Archive for the ‘US Travel’ Category

In the company of a travelling brown spot

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

First off, let me share some good news with all those comrades trying to lose those darned impossible pounds: there’s hope! All you gotta do is drive through Utah, Arizona, Nevada etc. in the heart of summer (above 40 Celsius is child’s play and at times gets close to 50) in a non-air-conditioned van and drive all day when the sun’s at its hottest and ta da! You will be a new slimmer self albeit with increased laundry cost from profuse sweating.

Plus if you always have an itch to be outside and refuse to apply sticky sun lotions, you will arrive at the second stage of the accomplishment: a traveling brown spot as I soon became and realized through a multitude of shots that did not make the lime light. All was well with the photos overall: the breathtaking vistas, the beautiful Sandra, and … oh wait…what’s that next to her? Hmmm, must be the infamous traveling brown spot!

In the company of a traveling brown spot

After leaving Grand Teton, we traveled south via Wyoming , Idaho, and Utah to get to Salt Lake City. En route to the city, we spent a night on Antelope Island State Park which was recommended as a great spot to see the Salt Lake. After silently driving through a dry stinking lake bed (think about a dozen of those vault toilets, all left open) of about 15 km, we got to the island and found the heat relentless even in the evening compared to the nice cool of Wyoming but it made for good shots:

Salt Lake from Anetelope Island drive

Salt Lake from Anetelope Island drive

The brave soul that she is, Sandra decided to test the touted buoyancy of the salty lake to get to which she had to wad through massive swarms of flies which have made the lakeshore their home:

Sandra braving the Salt Lake

Sandra braving thre Salt Lake

I fared better with a game drive to see the namesake undulates of the island. We saw many white tail deer and the pronghorns in the evening light. Pronghorns are a relic of a bygone era when there were cheetahs in North America as they are ridiculously fast but have no one else to run from at that speed anymore. All the more to impress the ladies:

Prong Horns

Pronghorns

The beautiful sunset somewhat offset the unrelenting heat and we made our way to Salt Lake City the next morning. The city is very well planned with a natural flowing stream through it as well as greens which were not originally native to this place but planted by the industrious Mormons when they got here over 100 years ago to escape persecution in the then American boundaries with their then leader Brigham Young.

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City from temple office tower

We toured through the main attraction, the Temple Square with the help from two Sisters from the Latter Day Saints organization of Mormons. These ‘sisters’ are actually not nuns in traditional sense as they are normal women coming from countries around the world based on a random lottery basis and stay a couple years with a temple. The 2 who gave us the tour came from Canada and Switzerland and were our age. Contrary to popular belief or wishes by some (men), they were not married to the same dude as polygamy was banned in 1890 by the Mormon leaders. We had a great discussion on the similarities of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam as we visited various buildings in the huge complex:

Blessings

Might as well get blessed while we're at it

The Tabernacle building was quite something: built over a 100 years ago, it has such great acoustics that one can even hear a nail drop at the stage from the furthest benches without any sound systems.

The Tabernacle

The Tabernacle

I also had an ulterior motive of these urban travels: escape the heat to nice cool buildings :). Although the ends justified the means and I ended up gaining a better understanding of Mormom beliefs.

From Salt Lake City we drove south (slowly via multiple stops to grab ice cold drinks) and took the longer but the more scenic route to Bryce Canyon via Hwy 12 which we’d recommend to anyone. This road is a destination unto itself with amazing views of mountains  and canyons through which it cuts:

Scenic byway 12 winding through canyons

Scenic byway 12 winding through canyons

No amount of guidebooks could have prepared us for the grandeur of the Bryce Canyon with its Hoodoos. Hoodoos are tall skinny spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of arid basins and “broken” lands.

The actual word comes from voodoo and means to cast a spell; the native Navajo Indians believed these were created when bad people were converted to rock by a spirit fox. Well, the fox cast one amazing spell I tell you:

Hoodoos

First look at Hoodoos

Hoodoos from sunrise point

Hoodoos from sunrise point

To see these hoodoos, visit the canyon rims from Sunrise to Sunset point where most people view them from the overlooks ; however the most rewarding way to see them is by hiking the trails that descend into the canyon. We’d highly recommend the Navajo/Queen’s Garden trail combination. Come early in the cool of the morning unless of course you’d just love to lose them pounds by the hour in the afternoon heat:

Different shades of Bryce canyon

Different shades of Bryce canyon

Hiking the Navajo loop

Hiking the Navajo loop

Scientifically speaking, the hoodoos are a result of erosion at work in this sequential process:

Regardless of how they came to be, looking at the vast valley of voodoos does have a profound and almost spiritual effect. Their shadows seem to dance in the early morning sun as if finishing up a secret play from the night just passed and preparing to stand still again for the day like guardian to the canyon. After a few millennia, the Hoodoos turn into sand and merge back with the earth whence they came like we all will one day:

Hoodoos turned to sand

Hoodoos turned to sand

I was going to talk about our trip to Zion and Grand Canyon in this post but from the looks of it I’ll have to save it for another day and another McDonald’s parking lot (with free wifi)!

