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Joshua Tree National Park

Back to the desert again. But this desert has some really interesting trees.  Joshua Tree National Park is where two different styles of desert meet, the Mojave and the Colorado.  After splurging on our beachfront spot on the coast we needed to find a free boondocking spot for our Joshua Tree Adventure.  We took to Campendium.com and were not disappointed.  We camped for free at Joshua Tree South on BLM land located right outside the southern entrance to the park.  There were lots of campsite with fire rings and the spots were fairly spaced out.  It was only a mile off the interstate but you couldn’t hear the traffic.  A really neat thing about the spot was that you could see the headlights of the interstate traffic all night but it was far away and kind of mesmerizing watching the lights in the darkness of the desert.  Some camping nights are more memorable then others and we had a really great one here. There was one evening we were hanging out watching the stars and gazing at the interstate traffic in the distance. We couldn’t see our neighbors because it was so dark out but the people to the left of us were playing exactly our favorite kinds of music at their campsite and on the right of us was a group of Chinese college age kids playing games and laughing in the dark.  It was a really good vibe all around. Lots of different people hanging in the desert in the middle of nowhere enjoying their evening.  Just a moment of pure happiness, which is what it’s all about.

We spent two days exploring Joshua Tree National Park. This desert landscape was very different than Death Valley.  There were tons of huge geological rock formations to climb on and a lot of really cool hiking trails.  We hiked at Skull Rock, a trail named for the giant rock that resembles a skull at the beginning of the trail.  We also hiked up to the top of Ryan Mountain for stunning 360 degree views of the park.  A challenging hike but totally worth it for the views!  My favorite thing we saw were the Cholla Cacti they were short, stout, bush like cacti with shades of yellow and green needles.  They looked almost fluffy but Ryan can tell you, don’t be fooled, they are very pointy!  We also saw lots of Joshua Trees of course.  They are really neat trees and grow pretty large.  I was surprised how much vegetation and wildlife were in the park.  When we were leaving the park one evening Ryan had to swerve around something in the road, it looked like a hand scurrying across the road.  It was a giant tarantula!  Supposedly they are the gentle giants of the spider world but I was happy to view it from inside the truck.

From our boondocking spot we also checked out a couple other nearby places. We stopped in at the International Banana Museum and checked out their insane collection of everything banana related.  And I mean EVERYTHING banana.  There were posters, figurines, candy, liquor, stuffed animals, ash trays, and basically anything in the world that is flavored banana or has a banana on it.  They also served banana flavored treats so we sat at a banana themed table and had a banana split and a peanut butter, chocolate, banana shake.  An interesting road side stop in the desert.  After the banana museum we checked out the Salton Sea.  The Salton Sea is located directly on the San Andreas Fault Line,  and has a higher salinity than the Pacific Ocean but less than The Great Salt Lake according to Wikipedia.  The salinity here is increasing and fish are dying at rapid rates not being able to survive in the changing environment.  From a distance the lake looked beautiful, but after parking and walking towards the lake the smell of dead fish was overwhelming.  It didn’t take long to see the smell was coming from piles of dead and decaying fish lying along the banks.  It’s an interesting reminder of how our landscapes and ecosystems can change quickly.  I recommend looking it up, there’s a lot more interesting information about this lake in the middle of a desert than I have room for here.

Joshua Tree was our last California spot, it was time to head further east. Our next location had been on my list for a while.  It was time to say good bye to the desert and hello to the red rocks of Arizona

 

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Beach Bumming

After a week in the desert I needed to smell the ocean breezes so we hit the road and headed for coastal California! After doing some research we settled on Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County in Central California.  We stayed at Oceano Campground, one of our priciest stays at $42 a night but still a pretty reasonable campsite fee for being on the beach in California.   Thanks to the recent boondocking we’ve been doing we could afford to splurge a little here for location. It wasn’t the most spacious campground but it was super clean and had decent pay showers.  Of course what we were there for was the beach anyway and it was just a short walk through a scenic, fragrant forest to get there.  We ran into a huge fox several times on our walk to the beach. The other campers we met were really nice and everyone (including us) had decorations up for Halloween.  We even enjoyed some Halloween candy from a friendly neighbor.

