The King of Cactus – Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Cactus experts tell us there are between 1,500 and 2,000 different species of cactus but in Arizona there’s just one king of cactus: the saguaro. The bloom of this tree-like cactus is the Arizona state  flower. Saguaros are only found in the Sonoran Desert and Arizona is lousy with the things.  At this point, it should surprise no one that a whole national park was created to protect this prickly prize. Saguaro National Park was founded on October 14, 1994 and it celebrates its 19th anniversary this year.

Entrance Saguaro National Park, Arizona

We love the graphic cactus on this sign at an entrance to Saguaro National park in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park is divided into the two districts, both easily reached from Tuscon. As you can imagine, it’s dry and hot in this desert landscape so try to visit early or late in the day so you can enjoy some of the short trails within the park without getting scorched.

Cactus close up - Saguaro National Park

A cactus closeup in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.

The Saguaro is the quintessential cactus. If someone told you to sit down and draw a cactus, this is what you’d draw. They’re also a classic symbol of the Wild West right up there with tumbleweeds, ten gallon hats and hitching posts.

Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Despite its prickly spines, saguaros make nice homes for critters including the Gila woodpecker, as the holes in this one attest.

Every species of cactus is built like a sponge but the saguaro is particularly thirsty. It can hold up to 200 gallons (757 liters) of water for up to a year. The saguaro can shrink or swell by up to 25 percent depending on how saturated it is.

Giant Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Eric dwarfed by a saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. They can grow to up to 40 feet (12 meters) tall and can weigh more than a ton.

In the United States, Saguaros are only found in the wild in Arizona and, rarely, in southeast California. Saguaros have also become a popular landscaping plant but many of the saguaros you see in front yards were illegally harvested.

Saguaro Cactus Forest - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaros as far as the eye can see in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. In the US, this cactus is only found in the wild in Arizona and a few parts of southeastern California.

Saguaros can grow to up to 60 feet (18 meters) tall, however, they may take their sweet time getting there. In dry conditions it can take years for a saguaro to grow just a few inches. In wet years a saguaro may shoot up five feet (1.5 meters).

Cactus - Saguaro National Park

Not every cactus in the park is a saguaro. Here’s a rebel.

Fully grown and fully saturated, saguaros can weigh up to a ton making them the largest cactus in the United States. Saguaros typically live between 100 and 200 years though experts admit some giants may be even older than that.

Golden Eagle landing on a Saguaro Cactus

We have no idea how birds like this Harris hawk can land on something as thorny as a saguaro but they do it all the time.

The “arms” branching out of a central trunk, which we associate with saguaros, don’t develop until the cactus is many decades old. Some saguaros eventually sprout more than 50 arms. A saguaro without any arms is called a spear.

Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaros in the afternoon sun in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. The saguaros pictured above without any arms are called spears.

Cactus jungle - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

It’s a cactus jungle in Saguaro National Park.

Cactus Arizona desert

You’ll be in a forest of saguaros in Saguaro National Park but don’t forget to look for other species, like this one, too.

Cactus Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A cactus cluster in Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

Bonus: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Two miles (3 km) from the Saguaro National Park visitor center you’ll find the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and we highly recommend it. Yes, there’s no shortage of cactus in the park but this living museum presents a huge variety of species and lots of cactus-loving critters in a great setting. A two mile (3 km) stroll takes you through a meticulously curated zoo and botanical garden celebrating the best the Sonoran Desert has to offer including 40,000 types of cactus and other desert plants, many of them rare or endangered, and desert animals ranging from cougars to butterflies.

Cactus flowering - Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A flowering cactus at the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Saguaro National Park.

Flowering Cactus - Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A flowering cactus at the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Saguaro National Park.

One last prickly issue

You will notice that we have worked really hard to avoid using the plural of cactus in this post. That’s because we couldn’t decide which one to use. According to that know-it-all Merriam-Webster, cacti, cactuses and cactus are all correct.

