get some dessert. We chose a whoopie pie, considered a New England classic (and the current state dessert of Maine), and walked the main street of the small town.

After dinner and before bed, we debated whether it was worth it to wake up early again and try to catch the sunrise. The forecast wasn’t good. It was supposed to be cloudy with humidity of 90+ percent. We were dismayed, but we set our alarms anyway.

At 4 AM when I woke up, it was cloudy but I could see the moon, so there was hope. As we rolled out of bed an hour later, we had no idea whether we were going to get to see the sunrise. We drove to Cadillac Mountain, and as we started our way up the road, we realized that there was an orange hue on the horizon and we were going to get to see the sunrise! When we got to the top, there were a few clouds but no fog and we were practically jumping for joy.

We made our way out to the overlook in our pajamas and sat down to enjoy the sunrise with everyone else. It was magnificent and even more special because we thought that we weren’t going to get to see it. The Acadia sunrise is just one of the many amazing reasons to visit Acadia National Park.

I took way too many photos here, but here is one that captured the moment well:

On the way out of the park after a stop at Jordan Pond and packing up our campsite, we decided to hike up to Bubble Rock. This is a large rock on the edge of South Bubble that looks like it could fall over at any minute. But it has been up there since it was deposited by a glacier. It is a half mile hike from the Bubble Rock parking lot. We hadn’t really done a hike in the park, and this short one before we left worked well for us. It’s a bit of an uphill on the way to the rock, but otherwise a short and pleasant hike (we’d give it a 2.5 out of 5 for difficulty, with stairs and incline, but totally worth it for the fantastic views at the top!).

We left the park about 48 hours after arriving, sad that we couldn’t spend more time there. But it was already noon and we knew that we had a 12 hour drive ahead of us (plus rain expected all through New England). Since it’s not too far for a long weekend trip, we’re hopeful that we can get back to Acadia National Park again next year! We took way more pictures than we could pack into this post, so stay tuned for more great photos!

Two Days at Mammoth Cave National Park in September 2017

We did two days of cave tours at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky last weekend. We were there because Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world with more than 400 miles of explored caves below the surface. It became a national park in the 1940s but has been on the nation’s radar for much longer. There have been cave tours here for just over 200 years. Neither one of us had been in a cave before, so we were excited to get below ground and check it out.

We drove down to Mammoth Cave from Cincinnati. We were there for the Oktoberfest, the largest in the United States, in mid-September. Cave City, KY is roughly 2.5 hours southwest of Cincinnati, making it a great weekend or three day weekend trip south for much of the Midwest. Monday was a long drive back to Philadelphia, but we completed four cave tours in under 48 hours and had a blast.

We started planning this trip about a month ago, and locked in our tour times and campsite just over two weeks ahead of departing. It was the fall, so we weren’t too worried about campsite reservations. There were a lot of people here in the campground Saturday night, so it was a good thing that we did make reservations. On Sunday night, there were only a handful of people camping, so we got a great photo of our campsite in its natural state on Monday morning:

The only tour that was completely booked at the time we made reservations was the Wild Cave tour. Since it is only offered once a day on the weekend (and not during the week), be sure to book it very early if you have your heart set on it.

We ended up booking four tours ahead of schedule. On Sunday, we did the 8:45 am Gothic Avenue tour, the 11:45 am Great Onyx tour, and the 3:15 pm Historic tour. The tours in the middle of the day booked up by the time we arrived (the Onyx tour was sold out, for example), so if you have your heart set on a certain schedule, better book early. In the summer, I would definitely recommend reservations.

Three tours and a trip down the River Styx trail on Sunday definitely wore us out, but we wouldn’t have changed our schedule a bit.

(the Gothic Avenue tour and the Historic tour both enter through the historic cave entrance pictured above)

On Monday, we did the Grand Avenue tour. It is a four hour tour that leaves at 9:45 AM on the weekdays in the fall. The combination of the four tours let us cover almost every inch of cave available to us at the time.

The tours were very well designed and each guide was obviously passionate about the cave. The Gothic Avenue tour lets you see see some of the amazing architecture and the scrawled names of past visitors on the walls/ceiling. The Historic tour takes you across a lot of historic areas, including the Bottomless Pit, the River Styx Hall, Fat Man’s Misery and the Mammoth Dome Tower. The Onyx tour takes you by bus to a different entrance and lets you see one of the competitor caves that remains more natural (the operator, Miss Lucy, didn’t allow any graffiti). The Grand Avenue tour traverses four miles underground, the longest tour other than the Wild Cave Tour. The section of cave at the end (the Frozen Niagara section) is remarkable and was the perfect end to our trip through Mammoth Cave.

(handwriting on the ceiling from past visitors seen on the Gothic Avenue tour dates back to the early 1800s)

We’re putting together more detailed descriptions of each component to our trip, but here are a few tips and things of note for people planning their own trip:

Tickets are picked up from the Visitor Center, but many of the tours leave from the Rotunda Room at the Lodge, or the shelters between the Visitor’s Center and the Lodge. Make sure you pick up your tickets early so that you have time to walk between the Visitor Center and the Lodge. The bridge between the two is under construction in fall 2017, making it a nontrivial walk between the two locations. We had a moment of panic, but ended up making it in plenty of time.

Any tours leaving from the Historic entrance (including the Gothic Avenue and Historic tours) involve a fairly steep upward climb on the return trip to get back to the Lodge. This is nicely broken up and the second half is at your own pace, but you should definitely be aware of it as you are making reservations.

You have to walk on bio-security mats after exiting the caves. This is to minimize the risk of spreading white nose syndrome, a disease that impacts hibernating bats. Mammoth has already lost a significant percentage of its bat population to the disease, so they are trying to keep it from spreading to other caves. These mats are safe and simple to use, as they are a solution of Woolite laundry detergent and water, and just serve to rinse spores off the bottoms of your shoes. We did manage to see two bats across our roughly eight miles in the caves.

If you look closely at the tour information, you will find that portions of the Gothic Avenue tour are duplicated by the Historic tour. We saw this and decided that we were doing both anyway. It was the right call. The only part of duplication is really the entrance and initial hallway. The Gothic Avenue tour is the first of the day, so you open up the cave and turn all of the lights on. We really enjoyed the leisurely pace of the Gothic Avenue tour and it is an entirely different experience – plus our ranger led the first half of the tour as an 19th century tour guide and the second half as himself, giving a range of interesting information.

The River Styx exits the cave only a half mile from the Historic entrance (photo above). At one time, they did boat trips down the river in the cave. Due to the environmental impact, these were stopped some time ago. We heard that they occasionally still do tours to the edge of the river when the conditions are right, but it can otherwise be some of the thickest mud you will ever see to get down there (according to a guide). Instead, you can reach the exit from the cave via a trail from the Historic cave entrance. However, it is at a much lower elevation than the entrance to the cave. We walked down there after our last tour on Sunday. I would definitely not go down there before a cave tour because you may not make it back in time. It’s a decent uphill for the East Coast.

For most tours, the only things that you should bring are water, a camera and a fleece sweatshirt. If you don’t wear long pants, you may get cold. Tennis shoes work fine – just don’t wear flip flops! There are sections of both wet cave and dry cave on various tours, plus steps and rock to walk on, so we want everyone to be safe.

Additionally, they no longer serve lunch at the Snowball Room during the Grand Avenue tour. We were really excited and extended our trip because we thought that would be really cool. But we found out just a few days before that they had cancelled lunch service a few years back due to insufficient resources and lack of demand, plus the impact of that program on the caves. We still really enjoyed the tour though. The beginning is a deep stair descent into the cave which really sets the mood, and the finish at the Frozen Niagara is spectacular.

(none of our photos really did it justice)

Please don’t be the annoying person on your tour. Don’t forget to turn the flash off on your camera, avoid taking a picture every five seconds while walking even after realizing your photos are blurry (the rangers’ safety talk does remind you to stop to take all pictures, so you don’t trip or fall), or shine the light on your cell phone around everywhere to see. It only takes a handful of annoying people to make a tour less pleasant.

