Monday, March 26, 2018

2018 - Exploring the Great Southwest

Having just finished up a wonderful snowshoeing adventure in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Northern Wisconsin, it was only fitting to plan a Winter trip to a "warm(er) weather" area of the United States. After our trip out to Yellowstone, Glacier and the Grand Teton National Parks a few years ago, a Winter trip to explore other National Parks in the Southwestern United States seemed like a great idea. In addition, with my wife soon to celebrate her 60th birthday, it was only fitting to plan a visit to Las Vegas for that event. And what would a trip to this area in February and March be without catching a Cactus League Major League Spring training game of the Chicago Cubs!

So with those goals in mind, a trip was planned to do some hiking in Zion National Park, a couple days in Vegas, a visit to the Grand Canyon, including an overnight stay at one of their lodges, and finally a trip to Mesa, AZ for the Cubs game (and warmer weather). Of course, by now, you now I'd rather drive and "see the USA in my Santa Fe.." than fly. Its a long way out and back (~3,800 miles round trip), so I offered my wife the option to fly out and back, with me picking her up at an airport of her choice, and avoiding the long drives from/to Iowa. But she declined that offer, and was ready to take on another cross country road trip!

Day 1 - A Winter Drive to Denver
With an early (5:00am) start from Waterloo, we headed west, with Golden, Co, our overnight stop. You never know what to expect weatherwise in February, especially driving west. Forecasts called for some light snow in the morning, followed by snow in the Denver area. Sure enough they nailed the forecast. Snow began to fall about an hour east of Omaha, and continued until Lincoln, NE. After that it was a great drive until we reached the outskirts of the Denver metro area. Then, the fluffy snow began to fall again, just about rush hour time. The good news was we were heading INTO Denver, so traffic wasn't quite as bad. We slowly (and safely) made it to our hotel, and found a great Mexican restaurant to unwind with happy hour margaritas and a huge plate of nachos.
Daily Summary:
  ~800 miles (12 hrs) of driving
  ~    0 miles of hiking

Day 2 - Driving to St. George, UT
Another early start as we had another 650 miles to go before we reached our hotel for night 2. However, at the end of this day of driving we would truly be "on vacation", arriving at Zion National Park and the surrounding area. As you would expect, driving west out of Denver after a night of snow, the drive through the Rockies was a bit of a challenge. It was a clear, sunny morning, and the roads were not that bad. However, with the amount of traffic and two snow plows who ran side by side from the Dillon area to the Vail area, we were lucky to average 30mph.... by the time we hit Vail, I would estimate we had over a mile long line of cars and trucks in BOTH LANES. Good time to make a rest stop and take a brief look at Vail, as the ski lifts opened.

Leaving Vail, we were back to normal interstate driving. I should also note that the speed limit on ANY roadway in the state is 75mph. At this point we loaded an Audible book ("West Cork") on the stereo , sat back, and continued our journey. This was a pretty uneventful drive until about 3:30pm, when a warning popped up on the car display - "Warning: Fuel Low". That definitely caught our attention! We had been so engrossed in listening to the audiobook, we had traveled over 300 miles and only had "33 estimated miles remaining" before empty. Of course we happened to be on a back road hiway in Utah, with the next town 22 miles away, and we had no assurance that there was a gas station in that town! As I babied the gas, trying to get maximum miles per gallon, we ironically passed three Utah State Troopers, sitting on the side of the road. I figured at least, if we run out of gas, they were not too far to walk to! Finally, Panguitch, UT came into site, and I pulled in the 1st station I saw. By the time I was finished filling up, I had put in all but one gallon of the tank capacity. The photo at the right shows the gas pump and the remoteness of our location. Whew... dodged a bullet this time!

From here we were only about an hour away from the entrance to Zion National Park. Our route would take us on the Zion-Mount Carmel Hiway, which includes a mile and a half long tunnel within Zion National Park. Knowing we had been driving almost 10 hours, we decided to take a short hike near the tunnel entrance, called the Canyon Overlook Trail. Not a very long trail (~2 miles RT), but it provided us a chance to stretch our legs, and to give us our 1st glimpse of the beauty of Zion National Park.

After completing the hike, we hopped back in our car, drove the 1-1/2 mile long tunnel, and headed for commercial area near the South Entrance to Zion. Here, we dodged the road construction and settled in at the Zion Canyon Brewing Company or our 1st "vacation beer(s)" and a burger. The day was catching up with us, and we still had about a 30 minute drive to our hotel in St. George, UT. But we made it.... Day 2 was in the books.
Daily Summary:
  ~650 miles (11 hrs) of driving
  ~    2 miles of hiking

Day 3 - Exploring Zion National Park
After two long days of driving, we were finally ready to spend time hiking and exploring, rather than driving! Today's agenda - Zion National Park. After the 30 mile drive back to Zion from our hotel, we entered the park and located a parking place near The Watchman hiking Trail. With it being early (~8:00 am), when we approached the Park Entrance, there wasn't a Park Ranger manning the toll booth. No worries, a few years ago, I had purchased the "unlimited" pass for Seniors, which would allow anyone in our car to visit for free.  So we just passed on thru. Despite the clear skies and sun, it was still pretty chilly (~16 deg). So we opted to take the free shuttle and ride the 7 mile Floor of the Valley Road to the end and back. This allowed us not only to warm up, but also hear the shuttle driver explain the sights, and provide hiking tips for the Park.

