Category Archives: West

The “Mighty 5”: Utah’s National Parks

The “Mighty 5” in Utah are National Parks that provide such grandeur, stunning landscapes and outdoor adventures that they surely are befitting of the description: MightyStarting from the the southwest corner of the state and moving eastward they are : Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches.

Zion National Park (Photo: Dept. of Interior)

It was in just this particular order that we traveled, starting our journey with Zion National Park and making our way eastward. It is amazing that when you view all the parks on a map clustered together in the same general vicinity it would seem easy to visit them all within a short time…not so. Utah is a relatively large state and the vastness of it is complicated by the fact that there are fewer roads to take you from point A to point B. I’m not complaining; it’s wonderful to have the spanning horizons unscathed by roadways. It just takes longer to visit if you want to do justice to all 5 Parks.

 

Entrance gate: Zion National Park, Utah

Out of the Utah National Parks, Zion is the most visited National Park; in 2019 the Park received 4.5 million visitors. Canyonlands, however is by far the largest Utah park with 337,598 acres. All five Parks have their own distinct geographic features and breathtaking views, but the mountains of Zion and majesty of their height really diminishes the height of a small human being as one stands in awe. Especially for a Mid-westerner like myself, who is not accustomed to being around mountains like this.  A couple of times I found myself gazing upward with my mouth agape: “Oh…Wow!”

Although Zion National Park was established in 1919, it has only been in recent years that the popularity of the park has soared.  The Parks further north of Zion (the favorites of Yellowstone and Yosemite for example), had become traveler’s favorites. Yet, all the amazing pathways to be explored at Zion have brought many travelers through the gates. There are of course, pros and cons to this expanding appreciation of the Park. It is nice to have people love and appreciate the Park, but sometimes managing crowd control and assuring the preservation of the Park can be a challenge.

Zion National Park shuttle buses: minimizing car traffic & reducing the carbon “footprint”

When we were there, our country was in the midst of a pandemic. In October of 2020, after months of quarantine, everyone was wanting to get outside and many of the National Park Service sites saw a surge in attendance. Several things were not “normal” and I do give the Parks administration credit for doing their best to assure a safe and healthy environment. One example, was limiting the shuttle buses to 50% capacity so as to improve social distancing. This was a great idea…but did create long lines to get on a shuttle and limited how much you would have time to see in the park. Getting tickets for the shuttle in advance is a whole other story…yikes! They are only $1.00, but you have to have one to get to certain areas of the Park. I know they had to institute a ticketing procedure for “crowd control”…but it was very frustrating. My advice for trips to a popular National Park such as Zion is plan MONTHS ahead of time. I booked our hotels in January for an October trip. Shuttle tickets, campgrounds and other reservations can be found on http://recreation.gov .

Temple of Sinawava; last stop on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive & entrance to The Narrows

Zion National Park is situated on part of the Colorado Plateau and the sandstone cliffs, towering mountains and river valleys provide a stunning remnant of how this part of the continent was formed roughly 250 million years ago. Looking at the vastness of the terrain, it is hard to imagine that this land was once submerged in a shallow sea and this area was considered part of the super-continent of Pangaea. As a hiker kicking up dust and stones along the path, it is compelling to think how this terrain has evolved through both erosion and tectonic shifts. The canyons and sandstone cliffs provide unique and colorful views. Zion National Park helps to preserve the most sacred and impressive canyon country and wilderness ecosystem on our planet.

Virgin River by Riverside Walk Trail

One sight, and hike, that I did not attempt while at Zion is the infamous Angels Landing which rises 1,500 feet above a sheer wall face above the Virgin River. There are chains bolted into the rock face in part of the walkway to provide “security” on your walk. Just looking at the photos of a chained walkway on the side of a mountain scared me to death. Well, guess what…when we got there the Angels Landing trail was closed because of the pandemic. (whew…wipe brow with relief), Now I don’t have to come up an excuse not to go. Apparently, it was too hard to assure “social distancing”. However, my son and his friends went on another challenging hike that Zion is famous for: The Narrows. It is what the name dictates; where the canyon Narrows and is carved out by the Virgin River. The trail is mostly wading through the cold water anywhere from ankle to waist deep. The entire trail is 16 miles long. Many hikers just go part of the way and turn around; it is a very arduous hike and very tough in water with the uneven terrain of the river rocks. Our group all made it back in one piece. Before you enter the Narrows is a beautiful, easy hike: Riverside Walk that follows the Virgin River. Part of the walk is paved and the rest is a groomed path that is easy to navigate. My husband and I enjoyed our time on that path while waiting for the guys that had ventured into The Narrows.