One last note: be sure to check the route your GPS is taking you to the park. If you are approaching from the north or west, there is a possibility that it decides to take you over a ferry. This would be a problem if you are hoping to make a certain tour time, or in our case racing to pitch the tent before dark. Our GPS sent us through Cave City off I-65 (the correct route), so we were good.

(one of the fawns that we saw)

We had a great 48 hours in Mammoth Cave National Park. If we stayed in the park longer, we definitely would have explored more above surface. We would have taken the ferry, rented a canoe to float down the river, done some fishing, plenty of hiking and spent a lot more time watching the wildlife (we did manage to see plenty of deer and hear two owls without even trying). It is a bit of a drive for us, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re back in the next year or two.

Our Day at Dry Tortugas NP via the Yankee Freedom III

We spent a Friday in late June at Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida. Because the park is 70 miles west of Key West, in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, it is one of the more isolated parks run by the United States. It is also one of the smallest in terms of land mass – most of the 100 square miles of the park consist of the ocean and only seven small islands are above the water. The most visited one is Garden Key, the home of Fort Jefferson. Although we’re going to go into more detail about the trip later in this post as well as tips for first-time visitors planning, I figured I would start with what we loved and why we are going to go back.

First, the fort and island captivated us – we love history. From the inhabitants of the prison to the strategic importance of the islands in the history of commerce, it is an amazing story.

Second, the scenery is beautiful. Both the boat ride and the top level of the fort provides amazing views of the surrounding landscape. We can’t wait to spend the night on the island and get to see both the sunset and the sunrise.

This is a photo from the top of Fort Jefferson of Bush Key, which is off limits during nesting season. So pretty!

Third, the wildlife is different and intriguing. We were continually amazed by the magnificent frigatebirds soaring overhead and the brown pelicans sitting on posts at the docks. The fish, both those spotted while walking along the moat wall as well as during snorkeling, kept us peering into the crystal clear water for the next gem.

Finally, even though we spent the entire time on the island with a ferry boat of nearly 200 people, we definitely still found plenty of space to be alone. The high walls of the fort are a pretty good barrier – and except for an encounter with the tour group, you rarely found yourself encountering too many other people while exploring the fort. There are three levels to the fort (ground floor, second floor, and roof) and people tend to spread out. The only places that we encountered large groups of people were at the boat/changing areas and the sand of the south beach area. We’re sure that an overnight encounter in the park, without the day visitors, will be amazing.

So that’s what why we’re going back. But here’s a chronicle of our day for those also considering going to the Dry Tortutagas for the first time. We were going to be in Florida on vacation, so we decided to make the drive down to Key West to cross the Dry Tortugas off our life list. We didn’t have time to stay overnight in the park, but we were hopeful that a half day would be enough to explore Garden Key and see the sights. A day trip is indeed just enough time to do everything that you want to do (briefly) and get your feet wet and ready for more.

The Dry Tortugas are reached by either seaplane or boat. The Yankee Freedom III is the cheaper option but takes nearly four times as long. The seaplane is approximately 40 minutes while the boat takes around 2.5 hours. If you own a boat, or want to charter one, that is also an option. We arrived via the Yankee Freedom III. We made the reservations several weeks in advance and both the day before and after were already booked. So if you have a limited window in Key West to make it out to the national park, be sure to book your travel early! If you’re looking to camp, reserve your spot even sooner – Yankee Freedom is the only option that transports your camping gear for you, and they only take over 10 campers a day.

(The above photo of the Yankee Freedom III was taken at the dock on Garden Key in the park)

The boat leaves promptly at 8 AM. They recommend that you arrive between 7 and 7:15 AM. We were running a little late and were one of the last people to check in at 7:30 AM. We parked in the garage immediately across the street from the building and dock. The fee to park there all day was $14. It worked out well as we were able to leave the car parked there after we returned, take the harbor walk down to Duval Street, and explore.

The check in process for the ferry happens on the second floor of the building. We found it quickly and easily. We gave them the name of the reservation and showed them our national park pass to receive a credit of $10 per person back from the ferry. Each ticket includes a $10 entry fee – if you have the annual pass then you do not need to pay it and they return the portion of the money paid for the entry fee from the reservation. They also gave us our boarding passes.

The informational briefing was just starting when we arrived. We received a variety of information during it, such as what to do if you are feeling sea sick (short version – go outside at the back of the boat on the first level where it is most stable and tell a crew member so that they can give you a package of items including a vomit bag), the details of breakfast and lunch service, and operation of the toilets in the bathroom. Boarding started immediately following the end of the briefing in groups of 25 – those people who received the lowest numbered pass during check-in were allowed to board first.

Breakfast was available immediately during boarding so we grabbed two seats in the dining area and waited for the line to shorten a bit. Breakfast is served until 8:30 so you have about thirty minutes to get food. This proved plenty of time for us to eat and make a second trip. There was an assortment of options including cereal, bagels, cream cheese, ham, cut cheeses, fruit and drinks such as milk and orange juice. Coffee and hot water (tea) are available throughout the journey. After breakfast was over, they put out items for sale in the breakfast area. I had already bought a dose of dramamine (motion sickness medication) for $1 immediately after getting on the boat. We also bought a disposal underwater camera for $20 to take pictures while snorkeling.

After breakfast, we explored the boat and ended up spending a fair amount of time outside on the bow (front) of the boat. This space provided a nice breeze and great views of the blue water. The only downside is that there aren’t chairs here (most people stood) and it is pretty windy. We also ended up back at the front of the boat as the Dry Tortugas came into sight. The tour guide announced when it came into view which was super helpful since we were back inside at that point in time.

During the boat ride, we also learned that they offer tours of the fort. At 11 AM, they offer a 20 minute “tour” of the fort. It is really a short history of the importance of the islands and why the United States built one of their biggest forts in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. At 11:30, they hold a longer 1.25 hour tour. The longer tour actually walks around the fort. We took the short tour and sat inside the fort at a group of benches while we listened to the guide. Each of the tours is limited to 25 people each but they promised to add another tour if there was sufficient demand. If you take the longer tour, they advise you to grab something for lunch between 11 and 11:30 AM so that you don’t miss lunch (which ends shortly after the tour, and they don’t want you to worry or go hungry!). It was recommended that you don’t do both tours (they overlap), so plan how you would prefer to spend your time.

The other thing that we learned during the boat ride was how to snorkel. They run a brief video that explains where to snorkel on the island, how to ensure that you have the right gear, putting on your equipment as well as how important it is not to touch the coral. You do not need to worry about bringing gear – the ferry provides snorkeling equipment for everyone that signs a waiver of liability. It is available starting at around 11 AM on the dock. For those that go to the beach, there is a salt water spray wash on the dock and a few fresh water open showers at the back of the boat. There are also changing rooms on the dock – there was a line for them around 2:15 PM. They request the snorkel equipment be returned by 2:30, about 15 minutes prior to the boat’s departure at 2:45pm.

After we arrived on Garden Key at 10:30am, we waited a few minutes for the boat to be docked and for the line to get onto the island. While we waited, we took pictures of the pelicans on the coaling docks and of the frigatebirds floating above the fort. You can see many of our bird photos here.

We took a few minutes to walk around the moat wall, which goes around all the sides of the fort, before arriving back at the front just in time for the 11am talk, led by “Hollywood,” an enthusiastic blond with a clear appreciation for the islands and a California surfer look appropriate for the nickname. He led us into the fort to a small theater near the visitor shop, where he led us to the most important question about the US’s largest, most fortified 1800s fort – why build it in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico?

The talk ended just on time, and Hollywood left to pick up the 11:30 tour. We ran into him again later as he led the group around, enthusiastically retelling stories from the history of the fort.

