My heart stopped. Just moments before, we had been happily enjoying the down-hill momentum and views into Glacier’s central valley, that was until company round a bend ahead. We froze in our tracks. A giant male grizzly dominated the trail just 20 meters beyond.
Of course, I’m well-aware that Glacier National Park is home to a grizzly bear population – warning signs are everywhere – but I never really expected to get THIS close to one. I had hoped to catch a sight of one form the car window. That would have been nice. Nice and safe. If anything, I had been on higher alert earlier that morning as we set out, completely alone, from the Siyeh Bend trailhead. Crossing through Preston Park meadows still enveloped in mist, I made sure to make our presence known, and scouted the area for any sign of movement. Nothing.
Leaving the timberline far below, we wound up a shingle trail to summit Siyeh Pass. There we found a plump lonely marmot, hair blowing in the breeze, admiring the view. He didn’t seem bothered by us, so we let each other be, taking in the same view of a previously hidden eastern valley with tiny glaciers dotted high above.
From Siyeh pass the views really exploded. No longer sheltered by trees, the trail begins a tight descent, switch-backing 3220 feet alongside the stunning Sexton Glacier. Both Conrad and I became so preoccupied with trying to capture the splendor on our cameras – failing completely – that concerns of bears left our minds.
Our cameras had just returned to bags as the trail began evening out, hugging the edge of Goat Mountain. That’s when the creature appeared, completely startling us. Conrad was in the lead (thank God), as we simultaneously stopped dead in our tracks. He had seen us too. Definitely a grizzly. His dark coat hung over huge hunched shoulders, with the tell-tale long snout that identified his bread. I suddenly felt very vulnerable. We hadn’t seen another human-being all day. And here we were carrying a bag full of trail snacks. What idiots! I bet we smelt good enough to eat too.
My mind rapidly began processing every bit of advice I’d ever consumed about bears. I knew enough not to run. Even though instinct kind of made me want to. Now, what was the difference between dealing with grizzly verses black bears again? The bear was holding our gaze. It felt like a Mexican stand-off. He seemed unsure too. Then, slowly, he resumed his stride, edging even closer. Shit! I’m going to die! I immediately began clapping my hands and shouting loud, incoherent nonsense – anything that sprung to mind that identified us as people. Meanwhile, Conrad frantically released the can of bear pepper spray from its holster, the can we had debated paying $50 for just days before. He pulled the safety tab out ready. I cowed behind him.
I’m so grateful we never had to dispense the noxious mace. For one thing, a strong wind was blowing in our direction so we would have probably blinded ourselves! And for another, by the bear choosing to have a change of heart and divert off of the trail instead of confronting us, he kept himself safe. Not that we could have defeated him, but National Park policy often dictates that ‘troublesome’ bears – those deemed a threat to humans – are killed. So we both happily got to live another day! We watched as he leisurely passed us further down the slope, eventually stopping to inspect some fallen timber, to no doubt on the hunt for food.
I spent the remainder of the descent along the gushing Baring Creeks constantly looking over my shoulder, rattled. I didn’t dare get any food out. But wow! What an encounter. My respect for nature increases every day.
We hiked the Siyeh Pass Trail from Siyeh Bend, ending at Sunset Gorge. The trail is just over 10 miles long and gains 2240 feet. There is a further option to extend the hike up to Piegan Pass and view Piegan glacier, but you will have to back-track from the pass to re-join this circuit.
Tucked 10 miles into Rock Creek Canyon lies Little Lakes trailhead and my favourite hike in the Sierra. So far at least. From the very beginning of the 7.5-mile walk, the rewards felt endless.
The trail departs from a peaceful campground sat beside the babbling creek and slowly ascends 994 feet through the valley. As it does a handful of alpine lakes appear, happily nestled below rapidly melting snow-capped peaks.
The path that eventually ends at Gem Lake isn’t overly difficult and contains all the drama and beauty you could possibly want from a hike in the Sierra.