Pismo Beach allows vehicles to drive on it, which I thought would bother me but we quickly got used to the slow traffic and sunk into beach bum mode. We spent our days laying on the beach napping in the sun and walking down the beach looking for shells and sand dollars.  It was a popular spot for horseback riding and surfing.  On our first day we noticed spouts of water way out in the water and after some investigating with the binoculars we were super excited to see it was whales!  I think they were Gray Whales migrating south. We spent a good chunk of time being entertained by the whales and watching them smack their huge tails against the water.  It was so neat!

We also spent a morning at the Monarch Butterfly Conservatory. It was located a short walk up the beach from our camp.  Every year the Monarch Butterflies migrate to the conservatory  from the Rocky Mountains to spend the winter.  They arrive in late October and we were fortunate enough to be there as they were starting to arrive.  Walking through the conservatory the trees are covered with Monarchs, so many in fact that we thought we were looking at clusters of leaves on the trees but it turns out they were clusters of butterflies!  The staff at the conservatory were super nice and extremely knowledgeable about the Monarchs.  They set up spotting scopes so people could look up into the trees to see the huge clusters of butterflies.  Touring the conservatory was free and a must do if you are in the area.

I also have to give a shout out to the folks at Trans-King Transmissions in Arroyo Grande, close to Pismo Beach. A big part of having an enjoyable road trip is making sure that your rig is well maintained.  After 3 months on the road it was time to get the transmission serviced and the oil changed.  They got us right in, had reasonable prices, offered to drive us somewhere so we wouldn’t have to waste our day in their waiting room. When we were picking up the truck the office manager inquired about what we like to do. When he found out we like to hike, he immediately pulled up a map of his favorite hike and printed out directions to the trailhead.  Talk about service!

Our evenings in Pismo Beach were consumed by the World Series. Being on the West Coast the games started right around sunset so we watched the sunset on the beach and then scurried to our camper to watch the game every night.  I’m sure our neighbors were wondering what we were doing in there every night, but I think the Illinois license plates and the cheering and groaning gave it away.  We are Cardinals fans but it was still super exciting to see the Cubs in the World Series.  We actually decided to extend our stay at the beach for two extra days so we could finish watching the series.  We were pretty sure we wouldn’t pick up any TV channels at our next location.  It was worth it, that was some good baseball and of course who could pass up a few more days of being beach bums?

Well with the World Series completed and our camper full of sand, it was time to truck on down the road again. Time to start working our way home to Illinois for the holidays.  No reason to sweep out the sand though because the desert was calling again.  Next stop, Joshua Tree National Park!

Death Valley-Beautiful Desolation

The Sheppard’s have officially settled into our home for the winter just outside of Winter Park Colorado.  Our sabbatical fun is far from over though!  Before I can tell you about our Rocky Mountain winter adventures I need to fill everyone in on the rest of the details from our journey out west.  So the time is the end of October 2016 and the place is Death Valley National Park.  Enjoy!

There is beauty in desolation, it is something that has to be experienced for itself. When we decided to go to Death Valley National Park, I was skeptical that I would find anything there of interest or beauty, it’s just a desert after all.  It turns out the night sky sparkles over the desert, and the sun casts shadows and light making the most boring shades of beige, tan, and brown gleam with a richness that would please any artist palette.  It is alive with life, the roadrunner and Desert Big Horn Sheep call this place home, along with countless other plants and animals.

For our Death Valley adventure we camped at a place called “The Pads” just 10 minutes outside the entrance of the southern end of the park. It was free to camp there on the concrete pads that were once the site of a long since abandoned mobile home park that housed miners and their families.  “The Pads” was once full of promise and hope, like many of the ghost towns and old mines that make up Death Valley’s history and landscape.  For a visit to Death Valley “The Pads” proved an excellent choice to set up shop for a few days. Can’t beat flat and free camping!

Death Valley is full of American Dream History, there is story after story of explorers and miners flocking to the valley to stake their claim, make their riches, and build their lives. On our first day we explored the Badwater Basin, a salt flat that sits 282 feet below sea level, one of the lowest points on land in Northern America. Tourists can walk way out onto the salt flats, many scrawl their initials in the dry, white salty ground.  The day we visited was super windy, our clothes suctioning to our bodies as we put one foot in front of the other making our way across the flats.  As we exited the basin area it was easy to see where the name “Badwater” came from.  There was a shallow pool only a few inches deep on the edge of the salt flat and it stunk like a rotten egg or sewer gas.  Legend has it the name came from a cowboy who brought his horse to water here and even the horse wouldn’t drink the nasty, pungent water.  After we left the Salt Basin we continued north through Death Valley to explore the site of the former Harmony Borax Works.  We were able to see the ruins of the former plant and learn more about the history of the town and people who worked there.  We rounded out our first day with a sunset view at Zabriskie point.  A must see for anyone visiting Death Valley, Zabriskie point over looks many sand dunes and rock formations that change in color from a pale vanilla to a rich chocolate brown.  The sky is full and open over the point lending a magical quality to quietly beautiful sunsets here.