We returned to the boat for lunch, and were thankful for the Igloo dispenser of cold water on the dock. We also took a brief restroom break, as the only bathrooms on the island are on the Yankee Freedom (aside from a vault toilet available to campers when the boat is gone). Then we dove into the various lunch offerings – three kinds of bread ready for your choice of turkey, ham, tuna salad, cheeses, lettuce and tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, peppers and pickles, and fruit salad. There was also a selection of individually bagged chips, cans of Pepsi, bottles of water and a few other drink options.

After lunch, we went back to the table where we had left our things (there are no lockers on the island or the boat and they are proud to report no thefts!) and retrieved our National Park pass to get our passport stamp from the visitor’s center, just to the right of the sally-port (main door). The employee there explained how the Underground Railroad stamp came to be on the Dry Tortugas stamp stand (he didn’t really think it was significant, as several slaves had once attempted to escape but were captured and returned). We then started exploring the fort, starting out on the ground level and working our way up! Not only are there a number of cannons remaining, but you can see evidence of all the places the cannons once sat, working hard to protect the fort and the men inside and the ships docked in its harbors.

Fort Jefferson was a massive undertaking built over thirty years. Left unfinished, it was turned into a prison including famous individuals such as Dr. Samuel Mudd (the physician who famously treated President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth). There is a sign marking his prison cell on the middle floor, as well as discussing his time there.

The fort has stairs that allow you to reach the middle and top floor (roof). The top floor provides beautiful views of the interior of the fort as well as the surrounding island and seas. If you don’t walk to the roof and take a few pictures of the landscape and sea, then you are missing out! The fort is deteriorating – so be careful around the edges, open windows, and roof. We were warned that a fall could prove fatal since you are hours from a hospital. We ended up spending about an hour walking through the fort.

Since it was pretty hot and we only had a limited time left on the island, we headed back to the dock to pick up some snorkeling gear. They fitted us with masks and fins quickly and we headed over to the south beach area. We found a spot on the beach to drop our other stuff and got in the water to test out our gear. It took us a while to perfect the seal on the mask and breathing through the snorkel. Between the two of us, we only had one prior experience with snorkeling. I would definitely recommend buying a mask/snorkel and learning before your trip if you have never done it before. Since you only have a limited amount of time on the island, you don’t want to spend your time learning.  Our snorkeling photos are here.

When you are going snorkeling, be sure to thoroughly apply sunscreen on your back and the back of your legs. We both got a little burned despite applying heavy suncreen to most areas and the short hour that they we were in the water.

After a brief test run along the beach area, and some doubt from me about whether I could actually do it, we headed off along the moat wall. This was the best part of our underwater experience. Although we didn’t see much brilliant coral, we got to see a lot of colorful fish and even found a school of 50-100 fish at one point. It was amazing to have them swim around us.

When it hit 2 PM, we started swimming back to the beach. It felt like it took forever to get back to the beach and reach shallow water, but it was in reality probably only 15 minutes. We took off our gear and exclaimed about how fun it was. We made the short walk back to the dock, dropped off our equipment, and showered in the fresh water on the boat to wash the sand off.

We stood in line at the changing rooms for a while to get out of our wet swimsuits and put on some dry clothes for the boat ride back.

At the end of the trip, when you aren’t going to return to the island, you check back in with the staff member at the end of the ramp leading to the boat. This allows them to keep track of whether they have everyone. Once we were on board, we grabbed two frozen alcoholic drinks. They are served on the boat after 2 PM and made the return boat trip much more enjoyable!

We arrived back at the dock just before 5:30 pm and walked a few blocks over to Duval Street to explore before our 7 pm dinner reservations. The sunset happened around 8:20 pm, so we ate at a leisurely pace and the sun set against the ocean as we started dinner. A wonderful end to a beautiful day.

Our June 2017 Stop in Everglades National Park

We made our first visit to Everglades National Park this June with a brief stop over there on our way between Orlando and Key West. Since we were only planning to be in the Miami area for a few hours, we decided to forego nearby Biscayne Bay and concentrate on seeing as much of the Everglades as we could in our limited time frame. We got in the area around 11 AM and were out of the park by 5:30 PM, so it was a true whirlwind visit for a park as large as Everglades.

After doing a lot of research, we decided that we couldn’t pass up the Shark Valley tram tour. The Shark Valley Visitor Center is located near the northern boundary of the Everglades and is about an hour by car away from the southern entrance. The guided tour turned out to be a great choice as we saw a great variety of birds and several alligators.

We stopped at Robert is Here near the southern entrance to the national park. As my name is the same as the owners, it was appropriate to get a few pictures there. We also thought some of their delicious milkshakes were necessary to help beat the heat. We ended up getting a Strawberry Banana and one of their special concoctions with mango, key lime and coconut.

After consuming the shakes, we proceeded to the Anhinga Trail. This is one of the best places to photograph birds and alligators in the park. The anhingas hid from us, but we did manage to get some great photos of an alligator along the boardwalk.

After leaving Anhinga, we saw some smoke from a prescribed fire that the park service was conducting that day. The prescribed burns help manage exotic vegetation, reduce hazardous fuels, and prevent large uncontrolled wildfires. It didn’t impact our plans at all, but it did mean that a small area of the park was closed to visitors. There were rangers patrolling the road area – no doubt to stop cars if the fire somehow approached the road.

The Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook was our final stop in the park. It was an easy and short walk up the boardwalk to the overlook platform. We really enjoyed watching the birds in the distance. You can see some more of our pictures of the Pa-Hay-Okee trail using the link below.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time before we got down to Flamingo. We will just have to come back in the winter (the busy season) when it is fully operational.

We’ve kept this post short as we wrote separately about our experiences with the Shark Valley tram tour, the Anhinga Trail, and the PaHayOkee Overlook. Check them out!

President Obama Designates Three National Monuments and Expands Two

President Obama has named three new national monuments and expanded two others in the final days of his presidential term.  After creating two new national monuments in December, Obama used his authority five more times in January, 2017.  Obama used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to add to the park system more than any other president, creating or expanding 34 national monuments during his two terms in office.

Three New National Monuments Protecting Civil Rights History

President Obama created the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort, South Carolina; the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in downtown Birmingham, Alabama; and the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama.

Reconstruction Era: The Beaufort area was one of the first places in the South where freed slaves could vote, hold property and build churches.

Birmingham Civil Rights: A portion of downtown Birmingham where non-violent protesters to racial injustice and segregation were sprayed with water from high pressure hoses is now protected.

Freedom Riders: A 1961 challenge to discriminatory laws requiring separation of different races in international travel resulted in the firebombing of a bus at this location in Alabama.  Subsequently, the Federal Government banned segregation in travel.

Expansion of California Coastal National Monument and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

President Obama also expanded the California Coastal National Monument by 6,230 acres to protect six additional sites along the California coast.  This national monument was created by President Clinton and was already expanded once by President Obama in 2014.

Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Southwestern Oregon and California had nearly 48,000 acres added to its area.  The expansion was supported to better protect the national monument’s biodiversity and ecosystem from climate change.  The 65,000 acre area was also first designated a national monument by President Clinton.

President Obama Designates Two National Monuments

President Obama designated two national monuments at the end of 2016, protecting an additional 1.35 million acres of federal land in Utah and Nevada.  The new national monuments are Bears Ears National Monument and Gold Butte National Monument.

Bears Ears

Bears Ears Buttes is located in southeastern Utah.  The national monument designation was originally proposed for this land back in 1936 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary.  The park has deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas and meadow mountaintops.  It is named for twin buttes that are visible from every direction in southeastern Utah.  The land has been occupied by Native American tribes for hundreds of generations, leaving rock art, artifacts, ceremonial sites and ancient cliff dwellings of cultural and archaeological importance.  The area contains one of the best continuous rock records of the Triassic-Jurassic transition, providing insight into the transition from dinosaurs to mammals.

The park is remote.  It is one of the least roaded areas in the contiguous United States.  The night sky is absolutely black and the silence is deafening, according to the proclamation designating it as Bears Ears National Monument.

