Why I Love the West – Death Valley National Park

Vastness. Miles and miles of uninterrupted wilderness. Places where wild animals call home and man is estranged. Such places are characteristic of the west coast, and for this reason, I will be forever drawn to this side of the country. These places exist partly because of the efforts that went into preserving our most treasured places. Also, though, the vastness of the west is due to the harsh conditions of its mountainous and desert regions; here, even with all of our modern technologies, it is still difficult to build on and to live in. Death Valley National Park is a prime example of such a huge, empty, and arid landscape.

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Death Valley, California

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Volcanoes Galore: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen holds a rich landscape full of coniferous forests and vast mountain slopes.  Fascinatingly, all four types of volcanoes exist within its borders: cinder cone, shield, composite, and plug dome.  We summited two of the four types on our visit in September.

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At camp – Lassen National Forest

Lassen is a little known wonder. Thermal features, mountains, volcanoes, forests: Lassen has everything except crowds.  I unfortunately came down with a stomach bug while we were there, which trampled our plans to hike in the backcountry.  However, for once we didn’t need to go to the backcountry to find solitude. We camped at a free national forest site outside the park and went on many day hikes. Continue reading

Magic for Muggles: Olympic National Park

At the end of August, we spent a week (not nearly enough time) exploring the Olympic Peninsula.  Upon entering the otherworldly rainforest, my imagination was immediately captivated.  It seems that every fairy tale that has ever been told could have taken place here. The lush rainforest is at once alluring, and at times foreboding. In the midst of our hike to Enchanted Valley, I imagined Snow White singing to the birds in the meadow.  Moments later, coming upon a wooded forest once again, the trees seemed ominous, as if the big bad wolf was lurking just behind the next grove.  Many times I expected to come upon some cottage made of sweets, or to see a fairy nestled amongst the intricate moss.

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Little Red Riding Hood’s Territory – Olympic National Park

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Ancient Survivors: Redwood State and National Parks

The massive and ancient Coast Redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) are master survivors from a prehistoric time. They are built to withstand fire, to ward off insects, and, most impressively, to regenerate themselves through burl sprouts.  When a redwood is distressed from, say, fire, the cells or burl sprouts within it react by shooting out sprouts which can become new trees!  It is not uncommon to see a redwood, dead or alive, with a younger cloned tree shooting up from beside it or even from within it!  Is there any other species on this planet that has the ability to clone itself in such a way?  While looking up a massive trunk to the tree branches and the reiterated trees sprouting from it, I said “This…this is higher power.”  These trees have survived thousands of years because of their design. I am not a religious person, but being out here, I don’t doubt that there is a creator. Here, in nature, is where my church lies. Come out here yourself, and maybe you will be reminded that it is by honoring nature that we honor our maker.

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The thickness and dampness of Redwood bark protects the trees from wildfire

Aside: I feel blessed to have spent a full month in the Canadian Rockies.  I still have more to write about the area, as well as the amazing Olympic Peninsula, but for now I just wanted to skip ahead to Redwood National Park due to the level of influence it has on me.

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Smoke on the Rockwall: Kootenay National Park

Even before the wildfires in Banff started, the locals knew they were coming. We had just taken a relaxing dip in Radium Hot Springs at the south end of Kootenay National Park, after which we bought some snacks in town and I gave in to my bad habits and bought my first pack of Canadian cigarettes. As I lit one on a bench located on the boulevard between the filling station and the road, a small gas station attendant came frantically toward me. “If you’re going to smoke there, be very careful” she pleaded. “We have a small ashtray on the pavement you could use instead. We are very worried. Storms are coming.” “I understand,” I told her. I relocated myself outside the station.

Then, on our drive back into Kootenay, we noticed the fire danger sign now read “EXTREME”. This was a strange sight indeed, as I’ve never seen a Minnesota fire danger sign exceed “Moderate”. Sure enough, that night, as cracks of thunder echoed over the blazer where we were camped in Kootenay National Park, a burst of lightning started a wildfire near Sunshine Village Ski Resort, not 30 miles from where we slept. Fortunately for us, we had only just finished our hike to Egypt Lake. All the trails we had explored for the past three days were hereafter closed due to wildfire.