After departing Zion, and with a sad goodbye to our son and his friends, we started heading east while they headed west back to San Diego.

Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon (photo from myutahparks.com)

Our next stop was Bryce Canyon National Park.  It is the smallest of the Mighty 5 parks, but has a huge impact visually.  Technically it is not a canyon, but rather a series of amphitheaters cutting into the pink/red rocks with spires rising up skyward. The rock spires, called hoodoos, are an intriguing example of how erosion and freeze/thaw cycles have molded the rocks. Another story about the hoodoos is told by the Paiute people in the area. They tell of the Legend People who were animal-like people. They behaved badly and treated Coyote so badly, that he turned them into rock formations. The creatures huddled together and still stand as when they were first turned to stone. The impressive and ever-changing hoodoos and other rock formations seem to be the highlight of the park, but the dense forests and sporadic meadows provide a serene setting.

 

“Sunset Point” at Bryce Canyon National Park

 

Since the park’s elevation ranges from 6,000 to 9,000 feet, its usually much cooler here than at the other Utah parks. When we were there, the heavily forested sections in the park made me feel, briefly anyway, I was back in the great north woods of Wisconsin. The terrain of course is very different than the Midwest, each region having their own distinct characteristics and shining attributes.

 

 

After leaving Bryce, our next stop was to Torrey, Utah. We stayed at Cowboy Homestead Cabins: cozy, very nice and situated close to the entrance of Capitol Reef National Park. The Park’s namesake comes from the presence of several white rock domes that resemble the U.S. Capitol. Also a huge geologic feature in the park is water trapped in the pockets of rock creating a “Waterpocket Fold” and hence the creation of a “reef”. Early explorers, in the 1870s, found it difficult to navigate and started referring to this unique geologic feature as a “reef”. The Waterpocket Fold extends 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to the north all the way south to Lake Powell.

Mormon style farm settlement-Capitol Reef National Park

Prior to the arrival of the Mormon settlers, the Native American Fremont people lived in this area.  Several examples of their rock art have been preserved on petroglyphs. The art is an amazing depiction of the hunting and gathering lifestyles of the Fremonts. Capitol Reef was one of the last places in the West to be explored by immigrant settlers. It was not until the late 1870’s when the Mormons began settling into the region.  The town of Fruita was established and many of the orchards that were planted and irrigated still exist today.  The National Park Service still maintains the orchards and visitors to the park can enjoy many “pick your own ” crops of cherries, peaches, pears and apples. Unfortunately we had just missed the apple picking season when we were there. Yet, in Fruita we made a stop at the little country store (very quaintly fashioned after a 1900 farmhouse) and had hot coffee with one of the biggest and best cinnamon rolls I have ever tasted! The turn of the century barn, blacksmith shop and split rail fencing all around the area, gives one a real feel for life as a southern Utah settler in the early 1900’s.

After Capitol Reef, our journey took us to Moab, Utah. Very interesting place that I found out is a real mecca for dirt bikes,mountain bikes and ATVs. I can’t blame them…all those awesome trails with jumps, racing curves and are naturally groomed by nature. I did not pick Moab because of this however…the town of Moab is centrally located to both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Great location and the town itself has several great restaurants and overnight lodging.

The traditional “sign picture”: Arches National Park

Our journey to Arches was short lived. We made it to the entrance and got the traditional “sign picture”, then I saw several vehicles driving toward the gate, then turning around. Then I saw it: a light-up sign with the message: “Park Full”—“Turn around Ahead”. Needless to say I was disappointed, but not too terribly surprised since we were visiting in the age of a pandemic and the limiting of park visitors. I am sure Arches is a popular park, and they have to assure that it won’t be too crowded…but still, I was very sad at the time. Well, even though we didn’t make it to all of the Mighty 5, three out of 5 ain’t bad and it gives me motivation for a return trip. There are many sights to take in while visiting Utah. So….”Put your traveling Shoes on…” Julie E. Smith

 

Badlands National Park: “Bad”, but uniquely beautiful

Visiting the beautiful Black Hills and the Badlands of South Dakota, travelers often wonder why it is called The Badlands. Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota is only one area that holds the title of “badlands”.  It is a geologic term that describes landscapes characterized by soft sedimentary rocks.  This type of terrain can be found all over the west in places like Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska. 

badlands of South Dakota

Surveying the terrain & exposed sedimentary rocks: Badlands National Park

 The Lakota people were the first to call this place “mako sica” or “land bad”.  French Canadian fur trappers called it “les mauvaises terres pour traverser”, or “bad lands to travel through.” When one surveys this barren, rocky terrain with limited moisture and vegetation you can see why the title stuck. Nevertheless, the rock formations and colors in the sedimentary rock create a surreal landscape that seems not of this world.  The famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright was impressed with the uniqueness of this land. In 1935 he wrote:
“I’ve been about the world a lot and pretty much over our own country, but I was totally unprepared for the revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands…What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere-a distant architecture, ethereal…an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.” 
Badlands,flickr photo

Sunset in The Badlands (Flickr photo by Sue Vruno)

So I would agree with Mr. Wright: the Badlands create an other world atmosphere…sometimes you feel you are wandering on a different planet. The different textures and the way the sun light and clouds plays across the horizon make the rock structures seem to go on indefinitely. When I was there with my family, I remember one of my son’s commenting that it felt as if we were “walking on Mars”.

Yet even with this desolate terrain, there are a variety of creatures and plant life that are abundant here and call this territory home. The prairie and rocky terrain amazingly are able to support 60 different species of grasses.Badlands,rattlesnakes sign!

This in turn provides a food source for several animals including bison, prairie dogs, coyotes, snakes, vultures and bluebirds. When we were there, we did not see much wildlife…or snakes thank goodness…but this is the first sign we saw on the trail. Good to know! 

In addition to the living creatures, this region is rich with fossilized remains of a variety of creatures. In this desolate place, it’s intriguing to think that many of the fossils are of aquatic dinosaurs. When the formation of the Badlands began, over 75 million years ago, there was a shallow sea spanning from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada encompassing the Great Plains area. The creatures sank to the bottom of the sedimentary layer and became fossilized. All the different layers of rock also provide a geologist’s dream and include: sandstone, silt, mudstone, limestone, volcanic ash and shale. These layers create a multi-dimensional and colorful landscape.

Many travelers heading to South Dakota and points west catch sight of the popular destinations of Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower’s and many more in that neck of the woods. Yet, the eerie and majestic beauty of the Badlands is worth adding to your trip agenda. For more information check out the National Park Service link to The Badlands: https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm 

Put your traveling shoes on….Julie E. Smith

 

Striving to come out on the other side: Coronovirus-2020

Like so many people at this time, we are all trying to survive this pandemic that has taken hold in our lives.  Not only has it taken the lives of so many people, it also has affected the lifestyles and a shattering blow to the economy and livelihood of many Americans. An event of this magnitude sweeps across the nation affecting everyone, even if you yourself are not sick.

So the best thing we can do after protecting our self physically, is also to protect our mental health. One way is to make plans for the tomorrows to come, when this pandemic has “simmered down” and we can resume somewhat of a “normal” lifestyle.  Many will agree that time will tell when that will be and also there will most defiantly be a new normal. 

Yet, making future plans is a great way to keep us going.  Enter the joy of travel planning…and of course reading travel blogs like this one!  Time will tell when traveling beyond our own backyards will be more acceptable, but in the mean time, Weary Travelers, we need to do something to keep up morale.  I am already planning a trip this fall to Utah and “The Mighty 5”, National Parks.  If you are curious, here are the Mighty 5: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Reservations have been made (long before the craziness of COVID-19 really struck) and thank goodness we were planning on driving anyway. I’m not sure when air travel will be resuming at a point that most passengers will feel comfortable and safe. Another consideration, sad that it may be, is the fact that currently many of the National Parks and sites are currently closed due to efforts to contain the Coronavirus. I understand the need for such measures, but at the same time I want to remain hopeful that the Parks will be able to reopen soon. Also, I want to stress the importance of responsible behavior by park visitors to maintain our nation’s most treasured spaces.  I want to be optimistic that by Fall, my husband and I will be heading out to Utah as planned. Fingers crossed. Although we have our lodging figured out, I am open to suggestions on other cool stuff to see and do in the area. Probably no need to suggest Angel’s Landing hike in Zion, not gonna happen. I am way too afraid of heights in addition to that fact I am not as agile as a mountain goat, don’t really wish to fall to my death….just saying. But am looking forward to hiking The Narrows, we shall see.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park, Utah

So I am not even sure if we will have the time or energy to see all five, but just the anticipation of the trip…and the prospect of added features for my book, keeps me motivated and optimistic for what is to come. If I am discouraged, or feeling “cabin fever”, I just take a gander through those travel brochures and it gets me back in the game. Did I mention BOOK? Yes, I am in the midst of putting together a book about the National Park Service. It is not meant to be the definitive guide to the parks , but rather an overview and a way of providing an inspiration to visit the parks. It is entitled “A Walk in the Park: Journeys through our Nation’s greatest treasures.” A large portion of the book is compiled from my blogs to many of the Parks, but I am also working on new content. The up side of the fact that we are strongly encouraged to comply with “Safer at Home” ordinances pushes me towards continued work on my book. I enjoy working on it, but as an writer knows…it’s easy to get distracted by so many other things.

Zion National Park, photo from U.S. Dept. of Interior

So here’s one more image to inspire both myself and my readers: Zion National Park. Zion is currently closed for visitors, but let’s hope the future will bring opportunities for others to see this glorious view….myself included. Looking for a way to remedy the “stay at home” blues? Why not try some travel planning with a virtual trip with plans for the future. Stay safe, stay healthy and hang in there until we come out on the “other side.” Put Your traveling shoes on. Julie E. Smith

The Quiet Majesty of the Grand Tetons

“In and around the lake
Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there –Roundabout by YES

The Teton Range: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Looking at the majesty of the Tetons, I was reminded of those lyrics by YES from so many years ago. I have always liked that those words seem to bring the mountains to life. A life of their own and as they stand there, if they were so inclined they could get up and walk away to another place.

The Teton range has been “standing there” for millions of years, but was established as Grand Teton National Park in 1929.  About 13 million years ago, two blocks of the earth’s crust shifted on a fault line, tilted one up and the other down forming the range we view today. The highest peek: “Grand” reaches to a height of 13,770 feet.   The area surrounding the range includes a lush valley with crystal shining lakes, groves of aspen trees and alpine meadows. The park is 484 square miles and includes the range and most of the nearby area of Jackson Hole.  Not to be confused with specifically the town of Jackson, Wyoming. This flat valley surrounded by the towering mountains was visited by many trappers in the 1800’s. The area was named “Jackson’s Hole”  after Davey Jackson: a trapper from that time.  In time, the apostrophe was dropped and it just became Jackson Hole. Both the town of Jackson and the geographic namesake of the area are linked historically and are “next door neighbors” sharing the same inspiring landscape.

Antler Arches-Jackson Wyoming

Many visitors to the Park also spend time touring the town of Jackson and many hotels, restaurants and shops are found closely to the Park. Jackson is also the home to three popular ski resorts, so it is even busier during the winter months. We were there in summer and there were some visitors from the Park, but their peak season is ski season. When we went to the Grand Tetons, we stayed in Jackson and had the opportunity to explore both. One of the most unique features of Jackson was the Town Square: decorated with cowboys statues and arches made from antlers. On first view, it seems a little morbid…but come to find out the elk shed their antlers every year. Most of the antlers used in the construction of the archways were collected from the area in the woods. Otherwise, that would have been quite a few elk to shoot! Here’s a photo of one of the arches. They do have quite an impact: it gives the town square a real rustic, western feel.

Jenny Lake-Grand Teton National Park

There are three entrances to the Park, the southern entrance is only 4 miles north of Jackson.  If traveling from the north, via Yellowstone National Park, the two parks are only 31 miles apart.  Nevertheless, the Tetons are frequently overlooked by the notoriety of Yellowstone.  Both parks have their own unique features, but personally I liked Grand Teton better. The majestic beauty of the mountains and the quiet solitude of the shimmering lakes gives one a wonderful sense of calm…good Zen.  Yellowstone provides a great showcase of unique geographic features: erupting geysers, bubbling mud pots and breathtaking waterfalls.  I don’t deny these are all part of an awesome park adventure, but the majesty and serene landscapes of the Tetons should not be missed.

With the varied terrain there are also different hikes suited to different skill levels. Yet, the easy to moderate level hikes provide a great day hike through sparkling streams, alpine meadows and loads of photo opportunities. We took a relatively short hike and ended up at Jenny Lake. Since it was an easy hike, we were not alone on the trail, but not crowded by any means.  I am always amazed by delightful conversations with fellow park goers. We had asked two women if they could take our family photo and they were happy to oblige (most folks usually are…) Come to find out they were also from a  Chicago suburb; very close to where we lived. Small world.

Moulton Barn on Mormon Row-Grand Teton National Park (photo by PhotoJeepers)

Some of the most iconic photographs of Grand Teton National Park include the antique barn on Mormon Row Historic District: the Moulton Barn. The barn stands as a picturesque back drop to grazing bison and antelope. It also reminds the viewer of the challenging life of farming that took place on these rugged lands. The area was settled by Mormons in the late 1890s. The community was established and 27 homesteads were built to form a close knit community. Most of the farmers grew hay and oats and had limited livestock. In the mid-1900s, Mormon Row was acquired to expand Grand Teton National Park and in 1997 the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places.  Several iconic barns still stand today and are widely recognized in photographs with the Teton range as the backdrop.

