Monday, October 9, 2017

San Rafael Swell, Utah - Camping

Tim and Brett invited me to join them for a quick weekend trip to the San Rafael Swell to enjoy the beautiful autumn weather.  We welcomed the arrival of spring with a camping trip to the same area several months earlier, so it seemed fitting to say goodbye to the warm weather with a similar trip.  We left Salt Lake on Friday afternoon and headed south, arriving in the San Rafael Swell a few hours later, greeted by red and white sandstone cliffs and hints of golden yellow foliage.  Tim and Brett have a favorite camping spot in Buckhorn Draw, and we found the site unoccupied when we arrived.  We quickly set up camp and enjoyed  the rest of the evening watching the shadows and light of sunset move across the canyon walls.

Tim and Brett setting up camp in Buckhorn Draw
My tent in Buckhorn Draw
Camping in Buckhorn Draw
Sunset in Buckhorn Draw

It was a clear, cold night, and our camping area was shaded well into the morning by the surrounding cliffs.  I decided to explore the surrounding area with my morning coffee and chase the sunshine to warm up.  With no wind and no people, the silence was remarkable.  The sagebrush, with its carpet of yellow flowers, filled the canyon bottom and signaled the arrival of autumn.

Buckhorn Draw
The sandstone cliffs of Buckhorn Draw
Flowering sagebrush

After a morning drive on several of the endless dirt roads in the area, we returned to camp with a pile of abandoned firewood that we planned to use that night.  I wandered into a small side canyon above our campsite and found the perfect rock for a nap in the warm sunshine. For me, there is a level of relaxation that only comes from being in the desert.

Side canyon above camp
Side canyon above camp

As the air cooled in the late afternoon, we started our fire and ate dinner while watching the sun set.  Later that night, a nearly full moon rose over the surrounding cliffs, illuminating the canyon in pale, white light.

Evening fire
Tim and Brett prepare their dinner
Vegan dinner prep and beer for me
Tim and Brett
Sunset at our campsite

As we made our way home on Sunday, we made a detour through Joe's Valley, a secluded mountain valley with a picturesque reservoir.  After some harrowing moments in deep mud on the Skyline Drive, we made it down to Ephraim and finally back home to Salt Lake City.  A big thanks to Tim and Brett for inviting me along on a great camping trip to the desert!

Joe's Valley Reservoir
Joe's Valley Reservoir
Tim at Joe's Valley Reservoir

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Black Hills and Badlands National Park, South Dakota - Hiking

Stephen planned his annual highpointing trip to South Dakota this year, and invited several of his friends, along with me, to join for a weekend of hiking and exploring.  After a quick afternoon flight from Salt Lake City, we made our way to the rental house in Rapid City on Thursday afternoon.  With the weather expected to deteriorate throughout the weekend, we decided to hike Black Elk Peak on Friday and explore Badlands National Park on Saturday.  I was able to get my local beer fix that evening by suggesting pizza at Independent Ale House, and we walked around the downtown area for a bit before calling it a night.  We awoke to low clouds and a cold wind on Friday morning, a surprise, given the forecast looked fairly good for our peak hike. Nevertheless, we dressed in warm layers and drove off to the trail head at Sylvan Lake.  Despite the grey conditions, the drive was scenic with many beautiful granite rock spires along the way.

The South Dakota highpoint group
Sylvan Lake

We began our hike to Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak, using Trail 4 from Sylvan Lake.  Low clouds and mist limited our views, but  patches of autumn foliage broke up the otherwise monochromatic scene.  A spur trail took us to Little Devil's Tower, but aside from a shroud of fog, we could see little else.

Trail 4 to Black Elk Peak
Misty views on the way to Black Elk Peak

Little Devil's Tower

Foggy views on the way to Black Elk Peak

As we descended down to an area called Cathedral Spires, we were rewarded with a sudden clearing of the mist and fog.  Sunlight began to break through, providing absolutely stunning views of the surrounding granite spires.  Sunbeams and fog filtered through the spires, giving the place a magical feel.

Fog clearing at the Cathedral Spires
Fog clearing at the Cathedral Spires
Cathedral Spires
Cathedral Spires

Roger at Cathedral Spires

Under suddenly clear skies and warm sunshine, we made our way to the summit of Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota with an elevation of 7,242 feet.  A stone fire lookout tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938, marked the summit.  The views of the surrounding Black Hills and granite spires were spectacular.  After enjoying lunch at the lookout tower, we descended back to the trail head on Trail 9.

Trail 4 to Black Elk Peak summit
Roger hiking to Black Elk Peak
Black Elk Peak stone fire lookout tower
Roger on Black Elk Peak
Enjoying a beautiful day with Roger on Black Elk Peak
Trail 9 descending from Black Elk Peak

No trip to South Dakota is complete without a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.  This iconic piece of American history is spectacular to view, and the story of its construction is fascinating to learn.