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Most of my Rockwall Trail photos are shrouded in smoke

 

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Stories from the Backcountry: Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks

I cannot stress enough how amazing the backcountry is. Camping in the backcountry brings us away from the crowds and into the heart of the wilderness, where natural beauty is, to a certain extent, unobstructed by man. Out in the backcountry, we are visitors to a gorgeous wonderland home to bears, elk, deer, mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, squirrels, bunnies, chipmunks, birds, and many more fascinating creatures.

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Loons in the Backcountry – Glacier National Park

Another benefit of the backcountry is the great people we meet out here. My goal from the start has been to get away from people altogether, but snow and water have prevented us from achieving complete solitude very often; we always end up staying with one or more other groups. As it turns out, this has been much more a blessing than a curse. In the month that we’ve been travelling in and out of backcountry paradises, we have not met one soul who has not been wonderful. Fellow backpackers share many common interests with us, and, best of all, they are full of amazing stories as well as great recommendations for local hikes and hot spots. Continue reading

Unknown Wonders: Idaho

Idaho is known by many for its potatoes.  It’s even on their license plate: “Famous Potatoes”.  Also on their license plate is “Scenic Idaho”, and it is this impression that I took from visiting Idaho. I’m fairly confident that many have no idea just how amazingly scenic Idaho actually is.

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Sawtooth Wilderness – Idaho

In fact, over 60% of Idaho’s land is owned by the federal government, and most of the federal land is managed by either the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service.  The result is a treasure trove of beautiful places. Maybe I’m a jerk to Idahoans for letting their secret out, but SERIOUSLY, Idaho is the place to visit. Still don’t believe me? Listen up. Continue reading

Wilderness for the People, by the People: Grand Tetons

Grand Teton National Park, established in 1929, is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  While Yellowstone was the first National Park, Teton is special in that its establishment was influenced by many different locals who truly appreciated the area and wanted to preserve the wildness of the Tetons.

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String Lake – Grand Teton National Park

In the early 1920’s, residents began noticing that development around Jenny Lake was starting to invade the Tetons.  In 1923, locals met with then superintendent of Yellowstone at Maud cabin to start a conversation about preservation in the Teton Range, eventually leading to Grand Teton National Park being established in 1929. Continue reading

Where the Wild Things Call Home: Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Yellowstone is significant because it became the nation’s first National Park in 1872. The land was chosen because of its mysterious thermal features and other natural wonders.  When you think of Yellowstone, you probably think of geysers such as the famous Old Faithful. And indeed—such features are truly wondrous and the main thing that most people come to see.  The real value of Yellowstone, however, is its wildlife. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is large and wild enough to allow for a diverse ecosystem to survive and thrive.  In fact, it holds the highest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states.

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Killdeer – Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

We spent our first two days in Yellowstone in the backcountry, leaving from Blacktail Creek trailhead and hiking along the creek and then the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone backcountry is a very peaceful and refreshing place; we ran into more marmots than humans.

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My Guiltiest Pleasure: The Great American Road Trip

 

My spirit finds peace only in the wildest places.  The absolute calm and silence of an early morning in the boundary waters comes to mind. Perched at the end of a natural jetty of rock that reaches out to the calm water, the sun emerging beyond an island in a soft pink light, I meditate easily. I am interrupted fleetingly by the sudden splash of a fish breaking the surface.  Only by being in a place like this can anyone understand the wealth of the land.  

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Devastation has hit me lately, as what few sacred places we have left in America seem to be constantly under attack by our new administration.  As I struggle to figure out what I can do to help protect the land I care so deeply for, as well as the water that we all depend on, I cannot help but feel guilty for my shortcomings. Though environment is on my mind every day, I am no model environmentalist. My biggest flaw lies in the love I have for the open road. Continue reading