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.

Pika

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.

Great Hikes: Half Dome Day Hike

Difficulty: Very strenuous. It’s long, it’s steep, it’s exposed.
Distance: Our route was 16 miles, starting from the hiker’s lot about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. We ascended via the Mist Trail and descended via the John Muir Trail, which is a slightly longer but slightly easier route.
Elevation: 4,800 feet gained and lost.
Location:
The classic route begins at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley.

It’s impossible to think of Yosemite and not picture Half Dome. It’s iconic; a centerpiece admired from vista points all around Yosemite National Park.

Many visitors come home with photos of the massive granite dome. Fewer come home with the bragging rights that they make the hike to its summit, a hike voted one of America’s 10 most dangerous by Backpacker Magazine.

This year was our turn.

For our fifth consecutive visit to the park, we scored permits for the steel cables that run up the side of the dome, making the summit accessible to hikers who are fit and/or determined and/or crazy enough to attempt it.

We got to the trailhead around 5am and finished the hike around 5:30pm. Headlamps lit the way for the first hour or so.

Summiting Half Dome is a badge of honor among hikers. The hike had become so popular that, according to a National Park System study, up to 1,200 people a day were attempting the cables. Congestion and noise ruined any possibility of a wilderness experience. Not to mention the peril of a crowded, slow-moving queue of people on the cables.

Fortunately, in 2012, the park instituted a strict permit system that allows only 300 hikers on the cables each day, which makes for a much safer and more pleasant experience. Though, some may argue that “pleasant” could never be the right adjective for the ascent of a 54-degree incline up the side of a slick granite rock.

But it’s really not these final 400 vertical feet of the hike that make it such a challenge.

By the time you reach the cables, you’ve already completed a strenuous 8-mile hike on a very steep trail that gains 4,400 feet. (For some perspective, that’s 3 times the height of the Willis Tower, or 3.5 times the height of the Empire State Building.)

The flat stretch through Little Yosemite Valley after 4 miles of nonstop ascent is a sweet relief.

You’ve also carefully navigated the exposed, rocky switchbacks of what is known as the subdome, seen in the photos below.

As you approach the base of the cables, at best, your muscles are a little tired. At worst, you’re dehydrated, out of food, and have blisters on your feet.

It’s here that the cables really come into focus.

Hikers contemplate the cables.

Many turn back at this point, the steep incline just too mind-blowing. We considered it ourselves. Others retreat after making it partway up, and not only for reasons of fatigue or fear. Both decisions are totally respectable. It’s good to know your limits.

What proved more daunting for some was the simple fact that your life is in the hands of those who are above you on the cables. If someone were to slip, to lose their grip, they’d be hitting you on the way down as they go slip-sliding off the slippery rock face.

Is the person ahead of you getting a cramp in his leg? Is someone making such slow progress that your arms are getting too fatigued as you wait for them to move on up? Is someone in such a hurry she tries to squeeze pass you with a giant overnight pack that knocks you off balance? All three of those things happened during the 30 minutes we spent ascending the cables.

A lot can go wrong that is simply out of your hands.Climbing the cables requires faith in the ability and cooperation of those around you. Amazingly, accidents on the cables aren’t that frequent. And the sense of camaraderie as you share this incredible experience with others is kind of special.

On the surprising large and flat 5-acre summit, you are treated to 360-degree views of the most beautiful land our country has to offer.

While you’re up there, pause to consider the visitors on the valley floor, 4,800 feet below. Picture those that have pulled their cars to the side of the road at Olmsted Point off Tioga Road to the north, or at Glacier Point to the south. They’re all looking at Half Dome. And you’re on top of it.

Enjoy that feeling while you can, before you remember that you’ve still got another 8 miles and 4,800 feet of descent ahead of you.

Half Dome Resources
This is not a hike for beginners; some experience with long day hikes will go a long way. These websites are full of solid advice for making your hike safe and successful:

I could only add that as we pulled ourselves up the cables, I was very glad I’d included upper-body strength in my training regimen.