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Snowshoes, Sequoias & Hiking Half Dome – Yosemite National Park, California

Poor Yosemite National Park. Beset by a deadly hantavirus outbreak. Ravaged by the Rim Fire (did you know that fire has its own Wiki page?). Knee-capped by the $%*#*&! US government shutdown. It’s been a tough few years for one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Here’s an all-season travel guide to snowshoeing, hiking Half Dome and saving sequoias so your Yosemite National Park travel plans are in place when this amazing park re-opens.

Yosemite Vallet Tunnel View

The iconic Yosemite Valley. This view is what greets you after you drive through a dramatic tunnel and approach the mouth of the valley.

Panorama of Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point

Panoramic image of Yosemite Valley shot from Glacier Point. Want to see a larger version of this shot?

El Capitan and Yosemite Valley view - Yosemite National Park

One view–Yosemite Valley with El Capitan on the left–in two seasons.

Half Dome view from Sentinal Bridge Yosemite Valley - Fall & Winter

One view–Half Dome as seen from the Sentinel Bridge in Yosemite Valley–in two seasons.

Mariposa Grove and the stately sequoias of Yosemite

As if epic valleys and views weren’t enough Yosemite is also home to hundreds of giant sequoias, aka redwood trees. These are the oldest trees on earth and two of the giants in the Mariposa Grove, in the southern part of Yosemite National Park, are on the list of the 30 largest examples of this species on the planet.

Giant Seqoias Redwoods, Mariposa Grove - Yosemite NP

The hundreds of sequoias, aka redwoods, in the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park are some of the oldest living things on earth.

Fire is an important part of the natural life-cycle of redwood trees and the giants are built to withstand fire with a natural fire retardant in their bark which can be two feet thick at the base of the tree. However, the very hot, very fast Rim Fire had naturalists worried enough to construct fire breaks around Mariposa Grove and even bring in sprinklers.

California Tunnel Redwood Tree, in the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite

Karen walking through a tunnel cut through the trunk of one of the redwood trees in Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove.

Hiking Half Dome? Check!

In all of our visits to Yosemite we had somehow never managed to hike up iconic, valley-dominating Half Dome. On our most recent visit to the park we remedied that.

Half Dome & Tenaya Valley from Glacier Point

Half Dome looms large over Tenaya Valley as seen from Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. Yep, we’re hiking up there.

After getting a campsite reservation and back country permits (needed to climb Half Dome) we decided to do the 16 mile (25 km) round trip hike from Yosemite Valley to the top of 8,836 foot (2,695 meter) high Half Dome and back in two hard days instead of one insane day. That meant a night of camping in Little Yosemite Valley just below the dome followed by an early morning trip up to the top of the rock.

We got a later start from the valley floor than we’d hoped as we sat out some morning rain, but soon enough we were heading up a section of the John Muir Trail which climbs pretty steeply before reaching the top of Nevada Falls. Then we continued on to Little Yosemite Valley back country campground.

Hiking the Vernal/Nevada Falls Trail to half Dome, Yosemite

Hiking up the John Muir Trail headed to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

It was damp and cold by the time we got our tent pitched but a communal campfire and some tasty freeze-dried Mountain House camp food warmed us up before we climbed into our sleeping bags with one ear cocked for the aggressive female bear that the camp site ranger warned us about when we arrived.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park

Vernal Falls, one of the many stunning highlights from our hike up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park

Nevada Falls, one more watery wonder along the trail up to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

The next morning was clear and sunny and we got fantastic views from the trail during the hike up to the base of the final climb to the top of Half Dome. The last 400 feet (120 meters) of the ascent require walking up a nearly vertical granite rock face using massive steel cables to help pull yourself up—and keep us from falling off.

This is no joke. Hikers die during this final cable section of the Half Dome hike. These accidents often involve water on the rock face which causes climbers to slip and fall off. That’s why the cables are removed every fall and put back up only when the weather improves.