Gold Butte

Gold Butte National Monument is located northeast of Lake Mead.  Senator Harry Reid called the 300,000 acres here “quintessential Nevada.”  It has sweeping desert vistas, pastel sandstone formations and ancient rock art.  The designation ensures there is a corridor protecting wildlife from Lake Mead-National Recreation Area to the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument.  The Mojave Desert tortoise, mountain lions and bighorn sheep, as well as many other plants and animals, all live in this area.  Further, there is a long history of Native Americans, ranching and mining in the area.  The area holds promise both for archaeological and paleontological research.

We look forward to visiting the area soon and enjoying these new national monuments.  Thank you President Obama for creating them even though they were somewhat controversial!

Photo Credit: Top (Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears, Bottom.(Devil’s FIre in Gold Butte)

Our Christmas Eve Stop at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

On our way to celebrate the holidays in Michigan, we stopped at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  We didn’t even know there was a national park in Ohio until a few months ago.  And it turns out we had already passed through it many times without realizing it!  If you have ever driven the Ohio Turnpike through Cleveland, you’ve probably driven past this park without realizing it.  The turnpike actually goes over the middle of Cuyahoga Valley.

It doesn’t have the name recognition of some of the bigger parks, but 2.2 million people annually visit this gem just outside Cleveland.  The area is chock full of history, space for outdoor activities and waterfalls.  Running through the area that became the park was the Ohio & Erie Canal.  The canal’s tow path would be turned into a 20+ mile trail for running, biking and snowshoeing (in the winter).

We stopped, in part, because it was the perfect resting point after a late start for our ten-hour journey.  Given its proximity to Cleveland and Akron-Canton, there were plenty of lodging options within a few miles of the turnpike.  We stayed at the Baymont Inn off the Ohio Turnpike, where the staff was friendly, the room was clean, the bed was comfortable, and the price was reasonable.  Our room with a king bed, desk, mini-fridge and microwave was about $80 with tax.  There was a pool and free continental breakfast from 6-9 AM, which were all of the amenities we really needed given our 1 AM arrival and morning departure.

With rain overnight and snow still on the grass, we slept in and set out for the park at about 8:30 am.  After a bit of driving around to orient ourselves, we ended up at Brandywine Falls.  Brandywine Falls is the second highest waterfall in the state of Ohio.  The handicap accessible trail to the falls had been cleared of snow but there was still a number of spots of ice and slush.

Although the trail starts out heading away from the road, it soon cuts back toward the valley and back towards the road (where the falls is located along the trail).  From the path to the falls, you can soon see the spectacular river running through the valley.

Before reaching the falls, the path splits to the left with stairs down to a lower viewing area.  We weren’t able to get pictures from there because it was closed due to the ice and snow, but we would highly recommend it when open.  We could see the lower platform viewing area from the upper platform and the view looked fantastic.  On the upper path, it is a short and easy walk to the falls.

For our visit, the base of the falls was beautifully covered with snow/ice.  The river was also roaring due to the combination of melting snow from the prior day and rain overnight.  We could hear the roar of the falls and the river well before we saw it.

We took a few selfies and admired the beauty of the gorge and waterfall.  We also wondered how many people had passed through this area without even knowing what lay a short adventure into the woods.

There is a 1.4 mile path around the area for those looking to take in more of the area.

The visitor center at Boston Store opens at 9:30 AM.  Since it was Christmas Eve, there wasn’t much traffic and we had a long conversation with the park ranger about the history of the park.  There is an 18 minute video about the area’s history produced by the park service which is played on demand.  There is also a series of exhibits explaining the area’s boat building past.

We did donate a few dollars at the visitor center to help with conservancy efforts in the park, but there was no entrance fee for the park in part due to its connectedness with the surrounding area.  Traveling by car through the park didn’t involve the isolation from normal life that we saw in Yellowstone – there were homes at various points as we travelled on the periphery of the park.  But even though we were “near civilization”, there are very few roads cutting through the park compared to the development of most cities.

We drove south and west for about ten minutes to get to the other side of the park and pick up the turnpike to continue our journey to Michigan.  It was definitely our shortest trip to a national park so far, but we’re excited to come back to take pictures in the covered bridge, walk the towpath, take the scenic railroad and view the falls surrounded by autumn colors (October is the best time for foliage in the park).

2 Day November Fall Foliage Trip to Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is known for spectacular views from Skyline Drive, abundant wildlife, and magnificent hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Only 75 miles from Washington DC, it is a must visit for nature lovers on the East Coast.

We spent a weekend in mid-November 2016 at Shenandoah National Park to catch the last glimpses of the late fall foliage this year. It turns out that Front Royal (the gateway to Shenandoah) is only a couple hours from Philadelphia, so we threw our camping gear in the car and headed down Friday after work to do what we though would be our last national park trip for the year. (We ended up sneaking in a pre-Christmas trip to Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio.)

We arrived in Front Royal after dark and set our alarm for an early morning to catch the sunrise. We had done this successfully in Rocky Mountain National Park and got some incredible photos, but we slept in a bit too long to catch the first rays of the sun peaking over the lowest rolling hills to the east of Skyline Drive inside the park. We did much better on Day #2.

The drive south in the morning light on Skyline Drive from Front Royal presented spectacular views at every turn. The color was definitely past its brilliant peak but still possessed plenty of the soft autumnal tones that remind gazers that the hills and mountains haven’t succumbed to winter just yet. We were enthralled watching the sun rise in the east and later watching the shadows shrink on the valley to the west as the sun rose slowly high enough to eliminate them for the day.

Skyline Drive is the 105 mile road that runs the length of the national park. On a normal day, it is one of the country’s most scenic drives. In the fall, it is truly amazing and full of leaf peepers (people looking for fall foliage if you aren’t familiar with the term). We were pretty late in the season, but there was still a rush for open campground spots around mid-day Saturday as people took advantage of the beautiful weather of the weekend. It was the last weekend of 24/7 access to the park, with closures of the road starting in the evening to make the detection of illegal hunters easier.

We stopped to recharge with some coffee at Skyland in the morning before making our way to the Big Meadows campground. It was the last weekend of camping in the park and the spots were first come first serve at the time. We ended up getting a great spot right off the AT (Appalachian Trail).

After lunch, we continued our journey to the south, hoping to make it all the way to Rockfish Gap. We thought that we would pretty easily be able to drive the length of the park before sunset when we set out in the morning. As it turned out, we simply made too many stops to complete the 105 mile road before the sunset in the evening. The sunset completely around Moormans River Overlook (mile 92-ish) and we turned back to the campground.

We got an even earlier start Sunday morning, and actually caught the first rays of sun peaking over the hills while we were in our tent. We raced (at an entirely appropriate speed for the winding roads) north past Skyland to get back to Thorofare Mtn and Hemlock Springs to capture the event on camera.

We spent a good deal of Sunday hiking. We hiked from Upper Hawksbill to Hawksbill Mountain (the highest point in the park) in the morning. This is a 2.1 mile roundtrip with an elevation gain of 520 feet on the way to the top. Although we had to rest at one point, it is a wide trail that would be manageable for most adults and kids. At the top, there is a viewing platform that provides spectacular views of the surrounding area.

Around midday, we descended to Dark Hollow Falls (which is pretty close to Big Meadows). This is one of the most popular hikes in Virginia. It is a 1.5 mile roundtrip that is rated as moderate to difficult. The average adult and child will find it pretty easy to descend down to the 70 foot waterfall – it is the return trip that can be exhausting. We rested a fair amount on the way back up as there is a pretty steep grade. The view was worth it, though.

In the early afternoon, we went up to the top of Bearfence Mountain. At the top, there is a magnificent 360 degree view of the area. It was a pretty short but steep uphill from the parking lot. Once you get near the top, it is a moderately difficult scramble across boulders. We managed it ok although there was one difficult moment. Due to the scramble, this is not an area where we would bring young children although there were some parents behind us who did not exercise such caution.

As we were driving north in the evening to exit the park, we saw our second bear of the weekend. We are pretty good at noticing the bearjams and since we did a lot of driving over the two days we saw a lot of deer too. Our bear photos are better from Yellowstone, when we saw cubs too, but we did manage to photograph this one as well:

We also noticed that the moon was extraordinarily large. It turned out that we were in Shenandoah for a supermoon. A supermoon is a full moon or new moon that coincides with the moon’s closest distance to Earth. This makes it appear larger-than-usual due to its proximity in its monthly orbit around Earth. Most of our photos ended up blurry because of the low light conditions and the fact that we were driving. Sunday night was the first where they were shutting down 24-7 access, and we did not want to be trapped on Skyline Drive for the evening.

It was a bright finish to a beautiful weekend.

4 Nights on Isle Royale in August 2016

We spent four nights camping on Isle Royale National Park in August 2016. It was our first backpacking adventure and this remote island in Northern Michigan did not disappoint. We had a real blast and were definitely looking forward to our next adventure. Although I do have to admit that we were pretty happy to find potable water, flush toilets, a warm shower, regular food and not have to carry all of our belongings at the end.

Jayne and I have both spent significant times in Michigan but neither one of us had ever been to Isle Royale. Since we were going to be in the Upper Peninsula anyway for a family function, we decided to extend the trip and get out of cell phone range for a while.

Pre-Boat Ride

We reached Isle Royale via the Ranger III out of Houghton. By the time that we booked our tickets, the Queen IV out of Copper Harbor was already booked. We stayed at the Hancock Recreation Area campground the night before. It was a short drive from there to the parking area for the boat in the morning so it was convenient.

A few logistics details for those considering visiting: There are two parking areas for the Ranger III. Park in the lower area by the building if possible as it is gated. Check-in with the rangers inside the building and then load your gear into the wheeled carts.

It is a roughly six hour boat ride to Isle Royale from Houghton, so settle in. They have plenty of games available for free near the kitchen. If you are going to be backpacking, you are required to listen to the safety lecture that happens near the beginning of the ferry trip.

Day 1: Boat to Rock Harbor and Hike to Daisy

Just over 5 hours later, we were pretty excited to start seein our destination.

Mott Island is the park headquarters and was the first stop for the boat that we took from Houghton. We thought this would be an unload and go but it ended up being a 15-20 minute stop. So there is plenty of time to get off the boat, take a photo with the national park sign, and get back on. Just remember that you should stay to the right of the line that is taped/painted on the ground. If you veer too far across it, then you risk being scolded by the park employees unloading the boat.

After we departed from Mott Island, we sat on the port side of the boat and waved to all of the hikers that were either returning to Rock Harbor to catch the boat out the next day or had arrived earlier that day on the boat arriving from Copper Harbor and were headed to Daisy Farm for the evening. In a few days, we would be standing on those same rocks reminiscing about our trip as we returned to Rock Harbor for the evening.

Rock Harbor
We arrived at Rock Harbor around 2:30-3:00 PM EST after the brief stop on Mott Island (we rarely checked the actual time while in the park). After getting our bags from the wheeled carts, we took a leisurely stroll through the store and got our national park stamps from the ranger station. Behind the store is a potable water faucet and a short path to a restroom with running water (the last we would see until we returned at the end of our trip!).

We headed off on the Tobin Harbor trail to Three Mile in the hope that we could make it to Daisy Farm before it got dark. Daisy is about 7 miles away from Rock Harbor. We should have each been carrying about 10 pounds less in our packs but as first time backpackers, we were optimistic that we would be able to carry everything for our 4 nights on Isle Royale. And we didn’t know how much food we would need. Among our biggest regrets was that we didn’t ever stay in one location long enough to unpack and setup the 4 pound hammock.

We took Tobin Harbor because the path along Rock Harbor is reportedly pretty rocky and no fun whatsoever. (On our return trip, we learned that one of the boy scout troops had a leader twist their ankle on the trail which we avoided, and spent the rest of the trip at either Three Mile or Rock Harbor.) Tobin was a bit narrow (we walked single file) but was one of the more pleasant trails that we encountered.

The only part of the trail that was unpleasant was the sign initially led us down the hill to the seaplane dock and we had to backtrack a short way to get back on the trail. After what seemed like an eternity for new backpackers, we soon came to the fork in the trail where we cut back to Three Mile and lost our new friends who were going to Lane Cove for the evening. We learned later that they made it right about sunset without much trouble.

It is 4.2 miles from Three Mile to Daisy Farm, and we knew that we needed to be on the move in order to get there by nightfall. We got a little lost following another couple on a rocky section of the trail, but we soon learned to watch for a stack of three rocks to mark the appropriate path. We found the rock stacks very helpful as there were numerous sections of trails where we would have been wandering around aimlessly without them.

We ended up marking our progress on this section of the trail by the opposite shore, which has Mott Island, Caribou Island and the Rock Harbor Lighthouse. We were pretty tired as we pulled into Daisy Farm for the evening. There was still a little light as we started looking for a campsite. We ended up dropping our packs at the entrance, talking to some other backpackers who though that there was space in one of the group camp sites, and then quickly racing up there to confirm. By the time we got our packs to the open campsite, it was dark. In hindsight, we shouldn’t have spent as much time in Rock Harbor as we did – although it was probably no more than 20 minutes.

We were so exhausted from carrying the heavy packs for seven miles and relieved that we had found a campsite in the nick of time, that we ended up making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while lying down in our tent. We were asleep within 5 minutes of finishing the sandwiches.

I woke up twice in the middle of the night. The first time the stars were so vivid and bright. The other was overcast and I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to enjoy them again.

If you sleep in Daisy, you should definitely wake up early and go down to the dock for the sunrise. It was amazing and there was a group of about ten people sitting there in silence enjoying the start of the day and watching a couple of loons play in the water.

Day 2: Daisy Farm to Lake Richie
We cooked our first freeze dried breakfast with our propane fire kit this morning. It worked remarkably well at quickly boiling the water and we soon had both eggs and coffee to enjoy. We were definitely moving slow after our long boat ride and hike on day one and didn’t get all packed up until around 10 or 11.

We were fortunate to get some delicious biscotti to go with our coffee from the pair of hikers that we shared the group campsite with that night. We found everyone that we met on the journey very eager to share tips and treats with us. Why did we share campsites? Because campsites are available for the most part on a first come, first serve basis. But we were there during a busy time in August and the individual campsites were generally full late in the afternoon. The group campsites generally contained three spots to put a tent and filled up last. Technically, they are available to large groups of 7-10 before a certain time in the afternoon. After that time, they are open to other campers to use. Except for the last night of our journey, we only stayed in group campsites. And we shared the individual campsite with another person that night.

Daisy was the first place where we filtered water, which would became a major theme of the trip. We put all of our water first through a UV treatment device and then filtered it through one of two lifestraws before drinking it (one was a bag system, the other a straw that filtered immediately before you drank it). It takes a while to filter all of the water that you are going to cook and drink for the day when you are hiking.

So it was pretty late in the morning when we actually got on the way to our next destination – Moskey Basin. We were moving slow and found the trip between Daisy and Moskey our least favorite of the trip. About half of the trail is spent on large rock deposits which are exposed to the sun and there are a surprising number of small inclines and descents. We ended up resting a bunch and were nearly out of water when we finally came across a small babbling brook that served as a wonderful water source for a bit of splashing about and drinking (after filtering, of course).

(Pretty typical view of the trail between Daisy and Moskey.)

Refreshed, we descended into Moskey and immediately dropped our packs at the picnic table on the dock. At this point, it was mid-afternoon and we were exhausted again. The waterfront was beautiful, there were people swimming in the remarkably chilly water, and there was even a small sailboat with cold beer docked there. There weren’t any shelters available, so we cooked at the picnic table and enjoyed a wonderful afternoon on the waterfront. One of us even acquired a sunburn which would prove troublesome later as sunburnt shoulders really wasn’t conducive to carrying a heavy pack for miles on end.

(This is the walkway down to the dock at Moskey.)