Grand Teton National Park: a magnificent, must see park for travelers to the west. Put your traveling shoes on. Julie E. Smith

Grand Daddy Yellowstone

Falls at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Established in 1872 as the first National Park in America, Yellowstone is the Grand Daddy of our national parks. It is interesting to note that not only is it the first in America, it is the first National Park in the world. It is good to be known as a trendsetter for something like this….setting aside land for conservation, recreation and preservation for future generations. It is an amazing place to visit not only for the historical significance, but the diversity in the features of the park. Yellowstone is quite a popular destination: it hosted 4.12 million visitors in 2018. That sounds like alot…but it is a huge park, plus it is not all summertime attendance. Some  folks visit for winter adventures, but the most popular times are July and August.  A visit to Yellowstone provides a variety of experiences to make it well worth the trip. Included in that list of things to see at the park include: erupting geysers, bubbling hot springs, prismatic reflecting pools, waterfalls and an abundance of readily visible wildlife. All these amazing features are found within this large park of  3,472 square miles.  For some perspective, that’s more than three times the size of Rhode Island.

Old Faithful…just like clockwork.

Probably one of the most fondly known features of the part is Old Faithful geyser. Like clockwork, it erupts about every 90 minutes. Old Faithful and the many geysers and hot springs serve as a reminder of the unstable nature and changing geology of our planet: especially near Yellowstone.  Also near Old Faithful is a terrific Visitor Information center with all kinds of nifty information about the geyser basin region.

Grand Prismatic Spring (photo:trendbuzzer.com)

Just north of Old Faithful are the beautiful prismatic springs and waterfalls. A boardwalk stroll through the various springs gives you a nice view and it’s beneficial to try several different viewpoints. One of the most amazing and colorful is the Grand Prismatic Spring. It is the largest in the Park: at 370 feet wide, and stunning to view. The bright colors are caused by different types of bacteria and algae that thrive with the different water temperatures. One has to try several different angles before viewing, and photographing, all the spectacular colors.  If you have a drone for aerial views…this would be an awesome place to try it out.

Woodland critters @ the Park: to this day I’m not exactly sure what these fellows were, badgers?

The wildlife are so accustomed to park visitors; frequently they wander close enough so you can get some awesome photos.  Of course that has been known to cause problems, if you don’t respect their space and use common sense. They are wild animals after all.  When we were near one of the visitor’s centers, there was a very large heard of Elk that decided to hang out and take an afternoon siesta under the shade of a spreading Oak. They are beautiful graceful creatures and several were mothers with young ones to protect. Photos could easily be taken from a safe distance. Several rangers had carefully arranged some barricades by the sidewalk directly across from the Elk….to keep both the tourists and the Elks safe. As you can image, “there’s one in every crowd” : some idiot walked over the barricade with camera in hand trying to get much closer for a “great shot.” Luckily he did not get too far before the ranger called out to him. Apparently, he felt he was exempt from following the guidelines put in place by the Park…he just ignored the ranger and kept walking closer. He waved off the ranger who then, justifiably so, got angry. Nevertheless, the ranger’s professionalism and manner in handling this incident was incredible. He “hit” him (the inconsiderate tourist) where it hurts: his wallet. The ranger firmly said that if he did not step away he would fine the man $500 for not adhering to Park regulations and disobeying the instructions of a Park Ranger. The Elk photographer did back down and I am sure the ranger was relieved that no further action was necessary. The rangers are there just to protect the beauty and sanctity of the Park, the Park wildlife and to assist visitors in the Park to have a wonderful Park experience.  I give all those rangers so much credit; they do incredible work. I have never met a ranger I didn’t like: they are all so incredibly helpful and they have a wealth of information about the Parks they serve. Never be afraid to ask questions, they are happy to help!

“Bison Jam” @ Yellowstone

On a lighter note about wildlife viewing is a critter you are almost destined to see: the Bison.  Yellowstone is famous for its roaming herds of bison.  Like many visitors to Yellowstone we were wondering: “What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?” We wanted to make sure we used the right verbage for theses amazing, massive creatures that you see frequently all around the Park. Actually bison are the creatures found roaming the American west, not buffalo. Varieties of buffalo are found in South Asia and Africa.  A major difference is the presence of a hump. Bison have one at the shoulders while buffalo don’t.  Buffalo’s horns tend to be quite long, bison’s horn are shorter. Even with all these differences, it’s easy to get mixed up and call them buffalo. Common usage I guess from all those old cowboy Western movies. In Yellowstone, a frequent occurrence on the road ways is the Bison Jam. Bison, of course, have the right of way and when they want to cross the road, you better let them….at their own pace. We had the excitement of seeing this first hand and you can get some great photos…safe photos…if you use caution and obviously stay in your vehicle.