After about 40 minutes, we hopped off the shuttle at the Zion Lodge, and began our 1st hike of the day to the Lower and Upper Emerald Pools. The sun  was slowly beginning to shine on the Western side of the Zion Canyon, helping to provide a little warmth. The trail was not difficult, but had a continual climb for mile to the Middle Pools, and another 1/2 mile to the Upper pool. Much of the trail was paved, making for a good "starter hike" of the day. Our 1st adventure came when we entered the Behunin Slot Canyon and the 1st of the Emerald Pools. As we approached, the path traversed under a rock overhang, with a slight downhill. The water that had dripped off the rock overhang had placed a thick layer of ice not only the path, but also the metal safety railing. With careful steps, I made it down the slope... and ice. Standing there, was a park ranger who said, after watching my clumsy decent across the ice, "Maybe I need to turn around and go back the other way...". Of course Sue, standing at the top and watching my struggles, was now questioning this path. But she took it on, and made it with no problem. We forged ahead to the Upper Emerald Pool. A bit more difficulty in the climb but very manageable. With the dry Winter, the pools were not very big (and not very "emeraldy"), but seeing them set amongst the red rock walls, with the sun shining brightly, made it worth the hike.

We headed back down the other side of the Emerald Pools Loop, and made our way back to the Zion Lodge, where we caught the shuttle back to the Watchman Trail, and our second trail hike for the day.

The Watchman Trail begins next to the Zion National Park South Entrance Ranger Station. This trail is and "out and back" trail, a little over 2 miles in distance, with an elevation climb of ~500 ft. Starting out, the temps were in the lower 30's... but by the time we hit the top of the trail, our coats were stashed away. At the end of the trail is a fantastic overlook of the South Entrance area of Zion as well as a good look up the Zion Canyon and Virgin River. We spent only a short time at the overlook, as an individual began giving a lecture on "his life, and the battles he as overcome..." He had a good audience with him, but that's not what we came for....

Upon reaching the bottom of the trail, and knowing our time in this portion of Zion was coming to an end, we stopped to celebrate a great morning of hiking with a couple cold ones and pretzel sticks at the Zion Canyon Brewing Company.

For the afternoon, we opted for a drive up the Western Boundary (Kolob Terrace Road) and to high country of Zion National Park, viewing closeup some of the mountains and peaks around the Kolob Reservoir. This is the least traveled of the main roads through Zion National Park, and provides an easy way to quickly reach the wilderness and escape the crowds in the more well known areas. It offers great views of distant cliffs and valleys, hiking trails to high overlooks along narrow canyons, and varied landscapes reflecting the wide elevation range of 3,550 to 7,890 feet. The road provided great 360° views of the whole park.

As we climber higher, snow began to fill the landscape, and vehicles with snow machine trailers were parked just off the road. We then reached a sign indicating the road was not "maintained in the Winter". Hmm, do we continue? Of course!.... for about 1/2 mile. After almost running out of gas on our trip to Zion, getting stuck in the snow on a road with little to no traffic didn't seem like a smart plan. So we got turned around (without getting stuck) and began the drive back down to the town of Virgin, and began our drive back to our hotel in St. George. The 1st REAL day of hiking was in the books. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring Zion National Park, and like our previous National Park visits, we agreed there was plenty more to explore here, and would need to put Zion on a future trip out West.
Daily Summary:
  ~150 miles (4 hrs) of driving
  ~    7 miles of hiking

Day 4 - On the Road to Vegas
Day 4 had us back on the road to our next destination - Las Vegas. Only a 2 hour drive via Interstate 15. However, we opted to do a little more exploring along the way. After a 40 minute drive to Mesquite, NV, it was time to find a local place for a hearty breakfast. With a little bit of "Googling", we found Peggy Sue's, an original roadside diner. It was decorated as you would imagine one of the old time diners, and sure enough, had a waitress who dressed (and talked) the part. After stuffing ourselves with eggs, hash browns, bacon and at least two cups of coffee, we decided to take a leisurely drive down the main drag of Mesquite, and of course, couldn't resist stopping at the 1st casino inside the Nevada border - Casablanca Resort-Casino-Golf-Spa. Good news... we walked out up a couple dollars!

From Mesquite, we headed to Valley of the Fire State Park, Nevada's 1st state park. Just South of Glendale, Valley of the Fire State Park , visitors can travel the Valley of the Fire Hiway, and can view the amazing red outcroppings within the park. There are several hiking trails and a Visitors Center, for those wanting to learn more about this park. During this drive we also learned about "Dispersed Camping", which allows anyone to camp for up to 14 days on public land. We noticed pickups with trailers parked in the middle of nowhere (but with a great view).. we later learned this was someone taking advantage of  Dispersed Camping regulations...

Ok, by now, we could hear Las Vegas calling us. After all, this was the day BEFORE Sue's birthday, and my promise to be in Vegas to celebrate. A 30 mile drive back to I-15, another 30 minutes on I-15, and we had arrived. It was approximately noon, so we decided to head to Downtown Las Vegas, and grab a tour at the Neon Museum. Located a few blocks from Fremont Street, this attraction has become a resting place for many of the old, no longer used neon signs which had adorned many of the original Las Vegas hotels and casinos. Due to the popularity of this attraction we had to wait about 90 minutes for our tour. So we walked over to Fremont Street to check it out. It had been several years since we had visited Downtown. Fremont Street was still busy, but it definitely seems to have lost some of its luster. A couple buildings had been torn down, and some of the "street actors" were less than desirable. So, after a quick walk down Fremont, and a swing thru the Golden Nugget, we decided to head back for our museum tour.

The Neon Museum tour lasted approximately 60 minutes. A guide led 10-12 people thru the back lot of signs, stopping at different areas to share the history behind several of them. Interesting Fact: The City of Las Vegas still requires signs have 75% neon on Las Vegas Blvd., to preserve the road's historic past. HOWEVER, the part of Las Vegas Blvd. with all the modern casinos and resorts is NOT part of the City of Las Vegas, but part of Paradise, NV. So, most of the casinos and businesses have transitioned to LED signage in lieu of expensive and high maintenance neon.