The bathrooms at Moskey were smelly but stocked with toilet paper by the rangers. For the most part throughout our trip, every pit toilet already had toilet paper and we only had to contend with the semi-horrific odor. We were generally so happy to be sitting without a pack that we really didn’t care too much, though.

After a surpisingly scrumptious meal of freeze dried chicken, we took a look at the declining sun and decided that we were going to make the 2 mile trek over to Lake Richie. This was our favorite trail as it was pretty flat and we were able to travel very quickly on it. We grabbed another spot in a group campsite and I even managed to catch a small pike before the sun went down.

Day 3

(Lake Richie after the sun came up.)

We were pretty tired from thirteen miles of hiking in two days and decided that we were going to leave our camp setup and do a day hike to West Chickenbone with the camera and our fishing gear. We ended up having pretty good luck fishing on the lakes between Richie and Chickenbone by taking the canoe portage trails and fishing off the shore there. Although we didn’t camp at West Chickenbone, they were definitely our favorite individual tent sites.

(Photo of Chickenbone Lake.)

The original plan had been to camp for the night in West Chickenbone and then take the Greenstone Ridge Trail back to Three Mile (leaving us a short hike for the morning of the boat departure). But we decided that we wanted to be sleeping right next to the boat the final night so we didn’t want to have to worry about missing the boat if we slept in too long. This ended up being a wise call because it allowed us to have a hot, fresh meal before departing. But it meant that we only briefly intersected the Greenstone while we were on the island, and didn’t get to climb the Mt. Ojibway Tower.

Anyway … we ate like kings on the shore of Chickenbone Lake that afternoon and hustled back to our tent. We moved so much faster without carrying 25-45 pounds on our backs. As the sun was starting to get low in the sky, we decided we had plenty of energy and we were going to pack up and make camp for the evening back at Moskey Basin, which we did.

On the trail between Richie and Moskey, we ran into a very nice ranger who warned us about moose on the trail in the evening. We were kind of hoping to see one so we were extra vigilent after the warning. But we weren’t fortunate enough to see a single one during the entire trip. We did at one point hear a large grunt next to us on the trail, which was probably a moose, but since we didn’t see it, we’re not counting it as our first moose encounter yet.

We thought about setting up the tent without the rain fly that night because it was a bit warmer and we wanted to sleep under the stars at least one night. But we decided to put up the rain fly and we were very happy we made that call when a brief rain shower moved in during the middle of the night.

Day 4: Moskey to Rock Harbor

Our last full day on Isle Royale was a travel day. We had ten miles ahead of us to get back to Rock Harbor for the boat departure. We knew that Moskey to Daisy was going to suck, and it did. So we jumped into Lake Superior off the dock in the morning to celebrate our adventure. We hadn’t showered in a couple days, so it seemed like a good idea … until we took the plunge of course. It was so cold that we got out immediately. And by immediately I mean faster than a human being would move in any ordinary circumstance.

We stopped again at the small brook to filter our water and fill up the bottles that were attached to our packs. We got to Daisy by mid-afternoon and stopped for a while next to the dock to feast again and make our pack lighter for the last haul.

On the trail back to Three Mile, we spent a while looking at the docked boat at Mott Island and expecting it to depart. In actuality, it was later than we thought and the boat was going to overnight at Mott Island so we figured out that we were behind schedule and needed to hustle.

(This is a photo from Rock Harbor trail which we would take on our hike back.)

By this time in the trip and the day, our feet were pretty sore. We had walked on a lot of small rocks over the past four days and although we had avoided injury our feet were definitely worse for wear. You could pretty much feel every pebble that was on the trail through your footwear. And by this time the packs were feeling especially heavy since our shoulders were also sore from the long days carrying the extra weight.

We were pretty happy to get to Three Mile but we couldn’t stop if we wanted to get to Rock Harbor before sunset. We took the Tobin Harbor trail again and practically ran up the last hill to Rock Harbor Lodge in order to get in just before sunset. We dropped our packs at the Marina and ran through the campground looking for a place to stay until someone suggested we share an individual site with another member of our incoming boat. We found the site in the dark, setup the tent, and passed out with only some granola bars as dinner.

On the way to the campground from the Marina, I saw two rangers chasing a fox away from the campground. As a city-dweller, this isn’t something I normally encounter in my everyday life. But it was just one of the many amazing experiences on the island.

I had two leg cramps overnight from the long hike. But the stars were beautiful again.

We woke up early, said our goodbyes to our final campsite, and we ate a hot breakfast that morning at the diner after we dropped off our packs near the boat. Service was a bit slow because everyone waiting for the boat came in within about 20 minutes of each other, but we all got our food in plenty of time and who were we to complain after four days of freeze dried food. It was delicious.

We sat at the food counter on the way back and played cards (war and euchre), settlers of cataan, and regaled each other of stories from our adventure on Isle Royale.

A few things that we learned:

1. Almost everyone thinks they are going to hike more than they actually end up doing. We met a pair that were canoeing and planned a 2 mile portage. They didn’t do it. Another backpacker was going to go off-trail hiking. He declined. The boy scout troop was supposed to do a 4 day hike of the island – and they made it exactly six miles instead. You should take this into account when planning your adventure.

2. If we are only going to be there for 4-5 days on another trip, then we would take the water taxi to either McCargoe Cove or Chippewa Harbor on the first day and hike back to Rock Harbor. We spent a lot of time hiking to the interior of the park and then had to turn around and hike back due to the short amount of time that we were scheduled to be there. We didn’t do it because it was a bit more expensive than we wanted, but in hindsight we totally regretted it.

3. Water filtration is a lot of work and takes a lot of time. It felt like we were filtering water for at least an hour a day. We even had composed some song lyrics about filtering by the end of the trip. Don’t forget to take this time into account as you are planning your trip.

4. Wait a bit before you load your pack in the wheeled baskets at Houghton. They get stacked pretty high and you want your pack to be on top when you get off at Isle Royale rather than on the bottom.

5. Your hikes will be less frantic than ours if you commit to getting up in the morning and making it to your destination by early afternoon. We just weren’t on the same schedule as everyone else, who seemed to get up early, get packed up early and get on the trail early. We were always enjoying a leisurely morning and consequently our afternoons/dinners were rushed and we wasted a lot of time looking for a campsite at the end of the day.

6. Buy a good trail map. We did at the recommendation of the people at the Houghton ranger station and we found it invaluable during our journeys. We probably would have been fine without it but we spent a lot of time consulting it and it was a great purchase for the price.

This was our adventure on Isle Royale National Park. This post is backdated to appear appropriately on the blog timeline.

3 Days in Yellowstone National Park in May 2016

After concluding two days in Grand Teton, we headed north to Yellowstone National Park. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from the remarkable beauty of the Grand Tetons, but we would soon come to find out why Yellowstone is considered the crown jewel of the park system.

We entered Yellowstone via the south entrance on John Rockefeller Jr Memorial Highway. Since it was the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, we skipped our usual leisurely road trip sightseeing and headed straight to the campgrounds that had already opened for the season. Along the way, we crossed over the Continental Divide, passed the Old Faithful viewing area, and drove along the Firehole River. It was hard not to stop, but we needed to secure a campsite before everyone else filled them up. Madison Junction, which takes reservations, was completely booked for the weekend, so we continued our journey to Norris Campground.

When we arrived, the park ranger recommended W6, which was an available walk-in spot overlooking the meadow. The site had a wonderful view of the meadow and was near the Gibbon River, which meanders next to the campground. We would definitely take the spot again as it was beautiful. It was cash only, so we paid for one night and planned to get more cash later to pay for the rest of our visit. After we set up camp and put our cooler in the bear locker, we decided to head north and explore Mammoth Hot Springs. On the way between Norris and Mammoth, keep your eye out for the spectacular canyon at Rustic Falls – you can’t miss it.

Mammoth Hot Springs is a travertine hill with a large collection of hot springs overlooking Mammoth near the northern border of Yellowstone. Accessed by boardwalks from the parking lots above and below the hot springs, it is an impressive geological display that will leave you with the rotten egg smell from hydrogen sulfide, but a lifetime of memories. After we walked the area from bottom to top and back, we drove down to Mammoth to explore the Historic District (and borrow their WiFi).

(Mammoth Hot Springs)

(Mammoth, Wyoming from the top of Mammoth Hot Springs)

When we had finished sharing the double ice cream cone-in-a-bowl of chocolate and salted caramel that we found at the Grill, we ventured out of the park to Gardiner, Montana. Neither one of us had ever been to Montana before. We stopped at the grocery store, and played a game of checkers at a small pharmacy over coffee.

On our way back to Mammoth, we pulled over quickly to take a picture at the 45th parallel. We were halfway between the equator and the north pole together for the first time (though not the last for the year). As we were just starting to explore the park, we turned to go to Tower/Roosevelt. On our way to Tower/Roosevelt, we stopped momentarily at Floating Island Lake, where photographers were waiting to catch a moose out for an evening swim. We didn’t see any there, so we moved on.

A short while later, we came across a crowd of cars parked on oth sides of the road. Traffic came to a halt, and we realized that there were two bears (mom and cub) playing on a small hill across the valley. We took a few photographs, but I really wish that we had the telephoto lens that we would buy later in the year.

We stopped at the Petrified Tree next. The tree was buried alive in volcanic ash and landslides about 50 million years ago after a series of volcanic eruptions. Of the three petrified trees at Yellowstone – only 1 remains. Tragically, the rest were taken in pieces as souvenirs by visitors before a fence was erected to protect the tree.

We continued on, stopping next at a parking lot overlooking the Calcite Springs across the valley. The spring is named for the milky-white calcite crystals in the area. We could see both the springs and the black on the surface from the oil and molten sulfur which are released by the undergound fractures.

After leaving the lot, we saw another bearjam – as we would call the traffic jams from the groups of visitors and photographers that were watching a bear. This time, we saw a mother and cub along the road. The mother, worried about her cub and the close proximity of the people, sent the cub scurrying up a tree.

Tower/Roosevelt is known for the large waterfall in the area, Tower Fall, and Roosevelt Lodge, a historic district with 130 buildings in an area popular with President Theodore Roosevelt. Tower Fall was a short walk from the road but well worth seeing. Roosevelt Lodge was closed at the time so we didn’t get to drive around there.

After one more bear sighting, we ascended high into the mountains. After getting through the fog and finding the snow, we stopped at a picnic area overlooking the edge of the caldera. continuing on our journey as darkness was approaching, we were soon at Canyon Village, headed along a one way road along one side of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We saw the lower falls, but rain and the late hour meant that we would have to return to see the upper falls.

(Lower Falls)

(Picture of Upper Falls from the next day)

The next morning, we got up early to see Old Faithful before the crowds. We left Norris Campground around 7:30 am to get down to Old Faithful around 8:30. It isn’t a particularly long drive, but we got stuck behind a few buffalo that thought the road made a nice trail for travel.

The visitor’s center was still closed at that time and we didn’t have internet, so we stopped into the Old Faithful Inn to get a cup of coffee and find out the next eruption time: 9:36 plus or minus ten minutes. There is a nice viewing area from the second floor porch at the Inn, but we wandered down to the boardwalk to get a closer view. The eruption started a little early but we were already in position. It was an impressive display of nature. It is something that I have been reading about since a child, and it did not disappoint.

After returning to Norris Campground to pay for the final two days of our stay, we went to the Artist Paintpots. This is a collection of geothermal features down the road from the campground. It includes mudpots and a small geyser anmed the Blood Geyser due to the red hue from its iron content. We also stopped along the road at Beryl Springs, which was a popular area for photos with the steam as a backdrop.

Gibbon Falls was another popular area to stop along the road. Gibbon River runs past the campground and along the road on the way to Madison. The elevation change is quite dramatic, making the falls quite beautiful.

(Gibbon Falls)

Turning south back toward Old Faithful, we took the Firehole Canyon Drive, a two mile, one way road that stretches through the canyon of the Firehole River near where it connects with the Madison River. It was a very pretty section, with Firehole Falls our favorite spot.

We stopped at Lower Geyser Basin to see the Fountain Paint Pot before continuing on our way to Midway Geyser Basin. This is the home to Grand Prismatic Spring. The rain and chilly temperature of the air prevented us from having the classic view of the spectacular colors from the spring, but we still found the area beautiful and vowed to return in warmer months. (The temperature difference between the spring and the air produces the steam – in the summer there is less of a temperature difference so less steam.)

(Grand Prismatic Spring)

The next area for exploration was Biscuit Basin. The Sapphire Pool there used to have a biscuit-shaped mineral fromation around it, but the rocks were blown away after an intense earthquake in 1959. While we were here, Jewel Geyser erupted.

We spent the late afternoon and evening exploring along the lake from West Thumb to the Fishing Bridge. Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water in the park and the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 ft in North America. The lake has been known to remain frozen until late May or early June, but it had completely thawed by the time we were there. The shoreline is beautiful and I would have loved to take a boat out onto the lake.

We walked around the beautiful hotel at Lake Village. There were no available dinner reservations for two hours, so we grabbed a bite to eat at the deli and enjoyed the view of Yellowstone Lake from Lake Hotel. Next on our list was the Fishing Bridge, which was a popular place for people to fish shoulder to shoulder until it was banned in 1973. The fish from the lake swim up the Yellowstone River there to spawn. It was getting dark, so we headed back to the campsite for our second to last evening in the park system.

We woke up the next morning to opening day for fishing in Yellowstone. After a little fishing of the Gibbon River near the Norris Campground and Madison River by the Madison Junction Campground, we moved up to the Firehole River where there were a lot of other fisherman. We didn’t manage to catch anything, but it was a beautiful morning and we saw some other people catch some trout and return them to the river.

Around lunch, we set off for the West Entrance of the Park to see Idaho. West Yellowstone, with a population of around 1,300 is located just outside the west entrance of the park on a small piece of Montana wedged between Wyoming and Idaho. Our plan was to buy some Idaho potatoes, but we didn’t see a store so we turned back to Montana and stopped at a grocery store in West Yellowstone to pick up food for my birthday dinner. We also got a pair of Blizzards at Dairy Queen for a birthday treat. We had cell reception here, so it was a nice place to check in with what was happening in the world.

We returned to the Firehole River for some more fishing before heading back to the campsite for dinner to cook the steak over the fire and celelbrate my birthday as well as our last night in the park. The next morning, we would sleep in, pack up our campsite and make the long trip through Yellowstone and Grand Teton to get back to Denver for our flight home the next day. It wasn’t the shortest route back, but it kept us in the park system the longest and gave us one more spectacular view of Grand Teton National Park.

2 Days in Grand Teton National Park in May 2016

We stopped an hour short of Grand Teton National Park the night before we entered the park since the sun was setting on our drive from Rocky Mountain National Park. We spent the night camping at the Dubois/Wind River KOA in Dubois, Wyoming since we didn’t have a campground reservation in the park and we weren’t especially eager to press our luck looking for a place to spend the night in the dark.

On the remaining drive, we passed through Bridger-Teton National Forest and the mountains that make up the Continental Divide to the east of the park. Once we cleared those mountains, we entered the park to an an impressive view of the Grand Teton range.

We entered the park at Moran Entrance on the east side of the park. We made our way to the Jenny Lake Campground to ensure that we got a spot, stopping only at Oxbow Bend and Jackson Lake Dam in order to take some photos (we couldn’t resist since the scenery was so beautiful).

We ended up staying at Jenny Lake Campground, which is a first-come first-served campground inside the national park that borders Jenny Lake. We searched the available campsites for the best view, and several times we abandoned an earlier selection for a better view that we found later. We ultimately went with site #48. We didn’t get to enjoy it as much as we would like, since several days were rainy or overcast. But we would choose it again in a heartbeat if we had the option.

Jenny Lake is a 1,191 acre lake to the south of Jackson Lake. It was formed approximately 12,000 years ago by glaciers. It is a focal area of the park with some of the tallest peaks of the Teton Range there, as well as scenic boat rides and hiking trails.

(View of stream below Jenny Lake and mountain)

After we set up our tent, we went down to the visitor center and walked around the marina. A park ranger on the horse bridge pointed out a bald eagle flying over the lake.

We just couldn’t get enough of the mountain range, so we headed north to see the mountains from the resorts across Jackson Lake. We stopped at Signal Mountain Lodge to check into the guided fishing tours and buy our fishing licenses. Then we headed to Jackson Lake Lodge, which has a picturesque view of the mountains from the second floor of the lodge/great room. Even though we had plenty of other items on our agenda for the day, we spent a few minutes out on the porch staring at the beauty before us.

We left the park and headed south on 89, which runs parallel to the mountains towards Jackson. Along the route we found the Cunningham Cabin Historic Site, where the oldest historic building in the park stands. J Pierce Cunningham, initially opposed to the creation of the park, later saw the value in preserving the area. Along with his mother, Cunningham began a petition signed by all 97 ranchers in the area to sell their land to John D Rockefeller Jr to be donated to the federal government for the creation of the national park.

Next we stopped at the Snake River Overlook, the place where Ansel Adams took his famous 1942 photo of the Snake River and the Grand Tetons. We snapped a few photos ourselves, although the terrain looks a little different than it did back then!

We arrived at Schwabacher Landing in the early afternoon. Schwabacher Landing is an access area to the Snake River that is east of the Grand Tetons. It is a popular spot for professional photographers in the early morning because the water there provides a beautiful reflection of the mountains in the photos during the sunrise. The large beaver dam and resulting ponds are also a popular place to see moose. It is located four miles north of Moose on US-191, off a small dirt road to the west. Unfortunately, the raindrops started shortly after we got there, so we didn’t stay long. We will have to get there earlier next time.

After we finished at Schwabacher Landing, we drove down the Mormon Row Historic District on our way to Jackson. It was still pretty overcast, so our pictures don’t match the beautiful photographs that people normally take from this area with the barns in the foreground and the mountains in the background.

On our way to Jackson, we took 89 past the National Elk Refuge. In the fall and winter, it is a popular area to observe the majestic herds that inhabit the area. We spent the evening in Jackson, Wyoming. It is a resort town popular for world-class skiing, abundant wildlife, outdoor recreation and a gateway to Grand Teton National Park. It is located in Jackson Hole, which is a 48 mile long valley that is typically six to eight miles wide. We walked around the downtown area a bit and had a beer flight plus meal at Snake River Brewing. We definitely regretted that we did not have more time to explore this town.

The next morning began with a little bit of rain, but it eased slightly so that we could make breakfast. This was our day to go fishing, and we chose to start in the Snake River below the Jackson Lake Dam due to the weather. After a little rain, it turned into a beautiful morning. We didn’t catch any fish, but we agreed that it was probably the prettiest location that either one of us has ever gone fishing.

(You will just have to picture the moving clouds revealing the mountains and the opposite shoreline of the Snake River lined with evergreens)

We did lunch at String Lake, which is right above Jenny Lake. There were picnic tables overlooking the lake, and we watched paddle-boarders and kayaks on the water while we ate. When we finished, we grabbed our gear and started towards the trailhead. Unfortunately, we only had time to do a short hike before we had to turn back due to the oncoming rain. We did manage to see an osprey perched over the lake and admire the areas rejuvenation after a fire in 1999.

We decided the rain was a good opportunity to change locations, so we headed south toward Moose-Wilson Road. We didn’t see any moose, but we did have a nice hike through the Laurence S Rockefeller Preserve. Once owned by the Rockefellers, we remarked throughout our time on the property how amazing it must be to live like a Rockefeller. The one mile hike up to Phelps Lake was beautiful, beginning with paths and bridges leading to waterfalls and rapids, before ending in a beautiful subalpine lake. We turned back when we started to worry about darkness, but the 20 minute hike up through the property was something that we would both do again.

Since we spent the previous evening in town, we drove north from the preserve to Signal Mountain Summit. It is supposed to be one of the best places to watch the sunset in the park. The sunset disappointed, however, because we learned when we got to the top that we should have stopped along the way because the end of the road faces east towards the valley rather than west towards the mountains and sunset. When we headed back down, the clouds and trees didn’t cooperate with our search for a truly spectacular sunset. However, we did find a cell phone tower at the top of the mountain. We had spotty cell phone reception throughout the park and this was the one place that we both had multiple bars.

When we got back to our tent at Jenny Lake, we were in for another rainy evening. We were getting used to the afternoon and evening storms, so the rain out of our dinner plans only had a mild impact on our mood. We knew that we would be packing up early in the morning to make the trip north to Yellowstone. And we were very excited to get to see this gem of the national park system.

Our 2 Days at Rocky Mountain NP in May 2016

Rocky Mountain National Park is a gem with breathtaking views, abundant wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities such as hiking, fishing and camping. Located just past Estes Park in the Greater Denver area, it is the perfect place for a long weekend jaunt or a destination for an even longer vacation.

We were fortunate to spend a few days there in May 2016. We were in the Denver area for a wedding and decided to make an extended vacation of it to see Yellowstone National Park. Poor weather caused us to delay our trip to Northern Wyoming by a few days, and RMNP proved the perfect pre-Yellowstone stopover.

We arrived in the evening with an hour or so to explore before darkness set in. The first thing that we ran into was a massive herd of elk. As I grew up in Michigan, I have seen deer before. But this herd takes it to the next level. We forgot to get the digital camera out but we did capture a few photos of the herd on our phones. The open meadow around Moraine Park is one of the best places to see elk.

We ended up driving as far up as we could so early in the season. It was amazing that it was probably 60+ degrees that day in Estes Park but there was several feet of snow in certain places on the side of the road. We made it to an elevation of about 10,000 ft. or so before the road was closed by a wall of five or six feet of snow. It was still too early in the season for them to plow past that point.

It was still the offseason, so we couldn’t make online reservations for camping. Instead, the campground was first come first served. We decided to chance it, knowing that there was space available at the KOA in Estes Park on Saturday night. When we saw the sign at the campground that said it was full, we went and had a lovely night at the KOA. As we found out the next day, the campground wasn’t actually full. The sign outside the Moraine Park campground (as well as another one on the way to Moraine Park) were just wrong and hadn’t been changed in the offseason. We stayed the next night at the Moraine Park campground, our first in a national park, and thoroughly enjoyed the picturesque view of the open air auditorium in the campground.

On Sunday morning (while at the KOA), we woke up at an insanely early hour to watch the sunrise at Sprague Lake. It was my idea, of course, and we would highly recommend doing it at least one time when you are at Rocky Mountain. Sprague Lake is a small 13 acre lake circled by a .8 mile loop trail (although it is sometimes marked as a half mile loop). On a calm day, it provides a beautiful backdrop for photographing the sunrise, with the mountains reflected on the lake.

Sunday was also the day that we learned from a park ranger that we needed to cover our cooler in the car because the bears knew what they looked like and were more than happy to destroy the car in order to get access to it

After we packed up at KOA and moved over to Moraine Park for Sunday night, and stowed our cooler in the bear locker, we decided to hike the Fern Lake Trail from the trailhead in the afternoon. We ended up turning back just after Fern Falls as the elevation got steeper and we didn’t have the appropriate footwear to be hiking the incline in the snow. We heard along the trail that Fern Lake was still predominately ice covered at that point in mid-May (the weekend before Memorial Day weekend). It was my first time hiking in the Rockies and I will definitely remember to take into account the snow at higher elevations before starting out next time.

(Fern Falls in May)

We concluded the evening with a little fishing on the Big Thompson River and at Sprague Lake, but we were unsuccessful. There were lots of other fly fisherman walking around in their waders that afternoon.

After spending our first night in a national park, we packed up on Monday morning and headed off to Grand Tetons for the next stage of this adventure!

(This post has been backdated to show up appropriately on the timeline of the blog.)