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Desert Convoy – Cabo de la Vela, Guajira Peninsula, Colombia

We were warned about the epic heat in the coastal deserts of the Guajira Peninsula heading to Cabo de la Vela and the most northerly point in all of South America. However, we couldn’t resist the pull of the ocean, (mostly) deserted beaches and the distinct culture of the local Wayuu people. Egged on by George and Teresa, whom we were traveling with after having successfully shared the cost and hassle of shipping our trucks together from Panama to Colombia, our two truck desert convoy headed northeast from Minca. Our journey included a slight wrong turn, destructively bad roads and wandering through criss-crossing desert tracks at night. In return we got beach camping, kiteboarding and the biggest grasshoppers we’ve ever seen.

Driving to Cabo de la Vela - Guajira, Colombia

Our desert convoy navigating tracks through the sand near Cabo de la Vela on the Guajira Peninsula in Colombia.

Getting to the Guajira

We left Minca and drove 112 miles (181 km) to the small city of Riohacha. From there it’s another 110 miles (180 km) to Cabo de la Vela but our Garmin GPS told us there was a shorter route that followed the coast. We went for it only to have the “road” peter out near the outskirts of Riohacha, forcing us to backtrack to the highway.

We were heading toward the border with Venezuela and the closer we got the harder it was to find gas stations that actually had fuel. Instead, contraband fuel is sold by people on the side of the road who happily fill your tank with gas or diesel from large drums filtered through dirty t-shits into funnels. It’s real fuel and it’s a steal. We didn’t fully trust the quality of the roadside fuel so we finally found a station with fuel and got diesel for 6,500 COP which was at least 50 cents cheaper per gallon than in stations further away from the border.

Buying Venezuela gas in Colombia

George takes advantage of cheap roadside gas, contraband from nearby Venezuela, to fill his truck Vida (aka Taco) as we travel to Cabo de la Vela.

We continued west then north to Uribia and the highway began a slow deterioration, getting worse the further north we drove. It finally became a “maintained” dusty dirt highway that seemed to be in place mainly for vehicles servicing a rail line built to transport coal through the region.

Finally we saw a sign that said “Cabo de la Vela 17 km”.  However, by the time we reached the sign and the turn off toward the coast and the village of Cabo de la Vela it was getting dark. Worse, the turn off wasn’t really a road at all.

As the sun continued its inevitable setting, the four of us were faced with a criss-cross of rough tracks through the desert. It looked like a herd of drunk camels had recently stumbled home through the sand, leaving confounding and conflicting trails behind them. Which one would take us to Cabo was anyone’s guess. So we did what any reasonable overlanders would do: we turned to technology.

Road to Cabo de la Vela - Guajira, Colombia

There are goats in the Guajira. Lots and lots of goats…

Our paper maps were all but useless because they had little or no information for the area and we were miles away from cellular service so Google Maps was of no use either. However, George had an app on his phone called Maps with Me. We’d never heard of it but he explained how it uses previously downloadable open-source country map and works well even without a cell or internet signal.

Though the “track” to Cabo de la Vela wasn’t exactly on the map, George was able to use the Maps with Me app and his GPS to guide us in the general direction of the village.  Still, it took more than an hour to navigate the 10 miles (17 km) to Cabo and by the time we arrived it was well and truly dark and we were well and truly fans of Maps with Me which we’ve used ever since (thanks, George!).

Beach camping in Cabo de la Vela-Guajira, Colombia

Home sweaty home…our two beach shelters in Cabo de la Vela.

We found the local owner of a string of empty, simple, three-sided beach huts and arranged to rent two of them (US$4 each per night, showers in a nearby bathroom were about US$1 and hammocks were available for an additional cost). We used one shelter as a camp kitchen for the four of us to share and we set our tent up in the other one. George and Teresa sleep in the pop up tent on top of their truck, so they were set. We parked our trucks next to our selected huts, set up camp in the dark and fell into bed already sandy and wind-blown.

Camping in Cabo de la Vela - Guajira, Colombia

Our truck parked next to George and Teresa’s at our beach camp site in Cabo de la Vela.

Beach camping in Cabo de la Vela

At day break we got our first good look at our new temporary home. The fishing village of Cabo de la Vela used to consist of little more than a few beat up fishing boats, fences made from cactus, skinny dogs, herds of free range goats and a collection of traditional huts scattered among the desert beach scrub. All that still exists, but a recent attempt to attract more tourists has seen the construction of an optimistic number of simple guest houses (US$4 to US$16 per night) and basic restaurants and even a kiteboarding business (more on that later).

