We drove south on California 395 back through Lone Pine and then north into the mountains toward the Sequoia National Forest. The first stop was the Trail of 100 Giants, a short loop trail featuring about 100 (although we did not count them) massive sequoia trees. It is our second day in a row looking at interesting trees, and the sequoias were just as enthralling to look at as the ancient bristlecones.
It is almost impossible to really show the scale of these trees in photographs. Our experience with trees (most of us, anyway) does not in any way prepare us for the sight and majesty that is a giant sequoia. Their tree tops reach dizzying heights; their trunks are immense; the branches above, the size of train cars or buses or houses. They also have tiny pinecones and the softest bark I’ve ever felt on a tree.
One of the stops on the Trail of 100 Giants is a pair of giants that fell in 2011. They had grown together, which is not altogether unusual for these trees—in fact, we saw many that had grown this way—but to see them horizontally was to really appreciate their size: the long walk from end to end; the chaotic and enormous maze of roots, the diameter of the trunk. We wondered what it must have been like to see and hear those giants fall to the forest floor. Of course, it is not likely anyone saw or heard them fall, but it would have been a spectacle.
We grabbed lunch at a little place called Ponderosa, about 2 miles from our camp. The Ponderosa also sold beer and firewood, two other things for which we had use. Our campsite was in a campground called Quaking Aspen; our tent was framed by enormous conifers, easily 200 or 300 years old, but compared to the sequoias they looked like saplings.
Our campsite at Quaking Aspen
Sarah, the firemaster
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Next stop: Sequoia – Kings Canyon National Park, California.
This morning we slept at almost two miles above sea level. About 4 hours after we left Point Supreme Campground we had descended into Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in the United States. We parked our car at Mesquite Dunes and our car’s thermometer read a blazing 113 degrees.
After a few steps in the sand, I could feel heat radiating off of every surface. The rocks, the sand, the few scrubby plants, the asphalt, the air. The surface of Death Valley can reach temperatures exceeding 200 degrees. It is a desolate and frightening place, and while it certainly possesses a beauty (the hazy mountains, the Joshua trees, the utter flatness of the valley floor), I was overcome with the power of the environment. Many of the places we’d visited to this point have been harsh and unforgiving landscapes, but Death Valley deserves its name. It certainly did not help to see signs warning of foot travel after 10 in the morning and the road sign imploring us to go without air conditioning on the climb out of the valley to help keep your car from overheating. I am glad I visited Death Valley, but I can’t see myself coming back .
At Mesquite Dunes
We climbed our way out of the valley, down into another, and finally around another range of mountains and found ourselves in a town called Lone Pine, California, a small town in the Inyo Valley between the harsh desert mountains to the west of Death Valley and the towering, snow-capped Sierra Nevada range to the west. From the valley, the Sierra Nevada range looks like an impenetrable and impassable stone wall. We stopped and had lunch at the Totem Café and took off north toward the Inyo National Forest and our campground for the night.
The drive to Grandview Campground climbs high into the mountains, with lots of stunning views and switchbacks. The campground is at about 8,000 feet. We set up camp and headed 3,000 feet higher to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest.
The Ancient Bristlecone Forest is home to trees that are over 4,000 years old. The oldest living things on the planet. Think of it this way: some of the trees in this forest starting growing about 3,500 years before William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, er the “Scottish Play.” And the Great Pyramid at Giza was a mere 500 years old. The experience of walking amongst these trees is hard to describe. I suppose one has to really consider the concept of time when looking at them. The trees made me think of how the entire span of modern human history has happened within the lifespan of those trees. It might make some people feel insignificant, but it just amazed me. And later in the day, as I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the narrator’s father described to him about moving one grain of Sahara sand one millimeter, explaining that even minute human actions can have large consequences. I thought of the trees again. I am glad they have survived humanity’s little foray into their lives.
Grandview Campground is one of the great places in the continental United States to see the night sky. Even though the stars had to compete with a waxing gibbous moon, it was pretty fantastic.
Next stop: Quaking Aspen campground in the Sequoia National Forest.
After our hot and tiring day at Arches and Canyonlands, we trekked across southern Utah from Monticello (where we’d spent the night) to a campground in Cedar Breaks National Monument outside of Cedar City, Utah.
The drive took us through Bears Ears National Monument, where we probably saw about six other vehicles the entire drive. Bears Ears was magnificent: unspoiled, still, isolated, quiet, with red rock walls, sprawling serpentine canyons, and unparalleled views and sights. We pulled off the road, got out of the car, and walked to the edge of a small canyon. The silence was remarkable. We could not hear anything at all except for the occasional rustle of a lizard running through some brush, or the sound of a distant bird. It was a place at which we wished we could have lingered longer, but the day was short and we had a lot to do—namely, visit three more national parks: Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion.
Bears Ears wayside
At Bears Ears
After Bears Ears, we drove through Glen Canyon and eventually made it to Capitol Reef National Park. We weren’t at Capitol Reef for long, but we stopped to view the petroglyphs in the Fruita area of the park, which also features apple, pear, peach, and apricot orchards established by early Mormon settlers. The park maintains the orchards now, but seeing these patches of fruit trees and green grass was interesting in the midst of the arid desert landscape. But the petroglyphs! These were carved by native people over 1,000 years ago, and you can view them with binoculars or the provided telescopes. The rock formations here are incredible and unlike anything I’d seen. The park literature describes the rock formations as a wrinkle where the earth folded due to tectonic forces. It’s an underrated park, less busy than the others in Utah, and it was free to enter. The other parks are about $35 to enter unless you have an annual pass (we do).
Petroglyphs at Capitol Reef
Rock formations at Capitol Reef
We left Capitol Reef and drove through Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. The road dances and winds on top of a narrow strip of land bisecting two vast canyon areas. It is a geologist’s paradise—easy to see the various colored layers of rock deposited over millennia. And finally, we reached Bryce Canyon National Park.
Bryce Canyon is known for its slowly eroding sandstone features: walls, windows, and hoodoos. The colors of the canyon are stunning—the rock is stratified with lines of red, pink, and white stone. The park was busy, and while we wanted to go down into the canyon we just didn’t have time. We did, however, enjoy the many viewpoints. Inspiration Point was definitely the highlight. It towers over 8,000 feet above the canyon floor and affords an amazing view of the canyon. We left Bryce and headed to Zion, considered the crown jewel of the five Utah national parks.
View from Inspiration Point
At Bryce Canyon
We knew we weren’t going to have a ton of time at Zion, so it is certainly a place to which we want to return. We entered the park on the east side and immediately were struck with the scale of the place. I mentioned how the Rocky Mountains skew one’s sense of scale, and Zion does that in spades. The difference is the massive rock walls surrounding you in the park are right on top of you. There is not the immense distances of glacial valleys, rather the close maze of rocks and cliffs which tower over you. Zion made me feel incredibly small, in a good way. We drove through the Zion – Mt. Carmel tunnel, which had windows carved into the side—something I’d never seen before. The tunnel runs along the edge of the mountain, and when you get to daylight on the other side, the effect is as dramatic as anything I’ve experienced. The road snakes down into the canyon, and the rocks grow larger and larger as you descend. It was really something. I wish we had had the time to walk The Narrows, venture into a slot canyon, or take on another one of Zion’s most loved hikes, but those experiences will have to wait.
On Canyon Overlook Trail at Zion
Zion after exiting Mt. Carmel tunnel
We left Zion, tired and dusty and sweaty, and drove toward Cedar City, where we enjoyed some really good Mexican food. Cedar City is also home to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which looked impressive. Our campsite was in the Cedar Breaks National Monument in a campground called Point Supreme. The camp is at about 10,000 feet elevation— and if you aren’t used to the elevation, you will certainly notice it. The camp offered a refreshingly cool and quiet refuge from the insanely busy Zion National Park. We slept beneath towering pines and firs, and in the morning stopped and took in a view of the Cedar Breaks National Monument, which is essentially the same thing as Bryce Canyon, but without all the people.
Campsite at Point Supreme
Sunset at camp
Cedar Breaks National Monument
It was an incredible day of driving and seeing the country. Our next stop is Grandview Campground in the Inyo National Forest, which features the Ancient Bristlecone Forest, home to the world’s oldest trees. To be more precise, these trees are the oldest living things on the planet. We’ll stop in Death Valley National Park on the way. Nothing like waking up at 10,000 feet and later spending some time below sea level, baking in the hot sun.
The moment we left the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, we were in new territory. The drive west on I-70 in Colorado is breathtaking: steep mountain climbs, switchbacks, endless views. All while everyone is driving about 85 miles per hour. I am glad I was not the one driving.
We arrived at Arches National Park at the hottest time of day. The thermometer in the car read 101 degrees.We didn’t have a lot I time to see the park, so we opted for a scenic drive with a few short hikes.
Arches has hundreds of sandstone arches and bridges and windows, carved by water, wind, and gravity.
While Arches was beautiful, I preferred the less crowded and more dramatic Canyonlands. There are three distinct parts of the park: The Needles, The Maze, and Island in the Sky. We visited the latter because it promised the most sweeping views of the canyons below. Some of the viewpoints were nearly 9,000 feet above the canyon floor! We felt as if we had this whole park to ourselves. It was wonderful.
I had to make this post on my phone, so please excuse any typing errors or weird formatting.
Next stop: Bears Ears National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park. See you then.
John Steinbeck’s quote “people don’t take trips, trips take people” can less eloquently be summed up as, “shit happens.” But I’ll get to that in a bit.
This stop at Rocky Mountain National Park marks our fourth visit to the park. It is a place to which we will keep returning–there is something in those mountains, valleys, vistas, and lakes that captures one’s sense of wonder and skews one’s sense of scale in a most beautiful way. You can stand surrounded by mountains, in immense glacier-carved meadows, atop craggy peaks and cliffs overlooking alpine lakes like glass, or by the meandering mountain river that carved the Grand Canyon. It is one of my favorite places in the world.
However, this was the first time we had camped in the park. Our campsite in Moraine Park was nestled on a hillside overlooking the meadow (Moraine Park, naturally) with a beautiful view of Longs Peak. Longs is a dramatic peak in the middle of a dramatic park. It was special seeing it first thing in the morning and in the pink light of a sunset.
Our first morning, we woke up with the sun and birds and went to nearby Sprague Lake, where we made coffee and watched some elk feed in the lake. It was cool and a bit foggy, making the lake feel even more quiet and still.
Our next stop was the Cub Lake trailhead. Our intentions were to make the almost 5-mile round trip trek to Cub Lake and head to the campsite to relax in our hammocks. Cub Lake is covered in lily pads (and also with ducks), making it a unique place to visit in the park. We sat on a rock on the shore, had a snack, and watched ducks (and their ducklings) swim through the labyrinth of lily pads.
We ended up too enticed by the beauty of this hike and extended it another 3.5 miles, stopping by The Pool (a feature in the Big Thompson River, pictured below) and Fern Falls. Our feet were tired when we got back to camp, but it was worth it.
So, that Steinbeck quote. As I said, his words are a more eloquent version of “shit happens.” And, well, shit happened.
The brakes in our RAV4 started grinding. We did not want to risk traveling another 7000 miles or so with bad brakes, but it turns out Estes Park is a small town with incredibly busy mechanics. I thought I’d call the Toyota dealership in Boulder (an hour drive) and see if they could get us scheduled for service that day. They said they were booked, but to bring in the car anyway and they’d have someone look at it. So we drove to Boulder (one of our favorite cities to visit, but one we had not planned on seeing this time around).
I could gush over the service department of Larry Miller Toyota in Boulder, but I won’t. I will say that they were kind and made a great effort to get us in, inspect our car, and replace our front brakes on a day when they were already booked solid. If I ever move to Boulder, I’ll buy a car from that dealership. The funny part is we decided to rent a car so we could tool around Boulder while the car was being repaired. We called Hertz and they had no cars. Seems a freak hail storm had hit Boulder three days prior, seriously damaging 80% of its fleet. I told the woman on the phone that I’d take anything, and she said she’d put me on the waiting list. We were bummed.
Five minutes later the phone rings. They have a car. Well, they had a 12-person van. I said, “Hell yes!” I drove that van to the Barnes and Noble, we bought some books, and sat in a city park reading until we both napped for a spell. The car was fixed by 3:30 and we were back in the Rockies by 5:00.
We didn’t want to waste a day, so we drove to Bear Lake, parked, and hiked to Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. Dream Lake is stunning. It is clear, shallow, and reflects the surrounding landscape like a sheet of hammered silver. The sun was coming down behind the mountains at the west end of Dream Lake–it is something I wish I could have captured in pictures, but you might have to take my word for it. A perfectly beautiful scene.
Our last morning, we woke with the sun, packed the car, and watched the sun shine on Longs Peak one last time.
Next destination: Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
I’m not sure when we’ll have WiFi again, so the next post could be a while, but I will try to make a post at every stop. Thanks for following our adventures!
Oddly enough, this is our fourth time here. It is hot as hell, about 96 degrees, but the wind is gusty and strong, which helps cool things off a bit. It seems to always be that way here. This place has been good to us–nice people and a comfortable place to sleep.
Salina, Kansas is the birthplace of Lee Jeans and at least one astronaut. The biggest employer here (by far) is Tony’s Pizza. However, we didn’t bring jeans, the campground is 100% terrestrial, and they exclusively serve Hunt Brothers Pizza.
We are glad to be here as it’s been the launching pad for all of our Rocky Mountain adventures. It is a nice respite on the road, a little cozy place at the crossroads of this weird big-ass country.
None of it quite feels real, though. We’ve been planning this trip for over a year, and we’ve been to Salina before. Hell, we’ve slept in this same little cabin next to I-70 and the little catfish pond before. But the comfort is nice. From the Rockies on, everything will be new.
John Steinbeck writes in his book Travels with Charley that “people don’t take trips, trips take people,” and while we planned everything, I’m sure we will encounter the unexpected. Of course, we hope it will be of the beautiful or funny sort.
I know some of you are “visual learners,” so I’ll try to include photos, but photos will be sporadic, and you might have to wait until we’re home. In the meantime follow Sarah on Instagram: @smcjackson. There will be a lot of photos, though, don’t worry. Thanks for reading.
Stop 2: June 18-21 – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
This year marks our 14th year as a couple and 10th year since our wedding. We never had a real honeymoon, and we’d always talked about doing something big and adventurous to celebrate our 10th anniversary.
This trip is big and adventurous. We’ll pass through 20 states, visit over 20 national parks, forests, and monuments, touch both oceans, and experience things we’ve never experienced.
We will use this blog to keep our friends and family up-to-date on our travels, and we’ll do our best to update it regularly.
First stop: June 17 – Salina, Kansas
To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted. — Bill Bryson