Getting High with Friends ~ Longmont, CO

Did I get your attention?  Well, we are in Colorado, where an altered state of mind is perfectly legal these days.  However, the high I am referring to is the altitude, where a bit of acclimatizing is in order for us before getting too aggressive on the trails.

We have been looking forward to our Colorado trip for some months, where visiting friends, attending a niece’s wedding and hiking in the beautiful Rockies was on the agenda.  As can be expected at this time of year, Mother Nature has been fickle, unsure if she wanted to draw us into autumn or drag us back to the dog days of summer.  Within a few short days she chose to do both.

Our intended plans to hike these magnificent mountains with friends Stan and Marilyn didn’t materialize as storms moved through the Boulder area the first few days of our visit.  Not to be deterred, we settled for a farmers’ market visit, shopping, and some wonderful meals filled with lots of laughter and reminiscing.   Hopefully we will be able to squeeze in their recommended hike before we have to move on.

Delicious-looking vegetables at the Boulder Farmers' Market

Delicious-looking vegetables at the Boulder Farmers’ Market

Knowing we were in the area, Ingrid and Al of Live Laugh RV decided to join us at St. Vrain State Park, a park we chose due to its proximity to Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park.  Although we had only a couple of days in the park before we had to hop a plane back to Ohio to attend our father’s memorial service, we were able to catch up on each other’s travels over dinner at our place, with Ingrid providing some very tasty cookies for dessert.  A girl’s day of sightseeing and shopping rounded out our visit before we parted ways.  Sadly I did not pick up the camera during our time with either of these couples.   Sometimes reminiscing and a good meal takes precedence over photography.

The Chapel on the Rock at Camp St. Malo outside Allenspark, CO.

The Chapel on the Rock at Camp St. Malo outside Allenspark, CO.

I had little time to explore St. Vrain and when I did, the birds that I often saw flying overhead, white pelicans, osprey, and Canada geese, were absent from the many ponds on the property.  To see some lovely images of these fine-feathered fowl, check out Ingrid’s post here.

Sunrise over St Vrain SP, with the snow-dusted Rockies in the background

Sunrise over St Vrain SP, with the snow-dusted Rockies in the background

After our whirlwind Ohio trip, exercise was foremost in our minds, so it was time to pull out the Rocky Mountain hiking maps. I had read quite a bit about the beauty of Wild Basin, both in our books and from Ingrid so we decided upon a hike to Ouzel Lake. Beginning at an altitude of ~8500 feet, with a 1500 foot elevation gain, it was a great acclimatizing hike.

Aspen and Ponderosa pine lined the trail and the sound of water crashing over boulders could be heard most of the way.  What we hadn’t anticipated was the bridge just below Ouzel Falls being out, due to the flooding in 2013.  Try as we might, climbing above and behind the falls did not provide a way to reconnect with the trail.

The rangers who were working to rebuild the bridge were discouraging anyone from attending to forge St. Vrain Creek, due to the heavy rains the previous few days.  After checking out a few potential crossing points, we decided to choose safety over daring. So what started as a 10-mile hike ended at 6.5 miles, not bad for a first hike in the Rockies.

We had time for one more hike in Rocky Mountain National Park before moving on so we settled on Timberline Falls.  Beginning at Bear Lake Trailhead and looping back around to Glacier Gorge Trailhead, this 10-mile hike takes you past beautiful alpine lakes and waterfalls, with breathtaking views of the Colorado peaks.

It begins at 9,100 feet, with an elevation gain of 1,560 feet, two-thirds of that being in the last mile before you reach Timberline Falls.

From Timberline you can scale a 30-foot mist-soaked vertical wall to continue to Sky Pond but seeing hikers coming back down backwards off this wall, we did not feel the need to go that extra quarter-mile.

Following a brief storm, our final night at St. Vrain yielded a lovely sunset over the Colorado peaks.

A Step Back into the Old West ~ Black Hills, SD

Blogging has taken a back seat to family matters recently but I felt I needed to write a belated post about some breathtaking country in South Dakota before our time there becomes a distant memory for me.

Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills

Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills

The Black Hills, spanning 1.2 million acres, are a geologically complex land, an island oasis floating above a sea of prairie. The roadways traversing these densely forested slopes are listed among National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime.  Her grassy plains, soaring granite cliffs, and plunging gorges draw you into an intricate mural.  Beneath these pine-covered hills lie an underground labyrinth of calcite crystals and hidden caverns, mostly “wild”, only explored by professional spelunkers and geologists.

The whispers of the Old West are carried on the wind here, where Lewis and Clark passed through; Crazy Horse fought for freedom; and the Gold Rush of 1876 created a miners’ camp known as Deadwood, luring the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

We focused our time in the southern hills.  Here are a few stops that we found noteworthy:

1)  Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Towering granite splendor - Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

Towering granite splendor – Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

A hurried trip years ago brought us back here for further exploration.  On this visit we joined an interpretive ranger who took us through the  creative process for this massive memorial.

Gutzon Borglum, the same sculptor who designed the intricate Confederate carvings depicted on Stone Mountain in Georgia, was brought in to design Mt. Rushmore.  Borglum’s vision, a memorial to the history of America, brought four US Presidents to life on a granite cliff side – George Washington, our 1st President, whose image is as tall as a 6-story building, Thomas Jefferson (#3), Theodore Roosevelt (#26), and Abraham Lincoln (#16).

In 1927, with over 400 workers scaling this massive granite slab, dynamiting and chiseling gave way to Borglum’s vision, ending with his death 14 years later, his dream not quite fully realized, but his contribution immeasurably felt.

 2)  Jewel Cave National Monument
Bacon anyone?

Bacon anyone?

Named for its glittering calcite crystal walls and with 166 miles of mapped passages, Jewel Cave is the 3rd-longest cave system in the world, continuing to grow at a rate of 3 miles per year. Only 3-5% of this cave has been explored so no telling how vast it truly is.  We enjoyed our tour but felt this cave did not quite rival Carlsbad, Mammoth or Kartchner Caverns.

Anyone interesting in slithering through tight spaces on their belly should consider taking one of their Wild Cave Tours – not something this claustrophobic girl would contemplate.

3)  Wind Cave National Park
A stubborn beast takes the high road.

A stubborn beast takes the high road.

This is the first cave to be given National Park status anywhere in the world.  Its proximity to Jewel Cave has some believing that one day there will be a connecting passage discovered between the two.

Wind Cave is a land of contrasts, a mystical world of hidden caverns and hiking trails meandering through forests and plains.  We chose to play in the sun and hiked the Centennial/Lookout Point Trail Loop, 5 miles through wide-open plains and deeply shrouded, rocky canyons.

It is here where we learned to gently prod a one-ton bull bison up a steep, rocky trail ahead of us.  With nothing but an abrupt chasm on one side and heavily forested cliffs on the other, going around this beast wasn’t an option, nor were we keen to turn back.  Photography was set aside to keep nearby trees in view, lest this big fella grow tired of our nudging and show us his mettle.  At the top of the ridge we said our goodbyes as he chose to continue on the high road. :)

4)  Custer State Park

This was the crown jewel of our trip through the Black Hills, with its abundant hiking, wildlife, and diverse scenery.  We understand why it was ranked as one of the top 10 state parks this year by Fodor’s.

Custer State Park boasts several driving tours that display the uniqueness of this park and is the reason we feel it rivals many a national park.  For wildlife viewing, take the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road and meet the famous bison herd.  Nearly 1300 if these massive beasts roam the park and each September, when there’s a crispness in the air and the leaves turn garnet and gold, it’s Buffalo Roundup time.   Visitors come to watch this thundering herd of bison being driven out of the hills by cowboys and cowgirls on horseback.  They are corralled, branded, tested, and some auctioned off to keep the herd at a healthy, stable population.

You may need nerves of steel to tackle narrow 17-mile Iron Mountain Road, boasting 314 curves and 14 switchbacks.  What draws visitors here are the three tunnels that all frame Mt. Rushmore as you look in your rear-view mirror.

Dubbed Needles Highway for the slender granite spires that line this roadway, the hairpin turns and narrow granite tunnels will force you to slow down to soak in the magnificent surroundings.  Many rock climbers (aka adrenaline junkies) flock to this section of Custer State Park for endless opportunities to get high.