The beach road in Cabo de la Vela

Despite the presence of power poles and lines electricity was still being made using generators when we were in Cabo de la Vela.

Despite the presence of massive concrete electrical line poles all along the sandy main street, power in Cabo is supplied by generators and most business turn them off at night. If you want the fan in your guesthouse room to work all night (and you do), be sure confirm the generator hours before you choose a room.

Fishermen Cabo de la Vela Guajira Colombia

Fishing is a crucial way of life for the Wayuu people who somehow survive in the harsh conditions of the Guajira.

All in all, Cabo is still a kind of Mad Max set by the sea, all wind, heat, sand, monochrome colors and goats. Lots of goats, which are raised by the local autonomous indigenous group called the Wayuu. Why goats? Because nothing else can live in such a harsh environment. The place is like a tumbleweed factory with even more wild west flavor thanks to its proximity to the Venezuelan border.

Fishing boat in in Cabo de la Vela, Colombia

Fishing boat (and pelican) at rest.

Seeking shade in the Guajira

Now, we’ve been hot before. Really hot. But there’s something about the combination of wind and sun in the Guajira that makes you feel like your brain is boiling. For most of the three days we spent beach camping in Cabo de la Vela we were busy simply trying to stay in the shade by moving our camp chairs around in our rented beach shelters whenever the sun shifted, which was often. At certain points in the day we were all crowded together in the lone shady corner like vampires at high noon.

All of us except George, that is. He was busy. Very, very busy.

Hiding in the shade Cabo de la Vela

Eric demonstrating what a Guajira heat coma looks like.

Kiteboarding in Cabo de la Vela

George is a passionate kiteboarder. So passionate that he’d been overlanding for months with not one kiteboard canopy in the back of his none-too-spacious Toyota Tacoma, but two.  He was practically beside himself with excitement at the opportunity to use his gear and in conditions that, according to George, were world-class: consistent wind, not too choppy and almost no one else in the water.

Kite boarding in Guajira, Colombia

George getting his kiteboard on and loving it.

Kiteboarding conditions in Cabo are so good that diehards from all over the world come here to kite. Recently, a kiteboarding shop and school called Kite Addict opened up in Cabo as well offering gear and instructors and everything.

George didn’t need any of that and he kited on his own for hours and hours and hours as we watched his blissed out antics from the precious shade of our three-sided beach hut facing the water.

Kite boarding Cabo de la Vela Guajira, Colombia

Consistent wind, calm seas and few people make Cabo de la Vela an emerging kiteboarding hot spot.

The ways of the Wayuu

The Guajira is the domain of the indigenous Wayuu people who have their own language, their own dress and their own customs (including women who paint their faces black). They’re a distinct and very proud and independent culture within Colombia who number more than 140,000 and have autonomy in the Guajira region. They are tough and industrious and seem to be a product of their environment. In many ways they remind us of Tibetans, but more persistent when it comes time to sell handicrafts…

Wayuu Cabo de la Vela - Guajira, Colombia

Once these Wayuu woman realized Karen wasn’t going to buy any of their handicrafts they settled in for some people watching.

It was incredible to us that anyone, even the Wayuu, could live in the harsh conditions of the Guajira where some areas get only 11 inches (300 mm) of rain per year. Lately, things have gotten even harsher thanks to ongoing drought. First, hundreds of livestock died and more recently members of the Wayuu community have begun dying as well, including at least 15 children.

The World Food Programme recently warned of more drought-related deaths in the Guajira, particularly among children. As we write this the region is experiencing clashes between local residents and government officials whom they feel are not doing enough to help the communities through the drought which has officially been blamed on El Nino but some believe may also have links to the area’s lucrative coal mines. It remains a complicated and dangerous situation which some call a humanitarian disaster.

If you travel to the Guajira, bring as much of your own water as possible.

Playa del Pilón - Guajira, Colombia

Just a bit of the natural beauty of Playa del Pilón near Cabo on the Guajira Peninsula.