On our second day we hiked to the Natural Bridge, a gorgeous canyon full of geological features that have been created by the elements over time. As we finished our hike we headed toward the car and I noticed it looked like there was a giant body of water across from us, but in reality there was nothing there but flat, empty land.  It was my first experience of the desert mirage, crazy how the sunlight and eyes can play tricks! Later that day we drove just across the border into Nevada to a ghost town called Rhyolite.  It is the site of an open air museum with some very interesting pieces.  I have to admit it felt like we had stumbled into a scene of a horror movie arriving at the ghost town and seeing some very haunting works of art next to dilapidated buildings and rusted out cars.  Once I relaxed it was interesting to walk around and read about the history of the buildings and the town.  Centered around the Montgomery Shoshone Mine in 1904 the town grew rapidly to a population of over 5,000 at its heyday, with electricity being installed in 1907. By 1911 the mine was closed and the town population quickly moved on to other endeavors, leaving the buildings to rot.  I love a good old cemetery, and Rhyolite has a great one.  It’s interesting to walk around and read the names and dates and wonder what people’s lives were like so long ago. Many of the graves no longer have markers or have wooden markers that are weathered and worn, no longer bearing the name of the person below.  Well worth a stop if visiting the Death Valley Area.  We finished out the day at Twenty Mule Team Canyon.  A 3 mile drive through fluffy dunes and rock/mineral formations.  We left the truck and scrambled to the top of a dune to watch the bats fly around at sunset.  An awesome sight and we were the only people around, it felt like we owned the world!

After a few days in the desert it was time to pack up and head further west. On the way out we encountered an interesting phenomenon.  We were pulling the camper and it looked as though we were going downhill but it felt like we going uphill.  I checked my Altimeter and sure enough, even though it looked like we were going down we were climbing.  Also a word to the wise, if you happen to be pulling a camper or even driving an RV exit Death Valley through the south instead of making the climb to the north and the west, you’ll save yourself from having a bad day.  Although you will get a lot of time to work on your tan while you wait for the truck to cool off in the hot desert sun.

 

Las Vegas- Bright Lights, Good Friends, and Zombies

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Our Memphis Wolf Pack in Las Vegas

 

Las Vegas, a shock to they system after the peace and serenity of Zion National Park.  Hard to believe the two are only a couple hours drive apart.  We’ve been there several times before and hadn’t originally planned to visit while on the road, but when we found out our good friends were heading there, and we were already going to be close, we added it to the agenda.  There is a campground on the strip but we decided to use our 3 nights there to take a break from the camper, aka The Cramper.  We spent 3 fabulous nights at Treasure Island, enjoying a big hotel room, cable, and endless hot showers.

So what did we do with the rig during our stay?  After doing some research we decided the best place to park the rig was, believe it or not, at the airport. They have a lot specifically for oversized vehicles and on the cost was only $15 per day.  It also saved us the headache of attempting to pull the camper through the strip.  We parked the rig, grabbed our suitcases, and took an Uber to Treasure Island.  Pretty easy peasy.

We had a great time catching up with our friends! We strolled around the casinos playing the slots here and there.  Neither of us won but I played one machine for 3 hours on $20 while drinking for free, and cashed out with my $20 back at the end of the night, so I call that a win.  Stacey and I cruised the Fashion Show Mall while the boys checked out the sports page at the Mirage.  I also had to grab my favorite drink in Vegas to sip on while we walked up and down the strip.  In front of Caesar’s Palace by the Spanish Steps is a delightful Bacardi stand that makes several different types of mojitos, including a mixed berry one full of fresh strawberries and blueberries.  It’s amazing and refreshing, perfect for the dry Vegas heat!

Our last evening we attended a performance of the show Zombie Burlesque at the Planet Hollywood shops.  It was Burlesque style show with a twist that instead of humans the cast were Zombies. The storyline worked out well and it proved to be an excellent choice, the cast were amazing, very talented singers, dancers, and actors.  The host was hilarious and did a great job getting the audience involved.  The icing on the cake was watching our friends going up on stage for a zombie version of the newlywed game.  It was hilarious and a story our group will laugh about for years to come.

