Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Rockies are Amazing

From South Dakota we headed to Estes Park, CO with the intent of driving through Rocky Mountain Park again, for no reason other than it is awesome. I confess there may be a bit of bias there, but it is for good reason.

On our last visit, the trail ridge road was closed at the alpine visitor's center and there was at least 15 feet of packed snow. This year, you can tell that the total is somewhat different. The two visits were about 3 weeks apart in terms of time of year so I'm certain that made a significant difference. This meant we could drive the entire road.

It's so lovely. Jim was happy to see elk and reminisce about when we stayed here two years ago and he went running through a giant herd of elk on the way back to our campsite.

I was happy to drool over the gorgeousness of it all and end up in a lengthy facebook discussion with a cousin who is convinced Utah has better mountains. Utah may have better snow and more accessible skiing (I'll give him that), but there is not a chance the mountains are more picturesque than those in Colorado.

After crashing for the night and taking a real shower (sweet, blessed joy) we drove the park and headed to Denver where we visited my Grandparents and a dear cousin. After talking way. too. late. into the night/morning we crashed for a few hours and then made our way back to Utah to reunite with our kids.

By the time we arrived I was about to swear off car trips for a while. Then cute smiles and happy hugs replenished my zest for life and made me feel like I could endure the trip home in a couple days.

Colorado antelope count: 14

Saturday, June 29, 2013

On the Road Again

About this time I started getting tired of being in the car. It's a good thing I was still excited about life and this particular journey. We left early, which is really easy to do when the sun wakes you up around 5:15 in the morning, and headed to Mt. Rushmore. There are so many conflicting opinions about Mt. Rushmore that again, I didn't know what to expect.

It didn't matter, I thought it was awesome.

I'm not too sure what to say. I really liked reading about why each President was chosen and seeing all the state flags. It's a pretty incredible piece of art though we didn't go to see Crazy Horse which I've heard described as more impressive.

One day we'll bring the girls here. Hopefully the annual stability crews are able to keep the rock from crumbling before that happens.

From there we headed to Wind Cave National Park. Jim and I have been through a few caves on this National Park journey and this one was completely unlike any of them. For one, it was really dry inside. Second, there were no typical stalactite/stalagmite formations in the caverns we saw. What there is instead is something called boxwork, which is prolific and not found in any similar extent in any other cave. It was nice to see something different.

We took two tours through the cave. The first was an hour and a half, and the second was an hour. They covered different parts of the cave but the first was our favorite of the two. The guide was more knowledgeable, we saw a greater variety, and everything still felt new. Our favorite detail about this is the way we've clearly adapted to Oregon weather. Up front we were told that the cave is consistently 53 degrees and we should wear a sweatshirt or jacket to stay comfortable. Even without one, I thought it was the most ideal temperature ever and was completely comfortable for the entire 2.5 hours.

The little hole at the bottom left of this picture is the natural entrance to the cave and one story says this is how the cave was discovered. Air pressure differences between inside and outside the cave create an air current of up to 70 mph in either direction (based on relative pressures) and supposedly blew the hat off a cowboy who rode by and looked into the hole to see what was up.

South Dakota also exceeded my expectations. It was lovely, but hot, and we were happy to get on the road with our cooler of drinks and air conditioning.

South Dakota antelope count: 19

Friday, June 28, 2013

Heading South

After some time in North Dakota, we headed on to our next destination. If you spend any time at all driving this part of the country, billboards for Wall Drug in Wall, SC will be permanently burned into your retinas and you will find yourself compelled to go see the free ice water tourist trap in person. Hey, if you're a newlywed you get free donuts and coffee too! We aren't, so we bought ice cream. The best (unrelated) billboard I saw on the trip was not captured in pictures... unfortunately. It was old and faded and said simply:

Love Animals? 
Hunting and Trapping Keep 
Animal Populations in Check

Coming from the sustainability and living-things-rights capital of the US (at least that's how I perceive Oregon to be) this was a really humorous ad. It kept me laughing for way longer than it was meant to.

We went slightly out of our way to travel on the Enchanted Highway on our way out of North Dakota and I have to say it was pretty awesome; a bunch of random metalwork in the middle of farmland.

It was nice to get out of the car now and again too. We missed a couple of the sculptures but the ones we saw were entertaining enough! I think my favorite is the fish scene. I should have had Jim stand in the pictures because it's almost impossible to realize how large they really are.

We kept going until we reached the Badlands. Jim's Grandpa had said "it's all baaad land around there" so I'd prepared myself for something desolate and miserable, then realized that as a National Park there were bound to be redeeming qualities.

