2020 Oct: RV to Utah slots, SD Badlands, Wyoming, Idaho’s Sawtooths

Self-contained RV travel provides a healthy antidote to pandemic isolation. Our 32-day RV getaway in fall 2020 visited intriguing corners of Utah, Indiana, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho. Tom’s favorite image of the trip was Zebra Slot:

Zebra Slot Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Zebra Slot Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this vertical panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


A smoky start diverts us from Idaho to Utah

Upon our departure from Seattle on September 14, smoky fires irritated Washington, Oregon, northern California, and much of the West. As we drove through Yakima, Washington, dangerously thick outdoor smoke from a nearby fire caused Carol to suddenly gasp for breath and pull over the RV onto the shoulder of a steep curve of the freeway. After donning N95 masks and changing drivers, we regained normal breathing, although a little scared. We wisely decided to redirect our planned hikes away from smoky Idaho’s Sawtooths, and instead head south towards clear skies in Utah. The unplanned extra day of driving paid off with clearer air and rewarding revisits to three favorite hikes in Southern Utah.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Driving two hours of jarringly rough washboard took us halfway down the Hole-in-the-Rock Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Dry Fork Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Dry Fork Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Above, Carol spans the narrow slot of Dry Fork Coyote Gulch. We hiked from the Lower Trailhead of Dry Fork Coyote Gulch to the slot canyons of Peekaboo Gulch and Spooky Gulch, looping back via Dry Fork (5.7 miles round trip) up to a bench trail. (Instead, I recommend starting at the Upper Trailhead, to cover similar mileage, to further transit the coolness of Dry Fork, and to save 10 minutes of side road driving time.)

We last hiked Spooky Gulch in April 1997 (pre-marriage), along with Wes, Phyl, Jim, Dave, Rebecca, Deirdre, and Stan. On that trip, this group shared scenic backpacking overnight from Silver Falls Wash to Harris Wash. Finding chunks of petrified wood in the wash was memorable.

Below: Large Datura flowers bloomed in Dry Fork Coyote Gulch at the entrance to Peekaboo Gulch.

A Datura flower blooms in Dry Fork Coyote Gulch at the entrance to Peekaboo Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA. The Datura genus is in the Potato (Solanaceae) Family, also known as the Deadly Nightshade Family. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

A Datura flower blooms in Dry Fork Coyote Gulch at the entrance to Peekaboo Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Please reexamine my Zebra Slot panorama at the top of this article. From Hole-in-the-Rock Road in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, we hiked east on a well-trodden but unmarked path to Zebra Slot Canyon through beautiful open-desert washes (5 miles round trip with 450 feet total gain). Upon entry to this short slot canyon, a pool of water turned back Carol. Wearing shoes with socks removed, I bravely splashed through the green liquid, which became knee-deep. Then a claustrophobically-narrow passage nearly blocked my sideways squeeze, as my trail-runner shoes were pinched tightly in a V-shaped vise. Separately visiting 1 week later, my sister-in-law Rebecca had to chimney over that section. Zebra Slot had been cut much deeper and narrower since Carol and I last visited in 2013. In an unexpected double whammy for Rebecca, rains had raised the pool up to neck-deep! Zebra Slot then rewards your efforts with a spectacularly-striped sandstone cathedral.

An excellent environmental surprise: Thanks to the greatest legislative victory in the history of SUWA (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, of which we are members), in 2019, Congress passed the Emery County Public Land Management Act, which declared 663,000 acres of wilderness, including Little Wild Horse Canyon Wilderness, within the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area. These wonderful hiker playgrounds, which were for decades designated by BLM as Wilderness Study Areas, are now incrementally better-protected from threats such as off-road vehicles and Uranium mining.

Little Wild Horse Canyon, San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah

Pleasure-Way RV at sunrise near Little Wild Horse Canyon in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Pleasure-Way RV at sunrise. near Little Wild Horse Canyon in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah, USA. Hike a classic loop from Little Wild Horse Canyon to Bell Canyon (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Above: Sunrise at our free campsite near Little Wild Horse Canyon in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah.

Last done 14 years ago, we re-hiked a fun loop from Little Wild Horse Canyon to Bell Canyon, through fascinating narrow slot canyons and open mesas. This great walk (an 8.6-mile circuit with 900 feet gain and descent) is a short drive on a paved road from Goblin Valley State Park. This year (on Sept 20, 2020) the loop only required a small amount of scrambling over rocks and to our relief, was otherwise easy walking. The several water holes which were up to our knees deep in April 2006 were luckily dry and filled with gravel for us.

In 2006, a tight slot with water encouraged me to span across with the intent to stay dry. But widening walls caused me to drop embarrassingly into the pool! Carol had wisely sloshed directly through. With my spirit dampened, and a few scrapes and bruises the wiser, shivering, I poured the water out of my boots and walked the mile remaining back to the trailhead.

Colorful sandstone patterns are revealed in the slot of Little Wild Horse Canyon. San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Colorful sandstone patterns are revealed in the slot of Little Wild Horse Canyon. San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, Utah, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Click here for more of Tom’s Utah travel tips.

Family visit in Indianapolis, Indiana

As with every visit to Indianapolis to see Carol’s mother, I enjoyed trimming the hedges and admiring the plantings we have done in the past.

NCAA Hall of Champions, on the Indiana Central Canal, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

NCAA Hall of Champions, on the Indiana Central Canal, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Above: NCAA Hall of Champions, on the Indiana Central Canal, Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana Central Canal was dug in the early 1800s to facilitate interstate commerce, but the project was cut short due to financial problems. Today, the refurbished Canal Walk (stretching north through White River State Park to 11th Street) serves downtown as a beautiful waterside promenade for walkers, runners, bikers, and sightseers. We’ve now twice enjoyed walking it.

Click here to read Tom’s Indiana tips.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

On our drive back to Seattle, Badlands National Park was worth revisiting in South Dakota.

Sunset illuminates the Badlands Wall above cracked mud near Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. The intricately carved cliff of the Badlands Wall constantly retreats as it erodes and washes into the White River Valley below. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sunset illuminates the Badlands Wall above cracked mud near Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. The intricately carved cliff of the Badlands Wall constantly retreats as it erodes and washes into the White River Valley below. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

An orange sunrise lights rock formations near Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

An orange sunrise lights rock formations near Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Until this trip, I hadn’t realized that the town of Wall in South Dakota was named after the natural rock formation of the Badlands Wall. This year, for our first time, we visited the infamously kitschy Wall Drugs, which is advertised for hundreds of miles around with annoying billboards (like the 1925-1960s Burma-Shave).

History: The signs for Wall Drugs “began in 1936, when Ted Hustead was a struggling young pharmacist desperate for business. He took the advice of his wife, Dorothy, and put up a sign on old U.S. Hwy 16 offering free ice water to anyone who stopped by. It worked. A few customers began pulling off the highway. Then Hustead went sign-crazy and began posting them up and down the highway. By the 1960s, there were about 3,000 Wall Drugs signs in 50 states… Wall Drugs is now down to about 250 signs in South Dakota, 30 in Minnesota and 20 in Wyoming. The only thing keeping many of those up is that it would cost millions to remove all the nation`s noncompliant roadsign signs, and a deficit-minded Congress has never fully appropriated the money to do the job.”

Deadwood, Black Hills, South Dakota

A modern vehicle pulls a covered wagon in Deadwood, Lawrence County, South Dakota.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

A modern vehicle pulls a covered wagon in Deadwood, Lawrence County, South Dakota, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Above: In South Dakota, the casino tourist town of Deadwood was worth seeing for a few hours, including the Adams Museum.

After the discovery of large placer gold deposits in Deadwood Gulch in 1875, thousands of gold-seekers flocked to the new town of Deadwood from 1876 to 1879, leading to the (illegal) Black Hills Gold Rush, despite the land being owned by the Sioux. At its height, the city had a population of 25,000 and attracted larger-than-life Old West figures including Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok (who was killed there). The entire city is now designated as a National Historic Landmark District, for its well-preserved Gold Rush-era architecture.

To best appreciate historic Deadwood in fascinating detail, we recommend watching the dramatic HBO television series “Deadwood” (Seasons 1, 2, 3 dated 2004-06). Wikipedia says the Deadwood TV series “received critical acclaim, particularly for Milch’s writing and McShane’s performance, and is regarded as one of the greatest television shows of all time. It also won eight Emmy Awards (in 28 nominations) and one Golden Globe.” We checked out the DVD free from Seattle Public Library (or one can see it on HBO or Amazon Prime for a price). The more recent 2019 movie “Deadwood” is a coda that isn’t as good as the 2004-06 TV series.

Spearfish Canyon Nature Area, Black Hills, South Dakota

Below: Walk the trail to Spearfish Falls for 1.5 miles round trip within Spearfish Canyon Nature Area, managed by South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks in the Black Hills.

Little Spearfish Creek plunges over Spearfish Falls to meet the main Spearfish Creek. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Little Spearfish Creek plunges over Spearfish Falls to meet the main Spearfish Creek. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Click here for more tips about South Dakota and the Midwest.

Yellowstone Falls, South Rim Trail, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

From the Black Hills of South Dakota, we enjoyed a scenic route across northern Wyoming, new to us, to reach the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. We drove via Powder River Pass in the Bighorn Mountains, to Cody, to overnight on the reservoir at Buffalo Bill State Park, to the beautiful canyon of the North Fork Shoshone River, up to Yellowstone Lake, to the Mud Geyser, then to Canyon Village. Much of the route resembled southern Utah, including isolated mountain ranges, canyons with various eroded pinnacles, colored rocks, and idyllically remote, well-kept ranches.

Lower Yellowstone Falls seen from Artist Point on South Rim Trail. The Yellowstone River flows through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lower Yellowstone Falls seen from Artist Point on South Rim Trail. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Above: We enjoyed walking the South Rim Trail from Upper to Lower Yellowstone Falls to Artist Point. The Yellowstone River flows through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and becomes a major tributary of the Missouri River. Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872.

Click here for more tips about “WYOMING: Devils Tower; Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks

Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho

Sawtooth Wilderness, managed by the US Forest Service, has some of the best air quality in the lower 48 states (says the US EPA), except when compromised by forest fires, as it was in fall 2020. Significant wildfires burning nearby stung our eyes during the first hike.

Stanley Lake Trail to Lady Face and Bridal Veil Falls
Sawtooth Wilderness reflects in Stanley Lake at the boat dock. Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sawtooth Wilderness reflects in Stanley Lake at the boat dock. Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho, USA. The Sawtooth Range (part of the Rocky Mountains) are made of pink granite of the 50 million year old Sawtooth batholith. This image was stitched from multiple overlapping photos. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Inaccurate blogs led us to hike Stanley Lake Trail to Lady Face Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. Reaching both falls turned out to be harder than expected (9.1 miles round trip with 1000 feet gain, measured with GPS and altimeter). The main trail is wide and easy through pleasant scenery, even bikeable. But the side trips necessary to actually view each falls requires scrambling with steep exposure on slippery, loose rocks (not recommended for children). By consulting my BackCountry Navigator GPS map, I was able to find and follow the poorly-marked side trail straight up 400 vertical feet to Bridal Veil Falls; but Carol turned back as the trail severely steepened, and a later group lost the trail and also turned back. In the end, the best part of the hike was at the idyllic beginning: beautiful mountain reflections in Stanley Lake.

Titus Lake Trail

From Galena Summit is a worthwhile hike to Titus Lake (3.75 miles round trip with 750 feet gain) in Sawtooth National Recreation Area. At its higher elevation, Titus Lake was clearer of smoke than Stanley village.

Alice-Toxaway backpacking loop to Idaho’s impressive El Capitan
The peak of El Capitan (9901 feet) reflects in backcountry Alice Lake at sunset in Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The peak of El Capitan (9901 feet) reflects in backcountry Alice Lake at sunset in Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

On October 6-7, 2020, starting from Tin Cup Trailhead, I backpacked the Alice-Toxaway Loop clockwise for 20 miles in two days. The first day to idyllic Twin Lakes was a moderate 7.4 miles with 2090 feet gain. Carol joined me for the first 4 miles then returned to sleep in the comfort of the RV. Tenting in the backcountry wilderness at Twin Lakes, I was rewarded by a sunset view from a bluff over Alice Lake nearby.

My new solo tent, tested that night, is the 18-ounce TarpTent ProTrail Li (the same model as Rebecca began using this year on her various journeys). The tent’s super lightweight is possible by using hiking poles and four staked lines as support. This roomy tent worked great, helping make the weight backpacking (about 19 pounds base weight plus food and water) resemble that of day hiking. (I have yet to test it in conditions where condensation inside might collect, designed to drain out the downward-sloped interior side netting.)

My second day returned via Toxaway Lake and Farley Lake for an athletic 12.5 miles with 1260 feet up and 2940 feet down, joyfully met by Carol in the last 2 miles.

On our August 2007 backpacking trip here, Carol and I enjoyed staying 2 nights at Alice Lake, and day-hiking to Toxaway Lake round trip over 9390-foot Snowyside Pass. This revisit in 2020 dramatically climaxed our fall trip.

Luckily, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area offers enough new hikes to bring us back for a third visit, such as day hiking to 1) Sawtooth Lake; 2) Marshall Ridgeline; 3) Washington Lake Trail, in the White Cloud Mountains, with optional backpack to Chamberlain Basin; etc.

Click here for more Idaho tips.

Tom’s more-extensive photo gallery for this trip, “2020 Sep 14-Oct 8: RV to UT, IN, SD, WY, ID”


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2020 Aug: Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop trail, Mt Rainier NP

After a dozen hikes to Spray Park splendor since 1982, in summer 2020, I discovered an adventurous loop return to Mowich Lake via Knapsack Pass Trail (see Washington Trails Association), in Mount Rainier National Park. However, slippery exposure on steep scree and snow scared my wife Carol, who vowed never to hike Knapsack Pass again! (6.7-mile circuit with 2600 feet gain.) Fortunately, steps postholed in soft snow allowed crossing safely on that warm day (August 17th). I delighted in this flower-filled loop under the snow cone of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier.

Beware, the unmaintained and unmarked Knapsack Pass Trail exposes hikers to steep scree and year-round snow fields which could become dangerously icy. The trail is best navigated by experienced hikers only, in late summer using a good map, GPS device, and trekking poles (or ice axe if icy). The worn trail, marked with cairns and boot tracks, may become difficult to follow in the half mile of scree and snow fields southeast of Knapsack Pass.

A mountain memorial for David Dempsey in Spray Park

While bicycling on May 8, my older brother Dave sadly lost his life to a negligent motorist along Highway 32 in Chico, California. In the field of flowers pictured below in Spray Park, Carol and I spread some of Dave’s ashes:

In memorium: lupin and aster flowers bloom prolifically in Spray Park in mid August 2020, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

In memorium: lupin and aster flowers bloom prolifically in Spray Park in mid August 2020, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


More images from Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop

From familiar Spray Park, our counterclockwise circuit entered territory unknown to us, in the headwaters of Cataract Creek above Mist Park (pictured below). If conditions became too rough, we were okay with turning back.

This panorama shows the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop Trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

This panorama shows the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop Trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. In mid August, mosquitoes and blue lupin flowers predominated, plus paintbrush and a few late-blooming avalanche lilies. 4 images were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Crossing several steep snow fields made us nervous, perched above sharp rocks:

Mount Rainier seen from the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Mount Rainier seen from the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Then we steeply ascended sharp scree and switchbacks to Knapsack Pass, a small notch in Mother Mountain:

Mount Rainier NP: Headwaters of Mist Park, along Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Ascend steep switchbacks up Knapsack Pass, a notch in Mother Mountain at the headwaters of Mist Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Mount Rainier loomed impressively above flower fields along Knapsack Pass Loop Trail.

In mid August, a late-season avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum in the Liliaceae family) blooms white with yellow center in Spray Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

In mid August, a late-season avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum in the Liliaceae family) blooms white with yellow center in Spray Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Pink flowers bloom on the rim of Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Pink flowers bloom on the rim of Mist Park, along the Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Mowich Lake seen from Knapsack Pass trail, which is a steep "social trail" in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. Caution: the unmaintained and unmarked Knapsack Pass trail exposes hikers to slippery scree and steep snow (possibly icy), best hiked in late summer using a good GPS device, map, and trekking poles. The Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop is very rewarding but only recommended for experienced, well-equipped hikers. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Mowich Lake seen from Knapsack Pass trail, which is a steep "social trail" in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. Caution: the unmaintained and unmarked Knapsack Pass trail exposes hikers to slippery scree and steep snow (possibly icy), best hiked in late summer using a good GPS device, map, and trekking poles. The Spray Park–Knapsack Pass Loop is very rewarding but only recommended for experienced, well-equipped hikers. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Click here to read more of Tom’s hiking tips in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

2020 July: Eastern Sierra hikes & backpack, California

Walking outdoors is a great remedy for pandemic confinement. On the east side of California’s impressive Sierra Nevada range from 18 July to Aug 3, our family group undertook four day hikes plus an easy 4-day backpacking trip. To help prevent spread of COVID-19, we and the overwhelming majority of fellow hikers considerately wore masks or bandanas or kept 6+ feet of distance as we passed.

Backpack from Green Creek Trailhead to Summit Lake in Hoover Wilderness

In Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, our scenic backpacking trip from Green Creek Trailhead to Summit Lake was 7.6 miles one way with 2360 feet gain and 310 feet descent over three leisurely days, reversed on the fourth day. A day hike from our Green Lake campsite to West Lake was 3.9 mi with 1830 feet gain to 8896 feet elevation. Our favorite campsite was nestled above quiet Nutter Lake. From our Summit Lake campsite, two of us hiked east to Burro Pass for a pleasing view to Virginia Lakes (2180 ft gain over 4 miles round trip). Unique and colorful rock patterns delighted my photographer’s eye! The next day, half of our party hiked over Burro Pass to Virginia Lakes Trailhead, to be picked up by us driving around from Green Creek Trailhead. (This makes a great one-way hike via car shuttle for those with two vehicles, as we did in 2000.)

Sunrise at Green Lake in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sunrise at Green Lake in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)



Glacier-scoured exfoliating rock pattern in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Glacier-scoured exfoliating rock pattern at Nutter Lake in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)



View Virginia Lakes from Burro Pass in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

View Virginia Lakes from Burro Pass in Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


We trained for the backpacking trip with the following four day hikes.

Day hike 1: Leavitt Meadows Loop Trail in Hoover Wilderness

Staying below 8000 feet elevation, the Leavitt Meadows Loop Trail helped us acclimatize before attempting the higher trails on this page. We hiked Leavitt Meadows Loop clockwise (8.9 miles with 1570 feet gain including a ridge extension above Lane Lake) in Hoover Wilderness, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The best ambiance is at Secret Lake. Roosevelt and Lane Lakes also provide pleasant views. The Trailhead is at Leavitt Meadows Campground (GPS 38.33401 N, 119.55177 W).

A crayfish pinches a finger at Secret Lake. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

A crayfish pinches a finger at Secret Lake in Hoover Wilderness, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Day hike 2 of 4: Hike Crystal Lake & Mammoth Crest Trail, at Mammoth Lakes

Pandemic closures of many indoor activities has sent hikers onto trails in record numbers. Advance reservations resolved the stiff competition for campsites in Mammoth Lakes village and for overnight backpacking permits.

Starting early to find parking and avoid crowds, we walked from Lake George Trailhead to beautiful Crystal Lake (side trip) then to volcanic Mammoth Crest for 7 miles round trip with 2000 feet gain. Both the scenery and high altitude (exceeding 10,000 feet elevation) were breathtaking. Mammoth Crest trail ascends the rim of the Mammoth Lakes Basin, an impressive glacial cirque, to attain far-reaching views of the Ritter Range and Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River Canyon.

If you have extra energy, consider hiking a rewarding loop including Deer Lakes and Duck Pass (13.2 miles with 2765 ft gain, using a car shuttle. Or break this into a separate hike from Duck Lake Pass Trailhead to Duck Pass (7.2-8 miles round trip with 1680+ feet gain). If backpacking, reserve it many months ahead, or check for “walkup” reservations on shorter notice.

See Lakes George & Mary below Mammoth Crest Trail. Inyo National Forest, Mammoth Lakes village, California, USA. Mammoth Lakes lies on the edge of the Long Valley Caldera, geologically active with hot springs and rhyolite domes that are less than 1000 years old.(© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

See Lakes George & Mary below Mammoth Crest Trail. Inyo National Forest, Mammoth Lakes village, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Day hike 3 of 4: Shadow Lake Trail, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Shadow Lake made an excellent day hike for 7.5 miles with 1200 ft gain in Ansel Adams Wilderness. An early start from Mammoth Lakes village allowed us to squeeze two cars into the small parking lots at Agnew Meadows Trailhead. Normally required for day hikers, the “Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile Shuttle” was cancelled during the pandemic summer of 2020, and a limited number of vehicles were allowed to drive in and park.

Hike to Shadow Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest. Mammoth Lakes, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Mount Ritter and Banner Peak reflect in Shadow Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest. Mammoth Lakes, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Yellow green and purple rock pattern along the trail to Shadow Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Lakes village, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Yellow green and purple rock pattern along the trail to Shadow Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Lakes village, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Historic Benton Hot Springs, Mono County

Historic Benton Hot Springs is worth an hour to view the rusting old cars and farm equipment. Benton Hot Springs (elevation 5630 feet) saw its heyday from 1862 to 1889 as a supply center for nearby mines. At the end of the 1800s, the town declined and the name Benton was transferred to nearby Benton Station.

Cracked windshield on rusting car in Benton Hot Springs, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Cracked windshield on rusting car in Benton Hot Springs, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Mono Mills ghost camp above Mono Lake

With views of Mono Lake and Mono-Inyo Craters, the gravel side roads around the site of the historic Mono Mills offer free primitive campsites partially shaded by handsome pine trees, cooled at 7356 feet elevation in Inyo National Forest. (From Lee Vining, drive south on U.S. Route 395 and turn east on California State Route 120, for 9.1 miles to Mono Mills.) Luckily, in addition to developed campgrounds, our National Forests designate many free “dispersed camping” areas along the more-remote gravel roads.

Sunset at Mono Lake seen from Mono Mills, a nearly-vanished ghost town 9.5 miles southeast of Lee Vining in Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sunset at Mono Lake seen from Mono Mills, a nearly-vanished ghost town 9.5 miles southeast of Lee Vining in Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Day hike 4 of 4: Piute Pass Trail in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest

The following giant boulder tumbled from cliffs above and nicked the corner of this restroom at Sabrina Campground!

This giant boulder tumbled from cliffs above and nicked the corner of this restroom at Sabrina Campground, in Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Ill-fated restroom at Sabrina Campground, in Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Situated along Middle Fork Biship Creek, Sabrina Campground is a great base for reaching several good hikes within a short drive. We enjoyed hiking Piute Pass Trail via attractive ponds, lakes, and wildflowers (9.7 miles, 2200 ft gain) in John Muir Wilderness.

Hike to Piute Pass Trail via ponds and lakes in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Hike to Piute Pass Trail via ponds and lakes in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The tiger lily or Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) is native to western North America. Piute Pass Trail, John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The tiger lily or Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) is native to western North America. Piute Pass Trail, John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Inyo National Forest, Mono County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Tom’s extended photo gallery show from “2020 Jul 18-Aug 3: CA High Sierra”


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2020 Patagonia. ARGENTINA: Bariloche & Los Glaciares. CHILE: Torres del Paine.

The beautiful parks of Patagonia attracted me for a second visit (January 28–March 7, 2020), escaping from dark Seattle winter to sunny South American summer. Meticulous planning created an active outdoor self-guided trip for 40 days with my brother Dave and sister-in-law Rebecca.

Phase 1 began in Argentina with a flight from Buenos Aires to the resort town of Bariloche. For 11 flexible days in a rental car, we looped south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returned north via Chile’s Carretera Austral. The trip started strongly with a fun overnight trek to Meiling Refuge, perched high on a flank of glacier-capped Tronador volcano. Seven tall waterfalls plunged from a hanging glacier. Further south we explored Butch Cassidy’s Ranch, Los Alerces National Park, and colorfully prehistoric Cave of Hands. Crossing into Chile towards Andes icecaps encountered twistier gravel roads along Lake General Carrera, to reach dusty Carretera Austral, Ruta CH-7. A 2-hour boat tour revealed the marvels of Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary. On foot we admired the High Lakes loop in Chile’s new Patagonia National Park; Laguna Cerro Castillo; and Queulat National Park‘s spectacular Hanging Glacier.

In Phase 2, we flew south to El Calafate to rent another car for 14 days. Moreno Glacier’s calving and crashing ice fascinated us for hours from intimate boardwalks. An extra day in town allowed time for cruising remote parts of beautiful turquoise Lake Argentino to see impressive Spegazzini Glacier and more. Further north in Los Glaciares National Park, I re-experienced my favorite piece of Patagonia, based for 10 days in the hikers’ paradise of El Chalten under magnificent Mount Fitz Roy.

In Phase 3, we bused round trip from Argentina’s El Calafate into Chile to trek for 9 days on the wonderful W Route in Torres del Paine National Park. (Dave & Rebecca went on to cruise Antarctica, which unexpectedly added 7 days extra cruising from Ushuaia to Montevideo, Uruguay due to COVID-19 border closures!)

Favorite Patagonia photos from 2020


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WHAT’S NEW in 2020 since my last visits to Patagonia in 2005 and 1993?

Fulfilled by our 2005 trip to Patagonia and Antarctica, my wife Carol stayed in the USA to do an Asilomar quilt workshop in February 2020.

Still my favorite Patagonian destination, Argentina’s El Chalten resort has expanded since 15 years ago, yet retains a vibrant young pioneer vibe. Founded in 1985 as a stake in a boundary dispute with Chile, El Chalten is the youngest town in Argentina. Its easy-going residents are now here for the love of these majestic mountains. On a flexible schedule optimized with the weather forecast, we hiked many wonderful trails from comfortable lodging. Both traditional Argentine asado (ritual barbecue) and excellent yuppie restaurants have sprouted from the desert steppe. I highly recommend Resto El Muro which serves delicious perfectly-barbecued trout, lamb, beef, and vegetables. Paving the highway RP23 to El Chalten by 2009 has reduced travel time from El Calafate, from 4.5 hours down to 2.5 hours by car (3 hours by bus).

From El Calafate, a short drive into Los Glaciares National Park revisited magnificent Moreno Glacier, which calved and crashed icebergs into Lago Argentino, captured in the following video:

During my 1993 visit with four family members in a new South Korean rental van, we drove and ferried for 25 days round trip from Santiago to Chiloé Island via Chile’s scenic Lake District. On the remote gravel Carretera Austral, reaching 25 km south of Chaiten allowed us to admire yet another Andean volcano, Michinmahuida. South of us lay 730 kilometers of little-known highway reaching as far as Cochrane. We pondered, “what wonders might lie on that rough, remote road?” Some answers came 27 years later on our 2020 trip. In 2017, Michinmahuida became part of Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park, which bisects Chile and is South America’s largest national park. After successfully co-founding The North Face and Esprit with his first wife Susie Tompkins Buell, Douglas Tompkins and his second wife Kris Tompkins made the largest ever private gifts of land to a country, leading to the creation of Patagonia National Park (see my photos below), Pumalín, Corcovado, and other parks.

In 2000, pushing Chile’s Carretera Austral to Villa O’Higgins unleashed a new distance-bicycling and pedestrian adventure route connecting into Argentina, via a series of ferries and buses to Lago del Desierto and El Chalten mountain resort. Potholed gravel surface and choking dust haven’t discouraged the many bicycling, busing, and hitchhiking tourists who we encountered emerging from this remote route in 2020!

Today, the Carretera Austral (“Southern Way”, Ruta CH-7) has been completed for 1,240 kilometers (770 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, opening previously-isolated rural Patagonia. Only ~100,000 people live along this lifeline, with the largest city being Coyhaique (population 57,000), a thriving hub that bustled with activity during our visit in 2020, as we looped back to Bariloche.

In the remoter parts of Patagonian, finding lodging in high season can be a gamble. Tents, pads, and sleeping bags reassured us as backup and let us stay in Patagonia National Park without paying expensive lodge rates. In cities with cell or Wi-Fi signal, Booking.com (sponsored) served us well to compare and find the next night’s lodging, setting clear expectations at a good discount. Pre-booking with AirBnb.com also proved valuable.

Back in 2005, right as we tried to enter Torres del Paine National Park, a careless camper in an unauthorized area caused a fire which closed the park for 3 days, shortening our planned W Route from 8 days to 5. Sadly in early summer of 2012, another careless camper caused a huge fire which burnt 10% of the Park, creating damage which is still prominently visible from most park roads and along the W Route from Refugio Grey to Skottsberg lake. Majestic forests that I remember from 2005 were decimated, leaving vast areas of eerie twisted tree snags rising from shrubby regrowth. With the help of careful replanting, the slow-growing lenga beech trees will take 200 years to recover. Crowding now impacts some areas such as the Mirador Base Las Torres Trail at midday. At the trail junction entrance to spectacular French Valley, the overused Campamento Italiano reeked of human waste; so “O Route” hikers should instead pay the price premium for Camping Francés or more-scenic Camping Los Cuernos. Thankfully, to prevent the Park from being loved to death, the total overnight capacity is now tightly controlled for both camping and lodging; although consequently, overnight visitors must book 6 months in advance. Despite fire damage, under-staffing, and some overcrowded hot spots, the park remains a magnificent treasure to behold, listed by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve.

In my following video from Torres del Paine National Park, calving icefalls crash in avalanches from Cerro Paine Grande; powerful wind throws Dave off balance on a swing bridge, whips the surface of Skottsberg lake, and whirls mist on Lake Nordenskjöld; and the world’s southernmost parrot species flirts and chirps (the austral parakeet):

Money: US$ cash is king in Argentina

As of February 2020, all Argentine ATMs charge exorbitant fees (8% minimum) and by law restrict the amount withdrawn. I could get at most AR$8000 per transaction with a fixed fee of AR$630 per withdrawal yielding a dismal 56 pesos per US dollar (at Banelco ATM, whereas other ATMs were costlier). To avoid exorbitant ATM fees in Argentina, bring from home enough United States dollars cash as crisp NEW paper $20 and $10 bills. Or if uncomfortable carrying cash on the airplane, then wire US dollars from your home bank to a Western Union office in Argentina (only available in Buenos Aires and a few other major cities) to convert into pesos.

Credit cards are conveniently accepted at almost all groceries and gas stations in Patagonia, but many other businesses may not accept them. Credit cards followed the daily official bank rate (~61 pesos per US dollar), which in Argentina can be 10-25% less than you get for US$ cash at street rates. Make sure your card charges zero international fees, like Costco Visa. Many accommodations accept a credit card to hold the booking but usually give a better rate if paid in cash, especially US$ currency.

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Phase 1: Bariloche 11 days car rental: loop Argentina’s Ruta 40 to Chile’s Carretera Austral

Car versus RV or camper

To best explore Patagonia by RV, fly to Puerto Montt or Punta Arenas in Chile. Check out Wicked Campers in Puerto Varas or Punta Arenas. Or try Rolling Patagonia in Coyhaique, in central Patagonia. See “Patagonia flight tips” at bottom for planning logistics.

In Argentina, Bariloche doesn’t yet rent RVs or campers. So several months in advance, we pre-booked a compact car. We found lodging for 9 nights of 12 in Phase 1. The remaining 3 nights used tents, pads, and sleeping bags brought from home (plus sleeping bags were later used once in Phase 2).

Sadly, miscommunication with a third-party booking site (ArgusCarHire) disallowed our initial Argentine rental car to enter Chile, which had been our main goal, starting from Bariloche. If you plan to enter Chile from Argentina, contact your rental car supplier directly (such as Modena in Bariloche) a week in advance to double-check their progress in obtaining a Chile-approved car and required paperwork (about US$60 extra). Luckily, we negotiated a replacement car to come three days later (giving us a superior clutch in a newer vehicle that didn’t require jump-starting).

ARGENTINA: Bariloche and Tronador Section of Nahuel Huapi National Park


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Throughout our flexible 11 days with a car rented from Bariloche, we were able to find lodging or tent-camping either spontaneously or booked a day in advance. Although we had booked both the first and last nights’ accommodations in Bariloche, I regretted that the last night was nonrefundable, because on night 3 we found lakeside Villa Huapi outside of town to be superior in value to our booking at the aging Apart Costa Azul.

An open schedule plus a good weather window realized a spontaneous Friday plan with pinpoint timing: driving from Bariloche to Los Rapidos cutoff point on the road to Pampa Linda Trailhead, before the daily 2:00 pm one-way-road reversal. A sunny mid-afternoon start allowed time to hike 12 kilometers with 1046 meters gain (7.5 miles, 3400 ft up) through a lovely forest with soaring trees, to popular Refugio Otto Meiling, arriving at sunset in time for second dinner! Gardeners like me recognize the bright red drooping flowers of native hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) growing in the understory.

Conveniently, Refugio Otto Meiling (external link) welcomes all, doesn’t take reservations, and serves good, hearty meals. I loved the crepe dessert with fresh raspberry jam! The down side was a dormitory floor tightly-packed with dozens of snoring bodies. Reaching the downstairs bathroom for midnight pee required balancing a tightrope between faces and feet on bouncy mats! The trail gives spectacular views of 7+ waterfalls plunging from Castaño Overo Glacier, best seen from the easy side trip to Mirador Castaño Overo (great for day hikers), done during our descent the next day.

With an altitude of 3470 m, the extinct stratovolcano of Tronador stands more than 1000 meters above nearby mountains in the Andean massif, making it a popular climb. The sound of falling seracs helped name the volcano Tronador, Spanish for “Thunderer.” Located inside two National Parks, Nahuel Huapi in Argentina and Vicente Pérez Rosales in Chile, Tronador hosts eight glaciers, which are retreating due to warming of the upper troposphere.

ARGENTINA: Los Alerces National Park; Butch Cassidy’s Ranch


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We drove south on Ruta 40 through popular hippie town El Bolsón and turned southwest on RP71.

Near the end of their career, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place tried settling down to make an honest living from 1901–05 near the quiet farming community of Cholila, outside the northeast entrance of what is now Parque Nacional Los Alerces. Visiting their restored ranch enlivens history, off the radar.

Paving turned to dirt as we entered Los Alerces National Park (honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List). An hour paid for parking allowed time to stroll across Pasarela Rio Arrayanes pedestrian bridge to a pleasant overlook on Lago Verde. We learned that seeing the ancient Alerces trees (Fitzroya cupressoides, the largest tree species in South America) would have required a boat tour consuming most of a day, for which we sadly lacked the time. Near sunset, we ate the dust of a dozen other cars exiting the park’s windy roads, to eventually reach our nice two-bedroom cabin with kitchen booked in Esquel (Cabañas Lorien, US$63).

ARGENTINA: Cave of Hands


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We departed Esquel to rejoin Ruta 40, driving 6 hours south to an apartment Sol y Luna booked in the sleepy town of Perito Moreno, in Santa Cruz Province. The next day we drove south to Cave of Hands on remote paved and steep gravel roads, 169 km (105 miles) south of town. Along the roadside flocked exotic creatures including Darwin’s rhea or ñandu, and countless wild guanacos (parent species of the domesticated llama).

Located in a scenic canyon of the Pinturas River, the Cave of Hands (Cueva de las Manos) displays some of the earliest known human art in the Americas, protected for millennia under the rim of a dry canyon. This striking artwork is honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Dating to around 5000 BCE, the silhouette paintings of mostly left hands were sprayed using a bone pipe held in the right hand. The age of the paintings was calculated from pigments found in layers of charcoal from human fires and bone remains of the spraying pipes. The hunting scenes (mostly guanaco) and representations of animals and human life all date older than the stenciled hands, to around 7300 BCE. Visiting these exquisite artworks requires a low-cost tour led by one of the park caretakers/interpreters who live on site. The Visitor Center provides exhibits and restrooms.

After being inspired by this vibrant prehistoric art, we returned to Perito Moreno and turned west. Following Lake Buenos Aires, we crossed into Chile at Chile Chico, where the water’s name changes to Lago General Carrera.

CHILEAN CUSTOMS WARNING

Fresh or dried food cannot be brought into Chile (via car, bicycle, or airplane) such as: fresh meat, fish, groceries, milk, fresh fruits, dried fruits, fresh vegetables, even food bars (such as containing honey). Declare all food, so that disallowed food will be simply confiscated instead of incurring fines. Due to this inspection, be prepared for border delays.

CHILE: Patagonia National Park and Rio Baker


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The pavement from Argentina ends in gravel immediately west of Chile Chico, where Saturday’s delivery of vegetables and fresh foods, sourced from distant Chilean suppliers, were now empty shelves on Tuesday. Prolonged Patagonian border disputes between Chile and Argentina have historically chilled relations and discouraged trade, isolating this remote town. Cabañas Cueva del Indio provided a comfortable new 2-bedroom apartment with kitchen for US$71.

The next day, we drove towards the ice-capped Andes on panoramic Ruta 265 along glacially-carved General Carrera Lake, which surprisingly drains westwards to the Pacific Ocean, via Bertrand Lake and the voluminous Baker River. The coast of the lake was first inhabited by criollos and European immigrants 1900–1925. In 1971 and 1991, eruptions of Hudson Volcano severely affected the local economy, especially sheep farming.

We turned south on Carretera Austral (CH-7) for 30 km to reach Salto Rio Baker, an impressive cascade which boils just above the colorful confluence of rivers Baker and Neff, just north of Cochrane in Capitán Prat Province. As Chile’s largest river by volume, Rio Baker dazzles your eyes with bright turquoise-blue color, caused by glacial sediments. Rio Baker was the proposed site of a controversial major hydro-electric project called HidroAysén, involving five dams, to be the biggest in the history of Chile. After the project was opposed by Chilean and international environmental activist groups, Chile’s Committee of Ministers denied its permit in 2014. Due to growing human demands, few rivers this large in the world remain undammed and free flowing.

Just north of Cochrane, camping in Chile’s new Patagonia National Park for two nights in Los West Winds Campground (external link) (CLP$8000 Chilean pesos or US$11 per person per night) avoided high Lodge rates ($600 triple, $500 double). From our tent doorsteps, we enjoyed hiking the Lagunas Altas Loop Trail (21 km round trip with 1100 m cumulative gain). Intensive ranching on this former estancia caused overgrazing, but through restoration and rewilding, native grasslands have recovered, wildlife has returned, and more people are employed now than when it was a ranch. Top-notch park infrastructure includes a classy Museum and Visitor Center, Lodge, Restaurant, campgrounds, and trails. The park’s inspirational story is a shining bellwether for the recovery of abused land in Patagonia and elsewhere.

Patagonia National Park (external link) consists of the Tompkins Conservation donation in addition to the former national reserves of Jeinimeni and Tamango, plus fiscal land. Parque Patagonia was created by Conservacion Patagonica, a nonprofit incorporated in California and founded in 2000 by Kris Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, Inc. In January 2018, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Kris Tompkins signed a decree creating 5 national parks, including Parque Patagonia, which now attract ever more Chileans and others to appreciate this remote corner of the world.

CHILE: Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary (Capillas de Mármol), on General Carrera Lake


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A surprising number of motorboats plied the beautiful “Marble Caves”, officially called the Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary (Capillas de Mármol), starting from Bahía Manso on General Carrera Lake. Services in the little town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo were clearly overwhelmed by the summer onslaught of bus package tours, bike packers, rental cars, and desperate hitchhikers. You can join a Marble Caves tour in Puerto Río Tranquilo; or save money and time like we did, by driving directly 8 km south to Bahía Manso, where we spontaneously joined a 2-hour tour boat on short notice. The best time is a sunny summer morning in calmer waters. The precipitous side road down to Bahía Manso was nervously passable with our 2-wheel-drive compact Volkswagen Suran (Highline), but if the road is wet, 4WD might be required to untrap your car.

CHILE: Cerro Castillo; Carretera Austral


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Continuing north, our long days rattling over dusty gravel roads were suddenly relieved by smooth new concrete paving on Carretera Austral just south of Villa Cerro Castillo, a growing pioneer town in Coyhaique Province. Urbanization is marching southwards. As more-famous Patagonian treks become overcrowded, international adventurers increasingly seek alternatives, such as multi-night backpacking routes in Cerro Castillo National Reserve. Along with more than a hundred like-minded travelers, we day-hiked the Reserve’s main gem at Mirador Laguna Cerro Castillo, 14 km round trip with 1082 m gain (8.5 miles with 3550 feet). Steep basalt walls of the mountain Cerro Castillo resemble a castle (or Castillo in Spanish). Hostel & Camping Sendero Patagonia supplied a cheap tent site with great view, but the shared kitchen and shower house were aging and messy, plus Wi-Fi was broken. After the hike, driving north 75 km to Coyhaique, cellphone service allowed finding a beautiful apartment at Cabañas Río Claro, on short notice.

CHILE: Queulat National Park; Futaleufu


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Waterfalls plunge spectacularly from Queulat Hanging Glacier, in Queulat National Park, in Aysen Province. The Glacier extends from the Queulat ice cap, which borders Ventisquero Sound (actually a fjord, carved by glaciers) in northern Puyuhuapi Channel.

Sendero Ventisquero Colgante, the best of the park’s few trails, reaches Mirador Ventisquero Colgante (Viewpoint of Queulat Hanging Glacier). Ventisquero (or “snowdrift”) is an archaic word for “glacier” used by early South American explorers. In summer, go early in the morning to avoid crowds. Entering the park’s rutted dirt road around noon required a 45-minute wait to park, pay entrance fees, then park again. We joined the friendly international hordes walking through dense forest (4 miles or 6.6 km round trip with 1150 ft or 350 m cumulative gain). The trail is wildly popular despite some steep steps, slippery rocks, roots, and mud. Waiting in line to cross the suspension bridge, limited to 4 people at once, took 30 minutes in late afternoon to return to the car. In contrast to drier areas east of the Andes crest (such as Lake Carrera, Chacabuco Valley, and Coyhaique), windward-side Queulat National Park is one of the rainiest places (3500 – 4000 mm) in Chilean Patagonia.

Phase 2: Fly from Bariloche to El Calafate

Argentina & Chile Patagonia trip map: three Dempseys travelled from 11 February - 05 March 2020: El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten, Monte Fitz Roy, Lago del Desierto, & Torres del Paine NP. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Argentina & Chile Patagonia trip map: three Dempseys travelled from 11 February – 05 March 2020: El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten, Monte Fitz Roy, Lago del Desierto, & Torres del Paine NP. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

ARGENTINA: El Calafate: Perito Moreno Glacier & Spegazzini Glacier on Lake Argentino, Los Glaciares National Park

Perito Moreno Glacier‘s loud cracks, groans, and calvings captivated us for hours from intimate viewing platforms on Lake Argentino (see video near top), on a bright sunny morning in Santa Cruz Province. The magnificent Moreno Glacier is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water). Surrounded by Los Glaciares National Park, Lago Argentino is the biggest freshwater lake in Argentina and reaches as deep as 500 meters (1640 feet). Its outlet, the Santa Cruz River, flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Using 2009 data, scientists report that nearly 90 percent of the glaciers in Antarctica and Patagonia are melting quickly, as are most glaciers worldwide due to global warming. Curiously, Moreno Glacier has been a relatively stable exception for the past hundred years. Located 78 kilometers (48 mi) from El Calafate, the glacier was named after explorer Francisco Moreno, a pioneer who studied the region in the 1800s and defended the territory of Argentina in the conflict surrounding the international border dispute with Chile. Los Glaciares National Park and Reserve are honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.


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Three nights in El Calafate allowed time to explore remoter reaches of Los Glaciares National Park. On Lake Argentino, we boarded the ‘Maria Turquesa’ Cruiser for their enjoyable Glaciers Gourmet Full Day Sightseeing Cruise (booked two days in advance for US$120 per person, plus add their shuttle service if you don’t have a rental car). Save money by driving yourself to their La Soledad private port. The highlight for us was sailing to the striking Spegazzini Glacier. The Old Settlers’ Las Vacas Station on Spegazzini Canal Bay intrigued us with stories of historic ranchland now transitioning to National Park management, grappling with feral cows and restoration of native forest. Back on board, the provided lamb sandwich lunchbox tasted great, as we swapped stories with fellow international travelers at our table. Cloud buildup dulled photography and quieted the glaciers’ calving, so cruising to revisit Moreno Glacier paled in comparison to yesterday’s loud excitement experienced from boardwalks.

ARGENTINA: El Chalten and Mount Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares National Park

The awesome knife of Mount Fitz Roy looms ever higher as you approach El Chalten mountain resort, in Los Glaciares National Park. Don’t miss the astounding sunrise view from Mirador al Chaltén, a pullout on Ruta 23 just 2 km southeast of town.


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Prebooking a nice flat in Patagonia Hikes Aparts served as a comfy home base in El Chalten. In this hikers’ paradise we dedicated 10 days to explore the following:

  • Chorrillo del Salto waterfall is 7 km round trip from El Chalten by vehicle or on foot. Walkers can start at the end of Avenida San Martín, on the same trailhead as Laguna De los Tres, but soon taking the path to the right which parallels the road to Lago del Desierto.
  • For a homespun taste of Patagonian history, don’t miss Andreas Madsen House Museum, seen exclusively via private tour led by Walk Patagonia, starting from their office at Avenida Antonio Rojo 62 in El Chalten. Danish pioneer Andreas Madsen arrived in 1905 and built the first house in El Chaltén, on his farm named Estancia Cerro Fitz Roy. Walk an easy 6 km round trip to visit his family home along Rio de las Vueltas, within Los Glaciares National Park, with a commanding view of Cerro Fitz Roy.
  • Laguna Torre: starting at sunrise to avoid crowds, we hiked 21 km (13 miles) round trip with 730 m (2400 ft) cumulative gain to Laguna Torre (634 m or 2080 ft) and Mirador Maestri, with stunning views of Cerro Torre (3,128 m or 10,262 ft elevation). On the way out, we encountered hundreds of hikers going both directions.
  • From Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado (“hill of the collapsed fold”), see Cerro Fitz Roy rising high above Laguna Torre (634 m or 2080 ft). Sadly, clouds hid Cerro Torre that day. The trailhead starts from the Los Glaciares National Park Visitor Center, going for 19 km (11.9 mi) with 1170 meters (3860 ft) cumulative gain (which I’ve hiked 3 times).
  • Laguna de Los Tres is one of the park’s most crowded, most scenic trails. Start early (ideally before sunrise) and follow Sendero Fitz Roy for 20 km round trip with 1100 meters gain. To reach the best view, slightly descend left of Laguna de Los Tres then ascend 50 m to a bare knoll overlooking both it and Lago Sucia under mighty Mount Fitz Roy.
  • Huemul Lake and Glacier: A short, steep, sweet hike 4 km round trip with 215 m gain on private land. Pay the trail entrance fee at the campground at Estancia Lago Del Desierto. Note the knife-like north face of Fitz Roy rising to the south. Directions: drive or shuttle north from El Chalten for 35 km on gravel road RP23, leaving the national park, to reach Punta Sur of Lago del Desierto, just before reaching the ferry.
  • Paso Quadrado: Rio Electrico Valley staged my favorite experience in Patagonia. North of El Chalten, we parked where the gravel road RP23 crosses Rio Electrico bridge. An easy 7.3 km hike leads to Refugio and Campground Piedra del Fraile (“Stone of the Friar”). From the refuge, a scenic half-day route visits turquoise Lago Electrico under the glacier-clad Marconi Range, then leads to rocky Lago Pollone which reflects Mount Fitz Roy (8.5 km round trip with 320 m gain). For us, hiking to Lago Pollone completed a 16 km day including the trail from the highway. The relaxed, uncrowded Refuge’s dining building served good hearty food, including delicious pizza and cakes! We slept comfortably in our sleeping bags on provided mats in a quiet 4-person dorm room. After a breakfast of cold pizza saved from last night, we ascended very steeply to the breathtaking Paso Quadrado (gaining 1340 m vertically in 8.4 km round trip). Views improved steadily during the ascent. From Piedra Negra climbers camp, you can see an icy Chilean peak rising from the South Patagonian Ice Cap, 27 km northwest. What to me resembled a ptarmigan was actually a rufous-bellied seedsnipe (Attagis gayi), a common wading bird resident in the Andes. To our delight, a pair of rare huemul (south Andean deer, Hippocamelus bisulcus) wandered across Piedra Negra. A rocky, sometimes-exposed cairned route crosses between muddy green Lago Quadrado and an unnamed pure blue lake partially covered in ice. The last kilometer climbs steep snow which could require crampons and ice axe if icy, but was passable in soft snow using our trailrunning shoes. Scrambling the last 30 meters of rock to reach Paso Quadrado requires comfort with exposure (not for those with fear of heights).
Cerro Fitz Roy (3405 meters or 11,171 feet elevation)

is also known as Cerro Chaltén, Monte Fitz Roy, or Mount Fitz Roy. The first Europeans recorded as seeing the peak were the Spanish explorer Antonio de Viedma and his companions, who in 1783 reached the shores of Viedma Lake. In 1877, Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno saw the mountain and named it Fitz Roy in honor of Robert FitzRoy who, as captain of HMS Beagle (accompanied by Charles Darwin), had traveled up the Santa Cruz River in 1834 and charted large parts of the Patagonian coast. Cerro Fitz Roy was first climbed in 1952. Cerro is a Spanish word meaning hill, while Chaltén comes from a Tehuelche word meaning “smoking mountain”, due to its frequent orographic clouds.

Phase 3: CHILE: Trek the W Route in Torres del Paine National Park


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Round trip by bus from Argentina’s El Calafate, our generous nine-day itinerary to trek the W Route in Chile allowed for two shots of weather window for each of the three major valleys, as follows:

  1. Picked up from our lodging in El Calafate (Argentina) at 6:20am, we bused (BookingCalafate.com, US$67 per person) from El Calafate 6.5 hrs to Laguna Amarga Entrance Station then to Refugio Pudeto in CHILE’s Torres del Paine National Park. Before crossing into Chile, be sure to eat your sandwiches or any fresh food, otherwise Chilean Customs will capriciously confiscate it at the border! (Going the other way, bringing Chilean food into Argentina is fine.) Walking an hour on the dusty park road reached Hosteria PehoeHosteria Pehoe, which provided wonderful views of Los Cuernos but mediocre meals, on our first of eight nights in the park. Take your hot showers early as we did, because others later suffered cold showers.
  2. Hosteria Pehoe’s concierge booked us a pricey US$150 ride for 28 km to reach the nicer Hotel Lago Grey, the best starting point for the W Route (if you can book it at least 5+ months in advance). Their shuttle boat ferried us to the sandspit where we boarded their Lago Grey Ferry’s special third sailing (at 14:00, US$92, reservations recommended), which cruises dramatically close to Glacier Grey before dropping we trekkers (and pick up others) at Vertice Refugio & Camping Grey for two nights. (The first two sailings drop & pick up trekkers BEFORE sightseeing the glacier.) Our W Route trek began auspiciously with onboard gratis pisco sours and astounding glacier views! Don’t miss the inspiring Mirador Glacier Grey just 1 km north of Vertice Refugio Grey. Their elaborate new mountain hotel lavished us with elegant bedding in comfortable 4-person shared dorm rooms.
    • W Route trekkers have a cheaper alternative ferry which takes no reservations, departing from Refugio Pudeto (our backup plan). Catamaran Hielos Patagonia ferries hikers to Paine Grande (US$35 for foreigners; 35-minute crossing at 09:00, 11:00, 16:15, 18:00). Walking from Refugio Paine Grande to Vertice Grey Refuge is 6.8 miles with 1200 feet gain, each way. You can walk to the nearby Salto Grande waterfall while waiting for the catamaran.
  3. Staying a second night at the remarkably comfortable Vertice Refugio Grey allowed weather flexibility to hike 4.5 miles round trip to the best viewpoint over Grey Glacier, located just after the Second Swing Bridge. If extra energy allows, continue up to twice as far, as we did to Campamento Paso Ranger Station viewpoint, relatively lightly traveled by day hikers (for 14 km round trip with 924 m gain & loss; or 8.9 miles, 3030 ft up & down). The thrilling trail crosses three swing bridges high over deep gorges cut into the steep mountainside, through ancient twisted Nothofagus forest, breaking periodically into panoramic views of vast Glaciar Grey and surrounding peaks. Dozens of weary but exuberant “O Route” backpackers exited one-way from Paso John Gardner towards Vertice’s hot showers.
  4. We walked from Vertice Grey Refuge to Refugio Paine Grande 6.8 miles with 1200 feet gain, with the gusty prevailing 25-mph winds at our backs. Our 6-bunk room encouraged hours-long conversations with two French economists (who we met again at Chileno Refuge).
  5. From comfortable Refugio Paine Grande, we hiked via panoramic Mirador Britanico in the French Valley to Camping & Domes Francés (12.9 mi gaining 4610 feet up, dropping 4050 ft down). Hiking to Mirador Britanico reveals an impressive cirque of tall cliffs, including Cerro Cota 2000, Cerro Catedral, the granite arête of Aleta de Tiburón (Shark’s Fin), Los Cuernos, and more. Mysterious thunderous crashes heard throughout the day turned out to be calving icefalls (see video near top) periodically plunging from the imposing Cerro Paine Grande (9462 ft or 2884 m elevation measured by GPS in 2011). Staying in Fully-Equipped Tents at Camping Francés required walking a steep 1-km road for dinner and breakfast, except for lucky people staying in the attractive geodesic Domes dormitories (which were harder to book). Good healthy dinners were served with fresh green salads, imported by boat via Lake Nordenskjöld, seen broadly below.
  6. A rest day scheduled at Camping & Domes Francés allowed weather flexibility for seeing French Valley (done yesterday). But the ambiance would have been better if scheduled 2 hours further east at scenic Refugio Torres.
  7. Walking from Refugio & Camping Francés to Refugio Chileno (10 miles with 2680 ft gain, 1860 ft down) was my hardest day, due to fighting a head cold in hot, humid weather. We followed along Lake Nordenskjöld then crossed drier estancia land, then steeply up Ascencio Valley. Refugio Chileno served the best food of the W Route, a delicious salmon dinner and layered dessert.
  8. We ascended from Refugio Chileno to Mirador Base Las Torres on Lago Torres, then descended all the way out to Fantástico Sur’s Refugio Torre Central on the park road (9.6 miles gaining 2450 ft and descending 3270 ft). The popular hike from the refuge to Lago Torres alone was 5.85 miles round trip with 1980 ft gain and loss. Rising at 4:00am allowed dozens of others from the hut to hike to Lago Torres to see magenta sunrise light strike the namesake Towers in a magical setting. But instead, I slept off my head cold and first ate breakfast with Dave and Rebecca before ascending the route. On the descent, we encountered hundreds of others going each direction, many doing a much longer day round trip from Refugio Central and other lodges located on the park road terminus (13.5 miles round trip with 3270 ft gain). For weather flexibility, we had tried to book a second night at well-worn Chileno Refuge, but it was fully booked several months in advance. Instead, Dave & Rebecca stayed in a Fully-Quipped Tent in Camping Central, and I stayed in a 6-person dorm room with 2 others in the spacious, nicely furnished Refugio Central, where all shared tasty hot meals. Chirping exuberantly in the trees were several of the world’s southernmost parrot species, the austral parakeet (Enicognathus ferrugineus or austral conure), posing for my photos.
  9. A Fantástico Sur shuttle bus (US$5 with several daily departures, ticket bought a few hours in advance) took us from the Central Welcome Center to Laguna Amarga Entrance Station, where we caught our afternoon bus back to El Calafate in Argentina (BookingCalafate.com, US$55).
Planning tips for Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Backpacking in the park carrying your own tent and/or camping gear may pay off for stronger, younger, more-frugal adventurers such as on the longer, less-crowded “O Route” (see stingynomads.com) circumnavigating the Paine massif, counterclockwise only.

However, the most stunning landscape of the “O Route” can be seen by day hiking north from Refugio Grey across two exciting swing bridges, to the entrancing viewpoint over Grey Glacier just north of Second Swing Bridge (4.5 miles round trip). Also worthwhile for us was continuing on to Campamento Paso (8.9 miles total round trip, 3030 ft up & down). Above that, Paso John Gardner offers higher, perhaps grander, but incredibly windier views.

The Park’s grandest mountain scenery is on the W Route. My 60s-year old body prefers the comfortable huts and Full Equipo Tents, with all meals optionally provided (yes). Simply carry lightweight day-hiking gear plus change of cloths and camera. No need to carry any food, fuel, or camping equipment. Hot showers are available for all. Don’t hike the W Route from east to west, due to prevailing winds blasting you in the face. Go west to east as we did.

All lodging AND camping are strictly limited within Torres del Paine National Park, and must be booked at least 6 MONTHS IN ADVANCE, as we tried to do. Booking any later will severely limit your options. Booking everything ourselves for our 5-week trip cut costs nearly in half compared to a packaged tour, but took weeks of work and some headaches. The refugios (refuges) in the park are comfortable mountain hotels operated by two different companies, inconveniently requiring separate bookings:

  • Refugios operated by FantasticoSur.com: Camping & Domes Francés; Refugio Los Cuernos; Refugio Chileno; and on the park road terminus are grouped Refugio Torre Central, Camping Central, and Refugio Torre Norte.
  • Refugios operated by VerticePatagonia.com: Refugio & Camping Paine Grande; Refugio & Camping Grey; and Dickson Shelter & Camping (on the “O Route”).
  • Campgrounds operated by CONAF (nice park overview map): Paso Camping & Ranger Station (above Grey Glacier); and smelly Campamento Italiano.

Offloading your booking tasks to a professional organizer or tour operator can be worth the price premium. My research for self-guided tours on a budget revealed the following promising USA-based company: Pygmy Elephant’s 5-day W-Trek (external link).

Weather forecast for trekkers near Paine Grande at 500m/1600 ft elevation:
www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Paine-Grande/forecasts/500

Patagonia flight tips

All flights between Chile and Argentina must go through their capital cities. Over a dozen small airports serve Patagonia, but none of their flights cross the international border. (In our 2005 trip, one flight went from Ushuaua to Punta Arenas but wasn’t unavailable in 2020.) Efficiently touring within Patagonia can require patching together a series of one-way flight legs within either Argentina or Chile, but not flying crossing the border. Search by specifying “one-way” or “multi-city” in flight websites. To reach Torres del Paine by air from Chile, you must fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas Airport, then continue by bus or rented vehicle to Puerto Natales, and from there to the Park. Access from Argentina’s El Calafate by bus was more efficient for us. Our Argentine travel goals in El Chalten and Bariloche based our flights in Argentina instead of Chile. To explore Patagonia by RV, fly to Puerto Montt, Coyhaique, or Punta Arenas in Chile (see Bariloche: “Car versus RV or camper”).

“If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty.”Douglas Tompkins (see video)

Patagonia overview map

Patagonia map: Argentina & Chile.  — January 28–30, 2020: Fly from Seattle > Los Angeles > Lima > Buenos Aires > Bariloche.  — January 31–February 10: Phase 1: road trip loop from Bariloche by three Dempseys driving 1600 miles in 11 days, first south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returning north via Chile’s Carretera Austral.  — February 11–24: Phase 2: El Calafate & El Chalten.  — February 25–March 4: Phase 3: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.  — March 5–7: Fly home El Calafate > Buenos Aires > Santiago > Los Angeles > Seattle. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Patagonia 2020 map, Argentina & Chile. Itinerary:

  1. January 28–30, 2020: Tom Flies from Seattle > Los Angeles > Lima > Buenos Aires > Bariloche.
  2. January 31–February 10: Phase 1: road trip loop from Bariloche by three Dempseys driving 1600 miles in 11 days, first south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returning north via Chile’s Carretera Austral
  3. February 11–24: Phase 2: El Calafate & El Chalten.
  4. February 25–March 4: Phase 3: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
  5. March 5–7: Tom flies home from El Calafate > Buenos Aires > Santiago > Los Angeles > Seattle. Dave & Rebecca flew to Ushuaia to cruise Antarctica round trip. Their healthy ship unexpectedly added 7 days extra cruising to Montevideo, Uruguay due to Argentina’s COVID-19 border closures.

2019 Sept: RV to Wyoming, Carhenge, Cahokia, Colorado, Utah

A diverse RV camping trip took us across the USA from Seattle to: Wyoming’s Wind River Range; Nebraska’s kooky Carhenge; Indiana family; Illinois’ prehistoric Cahokia Mounds; Colorado’s southwest corner; Utah’s Arches and Capitol Reef National Parks; and California family (September 4–October 20, 2019).

2019 Sep 4-Oct 20 favorites: RV to WY, NE, IL, CO, UT


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Below, see all images from the trip in galleries by location:

Wyoming: Wind River Range


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The Wind River Range lies in the Rocky Mountains southwest of Grand Teton National Park. Mostly made of granite batholiths formed deep within the earth over 1 billion years ago, the Wind River Range is one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America. These granite monoliths were tectonically uplifted, exposed by erosion, then carved by glaciers 500,000 years ago to form cirques and U-shaped valleys. We enjoyed several hikes and a backpacking trip in Bridger-Teton National Forest on the west side of the Continental Divide (which follows the crest of the “Winds”):

Green River Lakes day hikes

Glaciers scoured the terminal moraine which naturally dams the Green River Lakes, which are the headwaters of the Green River (chief tributary to the Colorado River). Upper Lake offers the best reflection of Squaretop Mountain (11,695 feet elevation), an iconic granite monolith. To acclimatize, we hiked a loop of 7.2 miles with 700 feet cumulative gain entirely around Lower Green River Lake, including the short side trip to Upper Lake.

A tougher hike took us from Green River Lakes Trailhead, along just the west side of Lower Lake, to Slide Lake (13 miles round trip minimum, with 2100 feet gain). Those with more energy can add the Natural Bridge in Clear Creek Valley and loop back via the east side of Lower Lake.

Photographer’s Point day hike

Above Pinedale, along the enjoyable day hike to Photographer’s Point (9.6 miles round trip with 1150 feet gain), view Wind River peaks rising above the popular Titcomb Basin backpacking area.

New Fork Lakes day hike

From Narrows Campground, we hiked a pleasant trail along New Fork Lakes just past the end of the lake (4.4 miles round trip with 400 ft gain). (The kokanee salmon were not yet spawning on September 12, 2019.)

3-day backpack to Big Sandy Lake: Cirque of the Towers; Clear Lake, Deep Lake, Temple Lake

Our spectacular two-night backpacking trip established a tenting home base at Big Sandy Lake Campground (11 miles round trip with 1000 feet gain going in, and 400 ft gain going out). On Day 2, we hiked with lightweight day packs from Big Sandy Lake to Clear Lake and Deep Lake below East Temple Peak, then looped back via the the Continental Divide Trail to Temple Lake, Miller Lake, and Rapid Lake (7.5 miles, 1060 ft gain). Every step of this day hike offers inspiring views, such as the sharp spire of East Temple Peak above Deep Lake, Cirque of the Towers in the distance, and more. On Day 3, two hours before sunrise, I departed from Big Sandy Lake to reach Jackass Pass viewpoint for Cirque of the Towers and Lonesome Lake (6.5 miles round trip, 1860 ft gain) on the Continental Divide Trail. Then I joined Carol hiking out to Big Sandy Trailhead (5.4 miles with 400 ft gain).

Nebraska (NE): Carhenge, near Alliance


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Carhenge replicates England’s Stonehenge using vintage American automobiles, near Alliance, in the High Plains of Nebraska. After studying Stonehenge in England, Jim Reinders recreated the physical size and placement of Stonehenge’s standing stones in summer 1987, helped by 35 family members. “It took a lot of blood, sweat, and beers,” said Reinders, who built Carhenge as a memorial to his father. 39 automobiles were arranged in the same proportions as Stonehenge with the circle measuring a slightly smaller 96 feet (29m) in diameter. All autos are covered with gray spray paint, and the “heel stone” is a 1962 Cadillac. The site was gifted to the Citizens of Alliance in 2013. In the surrounding Car Art Reserve, Reinders’ “Ford Seasons” consists of four Fords, inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Jeske’s Over the Hill Campground conveniently welcomes campers adjacent to Carhenge.

Illinois: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site


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Who knew that the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas is right across the Mississippi River from St Louis: Monks Mound, near Collinsville, Illinois. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site preserves the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico. Cahokia existed around 1050–1350 CE. The present park contains about 80 man-made earthen mounds, but at its apex around 1100 CE, Cahokia included about about 120 mounds and covered 6 square miles (16 km2) with a population briefly greater than contemporaneous London. Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture, which developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning 1000+ years before European contact. Cahokia Mounds is one of 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the United States.

Colorado: Great Sand Dunes National Park


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Dunes rise up to 750 feet tall in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, on the eastern edge of San Luis Valley, Sangre de Cristo Range, south-central Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park


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Now honored by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde National Park was established by Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 in the Four Corners region near the town of Cortez. Starting around 7500 BCE, Mesa Verde was seasonally inhabited by nomadic Paleo-Indians. Later, Archaic people established semi-permanent rockshelters in and around the mesa. By 1000 BCE, the Basketmaker culture emerged from the local Archaic population, and by 750 CE the Ancestral Puebloans had developed from the Basketmaker culture. The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They built the mesa’s first pueblos sometime after 650, and by the end of the 1100s began building massive cliff dwellings.

Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, was built 1190-1260 CE by Ancestral Puebloans. By 1285, following a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area and moved south into what is today Arizona and New Mexico. Cliff Palace was rediscovered in 1888 by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason while looking for stray cattle.

Colorado: San Juan Mountains


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In 2019, we admired peak fall colors in late September and the first week in October in the San Juan Mountains. Silverton, Ridgway, and Telluride made great bases for hiking and touring in this spectacular southwest corner of Colorado.

Utah: Moab: Arches National Park

My brother Dave and I re-hiked a favorite trail: Devils Garden loop via Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Double O Arch, Dark Angel, Pine Tree Arch (8 miles with 800 feet gain, with slight scrambling and exposure in places on the Primitive Trail portion, not for those with fear of heights).

Luckily for our group, the Devils Garden Campground host had left a paper note allowing us to grab sites left on October 10 by campers escaping cold 22-degree-F overnight temperatures, freeing sites which had been fully-booked 6 months in advance. Photographing sunset and sunrise around Skyline Arch was a joy! Below are photos of this and other-years activities in Arches National Park:


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Utah: Capitol Reef National Park

Dave and I hiked impressive sandstone gorges from Chimney Rock Trailhead over to Spring Canyon, under the looming shadow of Capitol Dome, then down to a car shuttle at Highway 24 (10 miles one way with 1100 ft descent and 370 ft gain). Wading across the Fremont River completed this spectacular, quiet escape from crowds elsewhere in the park. Below are photos of this and past-years activities in Capitol Reef National Park:


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Reference

Tom’s Southwest USA blog articles include Arizona, ColoradoNevada, New MexicoUtah, plus Texas. See also Midwest USA.

2019 Calgary skyscraper glows with Tom’s jagged rock pattern

My favorite jagged rock image from Glacier National Park is now enlarged twice onto a Calgary skyscraper! The image glows on two lightboxes wrapping 64 feet and 54 feet around the base of a tower completed by Axiom Builders in June 2019:

  • SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10th Ave SW, in Calgary, Alberta, CANADA (Corner of 5th St and 10 Ave SW; Google Maps).
Tom Dempsey's rock photo on SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10 Ave SW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Two glass lightboxes display a jagged rock image by Tom Dempsey on the SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10 Ave SW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, completed in June 2019. Tom photographed the rock in 2002. Made of 30 glass tiles, the lightbox at left wraps the southwest corner 16.3 by 3.5 meters (53.6 feet wide by 11.6 ft high). The larger lightbox at right wraps the southeast corner 19.6 by 8.4 meters (64 feet wide x 27.5 feet high).

See more of Tom’s published work at this link.

Tom Dempsey's rock photo on SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10 Ave SW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Tom Dempsey's rock photo is installed on two large lightboxes at the base of the SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10 Ave SW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Billion-year-old rock breaks into a jagged pattern in Glacier National Park, Montana.

Billion-year-old rock breaks into a jagged pattern in Glacier National Park, Montana. Tom’s image is permanently displayed on the glass of two large lightboxes of a skyscraper completed by Axiom Builders in June 2019: SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10th Ave SW, in Calgary, Alberta, CANADA.

2019 June: RV: Alaska-Canadian Highway; Cassiar; Yukon; Denali; Juneau; Glacier Bay

Our new Pleasure-Way Plateau XLTS RV drove like a dream for 6200 miles round trip from Seattle to Alaska from May 27-July 3, 2019. We reached Fairbanks and Denali National Park via the Cassiar Highway in BC and Klondike Loop through Yukon. We returned via the Parks Highway, Glenn Highway, and Alaska-Canadian Highway (ALCAN). A great side trip was by ferry from Haines to Juneau to Skagway. Out of five weeks, my top sights were 1) the day cruise from Juneau to South Sawyer Glacier in spectacular Tracy Arm Fjord, and 2) the fabulous flightseeing over Glacier Bay National Park starting from Skagway. Lastly, we returned for a bike ride and hike in Jasper National Park in Alberta, plus a quick stop to admire Mt Robson.

Favorite photos from Alaska-Canadian Highways trip 2019 May 27-July 3


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2019 Alaska & Canada trip interactive GPS waypoints and Google Maps

Alaska History

In Alaska, men have long outnumbered women; so Alaskan women jokingly say “the odds are good, but the goods are odd”.

From 10,000-30,000 years ago, Asians migrated across the Bering land bridge from Siberia. In 1784, Russians led by Shelikof settled permanently on Kodiak Island. Natives were enslaved and ill-treated for generations. In the mid 1800s, Americans and British undermined the weakening Russian fur monopoly and Tlingits waged guerrilla war. In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward instigated US Congress to buy Alaska from the Russians. In 1880, gold was discovered at Silver Bow Basin and Juneau was founded. In 1896, gold was discovered on a tributary to the Klondike River, easiest accessed by ship via Skagway. World War II ravaged Attu & Kiska Islands in 1942-43. Alaska became a state in 1959, with a size one-fifth that of the lower 48 states combined. After the 1968 oil discovery at Prudhoe Bay, the trans-Alaska pipeline was built 1971-77. The 1971 “Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act” formed Native Corporations.

Alaska’s resident population in 2019 is about 736,000 (similar to the number within Seattle city limits). Private pilots here outnumber truck and taxi drivers combined. Roads reach only 5 of Alaska’s 15 national parks. Alaska visitors each year outnumber residents by a factor of two. About half of all visitors come via cruise ship.

Global warming: Since the mid 1900s, Alaska has warmed 3 degrees Fahrenheit and its winters have warmed nearly 6 degrees. Human-caused climate change induced by emissions of greenhouse gases continues to accelerate the warming of Alaska at an unprecedented rate. Climate change is having disproportionate effects in the Arctic, which is heating up twice as fast as the rest of Earth. Earth’s glaciers are shrinking fast, as described below affecting Kluane Lake, Mendenhall Glacier, and Glacier Bay National Park.

Below are more extensive galleries and stories from each area visited.

CANADA: Barkerville, British Columbia


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Historically the main town of the Cariboo Gold Rush, Barkerville is now the largest living-history museum in Western North America. The town was named after Billy Barker from Cambridgeshire, England, who struck gold here in 1861, and his claim became the richest and the most famous. This National Historic Site nestles in the Cariboo Mountains at elevation 1200m (4000ft), at the end of BC Highway 26, 80 kilometres (50 mi) east of Quesnel. Gold here was first discovered at Hills Bar in 1858, followed by other strikes in 1859 and 1860. Wide publication of these discoveries in 1861 began the Cariboo Gold Rush, which reached full swing by 1865 following strikes along Williams Creek.

CANADA: Cassiar Highway, British Columbia


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The scenic Stewart–Cassiar Highway (Highway 37, aka Dease Lake Highway or Stikine Highway) is the northwesternmost highway in BC.

The nonprofit ‘Ksan Historical Village is a living museum of the Gitxsan Indigenous people, reconstructed in 1970 in the Skeena Country of Northwestern British Columbia. See impressive cultural artworks painted on longhouses and carved in totem poles. ‘Ksan is near Hazelton at the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers on Gitxsan territory, a short drive off of the Yellowhead Highway (just east of the southern start of the Cassiar Highway). ‘Ksan was founded in 1866 (before Hazelton) and was populated by the Gitxsan Indigenous people.

In good weather, a side trip is worthwhile through Stewart, BC to Hyder, Alaska and beyond to Salmon Glacier, the world’s largest glacier accessible via road. Salmon Glacier, the fifth largest in Canada, is a 37km (23 mile) drive from Stewart, past Hyder and beyond the Bear viewing platform, along Salmon Glacier Road, built for mining interests.

In tiny Jade City, Cassiar Mountain Jade Store is worth a visit.

CANADA: Yukon: Whitehorse, Dawson, Klondike Highway


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We enjoyed a short hike from Miles Canyon Suspension Bridge, near Whitehorse, capital and largest city of the Yukon. At Miles Canyon and the former Whitehorse Rapids downstream, the Yukon River cuts through 8-million-year-old lava flows, the Miles Canyon Basalts. Salmon pooling above and below the rapids attracted humans who left tools here 2500 years ago, and likely other people arriving 8000-9000 years ago after the retreat of glaciers. These narrow cliffs and rapids also established the upstream terminus for paddlewheelers during the Klondike Gold Rush, eventually helping establish the City of Whitehorse. Whitehorse was incorporated in 1950 at kilometer 1426 (Historic Mile 918) on the Alaska Highway. The town was named for the former Whitehorse Rapids (now drowned by a hydroelectric dam), whose pale-colored glacially silted waters resemble the mane of a white horse. The Yukon River originates in British Columbia and flows into the Bering Sea in Alaska. Although historically and popularly called “Yukon Territory”, the territory is now officially called “Yukon” (after the federal government’s Yukon Act in 2002).

The SS Klondike No. 2 sternwheeler, launched at Whitehorse in 1937, was the largest vessel ever to sail the Canadian portion of the Yukon River. The SS Klondike No 2 moved silver-lead ore, freight, and passengers primarily between Whitehorse and Dawson, until retirement in 1955 ended the era of commercial steamboats in the Yukon. It’s now a National Historic Site in Whitehorse.

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, in Whitehorse, has some frighteningly huge skeletons of extinct beasts, such as Jefferson’s Ground Sloth (Megalonyx jeffersoni), which was endemic to North America from 10 million–11,000 years ago. It became extinct in Yukon 75,000 years ago. During the ice ages, Beringia’s climate alternated between warm interglacial and cold glacial periods. During glacial periods, sea levels dropped 120 meters, exposing a land bridge that was up to 1000 kilometers (620 miles) wide. Beringia, like most of Siberia and all of North and Northeast China, was a grassland steppe. Fossils found on both sides of the Bering Land Bridge show that since the time of the dinosaurs, it was a major route for the exchange of plants and animals between Asia and North America. Swedish botanist Eric Hultén coined the term Beringia in 1937. Beringia includes the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Sea, the Bering Strait, the Chukchi and Kamchatka Peninsulas in Russia plus Alaska in the United States.

Just west of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway, the Klondike Highway departs north as Yukon Highway 2 to Dawson City.

Dawson City was the center of the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–99), after which population rapidly declined, in Yukon, Canada. Dawson City shrank further during World War II after the Alaska Highway bypassed it 300 miles (480 km) to the south using Whitehorse as a hub. In 1953, Whitehorse replaced Dawson City as Yukon Territory’s capital. Dawson City’s population dropped to less than 900 through the 1960s-1970s, but later increased as high gold prices made modern placer mining operations profitable and tourism was promoted.

Dredge No. 4, a National Historic Site of Canada, was the largest wooden-hulled dredge in North America. Operating from 1913 until 1959, it recovered 8 metric tones of gold. After nearly 30 years on the Klondike River, it was re-built near the mouth of Bonanza Creek to run for another 18 years before sinking where seen now, along Bonanza Creek Road 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) south of the Klondike Highway near Dawson City. A hydro-electric dam 60 km away powered the massive water pumps, winches, and 72-bucket line to sluice gold from river gravel, 24-7 from late April or early May until late November each season, and sometimes throughout winter. Vast river beds were upended into tailing piles, including 26 homes, as the ongoing Placer Mining Act gave mining rights precedence over surface rights.

Although Dawson City’s landscape is severely marred by industrial placer mining which continues to the present, my favorite sight was the Paddlewheel graveyard. Explore the ruins of seven historic paddlewheel boats discarded in the woods along the banks of the Yukon River. Directions: On foot or auto, take the free George Black Ferry to West Dawson and the Top of the World Highway. Turn right into Yukon River campground and park at its northern end. Walk through the yellow gate, turn left, and walk downstream a few minutes to the Paddlewheel graveyard. This site is protected under the Yukon Historic Resources Act. As we walked back to the ferry, a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) trotted by nonchalantly.

Jack London’s Cabin replica evokes the American novelist, journalist, and social activist (1876–1916). At age 21, Jack London spent a difficult winter 1897–1898 prospecting for gold from in a rented cabin, just prior to the gold rush of 1898. While he didn’t strike it rich, he later turned his Klondike adventures into fame and fortune with legendary short stories and books. His most famous works include “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”, both set during the Klondike Gold Rush. A pioneer in the world of commercial magazine fiction, he was one of the first writers to become a worldwide celebrity and earn a fortune from writing. He was also an innovator in the genre that would later become known as science fiction. London’s cabin, abandoned after the Gold Rush, was re-discovered by trappers in 1936 who noted London’s signature on the back wall. Yukon author Dick North organized a search in 1965 and eventually had the cabin dismantled and shipped out. Two replicas were made from the original logs. One is shown in Dawson City, while the other was re-assembled at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, Jack’s hometown.

A few blocks away, I photographed the Robert Service Cabin, rented by him 1909–1912. Robert William Service (1874–1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer, often called “the Bard of the Yukon”.

Alaska: Taylor Highway Chicken


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Chicken is one of the few surviving gold rush towns in Alaska, worth a stop to see the metal chicken sculpture and the F.E. Company Dredge No. 4 (Pedro Dredge, part of Chicken Historic District), which ran 1938-1967 near Fairbanks & here at its final resting place in Chicken. Mining and tourism keep Chicken alive in the summer, and about 17 people stay through the winter. Gold miners settling here in the late 1800s wanted to name the town after local ptarmigan birds, but couldn’t agree on the spelling, so instead called it Chicken to avoid embarrassment!

Alaska: Fairbanks & North Pole (combines images from 2019 and 2006)


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I recommend the “Golden Heart Review” musical comedy, held nightly at the Palace Theatre in Gold Rush Town, Pioneer Park (Alaska’s only Historic Theme Park), in Fairbanks. Through songs and stories, the polished, professional cast covers the historical highlights of Fairbanks, also known as “The Golden Heart City”. Pioneer Park, run by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Department of Parks and Recreation, commemorates early Alaskan history with museums and historic displays. Pioneer Park was opened in 1967 as Alaska 67 Centennial Exposition to celebrate the centennial of the Alaska Purchase. After being given first to the state and then to the city, Mayor Red Boucher renamed the site Alaskaland, which was changed to its present name in 2001.

Alaska: Denali (Mount McKinley; combines images from 2019 and 2006)


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Run by concessionaire Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Venture, the non-narrated transit buses are green in Denali National Park and Preserve. From our RV based 3 nights reserved in Teklanika Campground, I rode the bus twice to Eielson Visitor Center, including one trip further to Reflection Lake, above Wonder Lake.

Don’t overlook Denali State Park along the Parks Highway in Matanuska-Susitna Borough adjacent to the east side of Denali National Park and Preserve. Hike the scenic Curry Ridge Trail (6 miles round trip with 1000 feet gain) from the great new K’esugi Ken Campground, in Denali State Park.

Alaska: Independence Mine State Historical Park, Wasilla


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Independence Mine State Historic Park is 14 miles northwest of Palmer, Alaska. The Independence Mines were a gold mining operation in the Talkeetna Mountains. Independence Mine was the second-largest hard-rock gold mining operation in Alaska, after a larger site near Juneau. Mining here dates back to 1897 around Fishook Creek; these claims joined to form Wasilla Mining Company, which worked the mines from 1934-1943 and again 1948-1950. The company ended operations in 1950 expecting to resume, but never did, thereby well-preserving its mining equipment and buildings for eventual donation to the state in 1980, which established Independence Mine State Historic Park.

Alaska: Glenn Highway & Tok Cut-Off


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Nabesna Road offers spectacular scenery in a seldom-seen, wild corner of Alaska, the headwaters of the Copper River. Tt Mile Post 16.6, Kettle Lake picnic site offers a great view of the Wrangell Mountains. A humorous sign here says “TOILET 1 MILE”. The Wrangell Lavas built the Wrangell Mountains over the past 10 million years. Mount Wrangell (14,163 ft) is the largest andesite shield volcano in North America. The cinder cone of Mount Zanetti (13,009 ft) rose prominently 1000 feet above its northwest flank during the past 25,000 years. Wrangell reportedly erupted in 1784 and 1884–85. Occasional steam plumes rise from the park’s only active volcano, and ash sometimes coats the summit snow. Flowing northward from it is the Copper Glacier, source of Copper River which flows northward, then westward along the end of the Wrangell Range, then southward to the Gulf of Alaska near Cordova, cutting through the coastal barrier of the Chugach Mountains, marking most of Park’s western boundary.

Alaska: Haines Highway


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A surprising gem, the Hammer Museum in Haines delighted my wife and I with its quirky and humorous tool displays!

At Port Chilkoot in Haines, we toured Fort William H. Seward National Historic Landmark. Also known as Chilkoot Barracks and Haines Mission, 1902-1945, it was the last of 11 military posts in Alaska during the gold rush era, and Alaska’s only military facility between 1925 and 1940. It policed miners moving into the gold mining areas in the Alaskan interior, and provided military presence during negotiations over the nearby international border with Canada. William H. Seward was the United States Secretary of State who oversaw the Alaska purchase.

Alaska: Juneau & Tracy Arm


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I had wanted to experience the Inside Passage by ferry between Prince Rupert and Juneau, but our dates had fully booked several months in advance. Instead, we ferried our 22.5-foot RV from Haines to Juneau to enjoy 5 nights in Mendenhall Campground. Then we ferried from Juneau to Skagway, all on the Alaska Marine Highway System. The Juneau area really captured our hearts.

Located in the Alaskan panhandle, Juneau is the capital city of Alaska and the second largest city in the USA by area (only Sitka is larger). Isolated by rugged terrain on Alaska’s mainland, Juneau can only be reached by plane or boat. Downtown Juneau sits on Gastineau Channel at sea level under the steep Coast Mountains up to 4000 feet high, topped by Juneau Icefield and 30 glaciers. Juneau has been the capital of Alaska since 1906, when the government of what was the District of Alaska was moved from Sitka. The city is named after a gold prospector from Quebec, Joe Juneau. Kudos go to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, the best collection in the state.

Nature expert and sculptor R.T. “Skip” Wallen created “Tahku”, a stunning 6.5-ton, 25-foot tall breaching humpback whale statue with fountains and lights, completed in 2018 in Overstreet Park along the Seawalk near Juneau-Douglas Bridge in Juneau. Tahku celebrates 50 years of Alaska statehood 1959-2009.

I was intrigued by the Treadwell Mine Historic Trail, 3 miles south of Douglas Bridge next to Savikko Park. Formerly the largest gold mine in the world, this mini-town peaked in the 1880s, but was abandoned after partially sliding into the sea on April 21, 1917, when a massive cave-in flooded three of four underground mines 2300 feet deep, due to an extreme high tide and failure of unstable underground rock pillars. Now, spooky reminders poke through the forest on well-signposted and interpreted trail: the concrete New Office Building; 1917 slide site; “glory hole”, and the restored shell of Treadwell pumphouse. The 1914 Pump House had three centrifugal pumps which lifted 2700 gallons of saltwater per minute from Gastineau Channel for milling and fire protection during the winter when fresh water from the Treadwell Ditch was frozen in snow pack. Treadwell Mine operated 1882-1922.

For spectacular views over Mendenhall Glacier, hike the West Glacier (Mt. McGinnis) Trail 6-9.5 miles round trip, 1000-3200 feet gain, best late May-September. The Trailhead is a half mile from Mendenhall Campground entrance by road. A good trail skirts the northwest side of Mendenhall Lake then climbs through forest to the bare rock along the glacier’s west side, where some scrambling and route finding skills are required. Mendenhall Glacier flows 12 miles from downtown Juneau, in Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, a unit of Tongass National Forest. Mendenhall Glacier has retreated 1.75 miles since 1929, when Mendenhall Lake was created, and over 2.5 miles (4.0 km) since 1500.

Don’t miss a day cruise to South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm Fjord, in the Boundary Ranges of the Coast Mountains. We highly recommend the smoothly stabilized day cruise aboard the 56-foot boat Adventure Bound. This journey to the heart of Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness (Tongass National Forest) rivals Norwegian fjords and adds a punchbowl of icebergs from the spectacular South Sawyer Glacier, which calved ice into the tidewater with a rumble and a splash. Whales, bears, sea lions and other wildlife showed up along the way. The fjord twists narrowly 30 miles into the coastal mountains, with peaks jutting up to a mile high, draped with tumbling waterfalls.

Although few would call me religious, I loved the peaceful setting of the National Shrine of St. Therese, 22 miles north of downtown Juneau, in Tongass National Forest. A stone causeway from shore reaches this natural-stone chapel nestled amid a tranquil wooded island. This ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Juneau is dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of Alaska, missionaries, and the Diocese of Juneau. She wrote that what really mattered in life was not our great deeds, but our great love.

Alaska: Flightseeing over Glacier Bay National Park


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Flightseeing from Skagway or Haines (a cheaper base) is a spectacular way to see Glacier Bay. We were bedazzled by Mountain Flying Service’s 1.3-hour West Arm tour from Skagway. Glacier Bay is honored by UNESCO as part of a huge Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site shared between Canada and the United States. In 1750-80, Glacier Bay was totally covered by ice, which has since radically melted away. In 1794, Captain George Vancover found Icy Strait on the Gulf of Alaska choked with ice, and all but a 3-mile indentation of Glacier Bay was filled by a huge tongue of the Grand Pacific Glacier, 4000 feet deep and 20 miles wide. By 1879, naturalist John Muir reported that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay. In 1890, “Glacier Bay” was named by Captain Beardslee of the U.S. Navy. Over the last 200 years, melting glaciers have exposed 65 miles of ocean. As of 2019, glaciers cover only 27% of the Park area.

Alaska: Skagway


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Skagway was founded in 1897 on the Alaska Panhandle. Skagway’s population of about 1150 people doubles in the summer tourist season to manage more than one million visitors per year. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park commemorates the late 1890s Gold Rush with three units in Municipality of Skagway Borough: Historic Skagway; the White Pass Trail; and Dyea Townsite and Chilkoot Trail. (A fourth unit is in Pioneer Square National Historic District in Seattle, Washington.)

Alaska-Canadian Highway (1942 ALCAN)


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Open year round, the Alaska Highway is wider and slightly safer than Cassiar Highway. Both are worth driving as a loop, as we did in 2019. Road conditions were generally fast 50-65 mph, except some sections of permafrost heaves requiring 35-50 mph and a few dozen miles of gravel being repaved. The Alaska Highway comprises BC Highway 97 + Yukon Highway 1 + Alaska Route 2. It starts at Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, BC and goes via Whitehorse in Yukon to its officially end in Delta Junction, Alaska. Despite being driven by 100,000+ people per year (2016 estimate), this route feels quite remote, and is a great place to see roadside mega-fauna wildlife.

Originally known as the military acronym ALCAN, it is also called the Alaskan Highway or the Alaska-Canadian Highway. The ALCAN was built as a military road during World War II to link existing airfields to the territory of Alaska. In 1942, 1700 miles (2700 km) were completed, but weren’t opened to the public until 1948. As of 2012 the roadway has been shortened via reconstruction to 1387 miles (2232 km), entirely paved (except where being repaired). Informal historic mileposts denote major stopping points. Delta Junction, at the end of the highway, claims “Historic Milepost 1422” where the Alaska Highway meets the Richardson Highway, which continues 96 mi (155 km) to the city of Fairbanks at Historic Milepost 1520, often (but unofficially) regarded as the northern portion of the Alaska Highway, although Richardson Highway Mileposts are measured from Valdez. The Alaska Highway is popularly (but unofficially) considered part of the Pan-American Highway to Argentina (with a discontinuity in Panama).

Fort Nelson Heritage Museum in British Columbia: this quirky museum is worth a stop to see the Alaska Highway construction display, pioneer artifacts, trapper’s cabin, vintage autos & machinery, a white moose, and more.

Near Liard Hot Springs, keep alert for herds of Wood Bison, a threatened species in Canada, grazing obliviously along the Alaska Highway. We saw 50 by day (but beware their dark bodies are invisible at night).

Watson Lake’s Sign Post Forest is one of the most famous landmarks along the Alaska Highway. Started by a homesick GI in 1942, the number of signs has snowballed. Private Carl Lindley, serving with the 341st Engineers during World War II, was assigned light duty while recovering from an injury and erected the signpost for his hometown: “Danville, Ill. 2835 miles”. Visitors may add their own signs to the over 80,000 already present.

Don’t miss the fascinating George Johnston museum at ALCAN Mile 804 in Teslin, Yukon, two kilometers north of the Nisutlin Bay Bridge. Colorful exhibits, dioramas, and artefacts honor Inland Tlingit people such as George Johnston, one of the Yukon’s renowned photographers. Best of all is watching in their small theater the touching National Film Board film: “Picturing a People” by Tlingit Director Carol Geddes.

As the Alaska Highway crosses the former inlet of Kluane Lake in the St. Elias Mountains, Yukon, notice clouds of dust swept from Slims River Valley, which dried since a recent glacial meltwater diversion. In a startling case of global warming, over 4 days in spring 2016, the Slims River suddenly disappeared, leaving windswept mud flats creating clouds of dust in the formerly clear air. With its main water supply cut off, Kluane Lake will be isolated within a few years, shrinking below its outflow into the Kluane River (which flows into the Donjek River, White River, Yukon River, and eventually the Bering Sea). Kluane Lake chemistry and fish populations are rapidly changing. For the last 300 years, abundant meltwater from the Kaskawulsh Glacier has been channeled by ice dam to drain via the 150-meter wide Slims River, north into Kluane Lake. Between 1956 and 2007, the Kaskawulsh glacier retreated by 600-700 meters, which most scientists attribute to human-caused climate change. Meltwater flooding from accelerating retreat in 2016 carved a new channel through a large ice field, diverting all flows to the Kaskawulsh River, a tributary of the Alsek, which flows into the Gulf of Alaska.

I reveled in hiking Sheep Creek trail (15 km with 1200 m gain or 4000 ft) for spectacular views of the Slims River Valley, surrounding St. Elias Mountains, plus Kluane Lake seen from Soldier’s Summit on Tachal Dahl (Sheep Mountain) Ridge. (Or halfway up also gives worthwhile views.) Three Dall sheep (Ovis dalli, or thinhorn sheep) encountered me on top.

Big Delta State Historical Park: Rika’s Roadhouse served travelers on the historic Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail from 1913 to 1947, at a historically important crossing of the Tanana River. Find it off mile 274.5 of the Richardson Highway in Big Delta, in the Southeast Fairbanks Area, Alaska. Jovo ‘John’ Hajdukovich, an immigrant from Montenegro, had the north-south section of this log structure built in 1913. Starting in 1917, Swedish immigrant Rika Wallen operated this regional hub serving gold stampeders, local hunters, traders, and freighters; and she bought the roadhouse in 1923. With the construction of the ALCAN Highway and the replacement of the ferry with a bridge downstream, traffic moved away and patronage declined.

Alaska animals, wildlife (combines images from 2019 and 2006)

Our roadside wildlife sightings over 5 weeks in 2019 racked up 50 bison, 21 black bears, 8 grizzlies, 29 caribou, 8 moose, 28 dall sheep, 12 stone sheep, 10 red foxes, 9 bald eagles, 2 otters, 1 porcupine, 90+ Steller sea lions, 90+ harbor seals, various snowshoe hares, sandhill cranes, etc. The long bus ride round trip to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park is especially great for seeing wildlife.


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CANADA, Alberta: Jasper National Park images from 2019


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In Jasper National Park, we bicycled from Snaring River Overflow Campground to Ewan & Madeline Moberly Homestead (1903 log cabin) and Corral Creek (10 miles round trip). Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site (which I find to be more spectacular than the Alaska Highway).

With 1 km of rerouting discouraging our bikes on flooded Jacques Lake Trail on 01 July 2019, we instead hiked on foot for 6 miles to scenic Beaver Lake, then nearly to Summit Lake before turned back by rain, in Jasper National Park.

CANADA: Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia

See much more about Mt Robson at this link.

Blue lupine flowers bloom beneath Mount Robson (3954 meters or 12,972 feet), whose summit is the highest point in the Canadian Rockies.

Blue lupine flowers bloom beneath Mount Robson (3954 meters or 12,972 feet), whose summit is the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. Mount Robson Provincial Park (in British Columbia, Canada) is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site listed by UNESCO in 1984. This image was stitched from 2 photos having near and far focus for great depth of field. Click to Add to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Recommended Alaska guidebooks

Search for latest “Alaska travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

2013: 2012: 2012: 2012:
2012: 2009:

2019 NEW ZEALAND: hike Rees-Dart, Gillespie Pass, Hollyford, Milford & Pororari Tracks; Mt Cook

Beautiful New Zealand attracted my fifth visit to hike the spectacular Rees-Dart, Gillespie Pass, Hollyford, and Milford Tracks plus more in southern South Island’s unique Gondwanan wilderness. Relishing an escape to Southern Hemisphere summer, I organized a 5-person family trip tramping in lush temperate rainforests for five weeks (2018 Dec 27–2019 Jan 31). Colorful fields of nonnative Russell lupins mesmerized us on the way to Mount Cook/Aoraki, where we repeated favorite Sealy Tarns and Hooker Valley hikes. Sadly flooded out of the Milford Track after one night, we regrouped to enjoy lucky weather elsewhere, such as gorgeous Pororari River Track.

Favorite New Zealand photos from 2019


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See our detailed 2019 trip itinerary at bottom of this article. But for more comprehensive NZ travel planning tips on both North and South Islands, see “NEW ZEALAND trip guide and itinerary“.

WHAT’S NEW in 2019 since our last visit to New Zealand 12 years ago?

At Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers, a man impressed me saying that he was tramping the length of the country! In 2011, New Zealand established the Te Araroa Trail, which goes 3000 kilometers (1900 miles) from Cape Reinga to Bluff (40 percent on conservation land), requiring 3 to 6 months of walking.

As of January 2019, tourism has exploded. Reservations months in advance are recommended at Mt Cook, Te Anau, Milford, and Queenstown. Rates for Great Walk huts on the Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler Tracks doubled for foreigners this year versus last. Mount Cook area sights and services were super busy all the way out to Twizel, whose grocery was packed. Upscaling for higher-spending tourists, Queenstown now caps the total number of pricey legal tent sites and disallows Freedom Camping, so one must book paid sites early. Wanaka’s New World grocery burst with tourists at all hours; and the city has spawned suburban growth out to Albert Town, where we stayed 5 nights at a great AirBnb. On the plus side, you can now get good coffee, such as a “flat white”. Tourist crowds and prices at Greymouth Seaside TOP 10 Holiday Park noticeably decreased when the kids went back to school in the last week of January.

Very practical Jucy Campervans and car rentals with tailgate kitchens are seen everywhere (but we rented a cheaper Toyota Corolla as tramping in huts took us away from roads for 14 days out of 34). “Three-day Certified Self-Contained” RVs using “Freedom Camping Zones” have proliferated on South Island. Some Holiday Park public kitchens now charge $5 for use of pots/pans/utensils/cups/plates (formerly free), which seem to encourage tidier countertops.

Tourists from Hong Kong, China, and India are suddenly in abundance, reflecting rising wealth of the global middle class. Seasonal employees are often low-paid immigrants from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, and the British Commonwealth.

Sheep outnumbered people in New Zealand by more than twenty-to-one in the 1980s, but by just seven-to-one now. Near Mt. Cook, we stayed 3 nights at Glentanner Park Centre; their Glentanner Station still runs 9000 Merino sheep which supply American Smartwool brand clothing. The fur of Australian possum, an invasive nonnative pest, is now smartly mixed with wool in NZ gloves & hats. Sheep numbers are declining but beef and dairy increasing. I was surprised to see herds of huge elk on fenced farms, supplementing red deer farms, to raise venison.

Globalization continues to disrupt New Zealand’s ecosystems. Since 2004, the unstoppable spread of didymo algae (“rock snot”, native to New York) has begun to choke native stream life. At Glade Wharf, we stepped off the Te Anau Express ferry into a chlorine pan to control possible didymo on our boots before entering the Milford Track. Since we last visited 12 years ago, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has spent millions of dollars on public land to control the spread of wilding conifers, which are invasive nonnative pine trees in the high country of New Zealand. In Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve reached via Skyline Queenstown gondola, I noticed vast gray wilding forests sprayed dead by DOC, to be replaced by native tussock. Wildings threaten biodiversity, farm productivity, and the landscape values of tussock grasslands.

I was glad to see extensive trap lines for stoats and rats along the Milford Track, Hollyford Track, Routeburn Track, Dart track, and Siberia Valley. These nonnative predators have devastated New Zealand’s unique bird life. Norway rats were on the ships of the first explorers, who arrived in New Zealand in the late 1700s. Stoats, weasels, and ferrets were introduced to New Zealand as early as 1879 to control nonnative rabbits that were destroying sheep pasture. Almost without exception, introduced species have been detrimental to the native flora and fauna. That being said, trekking once again into remote Fiordland and Aspiring National Parks still makes a wonderful escape into uniquely beautiful Gondwanan wilderness.

Mount Cook National Park: Sealy Tarns & Hooker Valley Tracks


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Both Sealy Tarns (4.3 mi round trip/1600 ft gain) and Hooker Valley Tracks (7 mi RT/500 ft gain) were well worth repeating this year. Native Spaniard (speargrass) plants and white mountain daisies peppered the scenic landscape. Also worth seeing is Tasman Glacier, which offers boat tours. Just a few meltwater ponds existed in the early 1970s at the current viewpoint on the glacier’s terminal moraine, but by 1990 they had merged into Tasman Lake. In further melting from 1990-2011, Tasman Glacier retreated a shocking 2 kilometers, and continued to disappear at an accelerating rate through 2019. See my Global warming, climate change gallery.

Near Geraldine (22 km north off SH72), Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve was worth seeing again, strolling on Big Tree Walk through a magnificent podocarp (conifer) forest. Huge native totara trees, one almost three meters across, are thought to be about 1000 years old. A DOC campground with cabins is available.

Views from Mount John Observatory are well worth visiting by car or on foot from Lake Tekapo village. A riot of nonnative Russell lupin flowers bloomed in patches on Mt John and areas around the shimmering turquoise lake. The widespread diaspora of Russell lupins began with David Douglas bringing the herbaceous lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) from North America to Britain in the 1820s. In the early 1900s, George Russell, a horticulturist from York, UK, spent two decades breeding the Russell hybrids (Lupinus X russellii hort). First naturalized to New Zealand by local farmers wanting to beautify their landscape in the 1950s, Russell lupins have invaded large areas of roadsides, pastures, and riverbeds. This alien plant most threatens indigenous species in the braided river beds of Canterbury region. Russell lupin is classed as an invasive species in New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Finland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.

Fiordland National Park: Milford Track

During our first night at Clinton Hut just 5 km in, heavy rains flooded the Milford Track and blocked the trampers in all three huts! (DOC nearly provided helicopter lifts for everyone over the floods to the next hut, but no dice.) The incoming hiker cohort was cancelled, and everyone was offered a second night in their respective huts, turning the four-day trip into five. Sadly, in order not to miss catching our Hollyford flight, we chose to exit via ferry back to Te Anau in late afternoon. After exiting the ferry and retrieving our car (left there for a planned family shuttle), we used nearby Fiordland National Park Lodge’s wi-fi to seek last-minute accommodation beyond fully-booked Te Anau. Upon driving 70 minutes, we found that the hotel in Lumsden had fumbled our Booking.com reservation, requiring staff to find us lodging 20 minutes further out. By 10pm, Carol and I went to sleep in the empty, staffless Riversdale Hotel, far from tourist crowds. Luckily, a room was available the next night in Distinction Te Anau Hotel & Villas, albeit pricey. We could then freely day hike Earland Falls, to surprise three of our family group who were exiting from four days spent on the Routeburn Track. Their story was of not only heavy rain but also of their son being sick for two days. Luckily the remaining time in NZ improved markedly, fulfilling our goals.


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Fiordland National Park: Routeburn Track: day hikes to Key Summit and Earland Falls

We relished two wonderful day hikes from The Divide in Fiordland National Park:

  • Key Summit: 4.7 mi round trip, 1389 ft gain
  • Earland Falls: 8.7 miles round trip with 2270 feet gain.
  • Catch good a weather forecast.


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Fiordland National Park: Hollyford Track in 3 days

We staged the Hollyford Track from Milford Sound Lodge, which has a nicely remodeled public kitchen & dining area, but our dorm building (NZ$40 per person) was unappealingly dark, crowded, and located 70 meters from the renovated bathrooms. Overnight options are very limited at Milford Sound: tenting was forbidden, we had no RV, and we couldn’t stomach NZ$345-849 for a private chalet. In retrospect, the dorm situation beat backcountry NZ huts. Milford Sound Airport was within walking distance of our car left at the waterfront public parking.

We enjoyed an easy version of the Hollyford Track (brochure and map) with a 3-day independent walker itinerary via a spectacular 15-minute flight from Milford Sound to Martins Bay, two nights sleeping in DOC huts, and personal car shuttle round trip from Te Anau. Highlights of the Hollyford include: seeing playful pups in the New Zealand fur seal colony near Martins Bay Hut; circumventing the muddy 10- to 12-hour Demon Trail (which has few views) via a fun jetboat ride along Lake McKerrow to Pyke River confluence; and strolling under beautiful tree fern forest under glacier-clad peaks soaring 8000 feet above.


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Queenstown

Bustling, upscaling Queenstown has much to offer if you’re ready for crowds. From the top of the scenic Skyline Gondola, I reveled in the 5-mile scenic loop over the steep ridge trail in Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve.


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Mount Aspiring National Park: Rees-Dart Track and Cascade Saddle

Yearning for the Rees-Dart Track inspired this revisit down under. Starting with a good weather window forecast for Cascade Saddle, the epic 5-day Rees-Dart Track proved much better than we had imagined. We set up our own car shuttle. While we were luckily unslowed by the many stream crossings, both vehicles and trampers would have been seriously hindered in a typical rainstorm. The remote wilderness huts surprised us with flush toilets and public sinks! 7 to 9 hours per day of sweat equity spent scrambling over the steep, sometimes mucky and rooty, sometimes excellent trails rewarded us with classic scenic wonders over the course of 52 miles in five days. Streams crashed from sparkling glaciers above lush green rainforest. The spare alpine vegetation reminded me of Peruvian Highlands. Dropping our packs for the 12.5-mile side trip to spectacular Cascade Saddle was a delight.

If using a Rees-Dart Shuttle Service, ask if a four-wheel-drive shuttle will take you a few kilometers further past Muddy Creek to get a jump on the long first day hiking in scenic Rees Valley to Shelter Rock Hut. At the end of the track, consider efficiently connecting with Glenorchy Wharf via a fun prearranged jetboat, which skips the last 1.5 hours of scenic walking to Chinaman’s Bluff parking lot.


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Mount Aspiring National Park: Rob Roy Track

Rob Roy Valley Track (easy 8 miles, 900 feet gain) is one of our favorite day hikes in the world. Start early in the morning to avoid inevitable crowds. From Wanaka, drive up Matukituki Valley on a gravel (“metal”) road with water crossings to the trailhead. Great hanging glaciers, crashing streams & waterfalls, swing suspension bridge, and kea alpine parrots.


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Mount Aspiring National Park: Gillespie Pass Circuit: Young & Wilkin Tracks to Siberia Hut and Crucible Lake

  • In 2019, we enjoyed tramping 4 days on the rewarding Gillespie Pass (Wilkin-Young) Circuit, to Siberia Hut and marvelous Crucible Lake. Problematic Makarora River crossings at the start and end are best done via jetboat as we did from Makarora via Wilkin River Jets. Drenching rain on the first day at Young Hut yielded to mostly sunny weather for the most important remaining three days.
  • In 2007, we did an easier, also spectacular option to reach Siberia Hut and Crucible Lake: Fly to Siberia Valley from Makarora and jetboat out. Day hike the spectacular but extremely steep and rooty track to Crucible Lake, and overnight at Siberia Hut. [Or the easiest option to sample the area is the one-day “The Siberia Experience“: fly in, hike 2.5 hours, then jetboat back.]


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South Island’s West Coast


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Along the wild coast of Paparoa National Park, we revisited the photogenic Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk, on Dolomite Point. I also loved the strikingly beautiful forest subtly transitioning between subtropical and temperate ecozones on gorgeous Pororari River Track (which is part of a new “Great Walk” to open after October 2019).

Our detailed NEW ZEALAND itinerary for 35 days (2018 Dec 27 to 2019 Jan 31)

Several months in advance, our family group of five booked lodging for our first two weeks in New Zealand, including Mt Cook area, Te Anau, and two nights in Queenstown. The first step was booking the popular Milford Track, which sold out all January slots within seconds after bookings opened 6 months in advance! We could only get slots for two out of five of our group, so those three instead booked the Routeburn Track (reservable the next day), which also filled up very quickly. After fulfilling our prudent bookings up to mid-January, a 3- to 5-day weather forecast then determined when to do the Rees-Dart Track (which requires no reservations, though pads should be carried in case bunks are full). Later, Makarora Travel Centre lodging was easily booked on short notice to stage our Gillespie Pass Circuit. West Coast lodging was tight but bookable several days in advance, with a reprieve as kids went back to school in the last week of January. [Below, RT = round trip; T&C = Tom and Carol; DRK = Dave, Rebecca, and Kylan.]

27.     Thurs Dec 27: T&C: Fly from SFO to Christchurch, 19 hrs 15 min total duration = 12 hr10min flight + 3:20 layover + 4hr5min flight. [Fly SFO on FJ 871 departing Thursday, Dec. 27 at 9:00pm, duration 11:10 hours + 4:05 hours, arriving in Christchurch on FJ 451 at 1:35 pm on Saturday Dec 29. FijiAirways.com US$1266 per person; 1 FREE CHECKED BAG up to 50lb/23kg, 62 li/158 lcm, 1 FREE CARRY-ON BAG 7kg/15lb up to 45 li/115 lcm.]

28.     [Lost day via International Dateline.]

29.     Saturday Dec 29: Arrive in Christchurch IAP 1:35pm. T&C: Apex Rental Car: Toyota Corolla midsize sedan NZ$1489.29 for 33 days, 3 free extra drivers, pay at desk.  DRK: rent a Toyota RAV4 NZ$56.67/day for 65 days. Stay at an AirBnB. Buy SIM cards for both Carol & Tom’s phones: Spark’s “NZ Travel SIM” for foreigners, $49 SIM, good for 2 months, gives 5 gb, 200min talk, 200 texts. Buy backpacking & other food; butane cigarette lighter for stove; Snowpeak Gigapower stove fuel isobutane/propane mix for dinners+breakfasts for 9 days (2 Hollyford+4 Rees-Dart+3 Gillespie). Gas cooking stoves are provided in Milford & Routeburn Huts.

30.     Sunday Dec 30: Drive from Christchurch 4 hours to Glentanner Park, night 1/3. Nice short loop: Big Tree Walk in Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve. See breathtakingly colorful fields of Russell lupin flowers via Lakes Tekapo & Pukaki.

31.     Mount Cook 2/3: Glentanner Park.  Hooker Valley Track (GMap: White Horse Hill Campsite, 6.8 miles, 450 feet), same trailhead as Sealy Tarns.

1.      January 1: Mount Cook 3/3: Glentanner Park.  Sealy Tarns (Start on Kea Point track from GMap: White Horse Hill Campsite, 5 miles RT, 1717 feet, steep) [or hike further to spectacular Mueller Hut 7.8 mi RT/3400 ft].

2.      January 2: Drive to Te Anau 5 hours. Next 3 nights T&C, next 2 nights DRK: Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers, Booking.com (this link supports my work). DRK: tent sites for four on Jan 2, 3, and 11.

3.      Te Anau: Buy backcountry hut passes. We rested today, but here are local hiking options: Kepler Track dayhike options: Take Brod Bay Water Taxi (Fiordland Outdoors Co. – Kepler Water Taxi, GMap) then walk back to Te Anau 11km. Or Brod Bay to Luxmore Hut 10.2 mi / 2870ft RT (or shorter to views at bushline). Longer: Brod Bay to Mount Luxmore 11.6mi/4000ft gain RT. Water Taxi 8.30am or 9.30am, return 4.30pm. Or Kepler Heli Hike drops you at Mt Luxmore Hut (optional walk 3 hrs RT 1300ft to summit Mt Luxmore) then walk back 4 hrs to Brod Bay Water Taxi.

4.      DRK begin Routeburn day 1/4: hike from the Divide to MacKenzie Campsite.  T&C day hike, joining DRK on Routeburn Track, to Key Summit side trip 3 hrs RT 4.7 mi/ 1389 ft. T&C hike Marion Falls/The Gantry GMap 20min round trip [optionally one can hike onwards to Lake Marion 3 hrs RT 4.4 mi/1565 ft.]

5.      Saturday Jan 5: T&C: Leave car at Te Anau Downs Boat Launch, GMap. Take 10:30am ferry to Glade Wharf to start Milford Track; first day is easy hike 3mi/5km. [Total distance would have been 36-40 miles in 4 days with 4600ft up, 5200ft down]. [DRK 2/4: to Routeburn Falls Hut. Gas cooking stoves are provided in Milford & Routeburn Huts.]

6.      Sunday Jan 6: T&C: Milford Track second day: Due to flooding delaying forward progress by an extra night, we return 5km from Clinton Hut to Glade Wharf; catch the 3:00 pm ferry to Te Anau Downs. Because Te Anau lodging is fully booked, we drive our car 90 minutes to the deserted Riversdale Hotel. [DRK 3/4: MacKenzie Hut.]

7.      T&C hike Earland Falls, meeting DRK [on their Routeburn day 4/4] on their hike back to The Divide. DRK stay in Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers BBH (dorm room 3 people, shared bathroom). T&C: stay in Distinction Te Anau Hotel & Villas booked on short notice 2 days ago.

8.      T&C, DRK drive both cars to end of Hollyford Road End to leave one car, then all 5 go in one car to Milford Sound where it remains parked for 3 nights. Past Homer Tunnel, see The Chasm GMap via 20 minute walk. All  of us overnight in dorm beds at Milford Sound Lodge (laundry available; hot showers; public kitchen; café; GMap).

9.      Hollyford Track, map, day 1/3: Easy day: Bring cooking stove kit with lighter & fuel, backup sleeping pads in case of full hut, changes of clothing & fresh camera & backup batteries. 10:30am airplane short flight for all of us (www.tripsandtramps.com) from Milford Sound to Martins Bay airstrip, walk 3.5 miles to Martins Bay Hut, dormitory lodging with pit toilets, partly on washed-out, muddy trail. Warning: Sandflies bit us voraciously at Martins Bay and in the Hollyford Valley; so put on your DEET repellent before exposure. Walk 2 more miles round trip on good trail to see the wonderfully entertaining New Zealand fur seal colony.

10.     Hollyford Track 2/3: Jetboat charter for 5 from 2.00pm-3:00pm, run by www.hollyfordtrack.com from Martins Bay Hut along length of Lake Mckerrow to Pyke River Confluence, NZ$130/person, www.tripsandtramps.com. Ride the Jetboat. Then hike to Hidden Falls Hut (12 bunks, GMap) 10.5 km, 3–4 hr.

11.     Hollyford Track 3/3: hike from Hidden Falls Hut to Lower Hollyford Road, Hollyford Trailhead, 9 km, 2–3 hr. All of us drive in one car to recover other car at Milford Sound. Drive 2 cars back to Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers.

12.     Drive 2.3 hours from Te Anau to Queenstown Top 10 Holiday Park night 1 of 2. GMap 1/2 T&C Self Contained Cabin. DRK in tents.

13.     Queenstown Top 10 Holiday Park night 2 of 2. I hiked a very scenic loop over the steep ridge of Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve starting from top of Skyline Gondola. One can extend this hike to Ben Lomond Track from 1-6.9 miles with 500-3236 ft gain in 5-6 hrs round trip. [Other good options outside of town: Bob’s Cove; or Glacier Burn: 4.6 mi/2152 ft. RT steep, rooty, GMap] (The DOC office in Makarora is unmanned, so get tomorrow’s Gillespie Circuit hut tickets and track info at Wanaka DOC office before going to Makarora; or get 6-month Hut Passes as we did.)

14.     As of today, nothing was prebooked, allowing a 3-day window for Rees-Dart Track (DOC). The forecast was good, so we hiked Day 1/5: we left one car at Chinaman’s Bluff in Dart Valley and shuttled all five of us in the other car to Muddy Creek parking lot in Rees Valley, via stream crossings possible in good weather in our Toyota Corolla & RAV4 rental cars. If in doubt, hire a car shuttle service, or possible jetboat in Dart Valley. We hike 11.9 miles, 1650 ft. up, 400 ft. down, from Muddy Creek to Shelter Rock Hut. (The first 4 miles are on a road which a 4WD shuttle could shorten, but you wouldn’t want to leave a car beyond Muddy Creek, isolated by possibly flooded stream crossings.)

15.     Rees-Dart Track 2/5: 6.2mi/9km with 1885 feet gain, steep on good trail to Rees Saddle, then a surprisingly punishing 1800 feet down on many scrambling very steep drop-offs, to Dart Hut.

16.     Rees-Dart Track 3/5: side trip: Hike to spectacular, steep Cascade Saddle (12.5 miles round trip with 3200 ft gain), the major goal and highlight of our 2019 trip! (Beware of several possibly uncrossable flooded stream crossings in rainy weather.)

17.     Rees-Dart Track 4/5: 11.25 miles, 1150 ft. up, 2600 ft. down, to Daly’s Flat Hut, on the easiest footpath conditions out of the five days. (Except beware of several possibly uncrossable flooded stream crossings in rainy weather). Sandflies are voracious here; so put on your DEET repellent before exposure.

18.     Rees-Dart Track 5/5: 10 miles, 1250 ft. up, 1440 ft. down to Chinaman’s Bluff parking lot, car shuttle. Walk by an eerie partly-submerged forest killed by the flooded blue-green lake in Dredge Flat, which was dammed by the 2014 Jan 04 landslide, which had required rough rerouting of three sections of the Rees-Dart Track (reopened in late 2017). Watch your step when tired! Other than slow clambering steeply up and down required through the rooty reroutes, the remaining path conditions today resembled speedy Great Walk standards. A section signed for cliff “exposure” turned out to be a safe, wide, well protected path with stairs and railings, with nice views over the new lake. Suspended glacial powder colors the lake a beautiful turquoise. Although this was our most difficult ever hut walk in 30 years, Rees-Dart Track paid off as our best experience in New Zealand! This night we stayed in Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb night 1 of 5).

19.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 2 of 5): We relaxed. [Nearby popular option: Roy’s Peak: park by 6:30-7am, 8-9.7 mi / 3500-4000 ft gain to good view of Lake Wanaka.]

20.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 3 of 5): Get up early to avoid the crowds, drive 80 minutes to hike the memorable Rob Roy Valley Track (easy 7 miles, 1700 feet gain).

21.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 4 of 5): We relaxed. [Nearby option: hike Diamond Lake Track 3.9 mi/1529 ft, GMap.]

22.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 5 of 5): We relaxed.

23.     From Makarora, start Gillespie Pass circuit 1/4: NZ$25 per person jetboat on Makarora River to Young River confluence, hike 10.6 miles, 2480 ft. up, 810 ft. down, 6.5 hrs to Young Hut. [One can optionally fly (Wilkin Jetboats Siberia Experience NZ$375 or Southern Alps Air NZ$395).]

24.     Gillespie Pass circuit 2/4: Young Hut via very steep Gillespie Pass to Siberia Hut 7mi/3020 ft up/3400ft down, steep, 6-8 hours. DEET repellent is advised to ward off clouds of sandflies at Siberia Hut. [Optional side trip to spectacular Crucible Lake adds 5.3mi/2040 ft 4+hrs RT, making a strenuous 12.3-mile day with 5440 ft gain; or else hike tomorrow from Siberia Hut as we did.]

25.     Gillespie Pass circuit 3/4: spectacular Crucible Lake 9.3 miles/2100ft round trip hike starting from Siberia Hut.

26.     Gillespie Pass circuit 4/4: 4.2mi/300ft gain/1300ft down one way to the exciting jetboat ride NZ$110pp from Kerin Forks to Makarora. Stay in Makarora Travel Centre, where Carol stayed 4 nights to take a break from this rougher track.

27.     Leaving Makarora, we stroll to the attractive Blue Pools in Mount Aspiring National Park. Walk up Haast Pass Lookout to absorb the area’s history. Along the drive over Haast Pass to Fox Glacier, we liked popular Thunder Creek Falls. Haast Visitor Centre (run by DOC) helps organize your West Coast visit. All five of us stay in bunks in a small private room at Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park.

28.     West Coast: Near Fox Glacier, we drove through nice wilderness to foggy Gillespies Beach, in Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Close-ups of the exceptionally loud chorus cicadas were fun to capture on video in the bush. Walk around Lake Matheson, still attractive when the Alps are covered in cloud (but more magical when Mounts Cook and Tasman reflect, as in 2007). We five stay in a larger double room with kitchen in delightful Greymouth Seaside TOP 10 Holiday Park, night 1 of 2.

29.     West Coast: Greymouth Seaside TOP 10 Holiday Park, night 2 of 2. In Paparoa National Park, revisit fascinating Pancake Rocks; and hike gorgeous Pororari River Track.  [More local options: Hokitika Gorge. Or Charming Creek Walkway.]

30.     Jan 30: Drive to Christchurch, via Arthurs Pass NP: Devils Punchbowl, 4 mi RT 745 ft gain to high waterfall. Christchurch in an AirBnb house, which lacked air conditioning. Look for Christchurch lodging with AC in summer, as temperatures reached 92 degrees Fahrenheit today!

31.     Thurs Jan 31: We returned the rental car with full tank of petrol by 2:00pm. After 5 weeks in NZ, we depart CHC at 15:30pm, arriving in SFO 12:45pm (arriving before we started that same Thursday afternoon, due to crossing International Dateline). Flight times going eastwards are quicker due to prevailing winds: 4 hrs plus 3hr40min stopover plus 10hr 30min = 18hr 10min total duration. Rent car one way from SFO to Chico 3.5+ hrs. After several nights in Chico, we drove our own car to Seattle.

JAPAN: Tokyo, Kyoto, Alps, Matsumoto, Himeji, Nikko, Mt Fuji, Kii Peninsula, Nara’s Horyuji

Months of research paid off handsomely for our self-guided group of four in my first journey to Japan, 2018 October 10 – November 8.

Japan favorite photos


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Our trip included 4 days in Tokyo, a week in Kyoto, and much in between. Coming from cooler Seattle, subtropical Honshu nicely extends fall foliage colors a month later. While our wives Barbara and Carol did a 10-day indigo-dyeing fabric workshop, Mark and I escaped into nature in the Japan Alps and Nikko National Park. Then back together, we four explored fabulous Matsumoto and Himeji Castles plus much more described below. Conveniently, history has packed the essence of Japan into central Honshu, the main island. As foreigners we qualify for the bargain-priced Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) which reaches most major sights.

The free online Japan-Guide.com covers Japan travel in astounding detail, better than any book.

Incredibly helpful, Google Maps on my smartphone with Japanese SIM simplified point-to-point navigation. Our SUICA transit cards (ordered in advance) eliminated fumbling with unfamiliar change on efficient local subways and buses, and also bought items from vending machines seemingly found everywhere (dispensing hot bad coffee in a can plus cold drinks). The impressively-reliable Japanese train network includes 200mph bullet trains (shinkansen), which resemble ground-hugging jet airplanes. My preparatory efforts to learn spoken Japanese were put on hold after arrival, as English signs and helpful locals sufficiently crossed the language barrier.

The following interactive Google Map shows where we went in Japan. During the trip, I would simply click a desired destination, and Google Maps would describe the step by step directions, visually and/or audibly, as desired via train, bus or foot.

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More extensive galleries of Japan:

Below, see all my Japan photos and travel tips grouped by city and area (mostly by Tom Dempsey, some by Carol Dempsey). Or view them in sequential order in a single gallery at this link in my Portfolio (where you can Add to Cart).

Tokyo


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On our first morning in Tokyo, we dove into a high protein fish breakfast at Tsukiji Kagura Sushi (map), one of many restaurants in Tsukiji Outer Market in Central Tokyo southeast of Ginza. In Ueno Park, the big Tokyo National Museum helped us understand the sweep of Japanese history. We highly recommend a Sumida River Dinner Cruise on a Yakatabune traditional Heian Period Japanese boat, such as Harumiya company’s “Odaiba & Skytree route” via Rainbow Bridge. Seating is at horigotatsu low table with a sunken floor to comfortably stretch your legs. In Asakusa district, we visited the densely crowded Sensoji (Asakusa Kannon Buddhist Temple, founded in 645 AD), which was completely rebuilt several times, mostly after World War II.

Destroyed by Allied firebombing during World War Two along with half of Tokyo, the Tokyo Imperial Palace and Garden was rebuilt in the 1960s and 1990s and is the home of Japan’s Imperial Family. In 1989, Emperor Akihito became Japan’s 125th emperor. 1,500 years of rule makes his Yamato Dynasty the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. Constitutionally, the emperor performs a symbolic role with no political power; and the role was similarly limited through most of Japan’s history.

Allied firebombing of Tokyo on 9 March 1945 was the single deadliest air raid of World War II (greater than Dresden or Hiroshima as single events), leaving more than 100,000 civilians dead and 1 million homeless. After Japan surrendered, the US occupying forces led by General Douglas A. MacArthur rehabilitated Japan between 1945 and 1952. Rising from the ashes, Tokyo is now a stunning technological wonder; and as of 2018 Japan has the world’s third largest economy by GDP. Not until 2010 did China finally surpassed Japan’s Gross Domestic Product. Shared history has deeply intertwined the economies of the USA and Japan. For example, the American convenience store innovator of 7-Eleven Inc. was rescued from mismanagement and became entirely Japanese-owned in 2005. 7-Eleven stores have spread widely across Japan.

Tokyo wowed us with some exciting modern architecture including: Tokyo International Forum; skyscrapers above Shibuya Crossing, the world’s single busiest pedestrian crossing; the beautiful greenhouse in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden; graceful Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower built 2008; a free city observatory 202 meters high in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Tokyo Tocho); and the Godzilla (Gojira) head on Hotel Gracery in the Kabukicho entertainment and neon red-light district, spectacular at night.

Despite a dense commuter population of 38 million people, the metropolis of Tokyo is one of the world’s safest cities. Japan is the most civil society I’ve ever witnessed. Careful attention to detail is applied everywhere: to pristine food presented with a delicate aesthetic, to the abundance of clean public restrooms, and to decorative manhole covers. Many toilets fill their tank using a faucet on top where you can wash you hands while the water runs immediately after flushing.

Politeness is a national virtue. Out of respect, no talking is heard on crowded commuter subways. Americans may be surprised that Japanese strongly frown upon pedestrians who smoke, eat, drink or talk on cellphones while walking. By most measures, the violent crime rate is at least 10 times lower in Japan than in the USA. Despite a quirky legal system which forces confessions, Japan incarcerates far fewer than the US (with a prisoner rate 13 times higher) or UK (3 times higher). Children can safely walk or transit unsupervised to school. Not everything is perfect in this male-dominated culture, such as the under-reporting of sexual assaults such as groping on crowded subways. But women and children apparently feel safe to walk most streets alone at night, unlike in many US cities.

Mount Fuji and Chureito Pagoda


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The dormant stratovolcano of Mount Fuji (3776.24 m or 12,389 ft), the highest mountain in Japan, last erupted in 1707–1708. Its symmetrical cone is snow-capped for about 5 months a year, as during our October visit. Overlooking Fujiyoshida City, a viewpoint by five-storied Chureito Pagoda offers iconic views combined with Mount Fuji in the distance (sadly covered by cloud by the time Mark and I joined Carol and Barb here, after their fabric workshop). The attractive pagoda, part of Arakura Sengen Shrine, was built as a peace memorial in 1963, nearly 400 steps up the mountain from the shrine’s main buildings.

Nikko: Toshogu, Lake Chuzenji


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Nikko features Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine, 1600s Toshogu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tips: Get lodging with 6:00am breakfast or buy your own at a grocery the night before, in order to beat the crowds which fill up Nikko buses after 8:00am. Arrive at Toshogu Shrine’s box office just before it opens at 8:00am, as the site quickly becomes deluged with school groups and tourist hordes. This is an overcrowded, must-see wonder. Fall foliage colors were very nice at Ryuzu Falls and Chuzenji Onsen in late October 2018. Typically, peak foliage colors hit beautiful Lake Chuzenji around mid October. Ryuzu Falls was very nice, though crowded, even in the rain. Get off at Bus Stop #37, enjoy the falls, then walk 1 kilometer upriver along the raging stream, to less-crowded Bus Stop #38 to catch the next bus up or down.

Kyoto


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We devoted 7 nights to Kyoto, exhaustively exploring this amazing metropolis of 1.5 million people via foot, bus, taxi and train. Containing seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kyoto is a cultural treasure house. Kyoto served as Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794-1868. Largely spared during World War II, Kyoto is a better place to see original historic buildings than Tokyo, where half the city was destroyed by Allied firebombing.

Tourist sights can get extra crowded in Kyoto on a Saturday, so we escaped to Kurama-dera. This peaceful Buddhist temple perches on a steep wooded mountain above Kurama, reached via an inexpensive private train plus funicular (cablecar), both not covered by JR Pass. Upon arrival, I learned that our planned 1-hour hiking trail between Kurama and Kibune was sadly closed until further notice, because two months previously, a typhoon had snapped trees and extensively damaged the grounds. Kurama-dera was nice and relaxing, but not as striking as our walk in “Kii Peninsula: Nachikatsuura, Kumano Kodo” described further below.

Himeji Castle


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Himeji Castle is both a national treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Hyogo Prefecture. As a lucky exception, Himeji Castle was never destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and it survives as one of Japan’s 12 original castles. Starting as forts built in 1333 and 1346, it was remodeled in 1561, remodeled in 1581, enlarged in 1609 to its present complex, extensively repaired in 1956, and renovated in 2009-15. Displayed inside are historic samurai armor and swords. From the upper floors, view fish-shaped roof ornaments that are believed to protect from fire. Across the moat, we enjoyed the movie-set gardens of Koko-en. Himeji Castle starred in Akira Kurosawa’s striking 1980 film “Kagemusha” and 1985 “Ran”, and in the 1980 television miniseries Shogun (portraying feudal Osaka castle). We conveniently visited Himeji by train as a day trip from Kyoto, best mid week to avoid crowds.

Nara: Horyuji Temple


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Among the major historic sights scattered across Nara Prefecture, I choose Horyu-ji, which is both a National Treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Horyuji Temple’s 122-foot-high pagoda is the world’s oldest wooden building. The wood used in the center pillar of the pagoda is estimated through a dendrochronological analysis to have been felled in 594. The Temple was founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, an early promoter of Buddhism in Japan. The similarly old Kondo (Main Hall) was rebuilt in 1954 after a 1949 fire destroyed 80-85% of its wood. As sights in Kyoto can get extra-crowded on weekends, a 3-hour round trip train to Horyuji served as a quieter, relaxing escape on a Sunday, located outside of Nara city.

Matsumoto Castle


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Built 1592-1614, Matsumoto Castle and its red bridge reflect magically in the moat, in Nagano Prefecture. Matsumoto Castle is a “hirajiro” – a castle built on plains rather than on a hill or mountain. Matsumoto-jo’s main castle keep and its smaller, second donjon were built from 1592 to 1614, well-fortified as peace was not yet fully achieved at the time. In 1635, when military threats had ceased, a third, barely defended turret and another for moon viewing were added to the castle. Inside, steep wooden stairs lead to openings for dropping stones onto invaders, openings for archers, as well as an observation deck at the top, the sixth floor of the main keep with views over Matsumoto city.

Across from the train station, Premier Hotel Cabin Matsumoto made an excellent base with elaborate buffet breakfast in this walkable city.

Japan Alps: Kamikochi, Mt Hotaka


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Starting from Tokyo by early morning train, the Northern Japan Alps are easily reached by early afternoon to start hiking. I recommend the following 4-day trek from Kamikochi via comfortable mountain huts up to 10,190-foot Mount Kitahotaka (29 miles with 6980 ft gain), in Chubu-Sangaku National Park. I reserved just our first night in Tokusawa-en hut via internet. We purchased four days of lunch materials at a corner grocery and would rely on huts for dinners and breakfasts. Departing from Shinjuku Station via JR Pass, we arrived before noon in Matsumoto Station, where Starbucks supplies a roomy lounge to relax and sip a drink. An $80 taxi ride whisked us directly to Kamikochi Bus Station to start the trek. (The bus schedule was limited, with arrival times too late). Japanese mountain huts prefer that you arrive by 2 or 3:00pm, and advance reservations are recommended.

  1. 4.65 miles / 340 ft gain from Kamikochi Bus Station to Tokusawa-en mountain hut (1570m / 5150 ft elevation). The separately-curtained individual dorm cubicles, delicious gourmet dinner and hot shower/bath were delightful surprises! Staff spoke enough English to help us book tomorrow night’s hut.
  2. Breakfast was a curious array of Japanese dishes. We ascended a scenic trail via Yokoo Valley, 7 miles with 2650 ft gain to Karasawa-goya mountain hut. I had staff use their two-way radio to book tomorrow night’s hut. Plus I walked an extra 2.4 miles with 1000 ft gain to Panorama Course overlook via a decaying trail exposed to steep slopes, secured where needed with fixed chains or ropes.
  3. On Day 3, I hiked from Karasawa-goya a total of 10 miles, with 2650 feet of steep ascent via a series of ladders and fixed chains to Mount Kitahotaka, then 5300 ft total descent to Tokusawa-en. Atop Kitahotaka-dake at 10,190 feet elevation, you can optionally dine or stay overnight at Kitahotaka Hut! But dense fog and a smattering of snow flakes at the summit quickly sent me hustling steeply back down the gauntlet of rocks with fixed chains. Heavy rain began upon arrival at Karasawa-goya, where I collected my remaining belongings to descend before dark, in time for a shower/bath and another gourmet dinner at Tokusawa-en hut.
  4. From Tokusawa-en back to Kamikochi Bus Station, we crossed Myojin bridge and looped back on the north side of Azusa River via pleasant boardwalks and peak fall foliage colors, for 4.9 miles with 340 feet descent. With no reservation, we caught one of the frequent buses onwards to Takayama city for two nights…

Japan Alps: Ogimachi in Shirakawago; Takayama


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Two nights in Takayama allowed plenty of time to take a day trip via bus to worthwhile Shirakawago. Ogimachi is the largest village and main attraction of the Shirakawa-go region, in Ono District, Gifu Prefecture. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Ogimachi village hosts several dozen well preserved gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some more than 250 years old. Their thick roofs, made without nails, are designed withstand harsh, snowy winters and to protect a large attic space that was formerly used to cultivate silkworms. Many of the farmhouses are now restaurants, museums or minshuku lodging. Some farmhouses from surrounding villages have been relocated to the peaceful Gassho-zukuri Minka-en Outdoor Museum, highly recommended, across the river from the bustling, more-touristy town center. Gassho-zukuri means “constructed like hands in prayer”, as the farmhouses’ steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer.

Japan Alps: Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route


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A snowy crystalline scene greeted us at Tateyama Murodo Sanso mountain hut. At 8000 feet (2450 meters) elevation, Murodo is the highest point along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which offers lodging, hiking and views of the Tateyama Mountain Range, in Chubu Sangaku National Park. The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route carries visitors across the Northern Japan Alps (Hida Mountains) via cable cars (funiculars), trolley buses and Tateyama Ropeway. Completed in 1971, this transportation corridor connects Toyama City in Toyama Prefecture with Omachi Town in Nagano Prefecture.

Tsumago to Magome: Nakasendo trail; Nagoya


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At a minshuku (family pension) in Tsumago, a tasty Japanese dinner of unfamiliar food included sweet fried crickets. Sleeping on hard futons dampened our enthusiasm for cultural submersion. Then a pleasant walk on the historic Nakasendo trail took us from preserved Edo-era Tsumago to Magome. I was more comfortable in the Western-style beds in the small efficient rooms of Sanco Inn Nagoya Shinkansen-guchi Annex in the bustling beehive of Nagoya.

Kii Peninsula: Nachikatsuura, Kumano Kodo


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A heartfelt highlight of the trip was on the Kii Peninsula, where two nights in Nachikatsuura allowed a short walk along a Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route to Seiganto-ji Temple by Japan’s highest waterfall, Nachi-no-Taki. A colorful sunset over the fishing boat harbor followed cruising scenic coastal sea stacks in late afternoon. In Nachikatsuura, every morning except Saturday is a fascinating morning tuna auction, worth attending twice. A delicious maguro (tuna) dinner at Katuragi restaurant included tuna sashimi, fried breaded tuna and user-cooked tuna. Optimally located near the train, bus station, waterfront, and restaurants, the comfortable Hotel Charmant served a tasty breakfast.

Japan travel tips

  • The most complete, useful and well written online Japan reference is: Japan-Guide.com. The printed Lonely Planet guidebook is also useful.
  • Absolutely essential for transit and navigation in Japan, Google Maps requires a Japanese SIM card in your smartphone. We ordered our Japanese SIM card in advance, which works nearly everywhere (on all trains except in tunnels). Unless your “Wi-Fi Calling” feature requires it, don’t get the portable Wi-Fi device, which costs more than a SIM, adds bulk (the size of a pack of cards but 5 ounces) and must be charged separately and has much shorter battery life than your phone.
  • Google Maps is the best navigation app, much superior to the Maps.Me app or Garmin devices. Google Maps only work online in Japan; that is, downloadable offline maps aren’t available for Japan (unlike maps for many other countries like USA which are downloadable in chunks). In contrast, Maps.Me maps CAN be downloaded for offline use, but I gave up on using them as they have fewer landmarks and sometimes led us down blind alleys. Using a navigation app, when starting from a standing stop, you must move about 30-50 feet before determining if your direction is correct relative to the map. Find out which way is north on your map and use a Compass app to help determine directions in the real world. Confusingly, Japanese printed maps show East upwards, with North left (instead of up). Tall buildings in Tokyo sometimes interfered with GPS accuracy by several blocks, without my knowledge, for a few minutes at a time. Many place names have multiple entries across Japan or even within the same city. Try to find locations as links from official websites. Addresses in Japan are inscrutable and often inconsistent when romaji words are typed into Google Maps. Realize that an objective such as a restaurant may be in a multi-floor building, so read its description carefully. As Google Maps guides you within a few meters, examine building directories on the surface street. In dense, disorienting Tokyo surrounded by sun-blocking tall buildings, we circled completely around Bangkok Café before determining that it was far above us on the 10th floor of a large multi-use building.
  • Allow extra time getting through Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest railway station, which handles more than two million passengers per day. Try to find out ahead of time which exit is required to reach your hotel or destination. With 200 exits, Shinjuku Station frequently confounded our route finding! Finding your way into the big stations was usually well signed. But arriving via train or subway into the belly of a huge unfamiliar rail station can make difficult finding the right exit. Smartphone GPS not working underground and intermittent lack of English signs makes route finding difficult through a multistory rats’ nest of twisty passageways with no sense of direction. Stopping to look at your map will often attract a Japanese local to attempt to help you.

Why do Japanese commonly wear surgical masks in public?

In 2003, medical supply maker Unicharm released a new cheap, disposable, effective mask for hay fever sufferers, launching a boom in mask popularity. In Japan, surgical masks are worn in public for many reasons: preventing sickness in oneself; avoiding spreading of sickness to others; warmth; increasing privacy; reducing unwanted social interaction; fashion; and precluding the need to wear makeup.

2018 July: Canadian Rockies, Columbia Mtns, Bugaboo & Kananaskis hikes

Radium Hot Springs made a great base for our day hikes in less-crowded areas of the Columbia Mountains and Canadian Rockies, in a two-week vacation from Seattle.

Photo gallery from this trip


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Trip details with selected photo highlights

Having just sold our VW Eurovan Camper to be upgraded with an RV next spring, we instead drove our Prius V car. We rented accommodations with kitchen in Brisco and Radium Hot Springs (which are cheaper than in Banff and Canmore). Two weeks from July 13-27 gave us eleven good day hikes in Yoho, Kootenay, and Banff National Parks plus Bugaboo and Peter Lougheed Provincial Parks.

In Revelstoke National Park, the Skunk Cabbage Trail allowed us stretch our legs and eat lunch in a natural setting with giant leaves.

Paget Peak Lookout and Cathedral Mountain. Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Paget Peak Lookout and Cathedral Mountain. Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


On a hot day in Yoho National Park (85F), we hiked turquoise Sherbrooke Lake combined with scenic Paget Peak Lookout (7 miles round trip with 1920 feet gain). Cathedral Mountain and Mount Victoria North Peak rose dramatically above us near Kicking Horse Pass.

On Stanley Glacier Trail, a waterfall plunges from the sheer walls of Stanley Peak, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

On Stanley Glacier Trail, a waterfall plunges from the sheer walls of Stanley Peak, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Canadian Rocky Mountains reflect in the Kootenay River, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Canadian Rocky Mountains reflect in the Kootenay River, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. Stitched from multiple overlapping photos. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Multiple trips through Kootenay National Park rewarded us with rows of Canadian Rocky Mountains reflected in the Kootenay River. A herd of scruffy mountain goats attracted a line of parked cars, but we drove onwards. On the spectacular Stanley Glacier Trail (6 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain), a waterfall plunged dramatically from the sheer walls of Stanley Peak.

Just down the road, a worthwhile short walk is Marble Canyon, which cradles turquoise Tokumm Creek just above its confluence with the Vermilion River. For over 500 million years before tectonic forces thrust up the Rocky Mountains, a shallow tropical sea deposited carbonate sediments that became the limestone and dolomite rock seen here (not marble).

A little further west are the orange-yellow Paint Pots. Historically, humans have mined these natural ochre beds, which formed by the accumulation of iron oxide around the outlets of three cold mineral springs. The Ktunaxa (formerly Kootenay), Stoney, and Blackfoot tribes collected ochre here for important ceremonies and trade. The yellow ochre was cleaned, kneaded with water into walnut sized balls, then flattened into cakes and baked. The red powder was mixed with fish oil or animal grease to paint their bodies, tipis (teepees), clothing or pictures on the rocks. In the early 1900s, Europeans hand-dug and sacked the ochre for hauling 24 kilometers via horse-drawn wagons to the Canadian Pacific Railway line at present-day Castle Mountain, where it was shipped by train to Calgary and became a pigment base for paint.

Marble Canyon embraces Tokumm Creek just above its confluence with the Vermilion River, at the north end of Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, Canada.

Marble Canyon embraces Tokumm Creek just above its confluence with the Vermilion River, at the north end of Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Bighorn Sheep / Ovis canadensis at Radium Hot Springs village, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Bighorn Sheep / Ovis canadensis at Radium Hot Springs village, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Every time I visit, wild Bighorn Sheep wander the outskirts of Radium Hot Springs village. Sinclair Falls is worth seeing from Juniper Trailhead, between Kootenay National Park entrance station and the hot springs.

The Hound's Tooth (2819 meters) rises above Bugaboo Glacier in Bugaboo Provincial Park, in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Hound's Tooth (2819 meters) rises above Bugaboo Glacier in Bugaboo Provincial Park, in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. The Spires Trail to Conrad Kain Hut is 6 miles round trip with 2400 ft gain. This image was stitched from multiple overlapping photos. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


I booked our AirBnB (your signup supports my work) lodging in Brisco for 5 nights near my beloved Bugaboo Provincial Park, which is accessible via 75-minutes of dirt road in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains. Although short and scenic throughout, the Spires Trail to Conrad Kain Hut is very steep (6 miles round trip with 2400 ft gain), forged by climbers drawn to this park’s soaring rock pinnacles. The sun-drenched slope (85 to 91 degrees F in the sun) overheated Carol, who turned back just above the ladder. Starting closer to sunrise would have kept us cooler. I persevered to be rewarded by one of my favorite views in the world: the Hound’s Tooth nunatak rising above Bugaboo Glacier, plus Snowpatch Spire and other pinnacles soaring overhead.

The Lieutenants Range rises above Lake of the Hanging Glacier in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Lieutenants Range rises above Lake of the Hanging Glacier in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


While it still remains a wild adventure, consider hiking to the Lake of the Hanging Glacier, which features floating icebergs calved from Jumbo Glacier. The lake’s scenic reward was worth the effort of hiking over and under 60 fallen trees each way. Drive 1.5 hours west of Radium Hot Springs on the dirt Horsethief Creek Forest Service Road, preferably in a high clearance vehicle. On 2018 July 19, our low-clearance Toyota Prius V succeeded in crossing a planked wetland and two streams to reach the parking pullouts at 1 km from the trailhead, where a deep road dip finally blocked the car. From there we hiked 11.7 miles round trip with 3100 feet cumulative gain to the impressive lake. Fascinating lichen and rock patterns lie on stepping stones across the lake outlet. The spectacular Jumbo Glacier perches precariously above Lake of the Hanging Glacier. This wilderness wonder is threatened not only by global warming, but also from the huge Jumbo Glacier Resort planned/debated immediately south of Lieutenants ridge.

Swirling orange & blue rock pattern. Lake of the Hanging Glacier Trail, Purcell Range, Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Swirling orange & blue rock pattern. Lake of the Hanging Glacier Trail, Purcell Range, Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

For hikers, I recommend a newly-updated book covering this corner of BC: Mountain Footsteps: Hikes in the East Kootenay of Southeastern British Columbia (2018 Fourth Edition). (I call it “Strong Mountain Footsteps” for short.) This area has much to bring us back, such as hiking Jumbo Pass, Hourglass Lake, and Tanglefoot Lake.

Lichen polygons. Boom Lake Trail, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lichen polygons. Boom Lake Trail, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


In Banff National Park, the scenic Boom Lake trail featured the mother lode of lichen polygon patterns, a holy grail for this nature travel photographer.

Boom Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Boom Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lawson Lake reflects the limestone fangs of Mounts Maude, French (3244 m), and Jellico. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lawson Lake reflects the limestone fangs of Mounts Maude, French (3244 m), and Jellico in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Carol and I backpacked from North Interlakes Trailhead to Forks Backcountry Campground (10 miles round trip, 800 ft cumulative gain) in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta. From Forks Campground we day hiked to North Kananaskis Pass (13 miles round trip/2700 ft). The pass revealed fields of seed heads of Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis, aka Pulsatilla occidentalis, in family Ranunculaceae), and acres of yellow Indian paintbrush (Castilleja). The next day we hiked to Three Isle Lake (5 miles round trip/1800 ft), then back to the car. In Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, roadside wildlife included a coyote casually crossing the road, plus a black bear.

The huge Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site was declared by UNESCO in 1984.

Seed heads of Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis, aka Pulsatilla occidentalis, in family Ranunculaceae). On the right is Mount Beatty Glacier. Photographed along the trail from Forks Campground to North Kananaskis Pass (13 miles round trip/2700 ft) in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Seed heads of Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis, aka Pulsatilla occidentalis, in family Ranunculaceae). The common name Pasque refers to the Easter or Passover blooming time of other species, and to the purity of the white sepals. On the right is Mount Beatty Glacier. Photographed near North Kananaskis Pass in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

For travel tips, see: BC & AB: Canadian Rockies & Columbia Mts

2018 April: SW USA. UT: Druid & Delicate Arches. AZ: Monument Valley; Hermit Trail. CA: Death Valley.

On a campervan trip to southwest USA from 7-26 April 2018, we enjoyed photographing some great sights shown in galleries below. Carol was delighted by her first visit to Death Valley National Park (further below), including sunrise at colorful Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, and Mesquite Flat Dunes.

Photo highlights from this trip


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Trip summary

Our 17-hour drive from Seattle to the desert playground of Moab in Utah was split with an overnight rest in pleasant Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in Idaho.

Important tip: By scheduling the trip to avoid the full week before and after Easter Sunday (both hectic school vacation weeks), our stay in tourist hotspots like Moab was markedly quieter and more enjoyable! Avoid crowded Jeep Safari week. We prudently booked our campgrounds several weeks in advance. Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley was first-come first served after mid April, with no problem getting a site, though shade is in short supply. Despite checking 4 months in advance, we couldn’t get into scenic Devils Garden Campground in Arches NP, which allows reservations up to 6 months in advance.

Our favorite Canyonlands RV Resort & Campground hosted our pop-top VW Eurovan Camper for four nights conveniently in downtown Moab. On nearby BLM land, red rock Hunter Canyon was a delightful hike of 4.5 miles round trip, blooming with fragrant yellow barberry flowers along a gentle potholed stream. A massive cottonwood tree nicely framed photos of Hunter Arch. Check out the roadside petroglyphs on Moonflower Panel and walk its half-mile canyon. In fantastic Arches National Park, we hiked from Klondike Bluffs parking lot to impressive Tower Arch via the Marching Men rock formations (2.8 miles with 1280 feet gain). The freshly snow-dusted La Sal Mountains provided a dramatic backdrop, such as seen southwest of Balanced Rock. Just before clouds rolled in, golden late afternoon sun illuminated iconic Delicate Arch (3.8 miles with 900 feet gain). Its parking lot was thankfully only half full during mid week. Don’t miss seeing the Ute Rock Art (1650-1850) on Wolfe Ranch side trail. A pullout southeast of Garden of Eden allowed off-trail access to Cove of Caves area on the back side of Double Arch. Walk on rocks and don’t disturb the black biologic soil crust. Also in the Windows Section, we visited Turret Arch and looped a mile around North and South Windows.

In the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Whale Rock and Upheaval Dome (beware of limited parking) made short but rewarding walks of 1.0 and 0.8 miles. We moved camp to spend 2 nights at dusty Needles Outpost Campground, picked for its hot shower (though Canyonlands’ nearby Squaw Flat Campground is more aesthetically attractive, at trailheads). Best of all was a long-anticipated 12-mile lollipop loop with 1980 feet gain from Elephant Hill Trailhead via Chesler Park to charismatic Druid Arch in the Needles District.

Driving south, I liked exploring little-known Recapture Pocket near Bluff. Fascinating Goosenecks State Park overlooks deep, curly meanders of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat. A side trip on Mexican Hat spur road gives a closer look at the red wavy patterns of Raplee Anticline (Lime Ridge) along San Juan River.

Just across the state line, don’t miss the spectacular sunset or sunrise at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona. At sunset, I rephotographed a favorite balanced rock in the foreground with West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte on the horizon beyond. Sunrise was easy to photograph, as The View Campground looks directly east to the iconic West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte.

We booked three nights in Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park, served by a handy free shuttle along on the South Rim. On the way into the park from the east, don’t miss the impressive Hopi artwork inside Desert View Watchtower, which was built by architect Mary Colter in 1932, integrating work by other southwest artists. Starting west of Yavapai Geology Museum, we enjoyed walking the 1.3-mile Trail of Time interpretive exhibit, backward in time from today toward the oldest rock in Grand Canyon, Elves Chasm gneiss, 1.840 billion years old. Our main hike was the scenic Hermit Trail from Hermits Rest to Lookout Point (7.6 miles with 2200 feet gain, plus walking between shuttle stop and campsite).

Death Valley National Park


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Late fall, winter, through early spring are good times to visit Death Valley National Park, which is otherwise beastly hot. During our visit 19-21 April 2018, some refreshing sprinkles formed a rainbow over the colorful geology. Parting clouds revealed fresh snow whitening Telescope Peak (11,043 ft), impressively high above Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level). Cresting the Panamint Range, Telescope Peak has one of the greatest vertical rises above local terrain of any mountain in the contiguous United States. At our feet, evaporation from Badwater Basin concentrated crystalline mounds of sodium chloride (table salt), plus calcite, gypsum, and borax (famously mined 1883-1889 with Twenty Mule Teams). Artist’s Drive was worth the short side trip to explore the colorful geologic formation of Artists Palette. More than 5 million years ago, multiple volcanic eruptions deposited ash and minerals which chemically altered into a colorful paint pot of elements (iron, aluminum, magnesium and titanium).

We were delighted to photograph sunrise illuminating a tapestry of golden yellow striated landscape patterns at Zabriskie Point. Next, driving around to Golden Canyon Trailhead begins a great hiking loop uphill to Red Cathedral then back downhill via Gower Gulch (6 miles with 800 ft gain), our favorite walk in the park. Around lunchtime, I enjoyed photographing pioneer-era mining and transportation machines outdoors at the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch. In rising 90+ degree temperatures, we retreated into the nearby national park Visitor Center to absorb the excellent orientation film.

To escape increasing heat, we drove up Emigrant Canyon Road to 4100-foot Wildrose Campground, where faucets provided tasty drinking water. Helpful tip: dry air cools by 5 degrees Fahrenheit for about every 1000 feet ascended (or 3 degrees for wet air). Along the winding road, we luckily spotted some Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) with two lambs. Campground quiet was suddenly shattered with the loud hee-haw braying of an alpha donkey keeping his herd in line. Invasive burros (Equua asinus, often called donkeys) can be found throughout the backcountry in Death Valley. Originally descended from the African wild ass, burros were introduced to North America. These invasive, nonnative burro populations can grow quickly, damaging native vegetation and spring ecosystems, thereby hurting native wildlife such as bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.

Along the hike to Fall Canyon’s dry waterfall (6.7 miles with 1250 feet gain) were some feisty Zebra-tailed lizards (allisaurus draconoides), some creamy yellow flowers of the desert rock nettle (Eucnide urens or desert stingbush) clinging to shaded canyon walls, plus some intriguing rock patterns. But this experience paled in comparison to our previous day in glorious Golden Canyon; so for dramatic build-up one should hike Fall Canyon or other hikes first.

Near Stovepipe Wells, the first light of sunrise high-lit Mesquite Flat Dunes so dramatically as to impress my wife Carol, who previously hadn’t been attracted by dunes. Optionally take your shoes off and enjoy this inland wilderness beach. I love being the first in the morning to form footprints across a tall virgin dune. Most nights, the slate of footprints is wiped clean and wavy. Discover why Lawrence of Arabia was personally attracted to the desert, saying: “It’s clean.”

Just outside Death Valley (on the way to or from Tecopah and Las Vegas), you can camp overnight at Shoshone RV Park and swim in a developed hot springs pool. Thought extinct in the 1960s, Shoshone pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis shoshone) were rediscovered in 1986 and protected by the land owner in nearby restored ponds. Found nowhere else on earth, Shoshone pupfish are unique to Shoshone Springs.

See also articles on each state: Southwest USA (Arizona, ColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Utah), California, and Texas.

2017 Sept USA road trip: hiking central Colorado, St Louis, South Dakota, Wyoming

Driving from the Northwest to Midwest USA round trip in fall 2017, Carol and I enjoyed 11 days of hiking and photographing the Rockies of central Colorado. St. Louis impressed us with glorious Gateway Arch, the tallest monument in the Western Hemisphere. I took a break from photography while visiting Carol’s family in Indiana. South Dakota surprised us with starkly beautiful Badlands National Park, magnificent Mt. Rushmore, poignant Crazy Horse Memorial, and exceptional Custer State Park. Plentiful wildlife cooperated with our cameras: bison (aka buffalo), bighorn sheep, a mountain goat, a bluebird, a black-billed magpie, and prairie dogs. Capping off a wonderful month, we revisited Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming.

See this trip’s sequential images in my Portfolio: 2017 Sep 21-Oct 17: CO, MO, SD, WY USA. We drove for 27 days across the USA from Seattle to Indianapolis round trip from Sept 21 – Oct 17, 2017.

New galleries from this trip are as follows:

The Rockies of Central Colorado

In galleries below, click “i” to display informative captions.

Colorado: Hanging Lake, Glenwood Canyon

In scenic Glenwood Canyon along I-70, one of America’s most scenic Interstate highways, beguiling Hanging Lake deserves its popularity for hikers (4 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain).


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Colorado: Rifle Falls State Park

28 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Rifle Falls State Park offers a distinctive triple waterfall.


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Colorado: Aspen: Maroon Lake, Ashcroft, Independence

Yellow fall colors brightened the resort of Aspen, where nearby 1880s Ashcroft and Independence ghost towns evoked the state’s mining history. Because no campground options were available around 8000-foot Aspen in late September, I booked at AirBnB [your signup supports my work] a good-value condo with kitchen for 4 nights of necessary acclimatization, to prepare for hiking to high altitude. Snagging a parking spot midweek before sunrise at crowded Maroon Lake allowed us to capture the iconic Maroon Bells lit by magical morning light. From there, we grunted breathlessly upwards through fall colors via Crater Lake to desolate alpine Buckskin Pass (11 miles round trip with 3000 feet gain to 12,462 feet elevation) in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of White River National Forest. 


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Colorado: Leadville

We enjoyed strolling in historic Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States (elevation of 10,152 feet).


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Colorado: Vail

A relaxing condo stay near Vail allowed a pleasant walk through aspen fall colors to Booth Creek Falls (4.3 miles / 1400 ft gain) on Booth Lake Trail #1885.


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Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park

At Kawuneeche Visitor Center near Grand Lake, we learned that Trail Ridge Road was sadly closed ahead due to ice, which would have required driving around several extra hours to reach Estes Park. Luckily, driving upwards anyway allowed time for the problem to melt along the 12,183-foot-high crossing of Rocky Mountain National Park eastwards to our base at Estes Park KOA. We enjoyed hiking a wonderful loop from Bear Lake Trailhead with spur trails to an impressive series of lakes, waterfalls and peaks (13 miles gaining 2600 feet via Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha, The Loch, Lake of Glass, Sky Pond, Alberta Falls then back; arrive early for parking or take the shuttle).


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Colorado: Roxborough State Park

Roxborough State Park features strikingly tilted red sandstone formations, appreciated via hiking up the pleasant Carpenter Peak Trail and back via Elk Valley loop and Fountain Overlook, 8.5 miles with 1600 feet gain. A shorter walk is to the Peak then directly back (6.2 miles and 1400 ft).


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Colorado: Garden of the Gods

Driving and strolling is a joy in Garden of the Gods National Natural Landmark, run by the City of Colorado Springs.


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Colorado: Paint Mines Interpretive Park

Little-known Paint Mines Interpretive Park will delight any admirer of rock hoodoos and colorful abstract patterns.


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St. Louis, Missouri

Clad in stainless steel and built in the form of a weighted catenary arch, Gateway Arch is the world’s tallest arch (630 feet high), the tallest man-made monument in the Western Hemisphere and Missouri’s tallest accessible building. Built as a monument to the westward expansion of the United States, and officially dedicated to the American people, it is the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Arch was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947. It was built 1963-1965 at the site of St. Louis’ founding on the west bank of the Mississippi River and opened to the public in 1967. (Although built to last for ages, it is eventually susceptible to a tornado impact which could rip off the upper two-thirds.)


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South Dakota

SD: Badlands National Park

In this peacefully remote park, bighorn sheep grazed fearlessly along the roadside and dramatic sunset/sunrise colors lit the colorful cliffs sculpted from ancient sediments.


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SD: Black Hills: Custer State Park and wildlife reserve

South Dakota’s largest and first state park was named after Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Completed in 1922, the Needles Highway includes sharp turns, low tunnels and impressive granite spires along the northern 14 miles of South Dakota Highway 87 (SD 87). The road lies within Custer State Park, 30 miles south of Rapid City, in South Dakota. Needles Highway is part of the figure-eight route of Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway. A magical sunrise warmed the freezing air over idyllic Sylvan Lake. Cathedral Spires Area is most impressive. A famous herd of 1500 bison freely roam Custer State Park, as seen along Wildlife Loop Road.


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SD: Black Hills: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed and oversaw the Mount Rushmore project 1927–1941, with help from his son, Lincoln Borglum. Mount Rushmore features 60-foot sculptures of the heads of four United States presidents: George Washington (1732–1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865).


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South Dakota historian Doane Robinson conceived the idea of carving the likenesses of famous people into the Black Hills in order to promote tourism. Robinson’s initial idea of sculpting the Needles was rejected by Gutzon Borglum due to poor granite quality and strong opposition from Native American groups. They settled on Mount Rushmore, and Borglum decided on the four presidents. Each president was originally to be depicted from head to waist, but lack of funding ended construction in late October 1941. Mount Rushmore is a batholith (massive intrusive igneous rock) rising to 5725 feet elevation in the Black Hills.

SD: Black Hills: Crazy Horse Memorial

The Crazy Horse Memorial is being carved into Thunderhead Mountain on private land in the Black Hills, between Custer and Hill City, 17 miles from Mount Rushmore, in Custer County, South Dakota. In progress since 1948, the sculpture is far from completion. It depicts the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. The memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski. It is operated by the nonprofit Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. The sculpture is planned to be of record-setting size: 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. The head of Crazy Horse will be 87 feet high (whereas the heads of the four U.S. Presidents at Mount Rushmore are each 60 feet high).


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Crazy Horse (1840–1877) was a Native American war leader of the Oglala Lakota. He took up arms against the United States federal government to fight against encroachment by white American settlers on Indian territory. He earned great respect from both his enemies and his own people in several battles of the American Indian Wars on the northern Great Plains, including: the Fetterman massacre in 1866, in which he acted as a decoy, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, in which he led a war party to victory. Four months after surrendering in 1877, Crazy Horse was fatally wounded by a bayonet-wielding military guard, while allegedly resisting imprisonment at Camp Robinson in present-day Nebraska. In 1982 he was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a 13¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.

Wyoming

Wyoming: Black Hills: Devils Tower National Monument

Devils Tower (aka Bear Lodge Butte) rises dramatically 1267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, standing 867 feet from base to summit, at 5112 feet above sea level. Devils Tower was the first United States National Monument, established on September 24, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. This charismatic butte is made of intrusive igneous rock exposed by erosion in the Bear Lodge Mountains, part of the Black Hills, near Hulett and Sundance in Crook County, Wyoming. The 1893 wood stake ladder for the first ascent of Devils Tower (by Willard Ripley) was restored 1972. The last known use of the ladder was in 1927 by daredevil Babe “The Fly” White. In 1972, the Park Service removed what was left of the bottom section, and restored the top 140 feet of the ladder (see photo). In mid October, bright yellow cottonwood tree leaves framed Devils Tower in quiet Belle Fourche River Campground.


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Grand Teton NP images are now split off from Yellowstone into their own gallery; and new 2017 photos are added to both parks:

Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park


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Wyoming: Grand Teton National Park


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See the following master articles which consolidate galleries geographically for multiple trips: