An Ancient Landscape ~ Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

Recently, while on a trajectory back to Sedona, AZ, which was home to us for several years, I realized that Petrified Forest National Park was within striking distance.  It had been many years since we had last visited so an overnight stay was added to our itinerary.

Petrified Forest National Park, in northeast Arizona, encompasses roughly 150 miles of brightly hued, abraded badlands, an ancient landscape that was birthed over 225-million years ago. Wind and water transformed this once humid, sub-tropical land, along with tectonic forces that pushed the landscape upward, exposing the Colorado Plateau to immense erosion.  Today, these desolate but beautifully striated formations tell the story of a land that has been scattered on the winds and the remains of trees now dot the landscape, turned to stone, as if Medusa had been at work here.

The Tepees

The Tepees

Petrified Forest is the only national park to protect a section of historic Route 66.  The roads are well-maintained so larger vehicles/RV’s can easily maneuver the 28-mile scenic drive through the park.  If your visit is short as ours was, the Crystal Forest Gift Shop Campground at the southern entrance is the place to stay.  Although you will be dry-camping, you will also be staying there free of charge. :)

The Painted Desert lies far off in the distance.

The Painted Desert lies far in the distance.

Newspaper Rock, where ancient words are etched onto desert varnish.

Newspaper Rock, where ancient words are etched onto desert varnish.

The sun peering through clouds over the Petrified Forest

The sun peering through clouds over the Petrified Forest

Final rays cast a golden glow over the desert, with petrified wood strewn across the landscape.

Final rays cast a golden glow over the desert, with petrified wood strewn across the landscape.

Enveloped in a Golden Glow ~ Parshall, CO

High in the Colorado mountains, just outside of Silverthorne, the tiny town of Parshall sits, quietly basking in the golden hue of the surrounding aspens. A  small ranch, perhaps better known for its winter activities, is where our niece chose to be married and it was their great fortune to have picked the weekend when the fall colors were at their peak.  With a few hours to spare the morning of the wedding, we decided to officially become “leaf-peepers” and get in a little exercise hike as well.  Ute Pass was just a few miles away and was where a hike among the aspens was possible, a place to imbue our senses with the golden aura of autumn’s arrival.  How could we resist?  The colors of the mountainsides were so brilliant it almost hurt to look…almost.

Here is just a snapshot of the spectacular fall color extravaganza that awaited us!

As blown away as we were by the landscape, this was just a prelude to the beauty we were to experience later that day.  Our niece’s wedding day was finally here and the day was pure joy, a light breeze causing the aspen leaves to shimmer, the sun peeking through the clouds as the ceremony began, and a golden glow settling over the mountaintops.  This day, this place, surrounded by family and friends, was the perfect venue for beginning a life together as husband and wife.

We may be biased (she is our niece after all) but we thought Sara was stunning and we could not be more pleased with her choice for a husband.  We were thrilled to be a part of this extraordinary day and wish Nick and Sara much love and happiness.

Denver’s Backyard Playground ~ Cherry Creek State Park

Lovely lake at Cherry Creek SP

Lovely lake at Cherry Creek SP

Given we have paid for campground fees in Colorado for the past month, you would think I could speak with some authority on activities in the area but lately I would be better equipped to speak about the creeping nature of airport security lines or traffic patterns in Denver.  Too much time recently spent at the airport has been a bit of an energy zapper for us but such is life sometimes. Colorado will just have to stay on our list for further exploration, which is the beauty of this nomadic lifestyle.  Not all was lost though as we had great family visits, attended a niece’s wedding (more on that later), hopped on our bikes a few times while in the Denver area, and finally caught up for a quick visit with a couple whose blog I’ve been following and whose photos I have been quite literally drooling over.

Shades of blue hover over the park

Shades of blue hover over the park

For the past 10 days our rig has been comfortably resting in the lovely Cherry Creek State Park, an urban oasis serving as Denver’s backyard playground year-round.  For those who yearn to escape their personal rat race or for us full-time wanderers who want to have easy access to city life, Cherry Creek is the perfect solution.

One of several lovely sunsets captured at Cherry Creek

One of several lovely sunsets captured at Cherry Creek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bikers and runners alike share the 12 miles of paved trails and the 35 miles of multi-use trails that meander through the park. I’m told that winter-hardy outdoor enthusiasts strap on their cross-country skis and glide across pristine groomed trails during the snowy months.

Interesting cloud formations over the campground

Interesting cloud formations over the campground

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cherry Creek State Park’s 4200 acres entices fishermen, boaters, jet-skiers, and archery fans as well.  With lots of open space between campsites, I don’t think you could go wrong no matter which site you chose, and for us the views of a sparkling blue lake and rugged mountains as our backdrop were the perfect respite to a hectic schedule.

Magical mountains at sunset

Magical mountains at sunset

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 40-mile Cherry Creek bike trail runs directly through the park so biking into the city for a Starbucks and a trip to the flagship REI store was a must. The round-trip will reward you with 30 miles of spinning and aching legs, as the trek back is mostly uphill.

For a more leisurely ride, the trail around the lake and across the dam will allow you to explore the park’s many amenities and, if your timing is right, you may be able to participate in a most unusual yoga class.

The yoga instructor for the day, giving a quick lesson to a watchful egret.

The yoga instructor for the day, giving a quick lesson to a watchful egret.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As busy as our schedules were, it is a wonder that we caught up to a delightful couple and their little Angel. Yep, Island Girl was in the house (or campground to be more precise).   With their crazy schedule and ours we each had to work our flexibility muscles to squeeze in two short visits.  Hector and Brenda were as warm and engaging as we knew they would be and we look forward to catching up with them again later this winter.

For those who want an escape to some fabulous destinations teeming with wildlife, click here to see how Hector views his world. It is a feast for the eyes.

Island Girl's navigator Hector and the lovely Brenda

Island Girl’s navigator Hector and the lovely Brenda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took our leave from Cherry Creek earlier than our normal departure time as we were looking forward to visiting friends in Cañon City whom we hadn’t seen in three years. It seems our timing worked out well for us as an “epic hailstorm” moved through Denver and Cherry Creek State Park early that afternoon, causing much damage. Our thoughts are with those who did not fare as well as we.

Our next stop took us to the Colorado mountains, where the fall colors where at their peak and love was in the air.  Stay tuned! :)

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.