– The traveling brown spot

(PS from Sandra: The heat was not THAT bad (maybe somewhat intense) but everybody who loves the summer would be delighted to sit outside in a warm breeze until 4 in the morning at 45 Celcius! AMAZING!!!)

You can see the full album here:

Land of the Three Breasts: Grand Teton did not disappoint

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Yup, that’s right: long long ago in a land not so far away, some French fur trappers (intoxicated I presume) looked at the majestic Teton mountain range and thought that 3 of the closest peaks looked like breasts and hence named the place ‘Trois Tetons’ ! No doubt they had another round of Cheers following that stroke of ingenuity that is so becoming of the Frenchies. Now I assure you that I tried very hard to find a resemblance but alas, all in vain. The Shoshone Indian name for it, Teewinot, is much more befitting as it means “many pinnacles”.

After that massive effort, we decided to do the tourist thing and drove all around the park’s highway loop and got a great look at the towering peaks:

Grand Teton from Willow Flats Lookout

Grand Teton from Willow Flats Lookout

Posing in front of Tetons

Posing in front of Tetons

Teton range from Snake River overlook

Teton range from Snake River overlook

Then we got tired of driving and hit the backcountry trails of Phelps Lake and Death Canyon. The drive to Phelps lake trailhead took all that Jamhuri had to give, it wasn’t even a dirt road but more of a washed trail of sorts with a sheer number of potholes that would even put Kenyan roads to shame.

Phelps Lake in Grand Teton

Phelps Lake

Hiking to Phelps Lake

Hiking to Phelps Lake

The beauty of the Phelps lake is truly something to behold, especially in the early hours of the day when the deep blue of the lake is a placid mirror enhancing the awe of the mountains fringing it:

Death Canyon mirror in Phelps Lake

Death Canyon mirror in Phelps Lake

Cozy rock seats

Cozy rock seats

From our camp on Phelps, we hiked up into Death Canyon:

Death Canyon hike

Death Canyon hike

While not in backcountry, we drove on the small roads that lead from the park to Bridger Teton national forest and parked in beautiful alpine meadows for the night with deluxe views of the mountains.

Jamhuri parked in bush under Tetons

Jamhuri parked in bush under Tetons

Tetons view from Bridger Teton national forest

Tetons from Bridger Teton national forest

Another great hike we highly recommend is Cascade Canyon hike even if you only do a part of it till Inspiration Point. A word to the wise though: get here super early unless you fancy counting people instead of sheep to relax!

Jenny Lake at dawn

Jenny Lake at dawn

Hidden Falls

Hidden Falls

Reached Inspiration Point

Reached Inspiration Point

At the inspiration point, this little inspired chipmunk was ready to learn all sorts of acrobatics to earn its daily bread (it was whole wheat)!!

Do not feed chipmunks

Do not feed chipmunks

We saw bison on the park’s outer loop, deer along the trails and moose on the aptly name Moose Wilson Road. No carnivore sightings here except for me!

We travelled south through Wyoming, Idaho and Utah after spending a week looking at the breasts, but that’s a story for some other time!!

You can see the full album here:

Bears, wolves, geysers and homo sapiens: Yellowstone has it all in abundance

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Yellowstone, the American Serengeti, has lots to offer but it isn’t for those with crowd-phobia, at least in the summer. So my first order of business in Yellowstone was to somehow adapt to seeing these masses of homo sapiens that pile here like dry fall leaves that you just can’t seem to rack up! Saying that I passed with flying colors would be a complete exaggeration but I managed well enough to enjoy all the wildlife and scenery of Yellowstone.

My pleasant crowd-phobia teacher

My pleasant crowd-phobia teacher

This is a long post, making up for 2 weeks so let me start by sharing a  shot of a typical river valley and mountain vista in Yellowstone:

Bighorn Pass at Sunrise

Before I get into the plentiful wildlife, I’ll share a few tales of our hikes in the park. Lamar valley below is absolutely gorgeous and one cannot help but think of Wild West as you walk through it looking at bison herds.

Lamar River overlooking Bliss Pass

The trek up Buffalo Plateau on the northern fringes of Yellowstone was anything but a ‘walk in the park’. We hiked straight uphill for almost 11 kms in blazing heat and sun. The prize was the ever better view of the Rockies surrounding the park; strange that the actual designated campsite was another grueling 2 kms OFF the trail into bug capital with NO view even of open space let alone alpine valleys! Note to self: do not camp at site 2B1!

Trek up Buffalo Plateau

Taking rest at one of the few 'trail markers'

Our front country camp at Slough creek was the best the park has to offer (if you can manage to get a spot and ward off stalkers) and was right by the beautiful creek and surrounded by mountains and offered some of best wildlife viewing opportunities, we saw a black bear right next to camp one beautiful morning.

Slough Creek camp

We also toured the Mammoth Hot Springs which makes for a great trip since all the sulfur in the air makes it hard to distinguish any other sort of wind. It wasn’t me! I swear!

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs - no bathing here!

