Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Say that three times fast and go! Tricky eh? I was stumbling trying to find the right adjective to describe Grand Staircase-Escalante and the most fitting one I picked was massive. 1,880,461 acres of protected wilderness and it's just, fantastic. Some twenty-years ago, then-President Bill Clinton designated this huge batch of land covering nearly all of southern Utah to remain untouched and preserved. Protected for both conservation and recreational uses. Today, it remains the wide-open doorway to desert exploration. Managed by the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management, GSENM is also the largest natural monument in the United States. The fun truth of it is, you have to pass through it when you're on Utah's scenic state route 12 in between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. It might be the best driving road you'll set wheels on in this country. You'll also be lucky enough to pass through the Dixie National Forest as you leave Capitol Reef National Park.

Get ready for a bliss of nature, jaw-dropping views and crazy elevation. Here's where I'm going to take a moment and get a bit sentimental. As I was driving along state Route 12, in the lush highlands of Utah, time just slowed down to a stop. For that hour-long pass through the Dixie National Forest, I felt free. It was like a complete immersion into outdoor heaven, all right there in front of me. I remember getting out of my car on multiple occasions, walking a bit to a ledge and stopping to stare out onto the distant horizon. I'd just stand there slowly shaking my head in sheer disbelief of how beautiful that treasured land was. The wind blowing, Aspen trees lit up in flaming gold and it was raining just ever so slightly. Open range signs meant cattle straddled across the roads and mule deer grazing the fields stared back at me. Breathtaking. Minutes later the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport I was piloting entered into GSENM.

Inside Grand Staircase-Escalante there's a hike you have to do- the trek to Lower Calf Creek Falls. Located just outside of the towns of Escalante and Boulder, Lower Calf Creek Falls is a 126-ft waterfall that empties out into a hidden oasis awash in sandstone cliffs in this abyss of desert that is GSENM. The trail is a little under 6 miles round trip and takes just two or so hours to do. The trailhead is located at the Calf Creek Campground (free camping is just up the road towards Escalante at site BLM 106). I swear the last like ten minutes of the hike feels like a dream, walking through a tunnel of low hanging aspens, leaves flickering and tall grass until you reach a deep pool at the bottom of the towering waterfall. It's simply gorgeous and like a mirage. The pictures below prove why this hike in the middle of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is worth it.

This whole experience here today has just been heavenly. That's how I'll put it.



Friday, February 12, 2016

The 2016 Adventure Wish List

It's a new year, well as of almost two months ago, which means it's obviously an open, fresh 365 days for travel.

When you're in a bit of a rut, whether it be in your personal or professional life, I've always advocated to escape for a while. It's not running away from your problems, rather you're taking a brief hiatus to explore somewhere unfamiliar in an effort to learn more about yourself and what you want in life. In simple jargon; life is better spent on the road meeting new people, trying new things and seeing new places. That's a quote I live by every, single, day.

I made a list last year with high hopes, but a horrendous dead-end job that kept me inside all day in combination with a terrifying 'rock climbing-and-skiing-induced' knee injury limited my travels significantly. However, it's now 2016 and that's in the past. My MCL and meniscus have gone through surgery and I'm so close to being done with post-op treatment. But more importantly, at the start of this new year, I started what I'd call a dream job for me, working for our state's department of natural resources where I'm outside literally everyday at a state park with an accommodating, flexible schedule. For an optimistic transient millennial, things are going pretty well for me and I feel like I've finally got my path figured out, but there's still more room for growing.

But that's my wrap. 2016 is going to be such an important and special year for travel. Airfares around the globe continue to plummet and you can now fill up your car for less than a dollar per gallon in some places. It was an El Nino winter which means excellent skiing snow in the Rockies and the National Park Service turned 100 this year, giving us all the presents of free admission days throughout its properties over the course of the next twelve months. And "Lonely Planet" named Milwaukee, my hometown one of their top places to visit in 2016. Woot woot. More people are getting outside and taking advantage of this insanely beautiful planet we live on.

Obviously there should be a big disclaimer stating that "this list is subject to change," but here it is. Thankfully a few of these destinations below are already hashed-out and scheduled, planned to happen which is super exciting. Some are solo trips while others I've got a few loyal companions tagging along with me to share the adventure. Some trips will be for straight-up backpacking while others will be road trips with a kayak strapped on top. I've been exposed to a good chunk of the wild Southwest part of this country, so this year I'm especially looking to get out to the Pacific Northwest -Washington I'm looking at you. There are also a few places in the Midwest and Wisconsin I still need to check-off my bucket list. Let the travels begin:

-Badlands National Park, SD (again!)
-Mount Rainier National Park, WA
-Rock Island State Park, WI
-Olympic National Park, WA
-Craig Lake State Park, MI (again!)
-Big Bend National Park, TX
-North Cascades National Park, WA
-Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
-Glacier National Park, MT
-Isle Royale National Park, MI
-Peshtigo River State Forest, WI (again!)
-Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
-Pattison State Park, WI
-Rocky Mountain National Park, CO (again!)
-Copper Falls State Park, WI
-Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, MI

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Capitol Reef National Park, UT

Utah has five national parks within its borders, all thankfully only a few hours drive of each other. We all know about Zion, Arches, maybe Canyonlands and maybe Bryce Canyon...but the other national park that often gets left out of conversation is Capitol Reef National Park. I've talked with a lot of people who have visited Utah and when I mention Capitol Reef, I get one of two reactions. Either a deer in the headlights stare of confusion or a burst of excitement and gushing over how incredible Reef is. I'll go with the latter. At over 241,900 acres its Utah's second-biggest national park is probably the best-kept secret of the five. It's also a close tie-up with Canyonlands for being my favorite national park in the state.

The park's most prominent feature is the Waterpocket Fold. Stretching more than one-hundred miles across south-central Utah, this massive wrinkle (similar to a reef in an ocean), in the earth's surface that stopped early explorers of this vast undiscovered Colorado Plateau. How'd it happen? According to the National Park Service, layers of rock formed from sediments deposited over hundreds of millions of years in seas, tidal flats , deserts and other ancient environments. Then, as nearby mountains were created these rocky layers were bent and creased into the now-fold. Like the majority of Utah's wild land, wind and water erosion continue to shape the Waterpocket Fold year after year. One of the park's best surprises is a lush oasis of orchards in the Fruita Historic District. Before the start of the 1900s, Mormons called this Capitol Reef area home. Today you can still visit historic one-room schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, Gifford Farmhouse and the Behunin Cabin. Donate a buck or two and you're even able to pick your own fresh, delicious apples from the rows of apple trees!

Capitol Reef also offers excellent hiking through towering domes, colorful cliffs and wide open washes. This is definently a park I need to get back to and spend at least three days exploring. When I arrived, I drove in through the Eastern entrance of the park, stopping to gaze at the impressive Capitol Dome, The Castle and the Fremont Petroglyphs before continuing on to the trailhead for the 2.0-mile round trip hike to Hickman Bridge, an easy-to-access 133ft long natural bridge. Go below and to the right of the bridge for the best views. Next, I returned to the trailhead and set out on the Rim Overlook Trail, that takes you up 1,110 feet in elevation over 2.3-miles (one-way) for the best views of the Waterpocket Fold and green Fruita down below your feet. That was an amazing hike.

 If you've got a four-wheel-drive vehicle, make sure to drive the the 16-mile round-trip Scenic Drive which takes you to the start of the mesmerizing Capitol Gorge. Branch off if you're feeling ambitious and your rental car insurance allows, to meander your way to the Grand Wash area of the park. You'll earn your off-roading stripes here as you ford through some rushing water. Return to the park's visitor center and head two-miles west on 24 towards Torrey and don't miss the Goosenecks Overlook, an insane chance to peak 800fty down into the Sulphur Creek below. Cue the goose bumps.

Again, I can't reiterate this enough, if you go to Utah you must, have to visit Capitol Reef National Park. I already have plans to return and spend at least 3 days there.