Descending into Kentucky’s Belly: Mammoth Caves Wild Cave Tour

I’m straddled across a 3- or 4-foot wide canyon, 8 feet or so above the cave floor, and I’m stuck. My Siberian guardian angel, the exchange student who’s supposed to keep an eye out for the person behind her (me), is long gone, out of sight around a bend. The guides had told us to follow the footing of the person in front of us to navigate the canyon walk, so now I’m on my own for the next 20 feet or so, with a few others in the tour waiting patiently behind me while I hesitate. I have no choice but to plunge ahead and trust my experience and my footing.

This was just one example of the physical and mental challenges we faced during the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth Caves National Park.

Mammoth Caves is in northwestern Kentucky, about an hour and a half south of Louisville. It’s the longest-known continuous cave system in the world, with 400 miles of connected passageways. Researchers believe there could be as many as 1,000 miles.

At most national parks, visitors are free to explore on their own. This is impossible at Mammoth Caves. To see them, you must take one of many guided tours. They range in length and difficulty, from easy strolls along wide paths, to the long and strenuous Wild Cave Tour, which is how I chose to spend a recent Sunday.

If you read the description of the Wild Cave Tour on the NPS website, you will likely react one of two ways—“I’ve GOT to do this!” or “I’d rather die.”

If small enclosed spaces, teetering on high ledges, or pushing your physical limits doesn’t appeal to you, maybe take a pass on this one.

Here’s how the tour goes: It’s 6 hours long and covers 5 miles about 300 feet underground. You are provided with helmets, headlamps, jumpsuits, gloves, and kneepads. You will wish you had elbow pads too.

To get through passages that are smaller than you are around, your guide will explain and then demonstrate moves you can’t believe you’ll have to emulate. And then, somehow, you do.

You crawl on hands and knees or army-style through long, narrow tunnels.

You wiggle and contort through tiny holes to emerge into enormous underground caverns that your headlamp can barely illuminate.

You wall-walk across a canyon and hoist yourself through holes in the ceiling well above your head. (If you’re short-legged, like I am, you’ll pretty much have to do the splits to manage this move. Not that I cannot do the splits. But I did them on Sunday.)

You pull yourself up by the arms onto ledges you can barely reach.

You hit your head. A lot.

You experience complete, utter darkness and the oppressive silence that can only be found deep within the Earth. No wind, no leaves rustling, no insects chirping. The silence is so thick it will feel heavy, like a weight on your chest.

You emerge dirty, sweaty, scratched, bruised, tired, and euphoric, in front of more than 100 visitors on one of the popular short tours, who stare in admiration at your group. They’re a little jealous, and you like it that way.

Near the tour’s end, the group inched, on our bellies, through one last 45-foot passage that was quite wide, but very, very low. “Decide now whether you want to look left, or look right, because you won’t be able to turn your head once you’re in there,” our guide advised.

The passage narrowed even more the further in we got, until a pinch point wedged my helmet between the rock above and the ground below.  For the second time on the tour, I hesitated, wondering how I’d get out of this one.

Inching backwards, I freed my helmet and tried again. Defeating the pinch point, I swung my legs up and log-rolled the last 15 feet, emerging dizzy, proud, and happy.

If you go:

The tour isn’t for everyone, but spots are in high demand. It runs only on the weekends and the group size is limited to 14, so book ahead if you want to go, especially in the summer months. The cave itself is between 55 and 60 degrees year round, though, so visit any time of year.

A Travel Catalog Inspired by Motion

In my very first post on this blog, I waxed poetic about Yosemite and mentioned a little TV show that inspired my first of many trips there:

Our first trip to Yosemite, before we spent a small fortune on gear!

“In 2010, I stumbled upon a tiny low-budget TV show on an offshoot of a major network, in which two brothers headed out to national parks with handheld HD video cameras to show viewers some of the best hikes in each park. I sat glued to the TV as the hosts hiked along the south rim of Yosemite National Park, peering into the famous valley below. My eyes were agog. My mouth gaped. It was love at first sight.”