By now it was after 3pm, and time to head to the Paris on the Strip and check in. Oh, did I mention how congested I-15 is from downtown to the Strip??? We made it, avoiding any accidents. After parking in the ramp (and me having to make 2 trips back to the car from the registration area to get my phone and reading glasses) we got our room... ahh... finally time to "enjoy Vegas". Our 1st goal was to celebrate our arrival, and that was done at the lounge on the Paris casino floor. Our next goal was to scope out a nearby pizza place (our "usual" on Sunday's). Sure enough, next door to the Paris at Bally's was Giordano's. Good pizza, some more beer, and a GREAT "people watching table".

Sun was setting, but we needed to head out on the Strip to check out a few Resorts, and of course, the Bellagio, for their Chinese New Year (Year of the Dog) decorations in Conservatory and Botanical
Garden. No pictures this trip... too many people viewing the display. It just wouldn't do it justice. We managed to hit a few slots while wandering thru the casino, and finally decided to call it a day. Tomorrow, my young bride joins the rest of of "seniors", with her 60th Birthday!
Daily Summary:
  ~135 miles (3 hrs) of driving
  ~    3 miles of hiking

Day 5 - Vegas: The big "6-0"
As promised, we are in Vegas for Sue's 60th birthday. Being the morning person I am, while going to get coffee, I found Cafe Belle Madeleine just off the casino floor in the Paris. With a bag of assorted pastries and two large coffees, it was time to kickoff Sue's birthday with "pastries in bed". Then, after some catchin' up on emails, news, and trip postings, Sue was ready to "hit the spa". That meant it was time for me to do some wandering on the Strip. This was the 1st day of our trip that we anticipated temperatures above 50 degrees. Of course, at 9am (and on the "shaded" side of the strip), temps were only in the mid-30's. So my wandering (after another cup of coffee) was mostly thru the adjacent casinos. We've learned over the years, if you really want to see the casinos, and enjoy some peaceful slot playing, its best to be "morning people".

After a couple hours, Sue, feeling all refreshed, was ready to take on the Strip. Our plan for the day was "to wander".... It had been about 5 years since our last visit, so we were anxious to see what was new. The rules were a) stop and play some slots "whenever we felt like it", b) make sure we didn't get thirsty, and c) allow time for shopping. The Resorts on our agenda included Flamingo, The LinQ, Caesars, Mirage, Treasure Island, Wynn, The Palazzo, The Venetian, and back thru Bally's. By now, the temps were warming up, and it was a beautiful sunny day.

As always, people watching was prime. Surprisingly, the homeless normally sitting on the crosswalk bridges were sparse (or maybe it was too early in the day). After wandering the casino floor in Caesars, we headed for the Forum Shops....   Being close to noon, it was time for some refreshments and a small snack. We headed to Trevi, and their "outdoor" patio (adjacent to the 'Fountain of the Gods' at a three-way intersection of The Forum Shops). A perfect location for some more people watching.

After a relaxing mini-lunch, it was time for a little shopping. Of course, just right across from Trevi, was Tiffany and Co. Not my normal shopping destination, but hey, it was Sue's birthday. While Sue wandered the store, I too wandered, and made some observations. First, you had to be in your 20's-30's to work there, and dress in black suits, with short, well trimmed hair (and beard). Next, one salesman positioned theirself close to every customer at all times. Finally, if you are the low person on the totem pole, you got "door duty" - opening the door and greeting everyone as they entered/exited. By now, Sue was working with a salesperson, completing a sale. Oh Boy!  Next thing you know we are walking past the "door person, who thanked us for our purchase, and shopping at Tiffanys. I could tell by the smile the birthday girl was happy! Time to move on.

While in the Mirage, and Treasure Island, I took the opportunity to try and "spec out" a new vehicle for the "new senior" in our family. I wanted for her to test drive one on the Strip, but I had to settle for her sitting in one outside an eatery in the casino (note the look of "should we really be doing this with someone's scooter???" on Sue's face). By the time we hit Treasure Island, I voted for another refreshment break in the casino lounge, and to plan our next stop. Oh, and we hit a few more slots as we worked our way to the exit.

Crossing over the Strip we started our way back, with visits to the Wynn, The Palazzo, The Venetian, and Bally's. By now it was mid-afternoon, and the crowds were building. Our wandering was more for interesting slot machines to play (and always people watching). Good news is, by the time we made it back to the Paris, both of us were ahead in our slot winnings.. not by much, but still ahead.

Us "oldies" decided it was time to find a place for dinner, and opted for Burger Brasserie, located in the corridor between Bally's and the Paris. "The Burger Brasserie offers a French interpretation of a classic American staple—the hamburger—in a lively sports bar environment" - perfect for us. We topped the dinner off with "adult milkshakes", and headed out for one last round of slot play.

By now the casino was hoppin', in fact so hoppin', that finding a couple open slot machines together was a challenge. We were successful, and after coming out ahead again, we decided it was getting late for the Birthday Girl, so it was time to call it a day.

All in all a good day to kick off Sue's Senior Years!
Daily Summary:
  ~    0 miles (0 hrs) of driving
  ~    4 miles of walking

Day 6 - The Grand Canyon
After our fun in Vegas, it was time to get back on the road and head east approximately 280 miles to the Grand Canyon. We got an early start so we had time to do some good hiking before sunset. The weather cooperated perfectly, with clear blue skies and little wind. Even arriving at Grand Canyon Village around 11am (on Feb. 27th), the parking lots by the rim were full. But we found a spot, put on our hiking gear and began our descent down Bright Angel Trail. We wanted to experience what it was like to descend into the canyon, and then hike back out. All advice says don't try hiking to the campground at the bottom (~9.5 miles) and back out in the same day. So our plan was to hike a couple miles down, and then
back. The trail's location on the south rim meant most of the trail was in the shade, and thus the trail would be snow/ice covered for most of our hike. The views were spectacular, and even more special seeing them within the canyon walls. Surprisingly, we came upon a handful of hikers climbing out of the canyon at this time of day. We learned all were hikers who had hiked down the previous day, and camped at the Bright Angel campground overnight. There was alot of "huffing and puffing" by those climbing the trail. Here we were wearing our winter coats, and most of those climbing were in lightweight long sleeve shirts.

