thebiggertrip

The National Park tour

Tetons to Yellowstone

It was time to return to Yellowstone, but first we watched the sunrise on the Tetons and visited Oxbow Bend. It was a very cold morning and there was steam rising from the water.

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 When we reached Willow Flats they were shrouded in mist.

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Driving into Yellowstone it looked very different to when we have visited before. It was lush and green with high grass in many places. This was the first time we had driven through Lewis Canyon with no snow. We arrived in time to have breakfast at Fishing Bridge and began visiting favourite places, as this is the last time we will be here for quite a while.

The first stop was Sedge Bay.

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Then on towards the East Entrance for a short while. There were carpets of wildflowers in these areas around the lake.

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Returning around the lake we stopped briefly at Indian Pond.

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Back at Fishing Bridge we took a walk across the bridge to watch the Cutthroat Trout make their way upstream and to look at the view.

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Then on to Le Hardy Rapids.

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We stopped for quite a while in the Hayden Valley to watch some distant elk in the river and the waterbirds. The valley was beautiful.

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Heading over Dunraven Pass the meadows were sea of wildflowers. As we reached the bottom of the pass this coyote crossed the road. 

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Turning into the Lamar Valley large herds of bison were grazing with their young.

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Reaching the toilets at Soda Butte Creek we discovered the swallows that had been building their nests on the structures were now sitting on the nests and feeling the heat.

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We kept going on to the picnic grounds as a weasel had been lurking there recently, as well as the huge city of ground squirrels. We did not see the weasel, but a herd of young bull bison moved in. The reaction of a couple of people laying on the banks and unaware of them until warned by a person in the carpark when they were very close by is a scene worthy of winning Funniest Home Videos, as well as the cool approach of a fisherman trying to retreat to the carpark.

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Tetons

Another early morning for sunrise on the Tetons, but 5 am starts are worth it in this park.

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This was followed by early morning on Oxbow Bend, probably my favourite spot in the Tetons.

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On the way we had to pass the Turner Ranch and spotted a number of horses grazing.

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We had decided on an early walk to Hidden Falls. These are on the base of the range so it is necessary to either walk around Jenny Lake or catch the boat shuttle, we did the latter. It was a delightful walk through lovely forest.

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The trail followed the river to the base of the falls, with many cascades along the way.

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The falls themselves were beautiful, with the mountains peeking out behind them.

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Graham seemed to be co-opted to take other peoples photographs in front of the falls, but being asked by a young woman to take one with her dog was a first.

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Having reached the falls comfortably we decided to continue on to Inspiration Point. This is not so far, but is quite a steep climb up the base of the mountains. It was worth it for the view over the hinterland, as well as being able to look across the face of Grand Teton.

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Heading back into Moose, there was a moose jam developing on the bridge. A bull moose was grazing on the willow beside the bridge and given this is the main entry area to the park and the visitor centre he gathered a large crowd of observers.

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Rock Springs to the Tetons National Park

It was a drive that shows the diversity of this country. We began in an industrial mining city, surrounded by stark rocky hills and large areas of sand dunes. Heading north we began to see some open ranges, wild horse sanctuaries and eventually lush farming country. We arrived in the Tetons about lunchtime and were able to get a place in one of the park campgrounds for two nights which was a real bonus. After the driving we decided to do some short walks and look at the wildflowers and the abundant insect life they were supporting. Below is a selection of the things we saw – it is too easy to be mesmerised by the mountains in this park and forget the little things

These plants always have pairs of berries, I don’t know the name but the birds like them.

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The birds were also enjoying the insect life, this one had caught a huge grasshopper.

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Butterflies are abundant, from huge yellow and black ones as big as my hand to small delicate varieties.

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I like this fellows fluffy hairdo!

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The flowers were plentiful in some areas.

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This bee was small, but incredibly fluffy.

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And this hover bee was fascinating.

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While walking along a path we disturbed this squirrel who very noisily warned his friends about the intrusion.

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Then we spotted this stripy bee.

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Arches to Rock Springs

Today we made another attempt at sunrise. This time we made sure we had a ‘morning’ spot and headed to Landscape Arch. Again we were the only people there and it was worth the walk in. This is considered to be the longest arch in the world (over 88 metres long) and in the early ’90’s a huge 76 foot slab fell off it so in places it is not much more than 6 foot thick. The sunrise was also spectacular.

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When we returned to the camper our campground host showed us a young rattle snake he had found dead on the road.

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The great thing about that hour of the morning is that the animals are out before it gets too hot. Graham took this great picture of a squirrel in a juniper tree. There were several of them eating the flesh off the nut/seed and then taking the nuts off to store them.

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Leaving the Arches we headed towards the Dinosaur National Monument. This is an area where one of the largest finds of dinosaur bones in the world occurred. Many were taken to museums early in the 1900’s but the quarry is now preserved by a large building. When you walk in there are two levels and the rock face is embedded with hundreds of bones and some complete skeletons. It is a fantastic sight.

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The Green River flows nearby, making it a very picturesque place to eat our lunch.

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Travelling on we passed through Flaming Gorge. This is a huge lake created by a dam on the Green River and is part of the whole Colorado River water management scheme, making you realise how large and complex this project was. The lake that was created is over 95 miles long.

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Arches – in the rain!!!!

The day began with a 5am start to watch the sun rise on Delicate Arch. We were foiled on two counts, the sky was very overcast and there was a misprint in the park guide – Delicate Arch is best viewed at sunset! Despite this, and the trudge uphill to see it, the peacefulness of the morning made up for the disappointment of no sun as we were the only people at the viewpoint. As Arches is one of the more popular parks it is unusual to have parts of it to yourself. On the way in we saw a number of desert rabbits. These seem fairly common in the park and they are very quiet, if you stay still they will often hop towards you.

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As the sky showed no sign of clearing we decided to head into Moab for some shopping (and a brunch of the biggest Banana Split you have ever seen). While we were there it began to rain, a very unusual occurrence in this area which has an average of .19 inches for July. Instead of heading back to the park in the rain we decided to look at the Colorado River Recreation Area on the edge of Moab. This is a very picturesque area where the Colorado River runs between soaring red cliffs and is a popular rafting area.

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In many areas the native sunflowers are in bloom.

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Still the rain didn’t clear so we headed off to the Arches Visitors Centre, where the low cloud was hanging over the road into the park (this is up a steep cliff). By this time it had turned into a thunderstorm.Image

When the storm cleared there was a lovely clear sky and most of the heat haze had dispersed. The temperature was also much lower making walking around the park much more pleasant. The Arches is a deceptive park as it is relatively small and many of the features can be seen from the road and look very impressive. However it is only when you walk to them that the true scale becomes apparent.

This is the Windows section which looks great from the car park. In the centre is Double Arch which is immense when you walk down the trail. Just look at the size of the people on the base!

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It is similar when you reach the Windows.

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During the afternoon it became very busy and we decided to try some of the ‘touristy’ fun.

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Canyonlands – Island in the Sky

There is no doubt, Canyonlands is my favourite of all the parks of the High Desert. It has the vastness of the Grand Canyon, sheer cliffs of Zion, colours of Capitol Reef and strange structures of Bryce all rolled into one. The park is divided into sections and previously we visited the Needles section. This time we visited the Island in the Sky (the third section The Maze is very inaccessible and the spot where Aron Ralston had to amputate his arm). 

The park is also multilayered. There are numerous mesas which have sheer cliffs of 1400 feet that drop down to the ‘White Rim”, which is the level we travelled on in the Needles section. This area then plunges a further 1,000 feet into narrow canyons formed by the Green and Colorado Rivers and their tributaries.

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As you enter the park you have to drive across a narrow neck which joins it to a neighbouring mesa. It is the only way on and off the 43 square mile plateau as the sheer cliffs are all the way around the structure. It was used for grazing early last century and the cows were taken to the lower canyons for winter down this road on a very steep cliff (apparently often losing some of the stock down the cliff face). The road was later widened and used to truck uranium up from mines. It is now used for recreational 4WD.

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Our first stop in the park was to walk to Mesa Arch. This amazing feature is a large arch that actually hangs out over the edge of the cliffs.

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The views were outstanding all through the park. At times you could catch glimpses of Green River or the needle type structures of the inner park (several hundred feet high).

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An interesting feature of the park is a crater 1 mile across that is very different to the other areas. Some scientist awesome s think it is a meteor impact site and others think there are geological reasons for it occurring, either way it is an amazing sight.

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The humans were not the only ones enjoying the view.

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The region is extremely dry so when you see a plant in bloom it tends to be covered in insect life.

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What had been intended as a relatively quick visit to a small area of the park had turned into a full day so we quickly dashed into Dead Horse Point State Park on our way out. This is a park with amazing views of Canyonlands, the winding Colorado River and is also the location for a large number of movies.

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Returning to Arches NP we spent the night at the Devils Garden Campsite. Great spot.

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Canyonlands and Arches – Double WOW

Today involved travelling a very short distance from Cortez, but it was a day of spectacular sights. You just start to think that you cannot possibly see anything different or more impressive than the sights we have already seen and then you are contradicted.

Leaving the agricultural areas around Cortez behind we again moved into the desert and strange landforms began to appear near the junction with Canyonlands NP.

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We had debated whether or not to visit Canyonlands as it is one of the lesser known parks (although very large) and there is no loop road. It is necessary to drive in and out on the same road and you have to do this in each section. Today we visited the “Needles” section and it was amazing. Before you even get to the park the road is taking you down a large canyon with huge escarpments on either side and further canyons leading off these.

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On the way in we stopped at a National Monument called Newspaper Rock. It is an area covered in petroglyphs and rock art left by many of the groups that have visited the area in the past.

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When we reached the actual national park it was like a mixture of Capitol Reef and Monument Valley, with huge escarpments and strange free standing structures.

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You had to be careful where you were walking as there were some prickly blighters around.

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On a short walk we were able to view an old Peublo Granary of a similar vintage to those in Mesa Verde.

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It was then just a short drive up the road to Moab and on the way we saw our first arch on the roadside.

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As it was very hot and late in the afternoon we intended to drive to the edge of town where the Colorado River flows. However when we got there we discovered that the Arches NP was also on the edge of town so went in for a quick look. It was stunning, the entrance road takes you along the bottom of the cliffs and then climbs up into the park. The first feature we stopped to look at was Park Avenue.

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Balancing Rock was one of our next stops.

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After this we decided to continue to the end of the road to see where would be camping when we left Moab and when we got there decided to go for a walk into two arches as it was early evening and much cooler (although still mid 30’sC). On the way in Graham became sidetracked by some of the local reptiles.

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The first arch was Tunnel Arch, but there were actually two tunnels high in the structure.

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The second was Pine Tree Arch which was much larger.

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By the time we walked back out the sun was getting low so it was time to go looking for some features reflected in the  glow. The colours were amazing.

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The sunset was also pretty good!

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San Juan Skyway – Pt.2 Ouray to Cortez

Today was our second on the San Juan Skyway with the “Million Dollar Highway” ahead of us. There is debate over the name, whether it was from mining the area or the cost of the road early last century, but there is no debate over whether it is one of the top roads in America. It travels through the greatest concentration of mountains over 14,000 feet in the country.

Before we left Ouray we had a wander around the town looking at the old buildings.

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At the edge of town is a spot called Box Canyon where there are springs and also a waterfall. We decided to go there as it is where the rare black swift nests. There were no swifts to be seen, but it was a mecca for other birds and a variety of chipmunks. The falls themselves were amazing as they form in a fault line in the canyon and fall almost vertically through the rock. You need to walk into a type of slot canyon in the fault to see them. The noise is immense.

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Heading out of Ouray we began climbing up the hairpin bends. We kept having to stop as the views were so good, both of Ouray and the surrounding mountains.

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As you start this leg there is a notice about 45 miles of steep winding road with narrow shoulders, they don’t mention the lack of guard rails or the height above the canyon floor. What a spectacular road! This is looking down from my window (I was on the drop side at this stage). You can see the edge of the road and a narrow shoulder, the trees you can see are on the other side of the canyon.

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The roads wound up the sides of the mountains.

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During this section we travelled over three passes higher than 10,000 feet, the highest being 10,910 feet. Even though we were so high we were still surrounded by high mountain peaks.