Despite our best intentions, we never made it to from Cabo to Punta Gallinas, the most northerly point in South America. The heat and multiple warnings about the crappy and confusing quality of the desert tracks that pass for roads from Cabo to Punta Gallinas deterred us. The idea of hours on even worse roads (the rough journey to Cabo had already snapped off one of our PIAA lights) and being told repeatedly that we’d have to take a guide with us were the final straws. Besides, George had more kiteboarding to do…

Playa del Pilón - Guajira, Colombia

More from Playa del Pilón.

We did take a few short excursions including a drive to Playa del Pilón, a beautiful beach and viewpoint near Cabo, and El Faro a nearby lighthouse that’s a popular spot for watching sunset and checking out the biggest grasshoppers we’ve ever seen.

Giant South American grasshopper - Cabo de la Vela, Guajira, Colombia

The aptly-named giant South American grasshoppers were all over the place and averaged about six inches long.

We never made it to the Los Flamingos Nature Sanctuary near Riohacha, but saw a few scattered flamingos and many roseate spoonbills in a small pond beside the railroad tracks.

roseate spoonbills Guajira, Colombia

Roseate spoonbills near the road and rail line that runs through the Guajira Peninsula.

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Mountain Mercy – Minca, Colombia

After a few days in the sweltering beach town of Taganga and in sunny, coastal Tayrona National Park we were more than ready for a cool down. In northern Colombia, with its sweaty, slow, Caribbean heat, that means one thing: time to travel to the mountain town of Minca.

The road up to Minca, about nine miles (14 km) from Santa Marta, is narrow, winding and rough but we were undeterred in our quest to get to Finca San Souci which we originally read about the finca in this post from the folks at Life Remotely. We were not disappointed.

Minca view Los Pinos Colombia

The town of Minca, Colombia is in the Sierra Nevada mountains which means cooler temperatures and views like this.

Cool camping in Colombia

Started nearly 20 years ago by Chris, from Germany, and his Colombian wife, Finca San Souci has some basic rooms but we jumped at the chance to do some camping in Colombia and set up our tent for 10,000 COP (about US$4) per person per night including access to a clean cold water shower, two shared toilets and a very cool outdoor kitchen with running water and a fireplace.

There’s also a small swimming pool at Finca San Souci but we are delighted to say it was too cool to use it. At more than 2,000 feet (600 meters) in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Minca delivered the cool temperatures we were after.

Tip: if you’re going to camp in Minca bring groceries and supplies from Santa Marta. There are very few stores or facilities up in Minca. There are no ATMs in Minca either.

SteriPen water purification Minca Colombia

Karen, left, and Teresa (part of the duo we shipped our vehicles with from Panama to Colombia) in a battle of the SteriPENs in the outdoor kitchen at Finca San Souci in Minca.

Travel is better with friends

Another great amenity? Travel mates. Since shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia, we’d been convoying around Colombia with our awesome shipping partners, George and Teresa and “Vida”, their (mostly) trusty Toyota. They’d come up to Minca with us and as we set up our tent on the big, flat lawn they relaxed since Taco has a pop up roof tent that makes camping a breeze.

Besides cool weather, Minca is known for its coffee and its natural beauty. There are hiking trails past waterfalls and up to scenic viewpoints like Los Pinos at more than 5,500 feet (1,700 meters). Wildlife loves the region too. We saw toucans every day in the trees near our tent.

Toucans Minca Colombia

Toucans were our neighbors a we camped at Finca San Souci in Minca.

Minca was one of the most relaxing places we visited in Colombia and we still can’t figure out why there aren’t more tourists in Minca. We liked it so much that the four of us ended up staying for three days and in all that time only two other guests showed up at Finca San Souci.

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Some Parks Have it All – Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

We spent time in dozens of national parks as we traveled through the United States so we can say with some degree of expertise that all of them are amazing in their own unique ways—Yellowstone has geothermal marvels, Denali delivers epic peaks, Crater Lake shows off the power of volcanoes. Then there are national parks that have it all, like Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, which was founded on August 9, 1916 and celebrates its 97th birthday today.

Lassen Peak Helen Lake Reflection California

Lassen Peak seen from Helen Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

Within its 106,452 acre (43,080 ha) domain Lassen packs in geothermals and summits plus all four types of volcanoes. Over three days of utterly perfect temperatures we manage to explore most of this diverse park from our base in the Summit Lake North Campground.

Meadow view Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Peak seen from a bucolic meadow in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

Warming up on the Cinder Cone Trail

As a warm up before tackling 10,457 foot (3,187 meter) Lassen Peak, we decided to climb up Cinder Cone. During the drive to the trailhead we spotted a honey colored black bear a few hundred feet off the road. It was busy ripping apart dead tree trunks in search of a snack and hardly notices us as we passed by.