Once my tracker hit 2 miles, we agreed to start back. Sure enough, after about 3/4 of mile, our winter coats came off, and "our" huffing and puffing was underway. Each time we turned on a switchback, we could see the trail waaay down below us. Its hard to imagine making that trek, but its peaked my interest... for a future visit.

We made it back to the top, with no problem. This was a good time to check into our room at the El Tovar Hotel, located literally feet from the edge of the South Rim. Still feeling energized, we decided we'd hike the Trail of Time, a 1.3 mile trail exhibit that follows the existing paved rim trail on the South Rim of Grand Canyon between Yavapai Observation Station and Grand Canyon Village. The trail is marked by brass markers every meter, representing one million years of time. Viewing tubes and other interpretive materials help visitors connect the rocks visible in Grand Canyon to the samples along the geologic timeline. Really cool! After about a mile, the wind was picking up, and we were starting to feel the effects of our 5 miles of hiking, and decided to head back to find a restaurant for a late afternoon meal. We found The Harvey House Cafe, located in the (Bright Angel Lodge). Boy, did siting down in that padded booth feel good after being on our feet for 4+ hours of hiking and walking the Grand Canyon Village!

Finishing dinner, and being about sunset, we hopped in the car to take Hermit Road to the west, along the Canyon Rim, and enjoy the sunset. By now the temps were dropping, and the wind was blowing. So we limited our time outside the car to a couple turnouts overlooking the the Canyon, and then a stop at Hermits Rest (~ 8 miles out). (NOTE: Between March 1st and Nov. 30th, Hermit Road is only accessible by shuttle buses).  The clouds and an impending snow storm were starting to move in so we decided it was time to head back Hermit Road the lodge, and check out the rustic lobby. At almost the same time, two tour buses unloaded, and immediately filled the lobby with bunches of people. At that point, we decided to check out the gift shop, and make a hasty retreat to our room for the night. Our string of great days continues!
Daily Summary:
  ~    210 miles (4 hrs) of driving
  ~        6 miles of hiking

Day 7 - Headin' to Warmer Climates
Our plan for Day 7 was to check out the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise, and then begin our trek south toward Mesa, AZ. A snow storm had passed south of the Grand Canyon overnite, so not knowing what to expect on our drive, we made a quick trip along the eastern Canyon Rim Road and checked out the view as the sun was rising. Its just amazing to see the natural beauty of this place. There's never a bad view! We hopped back in the car and headed south, with our itinerary including a hike to Devil's Bridge (just North of Sedona), and a drive on to Mesa, AZ. When we left the Grand Canyon, the sky was clear and the sun was out... 20 miles south of the Grand Canyon, the sky was overcast, the ground was covered with snow, and light snow was falling.

Our route would take us on I-40, thru Flagstaff, and then south on I-17 (and Hiway 89A), to Sedona, AZ. Once on I-40, we realized the magnitude of overnight snowfall. The reports were 5-6 inches, and by the looks of the interstate and the surroundings, it was at least that!  After a wet and messy 90 mile drive, we pulled into Sedona, and stopped to fill up with gas. Everyone talks about the beauty of the area around Sedona. Well, with the low clouds and snow falling, all we could see were the trees along the road on the way into town.

Given what we had driven through, we weren't optimistic that we'd be able to make it to our hiking trailhead, let alone be able to see the actual trail! But we decided to head out and make a decision once we got there. Surprisingly, after the 7 mile drive north of Sedona, the snow had stopped and looked as if this area hadn't received as much. Yes!  Our planned hike was still on!

Devil's Bridge is a fun tour that is short but mighty. It provides a great view of the Sedona red rocks from the top of Devil's Bridge. It also provides the thrill seekers some excitement with the fact that the bridge is only five feet wide but spans 45 feet long over a deep drop. The hike itself is approximately 4.5 miles round trip from the parking area (those with ATVs can get closer, and only have 3 miles RT). The majority of the trail is across fairly overgrown rolling terrain. The last 1/4-1/2 mile is where the fun begins, climbing approximately 300 feet up to the Bridge. Had this been a nice dry day, the climb would have been a piece of cake. However, with the snow that had fallen, and the mud and ice that covered several rocky areas, the challenge on this hike was just getting up the rocks to Devil's Bridge. As we approached the area, we found a handful of others either climbing like us, or coming down from the Bridge. We passed one woman who told us to "go ahead... she wasn't going to do it". By now, I think Sue was a bit worried about what I had gotten her into. But we kept climbing. Soon we could see some people standing on some rocks. As we got closer, we realized that was Devil's Bridge. Time to check it out! Once we reached the opening, the entire countryside was open to view, and with the snow that had fallen, provided us with some spectacular panoramic views of the Sedona area. I
should note, we really didn't enjoy those views until AFTER we climbed out on the Bridge, and climbed back off! This photo of Sue standing out in the middle of the Bridge gives you a bit of perspective of being "on the Bridge".

We began our hike back. By now, the snow was beginning to disappear, and was essentially gone by the time we reached the car. Having just conquered another great hike, it was time to seek out a refreshment stop in Sedona before we headed for warmer climates in Mesa. Our choice was the Oak Creek Brewing Co., located just off Hiway 89A. After a great beer and some nachos, time to head south for Mesa.