Half Dome climb - Yosemite National Park

See those ant-like specs toiling up the sheer rock? That’s the “trail” to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Even in dry conditions this cable section is not for the squeamish and a few hikers seemed to be re-considering their need to get to the top. We, however, hadn’t climbed 5,000 feet (1,520 meters) up from the valley floor just to turn back without reaching the summit so we headed for the cables and started basically walking straight up a rock wall.

Climbing Half Dome Cables - Yosemite National Park

Karen heading up the cable section of trail- the final ascent to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

We reached the expansive top of Half Dome with sore pecs and triceps. This is one of the few hikes we can think of that works the upper body as well as the lower body thanks to all that hauling up the cables.

Yosemite Valley view from top of Half Dome

Eric celebrates reaching the top of Half Dome by scaring the hell out of Karen.

The edge of Half Dome, Tanaya Valley view - Yosemite National Park

Eric celebrates reaching the top of Half Dome by scaring the hell out of Karen.

Panorama from Half Dome - Yosemite National Park

A panoramic shot from the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Want to see a larger version of this shot?

After resting a bit we headed back down Half Dome via the cables (it’s no easier on the way down) and back to Little Yosemite Valley campground where we quickly broke down camp, put on our packs (why do they never seem any lighter even after you’ve devoured most of the food that was originally packed into them?) and continued another three hours very steeply down the brutal granite terrain of the Mist Trail.

Tenaya Valley from climb up to Half Dome - Yosemite National Park

Tenaya Valley in Yosemite National Park as seen from Half Dome.

Some sections of the so-called trail remind us of ancient Roman roads (only steeper) and the uneven, sole-beating, solid-granite conditions proved, yet again, that hiking downhill is often even harder than hiking uphill.

Then we got lost

Well, not really lost but poor signage at a cross roads sent us up the wrong trail briefly before we realized our mistake and backtracked to the cross roads. This unplanned detour ate up precious time and sunset was fast approaching. This is not the sort of trial that should be navigated in the dark so, despite our fatigue, we hustled.

Mission accomplished, time to head down

Departing Half Dome and beginning the sole-beating hike back down the valley.

Tuolumne Meadows bound

Tuolumne Meadows, in the eastern part of Yosemite National Park, is a different world and one many visitors skip. We think they’re missing out, as these photos prove.

View from Olmsted Point on Tioga Road - Yosemite

The view from Olmsted Point on Tioga Road looking across the Tenaya Valley at Clouds Rest Mountain and the top of Half Dome on the far right.

Tenaya Lake reflection Yosemite National Park

Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park.

Mount Hoffmann and Lake May - Yosemite National Park

Panoramic shot of Lake May with Mount Hoffmann in the distance accessed via Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park. Want to see a larger version of this shot?

Tuolumine Meadows Yosemite National Park

Tuolumne Meadows really should be part of your visit to Yosemite National Park.

Cathedral Range fro Tuolumine Medows - Yosemite National Park

The Cathedral Range seem from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.

Bonus: Whoa Nellie Deli gourmet gas station

Another reason to wander through Tuolumne Meadows and exit Yosemite National Park near the town of Lee Vining? Whoa Nellie Deli. Located in the Tioga Gas Mart gas station, white-capped chefs have replaced microwave burritos with gourmet meals including fish tacos and elk steaks.

Snowshoeing in Yosemite National Park

Karen (right) with her sister Kristy during a snowshoeing adventure in Yosemite National Park.

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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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The Newest National Park in the United States – Pinnacles National Park, California

In January of 2013 Pinnacles National Monument, a well-kept California secret, was upgraded to national park status making Pinnacles National Park the newest national park in the United States. Now’s the time to travel to this park before word spreads about its caves, rock climbing, precipitous trails, campground with a swimming pool and population of endangered California condors.

Pinnacles National Monument , California

Pinnacles National Monument in California was upgraded to national park status in January of 2013. We hope their new sign is in place by now!

Rock formations Pinnacles National Park, California

Just a few of the rock formations which give Pinnacles National Park in California its name.

