Thursday, July 26, 2012

Elk, Deer, and Sheepsies, oh my!

Day Ten

Rocky Mountain National Park

Total Miles Hiked: 10.24 (58.3 overall)

Who Pooped in the Park? Who?!
The ranger who helped us (this time I didn't remember to peep his name tag) could tell right away that we were bonafide nature nerds. You start dropping science slang like 'ecosystems' and 'habitat' and you'll see the smile on the rangers face. You're one of them now. He suggested a long hike up Flattop Mountain for the next day. We'd have to wake up early to make it to the trail head before the road closed in that direction; we were too late to do so today. We could, however, try our luck with the Deer Mountain loop as well as varying other short trails with wildlife opportunities. We were certainly gaining experience in hikes with high elevation gains. I'm not sure if they ever get easier. Perhaps, you, oh reader, knows an answer? Deer Mountain was a 6.2 mile trail with a 1000 ft gain. Our quads and calves would take most of the strain. And a strain it would turn out to be at the very end. Stairs. Stone stairs to the top. Don't they know I've already hiked up a few thousand feet. Is this some kind of a joke? Rachel soldiers on ahead, while I take the ol' slow and steady tortoise approach. Breath. 
A little yellow flower child hiding in the bushes.

There is no better motivation that looking up to see a small scrap of a girl looking down at you inquisitively. 

"You're almost to the top."

"I don't know, is the view worth it? Or should I just turn around?"

"I think you can do it."

Her solemn answer cinched it. And at the top, I arrived. Rachel giggled down at me, knowing I had it in me the whole time, and sometimes I can be a bit of a slow poke. 
We laid out our prepared picnic, but soon had to battle both the habituated chipmunks and the dark clouds rolling our way. We don't need much of an impetus to scarf down our sammies after that hike, and we soon do a quick tour of the available views before descending once more. Now, some people will try and tell you that going down is much harder than going up the hill. I find this to be utterly preposterous and question the sanity of these naysayers. Hiking down hill, you are more relaxed, less sweaty, often full of a snack or lunch, and generally in a much better mood. The worst is over. You get down so much faster than the hike up took you.  There's a reason for the phrase 'it's all downhill from here'. You can smile and chat with the hikers still on the struggle bus. "So close! Watch out for lightening!" You may even hold your arms out like your an airplane and let gravity pull you faster and faster down the slope. Airplane noises are optional, but recommended. Keeping an eye out for rocks and switchbacks is required. 
Rocked carried down to the alluvial fan.

The visitor center may be my new favorite way to start my mornings. Especially visitor centers when you're in a new park. New postcards to look through (still need everyone's snail mail addresses:, new stickers, new patches (my favorite), new books, new maps, new poop books. Also, we can chat with new rangers. As stated previously, Rachel and I love figuring out what sort of sights we'd like to see and how far we want to hike during our stay and getting suggestions from the Information Desk. It has yet to let us down. We knew we wanted another moderate-strenuous hike, we wanted to hike in and explore all three available ecosystems, and we desperately wanted to see some bighorn sheep or a moose. 

And then you're magically back at the trail head. No time at all.

We opted for a tiny viewpoint for our resting area/mid-day reprieve. A 70+ year old  reservoir dam had burst in 1982 releasing 220 million gallons of water to race its way to Horseshoe Park. That much water moving with such speed is a deadly, and often startling, in its sheer force. The aquatic juggernaut scooped up rocks, trees, and whatever else it darn well pleased and carried them along it's path, pounding into anything that dared get in the way. It was only an observant garbage collector, who phoned in the roaring noises, that saved the majority of the people in the path of the water catastrophe. Three people still lost their lives as the rush of water swept through a campground. The debris the flood carried was deposited in a large fan-like array (alluvial fan) that even 25+ years later can be easily observed. 

We left feeling somber and in awe of the raw power that nature possess. 

We were in need of relaxation after such an impressionable stopover. 

After two parks of hoping and searching, we were still on the hunt for the elusive Bighorn Sheep. We had seen deer all over the place. They were no big deal at this point. Elk nearly immediately greeted us the evening before on our drive into Rocky Mountain NP. Herds could be seen along the roads and moving carefully through campgrounds. Our last stop of the day was a quick drive to Sheep Lake. We focused really hard on our desire to see the sheepsies. 

And then the cars ahead of us slowed to that tell-tale creep that indicated the sighting of some charismatic critter. Could we be so lucky?


We got to the pull-in and parked.

We'd arrived just in time to watch a herd of sheep cross the meadow in front of us. Mommas and babies. 

They'd spent the day frolicking and were now heading back into the hills.

We nearly missed them. 

But we didn't!


We had a nice rest while we watched the few lingerers and chatted up the ranger on duty in the area. Ranger Volunteer Gina was lucky enough to be assigned to the Sheep Lake station for the day instead of her usual visitor center position. She informed us that the sheep hadn't been viewed in the area since Independence Day weekend. She told us more about her adventurous summer as a park intern and how she often ran programs at the visitor centers. Talk about an awesome guest's hoping!

Feeling alive with satisfaction, we managed to pull out a few more miles that evening during our periodic jogs. We found a path leading to a road and subsequent trail from our campground and had a mini-evening adventure. If you're a runner, you must head to the National Parks for some of the most gorgeous scenery ever. Just don't pull a Meridith and stumble all over the place while craning your neck to see the views.  

We were so pumped with energy from our day and run that we decided to head into the nearby town of Estes Park for some sugary Starbucks drinks and internet time. Can't be a mobile grad student without a little productivity. 

We were so starved for solid internet connections that we were eventually (politely) kicked out of the coffee shop and continued to suck up the precious from the outside tables. We must've seemed like normal, decent people that didn't smell like days of hiking and driving because we eventually garnered invitations for drinks and pool in the nearby bar from barefoot boys. Rachel knows better by now to try and dissuade me when beer, billiards, and bare feet are involved. 

We stayed long enough for Rachel's team to dominate in a fair Best Two Outta Three round and for me to find a co-author for my envisioned, future e-textbook on biostatistics before we retreated back into the park for sleep. 

Question of the Day:
Could Rachel and I beat you in a game of pool?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hello, Goodbye

Day Nine

Arches to Rocky NP

Total Miles Hiked: 0 (48.06 overall)

We knew leaving Arches NP and Moab that our destination would be vastly different than our origin. I was more than happy to finally be trading the sand, sun, and rock formations in for the soul refreshing mountains, trees, and streams. Such an eventful day of driving deserves to have its own road trip mix. We've jammed to all of these songs on our drives.

Rachel's Ramblings:
I was a bad invasive species ecologist for the first few stops on our trip.  Meridith and I had discussed out travels before leaving and both agreed we wanted to minimize our impact on the parks we visited.  One of the major challenges facing many ecosystems on the planet are invasive species.  If any of you have been with Meridith's blog for the long haul, you know over her spring break she came and profiled my (and my lab's) work on wetlands in California.  If you're just now following her, the short version is this:  I study the impacts of invasive species on ecosystem processes, usually applying potential impacts of invasive to food web structure within a certain community.  Invasive species are, by definition, any organisms non-native to an area which cause some sort of harm by their presence. Thus, I'm uniquely concerned about my own ability to spread the species I study around the different areas I work.  To keep this from happening, because, really, how embarrassing would that be, I take some pretty simple precautions.  

So, why do I feel I was bad for the first few stops on our trip?  You see, Meridith and I had developed a plan for avoiding spreading seeds, spores, or small critters between parks, but we failed to implement it until we were traveling from Arches NP to Rocky Mountain NP.  I justified it because Carlsbad, Zion, and Arches were all pretty similar ecosystems with lots of species overlap.  That aside, we didn't follow the plan, and we should have, but now we are, and you can too!  I'd like to point out before going on, that this method is really more my opinion and based on conversations I've had with other scientists.  I haven't looked up these things in the scientific literature (though I know the literature exists, and I would love it if you sent me some!).  However,  I think these steps are practical and that they do help, or at least they certainly don't hurt.  I would encourage everyone traveling between ecosystems, especially those known to have invasive species, to take similar steps or do their own research on the topic.

A Few Simple Tips to Avoid Being a Vector for Invasion:

  1. Clean your shoes between locations.  Seeds, small mollusks, fungal spores, and lots of other things can cling to the bottom of your shoes, or get stuck in the tread of your boots.  If you can, make a bleach solution and soak the soles of your shoes.  If you don't have access to bleach (like we don't) give the soles a good scrubbing, then spray them down with 409 and let it sit for a little while (remember this is what the ranger did to our boots at Carlsbad Caverns NP).
  2. Wash and dry (preferably on high) clothes worn in one area before wearing them in another area.  You know how plant parts love to stick to your socks and pants and everywhere while you are hiking in the woods?  Plants are clever, but you can outwit them.
  3. It's the whole "take only pictures, leave only footprints" thing, this is just one more application of this really important advice.  This goes a little without saying, but we have heard the Junior Rangers at each park promising to leave the pretty flowers they see so that other can enjoy them (so cute!).  Another good reason to not pick flowers, buy seed packs from areas outside your home region, or otherwise transport wild plants or animals is to avoid the spread of invasive species. 

Question of the Day:
Will you adapt any of Rachel's tips to help stop the spread of invasive organisms?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Love in the Desert?

Day Eight

Arches National Park
Moab, UT
Founded: 1971

Total Miles Hiked: 10.5  (48.06 overall)

We'd arrived too late to secure a camp spot in the park, however the nearby city of Moab had a plethora of private campgrounds to choose from. After consulting our handy Fodor's guide, we soon were on our way to the recommended Slick(Shady)rock campground. It had all of the typical amenities: small grill, shade, restrooms, office wi-fi, pool, hot tubs, showers. We may not be in the park, but we'd be living in luxury and leave smelling like delicate desert flowers. For however long that lasts.

We only had the one day in the park, so we made sure to wake up early to make the most of our time. Someone once told me that Arches NP is where you go to fall in love with the desert. Now, I've been living in the desert for over two years now and have only a mild toleration for an area that is mainly devoid of forests and streams. But, I wanted to give the desert another chance.

As always, we stopped off at the visitor's center for our trinkets and usual chat with the Rangers at the information desk. We've yet to be disappointed by the advice of the Rangers, and this morning Steven and Emma were not about to break that streak. Rachel and I usually try and have a basic idea of what we want to accomplish in a park. How far we want to hike (usually about 10 miles per day) and what sights we would like to see (arches and some bighorn sheep, please). Steven recommend the full Devil's Garden trail (with primitive loop), a restful afternoon out of the sun, a quick walk around Balanced Rock, and then to top it off with a sunset trip to the Delicate Arch. Emma was our go to for bighorn sheep questions. Where can we find them? Does she know where they are right now. Is she hiding them? Can she let them come out and play? We were informed that sheep sightings are still rare in the park, but to keep an eye out during the first three miles. Oh, Emma, I don't think you realize how badly we want to see the sheeps!

Landscape Arch. Can you tell where a slab fell?
Our first trail was at the far end of the park, so we enjoyed the drive out by obsessively searching for sheep. Devils Garden is a trail that may be enjoyed at several different difficulty levels. Many of the arches available for viewing are towards the beginning of the journey directly off the gravel path. You may go as far as Landscape Arch, the longest in the park, before the primitive loop begins. Here, we were soon traversing and scrambling over rocks and ridges. Rachel's choice of wearing a hiking dress that day was nearly a poor one, but she managed to stay decent. The crowd thinned as we encountered more and more arches and more and more difficult pathways. The rock cairns I explained yesterday were especially helpful on this terrain, and they often kept us on the right route.

We'd started off on the trail in the mid-morning hours, and were able to enjoy the cooler morning temperatures for some time. However, the desert is good at heating up once the sun is comfortable high in the sky. We aren't ones to disregard park warnings, so we were well equipped with our water bladders in our packs, each holding 3 liters of water.

When we reached the end of the trail we were more than happy to have a rest and picnic in the limited shade we could find. Dark Angel looked over us as we munched our sammies and snacks. Then, once more, we were in the sun hiking back. Our second wind was more of a sweltering breeze due to the heat, and we were soon grateful to stand in whatever shady patch we could find. Despite the liters of water consumed, our hands were still swollen slightly by the time we reached the main trail again, a sure sign of the start of dehydration. The trail head and accompanying water supply were a welcoming sight.

Balanced rock being all balanced and such.
We had plenty of time to spare before we needed to head out towards Delicate Arch for sunset and little desire to stay in the sun for much longer and, so, set out to find a place with shade to rest, write, and snack.

The picnic area across from Balanced Rock proved to be just the place for all of our needs. While most of the tables were in the blistering sun, we managed to score one with a lovely tree bending over to protect us with its shade. I tried to write some informative words for you, oh readers, but Rachel's napping just looked so peaceful and I knew I wanted to join.

"Meridith....Meridith. Your face it in the sun."

Rachel, once again saving me from certain cancerous doom.

To recover from our slumber, we got after some hummus with pita chips in a completely unladylike manner. But, it did the trick and we were soon back on the trails where we explored the mini loop around Balanced Rock before setting off for the Delicate Arch trail head.

We had plenty of time to meander along the route to the most famous of all arches in the park. We encountered the homestead of the first settler in the area. An Ohio man, who escaped to the West for the drying, presumed healthier, climate.  He built a teensy one room home for himself and his son. Later, when his daughter and her family joined them, he built a proper house with wood floors and everything. It was still teensy and perhaps had just slightly more space for the 4+ people than Rachel had when she lived in my laundry room senior year of college. Teeny tiny.

Continuing once more, ever closer to the final destination, we came upon what Rachel holds among her top 10 favorite things she's ever seen. Petroglyphs on a rock above the trail. Perhaps as old as 400 years, these markings revealed horseback Ute Native Americans hunting bighorn sheep.  Small dog like creatures were also included. We were really impressed with the lasting power of the art and we walking on finally, still wondering about the markings that didn't last the years and the individual who had sat there so long ago patiently carving the scene.

After some unexpectedly steep uphill climbs, we finally turned a corner and were presented with a sight we'd only seen in photographs, postcards, and nature documentaries. Delicate Arch. We'd arrived early enough to get a decent spot among the droves of people with the same sunset plans we had. It did, however, prove difficult to get a shot of the arch without a group of ridiculously posed tourists. The line of groups and families waiting to get that perfect picture under the arch seemed never ending, and if any stayed too long blocking the shots of other photographers wanting that solitary shot of the majestic arch, they were requested in no polite tones to move along.

We had both expected the sun to set behind the arch, however it actually slunk away behind our backs, drawing the shadows up over the arch from the bottom. Still a wonderful sight to behold. Several adventurous young sightseers took in the view from atop the nearby rock formations. The darkness grew, yet we stayed behind to enjoy the desert night. We were well prepared with jackets and headlamps, so felt no anxiety towards the upcoming night hike back to our vehicle.

The darkness welcomed us and we welcomed the sounds and sights of the nocturnal wildlife, awaking with the moon. We kept a slow pace so that everyone could pass us and take their noises with them. It's always good to hear people enjoying the natural beauty of the parks, however many do not realize that the show is not over. It's just starting. Once the night air was empty of these sounds, it began to offer up its own. We chose a spot on a small bridge over a pool of water. Day or night, water is a great place to find wildlife. We waited. It was not long until we were rewarded with the sounds of bullfrogs calling to potential mates, the flapping of bat wings as they whiz by us, and various insects chirping and humming. We listened and watched the stars come out before we said our final goodbyes to the park.

I don't know if I'm in love with the desert yet. It's still hot and often times not as elaborate or as colorful as Arches. Maybe I'm a little in love with shade in the desert, and that counts.

*more photos later - I can only do so much on stolen Yellowstone Staff wifi!*

Question of the Day:
What is your favorite type of landscape?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Lead the Way

Day Seven

Zion to Arches
Total Miles Hiked: 2.86 (37.56 overall)

Another day on the road and once more the scenery is gorgeous. It's also really enjoyable to take in while going the posted speed limit: 80 mph! We had a lot of state to cover. Of the five different National Parks that Utah has to offer, Zion and Arches are the furthest two apart. Going from Z to A is a fresh change of pace. We were really beginning to appreciate Utah, maybe it has a bit of a bad rap due to the wimpy beers and excess salt in lakes. However, things started to get a little shady. We were in need of lunchtime refreshments and were desperately searching for a rest stop. Now, normally, every so often there are places you can pull directly off the highway, have a tinkle, stretch your limbs, and suck up some caffeine. In Utah, they are a little confused. After changing highways, we spotted a telling blue sign for a rest stop and exited. We were already looking around for the parking lot area, however we were quickly instructed via subsequent signage to continue back towards the highway we'd just left. 3 miles. To a gas station? The sign in front proudly announced the rest stop, sponsored by Cheveron. It was a Cheveron. Oh, Utah. You got us.

Ceder Breaks National Monument - meadow + forest
Photo by Rachel
Rachel's Ramblings:
Have you ever gotten lost?  I’m guessing most people have.  However, I’m willing to bet that this happens to me more than the average bear.  I don’t know if it’s because I have a tragically bad sense of direction, or if I’m just too busy thinking about other things I have to do later, you know, after I achieve my destination.  In either case, I’ve been lost a fair number of times.  I’ve actually stopped calling it “being lost,” because that sounds too negative.  Now, whenever I find myself off the beaten path for some reason, I am “on an adventure.”

Leaving Zion - one last view of the sandstone walls.
Photo by Rachel
Lucky for Meridith, I took us on one such adventure when we were traveling from Zion to Arches.  But really, who wouldn’t want to pass back through Zion and see all those amazing sandstone formations one more time?  Basically, I got my easts and my wests a little confused and, BAM, our adventure had begun.  Lucky for me, after I gave Meridith many “I’m sorry”s accompanied by my best doe-eyed sad face she forgave me and saw the good in the situation.

Dixie National Forest - freshwater riparian area
Photo by Rachel
Our new path would take us through Dixie National Forest (!  This is quite a large national forest (almost two million acres according to their website), and in the high elevations that we were driving through is dominated by aspen and various conifers.  This area is also dotted with many lakes.  Many of the lakes we passed were lovely with intact floodplains.  We admired the scenery of Dixie National Forest, about to be back on track when…the road was closed ahead, and we were redirected into Cedar Breaks National Monument.  At this point, we were just rolling with it. 

On the 70E in CO:  We crossed over those mountains 
and were uncomfortably close to the clouds.
Photo by Rachel
Cedar Breaks National Monument ( is an equally beautiful place to visit.  We drove through the high elevation forests, and saw some really stunning vistas.  I love high elevation meadows like the one pictured.  In front of all the meadows we passed were signs reading “Don’t Drive on Meadow.”  While that might seem like it would go without saying, it’s an excellent move on the part of Cedar Breaks to keep traffic off the meadows.  Subtle changes in elevation (like those resulting from foot traffic…or cars) can have major impacts on meadow ecosystems.  You might also notice in the right of the meadow pictures a stand of dead spruce trees.  We noticed this in Cedar Breaks and Dixie.  This is the result of the native spruce bark beetle which has reached epidemic proportions in recent years.  You can get the full story here (  The current scientific theory is that a fungus is weakening tree’s natural defenses so trees that should fight off bark beetle infestation end up succumbing to the attack.  They are working on the problem, and increased scientific understanding is feeding directly into management action. 

After passing out of Cedar Breaks we were (finally) back on our original route and heading out of Utah and into Colorado!    

Getting lost while on a park trail is a major concern that you should keep in mind when hiking. Many parks have trails that are well developed and easy to follow. Other trails may be a bit more difficult to follow if they are a more natural terrain or if heavy weather is present. Some mountain trails experience white-outs that make things rather difficult to navigate. The current solution to this dilemma is about as simple as they get. You've probably already seen it and perhaps didn't recognize the significance.

Rock cairns.

Or, rather, those silly little rock piles that you see everywhere.

They are actually handy little guides.

I've seen them lots to mark switch backs and overgrown trails.

Maybe if Zion had used them to mark the route to Arches we wouldn't have gotten lost...I mean gone on a surprise adventure.

Question of the Day:
Have you ever been hiking a trail that used rock cairns? Did you know they were so helpful?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Healthy Dose of Fear

Day Six

Zion National Park
Total Miles Hiked: 9 (34.7 overall)

A long rest was needed after the ups and downs of the previous day. The weather had cleared up enough for us to feel comfortable braving the Narrows. Even though we would be without the recommended walking stick. We took our sweet time puttering around South Campground in the morning. We realized we underpaid for the first two nights (access passes get 50% discount on campsite fees, not annual passes). We paid for one more night and the difference we owed, again careful to not upset any camping karma. We were nearly immediately rewarded when we noticed a Free Stuff Pile and there on top was a perfectly good, albeit slightly bent, walking stick! After another chat with the helpful Rangers Carolyn and Amanda, we were once more on the shuttle to the Temple of the Sinawava. 

Rachel's Ramblings:

The Virgin River, and all rivers really, is a very powerful thing. 

As we rode the shuttle up to the trailhead, the soothing voice over the bus speakers told us about the many times the river had washed out the road causing evacuations and necessitating road repair.  Despite the many times this had happened, the voice assured us it would have happened a lot more if not for the work of the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (the workers were segregated and no women ever enrolled).  Back in the 1930s and 40s these government workers came in and did hours of what was certainly physically taxing labor to secure the river banks.  This engineering of the river caused it to run straighter, faster, and kept water out of the historic flood plain and, thus, out of the road. 

Despite the good intentions of the CCC, all their hard work had unexpected consequences on the riparian ecosystem surrounding the Virgin River.  As our drive up to the trail head continued, the voice informed us that most of the cotton wood trees along the riparian strip next to the Virgin River were about the same age, and that is why we saw so many dead trees on the drive.  These trees were old.  You see, cotton wood trees need areas with near constant water sources to grow.  Even the fluffy seeds the trees release each year have to land on damp soil in order to germinate.  Due to the flood control measures enacted in the early 20th century, there are very few young cotton wood trees along this area of the river.

The shuttle audio didn’t go into detail, it was only a 30 minute drive after all, but this sort of change in riparian vegetation can have major impacts on ecosystems.  I’m not trying to bash the CCC.  It’s so easy to look at these sorts of situations with our modern eye and pass judgment.  However, I think Zion felt it important to share this story so that visitors could see how fragile these ecosystems really are.         
Still wide at the beginning of the trail.
Lots of sun.

We arrived. The paved beginning of the Riverside Walk was quite crowded with both hikers and crazy, in your face  canyon squirrels. Obviously one or two or a few hundred of the park visitors had disregarded the numerous postings about the importance of not feeding the wildlife. I saw small children walking right up to the rodents while their parents did nothing to protect them. No fear in these little guys. We continued along the river to the entrance.

We checked the skies once more before wading into the Virgin River for our adventure. Clear and sunny. No death via flash flood for at least a little while. Heading further up the river, the number of people thinned and the water deepened to our waists. Luckily, we are good little thinker-aheaders and had purchased dry bags before entering the park, so all of our day pack goodies were safe. Rachel, being the stream walking goddess that she is, decided I would benefit more from our karma walking stick. I completely did.

Our tiny sliver of sky for cloud watching.
The first three miles had periodic banks where we could escape the waters and tricky rocky bottoms for a nice stroll. Then back into the drink. After those initial three miles lay an additional two where we would be hiking in the river the entire time. This was where the danger zone really began. Clouds could roll in at any time upriver and release their torrents and we'd be subject to the results with little time to react. Only a tiny sliver of sky was viable above us, but we kept an eye on it at all times. Flash floods are a constant threat to hikers in the Narrows. If you can't get to high ground, then your best bet it to try and wedge yourself behind rocks or cracks in the wall. 

Not the deepest we went!
We kept on. The water sometimes up to our waists. The rocks sometimes tricking our feet into thinking they were stable. Jerks. Even though I had the walking stick, I still took a few tumbles into the water while Rachel gracefully (well, more so than me) crossed back and forth over the river. I have to admit. The entire time we were hiking past the safe(er) zone I was looking for the best places to wedge myself (and Rachel) in case of a flash flood. It was much too lovely of a day to die in a furious barrage of water and tree detritus. 

Enthralled by the tadpolies.
Even with the fear of death, the walk proved to be a worthy endeavor. The sunlight tickled in every so often illuminating the impressive sandstone walls surrounding us. We hugged the walls every so often and were in awe of the colors, curves, and hidden treasures they offered. Some sections were shockingly smooth to the touch. We happened across pools teeming with aquatic wildlife that kept us enthralled for quite some time. Tadpoles darted about trying to eat up all the algal yummies so they could grow up to be big and strong with legs and everything. 

Rachel urged me further and further with the blatant lie of 'let's just check out what's around the next bend'. There was even some veiled taunting, even it she may not admit it.

"Are you sure you don't want to go as far as the old men?" RDW
I did want to go that far. Dang it. 

Our little bit of sunshine in the Narrows.
We kept on like brave explorers until we reached an area that we were informed would reach to nearly our chinny chin chins.

We looked at each other an a glimmer of understanding passed between us. We were brave, strong, adventurous women. We could handle anything.

And thus, we turned and headed back to the trail head. Even adventurous women need to know when to call it a day.

It ended up being a very solid decision, as we felt the first few drops of rain as we neared the area with the embankments. Once higher ground was within our reach, we both admittedly felt a surge of relief. There wasn't a flash flood that day, but we were happy that we would've been safe had it been otherwise.

We emerged from the water once more victorious in our hike. The masses of people returned, as did the canyon squirrels. They would benefit from exhibiting the same amount of caution and fear as we had on our journey.

Question of the Day:
Have you even gone through with something, even though you were afraid? How did it turn out?

Everything the Light Touches is Yours

Day Five

Zion National Park
Established: 1909

Total Miles Hiked: 11.1 (25.7 overall)

Arriving at Zion NP the afternoon before had been a breathtaking event. Chelsea had warned us of its beauty, but the canyon is truly a sight you need to behold with your own eyes to appreciate. We wound down the mountain from the Southeast entrance, taking in as many views as possible without driving straight off the road. We passed through a tunnel and held our breath like good adventurers are supposed to do. We attempted to do the same at the next tunnel, but when we nearly passed out we decided it was best to cut our losses. For your future endevors, know that a 1.1 mile long tunnel is not the best place for the breath holding game. We managed to snag one of the few remaining First Come First Serve campsites (South Campground), checked out the nearby Visitor's Center for our customary swag, and settled down with a hot dinner courtesy of my new backpacking stove. Then off to bed for another night in the tent.

Ranger Carolyn had warned us the previous day against hiking the Narrows due to a high chance of flash floods (we later learned that there indeed had been a flood on this day). She could tell we were pretty extreme ladies and recommended the Observation Point hike. This 8 mile hiked gained 2,148 feet to a viewpoint of Zion Canyon.

We were up and scurrying around the campsite before the sun peeked over the canyon walls. With a hot breakfast in our bellies, we gathered the supplies we'd need to fill our day packs. Snacks. Lots of water. First Aid Kit. Rain gear. Hats. Sunscreen. Headlamps. Multi-tool. Binoculars. Phones (in a plastic baggie). Cameras. Maps. Rain.


We might have been ready to head out on our hike, but apparently nature wasn't ready for us. We managed to stow our packs in the car, grab our letter writing box and hide in the tent while we waited out the rain.

A few postcards later, the rains let up and we quickly grabbed our packs and headed towards the visitor center before the sky changed its mind. Zion NP is uniquely in that it is primarily car-free park. We were able to leave our car at the campsite and walk a short jaunt to the nearby shuttle stop, where we immediately hopped on a shuttle. The ride was accented by an audio tour that points out major formations along the route in addition to detailing each stop. We rode our shuttle to the very top to catch the whole speal before heading back to our desired stop at Weeping Rock.

Hiking a narrow part of the trail.
After taking in a few informational signs, we were hiking and ascending towards Observation Point. We hike and climb. We climb and hike. We sweat and walk. We later agreed that had someone pointed out to us the ending location of our hike it would have been much more daunting. However, since we were blissfully unaware of the realities of our situation, the day went by quickly. We cheerfully greet people as they pass us. The normal hiking pleasantries, "Hey there, How's it going?, See ya at the top, Holy crap, sir, is it much further?". We enjoy talking to strangers. Most smiled and replied in kind.

It must be noted that every single stretch of this trail offered a wonderful view. We twisted in and out of different areas along the canyon walls. Sometime overlooking the Virgin River. Sometimes in narrow canyons. Sometimes with a view of pine trees. We took a birage of photos along the way, each time completely certain that the image captured couldn't possibly be topped by another.

When we were thinking that we simply couldn't go on much further, a lovely couple encouraged us with the reassurancet that we were only a few switchbacks from the top and then the trail would level out among the trees. We scrambled to the top and bathed in the shade of the Ponderosa Pines. Only a tiny bit further.


View from the top
Now that's a view. Even with clouds rolling in with some light rain on the far side of the canyon, this was still a spectacular vantage point overlooking Zion Canyon. The other hikers seemed just as pleased with the visual reward and lounged around, looking victorious. We were quickly welcomed into the elite ranks of successful summiteers. People are much more willing to chat with you when they are rested and enjoying the fruits of their labors. We took photos for other groups and they returned the favor for us.

I believe everyone would have been content to stay at the top of the canyon wall for the better portion of the afternoon. The clouds were creeping closer, and even though we were on the highest of high ground, we still felt the need to get back to our campsite. Bidding farwell and exchanging some campsite numbers with our new friends, we scampered down the trail much faster than the climb.

Happy faces at the top!
Safe and sound at the campsite, we once more began to forage. We were quite proud of our afternoon feat and felt deserving of an appropriately delicious treat. Before leaving for our journey, we'd stocked up on food and snacks, but one stood above the rest.


They are the perfect candy. My favorite. I love eating them one color at a time. Letting them sit in my mouth until the candy coating melts (in the rightful place) them enjoying the chocolately center. Rattling the bag to make sure I've captured all the yellow ones before moving on to green.

We pull the unopened bag from our cooler. A fresh chill treat. I pull back the plastic tab to reveal the resealable zipper. XXL 56 ounce bags don't mess around. I pull open the bag.

Now there is really only one reason I would go through the trouble of taking you through this giant lead up. Something bad has happened. Something tragic. A disaster of fierce proportions.

The bag had leaked.

Only a wet, brown desicration remained.

You can imagine my heartbreaking disappointment. My new favorite candy is now goldfish crackers. That is all I have to say about that.

I decided to make a glorious dinner to raise our spirits and set off into town in search of an onion. So many grand meals start with an onion. I decided on the camping stove version of the meal Chelsea had prepared for us. When I got back to good ol' campsite 34 I was greeted by Rachel and two of our new friends from Observarion point. B and Br had decided to take us up on our dinner enticements and came bearing gifts of cheese, ramen, and a slackline. My dinner didn't call for their provided ingredients, but Rachel's enthusiasm over the slackline was immense. She's now hooked and wants her own to perfect her skills.

After enjoying some after dinner refreshments, we chatted, we wandered about, we discussed the finer points of being a trail creeper (hint: it involved popping out from behind bushes and aggressively inquiring whether the unsuspecting hiker is a part of a very popular social networking site). The night wound down, as did we, and the first few stars began to visualize. Rachel gets excited if there are more than 4 stars out and tried to point out what she could. Br somehow manage to manifest a purple laser pointer that could be used to point out stars. But it was not quite dark enough. Our new friends eventually had to return to their own campsite, but gifted the laser pointer to us (they had two) so that Rachel could fulfill her new found desire to point at things in the sky. We will have to pass it on eventually and keep the camping karma going by meeting more friends and bestowing something of ours onto them.

Zion friends, if B managed to remember the website and you come check out our blog, shoot us an email with your details at If you include your addresses we'll send you postcards!

Questions of the Day:
Have you ever made friends when talking to strangers on an adventure?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

This Land is Your Land: When Rachel Pretends to be Woody Guthrie

Las Cruces to Carlsbad - Desert Rainstorm.
Photo by Rachel
Las Cruces to Carlsbad - Guadaupe Mnts.
Photo by Rachel

Day Four
Albuquerque to Zion NP
Total Miles Hiked: 0 (14.6 overall)

Albuquerque to Zion - Entering Navajo Nation
Photo by Rachel
ABQ to Zion - Crooked View of Wahweap Bay, UT
Photo by Rachel
During the winter of 2010 (20Dime for those in the know), I finally got around to reading a book my father had lent to me about a year previous.  It was a daunting, historical tome, my dad’s favorite type of book, but I had never successfully gotten into the genera.  Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose was not only entertaining and informative, but really provoked my imagination.  I loved picturing all those brave men and their one female companion, Sacagawea, paddling up river with all their supplies until they reached the continental divide and the rivers changed directions.  I thought about how much I would have loved to be on that expedition.  I was even more excited the story also involved one of my favorite historical figures, Thomas Jefferson (T.J. for short, we’re that tight).  His major reservation about acquiring the Louisiana Purchase, which was a steal of a deal by the way, was that it would make America too large.  How could one government possibly oversee such a big area? Thus, Lewis and Clark’s mission was exploratory and scientific.  What did we just buy, and how can we connect it all?  One thing they really noticed was how many different plants, animals, rock forms, and ecosystems they passed through in their journey.  Lewis studied with renowned scientists of the day just to prepare for the trip.  He knew how to technically describe, identify, and preserve specimens.  Cool guy, right?  My favorite thing about the book was the experts from Lewis and Clark’s diaries (which they were both required to keep and hoped to publish).  They both described the changing landscape around them with such vivid 19th century pizazz. 
ABQ to Zion - Train through AZ

“The day cold and fair with a high easterly wind: we were visited by two Indians who gave us an account of the country and people near the Rocky Mountains where they had been.” ~Meriwether Lewis
ABQ to Zion - The Big Sky of the Hopi Reservation
Photo by Rachel
That’s what has been running through my head as Meridith drives and I snap pictures out the window of the car.  How cool and huge is our country?  How many amazing and diverse ecosystems will we be passing through?  We’ve already seen the low and high desert, the myriad ecosystems occurring at different elevations along the Navajo Sandstone within Zion, and soon we will be heading north, then to the Pacific Northwest where (spoiler) the USA houses it’s very own rainforest.  While we make our journey, I will be documenting the amazing things we see along our drive.  I know not everyone has the time to go on an epic road trip, but when you are driving from destination to destination in your daily lives, take the time to look out the window.  And remember what Woody Guthrie said.  This land was made for you and me.

Question of the Day:
What are your favorite roadside attractions and distractions?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Love Letters and Salutations

Day Three

Carlsbad Caverns to Albuquerque
Total Miles Hiked: 3.1 (14.6 Overall)

Driving days can be a nice reprieve from the long hiking days in the sun, but there's a limited amount of adventure you can have when in a car for six hours. Rachel and I both have thesis related work to make progress on and that takes up a fair deal of time. However, we also absolutely love to write postcards. We try and buy a few at each park gift shop we stop at, as well as some pit stops along the road. Roswell, NM was a prime post card purchasing location. Pretty much everyone who provides an address will get at least one during the trip!

Postcards ready to be sent out!
If you would like to be added to our writing list and know us personally, feel free to send us Facebook messages with your snail mail addresses!

If you are a lovely blog reader and would still like a postcard from either Rachel, myself, or both please shoot us an email with your address to

We also take requests and will write a pretty haiku just for you!

EDIT: Errmehgrrrd! We rudely forgot to mention our gracious host, Chelsea, for taking care of us in ABQ. We got a little spoiled being allowed to shower, feed, and do laundry after just one park. Chelsea provided us with a fine Chana masala dinner and bagel/fruit breakfast that we've yet to top. Many thanks to her and we hope to see her guest star again on our trip!
"Doesn't happen very often, and sometimes it takes a while, but occasionally a meme will change my life." CEB
Question of the Day:
Do you still send snail mail?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Top of the Top and the Bottom of the Bottom

Day Two

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Total Miles Hiked: 10 (11.5 overall)

Birds wake up much too early in the desert. We'd set our alarms for a respectable7:45, but since neither of us could locate Nature's snooze button, it was even earlier when we emerged from our own tent cave. Was just as well, it was helpful to get an early start while the last cloud stragglers remained to hide us from the sun. We packed up our inaugural camp site (not before snapping a photo or two and scarfed down a apple and granola bar breakfast of champions) and took off to the far end of the park. We'd consulted with our handy Fodor's Guide to the National Parks of the West and decided on the recommended Yucca Canyon Trail.
Biologist love this shit and so do dung beetles.

We had to backtrack a little to find the well-marked turnoff for Rattlesnake Springs/Slaughter Canyon cave and from there it was as simple as following a few signs. You have to drive through private lands to get back onto National Park property, but immediately following the transition we spotted a sign for Yucca Canyon. Terribly excited, we parked and practically skipped down the gravel road towards the mountains and canyons. We oooh and ahhh'ed over the types of critters that only science nerds would get excited about. Seriously, when was the last time you were pumped to find a bunch of dung beetles rolling poop? The trail took us along the border fence, closer and closer to the canyons ahead. Eventually the path turned directly towards the mountains and we knew we were close....
Oh. Well then. Onward.

To the trail head?

Looking around in a daze, we realized that we'd been walking along the road that was intended to bring us straight to the canyon trail head. For at least a mile.

We would just now be starting our 6 miles to the top.

No turning back now!

Over the next three miles we ascended 1,575 ft to the top of the true trail. While that last mile was strenuous and we'd slowed considerably since first leaving the car, the final view of the surrounding area was a worthwhile reward. The flat top featured a transformed landscape from shrubby desert plants to a juniper grove where mule deer bounded away from our intrusion. We slowly snacked on raisins and dried apricots, each unwilling to be the one to suggest heading back down the mountain. We were a little beat.

"Grad school has made us soft." RDW

This little guy greeted us at the top.
But we seemed to make it down the mountain in record time. Knowing we still had to traverse the stretch of road we'd originally mistook for trail was slightly daunting. A lot of the joy from our initial jaunt was gone. It didn't help that the clock was teasing us. If we hurried, there was just enough time to make it back to the caverns for a second self-guided tour. But this time we could enter through the Natural Entrance we'd seen the bats emerge from the previous night. Last entrance time was 3:00. We could make it!

We didn't make it. Rolling up to the visitor's center at 3:05, we felt a good deal disappointed. The Natural Entrance tour would've allowed us to descend the 750 feet into the caves via switchback trails instead of the elevator we'd taken yesterday.

But we were too late.

We decided to take advantage of the facilities while we were around and fill up our small army of water bottles and bladders. We'd also have to get a back country permit for the night.

The PA came on. A voice delivered its message.

We looked at each other.

"Did he just say we had 15 more minutes before the Natural Entrance closed?"

"I think so. Should we go?"


We fumbled around for a moment, arms still full of water containers, unsure what our next move should be.
I looked down at my flippy floppies that had replaced my hiking boots. Those wouldn't do.

We made it back to the car to deposit our water bottles back into their cooler and switch back into appropriate foot gear. I opted for my trusty rope sandals. Cave paths don't get too wet, right? (Hint: they do.)

Standing at the Entrance once more, we marveled once more at the memory of the bats still fresh in our minds. We marveled at the ingenuity of Jim White, the first known explorer of the cave, for being inquisitive and determined enough to enter the cave back in 1898 with only a ladder he'd fashioned out of wire and wood and a lantern between his teeth. He might have been one of the Original American Badasses. We stopped marveling long enough to go further into the cave. Where we promptly did some more marveling.

Deeper and deeper into the caves, we enjoyed the views, but kept ever vigilant for a stray bat or other rogue cave critters. Eventually, we came across the most glorious sight I've yet to behold in a cave.

Iceberg Rock.

Rock is a bit of an understatement. Iceberg Granddaddy of all Boulders might be more appropriate, but still underselling it.

And our first impressive view of this gargantuan beast of solid rock that had fallen from the ceiling at some point in the past was still the 'tip' of the iceberg.

Cave formations rock!
Once I'd stopped flipping my mind over the size of the rock, Rachel was able to drag me further down the trail. She did not fully grasp the awesome as I did. I be she would've respected my new favorite rock had she'd been around when it came crashing to the cave floor. BOOM! The trail took us down and around Iceberg Rock, then back to the elevators that brought us down the previous day. Back up and out to the information desk once more. We got our first back country permit of the trip and headed back to the far par of the park to hike in and find a suitable section to camp.

After stopping at the secluded, yet rattlesnake-free Rattlesnake Springs for a quick lay in the grass and birdwatching, we were bouncing along the gravel road towards our desired trail. Ahead in the road I spotted something. Something brown. Something brown and fuzzy. Something brown and fuzzy and leggy. Mustering all of my ecologist training I swerved off the road and threw the car into park, yelling at Rachel to get into science mode as well.

We leaped from the car and ran to investigate.

We totally ecologied him. Photo by Rachel
Our first desert tarantula. He was quite ready to get out of our way and back to minding his own business, so we snapped a few photos and back on the road.

The area surrounding the trail was pretty heavily vegetated, but we managed to find just the right spot. And thus I backpacked for the very first time. 1/2 mile from the trail head might not be far, but it counts! And so ends day 2.

Question of the Day:
Have you ever taken a wrong turn that turned out not so bad?

Friday, July 13, 2012

It's (Not) In My Hair!

Day One and a Half

White, NM
National Park Since: 1930

Total Miles Hiked: 1.5

Rainy days are a special treat when you live in the desert. Summer has assaulted you from all sides since March/April and this year our freedom from the desert dry conditions came with a bang on the Fourth of July. The rains have continued and followed along thus far on our journey. However, as hard as it has tried, it can't rain in the caves. They can however close down several trails. 

Day one is implicitly full of different milestones and firsts. We are now the official co-wielders of a brand spanking new America the Beautiful pass. My first time investing in a full year pass. This year's card has a photo that begs to be replicated. We may now get in free to every national park, monument, battlegrounds, seasides, etc. Now the parks truly belong to us.

We're ready to explore the caverns. The ever-vigilant park rangers had a few questions for us before we could proceeded.

Have you been in a cave or a mine since 2005? Yes, how else was I going to capture a cave cricket for my Entomology collection?

Are you wearing the same clothes/shoes as you were then? I like to get the most out of my hiking, yes.

We needed to go through the decontamination process. Is this going to be like the creepy scenes from E.T.? 

Rachel's Ramblings:

Lucky for us, Meridith did not end up in that creepy iron lung thing (we also didn't end up flying over New Mexico with me in a bike basket, which was a let down).  We did, however, get our boots decontaminated in order to kill potential hitchhiking fungal spores. According to the National Park Service's (NPS) website, and Ranger Val who told us all about it later in the day, between the winters of 2006 and 2007 scientists studying bats around Albany, New York started noticing a large number of bat mortalities.  In 2011 the cause of death was officially traced back to the fungus Geomyces destructans which causes what has become known colloquially as White Nose Syndrome (WNS).  The theory goes like this, G. destructans grows on the bodies of hibernating bats, irritating them and causing them to come out of the state of hibernation.  The whole point of hibernation is to slow all of the bat's bodily functions (ex: metabolism) down as much as possible so they can get through the winter months when food is in short supply.  When bats wake up ahead of schedule, they burn off part of their precious energy stores, and, as a result, they must venture out into the cold in search of food.  When you only weigh a few ounces or less, like many North American species of bat, this can be deadly.
Ranger Will making sure we don't spread White Nose. 
Luckily for the bats at Carlsbad Caverns NP, they are a migratory, not a hibernating, species.  However, little is known about the potential of this cold-loving fungus to spread to warmer climates, and even less is known about the impacts infection could have if it did reach bats in these regions.  Thus, over the past few years, the NPS has adopted a White Nose Syndrome monitoring protocol as well as a prevention system.  This gets us back around to our Carlsbad Caverns decontamination.  When we purchased our tickets, one of the super friendly Rangers asked us if we were wearing gear that had been in any other cave or mine since 2005.  I had actually just been to Mammoth Cave NP with my family the previous week, and Meridith worked on a biological preserve during college that had several caves, so she figured better safe than sorry.  Luckily we had both washed our clothes since 2005, so they only had to clean our boots.  We were lead outside where another friendly ranger took our boots and sprayed down the soles with 409.  Yes, like what you use in your bathroom.  Turns out that the ammonium solution, when left on the potentially contaminated surface for 10 minutes, does a nice job of killing stubborn fungal spores.  Not a necessary step, but if you have to go through something like this with a park ranger, be friendly and ask questions.  Rangers have a wealth of knowledge, and they are usually up for an informative chat.  After the 10 minute  waiting period, our boots were sprayed down with water, and we were clean and free to go.
A final word on the decontamination process.  During the fifteen minutes this whole process took, the ranger must have apologized for the inconvenience 5 times.  Probably, his momma' just raised him right and he was being polite.  I personally didn't feel inconvenienced at all.  I feel so grateful for the existence of the National Parks, and if fifteen minutes of my time means some future kid gets the chance to freak out when s/he sees the bats of Carlsbad, it was more than worth it!  

Photo by Rachel
And now we may descend into the belly of the earth to view the breathtaking display below. The park offers many guided tours, however we opted to explore the caverns via a self-guided route that encircled the Big Room. Mammoth Cave may boast the longest contiguous cave system, however New Mexico's own system offers the largest cavern room in the Western Hemisphere. Not too shabby. I do have some speculation about what constitutes a cave room, versus a passageway or series of questionably separated rooms. It must be quite tempting to label it something grand to attract visitors. Hmmmm. Sneaky cave folk.

Water drops from an active formation.
I'm sure we will come to appreciate moments of downtime during our non-stop traveling, however spare time before you get to see bats in their nightly exodus can be a bit titillating. Sure, there is always something to work on. Thesis. Blog writing. Car tidying. (And let's be honest, if we can't keep it neat through day one, we're a little doomed.) Eating is always a popular option. Bread needs to be eaten quickly and avocados are always calling my name. We managed to get a little of everything in. Except thesising. Day one is not for thesising. 

I don't know how often you get to sit down in an amphitheater and wait for 500 thousand bats to emerge, but this was another first for me. Rachel was matching my excitement and then some.

"I hope this is ranger led and they have jokes." RDW

Ranger Val indeed had some jokes. Due to the rains earlier that day, it was uncertain whether the bats would actually fly tonight. A crackling bat detection system would serve as the bat announcer. Anticipation built as Ranger Val regaled her audience with bat facts, cave facts, cave swallow facts, and another lesson on White-Nose Syndrome. We waited anxiously. A young man in red hoped the gate keeping the rest of us from getting too close to the cave entrance. He did not look like a ranger, yet still had some air of authority to his passage. Val explained he was researching the cave swallows.

"So that's why he looked both sketchy and authoritative, he's a grad student." MLB


The bat detector.

They were coming.

And the bats danced out of the cave in a graceful counterclockwise spin. Circling long enough to mesmerize us, they quickly turned to fly to the Southwest in search of food. For a while there was no shortage of emerging creatures. The Brazilian (Mexican) Free-Tailed bat is a tiny insectivore, weighing in at a scant half-ounce. They winter in Central and South America before returning to the caverns to give birth. The stream of flying mammal continued, occasionally sweeping above our heads. Eventually it trickled to an end and we still sat, slack-jawed at the marvel we've witnessed.

But we couldn't lolligag around. The night was fast approaching and we needed to find a spot to set up camp. Back country camping is permitted in the park, but due to the rains the main road leading to the normal trail was closed. Luckily for us, Carlsbad Caverns has some of the most helpful rangers who explained that our options were backpacking off another trail in a nearby canyon and exiting the park to camp on the nearby BLM lands. We decided to follow Ranger Justin's advice and head towards the BLM area. Bureau of Land Management handles the utilization of a variety of public lands across the nation. Camping is always permitted on these public lands. We drove up the not so aptly named Means Rd to find a suitable spot close to our vehicle. We only had to kick a few rocks away before setting up camp. Day one was already over.

Question of the Day:
Have you ever visited a cave? What was your favorite part?

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