The show is called Motion, and it airs on a little-known, little-watched network called Live Well, a subsidiary of ABC. The show is narrated by Greg Aiello, the world’s most likable guy. The camera work captures sweeping vistas and tiny details in HD, all set to a well-chosen musical number. No one I’ve talked to has ever heard of the Live Well Network. Not surprisingly, ABC is pulling the plug on it come January. And with it goes Motion.

It’s weird to admit that a television show has impacted my life importantly. Ninety-nine percent of TV is total crap. One percent, TV at its best, is entertaining or edifying. But

Motion goes beyond even that. In 30-minute episodes their cameras and humor have virtually brought many of the national parks into my living room and inspired real-life trips to these places. The show got me connected to nature, a connection that turned out to become a really important part of my life. Now I crave time in nature like a body craves nutrients.

This was the episode that started it all for me. As I started looking through the other episodes online, I was struck by the number of trips I’ve taken over the last four years  that were spurred to existence by Motion.

Today’s post is a catalog; a tribute to my friends at Motion. The links will take you to related Go Go Go content and to the Motion episode that inspired the trip. Check out the episodes of Motion so you can become a fan too, if you aren’t already. (You’ve still got 6 months to catch the show on the Live Well Network, too, if you can find the channel.)

Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park

After our first visit to Yosemite in 2010 (we’ve returned every year since), Motion inspired our southern Utah trip to Zion National Park, where we experienced the Narrows–hiking in the Virgin River through a slot canyon–and the snow-capped hoodoos in nearby Bryce Canyon National Park. Both parks are along Utah’s Route 12, a scenic byway with a nerve-wracking stretch called Hell’s Backbone.

The Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

The amphitheater in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Hell’s Backbone, Route 12, Utah

Then they inspired this trip to Glacier National Park. Among the many spectacular hikes we did was 13.5 miles from the Gunsight trailhead to the Sperry Chalet, a backcountry lodge, through some of the most beautiful spots we’ve ever seen.

Comeau Pass, Glacier National Park

There was our trip to Hawaii, where we hiked a stretch of the famous Kalalau Trail on Kauai. We quite literally slid down the Sliding Sands Trail into Haleakala, an inactive volcanic crater. The trip was booked after seeing the amazing series of Hawaii episodes on Motion.

Summit of Haleakala, Maui

Our first trip to the Eastern Sierras in California, in which we visited the tufas at Mono Lake…

Mono Lake

…and the ghosts of Bodie, the largest remaining ghost town in the US? Inspired by Motion.

There was last year’s inaugural backpacking trip to Thousand Island Lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness near Yosemite (which you have read scarcely little about because we are still picking sand out of our various crevices). This route was inspired by Motion’s episodes on the John Muir Trail and the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Garnet Lake along the JMT in the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Solo trip to northern Wisconsin to kayak in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, on Lake Superior? Thanks for the idea, Motion!

Greg and the Motion crew have had the dream job that any fan of nature wishes she could have. To travel to the world’s most beautiful places and get paid to explore them? Lucky bastards. I’ve sufficed by living vicariously through them and doing my best to make many of those experiences—and myriad others—a reality. There are so many more places I’ve discovered in Motion episodes that are on my bucket list, so even as the show says good-bye in January, it will continue to provide years of inspired travels. So Motion, thanks for the memories—those past and those still to come!

Motion-inspired trips on my list:

  • Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
  • Olympic National Park, Washington
  • Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
  • Channel Islands, California
  • Grand Canyon’s North Rim, Arizona
  • Canyoneering in Escalante, Utah
  • Owens Valley, California
  • Point Reyes, California
  • Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
  • Acadia National Park, Maine

Gazing Down on a Glacier: Grinnell Glacier Overlook

In Glacier National Park, one of the most popular and rewarding trails takes hikers to Grinnell Glacier, which sits at about 6,500 feet, nestled into the crook of the mountains behind it.