Brown colored California Black Bear - Lassen Volcanic National Park

This bear was hunting for food inside rotting logs near the road that leads to Cinder Cone in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

The Cinder Cone trail starts off pleasantly enough (except for the disturbing signs warning visitors about river otter attacks in the area), however, the route becomes very steep and very exposed at the base of the Cinder Cone itself.

Climbing Cinder Cone volcanic Crater - Lassen National Park, California

Karen on the Cinder Cone trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

To make matters tougher, the trail runs through deep black cinders, which makes it feel like you’re walking through sand as you inch our way up the side of the dormant cone (two steps forward, one sliding step back, etc.). As usual, the harder the walk the greater the reward and at the top Cinder Cone lies a classic deep crater with a trail right down into it and a lovely path around the rim.

Cinder Cone volcanic Crater - Lassen National Park

Reach the top of Cinder Cone trail and your hike still isn’t through. This loop trail takes you around and into the crater itself.

Cinder Cone Panorama - Lassen Volcanic National Park California

Panoramic view from the top of the Cinder Cone trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. See a larger version of this photo.

Ready for Lassen Peak?

The next morning it was time for Lassen Peak. The five mile (eight kilometer) round trip trail was busy but not packed–we saw maybe 40 other hikers—and, it must be said, it was an easier walk than we’d anticipated, perhaps because Cinder Cone was so much tougher than we’d expected.

Climbing Lassen Peak - Lassen National Park California

A stretch of trail about half way up Lassen Peak.

At the top we found a couple of flat rocks, the perfect place to break out our gourmet picnic of bbq pork sandwiches on onion rolls, grilled corn on the cob and boiled then grilled red potatoes leftover from our campsite dinner the night before.

Summit of Lassen Peak - Lassen National Park California

The summit of Lassen Peak.

As we ate, thousands of butterflies appeared all of them flying around the peak in the same clockwise direction. It was something we’d never seen before and it reminded us of what it feels like when we’re SCUBA diving in a swirling school of barracuda—lucky and bewildered. Less surprising were the swarms of chipmunk beggars who had clearly been spoiled by far too many human handouts.

View from Lassen Peak - Lassen National Park California

A view from the trail up Lassen Peak.

On the way down the Lassen Peak trail a doe and two frisky fawns crossed the trail right behind us before scampering off into a small meadow with mom in perpetual pursuit of her two energetic wanderers.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Peak dominating the skyline in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

Welcome to Bumpass Hell

Our final day in Lassen was reserved for the Bumpass Hell trail where we learned that there really was a Mr. Bumpass (we presume he pronounced it Bum Pass) who used to guide visitors among the area’s sprawling fumaroles and boiling pots until he broke through the crust one day and fell into a scalding thermal feature burning his leg so badly that they had to cut it off, hence, the “Hell” part of the trail name.

Before we even reached the geothermal area we could hear the action—a kind of airport runway jet engine roar and hiss that seemed to be coming from all directions at once. After a few minutes of stupidly looking up at the sky trying to spot the planes that must be making all that racket we finally figure it out: we should be looking down.

Bumpass Hell Lassen Volcanic National Park California

The trail network through the geothermal areas of Bumpass Hell.

The Bumpass Hell area is made up of an array of steam vents and patches of bright yellow sulphur and boiling pools full of colorful water and putty-colored mud. It’s every bit as impressive as what we’ve seen in Yellowstone National Park (minus the bison and the elk, of course). Plentiful and blunt warning signs made it clear that if we didn’t watch our step and stay on the trail we could end up just like Mr. Bumpass.

Bumpass Hell geothermal area - Lassen National Park

Fumaroles in the geothermal Bumpass Hell area of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Bumpass Hell geothermal Lassen Volcanic National Park California

Boiling mud pots in the Bumpass Hell area of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

 

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One Lucky Wolf – Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

We’ve been to Yellowstone National Park more than once but it’s an exciting arrival every time.  The park is enormous (Yellowstone is located primarily in Wyoming, but the park’s boundaries extend into parts of Montana and Idaho too) so there’s always a new nook or cranny to explore. Yellowstone is most famous for its thermal geysers and hot pools (think Old Faithful) but during a visit early in our Trans-Americas Journey we chose to focus on the west side of the park and the animal-rich Lamar Valley. As this iconic national park celebrates its 141st year (it was founded on March 1, 1872), here’s a look back at the Lamar Valley and the fortunes of one lucky wolf.