A tentative comeback for the California condor

They’ve got a wingspan of nearly 10 feet (three meters). They can fly up to 55 miles (90 kilometers) per hour. They can live for more than 60 years. Yet they’re critically endangered. In 1987 experts estimated that there were only 22 California condors left in the world and those were summarily rounded up and protected in breeding programs.

These massive birds, the largest land birds in North America, may not win any beauty pageants (picture a vulture the size of a Smart Car) but they are a crucial part of the local ecological balance and they used to thrive in the Pinnacles National Park area before habitat loss and lead poisoning from bullets these scavengers ingest while eating carrion left over from hunters.

Now Pinnacles is an important release site for condors raised in captivity or rescued after injury and there are currently around 30 of the birds living in Pinnacles National Park.

When we visited a ranger helped us spot three California condors perched in a tree on the hillside above the ranger station parking lot. If you want to keep an eye on the park’s population of endangered California condors, check in on images gathered by the Pinnacles National Park Condor Cam set up near a feeding station.

Exploring the rocks of Pinnacles National Park

Anxious to see some more of these huge birds and explore the rocks and rock formations left over as a volcano slowly erodes, giving Pinnacles National Park its name, we headed out on the 5.5 mile (eight kilometer) round trip Condor Valley/High Peaks Loop trail.

Condor Valley/High Peaks trail - Pinnacles National Park

Karen on the Condor Valley/High Peaks trail in Pinnacles National Park.

It was a blazing hot day and we literally dragged ourselves up the first section of trail to the highest point on the route which delivered us into the pinnacles themselves. The area is pockmarked with caves and many of the smooth spires are used by rock climbers. The only climbing we did was on the trail as it negotiated its way over enormous rocks via a series of steep and narrow stairs carved out of solid stone.

High Peaks Pinnacles National Park, California

Rock formations like these make Pinnacles National Park in California a favorite of rock climbers and endangered California condors.

Hiking the High Peaks trail, Pinnacles National Park

Karen on a stretch of the High Peaks trail that’s literally been chiseled out of a rock face.

We passed under low rock overhangs and slogged up inclines so steep that the park put in hand rails (thanks for that, by the way). It’s a unique trail through even more unique terrain (there’s even a short tunnel through a huge rock), but we didn’t see a single condor while hiking.

Rock formations Pinnacles National Park, California

A ranger showed us some endangered California condors near the visitor center at Pinnacles National Park but we were also hoping to spot them soaring above us as we hiked the park’s dramatic High Peaks trail.

Newest National Park Pinnacles NP, California

A typical vista in Pinnacles National Park in California.

Pinnacles National Park Travel Tip

The park’s wild flowers are in full bloom and temperatures are most mild in the spring. Also, the campground at Pinnacles National Park has a swimming pool which is usually open from mid May to mid September.

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Disappearing Glaciers and Emerging Grizzlies – Glacier National Park, Montana

There are a lot of unique reasons to travel to Glacier National Park, which celebrates its 103rd birthday this year, including international relations, grizzlies and the last of those namesake glaciers.

World’s first International Peace Park

In 1932, Glacier National Park in the US and Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada became the world’s first International Peace Park when they joined forces across the international border they share between Montana and British Columbia.

 Mountain reflection Swiftcurrent Lake- Glacier National Park

Soaring glacier-sculpted peaks reflected in Swiftcurrent Lake in Glacier National Park.

Clements Mountain Logan Pass- Glacier National Park

Clements Mountain as seen from Logan Pass, the summit of the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Disappearing glaciers

In the mid 19th century there were an estimated 150 active glaciers within the park’s 1,000,000 acre (405,000 hectare) boundaries. Today fewer than 30 active glaciers remain. Some scientists believe they could all be gone by 2020, so don’t just sit there.

Many Glaciers Hotel, a classic wooden lodge inside the park, is a comfortable, atmospheric and enormous place overlooking lovely Swiftcurrent Lake. But why do so many of our national park hotels make us think of The Shining?

Many Glaciers Hotel- Glacier National Park

Many Glaciers Hotel in Glacier National Park where, sadly, there are fewer and fewer glaciers.

