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Great Hikes: Cascade Canyon Trail, Grand Teton National Park

[Leslie Griffin is an editor living in New York City, where nature is hard to come by. She travels to national parks and other hiking destinations whenever the opportunity arises.]

Difficulty: Moderate to difficult for the first 1.5 miles, then easy.
Distance: If you take the boat across Jenny Lake (10 dollars per person each way), the trail is 9.1 miles out and back. If you miss the boat, add 2 miles each way.
Elevation: About 1300 feet gained
Location: Jenny Lake boat dock (assuming you want to take the boat)

“It’s time for the Vicodin.”

Those were the words I uttered upon reaching the end of the Cascade Canyon Trail in Grand Teton National Park, before hiking nearly 5 miles back the way we had come.

Don’t be alarmed! I promise that most people will not need painkillers to hike this trail. But after spending a week in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and hiking more than 50 miles, my left foot bore little resemblance to its former self. Covered in blisters and aching from an old stress fracture, I had hobbled along the last mile or so of the trail, but decided that I needed something stronger than Ibuprofen for the return trip. Fortunately, my boyfriend hikes with every medicine known to man, so he dutifully handed over the pill.

Even though I was in pretty intense pain through the majority of the hike, it’s a testament to the beauty of this trail that I can say I would do it again without hesitation and would highly recommend it to anyone planning to visit Grand Teton.

We knew ahead of time that our feet were not as resilient as they had been at the beginning of the trip, so we opted to take the boat across Jenny Lake to the trailhead to shave two miles off the hike each way. (And, from what we read, those two miles are not nearly as scenic as the rest of the hike.) This required some planning, however, because the boat only runs from 10 AM to 4 PM, so we knew we would need to get on the boat early to ensure that we didn’t miss the last one on the way back.

After a short and chilly boat ride across the lake around 10:30 on an early September morning, we started the actual hike. The first 1.2 miles of the trail are the most difficult because they involve a fairly steep incline on boulders, rocks, and gravel. That said, we were expecting it to be more strenuous than it was. Less than a mile in, there’s a very short detour to Hidden Falls, a lovely waterfall that is—as the name suggests—hidden from view until you round a bend.

Hidden Falls

Another half mile beyond that, the trail reaches Inspiration Point, a rocky outcrop at 7200 feet with unobstructed views of the lake. Most hikers stop here and call it a day. If you choose to continue on, however, you are rewarded with a beautiful and easy hike through Cascade Canyon.

View from Inspiration Point

Shortly after Inspiration Point, the trail levels off and stays that way for the duration of the hike. The path hugs a creek as it winds through the canyon, passing through talus (rock debris) and wooded areas. Stunning mountain views abound from every angle. There are several pebbled open areas along the creek that make ideal stopping points to either eat a snack or just take in the beauty of the surroundings.

Taking a break.

We stopped a few times on the inbound hike due to the pain in my foot, so we reached the end of the trail sometime after lunch. We sat on some rocks and watched the water cascading below us. It was at this point that I decided to take the Vicodin. Admittedly, my pain threshold may be lower than some people’s, but by my estimation, my left foot was about a 9 on the pain scale at that point, and we had to hike all the way back to the boat dock by 4. My boyfriend wanted to push on another couple of miles to Lake Solitude, which is supposed to be incredible, but there was absolutely no way I could make it, so he agreed to head back with me.

There are ample opportunities to see wildlife in Cascade Canyon since both moose and black bears frequent the area. Sadly, we missed seeing two moose right next to the trail on our way back. They appeared about 30 minutes after we had passed a grassy watery area that’s known to be a popular moose hangout, and we heard about them from another hiker who caught up to us. We considered retracing our steps to see them, but we had spotted a moose several days earlier, and the thought of hiking an additional hour total was more than I could bear.

Fortunately, we did see and hear several adorable pikas, small guinea pig type animals that live in rocky areas. They dart in and out of crevices while emitting high-pitched squeaks that can’t be mistaken for anything else once you know what they are.


Once we reached Inspiration Point on the return trip, we were in the home stretch. You would think the descent through the steep part of the trail would be fairly easy, but it wasn’t. This is one of the few trails I’ve been on that made me wish I had hiking poles. Although the pain in my foot had receded to about an 8, I was pretty tired and wobbly by this time and slipped on some loose gravel and fell on my tailbone. I wasn’t injured, so we soldiered on, making it to the boat dock at 3:45.

Sitting down on the boat was the best thing I could have imagined at that point. I was tired, aching, and limping, but I had no regrets. I would do it again in a heartbeat, because that’s what these kinds of trips are about—pushing myself to get the most out of these beautiful wild places that I may never have the chance to visit again.