For some, the path to a closer Lake such as Long or Chicken Foot is enough. We pass by the odd angler peacefully fishing in crystal-clear waters. And here lies the charm of this trail – you don’t have to make it to the end to feel rewarded. You could spend 4 hours hiking all the way to Gem Lake like we did, or find yourselves happily lost in the views almost anywhere in between.
Not that you will get lost – very little navigation is required. The trailhead contained a map detailing the various lakes and 2 passes further along different splinter trails. Some brave people trek all the way to Mono Lake more than 50 miles north, but for those with little time to spare, this trail is still well worth the drive.
A frigidly cold breeze sometimes whipped us as we rambled the rocky path, hopping across stone water crossings. Yet at this elevation, the sun certainly left its mark. Bring mosquito spray, and even better – if you have the time – pack a tent and s’mores to spend the night under the endless sky. Happy trails.
Road-tripping Colorado last September our entire journey centred around completing the Four Pass Loop trail. Situated close to Aspen in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, I first learnt about the hike from an Instagram photo. The image of an impossibly steep mountain pass covered in wildflowers caught my imagination. Eager to find out more, I searched YouTube where after a few hours my excitement had been fuelled by the epic mountain scenery and numerous ‘awesome’ references. I knew the hike would be challenging – twenty-eight miles of rocky terrain, ascending four 12,000-foot passes, at an altitude we were not acclimatised to – but since our PCT hike ended the previous year I longed for adventure. After convincing a reluctant husband that sleeping outdoors wouldn’t be too bad, we packed the camp set-up we vowed never to use again for 3 days in the wild. Continue reading Colorado’s [not quite] Four Pass Loop Trail
In my previous post, I outlined my child-like desire to visit America’s first National Park and introduced the 3-week trip that finally made my dream a reality. After years of sitting on the bucket list, we finally witnessed Yellowstone’s geological wonderland in September of 2015. It didn’t disappoint. The place has it all: Mountains, geysers, canyons, waterfalls, animals, hikes… tick, tick, tick. With merely a week and an SUV, we attempted to cover as many park highlights as possible before travelling south to the Grand Tetons en route to Salt Lake City. Here’s a flavour of our days and some tips I’ve taken away. Continue reading A week in Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons
I first became captivated by Yellowstone watching a BBC documentary. It charted the dramatic seasonal changes to the park’s ecosystem, including majestic elk migrations, hibernating bears, and the ever-changing foliage. Animals fought the harsh perils of winter. Not all survived. The geothermal landscape struck me as hostile and wild. With a land mass larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and sitting on top of a super-volcano thought powerful enough to cover the continental US in ash, Yellowstone sky-rocketed to the top of my bucket list. But America’s first National Park is not the most convenient place to reach from the UK, so we put it on hold until we had the time to take a big trip.
Our chance finally arrived in September 2015. In-between jobs we took 21 days to explore a chunk of the wild west, flying into the mountain town of Bozeman Montana via Denver.
Our plan was long but simple. Hiring a car and beginning with Yellowstone, our route to Vegas would transport us south through 5 National Parks, 3 State Parks, and a National Monument. It would span 4 states – technically 5 but I’m not counting Idaho’s 44 miles – with most of the driving distance concentrated in Utah. We would stick to the scenic, off-beat roads wherever possible, aiming to avoid the dreaded interstates at all costs. Thanks to the ever-changing scenery and epic natural wonders dotted along almost the entirety of the drive, I can truly say this trip was the most memorable, completely awesome of all time. I only wish we had longer. I thought I’d share our itinerary along with some highlights for anyone hoping to visit this part of the US.