Heading out west? Be sure to stop at the Grand Daddy of them all:Yellowstone National Park. Put your traveling shoes on. JES

Creek by the Shoshone Lodge, near East entrance to Yellowstone

The Author, Julie, at Yellowstone National Park

 

From the Rain Forest to the sea: Olympic National Park

Ruby Beach at Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park, located on the western edge of Washington state, showcases three distinct ecosystems: a rainforest, a wild flower meadow and a rugged Pacific shoreline. The exotic terrain and beauty of these systems are all showcased in the 1,441 square miles of this park located on the Olympic Peninsula. When visiting there, it’s a bit perplexing to understand the “boundaries” of the park because the terrain is so varied and part of the park follows the coastline of the Pacific ocean with a seemingly endless horizon.

The huge pines in the Hoh Rain forest: most of the tress are either Sitka spruce or western hemlock

The trees, almost all sitka spruce and hemlock, in this park are wondrous and their sheer size takes your breath away. Walking among these trees gives a mere human a sense of the grandeur of all creation and at the same time the fragility of our beautiful planet.  Some of the trees are hundreds of years old and can reach a height of 250 feet, with some having a circumference of 30 to 60 feet.  Going on a walk in these woods helps to give perspective on the connectivity of life, all life.  John Muir, the naturalist who was one of the men instrumental in helping to create the National Park Service said simply: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” (John Muir, 1938) It’s amazing that this is one of the few rain forests in the lower 48 states. A key feature that allows this rain forest to thrive is the abundant rain.  Precipitation in the Olympic’s rain forest ranges from 140 to 167 inches per year. Luckily, we happen to time our trip there on a sunny, warm day.

Sea Stacks near the shore at Ruby Beach

A portion of the Park borders the Pacific and boasts two beautiful beaches that stretch along the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary: Rialto Beach and Ruby Beach. Rialto Beach is further north and Ruby beach is south near the Hoh Indian Reservation. These are not the kind of beaches you park yourself on a beach blanket with a margarita in hand; they are very rocky, rugged with a ferocious surf. Nevertheless they are wonderfully scenic and you can spend hours beach combing to see amazing shells, driftwood and view the iconic “sea stacks” by the shore.  Sea stacks are steep columns of rocks formed by wave erosion. Along this particular beach, the sea stacks create quite an interesting and diverse view along the shoreline.

Driftwood at Ruby Beach

With the strength of the pounding surf, the driftwood that decorates the beach more closely resemble art sculptures in a variety of shapes.  Art inherent in nature.  This close up of one of the huge logs shows the detail and the resulting effects of wind and water.  Everywhere you look, from every angle…there’s something new to discover, and to photograph!

Skipping stones by Lake Crescent, Olympic NP

Entering the park is probably easiest from Hwy 101 by Port Angeles. The main Visitors Center is located at this entrance and the untamed beaches on the Pacific side may also be accessed from Hwy 101.  Also by 101, situated at the northernmost area of the Park, is the amazing Lake Crescent. The glacial formed lake waters reflect a beautiful azure color, have very limited algae growth and are crystal clear. Some days you can see 60 feet down into the lake that has been measured in places at 624 feet deep. The lake is the perfect environment to support several different types of trout. When we visited the lake, we didn’t have the opportunity to go fishing, however we were able to have a peaceful picnic lakeside.  Also on the lake is the historic lodge: Lake Crescent Lodge. It was built in 1915 and each of the rooms has a view of the lake. This is one of three historic Lodges found in the Park.

Olympic National Park is a gem in the Pacific northwest that definitely warrants a visit when in the area. I have only been once, but would love to visit again someday. Put your traveling shoes on. JES

San Diego Sunshine

San Diego Harbor

The weathermen in San Diego are pretty much bored. It is the same old song every day: “Sunny and 70, Folks”. Out of the 365 days of the calendar year, San Diego’s average temperature is 63 degrees with 266 sunny days per year. Yet, that is such a lovely kind of boredom…and oh so pleasant. No wonder San Diego is such an intriguing tourist destination and the weathermen have such great job security; they are correct almost every day. The sun and surf are terrific, but you don’t have to be a sun-worshiper to enjoy all the sights and activities that this California city has to offer. An addition to enjoying the beautiful ocean views and beach, there are also many “must-sees” in the city itself.