Bison in Lamar Valley - Yellowstone National Park

Bison roam the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Wolves on the rebound

As we entered the park (proudly flashing our annual National Parks Pass), a ranger told us that a pack of 11 wolves was being seen most mornings and evenings in the Lamar Valley. This was remarkable news given the fact that there were no wolves in Yellowstone in 1994. Wolves were reintroduced in 1995 and 1996 and park officials estimate there are now more than 300 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

Flowers - Blacktail Plateau, Yellowstone National Park

Early summer wildflowers in Yellowstone National Park.

Wolves rebounded enough to be taken off the endangered species list a couple of years ago prompting the passage of a law legalizing hunting near park boundaries. Ranchers believe it’s necessary to keep wolf numbers low to prevent them from killing their livestock. However, in December of 2012, an alfa female known as 832F or Rock Star, which had been collared by Yellowstone researchers, was shot and killed when she wandered outside the park’s boundaries. Eight collared wolves from Yellowstone were among dozens of wolves shot near Yellowstone in 2012 and Montana has temporarily revoked the right to hunt them.

Bison Buffalo - Yellowstone National Park

While we didn’t see the packs of wolves that we were hoping for we did see plenty of these guys in the Lamar Valley area of Yellowstone National Park.

Meet the wolf geeks of Yellowstone

Even though we were visiting Yellowstone during peak tourist season we found a camp site at the Pebble Creek Campground less than half a mile from where the wolves had been rendezvousing regularly.

Black Bear Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

A black bear on the move through the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

Black Bear - Yellowstone National Park

A black bear in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park.

With camp set up and evening approaching we drove down the road to see what we could see. Almost immediately we spotted three bison and a black bear all happily eating away in their own separate areas of the Lamar Valley. Then we joined a group of vehicles parked along the road that runs along the valley and watched as drivers began setting up obviously expensive spotting scopes. Yellowstone’s wolf geeks had arrived.

One of them told us he’d been camped in the park for a month doing precious little besides watching wolves. Over the years, these wolf geeks have even become an important part of the park’s own wolf monitoring efforts by sharing sightings and other information with rangers and naturalists.

Joining the pack

They were just as willing to share their knowledge and their scopes with us. It turned out that the ranger at the entrance had the facts slightly wrong. There had been a pack of wolves in the valley but the group had moved off a day or two earlier leaving behind a pup. What the obviously concerned wolf geeks were hoping for was a sighting or a yelp to prove that the abandoned pup was still alive. We waited with them, straining our eyes and ears but none of us saw or heard anything. With hope fading and spirits dropping faster than the sun, we returned to camp. The next day we heard that the pup showed himself, briefly, about 20 minutes after we left, but he was still alone and still in a tremendous amount of danger.

 A lone abandoned pup

Worried about the wolf pup left behind by its pack, we got up at 5:15 and parked on the Lamar Valley road hoping for a sighting. The wolf geeks were there too and they told us that we’d just missed an amazing rescue. As the wolf geeks looked on through high powered scopes and slightly dewy eyes, a pair of female wolves returned to the Lamar Valley and collected the abandoned pup, which was now out of danger, but probably grounded for wandering away and scaring his mother like that.

Black bear and cub Yellowstone National Park

Seeing a wild bear is always exciting but the addition of a cub made this duo special.

With wolf worries off our minds, we had another stunning day in Yellowstone, sighting a black bear with a cub, our very first grizzly in the wild–way off across the valley on a hillside–and many, many elk.

Lower Yellowstone Falls and Canyon

Lower Yellowstone Falls tumbles through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park.

Lower Yellowstone Falls

Lower Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone  National Park in Wyoming.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone National Park

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park cuts an impressive course through the landscape.

As we meandered out of the park we stopped at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and watched a bald eagle shade and fan her chicks with her enormous, elegant wings. It looked like she was doing ballet while perched high above the raging river.

Turquise pool hot springs Yellowstone National Park

The color and clarity of the geothermally-heated water in this natural pool in Yellowstone National Park is tempting but this is no Jacuzzi.

And, of course, we couldn’t resist a return visit to a few of the park’s amazing thermal formations which deposit minerals that make some of the land yellow, giving the park its name.