Our drive to Mesa was approximately 140 miles, which included a short stop to visit friends in Scottsdale, and dinner at Big Earls Greasy Eats in Cave Creek, AZ. We arrived at our hotel on the edge of Tempa, AZ around 7pm. It had been a long, but good day. Now we were looking forward to the next day - relaxing at a Chicago Cubs Spring Training Game!
Daily Summary:
  ~    260 miles (5 hrs) of driving
  ~          4 miles of hiking

Day 8 - "Go Cubs Go..."
Finally, we can enjoy some decent temperatures! Our agenda today is to take it easy, and enjoy a Chicago Cubs Spring Training game in Mesa, AZ. The game time weather forecast was sunny with the high around 70. We were up and going early, as usual. 1st order of business - coffee and something sweet. Not far down the road was Coyote Coffee Cafe, with a table out front... in the sun - Perfect!

Knowing the gates to Sloan Park (Home of Chicago Cubs Spring Training) didn't open until 11, we decided we'd head over to the stadium about 10am, get a parking spot, and hang out around batting practice. Man, it was so nice and comfortable out, and we were able to catch many of the Cubs taking batting practice at their smaller practice field. Once the gates opened, we headed in, and took a leisurely walk around the stadium checking out all the amenities (1st used by the Cubs in 2014). it had been probably 20 years since I last saw a Cubs game (at their old Spring Training site - HoHoKam Field), and probably 25-30 years since Sue had been to a game (at Wrigley Field). We found our seats, and settled in with, what else, a couple overpriced 16 oz. beers! A warm sun shining on us, sitting at a Cubs Spring Training game with my "senior partner", and a cold beer. Hard to beat that! The game was enjoyable, but not thrilling - ended in a 2-2 tie.

We took a leisurely walk back to the car, or so we thought. Suddenly, when we started looking for the car, we couldn't see it. We realized the direction we had been walking took us the wrong way. (I know, some of you are thinking "Rick isn't very good on remembering where he leaves things like bikes, cars, etc."). With a little thought, we figured out we weren't that far from it. Besides, it gave the other 12,000 plus fans time to thin out the lot.

It was almost 4pm, so we scoped out a pizza place on the Arizona State University Campus in Tempe - Oregano's Pizza Bistro. Afterwards, we took a leisurely drive thru the campus, before heading back to our hotel.
Daily Summary:
  ~    25 miles (1 hrs) of driving
  ~      2 miles of walking

Day 9 - The Last Hurrah..
The vacation is quickly coming to an end. One last day to explore and hike, and then its time to point the car back toward Iowa. Our game plan this morning is to find some coffee and donuts, then drive to the Lost Dutchman State Park for some hiking around the Superstition Mountains. Then, head North to the Roosevelt Resevoir, and Tonto National Monument, before driving back east to Gallup, New Mexico for our overnight stay.

As we headed down the road leaving Tempe, we came across Hurts Donuts. Well known in Iowa, it surprised us to see one here. So we had to stop. Coffee in hand (and some huge donuts) we headed East for approximately 30 miles to the Lost Dutchman State Park. The trails we chose (Treasure Loop Trail and Jacob's Crosscut) would take us across and up desert landscape to the base of Superstition Mountain, before looping back down to our parking area. What looked like a leisurely hike in the desert with some great mountain views turned out to be a hearty uphill climb for the first mile and a half, before a comfortable downhill return. It was around 9am, and it was already warming up - a tad different from our previous hikes in Zion, the Grand Canyon, and
Sedona. But it felt great. The only unexpected event on the hike was Sue receiving a "video call" from one of our friends while out on the trail. It was nice call, and from what they could see, they had actually hiked the same trail on a previous trip to AZ. After the call was over, I told Sue I thought that was strange to get a call from them, particularly while we were on vacation, and hiking. After a little thought, we both think Sue accidentally "butt dialed" this friend while putting her phone back in her pocket after taking a photo. No folks, you can't make this stuff up!

Finishing the hike we hopped back in the car and began the scenic drive up to Roosevelt Reservoir, an approximately 40 mile drive. Some beautiful views of the Superstition Mountains as we headed northeast. As we rounded the corner about 15 miles in, we see the sign "pavement ends". Swell... ok, hopefully its only for a few miles. Nope, the next 25 miles was all on a dirt/gravel road, with several "washboard" sections to add to the fun. Those of you who know me, know I take great pride in a well maintained (and clean) vehicle. Needless to say, the next 60 minutes was the most UNenjoyable part of our trip, despite some beautiful scenery. The pavement returned just before Roosevelt Dam, and on the other side was the Roosevelt Lake Bridge, built in 1990, at a cost of $21.3 million, and is the longest two-lane, single-span, steel-arch bridge in North America, spanning 1,080 ft.

Our final exploration of the trip, just down the road from the Roosevelt Lake Dam and Bridge was the Tonto National Monument - home to two Salado-style cliff dwellings. It was a steep 1/2 mile walk from the Visitors Center to the lower cliff dwelling (the upper cliff dwelling can be viewed during a 3-4 hour guided tour). Along the trail there were some great views of the countryside, and Roosevelt Reservoir. Only a portion of the cliff dwelling remains, but it gave glimpse into what it must have been like to live in this valley, using the mountainside for protection, and seeking out food and water.