Photo Log: 36 Hours in Pittsburgh

Yeah, I know. “36 hours in…” is the NY Times format. But we really did have just 36 hours in Pittsburgh, so let’s just call it an homage, shall we?

This trip came about when we decided to spend my 35th birthday at a Steelers preseason game. We took off from Chicago on Friday after work and headed east, across Indiana and Ohio and into the hills of Pennsylvania, arriving late.

Saturday, we started early to beat the hungry masses to Pamela’s Diner, famous for their crepe-style hotcakes: crispy, buttery edges, soft in the middle, and filled with your choice of fruit and whipped cream.

The Strip isn’t really what it sounds like. Rather, it’s a congested strip along Penn Ave packed with old Pittsburgh character in the form of eclectic shopping, cafes, grocers, farm stands, and bootleg Steelers fan gear.

I bought a Terrible Towel for $8, after checking to make sure “Terrible” was spelled correctly. (Once I got to the stadium I found they sold way nicer ones for $10, but mine has… character.)

Highlights of the Strip were the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, a true Italian grocer, a stop at Enrico’s for some biscotti, and Mon Aimee Chocolat, which had the largest variety of chocolate brands I’ve ever seen in once place.

We moved on to Lawrenceville, an “up-and-coming” area that’s undergone a “revival.” Now it’s a “hot” destination and a good place to invest in real estate. It’s always interesting to see a neighborhood in transition, with old dive bars and pizza joints next to craft beer shops and trendy restaurants. Having seen our share of hipster boutiques and restaurants, we found ourselves more interested in the hilly residential streets, as the home styles are different than anything we have in Chicago.

Next we headed into downtown and grabbed lunch at Winghart’s in Market Square. Winghart’s… looks like a dive bar, sounds like a dive bar (think: old Metallica blasting), tastes pretty great. We had their popular Shipwrecked Burger and the Pau’a (Hawaii’an) Pizza, and I would order them both again if we went back. If you want to avoid the loud music, try for a seat on the upstairs balcony overlooking the square.

We walked off our lunch by heading on foot to Pointe State Park, where you can observe the confluence of the three rivers (the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela), the sports stadiums, Mt. Washington, and the cityscape.

We continued on foot to the Duquesne Incline, an old cable car that takes riders to the top of Mt. Washington, high above the city, where you get to look down on the sky scrapers. It’s a short, 0.75-mile walk to the Monongahela Incline, which we took back down. While waiting in line, we noticed that you can request a free transfer for the T, the city’s rapid transit train. So we gave our feet a rest and hopped on the T at Station Square and rode it back downtown.

After getting what we needed for the game, we headed on foot across another bridge, this time to Heinz Field, home of the Steelers. Fans lucky enough to have a boat (or a friend with a boat) can dock right along the river walk and tailgate. The great thing about preseason is you can get pretty good seats!

Sunday morning we headed to Squirrel Hill, a nice little neighborhood with a to-die-for little place called Waffallonia. Gooey inside, crispy outside, topped with a giant scoop of speculoos ice cream. Nom. If we had one here in Chicago, I’d eat there all the time until I needed a motorized chair to get around. That place has ruined me for waffles.

We drove though Oakland, where the universities and museums live, but it was move-in day for the students, so it was a little hectic.

We moved on instead to the Mexican War Streets, which was a highlight. The man who developed this real estate in the mid 1800s was a big proponent of the Mexican-American War, hence the name of the neighborhood. The streets are named after battles. It’s a little visited area, despite its proximity to the National Aviary, the zoo, and the Andy Warhol museum.

It was noon, now, and time to head home. On our way back to Chicago we stopped at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, an hour and a half from Pittsburgh, which has a very nice waterfall (Brandywine Falls) and some nice trails we didn’t have time for, like the Ledges Trail. But I’m glad we got to stop at the closest national park to Chicago.

You can research the heck out of a place, but once you get there, it still holds a bit of surprise and delight when you see it in real life. The delights for me in Pittsburgh were the dramatic hills and cliffs and the buildings tucked into every nook and cranny. The expansiveness of the rivers was another surprise; they were easily 5 times as wide as our little Chicago River and were a dominating feature of the city’s geography.

It was a short weekend, but we really crammed in a lot, and I’m so glad I got to visit!

5 Things: Louisville, KY

Art for sale in the NuLu neighborhood.

Before venturing into Kentucky’s belly at Mammoth Cave National Park, we spent a day hoofing it (pun totally intended) around Louisville, the home of the Kentucky Derby. If you want to judge a city by the quality of its cat art, then I’m sure you can already tell that there’s more to Louisville than southern charm and bourbon. So here are five things you may not know about Louisville, a very worthy weekend destination.