Colorful Hot Springs - Yellowstone National Park

Minerals in geothermally-heated water from deep inside the earth cause intense discoloration including the yellow tint for which Yellowstone National Park is named.

Mammoth Hot Springs formations - Yellowstone National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs formations and discoloration caused by centuries of mineral deposits left behind by tumbling water.

Mammoth Hot Springs - Yellowstone National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

Boling mud pit hot springs Yellowstone National Park

Boiling mud pots are part of the geothermal features for which Yellowstone National Park is famous.

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Cliffs and Condors – Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park in Utah packs a lot in—from canyoneering to one of the most nerve-rattling hikes in the national park system to abundant wildlife including endangered California condors. On November 19 this national park,Utah’s first, celebrates the 93rd anniversary of its founding. Here are some Happy Parkiversary memories from our most recent visit to Zion.

Zion National Park - Fall Colors

Rugged gorges and gentle streams are a hallmark of Zion National Park in Utah.

Zion National Park

This panorama really shows the variety of rock types and formations in Zion National Park.

Evening view from our campsite in Watchman Campground - Zion National Park

Our moonrise view from the Watchman Campground in Utah’s Zion National Park.

Zion River - Zion National Park

The Zion River as it meanders through Zion National Park.

Pick a trail, any trail

We were hoping it would be warm enough to hike The Narrows which requires some canyoneering through water but after setting up camp in the roomy Watchman Campground, we decided that the temperatures were already too cold for The Narrows (though other, heartier, souls were attempting it outfitted in insulated hip waders).

Zion National Park - Slot Canyon hiking to Observation Point

Karen on the trail up, up, up to Observation Point in Zion National Park.

Instead, we focused on some of the park’s other trails like Angels Landing which requires traversing a narrow spine of rock that’s enough to turn some folks back. We’d braved that route on a previous trip to the park.

Zion National Park - Zion Canyon from Observation Point

View of Zion Valley from Observation Point. Angels Landing on ridge in right foreground

Instead,we hiked up to Observation Point along a trail which gains 2,000 feet (600 meters) in four miles (six kilometers) of switchbacks pretty much straight uphill through a range of terrain, including some brief slot canyons and plenty of red rock. It all culminates in a great viewpoint over the park.The scenery along this hike was so gorgeous that before we knew it we were at the top munching on trail mix and enjoying the view.

Zion National Park - view from Observation Point Trail - Angels Landing pinnacle in center and entrance to narrows is on right side

The view from Observation Point, your reward after 2,000 foot elevation gain during a four mile hike pretty much straight uphill.

Zion National Park - view from Observation Point Trail of Zion canyon

The view of Zion National Park from Observation Point.

Zion National Park - Slot Canyon on Observation Point trail

Slot canyons along the trail up to Observation Point in Zion National Park.

Are those condors?

Suddenly, another hiker up at Observation Point looked to the sky and hollered “condors.” We are skeptical. California condors are endangered and famously hard to spot. But a quick check through binoculars revealed the enormous bird’s tell-tale wing markings and an identification number clamped to each animal’s wing.

Zion National Park - California Condors

A pair of endangered California Condors spotted in the sky above Observation Point in Zion National Park.

For the next 15 minutes we watched three California condors slowly circle and swirl above us, ultimately getting so low that we could see their markings without binoculars. We’ve read that condors are so comfortable with humans because they’ve learned that mammals, like us, often leave food behind. We wondered if these birds were hoping for some leftover trail mix.

Then, as quickly as they appeared, the huge birds were gone. Vanished. As if they were never there. All of the hikers at Observation Point looked at each other as if to confirm that we’d all just seen what we thought we saw. Energized by our condor sighting, we covered the trail back down in record time, almost like we’re flying ourselves.

The next morning we made a quick breakfast and headed out to the Emerald Pools Trail which threads together three different natural pools. On a sunny day, the pools each exhibit a different brilliant color. In the gathering grayness on the morning we were there, however, the colors were not quite apparent but it was a pleasant walk nonetheless.

Zion National Park - Court of the Patriarchs

Formations called the Court of the Patriarchs in Utah’s Zion National Park.

Zion National Park - Rock formations on the Zion - Mount Carmel Highwway

Rock formations along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway through Zion National Park in Utah.

Panorama of Kolob Canyon area of Zion National Park

A panorama of the Kolob Canyon area of Zion National Park.