Once we wrapped up our visit to Tonto National Monument, it was time to point the car toward home. A 240 mile drive to Gallup, MN for our 1st overnight of the drive back. Our day ended with dinner at Applebee's (not alot of restaurant selections to choose from). Two more days to go before our journey is over.
Daily Summary:

  ~  320 miles (8 hrs) of driving
  ~      5 miles of hiking

Day 10 - The Wide Open Spaces
Our next to last day found us driving from Gallup, NM to Dodge City, KS, with the first 300 miles on I-40, then cutting cross country on mostly on two lane back roads to Dodge City. Personally, its kinda neat in this part of the country, to hop off the Interstates and see the what life on the Plains is like.

We passed thru Albuquerque, NM early enough to see several hot air balloons floating over the northwest portion of the city. Just west of Amarillo, TX we exited I-40 and headed northeast on Hiway 54, which took us thru  portions of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and then Kansas. Speed limits in the open spaces ranged from 70-75 mph on these two lanes. I suspect that with these speed limits, and the diagonal shortcut, that was the reason that the road was filled with semis going both directions. In one instance, I passed 4 semis at one time, on one open stretch (thank goodness for that turbo on my engine). The one downside on roads like this is that towns are quite a distance part. Then, when you get to a town, all that you are likely to find is a grain elevator, a handful of houses and buildings, and MAYBE a gas station. All in the span of approximately a mile. Then, back at it on the open road. We followed this routine for almost 300 miles. And it finally got the best of me.

Midway thru the panhandle of Oklahoma, we came upon the town of Hooker. Like with the several previous small towns we had passed thru, the speed limit went from 70 (or 75) to 45. Then, in the next quarter mile down to 35 while you drove the town (~ 1/2-1 mile), then back up to 70 (or 75). Well, Hooker understands that those driving this road for 300 miles may "cheat" on the speed limit going thru town. Sure enough, as I was accelerating as we left the town, I noticed flashing red and blue lights on the vehicle rapidly approaching. I pulled over to let them go by.... nope, they were after me. The nice officer indicated I was going more than 10 mph over the 35 mph speed limit. But he was going to "give me a break and only write it for 9 mph over, giving me "a good deal", only having to pay $125 vs. the $250 fine... AND this would not show up on my insurance or my driving record, AND I could pay online! After all that, how could I be mad with such a deal - NOT! I was very tempted to ask if I could take his picture for my travel blog, but my better judgement prevailed!

Tucking my wallet back in my pocket, we finished up the last 100 miles to Dodge City, for our overnight stay. We found a nice casino in Dodge City (Boot Hill Casino and Resort) and decided to see if we could win enough to pay for the speeding ticket (no such luck). We headed to The Bad Habit Sports Bar and Grill on the main drag of Dodge City for our final vacation dinner. Not a bad place... learned that the reason it was so crowded was Tanya Tucker was in concert that night. "Who woulda thunk"!

The next to last day of our trip had come to an end. The final drive to Waterloo tomorrow.

Daily Summary:
  ~  600 miles (10 hrs) of driving
  ~      0 miles of hiking
          1 speeding ticket

Day 11 - Home, Sweet Home
The final day of our adventure to the great Southwest was coming to an end. The drive from Dodge City, KS to Waterloo, IA was approximately 650 miles. Not much to say about this part of the trip, other than we had good weather (and no speeding tickets). We pulled back in the driveway around 4pm Sunday. It was hard to fathom what all we did the last 11 days. But both of us agreed that this is the type of vacation getaway we enjoy. With so many more places to see (and hike) out West, I suspect there will be at least one more of these in our future. Heck, we aren't getting any younger. Time for me to get on Google Maps and start planning for the next adventure!
Daily Summary:
  ~  650 miles (10 hrs) of driving
  ~      0 miles of hiking

Trip Summary:
  ~3800 miles (68 hrs) of driving
  ~    33 miles of hiking

(Editors's Note: If you are interested in viewing other photos from the trip. click here).

Monday, February 5, 2018

2018 - Snowshoeing Up North - The Western UP and Bayfield Ice Caves Trail

The itch for some snowshoeing had begun. With little or no snow here in Northeast Iowa, it was time to pack up my Santa Fe Sport and head for the snow - the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Northern Wisconsin.

The itinerary for this trip included snowshoeing hikes in Porcupine Mountains State Park, around the Copper Peak Ski Flying Hill, and land trail to the Ice Caves located on the Bayfield Peninsula. Of course, no trip to the UP would be complete without a visit to the Keweenaw Peninsula, and the bazillion inches of snow they received every year!

Day 1 - Off to the North!

The usual early start from snowless Waterloo, IA began at ~5:30am, traveling East thru Dubuque, IA and Madison, WI, then  heading North on I-39, the superhiway to the Upper Midwest's winter adventures. As is usually the case on Sundays in the Winter, the further North you get the more SUVs, pickups and cars you see heading South, pulling huge trailers loaded with snow machines. It wasn't until near Wausau, WI did snow begin to appear on the ground. Approximately 6 hours after pulling out of the driveway, I pulled into Minocqua, WI, a main hub for outdoor Winter activities. There was an abundance of snow in the area, and several fishing huts sprinkled on Minocqua Lake. However, my drive for the day still had another 200+ miles to go.

I hit the Upper Peninsula about an hour later, passing through Watersmeet, MI (Home of the Nimrods). The snow depth was definitely building the further North I drove. It was about here the snow began falling (and would continue falling lightly for the rest of the day's driving). Another 30 minutes, and the sight of the Portage Canal Lift Bridge in Houghton, MI came into view. Man, there was alot of snow!

The next portion of the drive is always fun during the Winter. As you follow Hiway 41 North, you get to enjoy the heritage of the Keweenaw Peninsula - Copper Country. The historic mining buildings that still stand, and communities constructed back in the late 1800's and early 1900's are amazing to see. Then, throw in about 200 inches of snow so far this Winter, and you have a fun drive! Oh, and did I mention it was still lightly snowing?