Or you can hike up a challenging spur trail off of the equally popular Highline Trail and gaze down on this amazing glacier from above.

The Grinnell Overlook spur trail is only about a half a mile, but it’s one of the toughest half miles I’ve hiked. In that half mile, you’ll gain 900 feet in elevation. (I tried to figure out the grade of that incline but math is hard, so feel free to give it a shot and let me know.) Adding to the challenge is the fact that the entire half mile of trails consists of scree, or loose shards of rock that make footing difficult and slippery.

When you gain that much elevation in such a short amount of time, this is what happens to your lunch.

A little about Grinnell Glacier: It’s one of only 25 glaciers left in the park, which had 150 a century ago. It’s tiny, in glacial terms, filling only ten percent of the space it occupied a hundred years ago. It’s one of the easiest glaciers for visitors to access, and it’s still stunning, despite its shrinking size.

Scientists predict that all the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone in about fifteen years. At that point I’m not sure the Grinnell Overlook will be worth the effort. Without question, the park itself will continue to be a worthwhile destination, with its the glacially carved mountains, green valleys, and alpine meadows, and sparkling lakes. But the clock is ticking on its namesake feature, so head out to Montana sooner rather than later to get a glimpse of what is soon to be history.

Breaking Into Acadia 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.]

When my boyfriend and I set off for Acadia National Park in Maine during the government shutdown, we had no way of knowing that such a disruptive event could make for such an amazing vacation, but that’s exactly what happened.

We had read some articles that made it sound like people were hiking in the park despite the shutdown, but we were still skeptical and were fully prepared to come up with a plan B if push came to shove. Much to our delight, upon checking in at Aysgarth Station, our lovely B&B in Bar Harbor, the host informed us that not only were people hiking in the park, the rangers were truly looking the other way—as long as you weren’t committing any flagrant violations. With this assurance and some excellent trail recommendations from the host, we set off to break into Acadia.

”Breaking in” might be a bit of an exaggeration. We parked on the side of the road outside one of the many entrances along with about 20 other cars and then proceeded to simply walk around the sawhorse barriers. Voila! We were in. There were no cars inside the park since the normally clogged Park Loop Road was off limits. This meant that hikers and bicyclists had the run of the place—truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Photo 1

Deserted Park Loop Road

We hiked the breathtaking Ocean Path first, which hugs the coastline along the Loop Road and opens up to numerous stunning views. There were a fair number of people here, which made us think the park would have been packed under normal circumstances. At one point, however, we were by ourselves on a side road, and a ranger suddenly appeared out of nowhere in an SUV. I thought, “This is it. We’re going to jail.” My boyfriend thought, “Maybe this ranger can help me open this dumb wrapper on my Clif bar.” Nothing. He drove by without so much as a glance in our direction.

Eventually we split off onto the Gorham Mountain trail and left most of the people behind. The trail wended its way up the mountain across flat boulders dotted with dwarf conifers and bushes. We opted to take a detour through the Cadillac Cliffs, which our guidebook described as a moderate hike. We quickly discovered that “hike” was a misnomer and “scramble” was more accurate. There was no trail to speak of, just giant rocks we had to climb over in a generally upward direction. We saw no one here or on the rest of the Gorham trail as we ascended the mountain and only encountered a few people at the top. The view of neighboring mountains, fall foliage, and the ocean was stunning enough to make anyone want to linger.

Photo 2

The view from the top of Gorham Mountain

Late in the afternoon, we drove to a different section of the park to get to Jordan Pond, one of the most picturesque trails there. The trailhead would normally have been accessible by car, but because of the shutdown, we had to park about a mile away in a quaint neighborhood and then walk in to access the trail. A small price to pay given that we basically had the place to ourselves. There were a few people near the start, but most of them didn’t continue onto the trail itself. By the time we started hiking around the 3.3 mile loop, we were alone. The sun was going down, so the trees on the opposite shore were ablaze with color. The water was absolutely still, providing a perfect reflection of the trees, and later, the rising moon. We stopped at one point so my boyfriend could set up a shot with his tripod, and it occurred to me that I had never experienced that kind of silence in my life. There wasn’t a single sound: no water lapping, no birds chirping, no leaves rustling, nothing. Just absolute and unforgettable stillness.