Old Town Trolley Tours

My oldest son moved there several years ago, so I have been to visit this city many times and have favorites sights that I love to return to time and again. If you are just becoming introduced to the city, a great place to start is the Old Time Trolley Tours. They take you to 10 different stops throughout the city including: Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo, the famous Hotel Del Coronado, the Maritime ship museum on the waterfront and many more. The trolleys have a “Hop on, Hop off” system that allow you to see what you want and visit your preferred sites at your leisure. In addition to getting a great overview of some of the key sights in the city, the trolley drivers share a multitude of interesting historical info and trivia.  Did you know that San Diego is actually the “Birthplace of California”. In June of 1769, the first Spanish presidio and mission was established by the San Diego River making it the oldest European settlement on the west coast of the U.S. In tribute to the rich history of San Diego, it’s very fitting that the Trolley Tours would be based out of Old Town. Established today as Old Town San Diego, the site commemorates life in San Diego from 1821 to 1872. It includes shopping, restaurants,museums and the logical start for the trolley tours. You can purchase tickets at any of the 10 stops, but Old Town is the main facility and the starting and ending point for the tours.

Being so close to the emerald waters of the beautiful Pacific, when in San Diego one must really check out several of the beaches there. Coronado, by the infamous Hotel Coronado, is one of the most scenic, pristine beaches in the area. Mission Beach and Oceanside Beach are loved and frequented by both locals and tourists. Of course shops for beach gear and souvenirs are readily found at both.

Brown Pelican~ San Diego Harbor

If the beach scene isn’t quite your thing, you can still enjoy the Pacific with the many day cruises available. Depending on the time of year, a whale watching tour can be an excellent choice because from December thru the beginning of March, the whale migration patterns skirt the San Diego coastline. I recently took a 4 hour whale watching tour with great success: we saw several whales breech. In addition to the grey whales we spotted an abundance of other sea life including dolphins, sea lions, pelicans and cormorants. My bird watching senses were on full alert. It’s hard to capture in a photograph a grey whale breeching, but it is easy to see and photograph the brown pelicans flying around. At first glance they seem like awkward creatures, but in flight they are rather majestic. It is also truly amazing how big some of them get. For more information on the whale watching tour, you can check out their web site at: http://www.flagshipsd.com

Cabrillo National Monument

Having a passion for our National Parks, I would be remiss if I did not mention San Diego’s National Park site: The Cabrillo National Monument.  It celebrates the natural and cultural history of the area.  Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo  was the first Eurpoean, in 1542,  to set foot on a “very good enclosed port”.  In addition to telling the story about the 16th century exploration, a visitor can take in a terrific  view of the Pacific from Point Loma, and also a lighthouse is on the premises. The Point Loma Lighthouse was originally built in 1855.  It ceased operation in 1891, but is open to the public today as a museum.  It may be a small, seemingly insignificant lighthouse, but it has many interesting stories behind it. During the time of its operation, it was at the highest elevation of any lighthouse in the United States. (Impressive!)

 

The California Tower and the Museum of Man~ Balboa Park

So I saved my very favorite feature of San Diego for last: Balboa Park.  It holds the title as the nation’s largest urban cultural park. Every single time I go, it never fails to amaze and awe me. Bird of Paradise flowers, exotic trees, jeweled mosaics in the architectures, fountains and of course an array of interesting people to watch. In addition to the natural beauty found in the park, there are 17 museums. The museums have something for everyone from art and photography to anthropology, aerospace and even a model railroad museum for all the train buffs out there! Also, within the park boundaries is the world famous San Diego Zoo. It is hard to spend only one day at Balboa Park to try to take it all in. I have been there several times, and every time I go there are new surprises and delights.

 

So, San Diego is highly recommended as a travel destination. Remember that travel and tourism is San Diego’s third top industry (behind manufacturing and the military) So they want you to have a great time. Put your traveling shoes on. JES

See you in Seattle! Top 5 attractions.

On the west coast, Seattle is an iconic waterfront city filled with experiences that you “gotta see” when visiting there. One of the neat features about Seattle is so many  of the  sites are along the waterfront or within walking distance of the main downtown area. Even if you only have a day or two to spend in this vibrant city, here are the Top Five attractions that really help to define the Seattle experience.