My destination, before returning to Houghton for an overnight stay, was Copper Harbor. Located at the top of the Keweenaw Peninsula, this town in the Winter is an oasis for snow mobilers. Only a few businesses are open, as tourists (like me) and vacationers are pretty sparse. But the beauty of all the snow, and Lake Superior make it worth the drive.

No trip along Hiway 41 is ever complete without stopping and checking out the Keweenaw Snow Depth thermometer. It gives you a wonderful perspective on the depth of snow in this area, as well as the record snowfall of the past.

My day ended in downtown Houghton at the Quality Inn.
Today's trip:
  ~600 miles (12 hrs) of driving
  ~    0 miles of snowshoeing.

A long day behind the wheel, but now I am in the heart of some great wilderness areas for snowshoeing the next few days!

Day 2 - The Porkies 
Last Winter, I drove over to the Porcupine Mountains State Park to see what it was all about. Unfortunately, due to a Winter Weather Advisory in effect that day, I opted to only view the Park from a distance. This year, I had it planned to snowshoe a portion of the eastern side of the
Park, up and around the Porcupine Mountain Alpine Ski Area, and then back to my vehicle. Not knowing how far I could go on snowshoes (4 miles was my farthest journey since purchasing them), planned a 5-6 mile route, and hoped for good conditions. The route followed one of the several cross country skiing trails in the park. That was a good choice, as the Park trail grooming machines had already been out and had nicely groomed the trails. On the trail, my snowshoes only sank in maybe 1-2 inches. Off the trail, each step dropped 4-6 inches. Guess who stayed on the groomed trail?!?

The woods the trail passed through were picturesque and VERY quiet. After about a mile, the chill I was feeling starting out had long since disappeared. The workout was warming me up just right. After a couple miles, the trail made the turn for the ascent up the mountain side toward the top of the Alpine Ski area... OK, now I was getting downright warm! Off came the neck gator and the gloves, as I continued on. The 1st major sight was the "East Vista". Although overcast, there was sill a great view of Lake
Superior and the forests toward Ontonagon, MI. Shortly after this view was a log cabin warming hut,
complete with an outdoor outhouse (no need to visit either)! Another half mile, and the Alpine Ski Area came into view. I made it! Or so I thought. I followed the edge of one of the groomed downhill ski trails and started what I thought was the last hill I had to climb before reaching the summit, and the top of the ski lift. Twenty minutes later (and 3-4 stops to catch my breath), I FINALLY reached the summit! As you can see from the photo, it was overcast, and lightly snowing. I suspect that was the reason there were only a few people on the slopes. That, and the Park location is miles from any major city, and it being Monday.

Now, 4 miles into my hike, all I had left was a "leisurely" snowshoe walk down the hill. Ha!  I had forgotten how steep those hills are, and what its like to go downhill.. on snow... and snowshoes! Once I got down past the steep upper portion, the walk continued on some great wooded trails, perfect for someone who was starting to feel the 2+ hours of exercise I had completed.

I reached the bottom of the Ski Area, and traversed across, back to my car. My hike was 5-1/2 miles, in 2-1/2 hours. It was a great feeling knowing I had completed this length of a hike, and in an area I had only seen on Google Maps!  I loaded my equipment back into my Santa Fe Sport, and began the 1 hour drive to Ironwood, MI, my overnight destination.

Today's trip:
  ~130 miles (2.5 hrs) of driving
  ~ 5.5 miles of snowshoeing.

With my "snowshoe legs" now under me, I am looking forward to Day 3, and my exploration of the Copper Peak Ski area.

Day 3 - Copper Peak

This past Summer, my wife and I, and one of our sons visited Copper Peak - Home to the only ski flying hill outside of Europe. During the warm months, Copper Peak is available to view and climb, using a working ski lift, and an elevator that takes visitors to near the top of the jump (those daring enough can walk the remaining six stories to the top). This ski flying hill built in 1970, has not been used in Winter for ski flying since the mid 1990's. Currently, there is a non-profit organization working to turn the jump into a Summer destination, which will allow competitions on the jump, using artificial surfaces rather than snow. Additionally, the surrounding area is growing to include additional mountain biking and hike trails.

After our Summer visit to the top of Copper Peak, I decided that snowshoeing up to the jump, using the mountain biking trails would be a good Winter hike. Wanting to get an early start, and hoping possibly to get some morning sunrise photos of Copper Peak, I headed out about 7:30am. Only a 20 minute drive, I arrived in time to see the sun rise on a clear blue sky day. Temps were chilly (-5 deg), but feeling the Sun made a huge difference. As with the previous day, I planned the major hill climbing for the 1st part of the hike, knowing I'd be full of energy, and the workout would
help warm me up. Today's hike was different from the previous day, as there was no "groomed" trail. So, with the exception of a few ruts from snow machines that had been on the trail since the last snowfall, it was me versus the deep snow. As it turned out, it appeared that of the 20+ inches on the ground, the 1st 14 inches fell, then it warmed up, creating a hardened crust on top of it. Then, and additional 6 inches must have fallen in the last 3-5 days. So my snowshoes only went down 3-4 inches with each step. MUCH easier than 20 inches!

The access road was approximately a mile to the top of the hill and ski jump. As with the previous day, by the time I reached the top, the neck gator and gloves were tucked away.... I must have looked like an old steam engine as I "puffed" my way up the hill... but once at the top, the view, with the clear blue skies, was magnificent! I have included a short panoramic video from the top of the hill (at the base of the jump). Looking at that ski jump, and looking at the landing area hundreds of feet below, I cannot fathom how anyone could ski fly. But being here in the crisp air of Winter, gave me a new found respect for athletes of the Winter Olympic games.