TIPS

Not into camping? No problem. Opened by a former Zion National Park shuttle bus driver, the Cable Mountain Lodge in Springdale, just a stone’s throw from the south entrance of the park, has 50 rooms ($89-$139) some featuring jetted tubs, fireplaces and full kitchens. All rooms have in-your-face views of Cable Mountain.

Don’t Miss: Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theater located next to Cable Mountain Lodge. It’s the largest 3-D screen in Utah and one of the largest in the world measuring 60 feet (18 meters) high and 82 feet (24 meters) across.

To ease traffic congestion and protect the environment Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to personal vehicles from April through October. During this time all visitors must explore the heart of the park on board free, propane-powered park shuttle buses. If you want to the freedom of exploring the park in your own vehicle, like we did, plan accordingly.

 

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Never was a Park More Misnamed – Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The truth is, there’s nothing bad about the land in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, at least not for us since we didn’t have to walk across the arid, sun-baked, rattlesnake addled expanse as the original Native American inhabitants who named it did. This 240,000 acre (97,125 hectare) park, full of buttes, eroded stone spires and mixed grass prairies, was founded on November 10, 1978 and is like a cross between Bryce Canyon National Park and Cappadocia, Turkey. It’s also the only US National Park we know of where you just might have to share the campground with a herd of buffalo.

Badlands National Park sign - South Dakota

Welcome to Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Badlands National Park - The Castes Mountains

This elegantly eroded area in Badlands National Park in South Dakota is called The Castle for a reason.

Badlands National Park -canyons geological formations

Dramatic, daunting canyons like this helped earn Badlands National Park its name but they’re now part of the geographical wow factor of this park.

Badlands National Park - eroded hills geological formations

Walking through this topography would be, um, bad. But appreciating it during a visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota is good.

All roads lead to Wall Drug

Even though we dipped off the interstate and traveled on back roads toward Badlands National Park, we still encountered 53 billboards for Wall Drug, perhaps the most aggressively advertised roadside attraction on earth. Somehow we manage to resist the allure of “free water” and more cheap souvenirs than you can throw a jackalope at.

Back roads in Badlands

Developed areas of Badlands National Park cover a compact area with one main paved road that will take you all the way through the park and past a bunch of short, boardwalk trails in one long day. But the real action takes place on Creek Rim Road, a dirt loop that gets you back to where the animals really hang out.

We saw North American pronghorn sheep, big horn sheep (with babies), white-tail deer (with babies) and more squeaking, scampering prairie dogs then we will bore you with at this time.

Badlands National Park - North American Pronghorn

North American Pronghorn sheep in Badlands National Park.

Badlands National Park - Baby Bighorn Sheep

Baby bighorn sheep eat their way through Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Joining the herd in Badlands National Park

After glimpsing some buffalo in a dip off to the left, we turned down a side road in search of a better vantage point. What we discovered was a camping area completely occupied by a huge herd of slowly grazing buffalo. The animals, munched, snorted, and kicked up dust as they traveled slowly past the porta-potty and a few people’s tents. In that instant we decided we had to join the herd and camp at the Sage Creek Campground for the night.

Badlands National Park - Buffalo in campground

Camping with buffalo in Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

However, Sage Creek is a back country campground which meant no water and we didn’t have enough with us in the truck. With fingers crossed we drove back to the ranger station and asked if we could fill up some containers at a tap there. Easy.

Back at the campground, the buffalo continued to mill around as we set up camp. As the sun set, the herd wandered away from our cozy, new home and we were left alone in a not so bad land.

Badlands National Park - Buffalo

A huge buffalo takes a break as we set up camp nearby in Badlands National Park.

Badlands National Park - Herd of Buffalo

A herd of buffalo shares space with us in the Sage Creek Campground in Badlands National Park.

Badlands National Park - Beware of Rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes are just one reason Native Americans considered the badlands to be so bad. We saw one ourselves, just off a trail to an overlook in the park.

Badlands National Park - erosion geology

Dramatic, daunting topography like this helped earn Badlands National Park its name but they’re now part of the geographical wow factor of this park.

Badlands National Park - melting hills geology

Topography like this helped earn Badlands National Park its name but it’s now part of the geographical wow factor for visitors.

Badlands National Park grasslands

A breathtaking mix of landscapes is just one reason to visit Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Badlands National Park - The Castles

On the road through Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

 

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