1–FERRY BOATS-Simplistic, but this is probably my favorite part of the Seattle area. Many native Seattle folks take them back and forth as commuters every business day and they are very commonplace along the waterfront.  Nevertheless, I find them so much an exciting part of visiting  this city.  It is really amazing how many people and vehicles fit on one of these huge boats. Even more amazing, is how smoothly and efficiently the loading and unloading is accomplished several times a day. For  more information on the ferry system, current schedules and sailing routes, check the Washington State Ferries web-site at: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/  Crossing the water to Bainbridge or Kingston is not a long journey, but just long enough to enjoy being on the water and fantastic views of the skyline.  Also, usually just long enough to polish off a specialty coffee drink.  There are quaint little coffee shops all over Seattle and of course, right at the entrance to the Ferry terminals.  Seattle is  really big on coffee and is known for being the birthplace of Starbucks coffee. Which leads me to my next favorite: the original Starbucks cafe.

Original Starbucks on 1st and Pike, by Pikes Place Market

2–ORIGINAL STARBUCKS- Yup…this is where it all began: Starbucks Coffee. Even if you are not a huge coffee drinker, it is so neat to visit the original site where the first Starbucks opened their flagship store in 1971. It is smaller than one would imagine,  but therein lies the charm of the quaint place for the birthplace of this coffee giant. Tourists and locals alike seek out refreshment at this iconic stop frequently on their way to or from the next Seattle landmark: Pikes Place Market.  Another place that lends itself to lots of photo opps and an abundance of great sights and scents to sample.

3–PIKES PLACE MARKET-There are outdoor markets aplenty, but none can compare to the excitement and bustle of Pikes Place Market.  The Market opened in 1907 and is one of the oldest operating farmers’ markets in the country.  Before I went there, I heard that the vendors throw fish to each other in the process of filleting and also filling orders. What?! Sounds strange, and it is…but when you see a 15 pound salmon flying through the air it really gets your attention, not something you see in the average supermarket.  The Market is full of wonderful fruits, fish, vegetables, flowers and homemade honeys & jams.   Also, various craft items including jewelry, leather working, glass-works and pottery can be found there.  The building itself is quite impressive and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. It sits overlooking the Seattle waterfront. Built on a steep hill, it has several different levels with an abundance of differing shops.  The vendors take pride in beautiful displays of their wares, even the peppers are an art form in and of themselves; so many different colors and shapes!

 

4–PIER 54-IVAR’S & YE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP-Probably these two are the easiest to find attractions on the waterfront. Literally right when you walk off the Ferry boat and next to the ferry terminals. Ivar’s is the seafood restaurant with both “casual” dining (more like a fast food style…but the food is still top-notch) and a lovely sit down restaurant.  Both Ivar’s restaurants offer great cuisine, depending what you are in the mood for.  The “casual” restaurant has outdoor setting by the water; and adults and kids alike are entertained by feeding your french fries to the seagulls. Entertaining yes….but the seagulls can sometimes get pretty aggressive. Just use caution; very small children shouldn’t partake in this activity.  Might be nice to keep all 10 digits.

Located on the same Pier is a very fun, touristy shop: Ye Old Curiosity Shop. Filled with many “curiosities” like shrunken heads, a 4 -legged chicken and mummies.  Some of the stuff is kind of creepy, although entertaining.  It has been part of the Seattle waterfront since 1899.  They have changed exact locations several times, but are generally in the same area. In addition to all the oddities, they do carry lots of the “usual” souvenirs, jewelry and also unusual items for purchase to remember your trip to Seattle. The totem poles at the front of the stores make great photo opps for you and your group. A terrific place to stop by and it’s right by the waterfront.

5–SEATTLE SPACE NEEDLE-One of the most recognized landmarks in Seattle is the Space Needle.  It is an observation tower that reaches 605 feet high and resembles the home of The Jetsons, if you remember that cartoon from the early 60’s. The tower was opened in 1962 and was built in honor of the World’s Fair held in Seattle that year.  The views from the top are fantastic and every one visiting this ocean front city should go up once. Yet, if you’ve done it once, that is probably enough.  Great views, but repeat visits to the city don’t really warrant several trips to the top of “the Needle”.  We did it once when my kids were little, but on subsequent visits I have always longed for and participated in the above listed “top 4”.  I wouldn’t think of going to Seattle without a trip to Pikes Place and lunch at Ivar’s. Polished off with a view of the setting sun by the deck of a Ferry boat.  Just writing these words make me realize I need to get back to Seattle soon.  Put your traveling shoes on. JES

Photo by Sigma Sreedharan (on Twitter, WA State Ferries)