The High-level Itinerary
Rough Driving Route
Bozeman to Gardiner – Yellowstone North Entrance
I-90 & US–89
Yellowstone N. Park
Mainly Grand Loop Rd
Grand Teton N. Park
US-20, US–191/ US–287, Teton Park Rd
Jackson, WY [via Mormon Row]
Teton Park Rd, Moose Wilson Rd, US-26, Antelope Flats Rd, Mormon Row, Gros Ventre Rd
Canyoneering trip to Red Canyon with Zion Mountain School
A parting word of advice: A week before our trip commenced I was glancing over the Yellowstone N.P website and discovered – to my horror – that a section of the grand loop road (the only road through the park) would be closed for construction works during our visit. This changed some of our plans and might be the reason why our route looks a little disjointed. I would recommend checking out this kind of information on the park’s website long in advance – ops!
I hope to write some separate posts containing more details once I get around to sorting out the hundreds of photos!
The first time we tried hiking the famous Kalalau Trail it didn’t happen. It was 2012, and having woken before sunrise to get a parking spot at the trailhead, a string of yellow police ‘warning’ tape – the kind you see in CSI – completely sealed off the trail. How can a trail in sunny Hawaii be closed? While loitering around trying to figure this out a ranger arrived. His explanation seemed even more bizarre. Apparently a ‘fugitive’ was on the run, having pushed a tourist from the cliffs the day before. I shuddered at the horror of it, but still couldn’t help feeling utterly disappointed. The trail would remain closed for the foreseeable future. Hike aborted, we left to cheer ourselves up with a cooked breakfast.
We had travelled a long way to hike the trail. Stretching 11-miles along the breath-taking Na Pail coastline of Northern Kauai, the Kalalau Trail regularly features in lists of the worlds ‘greatest’ hikes. The reason for it’s fame is simple – the scenery is sublime. A certain degree of ‘exclusivity’ also adds to its allure, with land access to the fluted coastline only possible by foot. The trail promises to transport hikers into landscape preserving the very essence of Aloha. Carving a path along towering Pali – sea cliffs – high above the turquoise ocean, it traverses 5 lush valleys, crossing streams and passing waterfalls, to reach a secluded beach.
Na Pali coastline from the air
Using the excuse of needing R&R after our PCT hike, we returned to Kauai 4 years later. With our camping gear in tow, and considering ourselves now super fit, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attempt the hike once more. On setting out we even half-wondered whether we might complete the entire out-and-back hike in a single day…
It’s 6:30am and we’re ready. Parking space secured at the now familiar Ke’e Beach trailhead, I’m feeling eager to clock off some miles before the sun heats up. We join the trail passing multiple signs warning of potential dangers, such as flash flooding. The initial climb along a cobbled path is significantly slowed due to thick, slippery mud following overnight rain.
The first couple of miles form a popular day hike. As such we are regularly overtaken by people not heaving huge backpacks, and some remarkably wearing flip-flops. I try not to let that bother me, instead stealing glimpses of distant coastal views whenever the thick foliage allows. At Hanakapai’ai, most people either turn around after visiting the small cove beach, or take a 2-mile trail inland to view the falls. We continue, crossing the stream by hopping over rocks, fortunate that the water is low. Apparently some people haven’t been so lucky, with danger signs warning of deaths caused by flash flooding and strong currents. There is a key message: don’t go near the water if levels are high.
Once past Hanakapai’ai the trail instantly feels remote. Our miles slow down even further, travelling along narrow switchbacks that climb 800 feet through dense tropical vegetation. We find ourselves sweating buckets in the humid conditions. The views are not as expansive, but bright colours of vivid green flora and fauna, contrast against the red clay soil. I also notice the strong smell of sweet fruit. We see wild guavas and passionfruit, many of which lay rotting on the ground. The trail doesn’t level out. We climb up and down into deep, narrow valleys, until 4 miles later we reach the forth valley: Hanakoa.
Hanokoa is the first of just 2 permitted campsites. It’s rustic. Spread over old agricultural terraces, the site contains two sheltered picnic tables, a compositing toilet cubical, and an emergency helicopter landing pad. Seeing the grassy helipad I can’t help but hope we keep it together. Sadly the camp has no beach access as it’s located on top of a hanging valley on the edge of a stream. We long for a break at this point, but a small group of hunters – complete with scary-looking crossbows – seem to have taken over the camp. Most likely out hunting wild boar (at least I hope that’s what they’re doing), we smile but they don’t reciprocate. In fact I get pretty negative vibes from them, so feeling a bit vulnerable in such isolation we swiftly move on.
The next 5 miles are more exposed, offering little shade from the midday sun. On exiting the valley onto drier terrain, panoramic views of cliffs rippling along the sparkling ocean appear. The views are everything. I keep stopping to take it all in, fearing I’ll slip on the vertigo-inducing trail if I lose my focus. This is not a hike for the faint-hearted. Erosion between miles 7 and 8 are perhaps the sketchiest, with crumbling drop-offs such as those at Crawler’s Ledge definitely requiring concentration, nerve and single-file traffic.
The trail begins to ease up on us for the final 2 miles as we lose elevation heading towards sea-level. Reaching the Kalalau Valley, we ford the fast-running stream, and spot ruins of early Hawaiian settlements hidden amongst the trees.
The sight of tents dotted underneath a shaded grove, provides sign that we’ve made it. Just a few minutes further and a long, deep beach of fine white sand appears. We watch as the cool sea invitingly laps against the shore. But first things first – we need to establish camp. Somehow – and I have no idea how – the last 11 miles have taken us 9 hours, with minimal breaks. We feel exhilarated to have finally made our destination, but ridiculously tired. It’s been hard work! On closer inspection, the premium camping spots – those located just behind the beach with a degree of shelter from the wind – are already taken. We haven’t seen many fellow hikers during the day, so it’s surprising to see around 30 people. Perhaps they’re on a multi-night break, or it’s possible they arrived by [prohibited] boats. We check out the waterfall nestled in the steep valley walls, but are too lazy to walk all the way to the end of the beach to investigate a series of caves. We finish the day with a dip in the sea, where we’re rewarded by a beautiful rainbow right before a dramatic Hawaiian sunset.
We pack up camp and make the return hike early the next morning. We make slightly better time because it keeps raining on us. The warm, tropical showers mean the camera comes out far less frequently, and the air is thick with humidity. By the time we reach Hanakapai’ai, many people are enjoying the beach and in the sea, despite warning signs of hazardous rip currents. Once again, we share the trail from that point. Just after lunchtime we emerge at the trailhead, exhausted and covered in mud. We hose off the worst of it at Ke’e beach showers, attracting strange looks from the beachgoers. I am so happy to finally fall into the car seat. I’m not going to lie – the hike was TOUGH! Much tougher than we had anticipated, but WOW.
I’d love to return to the trial. But if I were to do it again, I would plan on spending at least an extra night to enjoy a rest day on Kalalau beach. That would offer the opportunity to explore further the Kalalau Valley, and maybe even hike the spur trail to Hanakapai’ai falls. I would not recommend attempting to do the 22-mile round trip in a single day – who would even dream of such a crazy thing 🙂 As always, the pictures don’t go anywhere near capturing the stunning views. Hawaii, and Kauai in particular continues to capture my heart.
Some Trail Information
Permits are required to hike past Hanakapai’ai. They are limited in numbers, and cost us 20 USD per person. Apparently they sellout months in advance, so book here.
Water: There is no tapped water along the trail, but plenty of opportunities to fill up from fresh streams. It’s recommended that you treat it though, so pack a filter or purification tablets. We used the Sawyer Squeeze.
When to go: The trail is most advisable during summer (May-October), due to less predictable winter weather. It doesn’t rule out a winter hike, but check weather forecasts before you set out – spontaneous, heavy rainfall can be dangerous, with its ability to turn streams into raging rivers within minutes.
What to bring: I recommend using hiking poles for stability on the uneven terrain. Also pack: bug spray; waterproofs (at least to keep your gear dry); shelter (tent or hammock); hat (for sun protection); water filter; head torch (if you want to see at night).
We unexpectedly arrived in Yosemite in complete darkness after a monster drive from Vegas. What should have taken 6-hours in our shiny red convertible, ended up more than double that – pulling up at our motel in pieces at 1:30am! We learnt a key lesson that day: Always check ahead with US Highways Department for road closures. Our intended route into the park through the west entrance was still closed in late May due to snow. We only discovered that key information mid-afternoon once at Mono Lake. The diversion? Well the Sierras are not overly navigable in snow, so we had no choice but to head hours north, up nearly as far as Lake Tahoe, circling far beyond the park’s borders to get west. Having left Vegas that morning in t-shirts and sunglasses, our surroundings changed dramatically, and taking it in turns behind the wheel we completed the journey with windows open in the frigid night air, filled with gas station coffees fighting to stay awake. It wasn’t a good start.
I knew that two days in Yosemite wouldn’t do the park justice; an area roughly the size of the US state of Rhode Island! It was to be a whirl-wind tour, and hopefully a place we could return to in the future to discover the back-country trails. Due to the weather conditions of prevailing snow, the northern Tuolumne Meadows section of the park was off-limits, accessed by the main Tioga Road (Highway-120). We therefore decided to split our two brief days accordingly.
Day 1: Yosemite Valley Highlights
Due to the cost of staying in the park over-night we based ourselves at Yosemite View Lodge, a simple but adequate motel a couple of miles outside the eastern Arch Rock entrance. From there it was a slow, windy drive into the main valley area, passing through the famous narrow passageway that gives the entrance station its name…
Yosemite valley is renowned for spectacular waterfalls, dramatic rock formations, and crowds of people! In late May, due to rapidly melting snow, the waterfalls really were in their full glory. If only I had been more skilful/ patient with the camera I could have perhaps captured their ethereal quality better. Only a short (and accessible) half a mile wander from a car park, took us to Bridalveil Fall. One of the most-viewed of Yosemite’s wonders, the fall plunges 620-feet, famously wafting a mist in the breeze that resembles a bridal veil.
Given to the ever-increasing number of visitors to Yosemite, the main road through the valley is one-way. Slowly making our way along it headed west, we were struck with the monolith El Capitan granite peak, which looms prominently into the valley. A world-renowned hot-spot for rock-climbers, we peered up bewildered at the very idea that people could climb such a vertical rock-face.
At the Happy Isles trailhead we joined the Mist trail – Yosemite’s signature hike. Our intention was to make the 2.4-mile round trip to the top of Vernal Fall, and then if feeling fit, continue onto Nevada Fall (5.4-mile round trip), OR even take the intersecting John Muir trail back to the trailhead to make a 6.5-mile loop. This did not pan out. I blame the crowds. But the constant up-hill climb up the ever-increasingly slippery trail didn’t help! What we covered of the Mist trail did offer spectacular, up-close views of Vernal Fall, following along the scenic Merced River. Most people turned around after reaching the footbridge 0.8 miles in. Probably a good move because that was a great ‘photo point’. But we didn’t take much pause, eager to reach the top.
The trail soon became a steep granite stairway, with little to no place to hold on, and living up to its name, spraying us with a fine – but very wet – mist. After a slow couple of hundred feet past the footbridge I chickened out (lame I know), and retreated. I was feeling uneasy with the slow, precarious footing, with people squeezing past. I didn’t know this at the time, but according to the Park’s website, more people die on the Mist trail than anywhere else in Yosemite. Statistically this is probably something to do with it being so well-trafficked, but ultimately the deaths were due to the often deceptively strong currents. Less than two months after we walked that very trail three people in their twenties fell to their deaths together in the cascade of Vernal Fall. The group had disregarded safety fences and signs to cool off, before two slipped into the water and a third tried to save them.