Let’s start with wildlife then: first up is Grizzly bears , the BIGGEST reason for me personally to make this pilgrimage. Coming from east, Yellowstone is the first place in North America where you can witness these gentle giants in their natural setting. Two things to note about that sentence: 1) ‘gentle’ giants and 2) natural setting.

The first hints to the fact that there’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the Great bear and its ferociousness and tales that any close encounters end up in injury to one of the parties. These are in reality our perceptions of the bear and couldn’t be further from reality. There are hundreds of told and untold tales of peaceful encounters where the bear was minding its own business so long as we observed the mutual respect and did not let the bear feel threatened.

Grizzly mother and cubs peacefully grazing sage brush

Grizzly mother and cubs peacefully grazing sage brush

Bears have a lot more to fear from our encounter than us from theirs. Dozens of bears are killed every year when they are reported to have been aggressive or when they find food in campgrounds. In almost all cases, we are to blame. Just last week in Yellowstone, a brilliant camper had enlightenment: he thought to prepare extra beef stew and keep it in his tent in case he got hungry again later!!! Sadly, a male Grizzly got hold of it when the genius was away and now the grizzly will be relocated and shot if needed. What’s worse is that it was a mating pair and now the male will be separated from the female.

The second note was about natural setting since I’d much rather see them in the wild than in a zoo or worse, a circus! The grizzly has very little of its original habitat left. England and most of western Europe no longer has bears — human fear killed them long before the Magna Carta. Plains grizzlies no longer roam the breaks of Saskatchewan and Missouri rivers.

We had many amazing encounters with the Grizzly in Yellowstone: we imagined the great bear prowling the shadows in the forest as we lay in our tent while the Ursa Major glowed bright in the night sky overhead. We saw couple of grizzly sows (females) with coys (cubs of the year) in the grizzly flats and swan lake flats close to Indian Creek campground, our first stop in the park. One had two cubs and the other had four which is exceedingly rare!! They were very far from the road (clever mums) so we don’t have good shots of them. Yellowstone park is full of ‘bear management areas’ which are prime bear habitats so we are not allowed to hike in till mid-late July for their and our safety.

From the up close encounters, we have the few shots below to share: the first set is from a grizzly sow with 2 coys that was grazing sage and digging bugs and roots just a few feet off the Mt Washburn hiking trail in broad daylight. I’ve also added our happy shot from making it to the peak under brutal sunlight 🙂

Grizzly Sow Mt Washburn trail

Grizzly Sow Mt Washburn trail

Mt Washburn Peak

Mt Washburn Peak

Then there was the time when we had slept at a trailhead on the Yellowstone lake and woke up to find this big guy munching on dandelions literally 30 feet away from the van. While we watched, amazed, a dark grey wolf passed in the background:

Silvertip Grizzly up close

Silvertip Grizzly up close

It was also quite cool to see this sow below with three coys on an elk carcass in Hayden valley. There was also a coyote watching from a safe distance as well as a lone wolf which looked injured form the way it walked. Seems to be a funny relationship between bears and wolves, they seem to have a love n hate relationship like old couples, but always around each other!

Yellowstone Grizlly Sow and three cubs on elk carcass

Grizlly Sow and three cubs on elk carcass

Black bears crossed our paths when we least expected. One was right next to our campsite at Slough Creek and gave a fine show by climbing a fallen log and walking across it:

Young black bear walking on a fallen log

Young black bear walking on a fallen log

Then there was this brave yearling, probably recently cast-off from his mother, having lunch close to the bridge crossing Yellowstone river and even made his way across the bridge to get onto the other side without trouble. Now, if only the migrating wildebeest in Africa could figure this trick out before jumping headstrong in the river facing hungry crocs:

Black Bear grazing!

Black Bear grazing

Yellowstone Black Bear: Time to cross the bridge

Time to cross the bridge

We saw a few wolves and pups but usually spotting through binoculars and WAY out of range of most cameras so don’t have any good shots to share. Wolves are generally much more elusive than bears but much easier to see in Yellowstone then elsewhere since their reintroduction here from Canada in 1995. The original wolves of Yellowstone were all hunted in the early 20th century and were reintroduced when the park management realized their importance in a balanced ecosystem.

Other notable wildlife in Yellowstone is bison. They can be seen by the hundreds in the Lamar valley. We also had a few ‘bison jams’ on the road as they are self-appointed kings of the road when they should so desire. I wasn’t gonna take any chances with making more dents in the van so we usually chilled until they got bored of the same old and moved off the road. On the plus side, their calves are super cute:

Yellowstone Bison jam

Bison jam!

Lunchtime for bison calf

Lunchtime for bison calf

three siblings: bison calves

three musketeers

Other great wildlife we saw in these 2 weeks:

Even elks get an itch

Even elks get an itch

elk skull

this one didn't move much

On a lighter note, you’ll be delighted (we sure are!) to note that showers have become much more common and frequent lately, especially since we made our very own ‘shower spots’ map of Yellowstone! We are in Grand Teton at the moment and will be posting an update on that shortly. Look forward to jaw-dropping mountain vistas that is the home of the Tetons . Don’t ask about what the ‘Teton’ means yet, I’ll reveal those single-minded Frenchies later ;-))

You can see the full album here: