Early morning at Sparks Lake

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A cold early morning walk at Sparks Lake along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway in Oregon. 

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Flatness and Frozen Falls: Finding Beauty in Illinois

Scientists determined last year that Illinois is the second flattest state in the United States. Florida is the flattest. But before you go throwing them a pity party, let’s not forget that Florida has the ocean and lots of coastline to go with it. It has the Everglades and the Keys. It has alligators and manatees. So, flat? Yes. Devoid of interesting and pretty nature-y things? Hardly.

In Illinois, on the other hand, we’ll accept your pity readily. Not only are we so very flat, but we also tolerate superlatively meager natural wonders. Of the state’s nearly 58,000 square miles, only 430 or so are set aside for public use (and state parks, forests, and conservation areas). That’s less than one percent.

So what can we count among Illinois’ natural treasures? There are a few things. For one, we can claim a tiny stretch of Lake Michigan as our own. But if you are looking to escape to the wilderness, then the populated shoreline hardly counts.

A 5- or 6-hour drive with a steady view of corn and soy would bring us to the state’s southern tip, where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge. There we’d find some lovely rocky bluffs and rolling hills and the only significant splotches of green on the map. But it’s not quite enough to draw people from the Chicago metropolitan area, where over 75% of Illinoisans live.

For those of us who grew up in or around Chicago–that is to say, most Illinoisans—Starved Rock State Park is going to be the place that springs to mind when asked about Illinois’ great outdoors. Less than 2 hours from the city, it’s an easy choice when in need of some fresh air and topographic variety. According to the park’s lodge, the place is Illinois’ number-one attraction. (Though they don’t say according to whom.)

This past weekend was my first visit in the winter. In truth, it was my first visit at all since childhood. And for a moment, I will stop turning up my nose at my plain state (pun completely intended and I’m not sorry) and admit that I had a nice time.


Lover’s Leap Overlook

The park is a series of sandstone bluffs and glacial canyons that hug a few miles of the Illinois River.

Looking down on the Illinois River from Eagle Cliff Overlook

Waterfalls can form in all of the 18 canyons in the spring, and a series of well-marked trails allow for easy access for hikers of any skill level.

In winter many of the waterfalls freeze, and hikers can slip and slide right up to their bases, and in some cases, walk behind them. Ice climbers set up at a couple of the taller falls, as well.

LaSalle Canyon


French Canyon

Eagles migrate through the area in winter, as well, so there’s a good chance of spotting them from the top of Starved Rock, a tall bluff on the river.

So yeah, it’s a pretty nice place in our very flat state. I admit it.

If you go, walking poles or Yaktrax will provide balance and traction on snow-packed trails. Dress warmly and sneak your sack lunch into the lodge. (They don’t allow outside food because they want to you buy from their overpriced and underdelicious restaurant.) Be sure to check out French Canyon, a short hike from the visitor center. For a shorter trip to LaSalle Canyon, park at Parkman’s Plain, an unsigned lot across from the Old Style sign on Route 71, a few miles east of the main entrance.

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.

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.

Resources for the Beginning Hiker

The first time I went hiking in a national park was in college. A friend had all the gear and a fair amount of experience. Without him, I wouldn’t have known how to make a trip like this happen.

Planning a hiking trip is different than any other kind of trip. You not only need to learn about your destination, but you need to choose trails suitable to your ability and experience. You need to know what gear to bring. You need a little bit of emergency preparedness.

If you’re interested in getting into hiking but aren’t sure where to start, I though I’d share a few of my favorite online resources today.

(Assuming, of course, that at some point, the government shutdown will end and the country’s public lands will once again be made available to the public.)

REI Expert Advice
In addition to selling expensive but awesome outdoor gear and gadgets, REI provides a large amount of articles and videos amount all kinds of outdoor topics related to hiking, cycling, running, climbing, paddling, and snow sports. I recommend starting with the Ten Essentials, which is the widely used term for all the things you need to keep yourself safe during a hike.

Leave No Trace
If you are a fan of the outdoors, then you’ll want to learn how to leave it in the same or better condition than you found it. You may or may not appreciate the importance of this initially, but the first time you come across someone’s initials carved into a tree along the trail, you’ll start to care a lot. So check out the Leave No Trace principles before heading out.

Where to Go
Need help figuring out where to go? Browse these lists from National Geographic, Backpacker Magazine, and GORP of top day hikes and see what gets your blood flowing.

Now, before you get too excited about  a particular hike, make sure it’s a good fit for your experience and fitness level. It’s also a good idea to understand the weather conditions of your destination of choice. Mountain and desert regions can have some pretty harsh weather, and the period of time in which conditions are amenable to novice hikers can be pretty short.

So visit the Tripadvisor forum for your destination and run your plan past the Destination Experts. Contact the national park service or forest service and talk to a ranger.

Backpacking
If it’s overnight trips you’re interested in, check out Backpacker magazine’s Backpacking 101 guide. Also buy a copy of the NOLS Wilderness Guide, which is an enjoyable read that covers the basics of backpacking, including foot gear, clothing, food, campsite selection, and route planning.