I began my descent on the same path as I came up, only heading to the opposite side of the hill, following one of the multiple mountain bike trails available. Like Porcupine Mountains, State Park, the forest was blanketed in several inches of snow, with the swish of my snowshoes being literally the only sounds I could hear. After about a mile, I reached another access road, which led to the ski jump landing zone at the bottom of the hill. From here, I could look back up at the jump, and see the magnitude of the drop. I can guarantee you ski flying is NOT on my bucket list!

I continued on the bike trail, heading for the Black River, just north of the landing zone. Unlike the path down from Copper Peak, the trail was now much narrower, using switchbacks to traverse down the steep hillside to the river. This area had not seen use for a couple weeks, as the snow had all but covered up the trail rut. Once at the bottom, the trail followed the shoreline of the river for approximately a 1/2 mile. I had hoped to see the small falls shown on the map, but the ice and snow had all but covered it over.

It was time to make the climb back out of the river valley, and traversing the trail back to the ski chalet. From there, a 1/2 mile walk on the west entrance road, and I was back at my Santa Fe.
Another amazing experience snowshoeing... different scenery, different terrain, and different weather.... but same exhilarating feeling.

My overnight location was Ashland, WI, approximately 50 miles West. But with the beautiful blue skies, I decided to take back roads, and check out the sights along the shores of Lake Superior.

I came upon Little Girls Point County Park, on the shore of Lake Superior. Not a big park, but looked like a great Summer spot to enjoy the Lake, and hang out with the family. It also appears to be very popular with the deer population in the area based on hoof prints, and droppings along the beachfront. I also spotted several more deer in the yards of houses/cottages along the Lake. You gotta love being out in the wilderness!

Day 3 came to an end. Two for two on great snowshoe adventures this trip. Tomorrow, the last snowshoe hike of the trip, would be the land trail to the Bayfield Ice Caves on Lake Superior.

Today's trip:
~ 75 miles (2 hrs) of driving
~ 4.3 miles of snowshoeing.

Day 4 - Ice Caves

The last snowshoeing adventure of this trip was to explore the the Bayfield Ice Caves along the shores of Lake Superior. Located on the northwestern portion of the Bayfield Peninsula, the Bayfield Ice Caves are a wildly popular Winter tourist spot... when there is ice on Lake Superior. Access to the Caves, when the Lake Superior shoreline has adequate ice thickness, is by walking approximately 2 miles on the lake, to the Caves. This year, however, periods of warm temperatures have not allowed safe ice to form, preventing lake access. The alternative is to follow the hiking trail from the Meyers Beach parking area. This trail leads to the top of the rock bluffs which form the ice caves. Obviously, this is NOT a popular attraction when the ice is not formed, as there were no other cars in the Meyers Beach parking lot.

Despite some light snowfall overnight, the morning began with clear blue skies. The weather front that had gone through, however, plummeted temperatures, and kicked up a strong winds, gusting as strong as 45 mph. The inland trail and the protections from the trees was looking better and better.
I had read that the trail surface usually is pretty well packed down, so I opted to do this hike with my boots with strap on grabbers and ski poles - no snowshoes. Off I went.

The trail had approximately 3-5 inches of hard packed snow on it. The initial 3/4 of a mile of the trail had a boardwalk. Not sure why, but trying to walk on a mound of packed snow on top of a wooden walkway had its own unique challenges. The trail also had alot of "ups and downs", having to traverse several creeks which dropped down to drain into Lake Superior.

After approximately 1-1/2 miles, the trail worked its way toward the shoreline, and sights of Lake Superior became visible. The howl of the wind also became louder. Finally, with a couple bends in the trail the 1st cliff edge was in front of me. I "inched" my way toward the edge, hoping to get a better view... Its amazing what 30+ mph winds blowing on you while slipping on glazed snow does to your fears. I had a death grip on any tree that was close by! Despite the shadows cast by the cliffs, the sights were awfully cool.

The path along the cliffs continued on for another 1-1/2 miles, with multiple spots to view the different coves (I have included all the photos in the link at the end of this post). I've included a short video clip of the view, and the crazy winds I witnessed looking over one of the coves.

Once past the main cliff and caves, I continued on the trail. Approximately 3 miles further down the trail, there is a camp area. I thought about trying to make it there, but turned around after 3 miles, deciding a 6 mile hike versus 10 miles would suffice. The walk back was into the wind, making the "cold factor" ratchet up a bit... My pace definitely quickened! Arriving at the parking lot, I also made the short walk down to the Meyers Beach shoreline. There was considerable ice along the shore, but it didn't look too stable. My choice to take the inland trail was definitely the right choice.

The final "snow hike" was now in the books! It was time to begin heading back South, with one more overnight in Minocqua, WI. The drive would take approximately 3 hours (140 miles), and included a quick stop at my North Woods standby casino in Lac du Flambeau (Good news - I broke even!). A short 30 minute drive to Minocqua, a car wash and a fillup, and the day of exploring was completed.

Today's trip:

~ 170 miles (3.5 hrs) of driving
~ 6.0 miles of snowshoeing.

Day 5 - Going Home

As with all trips, after the sightseeing is done, you're ready to get home. Per my usual schedule, I was up and ready to hit the road at 5:30am Thursday morning, after having to almost "break in" to my car (doors all frozen due to car wash the day before and -15 degree morning temperature), and then grabbing coffee and donuts. The drive was in darkness until Wausau, WI, where rush hour (Wausau style) was well underway. With sun rise, and another bright clear morning, I watched the the snow slowly disappear from the landscape as I traveled south. By Madison, the snow was all gone. Vacation was over!

For those who "hate" the cold and snow of Midwest Winters, you owe it to yourself to experience the beauty and the exhilaration being out in it... at least once!

(For those of you interested in other photos I took during my travels click here).