And if your feet are begging to get back on solid ground, there are any number of exciting hiking trails to tax legs and lungs.  We chose to hike up to the summit of Harney Peak, highest peak in South Dakota, rising 7,242 feet above the surrounding terrain.  A stately old fire tower graces the summit and the views are breathtaking, weather permitting.

Tucked behind sparkling Sylvan Lake is a fascinating little hike that found us boulder hopping down into a plunging gorge and crossing a flowing creek so many times I lost count.  The Sunday Gulch Trail, only 3 miles in length, offers up some of the most unique landscape within Custer State Park.

Of course, after feeding the spirit the body begs for nourishment so a stop in the little town of Custer is highly recommended, where some of the best bison burgers can be found at Black Hills Burger and Buns Co., and a palette-pleasing flight of microbrews will call your name at Bitter Ester’s Brewhouse.

The Black Hills of South Dakota, sprawling land of intense diversity, begs to be savored, not rushed. We have left her northern hills of Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, and Sturgis for another visit.

Sacred Space or Climbing Mecca ~ Devils Tower National Monument, WY

Legend of Devils Tower ~ photo credit Google

Legend of Devils Tower ~ photo credit Google

According to the Lakota tribe, while at play, a group of young girls were chased by giant bears. Their escape was to climb atop a rock and pray to the Great Spirit to save them.The Great Spirit heard their pleas and the rock rose to the heavens, keeping the young girls safe from attack.  Deep claw marks in the sides of the rock evidence the ursine’s attempts to reach the girls. These are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.  When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the star constellation Pleiades.

There are things in the natural world that induce a stillness of spirit, a sense of wonder. For me, Devils Tower is one of those things.  President Theodore Roosevelt must have felt this same sense of awe as he gazed upwards at this rocky sentinel rising 1267 feet above the surrounding landscape, as this was to be his choice for the first national monument on September 24, 1906.  With a one-mile circumference, it is a sight to behold.

The name “Bear’s Lodge” given to this stately tower by Native Americans became woefully mistranslated by a U.S. Army interpreter to that of “Bad Man’s Tower”, which then became Devils Tower.  Northern Plains Indians have objected to this name and wish to see it changed to Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark but they have been met by local opposition, fearing a name change would affect tourism.

There is an ongoing debate about how this massive tower was formed.  Most geologists agree that Devils Tower was formed by the forceful passage of molten material between other rock formations but they can’t agree whether this magma reached the earth’s surface or how that process took place.  What is known is that this material cooled and crystallized, forming hexagonal (4 to 7-sided) columns separated by vertical fissures, compatible to columns found at Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California, but those at Devils Tower are much larger.  These are the tallest and widest columns in the world, some more than 600 feet tall and 10-20 feet wide.

Many ask, “should this be a sacred tower, a climbing mecca, or is there room for both?” It has long been held as sacred ground by over 20 Native American tribes but has also been sought as an international climbing destination since its first ascent on July 4, 1893.  Out of respect for Native American beliefs, the National Park Service has asked climbers to refrain from climbing the tower during the month of June, when many tribes gather here for prayer, sun dance, sweat lodge ceremonies, and vision quests.

With wind blowing through the pines, the sun's final light sets the tower aglow.

With wind blowing through the pines, the sun’s final light sets the tower aglow.

Records of the tower climbs have been kept since that first ascent by William Rogers and Willard Ripley in 1893, using a wooden ladder to climb the first 350 feet.  Two years later Mrs. Rogers used that same ladder to become the first woman to summit. Remnants of that ladder can still be seen today on the side of Devils Tower.  Annually 5000+ climbers world-wide come to tackle this technically difficult tower and over 220 climbing routes have been established.  Five deaths have resulted from attempting this climb, the most recent being in 2003.  We watched in awe as one climber worked his way up the tower barefoot.

We were content to extol her beauty with our feet planted terra firma. :)

Peaceful Passage

At 12:30 pm EST today Terry’s father, Morris, passed away in the loving care of Hospice.  We are grateful that his passing was peaceful and he is no longer suffering. Terry was able to spend this past week with his father when he was the most alert and is thankful for that time given him.

As many of you know, last year we spent six months at Terry’s folks’ home, helping to prepare them for the next phase in their lives.  We find ourselves reminiscing on this time and, although fraught with some stressful moments due to the changes his elderly parents were trying to embrace, we will be forever grateful for our time there.  We both felt we learned so much from the experience and discovered many things about his father that have become crystallized memories for us.