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The rivers carried big loads of silt, turning them a spectacular golden yellow.

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The climate in the mountains was superb, but as soon as we dropped down to Durango at 6,500 feet it was hot again, at 97 degrees.

San Juan Skyway – Cortez to Ouray

Today it was time to head up into the San Juan Mountains, one of the highest ranges in the Rockies. The San Juan Skyway is a loop road of about 250 miles that passes through historic towns and over high passes with magnificent mountain scenery. It is another All American Road along with the Beartooth Highway and Highway 12.

We made a leisurely start as we wanted to visit the Anasazi Museum at Dolores on the way. This was well worth the stop and added to our knowledge of the indigenous groups in the area. The drive was delightful, through lush green valleys and following the Dolores River. In some fields the Gunnison Prairie Dogs had created cities, as in this field of wheat. It must be very challenging for the farmers.

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As we continued up the valley we began to climb and magnificent mountains came into view, some with pockets of snow. Eventually we reached Lizard Head Pass which is 10,222 feet, the highest we had been outside an aircraft. There were mountains in the area over 14,000 feet and at times it was difficult to know which way to look. There was a haze due to the northerly weather and also probably some smoke from the wildfires.

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We reached an extremely beautiful high altitude lake at 9,710 feet, it looked like something out of a postcard. There were a number of people fishing and canoeing, some with company.

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Continuing on we reached ski resort areas with mansions on the hills and the town of Telluride. This is a resort in winter but obviously a popular summer destination too. It has a nationally recognised historic centre but was bustling with cafes, bars and shops doing a roaring trade on a Sunday afternoon.

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While a very pleasant place to wander around for an hour or so it was obviously way out of my league, I admired the lovely houses lining the streets and then saw the prices in the real estate window!!! Around $1 million for something basic, up to 10’s of millions for other properties. The streets in the main town area were lined with houses like the one below.

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Leaving Telluride we travelled through some more old towns and through the mountains to Ouray where there are hot springs and a wedding in the local park (complete with giant flag on a fire engine). The town is located at the head of a valley with impressive mountains surrounding it and tomorrow we will have to climb a series of gooseneck bends when we leave.

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Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde is not one of the well known parks but what a treasure it is! Declared a World Heritage Area, it is home to almost 5,000 archeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings. These Pueblo ruins include pit houses, adobe houses and of course the cliff dwellings, although it is a mystery why the cliff dwelling were built as they used them for less than 100 years from approx 1200AD-1300AD.

Some areas are accessible for a self tour but some are only accessible under ranger guidance so we booked a tour to the largest site and headed off to Spruce Tree House for a look on our own. It was a real eye opener. Set in a deep gully under a large rock overhang a large building had been erected out of stone, including digging out a large “Kiva” (a circular ceremonial room which evolved through the years of the Pueblo culture). Most of these structures were multi-storey and were also deep into the cliff face.

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We also had time to begin looking at the museum which contained many artefacts. However, while small, it was so interesting we had to return to finish looking at it later in the afternoon. Included in the display was this container of corn from the 1200’s. It had been found with the small bowl inverted over the top of the large vessel to keep out vermin.

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It was time to head off on our tour and I began to feel like Indiana Jones. We did not go to the Balcony House which includes having to crawl through a12 foot long 2 foot tunnel, instead we had tickets for City Palace. This only entailed a 30 metre vertical climb. We had some steps, narrow rocks and 5 8-10 foot ladders.

The view from above was spectacular, and so was the method of reaching the site and returning .

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The result was worth it though. What a wonderful experience to be standing among these magnificent buildings which were somehow built on a rock ledge without any apparent access. There were finger or foot holds dug into the stone, which is the suspected method used for reaching the structures.

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The park also has great examples of pit houses and adobe buildings, making it possible to track the development of these styles through time.

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It is possible to stand at a lookout and see a dozen cliff houses in the canyon. They appear to be in every possible spot, many of which appear impossible to reach.

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The park itself is also very beautiful and it is a delight to see the lush green area around Cortez where we are staying. The park has some great lookouts giving panoramic views of the surrounding areas.

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