It was a hot day when we got there, and neither of us could walk. For me, a side effect of wearing inappropriate footwear at Devil's Tower, and for Jim, still a result of running a half marathon that lost nearly 1800 feet of elevation only days before. We were a pretty pathetic site as we stopped at the first overlook and were both parched and unable to maneuver down the steps.

We didn't find it as charming as Theodore Roosevelt, but it's pretty in it's own right. I had heard it compared to Bryce Canyon, just without the colors, and I respectfully disagree.

We saw more wildlife in this park than any other on our journey. These mountain goats were not afraid of people at all and actually crossed the road straight toward me as I was standing there taking pictures. Fortunately I do not suffer from Disney-syndrome where wildlife is concerned and I got out of the way without determining exactly how badly I'd have to annoy them in order for them to charge at me full speed.

We had discussed and lamented the loss of herd animals, or at least the apparent loss of herds of herd animals. Counting antelope really made us think of it because we so frequently saw them isolated or in groups of two or three. Being in Badlands we saw large herds of animals much more like what we expected. It's a shame that it's only that way because Bison (among other species) were protected and reintroduced to the park and that the herds don't thrive the same way in unprotected lands.

We also saw a pair of wild turkeys but didn't get a picture. Lest you doubt it by the lack of photographic evidence, prairie dogs were all over the place here too. I'm pretty sure I stared all agog at those cute little buggers for much of the drive through the park.

Ok, this is where is gets good. I really didn't see what all the fuss was about and why this was a National Park. I mean, the park is completely unrestricted and hiking is permitted literally anywhere you want. The lack of rules here was really surprising and in part made it feel less special or delicate. The colors were really pretty, however.

What I love most is that technically this isn't rock, it's a paleosol - or fossilized soil (I told you it got good!). Now, I made my geology students memorize soil profiles and paleosols are one of the things they were expected to know, but I had not to my knowledge ever seen one outside of a textbook. I don't think I would have recognized it without the informational signs pointing out what I was looking at. The colors are the result of different elements added to the soil as vegetation decomposed. Pretty interesting stuff.

I look at this picture and am surprised, because in my mind I don't remember it being this green. We did take a short hike since we try to do something at every park and not just snap a photo and call it good.

I had to document the campsite because it is the saddest campsite we've had in a National Park. No fire rings (grasslands are flammable), no space between neighbors (like a new housing development), and absolutely zero privacy; but they did have pay showers available and we were insanely grateful for the shaded picnic table that we never actually used.

The ranger program was entertaining in that this ranger had a sarcastic almost apathetic tone to nearly everything she said, which just made it all really funny. The sky was cloudy so despite being about as far from light pollution as humans can possibly go in this country, we did not have the opportunity to see the stars. Perhaps one day the stars will align and we'll get to participate in the Park Service "Half the Park is After Dark" astronomy programs as we keep hoping.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Teddy Roosevelt Nat'l Park

...Far surpassed our expectations. After leaving Devil's Tower, we began the drive to North Dakota to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It's safe to say that I was pleasantly surprised by North Dakota. I guess I expected that whole region to be similar to most of Wyoming... which is not my favorite. I blame that on too many winter snowstorms stuck on  I-80, but really, isn't one too many? Instead it was much more green and filled with National Grasslands.

There were huge boulders called cannonball concretions laying loose on the ground. The one below was the largest we saw. Concretions typically form when minerals precipitate from rock and glue sediment together different from the surrounding rock.

You can see how these form in the bedrock and then are released as the surrounding rock weathers. It's pretty cool. Even Jim thought so and he's not a geo-nerd so you know they must be interesting.

The valleys were so pretty. The amount of green in the park was really surprising.

There was a mellow charm to the area. This was my favorite lookout point.

This little bird was singing up a storm, perfectly happy perched atop the overlook.

It took a moment, but Jim found the source of the bird-song.

One of my favorite things about this park was the prevalence of wild horses, not to be confused with Wyld Stallyns. We were driving along the main park road when tourists on the roadside urged us with fervor to slow down. We figured it was going to be another bison crossing the road but instead it was a couple stallions in the midst of a dispute.

Evidently, the dark stallion from the picture below had approached and harassed the mares in the picture above. The light colored stallion came to the aid of the ladies and chased him off, kicking him when necessary. We just saw the end of the exchange, but it was rather heated. The white stallion stood and stared as the dark colored stallion walked away into the distance. He stood just like that until the other horse was far, far away and seemed to pose no additional threat. It is always amazing to see a glimpse of the social dynamics of wild animals. I wonder what the exchange was like for the photographer sitting in the middle of the herd.

We kept driving and found yet more horses. The guy below and a couple friends who we saw together on multiple occasions. I affectionately referred to them as the frat boys.

There were of course bison, who did occasionally cross the street and stop traffic. Seriously, I never want to see one of these guys angry unless I'm watching it on YouTube in the comfort of my own home.

Next to the horses, the other great animal discovery of this area was the prairie dogs. Having never been to this part of the country, they were a great surprise to me. The sheer numbers of them and the expanse of their colonies was quite surprising.  They were all over the place and really quite adorable to watch.

This park was not filled with a lot of bells and whistles, but had a pleasant serenity that I found quite refreshing. We enjoyed it immensely and feel it was our favorite (new) park of this trip.

North Dakota antelope count: 4

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Summertime is Here Again

Which means we take off into the unknown and do something splendid. This year that began with a drive to the parent's home in Utah to collect our Ellie-girl and then drop the kids off for a time to alternate between grandparents' homes. The couple days before we took off on an adults-only adventure were fairly significant, even though I haven't many pictures to prove it. You'll just have to trust me.

It all started with ice cream:

Not just any ice cream, but SubZero ice cream frozen by liquid nitrogen. Neat idea, but somewhat lacking in flavor since it's all made from a powdered ice cream base and tastes about as good as that. The experience was fun, and it was a precursor to a necessary family conversation, but we'll get to that later.

That Saturday was the American Fork Canyon half marathon which we were registered to run with my in-laws. I had been really excited for the race until about a month prior.

The girls were able to make signs to cheer on family members and stand near the finish to cheer people on.

Ellie ran the last 0.2 mile with her dad. She was crazy excited to see him and it took but moments for her to take off and grab his hand.

The girls were really filled with anticipation and a decent degree of patience as they watched for Grandma to finish.

Jim finished around 1:41 and Jim's dad did really well, finishing under 2:00. Me? I seriously rocked the Casbah. Check it out below!! New PR 1:45:19!!! That's like an entire hour improvement for me!

Just kidding!

I ended up giving my spot to a cousin so I guess *technically* I don't get to claim the time. It was a 20 minute improvement over her PR though so I don't really want to take that joy away from her anyway. As for why I didn't run, as we had Ellie tell Grandma Debbi the night before, it was because her daddy knocked me up. We told the girls at the park over ice cream and then had them each make one of the announcements to the grandparents. Suffice it to say no one was disappointed that I chose to not run the half.

Saturday afternoon we took off for the hills on our grown up road trip. The first stop was Jim's grandparents in Idaho then we drove through the Grand Teton's on our way to Devil's Tower in Wyoming. We went to the Teton's last summer but didn't take a single picture of the mountains so this route was chosen specifically to mend that error.

I feel better knowing that you are now looking at the above picture and not just assuming I'm getting fat... even if I still feel that way sometimes.

Devils Tower is a sacred sight to the Lakota Indians and at several places around the tower there were trees tied with these cloth prayer bundles. It was pretty neat to see even though I do not understand the true significance of them.

The tower was pretty neat. I loved all the columnar jointing and found it really fascinating. Geology rocks.

There are two trails around the tower and we traversed both of them. The longer trail actually took us out of sight of the tower for quite a while and was very different than I expected but took us through several of these hilly fields. I really enjoyed it, even if hiking in my five fingers meant that I was on my toes the whole time and had insanely sore calves for the next 2-3 days.

We camped at the KOA adjacent to the park and had an amazing view of the tower from our tent door and a spacious grassy lot to camp on. It was pleasantly surprising and definitely worth the visit. When we left Idaho, Jim's grandpa jokingly challenged us to count the antelope and we made it our mission to do just that. Wyoming's total: 241.

Monday, June 10, 2013

School's Out!

Aeryn is officially done with 4th grade.

She brought a friend home from school so they can play before everyone's lives get insane for the summer. And yes, those are lollipops sticking out of their mouths so precariously. So far the afternoon has brought hearing Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen songs over, and over, and over again while girly laughter escapes from the bedroom door. 

I'm so ready for summer to begin, and yet so not ready at the same time. Fortunately, we've got some fun things to look forward to, including summer 5th grade prep homework! Mwahahaha. As much as I love getting a break from homework battles, I am one of those mean moms who makes the kids do homework in the summer so they can return to school in the fall as moderately intelligent human beings instead of having forgotten everything they slaved over for months.