Morris was a quiet man, whose wants were few.  He was content to live a simple life and enjoyed being outdoors in his yard and garden, in touch with nature.  He was a kind, gentle soul with a wonderful sense of humor.   Sitting outside on a bench, with sunlight dancing across his features, I could sit for hours and listen to him talk of his childhood.

Baking him chocolate-chip cookies became a weekly routine and if I veered from the established schedule, in his quiet way, with a twinkle in his eye, he would ask me “what’s the hold-up?”

Both Terry and I were able to share with his father our innermost feelings of how he had touched our lives, how much he was loved, and in turn he shared his feelings for us. What a blessed gift it is to share the gift of time and heartfelt thoughts with those we love.

Rest in peace beloved father, until we see you again.

        November 25, 1919  ~  August 29, 2014

November 25, 1919 ~ August 29, 2014

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Solitary Thoughts

Bizarre, Broken, Bewitching ~ Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Part 2)

“The Badlands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.”  ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Storm clouds build over the Little Missouri

Storm clouds build over the Little Missouri

The Badlands story, of which Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a part, began over 65 million years ago.  While the Rocky Mountains were rising from the earth, bucking and writhing to claim their place in the landscape, massive amounts of sediments were being carried east on the wind and in the water, creating this desolate mural.  Savagely erupting volcanoes in surrounding states were belching ash to combine with the Rocky Mountain sediments.  The badlands are the result of layers of sandstone, mudstone, siltstone, and bentonite clay air-brushed into unusual rock formations and vivid striated buttes.

This national park was once on the eastern edge of a swamp and over time these sediments compressed and broke down, causing chemical changes that resulted in the formation of lignite, a soft coal that Teddy Roosevelt shoveled into his stove to heat his home.  In these striated buttes, lignite can still be seen.  Lightning strikes and fires cause the lignite to smolder, which in many cases can continue underground for years. The hardened red-brick caps, known as “scoria”, seen on many rock formations, come from the oxidation of iron released from the burning of this coal.  The artistry of time, wind, and erosion have created the landscape we see today, which is constantly being transformed.

The 110 square miles of Theodore Roosevelt National Park cover three distinct areas of Badlands in western North Dakota and the Little Missouri River snakes through all of them.

  • The larger South Unit within the town of Medora, where we are camped
  • The smaller North Unit, ~80 miles north of the South Unit, off Hwy. 85
  • Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch located between the two.  Only cornerstones remain there today.

Both the North and South Units have similar topography and many of the same wildlife, deer, bison, prairie dogs.  The North claims the longhorn steer and bighorn sheep, while the South boasts elk, pronghorn, and feral horses.  I had also read about a phenomenon in the North Unit that Nina had introduced us to while on the coast of Oregon that has enchanted me ever since – concretions.  I knew a trip up north was in my future.

On a rare sunny, rain-free day I pointed the car north on the hunt for longhorn steer and cannonball concretions.  While the steer remained elusive, I found the concretions hiding in the shadows.

I could have gone back south and been happy but I had the day so a couple of hikes and a visit to a prairie dog town seemed in order.  I chose the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail and the Buckhorn Trail, taking me through open prairie, aromatic sagebrush, canyons with unusual rock formations, and a town where only prairie dogs are welcome, as they will let you know if you get too close.

Our visit has been more rain than sun and locals say this part of ND has had a very wet summer.   On one of those cloud-filled mornings I headed out bright and early, hoping to get a hike in before the rains came.  My goal was to tackle part of the Maah Daah Hey, a trail that stretches 97 miles across the National Grassland, connecting all three units of the park.  Over 7 miles of it runs through the South Unit, just a couple of miles from our campground and it’s a great trail for hiking and mountain biking.  Plans were thwarted when I got to the Little Missouri, a necessary water crossing I thought would be easy.  Given the recent rains we have had, no way was the river allowing me passage. :(

On a rare rain-free evening I ventured into the park hoping to catch a memorable sunset on top of Buck Hill, noted for its dramatic evening views. Although the sunset didn’t wow me, what I spotted around a curve in the road did…the feral horses!

And although the sunset wasn’t spectacular, it was a nice ending to my stay at Theodore Roosevelt NP.