Feeling hungry we headed to Yosemite Village, where a group of deer were roaming the parking lot. The place is not exactly what I would call a ‘village’; the site is home to the park’s headquarters/ visitor centre, residences for park workers, a post office and a few concessions. After a deli sandwich lunch, we gave the exhibits in the visitor centre a quick browse, then watched the short Spirit of Yosemite film in the auditorium. It proved a good introduction to the park, and more importantly, a nice little post-lunch rest stop.
Completing our tour of the village, we popped into The Ansel Adams Gallery to look at the collection of photographs – old and modern, then headed across the street to Yosemite Cemetery. Home to the Pioneer graves that were originally scattered across the Yosemite Valley before the national park was formed in 1864, Native Americans – including a tombstone that simply read’s “A Boy” – and more recent park visitors and dignitaries. Cemeteries hold a certain morbid curiosity for me. I always wonder what the lives of those whose remains rest there held. Good or bad, they certainly ended their time in a tranquil, natural place.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached Yosemite Falls, one of the world’s tallest cascades. The falls are made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet). Short of time, we took the 1-mile loop trail that took us to the base of the lower fall. The ‘strenuous’ all-day hike to the top would have to wait for another trip!
We ended our visit to the park that day with a drink in the Ahwahnee Hotel (now renamed The Majestic). The grand, historical hotel is famous for providing interior inspiration for the sets of the fictional Overlook Hotel in the horror film The Shining. The giant Grand Hall fireplace and huge tree-truck vaulted ceiling definitely felt familiar! Having spent a decent amount of the evening (after a few drinks) posing for predictable tourist photos around the place the unthinkable happened… we lost the camera! Many of our Yosemite shots were therefore never seen again, including all those from that evening in the hotel. It wasn’t an overly expensive camera – a simple point-and-shot – but the loss of so many memories is something that still kicks me today!
Day 2: Mariposa Grove
The next day we were destined for the Park’s southern borders. According to Google Maps this was a simple 1 hour-15 minute drive into the valley, before turning south along the Wawona Road. In reality it was a painfully slow drive that involved lots of single-track sections where construction workers patched up the winter-beaten road. Over 2-hours later we arrived in the parking lot of Mariposa Grove, and instantly felt like we had left the sun in the valley behind us!
The Grove is home to about 500 mature giant sequoia trees, which by total volume are the largest known living things on earth! The parking lot was much less busy than those in the valley, but with a handful of families – and carrying very little by way of supplies – we hit the shaded Lower Grove trail.
As the trail slowly progressed in elevation, the number of fellow visitors dwindled, to the point that Conrad and I found ourselves completely alone. Aside from the truly monstrous trees – including ‘Grizzly Giant’ – the thing that struck us was the ever-increasing amount of snow! By the time we reached the [closed] museum 2 miles and 1000 feet in, the air was biting. We sat on a wooden fence (because the picnic tables were buried under snow) and ate some crisps and Pop Tarts in eery silence.
We continued uphill towards the Wawona Point Vista, which I think we got to, but am not certain due to the amount of snow on the ground. Regardless, the trail got steeper as we switch-backed our way upward and I couldn’t help but feel very alone. I was on high-alert for any sounds that could possibly have indicated bears! Yosemite is famous for its Black Bear population, thought to be around 300-500 strong. Signs throughout the park warn campers and hikers to be vigilant with food and disposing of rubbish safely, but sadly people can be stupid and not follow rules. This can led to bears becoming conditioned to associate humans with food. When this happens and the bears get a little too ‘friendly’, rangers have no choice but to follow protocol and kill the animal for public safety. So hiking that day, we made sure to take all rubbish with us, and kept talking so we didn’t startle any animals going about their business. We didn’t see a single bear in Yosemite, but from our other [limited] experiences so far we have found black bears to be curious but skittish.
I came away from Yosemite wanting more time. It is spectacular, and despite a few closures, we felt lucky to visit during the less busy season. Yosemite is notorious for being the most frequented park in the Summer months, and I prefer to enjoy nature with minimal reminders of humanity.