Travelling without a Plan…Houston to Nashville Road Trip
November 5, 2017
I love to travel to the deep south of the United States, especially in the fall. While winter is threatening at home, the weather in Texas feels like summer. The leaves are all gone in Alberta, yet the trees along the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi are just starting to change colour. The beaches in Biloxi on the Gulf Coast are deserted in October. Flights are cheaper and accommodations are easy to find. And of course… the Houston Astros won the World Series while we were there so it was definitely a great time to travel.
This trip took many forms and in the end, was not recognizable from our original plans. We wanted to travel to North Carolina by way of Houston to see the fall colours in the Blue Ridge Mountains and visit our son and daughter-in-law who live in Texas. They have an old car of ours that we thought we could pick up there and drive through the Carolinas and be home within our 2 week time limit. We booked our flight to Houston which was only $180 each for one way.
Change of plans #1
The car wouldn’t start. It is old and not currently registered in the United States. My son and a friend spent an afternoon trying to boost it, to no avail. We priced renting a car in Houston and flying home from Raleigh, NC. but hat would cost about $1200 for 2 weeks because we weren’t returning it to the point of pickup. That meant we could only travel at most, one week away from Houston. I booked a flight back home, at $110 each. Peter’s plan was still to try to get the car running so he was not interested in making plans until he sorted out the car.
The Houston Astros were in the playoffs so we decided to make this a fall sporting trip. We looked online at the possible sporting events besides baseball. The Formula 1 was in Austin. University of Houston Texans were playing football at home and Ole Miss in Oxford, MS had 2 home football games while we were there. That sounded like a great plan. We would rent a car and attend some events we had only seen on TV. We booked a rental car for a week for $180.
If we stayed in Houston for a few days we could see the car race and the University Game. We might even get lucky and get a baseball ticket. Then we would travel to Nashville for a chance to hear some country music and come back through Mississippi to hang out at a tailgate party in the Grove in Oxford, then watch a home game. We would return to Houston for more baseball then fly home. We might even fit in a little golf along the way.
Change of Plans #2
The grandstand tickets for the Formula 1 in Austin were sold out on their website, although there were a few for some of the curves along the track. It would be a very hot day standing in the sun in one spot.
There was a Dynamos soccer game in Houston on Sunday afternoon with seats. That seemed a better plan. We decided to watch the start of the race on TV on Sunday then go to the soccer game.
That left Thursday to golf at Tour 18. It is an 18 hole course “inspired” by famous PGA courses including Amen Corner at Augusta and the 17th Island green at Sawgrass. I only had a few of my clubs tucked into Peter’s bag and no golf shoes, but it was fun to play with my son and husband, and I enjoyed the heat. Peter was 2 under through Amen Corner so he really enjoyed it. The Texas fairways are rough but very thick and fluffy so the balls sits right down in the bottom.
No Plans…Let’s see what happens
Friday was a day to tour around Houston. There were some neighborhoods with so much debris still piled up on the street in front of their houses as a result of Hurricane Harvey. It consisted primarily of demolition materials removed from flooded homes. Some houses were having roofs re-shingled. For the most part, though, it was hard to believe that they had been under so much water a couple of months ago.
We spent the evening at the Beer Market Co. The playoff game with the Yankees was on. It was exciting to watch a home playoff game with locals all cheering for their team, and then to have the home team win. It was almost as good as being at the game, but a lot less expensive. The quality of craft beer in the USA has continued to improve over the years we have travelled there. I had a delicious Lemon Ginger Radler.
Plans that changed me
Our kids were busy on Saturday so we decided to volunteer with a group from their church, Bayou City Fellowship. We met in an area of the city that was needy before Hurricane Harvey and even more so afterwards. The church had received supplies and donations from around the country for the past couple of weeks. They had made up bags of cleaning supplies and had many boxes of toiletries, bleach, garbage bags, blankets, towels, toilet paper and paper towels.
Other church members arrived with vehicles full of supplies they had not required in the flood clean up of their own homes. Mosquito repellent, brooms and mops as well as more bleach were common items. Someone had donated a couple of cases of new children’s backpacks which brought big smiles to those children who needed one. There were maybe 25-30 volunteers, including several children.
A large cube truck arrived about 8:30 am. It contained the donations, as well as some small tents and tables. A large speaker played upbeat music to try to make the day seem a bit more festive. Several people from the line came and helped unload the truck. We set up 4 stations and sorted everything. There were 3-4 people in each tent to distribute the donations. Those volunteers who weren’t at a station helped those in line with their things or just talked with them to see how they were doing. We had to be aware of family groups and give an allotment to each family, not to each member. This was difficult as several small groups claimed not to be together. Apparently the line to receive supplies had begun to form about 6:30 in the morning.
Many thanked us although several didn’t speak any English. One woman was thrilled to get a broom! The odd donated bottle of dish soap or laundry soap created great excitement and work gloves and masks were much appreciated. It was difficult to chat as the line was long and moved steadily. It was really hard when we ran out of supplies before we ran out of people after about 2 hours. I got to go home and sit by the pool in the sun. They had to go back to their damp homes.
Things that struck me about Volunteering
- Some of the volunteers had been flooded at home too.
- People are people whether they have or whether they need.
- I wanted to feel proud about offering to help in a place that needed it, but it wasn’t about me. I was honored and humbled to have been given the opportunity to serve others.
- We were asked to see the change in us as a result of being part of this day, to see the world in a new way.
If you want to know more about the continuing relief effort of this group in Houston, check out the church link above. It includes some moving stories.
Our plans send us north
It was hot on Saturday, but Sunday morning began with a thunder-storm. When it rains here, it really comes down, even when it’s not a hurricane.
We had several recommendations about trying Airbnb home sharing service and decided to try it out in Nashville. We booked a private bedroom and bathroom, plus use of the living room for $118 for 2 nights. Since it was our first booking, we received a $53 discount after that. Last minute booking is much easier in October than in the height of the summer.
If you might want to try this service, set it up at home first as they want to send you an email and phone text to confirm your information. We had our phone plans set to just wifi so this was a challenge. The app made it easier to communicate with hosts over wifi. Here is a discount link to Airbnb
Finding the Natchez Trace Parkway
The roads out of Houston are much like the roads in Houston…filled with traffic. We chose to take as many backroads between Houston and Nashville as possible. It is over 1200 km so we planned two days to complete our journey. Our last-minute planning searches for things to do in Nashville revealed that the Calgary Flames were playing hockey against the Nashville Predators in two days time. What luck!
Natchez was our first stop. It is a small city on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. It looks to me like a cross between Vicksburg, MS and New Orleans, LA. as it is filled with old antebellum homes and has several walking tours for architecture or views of nature.
It is also the start of the Natchez Trace Parkway, which follows the old trade routes from the SW corner of Mississippi to mid Tennessee, ending in Nashville, a distance of 440 miles. It has a slower speed limit, no signs or billboards are allowed, but there are lots of picnic areas and historical points of interest. We saw deer and wild turkeys along the way, but on the first section from Natchez to Jackson, MS, we didn’t see another car in our lane. October is a great time to travel in the south.
We spent the night in a hotel in Jackson, MS, of Uptown Funk fame, and continued on the second part of the trip towards Nashville. We had a coffee stop in a little place called French Camp, where we hoped to have a scheduled phone conference meeting with Alberta Golf. It just happened to be the place where all cell service ceased to exist.
Entrance and exit points to the Trace are limited, so we were lucky to find a little cafe in Dennis, MS, run by a woman and her sister-in-law. There were a few relatives and a couple of locals in for lunch but the chili and grilled cheese were only $5 and tasty. The service was so friendly and the stories were great. Small family restaurants are so worth a stop.
Last Minute Plans in Nashville
We arrived in Nashville with just enough time to check out our Air BnB and get to the hockey game. The Predator fans are serious about hockey! We saw so many jerseys, scarves, socks and jackets in Preds colours. We got tickets at the back of the middle bowl for about $50 each. It was fun to be part of this crowd since they had secret chants and cheers for different parts of the game. The game ended with a shoot-out and Calgary won. We were so glad that we hadn’t filled all of our time and were able to fit in the only sporting event that we hadn’t considered before we left home.
Our hosts recommended the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Trolley bus tour of Nashville. Both were well worth the time. The Hall of Fame was busy, but it had a great historical perspective on country music as well as influences from a large number of performers. There was a wall of gold records and the Hall of Fame itself is a round room with all the inductees arranged randomly on 5 line staves. The museum commissioned a painting for the room that included a variety of musical styles and transportation methods used as these styles were becoming popular. They really did a wonderful job in this museum.
Unplanned Hop On, Hop Off Tour
Bill, our driver, knew so many stories about this city. He told jokes and connected the past to the present in such an interesting way. He knew who owned most of the recording studios, where Taylor Swift just bought a new penthouse (and the rest of the building under it), how long the line up might be at Hot Chicken as well as the growth in the number of hotels in the city and why there is a full size replica of the Parthenon in Nashville. We were enjoying his performance so much that we decided to stay on the bus for the entire route and hop off on the second loop if we saw something we really wanted to see with more time. As it turned out, most of what interested us were within walking distance after we got off the bus.
It was well after 3 when we finished all the exploring and we wanted to eat some Tennessee BBQ. Jack’s had a combo plate we shared with ribs, brisket and pork shoulder and 2 sides. According to our trolley driver, mac and cheese is considered a vegetable so we had to check it out. They served the meat without sauce, which is served on the side. There was the choice of Tennessee sauce which is vinegar based and tangy, Texas which is think and tomatoey and St. Louis which was sweet and smoky. That was my favorite.
Unplanned Music…But what else would you do in Nashville?
Broadway is the main street in the downtown area. Even though the hockey arena has the same address, most of the buildings from the arena to the river are small bars that have live music from 11am until after midnight. Some are 2 or 3 levels with music on each level. Up and coming musicians perform for 3 or 4 hours. You can go in and listen for a bit then move on if the music isn’t to your taste. Most of the songs are covers of country stars with a few original tunes in the mix.
We listened to a couple of guys sing in Margaritaville after the hockey game. They were entertaining with their spin a song wheel to help them with their playlist.
The second night we went into Barlines Bar in the Omni Hotel. It is across from the convention Center and was really busy when we arrived, but they found us a table right at the stage. We listened to Hali Hicks. She had a session guitarist, Jeffrey Weaver, playing with her for the evening. With her voice and his masterful playing, it was great entertainment. The local craft beer was excellent and then the Flames vs St. Louis game was broadcast on the screen beside the stage. And then game 2 between the Dodgers and Astros started on the huge screen behind the musicians. Could we have planned it any better?
Back to Mississippi
Our son went to college and also got married in Mississippi so we have been there a few times before. The land near the river is a flat agricultural floodplain where they grow cotton and soybeans. Cotton was being harvested while we were there. They kill the leaves which exposes the cotton and makes for easier picking. It was strange for us to see bales of cotton as large as haystacks would be in Alberta. The eastern part of the state consists of large pine and oak forests.
We returned on the Trace towards the NW part of the state where Oxford is located. Our Airbnb hosts lived in the country on a beautiful acreage. They were so gracious and made us feel like family. If you want to learn about the people and get a real sense of the place, then this kind of accommodation might be right for you. We don’t have much experience yet, but it felt like an upscale hostel stay.
We also spent a couple of evenings with our daughter-in-law’s parents in Grenada, MS. They were so hospitable and even though we technically are family, they treated us so well. Those who live in the southern part of the United States really have their own culture and way of seeing the world. It made me think of the Canadians who live in Quebec and want to protect their language and culture within a larger country. Being kind and gracious to visitors is certainly part of that culture.
Change of Plans #2 Again
Our plans to attend the Ole Miss football game in Oxford seemed too complicated to be worth pursuing. Tickets were $90 each for a college game although the resale sites had better prices. We weren’t able to connect with any of our son’s friends to meet up and trying to find parking in this football crazy town (think The Blind Side) made our plan more energy than it was worth. We decided to change our plans and head south to the Gulf Coast.
Biloxi was a short overnight stop. The beach was white and the sunset spectacular. The Star Hotel was reasonably priced with friendly staff and the restaurant across the street had a nice wood fire, delicious seafood, local beer and the Astros playing game 6.
Even though we made our road trip based on our wish to attend the football game in Oxford, it was okay that our plans changed. If we hadn’t headed north, we would have missed out on Nashville, the Flames game, our wonderful hosts at Country Living BNB, visits with our Mississippi family and a wonderful night on the Gulf coast.
Being retired and having flexible travel time makes planning on the fly much easier than when I could only travel on school holidays, to the places everyone else wanted to visit. The fact that we have family living in the area helps reduce the anxiety of having a place to stay. Try it on your next trip. Leave some time open for opportunities to present themselves or people to come into your life. You won’t be disappointed.
White Rim Road… alone in the desert wilderness
September 3, 2017
Canyonlands, Utah–White Rim Road
To prepare us for this road trip, we took a side trip down the Shafer Trail when we visited Canyonlands, Utah in 2016. This road has to be seen to be believed. It heads over the side of the Mesa and in 8 km it drops 1400 ft. into the canyon. It follows the cliff with many switchbacks and is a single track gravel trail. We didn’t need 4 wheel drive that day, but high clearance is necessary. Once at the bottom, we turned on Potash Road and followed an interesting road out to Moab, with views of arches and the river.
There is another road that continues from where we turned off. It is 160 km and travels around a third of the park with the Green River to the west and the Colorado River to the east. There are a number of campgrounds available for booking along the way. Peter decided then he wanted to take this White Rim Road and explore the desert in his truck.
This was his trip so he did most of the research and planning. He read up on the regulations in the park. He watched YouTube on others who had done it and checked out the route on Google Maps. The campgrounds were analyzed and booked. The truck had all the fluids topped up and the tires checked. Extra water jugs were pulled out of the basement and the backup battery charger for the engine’s battery was prepared.
I was rather anxious about this kind of adventure, but I trust his driving and I knew the truck was safe, so I was in. Not ecstatic, but in. I thought of it more like a backpacking trip with our Coleman Instant Tent, where you needed to be self-sufficient for a number of days, in this case, 4 We had 2 coolers, 1 for ice and 1 that runs off the 12 volt. I checked the first aid kit and made sure we had all the necessary supplies.
After a pleasant journey through Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, we arrived at Canyonlands National Park at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon. It is about 45 minutes north and west of Moab, Utah. We fully expected to have to camp somewhere in the Land Management Area in order to find a spot, but drove through Horsethief Campground just in case. It was almost empty! We couldn’t believe our good fortune. Our site overlooked the desert and although it didn’t have water, vault toilets were available and it was only $15.
It was hot and breezy, but the sky was so dark. The moon was almost new and I enjoyed working on my night photography skills without having to wear my toque and mittens. The MIlky Way was so clear and it was hard to see all the constellations for the stars.
Shafer Road to White Crack Day 1
We stopped at the information center at Island in the Sky to check in. The sites we booked were confirmed and after looking at the entire trip, we decided that 3 nights would be adequate for this trip and cancelled our final night. The fee for our back country permit was only $30 and was good for up to 7 days. It included our camping.
There was water available here and we topped up all of our containers. They recommend 4 liters per person per day when travelling in the desert where temperatures were usually 35 Celsius in the day and 18 at night. We had 47 L plus our filled water bottles. The cooler had a variety of canned drinks as well. There was plenty to drink, but I felt thirsty the whole time between the heat and knowing that my water supply was not unlimited.
We tipped off the top of the world onto Shafer Road. I felt okay since we had been down this cliff before. I had been in the back last time so hadn’t seen how many times the road seems to disappear at the corners. The road was smooth and a little more than 1 lane wide with amazing vistas. Looking back though, it is hard to know where you just drove. As we wound our way to the bottom, there are sheer red cliffs above you, and sheer drops below. Fortunately we didn’t meet anyone until the bottom.
We passed 2 tour vehicles ready to head up the trail. We also met a park ranger whose truck you can see in the picture. The info center told us they drive the White Rim Road daily, but this was the only official we saw in 3 days. We were also passed by a couple of Land Cruisers. They didn’t have any camping reservations and were driving the entire loop in one day. They could travel much quicker than us as they had a shorter wheel base, were not loaded with equipment and could reduce their tire pressure to go over the bumps and rocks more easily.
The road was primarily one lane wide. It was dirt or small gravel in lots of places which made for easier driving. The challenging sections were in the drainage and washout areas. Rain run off had washed away all the small rocks and left large rock or sometimes bedrock called sliprock. There were many large holes in front and behind these larger rocks that required lots of driver attention.
It wasn’t too bad in the flat areas, but the same thing happened on lots of the steep up and down climbs. Some climbs were so steep we couldn’t see past the hood of the truck. Watching for rocks sticking out from the side, holes in the road, drop offs and having no idea if the road turned left or right at the top of a climb made for full-time navigating for us both. Fortunately the 4 wheel-low works flawlessly. 4 high did a good job too when needed.
The advantage of being 1400 ft below the usual viewpoints is that you are that much closer to the canyons. We walked into Mussleman Arch and could look at the other hoodoos and formations and colours that are not apparent from the top. I took a picture of Mesa Arch from the top last year and was able to look at it from behind this time. The Washerwoman looks so interesting from close up. It is just a tiny formation seen through Mesa Arch.
There were a few campgrounds and picnic stops along the way. We had a picnic in the truck and completed 60 km to our first stop. It had taken most of the day as we were travelling between 10 and 40 km/hr. White Crack Campground was 2 km off the road and set on a rise overlooking the lower basins. We were at the very southern tip of Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands.
White Crack Campground
The camping area can be booked by a group of up to 10 with 3 vehicles. Since we were only 2 people with 1 vehicle, that is all they booked into this site. It is remote and silent. The sound of jets flying over were all there was to remind us that we were still part of the modern world.
It consisted of a vault toilet with the most spectacular view in the world, a large slab or red rock and a single juniper tree that we moved our chairs around to get a little shade. There was a short squall soon after we arrived but the wind died quite quickly and we didn’t lose any of our supplies over the cliff.
The sunset showed itself with clouds and lots of virga, although by true dark, the stars could be seen through the open windows of the tent, even without my glasses. We got up to watch the sun come up over the mountains and light up the canyon walls in the west. There was a short trail that took us neared the views to the south where we could clearly see the white rim of stone that was the uppermost layer in the canyons.
White Crack to Murphy Hogback Day 2
Our second day was much shorter than the first at only 15 km and about 1 ½ hours. We returned to the main road and travelled over several washout areas. We stopped several times to look at rock formations. Erosion is always at work here. We saw towers with harder rocks balanced precariously on top. There were some rocks that stood out from the canyon walls like fins.
Our first real challenge for the truck was driving up Murphy’s Hogback. It is a section of land raised up from the White Rim where we felt like we were driving straight up like those trucks you see in the commercials. It was very scary but the truck and driver did a great job. By the time I arrived at the top, I had a few tears of relief.
The camping area was right at the top of the Hogback at almost 1600 m. We were there by 11 am but I was glad for a break after all the anxiety of this trip. The steep section was a success, but I knew we had to go back down the other side. We did see one more truck go by all day, and that was the last of humanity that we saw until we completed our trip.
This campground had 3 separate sites, but we were the only ones there. Again we had a vault toilet with a view and a friendly juniper tree to give us so more shade. There were no tables provided, but we had a portable table top that unrolls and sits on a base.
We also had Coleman Instant Screen room. It was really handy on our trip to the Alaska Inside Passage. We set it up over the picnic table and used the propane fire ring in the doorway to keep us warm and dry in all the rain. Since we were encouraged not to exert ourselves in the heat of the day, we set up the room, covered the sunny side with a tarp, spread out our camping mat and had a day off. I worked on my blog and read. Peter read the maps and rested from the driving of the last week. We had lots of water to drink and finished the day with rib steaks on the grilling pan and wished we had brought wine as well. Those kinds of meals are definitely not backpacking meals. (Pinot Grigio)
The sky was very cloudy around sunset. There was rain and virga in the area, but we didn’t get moisture. I didn’t want to have to worry about slippery roads for the way out. After sitting and relaxing all day, we realized that we didn’t need another night in the desert so planned to drive out the rest of the way. We planned to stop at our last camping spot and check it out just in case. It was also the day of the North American Solar Eclipse so we needed to be somewhere open enough to see what effect an 80% eclipse had on the landscape.
Murphy’s Hogback to Potato Bottom and beyond Day 3
Getting up so as not to miss the Canyon sunrise meant we were on the road by 7:30. The trip down off the summit was like pointing your skis down a black run. You just have to go. It was steep and rough, but it was okay. Luckily no one was coming up at the time. We used the GPS more today to see which way the road curved before we got there.
The road today took us along several canyon edges and eventually down to the Green River. The weather was clear and sunny again and the views amazing. We could look up at towers and mesas. We got to our booked camping spot about 9 and decided to carry on to the Mineral Bottom boat lauch for the eclipse, just past the end of White Rim Road.
Or next scary section was up Hardscrabble switchbacks which very quickly takes you up and over a high section and back down to the river again. It really took 2 of us to get through this. I watched for rocks and holes on the right and Pete kept his eye on the left. I was also responsible for any big rocks jutting out from the right although there was seldom any room on the cliff side of the road to do anything about it. Neither of us looked down. There was one switch back that we had to enter a turn around area to get the right angle to continue up the hill.
We got back down to the river again along a narrow trail that caught us by surprise and were soon found ourselves at the exit to the White Rim Road, 3 days and 160 km of adventure later.
We got a chance to see the eclipse through some paddler’s glasses. The light seemed to glare less off the cliffs but it was really not that noticeable, considering how much of the sun was covered by the moon. We did notice some really interesting shadows on the sand and the temperature dropped from about 35 to 25 Celsius for a short time.
After watching the paddler’s prepare for their trip, we finished our trip on the White Rim Road by exiting up the Mineral Bottom Road. It was steep with lots of switchbacks, but it had signs for curves and reinforced corners and felt like a highway. It was time for a shower and dinner in Moab.
Road trip on the scenic back roads of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado
August 22, 2017
Planning a road trip
As our home commitments finished and summer was drawing to a close, it was time to head out on the road for another adventure. Our ultimate destination was the White Rim road in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, USA. We booked our campsites ahead since there are not many available. That gave us 5 days of travel time to explore.
We opened Google Maps and discussed the route we should take to get there. We wanted to visit some new places and were okay with a little backtracking if necessary. I hadn’t been to Aspen and Vail in Colorado so we chose to travel through Montana, via Helena, then through Wyoming to Denver. From there we would travel west to Vail and end up at Moab and Canyonlands in Utah. It sort of worked out that way.
We left home Monday, August 14 and drove to the very southern part of the province. It was quite smoky from the forest fires to the west. We couldn’t see the Sweetgrass Hills that usually signal that Montana is coming up soon.
Montana is a very large state. We have been to many parts of it, but not all. The geography is so varied. With Glacier National Park in the far NW, the high plains of Little Bighorn in the NE, reservoirs and fly fishing rivers as well as cliffs and bluffs in the SE and Beartooth Mountains in the SW, you don’t have to look at the same view for very long. Another good thing about travelling through this state is that the backroads are excellent and have 70 mph limits. The freeway is 80 mph!
We followed the Missouri River for much of the way. Water really brings life to the valley. There were many big farms with outbuildings and fields with an abundance of baled hay. Along the water were fishing lodges and summer homes. The section of road where the glaciers had cut through the volcanic rock was quite spectacular. It was first described by Lewis and Clark in 1805.
Holter Lake State Park
We chose the road though Helena because it has lots of variety, such as rugged cliffs, shimmering water and the golden grasses of late summer. Holter Lake State Park is just before it at exit 266. We’ve stayed there before and it was our stop for the night. The lake is actually a reservoir and there were many boats filled with fisherfolk. The campground had grassy sites, pit toilets (that are now called vault toilets), drinkable water, and only cost $15/night. We got a spot in the second row from the lake. I got some nice sunset pictures that had extra color because of the smoke slipping into the state.
Once the sun went down, the stars appeared. The Milky Way was brilliant and filled the sky overhead from south to north. The crickets, yipping coyotes and video game shooting sounds from a nearby trailer were all that could be heard.
I met a couple from Oregon who are travelling full-time in their C Class motor home. They have done it for almost 4 years and are looking for different options like house sitting or long stay somewhere. They liked hearing about our time in Thailand and I had a tour of their unit to see what I would have to leave behind. It is a great research opportunity when you travel and find others at a similar point in their lives. They also recommended we travel through Beartooth Pass.
Canyon Campground-Gallatin National Forest
We drove from Helena towards Gardiner on roads that were mostly new to us. About 5 pm we passed a campground that looked to have empty spots. We drove along a little further then decided the closer we got to the park, the less sites were likely to be available. We turned around and claimed a site at Canyon campground in the National forest There was no water supply but we had brought our own water jugs and the pit toilet was fine. This site had the Yellowstone River just across the highway, and huge boulders scattered everywhere. It cost $7.
At Canyon Campground,as we were finishing supper, we noticed lots of vehicles driving in and looking for sites. We decided to offer to share our site with another tenter as there was lots of room. We know that feeling of being in a new place and waiting too late to find a spot. Nick and Katie were travelling from Ohio to Portland, Oregon for an internship. They had a ripped tent that we tried to repair with duct tape. We had a lovely evening sitting by the fire ring sharing stories of travel adventures. They were very appreciative of a place to sleep.. Travel is about the places you see, but also about the people you get to meet.
It is an “All-American Road” and passes from the NE exit of Yellowstone up over the Beartooth Pass at 10972 ft., then winds its way back down the other side. It is about 69 km but with all the hairpin corners it took some time. The views were so spectacular though, I wouldn’t have wanted to go any faster.
We were well above tree line for some time and there was quite a bit of snow still at the top. At one point I commented, “There can only be marmots and pikas live up this high,” just as a marmot scampered across to the other side. The road was first used by some soldiers in the 1880’s on the advice of a hunter in the area. The road itself was built in 1936. What engineering! My pictures barely do it justice.
Yellowstone to Beartooth
To get to this road, we had to change our plans and head south to Yellowstone, where we have visited a couple of times before, then drive across the loop at the top to get to Cooke City where the Beartooth road begins. We purchased the $80 yearly park pass at Yellowstone, as we can use it in Utah as well.
The road from Mammoth Falls to Cooke City, inside the park was pretty quiet. The landscape was high plains to begin, then more forested mountains on the east side. We saw many bison in herds, mostly in the valley bottoms. A couple crossed the road in front of us. Several cars just stopped in the middle of the road to look at them in the distance. That gets to be dangerous.
We travelled along the Lamar Valley where many of the wolves from Alberta were released. It was mostly open land with water in the valleys and trees on the hilltops. We looked, but couldn’t see any wolves today.
Our trip through Wyoming was different because of our detour to travel the scenic byway. We discovered there were roads that travelled mostly north and south from Cody, WY to Vail, CO. We didn’t have to go all the way to Denver and then backtrack to the west. It was good that we hadn’t booked all of our accommodations. It is not as busy later in the summer as many Americans are back in school already so it gave us the opportunity to take advantage of visiting places we didn’t know about.
The roads in Wyoming are also very good. We spent almost no time on the interstates. Wind River travels many km through a beautiful canyon. It was such an unexpected feature in western Wyoming. The cliffs are tall and steep. The water was clear and the shade was nice. We had another drive up to 2250 m where the horizon on the other side stretched forever.
Lots of the state is empty of people and although it is all fenced we saw many more antelope than cattle. Sage and scrubby grass cover the land. The southern part has lots of oil and gas activity. We stopped at a Wal-Mart to use the washroom and I saw a mom and her 3 young boys walking out. Those kids looked like they never took off their hats. They were genuine cowboys.
Rawlins Super 8
It was early evening by the time we finished our epic drive over the pass, then drove through much of Wyoming. We knew there were some campgrounds in Rawlins, but when we arrived, they were the parking lot kind that cost $30 and you listen to your neighbors snore, or they have to listen to mine. Those in big RV’s don’t mind, but we are tent campers. There was a Super 8 across the street for $64 with wi-fi, our own bathroom, shower and included breakfast. We had salad and sandwiches from our cooler and made sure everything was chilled in the fridge overnight. After our cheap, but rustic camping, it was worth it for the night.
We had been climbing in elevation all day yesterday and continued today. Rawlins was over 6000 ft., twice as high as Rocky Mountain House. Colorado took us over another 10 000 foot pass and our campsite SE of Aspen is over 8000. The 14 000 ft mountains don’t look as big as I expected as the trees grow so much higher up the sides.
Northern Colorado was more green than Wyoming. Water must be more plentiful. We stayed on the scenic byways and passed through little towns that seemed like towns you only see in movies. There were a couple of huge power plants with mountains of coal that had been stripped from the hills where cattle now enjoy the reclaimed lands grasses. We wondered why these roads to nowhere were so good until we saw all the workers at the plant.
When we travelled down the valley south of Vail, the views were so impressive. Even though the mountains are huge, the valley is wide and green. There were hay fields and horses in the pastures. Rivers and wetlands were common. We saw more homes in the country in an hour than we did in all of Wyoming. Our GPS sent us around the wrong side of Leadville which is a “don’t miss” old mining town but maybe another time. We did drive past the old mining town of Granite, which looks like a museum along the road.
White Star Campground
When we stopped for lunch I looked ahead for camping on the way to Aspen. White Star near Twin Lakes seemed the right distance away. It is a state park along a reservoir just before the road to Independence Pass. When we arrived it looked like every site was booked, but as we looked more carefully, there were different dates on the cards listing when they were reserved. As it was Thursday, most were booked for the weekend, or next week during the eclipse. Tonight was not in high demand. This place has lots of space between the sites, pit toilets and drinking water. It was $20 for the night and an extra $6 for a bundle of firewood, which we enjoyed very much.
The skies cleared here after supper and it was a chilly evening. The sun went behind the mountain at 7:15 and by 8:30 it was pitch black. I enjoyed learning to take Milky Way photos, although I needed my parka and toque to stay outside. It was down to 6 degrees Celcius for the night and I slept with almost all my clothes on inside my sleeping bag. The elevation is 9200 ft which explains some of the cold in August.
We managed to find one more scenic by way up over a pass. It surprised me to find this road in Trip Advisor. It was steep with switchbacks and few shoulders, but it was paved and rose quickly to 12 095 ft. We walked a little trail to view the continental divide where the land it tundra here. This area of the mountains was popular for mining in the 1880’s. It was a toll road at this time. The views were fantastic. The warning signs for vehicles over 35 ft were quite entertaining. They started with 35 ft vehicles not allowed. The last signs stated
- turn around here
- you will get stuck
- you will be fined
- you will block traffic and make everyone else furious
I may have ad libbed the last one, but it gives you an idea of what they meant.
The road down to Aspen took longer and had some very narrow sections. We were still at 8900 feet. We passed lots of campgrounds, creeks, areas of rock slides and many cyclists on their way up. Wow!
Aspen, Colorado is a busy place, like a bigger Banff. There were lots of huge homes, old brick and homes, condos and vacation rentals. It has an airport and 3 golf courses. It was too busy to stop there. Gas in Colorado was about $2.50 a gallon. It was $3.59 in Aspen. We can say we’ve been there and the road to get to it was so worth it.
We arrived in Canyonlands, Utah about 5:30 where our next adventure begins.
Banff National Park…travel in our own backyard
July 7, 2017
Travel Close to Home
After writing about our travels in Southeast Asia and my trip to North Carolina, it excited me to share some stories and photos from a recent visit to the Canadian Rockies. This is probably old news for the locals who read my blog, but I hope it may entice some of our “away” friends to come for a visit.
This exquisite area is about 2 hours away from our home. We know how lucky we are when we can drive to the mountains for the day, and hear comments like, “ I’ve waited my whole life to come here”, and “This is just so beautiful, I have to just sit here. I can’t even take a picture yet.”
We are currently tent campers, but we are ridiculously good at camping, as our daughter points out. Although she turned 30 this year, she still enjoys a road trip with her parents, and in fact, booked this trip for the 3 of us in April of this year. It was necessary to book almost 3 months ahead as it is Canada’s 150th birthday on July 1 and the federal government decided to make all the national park entrances free for the entire year. We also wanted to stay in the village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park.
It has a camping area specifically for tents and soft sided trailers that is contained by an electric fence. This is due to a bear attack in the past. It didn’t help us sleep through the trains, but it did give us wild animal peace of mind. The permit for firewood was extra, as was the fee for booking on-line. The hot showers were free. There were fresh water spigots, covered cook shelters in case of rain, a sink area with hot water for washing dishes (our favorite luxury) and daily programs offered by the park on topics ranging from the value of bats in the park to demonstrations on how to camp. The views were also free.
Road trip to the Rockies
The drive along the David Thompson Highway, (a fur trader and mapmaker extraordinaire) takes us west from Rocky Mountain House towards the Rockies. We travel past campgrounds and through the forests of the foothills bombarded with wonderful views as the mountains begin to appear in more detail around every turn.
The only town halfway along the 2 hour drive to the park is the old mining town of Nordegg. It was a booming community 100 years ago, but now provides tours of the old mine area, a small golf course, a gas station, hotel and delicious pie at the Miner’s Cafe. Gas, snacks, camping and music festivals are also available at David Thompson Resort on the banks of Abraham Lake about 30 minutes further west.
Abraham Lake is actually a reservoir built to control flooding of the North Saskatchewan River. It also generates some electricity as it passes through small turbines, and methane gas bubbles in the ice during the winter as plant matter decays below the surface. It’s most noticeable characteristic, however, is its spectacular teal blue color. Mountain lakes that form from melted glaciers contain “glacial flour” which is rock ground up to powder by the force of moving ice. This powder, or silt, reflects and scatters the colors of light to send an almost indescribable color to the eye. Unless you have seen it yourself, in photographs it looks fake. It is especially impressive in the fall when the golden leaves contrast with the blue water.
In order to manage all the visitors to Lake Louise itself, Parks Canada has a free shuttle bus from an overflow parking area a few km east of town. School buses leave every 15 minutes and drop passengers at the visitor center in the village of Lake Louise as well as at the lake itself. It sure beats driving around the parking lot hoping someone will leave.
I love going to this lake. I’ve X-Country skied and snowshoed on it in the winter, walked along it in the spring when the snow is still a meter deep, and hiked above it in the summer. The visitors who come are reverent as they stand in awe at the mountains and glaciers surrounding the lake. The majority of people have travelled great distances to come to this “bucket list” place.
The Fairmont Lake Louise stands at one end and a company nearby rents red canoes to tourists to paddle quietly through the water. In the winter, there is a skating rink cleared near the hotel with an ice castle sculpture. An ice bar with ice tables and stools is also outside. Horse-drawn sleighs take people along the lake trail where they can see ice climbers ascending the waterfall at the end. There is also a world class ski hill behind the hotel, overlooking the lake.
Tea House Hike
There are 2 tea houses on the mountain above the lake that were built as lodges in 1905 and 1924. My daughter and I have been to the Lake Agnus Teahouse a couple of times already so this time we chose to hike to the Plain of the Six Glaciers. It is 10.6 km return and 365 m elevation change. The trail starts at the hotel and the first couple of km are a paved path. It climbs up through the forest with lots of views of the lake along the way. This was a high snow winter and there were several avalanche path still in place along the way. We had hiking boots, hiking poles and snow experience so we had no concerns. Those people walking in runners had more trouble. I heard one man comment as he turned back, “I wish I had my soccer shoes.” The hike was in fact not recommended by the visitor center because of the snow.
The teahouse is a beautiful log building. The staff hike in and stay for a week. Supplies are carried up on horseback or helicopter. They serve tea, of course, and fresh baking. Soup and chili were also available. We joined a family from Pennsylvania at a picnic table and savored Banff Tea Company tea and cinnamon scones, along with good conversation. It seems so decadent to enjoy such treats in a remote place.
After a quiet night in our campsite, we headed out at 7:30 am to Moraine Lake. It is another iconic view place that used to be the main picture on the Canadian $20 bill for many years. The area is also known as the Valley of the 10 Peaks because you can see 10 peaks along the side of the lake from the Rockpile viewpoint.
Moraine Lake is glacial blue and is named after the crushed rock that gets pushed to the side by a moving glacier. This rock remains in place after the glacier recedes. We hiked above this lake last summer so we just wanted to take some pictures. The water was ruffled by wind so there were no reflections but the changing skies and snow-capped peaks made it a spectacular place. Listening to the visitors who were there for the first time also made it special. There were lots of selfies being taken, but many offers were made to take group photos for others as a wonderful memory.
The forecast was for showers and I was a bit creaky after our hike so we decided to spend the day around Banff, which is about 55 km away. Our plan was to check out some places that we had driven past and never stopped. We travelled down the Bow Valley Parkway, which is the original road between Banff and Lake Louise. It is quiet and scenic, although we didn’t see any wildlife.
Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake
Our first destination was the Lake Minnewanka loop. It is near Banff townsite. The entrance to the day use and boating area looked busy, so we continued to Two Jack Lake and stopped when we saw the National Parks red chairs. Parks staff have set out a double set of red Muskoka chairs at various parks throughout Canada. You can take a photo and share it with #redchairs as a way to promote places in the parks. I had never been to an area where they were located before so this was exciting for me. It was a lovely by the lake so we stayed for a picnic after the obligatory photographs. As it was just a few days before Canada’s 150th Birthday, it was extra special to share our red chair photos.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
While the railway was being built across Canada, a couple of workers stumbled upon a hot springs, which was later named Cave and Basin. The Canadian Government saw the economic advantages of bringing tourists to this area and in 1887 Banff National Park was created in first national park in Canada.
Cave and Basin is now a National Historic Site. It has been recently renovated and is open to visitors. We saw the original cave as well as an outdoor pool. Swimming is no longer allowed at this location, but it is at the Upper Hot Springs pool. The courtyard at the historic site had replicas of railway worker tents set up, along with staff portraying the workers from the 1880’s.
No visit to Banff is complete without a drive down Banff Ave. and a little people watching. We wandered through the local farmer’s market then stopped for a cold drink next to the pub window. We saw people from all parts of the world strolling past, admiring the views and the atmosphere of this old mountain town.
As we returned to our campground we spotted a couple more red chairs on the hill. They were next to the road that leads up to Mt. Norquay ski hill. I didn’t remember being there either so we drove up to take a look. There were 2 chairs on a hillside with a fantastic view of the entire town of Banff, including the Banff Springs Hotel and Vermillion Lake. There was even a herd of Bighorn Sheep wandering past. We were so lucky to find 2 chair locations in one day.
For our last day, we decided that many of the day hikes would still have too much snow on the trails so we headed further west instead. Emerald Lake is about 40 km from Lake Louise in Yoho National Park. It is a small lake, but emerald perfectly describes the colour of the water. There is a lodge at one end that is comprised of cabins and a regular hotel.
There is a 5 km path around the lake. The first half was quite smooth and level and had fantastic lake views. The second half of the trail was more up and down but surrounded by temperate wetland plants like Devil’s Club and lady slippers.
On the drive back to the highway, we stopped at a natural bridge. The Kicking Horse River has worn through the rock so instead of being a waterfall coming over the top of the rock, it now comes underneath the rock, forming a bridge.
Our final stop on this quick road trip was at Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. It is located at Bow Summit which is the high point between our access to the park from Highway 11 and Lake Louise. The Lake is fed by glacial water and is the start of the Bow River that flows through Calgary. There is an old Swiss Mountaineer Lodge there that has accomodations and a wonderful restaurant called Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. We had another picnic overlooking the lake and a fresh coffee from the trading post. It was interesting to watch all the visitors see for the first time an area that we are very familiar with.
If this doesn’t excite you about visiting Banff National Park, then I have not done my job well enough. Please comment any questions you have, or share your favourite place to hike or gawk in the mountains.