After the sponsored DTour to Australia, we had a choice: go home or keep traveling. We opted for the latter and found ourselves in New Zealand for an extra two weeks of adventures, this time all on our own. We flew into Auckland, rented a car, and set out to see as much as possible on both islands before catching a flight home out of Queenstown. Here's how our improvised roadtrip went down.
Time slipped away from us while we sipped our cold beers, the sun shining brightly over a blue-green landscape through the pub’s windows. It was a serene scene until our train, the 6:30 back to Sydney, suddenly pulled into view, catapulting us from our relaxing bar seats and into an immediate sprint. The bartender’s last words: “I can tell you right now, you’re not going to make it.”
We’d spent the day exploring the Blue Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s a quick 2-hour train ride west of Sydney (‘the big smoke” as the mountain locals say). It’s a lush tropical forest carpeted with eucalyptus trees that fill the air with tiny oil droplets, scattering light into a predominantly blue hue.
The region’s beauty was striking. Steep staircases led us to the base of skyscraper-high waterfalls. Fern-laden winding walks ended in super-scenic overlooks, showcasing the famed Three Sisters rock formations and Mount Solitary. Brilliant reds from tropical birds (crimson rosellas and red-tailed black cockatoos) stopped us in our tracks while we oohed and ahhed their every move. It’s the perfect escape from the city bustle, with so many chances to pause and soak it all in.
In the end, the bartender was right. But missing our train didn’t sour our mood. We laughed as we walked out of breath back to the pub, past locals literally applauding our efforts. Our spirits lifted as we came back to our spot to find my half-finished beer still on the table. We ordered a second round and settled in to watch the setting sun and wait for the 7:30 train. And you know what? It wasn’t a bad place to have to spend another hour.
When we at last reached Sandia's summit in the late afternoon, my tired body relished the crisp mountain air. I handed over my credit card in exchange for a pair of cheap one-way tickets. Outside on the wooden deck, we breathed in the enormous view and marveled at the Albuquerque grid stretching west before us. From way up here, we could almost pick out our tiny house (okay, my mom's house) far down below.
After having spent way too much of the hot summer indoors, Kristen and I decided that it was time to retackle the La Luz Trail, a not-too-strenuous trek to the top of the mountain we see everyday from our backyard. The eight-mile path winds its way up through four different climatic zones, ending at a panoramic intersection of east-facing ski lifts and a west-facing tram.
The first couple of sweaty miles offered us a fair share of prickly pear cacti, piñon trees, skittish lizards and chattering birds. My sandaled toes grew dusty as I squinted at the monument-like peaks surrounding us, searching for familiar vistas to orient myself. But the mountain, which changes colors throughout the day from city level, had taken on an unrecognizable form. It was even more spectacular up close.
The upper half of the hike is drastically different. You can expect to find colorful wildflowers, fragrant pines, and unusually large squirrels with tufted ears. And be prepared to flex those leg muscles. There are tons of switchbacks, cutting back and forth through dark forest and across a sunlit slope piled with jagged pink granite rocks.
The sense of accomplishment I felt at the top, knowing that my legs alone carried me here, was immediately followed by a feeling of relief that all we had to do was hop on an electric-powered tram back down. Once the forty or so people boarded into the dangling box, it hung heavy for a moment before swooping into motion. It was surprisingly smooth. We floated down towards civilization, as if in a giant elevator, and savored our knee-saving descent. My only wish: to feel the breeze just outside the window.
Okay folks, this is the first fall season we've spent away from the east coast...EVER. We grew up in Virginia, went to college in Rhode Island, and returned to Virginia for 6 years. So it's hard to suppress homesick feelings when friends and family back east post fall photos all over social media, bragging of their daily access to fiery displays of foliage. Colors abound in those parts for a few weeks around this time of year. Which is why a couple of weekends ago, Loren and I took to the road in search of fall. We found it less than an hour's drive away.
A spot almost all the way up the mountain to Santa Fe Ski Basin, Aspen Vista fully embodies its name, offering stunning views over thousands of aspen trees. Being a short 25-min drive from downtown Santa Fe makes this one of the most popular day hikes in the area. The out-and-back trail along the service road can amount to a 12-mile round trip, but you can turn around whenever you want. Just keep in mind that you're starting at 9,900 ft with a potential gain of 2,100 ft.
Our adventure began by taking full advantage of the warm, sunny afternoon, so we spread out our standard hiking fare at a picnic table: canned sardines mixed with avocado, with a side of pecans and pistachios.
Then, we walked into the golden forest, snapping photos and collecting leaves along the way.
After about 30 minutes on the trail, we'd reached the edge of the colors. Our visit was probably about a week too late, as many of the trees past that point were already stripped of their leaves. The faded and fallen leaves littered the trail and forest floor, but the overall effect was not lost on us: the naked trunks were beautiful in their own right.
On the way back to the car, we took a detour and found ourselves among enormous teepees made of hundreds of fallen aspen trees and branches stacked upright. Very Andy Goldsworthy-esque.
Even though it wasn't quite the peak of the aspen foliage, we had a wonderful time just being outside and playing around.
With our fall color cravings satisfied, we headed home just in time to catch another jaw-dropping sunset. New Mexico just might have us under its spell.
Of all the national parks in this beautiful country, we had been itching to get to Glacier for years. This entire road trip formed around our visit to Glacier, because we had to budget enough time to be able to get a good feel for the park and its fast-disappearing namesake glaciers. (It is estimated that by 2020, all of the thirty or so remaining glaciers will be gone. See them while you can.)
Before we arrived, though, it was time to get the car checked, so we’d have peace of mind that we wouldn’t breakdown in the mountains! We landed in Kalispell, Montana, which is really at the foot of the mountains and a sort of gateway into western Glacier. Luckily, Kalispell is a big enough town that we could get the oil changed and all the major fluids topped off in the car, and the stop seemed quicker than ever (we had only enough time to post one blog using Valvoline’s free wifi). Then we headed into the Park, flashing our National Parks annual pass at Glacier’s southwestern entrance.
Since we arrived a little too late in the day to venture into the wilds of the park, we went straight to the first campground, near Apgar Village. After setting up the tent, we drove up the road a bit to check out Lake McDonald, exploring the shores just before sunset. Beautiful rugged mountains reflected in the pristine lake, and we were in disbelief that we’d finally arrived at this pinnacle of a National Park. Thankful for the warm, mild late summer evening, we returned to camp ready to cook up a storm.
We made a quick barbecue sauce again (sriracha, bacon fat, tomato paste, lemon juice, Mrs. Dash, and honey, to name a few ingredients), but we’d stepped out of our chicken comfort zone and opted instead to try our hands at campfire-grilled pork. As an accompaniment, we roasted foil-wrapped diced apple, onion and celery. It was our first time campfire-cooking real pork (this was no Spam), and it turned out alright, if a little dry from a bit of overly-thorough cooking. The cooked apples, which we nabbed from the hotel in Idaho, were tasty and complemented the meat nicely, but it wasn’t quite a slam-dunk. There’s always room for improvement! We stayed up later than usual, relishing the mild temps, which was a surprise given how far north we were!
At some point, the temperatures must’ve plummeted, because we awoke to a chilly but sunny morning. Makes sense. Eager to see the park, we quickly ate some yogurt and a banana (again, courtesy of the Idaho hotel), and then set out onto Going-To-The-Sun Road, which famously winds its way through the park. At the middle point, we crossed over the Continental Divide at Logan’s Pass, which offers some outstanding views of the vast wilderness. Continuing on to the eastern side of the park, we set up our tent at Rising Sun Campground, and then hopped back in the car to go back to Logan’s Pass.
Our first hike was the Highline Trail, which in its entirety amounts to about 15 miles, but instead we chose to do an out-and-back for about an hour. It was a little freaky in the beginning, because there was a group of people coming from the opposite direction, speaking of a grizzly cub that’d been following behind them on the trail, just seconds before we arrived. That could’ve been pretty amazing to see, but everyone was a bit on edge because the grizzly mother was nowhere to be found. After a few minutes of wavering (Should we? Should we not?), we continued down the trail. Highline Trail is pretty cool because you stay at around the same elevation as Logan’s Pass but cutting a high line (get it?) across the mid section of the mountain. At one point, the trail got pretty narrow, beckoning hikers to hold on to the wire lines at the inside edge of a cliff that dropped down at least a hundred feet to the road. We wondered how often someone accidentally kicks loose rocks that fall and damage windshields...
Highline Trail was also great for wildlife watching. We picked out several mountain goats, an easy thing thanks to their stark white coats, and we were surprised with how sturdy they looked. Much harder to see because they absolutely disappear into their brown rocky surroundings were a few huge and intimidating bighorn sheep. Just off the trail we briefly saw a pika, an adorable high-mountain member of the rabbit family that looks like a cross between a rabbit and a mouse, whose numbers are beginning to dwindle due to climate change (they are suffering from declining habitats, and have to head higher and higher into the mountains, chasing their native high rocky zones). We also saw a chipmunk, always captivated by their short, quick movements and beautiful little coats. There was also an abundance of wildflowers and amazing views down the valley.
After that short jaunt, we walked across Logan’s Pass and up onto another trail to Hidden Lake, again about a mile long. The first half of the trail is an elevated wooden boardwalk, with some stairs built in, to make it “easy” for people. It’s funny though, because we think it’s actually harder on your feet to walk on those planks rather than plain old dirt and rocks. At the end of the trail we stopped to snack on some jerky, taking in the amazing surroundings and always half-wondering what wildlife was out there hidden by the distance.