Mount  Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Although it was late in the afternoon, we decided to make a stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial to view the progress of what is billed as the world's largest mountain carving.  The museum at the memorial was extensive, but we were all a bit tired from a long day to fully enjoy the amount of material presented.

Crazy Horse Memorial
Depiction of the Crazy Horse Memorial when complete

Saturday was the stormy day that we expected, so we headed over to Badlands National Park to do a driving tour of the park with some small hikes as the weather permitted.  There were numerous scenic viewpoints along the Badlands Loop Road, and several short hikes that we were able to complete despite the wind and rain.  Even with the grey skies, the rock formations within the park were beautiful!

Badlands National Park
Roger trying to keep warm
Stormy fun in the Badlands

With Stephen in Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park

We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Tally's Silver Spoon in Rapid City as we closed out our trip on Saturday night.  Stephen did a great job planning a weekend of hiking and sightseeing, and South Dakota was much more impressive and beautiful than I had expected.  With so much to see and do in both the Black Hills and the Badlands, I may need a second trip.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Swan Valley, Idaho - Total Solar Eclipse

I'd known for years that a total solar eclipse would cross the United States from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21, 2017.  I began planning a trip and looking into camping and hotel options within the path of totality last November.  Thinking that would be plenty of time to book a convenient trip, I was surprised to discover that people had already made their travel arrangements much sooner than me.  Already, nearly a year out from the eclipse, camping and hotel options were limited, and expensive.  Six months before the eclipse, camping reservations became available for National Forest Service sites.  I was able to reserve a site at the Falls Campground in Swan Valley, Idaho, a place I'd camp previously for trips to the Tetons and Idaho Falls.

Camping at the Falls Campground near Swan Valley


As the date of the eclipse approached, I began to worry.  The weather forecast was looking cloudy.  Dire warnings about traffic jams, empty grocery stores, and sold out services such as gasoline filled the news.  Despite the concerns, Jacob and I left Salt Lake City on Saturday morning with enough water and food to get us through any emergency.  Highways signs warned of potential traffic chaos, but the miles kept ticking by and traffic continued to flow smoothly.  We passed through Pocatello and Idaho Falls without any trouble, and arrived in Swan Valley without a single delay. We set up camp and enjoyed a beautiful evening, relieved that the drive had gone so well.

Setting up camp at the Falls Campground in Swan Valley
Lunar themed wine for dinner

Sunday was a day of waiting.  Shawn arrived from Salt Lake City on Sunday morning and experienced no traffic problems, either.  We swam in the Snake River and scoped out our eclipse viewing site at Fall Creek Falls.  I napped in my hammock and fretted about clouds.  I could not wait for Monday to arrive!

Fall Creek Falls - our selected eclipse viewing site

I woke up several times on Sunday night, looking at the sky and waiting for the stars to disappear behind a blanket of clouds that I was certain would ruin the eclipse. When I awoke on Monday morning, the band of clouds that I was worried about had already passed, sliding south into the distance and leaving a crystal clear sky behind.  After breakfast, we made our way to the waterfall to watch the show.  A small crowd had gathered, and the mood was very festive.  Someone had crystals laid out on the blanket, presumably to catch the energies of the eclipse.

Eclipse viewing at Fall Creek Falls, Swan Valley, ID
The eclipse begins

The change in light was very subtle for most of the eclipse.  We cracked open a bottle of 2011 Deschutes Abyss to welcome the darkness.  It wasn't until a few minutes before totality that things got really interesting.  The sunlight felt filtered and weak, and it became noticeably cooler.  Shadow bands began to race across the ground, visible on the patches of white sand surrounding our viewing site.

Jacob watching the eclipse
Approaching totality
Darkening sky to our north and west
Welcoming the umbra with an Abyss
Moment before totality

Moments before totality, the daylight began to dim dramatically.  It was like someone was turning a dimmer switch in the sky.  Totality arrived, and it was one of the most memorable and stunning sights I have ever seen.

Total solar eclipse - Swan Valley, ID
Total solar eclipse - Swan Valley, ID

The Snake River and Swan Valley, ID during totality
End of totality

Suddenly, a flash of light peeked out from behind the moon.  It felt too soon for the sun to reappear, as if only a few seconds had passed since totality began.  But as the surrounding landscape lit back up, it was clear that our two minutes of magic were over.  We celebrated the return of light with champagne, and a swim in the creek above the waterfalls.  Everyone jumped in their cars and headed home, while we stayed behind for another night to relax, celebrate, and swim in the Snake River one last time.  Some traffic chaos did occur on Monday afternoon, but our drive home on Tuesday was smooth as could be.

Celebrating the eclipse and return of the sun
Champagne to celebrate the eclipse
Celebrating the eclipse in Fall Creek
Shawn in Fall Creek
Eclipse dinner and lunar themed wine