Photo 3

Jordan Pond

The following day we decided to hike up Cadillac Mountain via the south face—one of the most popular trails in the park. We passed some slow-moving German hikers at the beginning but saw no one else for the first couple of hours. Eventually, an older couple from Boston caught up to us. The wife commented that this trail is usually like “Grand Central Station,” so it was a great one to be doing during the shutdown. The reason for the trail’s popularity is clear: amazing unencumbered views once the trail leaves the woods and continues onto flat boulders that make the area seem a bit otherworldly.

Photo 4

Hiking up Cadillac Mountain

At the summit, there’s a large parking lot that’s normally filled to capacity with cars and tour buses that access the top via the Loop Road. That day it was completely empty. Rather than the usual hundreds, there were maybe 20 people at the top. We saw more people on the descent and ran into the couple from Boston again near the end of the trail. The wife seemed to be lingering as her husband continued on ahead. As we passed, she said, “I’m trying to make this last as long as possible, because once we get in the car we have to drive home.” We knew exactly how she felt.

Great Hikes: Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah

Difficulty: moderate—though relatively flat, it’s sandy in sections.
Distance: 6 miles roundtrip
Location: Off Rte. 12, 15 miles east of Escalante, Utah. Park in the Calf Creek Campground.
Note: It’s $2.00 per vehicle, and fees are deposited in a dropbox at the campsite. Be sure to pick up the interpretive brochure at the trailhead.

Southern Utah is one of my favorite places. With Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands and Capital Reef National Parks all lined up across the bottom edge of the state, there is no shortage of natural beauty.

If you were you look at this area on Google Maps, you’d see an enormous grey blob bordering Bryce and Capital Reef that dwarfs all of these parks combined.

What’s with the giant grey blob?

This blob is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 1.7 million acres of cliffs, canyons, rock formations, and utter, complete wilderness.

Views for miles over Grand-Staircase Escalante.

If you want to feel tiny, this is the place to go. (You can read more about it here, including why it has that crazy name. )

We had plans to hike some of the remote slot canyons of the interior, accessible only by rough, dirt roads. But the threat of rain—and therefore flash floods—washed out those plans. Instead we headed to the trailhead for Lower Calf Creek Falls, just east of the rustic town of Escalante.

It’s a popular trail, but in comparison to the crowds you’ll find at the national parks, it’s relatively quiet.

Fraggle rock!

Something I wish every trail offered is the interpretive brochure you’ll find at this trailhead. As hikers cover the three miles to Lower Calf Creek Falls, they can pause at the numbered placards along the way and refer to the brochure to learn a little something about the geology, flora and fauna, or anthropologic history of the area.

This was surprisingly cool. Normally, I’m all about the scenery and not so much about the learning, but without the brochure, we never would have known where to look to see the pictographs left behind by the Fremont people.

There they are, they’re over there!

We wouldn’t have found the 800-year-old granary the Fremont built in the vertical side of a canyon wall.  (Apparently they were deft climbers.)

And we wouldn’t have learned that farmers used to maintain a watermelon farm along Calf Creek.

Watermelons in the desert? Almost as weird as a 126-ft waterfall in the desert.

The trail follows the creek until you reach the base of this fall, where the temperature drops significantly—a welcome feeling if you’re hiking in the summer, but somewhat chilly in early October, when we hiked it.

After your hike, head east on Rt 12 to the desert oasis that is Kiva Koffeehouse. With miles and miles of nothing, this amazing, handcrafted building appears out of nowhere, offering stunning views and, more importantly, coffee.