After a wonderful time with our friends and being back among civilization we were ready to get on the road again and back to nature.  We hugged our friends goodbye with plans to see them again for Thanksgiving, and Ubered back to the airport parking lot to pick up The Cramper, which we were relieved to find intact and untouched.  We headed down the road singing the Wind and the Wave’s “Grand Canyon” excited for our next adventure.

A Canyon So Big It’s Grand

Grand Canyon National Park is a bucket list item for many Americans (including my dad) and foreigners alike. After a 4 hour drive from Las Vegas we arrived in the dark at Mather Campground located inside Grand Canyon National Park on the South Rim.  This was our first stay inside a National Park and we were excited to see what it was all about.  We had made our reservation several months before and were able to book a full week.  The campground was great! There were hot showers for $2 and even laundry onsite which is a big plus when you live on the road.  Our spot was located right next to the bicycle trail which made getting around the park super easy.  We were really happy to park the rig for the week and not have to drive anywhere.  In addition to the bicycle trail is a free shuttle bus taking you all over the park and into the closest town.  We took full advantage of the bike trails and used them to get around during our week stay.

One of our favorite activities at the Grand Canyon was attending the ranger talks.  We learned about the endangered California Condor and the efforts to save the species from extinction.  We listened to several other talks on wildlife found in the canyon like elk (we saw lots of them!), coyotes,  and rattlesnakes (thankfully we saw none), and we took part in a hawk watch after a talk on birds of prey.  One of our favorite evenings was spent riding our bikes from the campground over to the visitor center for an astronomy lesson.  The group walked out to Mather Point on the edge of the canyon where a ranger used a powerful laser pointer to point out constellations in the night sky and tell the stories of them. Beautiful!

We spent a day riding our bikes from camp over to the South Kaibab Trail Head where we parked our bikes and hiked the narrow trail down below the rim 1.5 miles to Cedar Point.   About a mile down we stopped at Ooh-Ahh Point to enjoy the view and some sandwiches before continuing down. This trail is not for the faint of heart! It’s pretty narrow with the canyon wall on one side and nothing but air on the other, in a few places it’s air on both sides!  There are also mule riders that use this trail, luckily the mules were just exiting the top of the trail when we started our descent and we didn’t have to worry about meeting them on our hike.  One of the best moments of our entire trip was running into a Big Horn Sheep right on the trail.  He was walking up as we were walking down.  We stayed to the inside wall and he just kept walking right towards us, as he got closer he sort of picked up his pace and scuttled past us quickly looking at us out of the corner of his eye like “don’t mind me, just passing through.” He was gorgeous! A great hike and it was funny to see how cheerful people were on the way down but not so cheerful hiking back up.  If you want to do the mule ride down to the bottom of the canyon, they book out 6 to 8 months in advance.  If you want to hike all the way to the bottom of the canyon a back country permit is required and you must camp down there, it is not recommended to hike all the way down and back out in one day. Permits have to be applied for 4 months in advance but they only grant so many.  We had applied but didn’t win the lottery.  I’m glad we were still able to do a day hike below the rim, even though we didn’t get to go all the way to the bottom it was a great experience!

The Grand Canyon is rich in history and the National Park Service does a wonderful job of preserving the architecture and the stories of the people who made their lives here.  Go check it out!

 

 

Zion National Park

Zion was a big must-see item on our trip list so we were stoked to finally be there!  We found an awesome free camping spot about 15 minutes away from the park. Our site had 360 degree views of towering rock formations, a cave nearby with bats that entertained us at night, coyotes howling all around us, and miles of biking trails.  We had plans to meet up with friends in Las Vegas, so we only had one full day to absorb Zion as best as possible.  After my girls weekend in the Midwest I was all out of whack from traveling back and forth through so many time zones in a short time, and found myself awake to watch the sunrise over the pink, white, and red rock formations.  Watching the stars give way to the sun over the towering rocks is something I will never forget!  It was so peaceful and serene, a confirmation of why we are out here on the road living like nomads.  I woke Ryan up and we headed into town to enjoy some veggie omelets and fresh fruit at The Park House, a quaint café with outdoor seating and friendly service. They even used herbs fresh from their own garden!

Fueled up from our delicious breakfast we headed into Zion.  With only one day to explore we wanted to see as much as possible.  A portion of the park is closed to vehicles but there is free shuttle system that takes visitors through, stopping at 9 different spots for people to get out and explore at their leisure.  We spent the morning driving through the portion of the park open to vehicle traffic, stopping to take a moderately strenuous hike to an overlook of Zion’s most notable rock formations.  We also got to drive through a tunnel cut in the rock that is  one and  a half miles long.  Only one way traffic is allowed through the tunnel so a ranger hands the last car a baton to carry through and hand to a ranger at the other end, signaling the tunnel is empty and traffic can pass from the opposite direction.  I was super excited to be the baton carrier for our caravan through the tunnel!

We spent the second part of our day riding the free shuttle around the remainder of the park.  The bus offers a narrative on noteworthy spots around the park as well as a description of what riders will find at each shuttle stop.  We opted to ride all the way to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava, and then disembarked for a nice afternoon hike along the Virgin River to the mouth of the Narrows. We saw several deer on the river bank and enjoyed gazing up at the pink and white sandstone walls from the bottom of the canyon.  It was a very comforting feeling to be at the bottom of the canyon, probably because of my aversion to heights, but overall there was just a really serene and peaceful feel to Zion. 

We jumped back on the shuttle and rode it back to the visitor center where we took a short bike ride as the sun began to set and moon climbed above the cliffs of Zion.  Another full day of wonder and adventure came to a close and we retired to our camp to watch the bats fly and the coyotes howl. 

 

 

 

Utah with a side of Indy

After two months on the road together Ryan and I were ready to separate for a bit, so I made arrangements to head back to the Midwest for my good friend Kaci’s bachelorette party, and Ryan set up shop in Wasatch Mountain State Park.  The park is situated at the bottom of the Wasatch Mountain Range in the Heber Valley.  We had one day together in Wasatch before I headed to Salt Lake City to grab a flight to Peoria, so we decided to check out the WOW (Wasatch over Wasatch)mountain biking trail.  We picked up the trail head right from our campground and all I can say is WOW is right!  The difficulty level was perfect for a beginner but still challenging with lots of climbing.  The higher we climbed the better the views, and sailing back down was a blast.  One thing I’ve learned on this trip is the view is always worth the climb!

After a day of mountain biking we decided to take a scenic drive up Pine Canyon Mountain Pass to check out Park City, Utah where they were gearing up for ski season.  As we climbed higher up the twisty mountain pass snowflakes started to fall, then they started to pile up…quickly.  We reached a good turnaround point and decided to head back down since the white powder was still falling steadily and slickly. After a scary moment passing another car from the opposite direction we headed back down the mountain, stopping to snap some pictures of the Aspen trees with their leaves glowing a bright fiery orange against the snow. It only took a few minutes of winding our way down for the snowflakes to become nothing but a memory, as the precipitation turned to rain in the warmer valley below.

The next day I flew to Peoria where I met up with my girlfriends and headed to Indianapolis for an epic girls weekend.  Downtown Indy is a perfect spot for a bachelorette party.  Our group rented a house on AirBNB that was within walking distance to all downtown Indy had to offer.  We enjoyed lunch at the famous Shapiro’s Deli, mechanical bull riding at Cadillac Ranch, dancing, karaoke, blues bands at the Slippery Noodle Inn, delicious happy hour appetizers at Claddagh Irish Pub, and more.  We also took a handlebar bike tour of downtown Indy (basically a moving bar powered by the peddling of it’s patrons) and enjoyed a drag show.  It was a memorable weekend with some truly awesome ladies! Can’t wait for the wedding Kaci!

After a whirlwind weekend with the girls I was happy to reunite with Ryan (who totally enjoyed his alone time mountain biking in Wasatch), and head on down the road again.

 

 

 

Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole Wyoming

Grand Teton National Park is a bicyclers dream.  One thing we have really desired in our travels is a biker friendly National Park.  This park delivered.  Starting at the visitor center in Moose, Wyoming is a totally paved trail system, completely separate from the roads, that takes riders on a journey through the park or into the resort town of Jackson Hole. During our four day stay we really logged some miles visiting J-Hole, and checking out the sights through the park.  We rode from Moose to Jenny Lake and enjoyed seeing the Pronghorns run through the fields next to us along the way.  We parked our bikes at the trailhead and hiked a short distance to Jenny Lake, a beautiful body of water nestled at the bottom of the Teton Mountain Range.

On another day we parked the truck at Dornan’s Trading Post in Moose and grabbed some sandwiches to fuel up before a long bike ride to Jackson Hole.  The sandwiches were fresh made and huge, piled high with meat and thick slices of cheese with all the fixings.  We had to save half for after the bike ride so we wouldn’t have sandwich hangovers mid-ride.  The route to Jackson Hole from Moose was scenic and passed through the Elk conservation area where thousands of Elk migrate in the fall.  Unfortunately there were no Elk there during our visit but it was really interesting seeing the creative solutions people have come up with to help keep the Elk from staying on the highway during migration.  There is a large fence along the highway with dirt mounds next to it on the highway side so the Elk can easily jump over into safety.  While we were in Jackson Hole we walked along the square and checked out the shops.  If you are into boutique shopping, fine art, or Western Wear, this is the town for you!  Loads of quaint shops and galleries to keep the avid shopper busy for hours and plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, and pubs to rest and quench the thirst when shopping wears you out.  We hit up happy hour at Thai Me Up and enjoyed eggrolls and pot-stickers with some great local brews from Melvin Brewing.

We were able to enjoy getting waited on for a change due to our fantastic boondocking location we found on Campendium.com.  We camped for free with a million dollar view in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, less then fifteen minutes from Moose and the park visitor center.  There were miles of forest roads offering opportunities to bike, hike, or go for a scenic wildlife viewing drive.

We wanted to stay longer and check out some hikes we heard about from locals but the weather drove us out.  We saw our first snow flakes and below freezing temperatures signaled it was time to move south before the ski season started at Jackson Hole.  I would love to check out the skiing there but hey, we live in a camper not a sleigh, so maybe another time.

Yellowstone-Mother Nature at it’s Best

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Yellowstone is by far the most interesting, wild, dangerous, and beautiful place I have ever been in my travels.  I understand why it became our first National Park and I thank those insightful people who thought to protect and preserve it for future generations.  We spent a week there at the end of September, and it still wasn’t long enough to see the whole park.  Late September is a wonderful time to visit Yellowstone!  Their peak season is July and August and rumor is the traffic is bumper to bumper then.  We were able to cruise around at leisure and had many areas of the park all to ourselves. The temperatures were pleasant, and the Aspen Trees were glowing orange. We camped at Henry’s Lake State Park in Idaho, about a 20 minute drive into the entrance of West Yellowstone.  Interestingly enough, even though it’s only 20 minutes away we had to pass through a sliver  of Montana before we entered into Wyoming. We chose Henry’s because it was a first come, first serve campground and several of the campgrounds inside the park were already closing for the season during our visit.  Henry’s was great! We easily explored the north and south sections of the park from the middle entrance of West Yellowstone.  The lake was beautiful and there were great hiking trails complete with moose right at the campground.  I have been dying to see a moose in person, from a safe distance of course, and I finally got my chance hiking the trail at Henry’s.  A female moose snorted and stomped at us from a distance and then took off into the trees.  It was awesome and exhilarating!

As I mentioned before Yellowstone is a wild and dangerous place! It is home to Grizzly and Black Bears, the huge American Bison, elk, coyotes, and several wolf packs.  These animals run free living, hunting, breeding, and raising their young here.  We are the guests/intruders on their land and it’s easy to see why the rangers and signs warn visitors to keep a safe distance from these glorious animals.  Within an hour of entering the park we were treated to a herd of elk frolicking near the Yellowstone River.  We were lucky enough to be there for the rut, hearing the bugle call of the bulls as they tried to impress the ladies was an experience I will never forget.  As we were watching the herd a female and male walked out of the shadow of the forest (I’m assuming after a mating session). The male swaggered into view, his huge rack prominent, and let out a deep, loud, from the gut call that echoed through the night.  He was the king of the forest in that moment.  A short while later a massive bison came up to the herd and began chasing the elk through the field and across the river.  It was a better greeting into Yellowstone then I could have imagined!  We also saw a coyote wandering through a field one afternoon, he looked sleepy and somewhat bewildered by the people pausing to take his picture.  There are so many bison wandering through the park that you sort of become accustomed to them and forget that they are massive, wild creatures that will gore you with their horns if you get to close.  We had been out on a hike one afternoon and when we were coming back to our car we found a herd of about a 100 bison had taken up residence between us and our car.  We had to move slowly and cautiously and try to go around them.  Several times we caught the attention of some really ginormous fellas that started walking towards us, and the feeling in my stomach was sheer nerves as we scurried out of their way as quickly as possible.   Another evening, at dusk, we set up shop with our binoculars in Hayden’s Valley, a well known area to spot bears and wolves, but unfortunately all we saw were elk and a bald eagle.  We met a nice couple there that were lucky enough to see the wolf pack rally together and surround the elk herd the night before in the same spot.  I wish we had been that lucky!

The other major danger at Yellowstone is the thermal zones created by the volcanic activity happening beneath the earth’s crust here.  Yellowstone is the site of a massive eruption many, many years ago and is still an active hot bed for geological activity.  There are several geyser basins located throughout the park where visitors can walk along boardwalks to observe hot springs and if you are lucky, see a geyser go off.  The hot springs look steamy and inviting but they are highly acidic and extremely hot! Several people have lost their lives by ignoring the signs to stay on the boardwalk.  Looking down into the hot springs is like seeing into the center of the earth, you can see how fragile an environment we really live in and how easily it could be destroyed by an eruption here.  The smell of sulfur is strong in many of the geyser basins and the air thick with steam and gases from down below.  There are colorful mats of bacteria that have formed in and around the hot springs creating natural works of art.  We had to go see Old Faithful of course, and I have to admit there is a sense of patriotic pride that comes with watching her blow, a sort of American right of passage if you will.  She wasn’t my favorite geyser though.  We were out riding our bikes near the Old Faithful Visitor Center one evening and we passed Castle Geyser on the way and noted it was predicted to erupt in the next hour or so.  We peddled out to see Morning Glory Hot Spring and on our way back the Castle hadn’t erupted yet so we stopped and waited.  Right at sunset she blew and oh what a sight!  Hot, steamy water flew 200 feet straight up into the air for over 15 minutes and was followed by massive amounts of steam and more water for another 45 minutes.  The sound as she vomited the steam out was something like a tornado or a fleet of freight trains coming out of the ground.  It was by far the best thing I have seen on this trip.  If you ever go to Yellowstone please seek out this geyser, it usually erupts every 12 to 14 hours.  It is truly magnificent!  Our other favorite thermal features were the mud pots and paint pots.  They are thick, gloppy puddles of mud and clay that bubble and plop and put on a really great show.  We could have watched the globs of mud fly through the air and hiss and steam all day.  Some of pots were waterier then others and different colors based on the minerals that are present.

We also visited the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.  It is a huge canyon carved by the Yellowstone river flowing through it.  There is a massive waterfall that is not to be missed and several hiking trails to give visitors different viewpoints of the falls both near and far away.  We hiked down below the edge of the canyon to the brink of the falls where a platform is situated and you can stand and watch the water drop over the side as it plummets to the canyon floor.   It’s mesmerizing watching the power of the water as it cascades down into the canyon, totally worth the hike down.  From there we hiked along the North Rim of the canyon to the Red Rock trail.  A great place to go for some solitude and to admire the waterfall from a distance.  There were quite a few people at the viewpoint on top of the trail but few ventured down to the lower viewpoint.  Also in the park we saw Gibbon Falls, and Firehole Falls, both excellent sights.

Yellowstone has something for everyone, and out of all the places we have seen both on this trip and in previous travels, it is the most intriguing and the best show of mother nature at work.  It’s definitely on my list of places to return to someday!

Idaho-It’s All That and a Bag of Potatoes

Our last post was over a month ago and we have been on many adventures and through several states and times zones since then! So with a good data signal, an electric hook up, and the World Series playing in the background, I will try to get the blog up to date.

We last left our readers on our way out of Oregon, crossing into Idaho heading towards Yellowstone National Park.  Idaho ended up being much more than just a pass through state, it was a state with plenty of adventure activities, scenery, and wildlife viewing to keep even the most avid outdoorsman happy for a long time.

Our first destination was the Birds of Prey Conservation Area.  Being bird watchers this was a natural choice on our route.  We stopped here to lookout over the Snake River and saw many species of birds flying overhead.  Thanks to my excellent navigation skills and some shoddy assistance from Google Maps we ended up seeing a lot more of the area then originally intended,but hey it’s a road trip right? After a scenic drive we decided to camp for the night at Bruneau Dunes State Park, it ended up being an excellent choice! Bruneau Dunes is located in a high desert climate in Southern Idaho and is home to a 470 foot sand dune.  Upon arriving we were super excited to see they also housed an observatory with a massive telescope for stargazing.  They highly encouraged visitors to keep their lights off at night so everyone could enjoy the fantastic stargazing in the park.  We arrived on a Thursday and once we discovered they had a Friday night Astronomy program at the observatory we knew we had to stay an extra night.  By staying another night we had a full day to explore the park and decided to conquer the giant sand dune.  We set out on a hike to the top and discovered about half way up that the “trail” disappears in the sand due to wind and it’s just a free for all climb to the crest.  It was so steep I had to channel my inner Spiderman and basically climb straight up through the sand.  When I reached the top I pulled myself up to sit on the crest and realized it was a sheer drop into a huge crater on the other side.  Being perched on top of a crest with a sheer drop on one side and a pretty steep drop on the other was not ideal for someone who does not really enjoy heights a lot, but I sucked it up and waited for Ryan to join me at the top (apparently I have the better Spiderman skills). Once at the top we followed coyote tracks across the dune and finally down to finish out the strenuous desert hike.  Later that evening we rode our bikes from our camp to the observatory for their Friday night astronomy program.  The program was run by a volunteer student from Idaho State University who is studying astronomy and happens to be an intern for Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is best known for abolishing Pluto as a planet in our solar system.  Neil also has an excellent show on Netflix called “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.  Anyway it was a great program about how big the universe is and then we got to go outside and look through several telescopes at cool things in the sky, like Saturn, and we each got to take a turn looking through the giant telescope in the observatory.  Then we pedaled our bikes through the crisp ,starry evening back to our campsite where we got out our own telescope to finish our day in the high desert.

After we left Bruneau Dunes we decided to foray into the world of Boondocking.  Boondocking is a term used for camping for free off the grid (often on government/public lands) and usually with no amenities.  It is also called dispersed camping or wild camping.  There is a fantastic website called Campendium that has GPS coordinates for free campsites and also pictures and reviews by people who have stayed there, similar to TripAdvisor, but for camping.  We wanted to camp near Craters of the Moon National Monument so I typed that into the search and found that we could camp for free at Hayspur Fish Hatchery near Hailey, Idaho. We were super impressed with our first boondocking experience and ended up staying almost a week exploring the area.  We had our choice of two huge fields to camp in and each site had a make shift fire ring and even a picnic table.  We set up camp next to a babbling brook with a stunning view of the Sawtooth Mountains.  From our site we went hiking in the Sawtooth National Forest where the aspen trees were fully changed over for fall, looking like balls of orange and yellow fire.  We took a drive down a back country road and set up the our giant binoculars to try and see a bear at dusk but unfortunately all we saw were deer.  This area is also home to Sun Valley Ski Resort and the cute ski towns of Hailey and Ketchum.  When skiing is not in season mountain biking is, or bikers can opt for a spin on the paved Wood River path that runs from Bellvue to Ketchum.  We put down some miles on the path enjoying the mountain scenery and the quaint ski towns.  Feeling thirsty after a day of activities we popped into Powerhouse, a trendy bar/restaurant that doubles as a bike shop, and enjoyed a couple local brews. No road trip is complete without stopping in at a few roadside attractions so we had to hit up the Shoshone Ice Caves near our campsite.  For $10 a guide takes visitors down into a cold cave with ice in it and gives a history lesson on the discovery of the cave and also some of the geological activity in the area, but if you really want to see some cool caves and get a lesson in geology, Craters of the Moon is the place to go.

When driving towards Craters the landscape shifts to endless fields of black rock as far as the eye can see.  It is fields of lava that were deposited thousands of years ago.  According to the park literature these lava fields were created by the Great Rift, a series of fissures that began erupting 15,000 years ago with the most recent eruption occurring around 2,000 years ago. The visitor center is full of testimonies from long ago settlers and explorers reaching this barren area and trying to traverse it.  It was really interesting reading their stories and impressions of the landscape. Along with the fields of lava there are giant cinder cones to hike up and deep colorful craters to marvel at.  There are also really cool caves to explore, but be warned you must have a flashlight, a sense of adventure, not mind bats, or small spaces.  We enjoyed touring Beauty and Indian Caves, but Dewdrop and Boy Scout Caves were too tight, dark, and batty for my liking.  Indian cave was huge and had enough light coming in that flashlights were not needed.  Adventure seekers can hike all the way through the cave and then scramble over huge boulders and climb out a hole and hike back across the lava field to the cave opening.  This was our favortie activity at the park. This park is a must see if you have any interest in volcanoes.

Well that’s it for our Idaho adventures, birds, boondocking, volcanoes, and caves, it’s so much more than just potatoes!