Rowboat Swiftcurrent Lake -Glacier National Park

An aptly-named row boat on Swiftcurrent Lake in Glacier National Park.

Grinell Mountain Swiftcurrent Lake -Glacier National Park

Grinnell Mountain looming large behind Swiftcurrent Lake in Glacier National Park.

Minerals and sediment in the water that melts from the active glaciers that remain in the park still manage to turn the many mountain lakes an eerie milky turquoise color.

Turquoise Grinnell Lake -Glacier National Park

The distinctive milky turquoise color of Grinnell Lake is caused by melt water from Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park.

Grizzlies galore

In 2010, TV animal guy Jack Hanna used pepper spray to fend off a grizzly cub in Glacier National Park while hiking on the Grinnell Glacier trail. Though Hanna says he’s been carrying pepper spray on hikes for nearly two decades, that was the first time he’d ever used it.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2011 17 people were charged by grizzlies in Glacier National Park. We were certainly on the lookout for them when we hiked the popular Grinnel Glacier trail.

 Grinnell Glacier trail -Glacier National Park

Karen heading up Grinnell Glacier Trail in Glacier National Park, an area also frequented by grizzlies.

As the steep trail curved and ascended up, up, up (it was extreme enough to inspire a bit of muscle-memory of our best treks in Nepal), we kept our eyes and ears open and one hand on our pepper spray.

Melting Grinnell Glacier -Glacier National Park

Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park

You can view a larger version of this panorama of Grinnell Glacier here

Waterfall Grinnell Glacier trail -Glacier National Park

Eric cooling off in cascading glacial melt during our hike up and down the Grinnell Glacier Trail in Glacier National Park.

It wasn’t until we returned to the Many Glaciers Hotel and flopped down on the big patio that we saw a lone grizzly slowly munching her/his way across a hillside about 300 yards away from us. As happens when the word grizzly gets whispered, a crowd soon gathered.

Grizzly Bear Glacier National Park

A grizzly bear searching for food on a hillside very near Many Glaciers Hotel in Glacier National Park.

Sunset color, Ptarmigan WallGlacier National Park

Sunset over Ptarmigan Wall as seen from Many Glaciers Hotel in Glacier National Park.

It’s not a road, it’s an experience

Glacier National Park is also home to one of the most amazingly-engineered and romantically-named roads. The 50 mile (80 kilometer) Going to the Sun Road hugs the mountains, winds through tunnels and tops out at 6,646 foot 2,000 meter) Logan Pass, as it crosses the Continental Divide. It’s all even more spectacular when you realize that it was built, largely by hand, more than 75 years ago.

Sunset view Going to the Sun road -Glacier National Park

Going to the Sun road in Glacier National Park is a thrill ride carved out by hand more than 75 years ago.

Waterfall dropping from Logan Pass -Glacier National Park

A waterfall dropping dramatically from Logan Pass is just one of the gorgeous vistas along the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Over the years the Going to the Sun Road has taken a beating from traffic and the harsh weather conditions. It’s now in the midst of a multi-year upgrade which has created closures, delays and some missing pavement, though the park hopes the full length of this spectacular road will be fully open for the busy summer season by June this year. For current road conditions and closures check out these real time road status updates.

Saint Mary Lake -Glacier National Park

Saint Mary Lake as seen from Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Hidden Lakes trail, Logan Pass -Glacier National Park

Hidden Lakes Trail at Logan Pass, the high point of the spectacular Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Flower meadow, Logan Pass -Glacier National Park

Logan Pass in full bloom in Glacier National Park.

Speaking of upgrades, this year park officials announced that their fleet of 33 iconic red buses with 1930s styling on modern chassis, which were last upgraded by Ford in 2002, would remain on the road for those visitors who don’t want to drive the road themselves.

TRAVEL TIP

The grizzlies are emerging from their winter dens right about now (April/May) so make plenty of noise as you hike. A startled bear is a cranky bear.

 

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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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