  1. American Pickers’ Antique Archaeology (in Nashville), step aside. You’ve got nothing on Joe Ley Antiques, which lived in the East Market neighborhood long before it became the fun, foodie-oriented and arty NuLu. This place is freaking enormous. It should be featured on a TV show, if it hasn’t been already. It’s three stories—and a basement—packed with antiques and reclaimed pieces from some of the area’s old Victorian mansions (See #3.) If I lived in Louisville, I would set aside a couple hours each weekend to inspect one corner of Joe Ley. And in a few years time, I may have been able to cover the entire store.
  2. Colonel Sanders was a real guy, and he’s buried in Louisville.
  3. Old Louisville has the largest collection of Victorian homes in the country, with some blocks that are pedestrian-only courts still lit by gas lamps. It’s an area in transition, with some homes that look like this:And others that have been parsed out into low-cost rental units, with sports paraphernalia that double as drapes hanging in windows. These are a renovator’s dream. If you’ve got some spare cash and a good hammer, there are some serious investment deals to be had here.
  4. Keep Louisville Weird” is a thing. Particularly along Bardstown Rd in the Highlands neighborhood, a multi-mile stretch of one-of-a-kind shops that seem more suited to Austin than to a city steeped in southern tradition.
  5. Being from Chicago, we’ve had our fair share of tasty burgers (I’m looking at you, Au Cheval.) But we found some serious competition in an unlikely place. In a very suburban, tree-lined strip mall on the outskirts of Louisville, you’ll find the reputed Mussel & Burger Bar. If you go, try the Breakfast Burger, with a thick piece of pork belly, a fried egg, maple syrup aioli, caramelized onions, and cheese. Can a burger alone make a weekend getaway worthwhile? It just might.

Stuck in the Mud: Dirt-biking in Cambodia’s Wet Season

[Guest blogger Toby Jacobs discovered Cambodia in 2007 while traveling the world. Having fallen in love with the place, he moved there permanently and set up a motorcycle touring company, Ride Expeditions, with his partner, Anna.]

Running a motorcycle touring company in Cambodia has provided me with some eventful stories over the years, but I feel particularly obliged to share about a certain tour I ran a few years ago. “Eventful” doesn’t come close to summing it up. Why?

This tour took place during Cambodia’s wet season.

Visiting Cambodia during the wet season has its perks—fewer tourists, temperate weather, and lots of greenery. Wet season also means the rivers flow high and fast. Dirt roads turn to mud. Ruts and pot-holes appear. Dirt-biking, while a popular adventure activity in Cambodia, is a whole other story during the wet season.

However, during the wet season of 2012, I was approached by a young and adventurous group of bikers who were keen to travel the country on a dirt bike. I pointed out that October is the wettest month of the year, and although a tour is possible, the conditions are far from perfect. There would be many parts of the country that would simply be impassable.

“Perfect!” they said. “The more challenging, the better.”

I explained further: We will get stuck. We will break down. We will have to camp out, likely in the rain.

Well, now they were more excited than ever.

The entire two-week trip was left me with a book’s worth of stories. For this post, I’ll share with you just one from early in the trip—a river-crossing on the very first trail.

We arrived at a river in Mondulkiri, a province of Cambodia, and tried to locate the local boatmen to ferry us across. After checking with the locals in the nearby village, however, it became apparent that there were not going to be any boats coming our way on this occasion. Not to worry though—we’d come prepared.

Giant truck inner tubes are the way to get yourself out of a situation like this. We inflated them most of the way using the exhaust of one of the bikes and then finished them off with a hand pump. And there you have it: a vessel capable of carrying a dirt bike!

A river, 12 bikes, and a truck inner tube.

I jumped in the river and swam to the other side to tie a safety line to a tree—easier said than done in a fast flowing river with steep banks on the other side and sharp bamboo bushes.

By this time the sun was starting to get lower in the sky. There was no point starting the task of shipping the bikes across the river today, so we left the bikes and tube in the bush and walked back to nearest village.

In any other country, a big group of hairy, smelly, muddy bikers probably wouldn’t be greeted with much welcome. Here, though, the villagers were thrilled to see us. Everyone came to have dinner with us, sacrificing a couple of the village chickens and opening bottles of rice wine. A jungle party and a warming campfire was a very welcome surprise for us wet and muddy bikers!

The next morning we woke in our hammocks to the sound of the village starting to come to life. We threw a couple of coffees and some noodles down our necks, said goodbye to our new friends, and trekked back to the river to begin the floating the bikes over to the other side.

Now, the way you do this is to lay the bike flat on its side on the inner tube with the foot peg in the middle, tying the bike to the tube with rope. Next, you connect another piece of rope between the bike and the safety line that is attached to trees on either side of the river. This prevents the bike going on a tubing trip downstream. Next, you attach another long rope to the bike and have someone swim over to the other side to help pull the bike across. Two other people then swim behind the bike helping push it across the river. Slow going, but simple.We were way behind schedule, but no one seemed to care. It is an incredibly fun and adventurous way to cross a river. Needless to say, our group of riders were in their element!

This was just day two of a two-week adventure that, unbeknownst to our happy group, would include a ride in a near-sunken boat, a boot full of leeches, a bike getting washed down a fast flowing river, getting stuck in a swamp, trench foot, more camping in the jungle, and hauling all our gear, the bikes, and our group in small long-tail boats for a 3 -hour boat journey up the river. It was epic!

Ridding ourselves of leeches.

The riders loved every minute of it, but if I’m ever approached by a group who wish to ride a similar route in October, I tell them these stories. Two years later, I still have not come across another group crazy enough to go through with it.


Very Tiny Voyage: Gerritsen Beach

[Guest blogger Leslie Griffin is an editor doing her third tour of duty in New York City. This time around, she is determined to visit places that are off the beaten path. Today she brings us to one of New York’s lesser-known neighborhoods.]

Throngs of people, incessant noise, the stench of garbage, hustle and bustle—if these are the things that come to mind when you think of New York, you’re not wrong. In many parts of the city, these annoyances are ubiquitous, especially the closer to Manhattan you are. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise when my boyfriend and I discovered Gerritsen Beach last weekend—a charming waterfront community from a bygone era that is very far from the madding crowd (two trains and a bus, to be exact). Where is this unique place, you ask? Brooklyn.

Gerritsen Beach is in the far reaches of the borough on a peninsula bordered by Marine Park to the east and Plumb Beach Channel to the south and west. It was named for Wolfert Gerritsen, a mill owner who lived there in the early seventeenth century. The area remained sparsely populated until around 1920 when a firm called Realty Associates started constructing a summer resort. Modest bungalows sprang up over the next decade, and the neighborhood soon became suitable for year-round residents, most of whom were of Italian, Irish, and German descent. Most of the people who live here now have a long lineage in the neighborhood.

As soon as we hopped off the bus and walked into the neighborhood, we could tell we had left behind the Brooklyn we knew and had entered a different world—a fishing village, perhaps. Most of the original bungalows are still intact, though some are being rebuilt due to damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Many of the houses, which range from kitschy to charming depending on your feelings about lawn flair and Easter decorations, are on the water and have docks and boats out back. We passed by people sitting on their porches chatting with neighbors as kids played in the small front yards. A few cars drove by lazily; gridlock is clearly unknown here, and parking is ample.

It was apparent that we weren’t locals, but no one seemed to mind. In fact, it was as if we had been transported to a small town where being neighborly is the norm. We walked by a man who was giving detailed fishing advice to some other newcomers. And later, another guy went out of his way to help us with directions and explain the alphabetical layout of the streets. Cold and unfriendly New Yorkers? Not here! These folks give southern hospitality a run for its money—but with heavy Brooklyn accents.

After walking by someone’s pigeon coop and a house with several honking geese, we headed to Tamaqua Marina, which has been owned and run by the same family for decades. We were taking some pictures of the tuna fishing boats outside the restaurant there, when a local inquired, “National Geographic?” We laughed and explained that we were on a mission to explore different neighborhoods in the city. He seemed eager to chat, so we asked him about the area.

“We’re still recovering from Sandy,” he said. “You only see a storm like that once in a lifetime. The water rushed in like a river and out like a river.” At its peak, the water rose about six feet above street level. It only stayed that high for fifteen minutes, but by then the damage was done. “At that point, any of these boats—even these commercial fishing boats—could have sailed down the street,” he added. He gestured to the road on the other side of the channel. “A lot of these boats ended up on top of that street over there.”

As a veteran fisherman (40 years and counting), he’s seen it all, but the most memorable event he witnessed happened last year when he was fishing off the coast of New Jersey early one morning with a friend. In the distance, they saw a huge black cloud of birds that looked about a mile wide. “As we got closer, we saw the birds diving into the water, and we realized what was happening. It was a giant school of sardines! Every predator around was congregating right there to feed: birds, sharks, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, everything.” He said it was amazing, and they’d never seen anything like it. “I asked my buddy if we should take pictures, and he said, ‘Nah. Fuck ’em; they’re not here to enjoy it, but we are.’”

Fortunately for us, our newfound friend wasn’t as unwilling as his buddy to share his experiences. As we headed on our way, he said, “There should be more people like you who come here.” So, if you find yourself in Brooklyn one day and want to venture off the beaten path, consider a stop in Gerritsen Beach, where you’ll leave the stereotypical side of the city behind.