Then we started back, and about halfway down the trail we experienced the most entertaining wildlife sighting ever. We were walking on the elevated boardwalk of a trail when we spotted a hairy animal about the size of a woodchuck. Unsure of what the creature was, Kristen started to ask and just before Loren could answer, a passerby said “Marmot” without breaking pace. This marmot was adorable and apparently not afraid of humans, eating the yellow wildflowers and their leaves, which cracked us up. See, he was not only the first marmot Kristen had ever seen, he reminded us so much of one of our cats back home, Wally. We’ve always said that he’s part dog, part walrus, part otter... Now we know he’s also part marmot! This little guy was so goofy and clumsy, we spent about 10 minutes watching him and giggling, until he was out of sight.
Determined to get in at least one more hike before the sun went down, we drove a few miles east, back toward our awaiting tent, and stopped off to do the 1 mile hike to the beautiful but not gigantic Mary’s Falls. We sat for a few minutes to take in its mesmerizing constant flow, then explored a bit more off the trail before heading back to the car.
Back at camp, the drizzle that was picking up started to come down a little heavier, making it harder and harder to make dinner and keep up the campfire. We roasted one foil-wrapped yam and when it was ready, we split the package in half and each used a bit of butter for taste. Easy and delicious! A new camping tradition, perhaps. Next, we ate sardines in the car, right out of the can, to avoid the falling rain and also make sure the fish-smell stayed in the car and not near our tent (it is bear-country after all!).
Lucky for us, the heaviest downfall didn’t start until we were safely inside our tent for the night. Great timing. Believe it or not, this was the first rain we’d received in over three weeks, even though we’d been traveling through Northern California, Oregon and Washington.
Instead of heading around to the Grand Canyon’s north rim (to which we said “next time”), we continued north past Lake Powell, stopping at the Glen Canyon Dam, where we were afforded some prime people watching. From there we made our way into Utah in order to check out at least one of the famous desert National Parks.
We opted for Zion National Park, conveniently in the southeastern corner of the state so not too much driving was required. We definitely plan to explore the other Utah parks once we're living in Colorado, with Arches and Canyonlands at the top of our list.
The drive through the east gate to the south gate, where the campgrounds are, is absolutely breathtaking. The eastern half of the park is lined with rocky hills that are home to big horn sheep (which we tried to coax out of hiding by calling “Here, biggie hornie!”, but no dice). Some of the rocky hills have patterns on them akin to paintings: it looks like someone dragged a gigantic brush along the stone while it was still malleable. One of the most interesting spots is a rock called “checkerboard mesa.”
The dividing point in the park is a mile-long tunnel, dug in the 1930s, which has three “windows” that slow down traffic a bit as car passengers strain to get a first glimpse of the fantastic views. The tunnel opens out to beautiful mountain vistas and switchback roads, bringing wide-eyed drivers down into the canyon.
We headed straight to the nearest campground to stake our claim, and while there were a good deal of campers in the 100+ sites, we didn’t have a problem (and we suspect the campground never filled). So, we set up camp and headed off to explore the park before nightfall.
Compared to the Grand Canyon, Zion is perfection. It is the kind of park that literally forces you out of your car in order to explore the grounds: the main road down the canyon is limited to the free park shuttles which pick up and drop off at about a dozen spots throughout the park and run well into the night. Also, the park is totally manageable: whereas it takes hours to drive to different spots along the Grand Canyon (5 hours from the south rim to the west glass overlook, which we couldn't do), it took us about 30 minutes to get from the visitors center to the riverwalk path at the end of the shuttle’s road. It’s a great place. On top of that, as with any park out west, the place is teeming with wildlife. We saw at least a dozen deer out eating before dark, including the mamas and their spotted fawns. “Little guys” -aka lizards- were parked near paths, keeping close watch on the visitors. We even saw a tarantula (thanks to the shuttle bus driver, who nearly ran the little thing over)!
Our daylight was pretty limited, so we ended up doing probably the most popular hike in the park, but it wasn’t overly crowded. The out-and-back hike was mostly paved, a little to our dismay at first, but it ended up being great because the flora and fauna held our focus. The squirrels, which looked more like a combination of prairie dog and squirrel, were hilarious and completely unafraid of people, holding down their ground in the middle of the path in a sort of man vs. beast game of "chicken". At the end of the hike is the start of The Narrows, another “trail” which literally uses the river instead of a pathway, and is so-called because the cliff walls close in on the river creating a more and more narrow river. We did a bit of The Narrows, enjoying tromping through the cold river water until it got a little too deep for us to risk damaging our expensive cameras. Plus we weren’t prepared...next time we will wear swimsuits!
It felt great to come "home" to our campsite, and we could definitely see ourselves returning to Zion, staying at the campground for multiple days, taking the shuttle to trailheads, and exploring more of the park by foot. Instead we moved on, to the call of flashy (and maybe a bit trashy?) Las Vegas.