I messed around with time lapse (or is it hyperlapse?) down in New Zealand. Each of these little clips is about 5-10 minutes long in real time. It amazes me how much the world changes every second and we don’t even notice.
Yellowstone is one of the crown jewels of the National Park System.
It’s the 4th most visited national park in the U.S., behind Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. Growing up, I thought it’d achieved pop culture icon status, with Old Faithful making it’s way into countless cartoons, westerns, and vernacular.
I wish I couldn’t shake the bad taste it leaves in my mouth when I visit there.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful landscape. If national parks were a sampler platter, Yellowstone would be it. Vast meadows with undulating grasses. Craggy mountains rising above valleys scored into the earth. Bubbling evidence of forces simmering in the center of the earth. And of course majestic animals – thousands of bison and the titillating promise of elusive bear and wolf packs.
However, it’s next to impossible to feel alone in Yellowstone, especially during the summer.
Old Faithful has a schedule. Showing up to watch it is like attending a sporting event – good luck parking, navigating among the hotels surrounding it, and then finding a shoulder to peer over.
The Bison may as well be in a zoo. Spot one on the side of the road, and you’ll spot dozens of camera happy tourists with selfie sticks admiring the beasts.
Find a trail, and sojourn with dozens of others through the landscape.
It’s hard to escape the fact that Yellowstone has been designed as a tourist destination, despite the untouched natural beauty. In Yosemite, it’s escapable. Here, it’s a constant low hum underpinning your experience.
Atop Mt. Washburn’s hikable 10K+ feet sits a fire lookout overseeing a significant portion of the park. Stare through the windows, and someone’s secluded home stares back at you. It’s sparse and has essentially no walls to allow whoever is inside and their partner unobstructed views of the park to keep an eye out for wildfires.
Every two weeks, a supply run is made, navigating the two-track that doubles as the trail for hikers all the way up the mountain. If there ever was a lonely existence, it’s this one.
On the way up, I stumbled into a herd of mountain goats grazing on the mountain slopes. They couldn’t have cared less about the dozen or so of us hikers who stopped to marvel and what was basically just another weekday lunch.
Grand Prismatic Spring
This popular Yellowstone attraction has a lesser known (and infinitely better) way to experience it. Driving up to the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot means you’ll fight for a parking spot and walk along a veritable conveyor belt of tourists past a steaming spring. The color is noticeable, but unimpressive.
Instead, stop at the Fairy Falls parking area and hike along the path for a little over a half mile until you see a series of paths heading up the hill on your left, and Grand Prismatic Spring on your right. A short trek up places you at a small clearing where you can see the spring as it was intended to be experienced – from above.
Hope for a day of partial clouds, so that you can watch the colors breathe.
I saw thousands of bison in Yellowstone. Everything from small herds just off the road, where you can step out of your car and really get a sense of the size and power of these creatures. And then driving through Lamar Valley, where an expanse between you and the mountain range can hold hundreds of buffalo. Drive a little bit further, and there’s another herd of brown flecks dotting the green pasture.
It takes a little bit more work, but finding small moments like these are what makes it easy to see how Yellowstone is a crown jewel of the NPS. Even amid the hordes of tourists that are attracted by its beauty.
Look north down the canyon in Glenwood Springs and one thing dominates the horizon.
Spend any amount of time hiking in the Western United States and you’ll quickly realize mountains are not a single summit. They are layers of elevation, undulating up and down. Masking each other with their peaks and angles. What sets Mt. Sopris apart is how alone it is. The nearly 5,000 feet of slope exposure isn’t a common sight, making for a dramatic centerpiece of the area.
The Last Hike
It was one of our last days in Colorado, and I was looking for a trail I could knock out some mileage on. The kids and Sandi were looking forward to relaxing back in the treehouse. So I set out to find Mt. Sopris.
This mountain is not easy to get to. The directions took me down winding roads, onto gravel, and then finally onto something that vaguely resembled a road. My car was bounced and jostled every which way until I finally came to a full parking lot just off the trailhead.
Right off the bat I knew this hike would be special. Looking back toward Glenwood Springs, a pop-up afternoon thunderstorm hung like an angry giant over the valley. It was big and gray and moody. Everywhere else, sunshine and mountain meadows.
The hike up to the shoulders of the mountain was no less dynamic. The trail begins in covered forests with lots of small wildlife rustling under leaves. After a mile or so, there’s a cattle gate to pass through that gives way to open mountain meadows filled with flowers. Bees and insects hum around the foliage, giving it life.
I didn’t make it to the summit, but I tasted the edge of the final approach. Thomas Lakes, surrounded by rocks. Past where I stopped, all vegetation ceased, and barren rock and snow began.
I made the trek in the afternoon, so I had the trail to myself. Most summiteers start in the morning to make it all the way up and down before dark. I didn’t reach the top, but I was able to lounge by the lakeside. Sunlight glinting off the rippling water.
I couldn’t imagine a better way to end our time in Glenwood Springs.
In nature, beautiful things are easy to see, but hard to get to. The hike to Hanging Lake is no exception.
This spot isn’t off the beaten path. Quite the opposite, with its own exit off the iconic I-70 interstate through Glenwood Canyon.
This isn’t a long hike. From the parking lot to Hanging Lake, the total walking distance is just over a mile.
This hike is steep. The elevation change got us, especially the kids. The trail rises over a thousand feet in under a mile.
However, at the top you’re rewarded with a Technicolor lake circled with waterfalls. Something that only could emerge from a fairy tale.
Arrive to Hanging Lake Early
Even though the short trek to the top is intense, the proximity to civilization and the jaw dropping beauty attracts crowds. I-70 cuts through the bottom of a canyon, so there is very little room for anything, much less a parking lot that can handle all the tourists.
We arrived at 9 a.m. and had to wait for a parking spot. The one in, one out system took us about forty-five minutes. There are two rangers controlling traffic, one holding cars outside Hanging Lake, and another who holds you inside the parking lot until a spot opens up.
Waiting that long provides ample time to chat with the rangers. It sounds like the park will move to a shuttle system with a fee soon. This will significantly cut down on traffic and the number of visitors. Which is a good thing, because the amount of foot traffic this fragile lake sees needs to be reduced.
After a brutal final approach that is essentially several flights of narrow, rocky steps, we arrived on the ledge holding Hanging Lake. A simple boardwalk encircles the lake to keep tourists off its shores. A boardwalk packed with people.
Seclusion and tranquility is not something you’ll find here. But the sight of waterfall curtains pouring over a densely vegetated rock ledge into turquoise water is worth it. And who could blame everyone for wanting to come here?
A fallen log bisects the lake, adding another layer of interest. Unfortunately, some, like this guy, walk out on this balancing beam, which damages the ecosystem and speeds up the process of Hanging Lake fading from what it is today.
Don’t be that guy.
On the last day of all our trips, we ask the kids to pick one activity to repeat.
White water rafting on the Shoeshone Rapids was awesome enough to earn their vote.
Rafting the Rapids
After a 15 minute bus ride from Whitewater Rafting, LLC headquarters in Glenwood Springs, the Colorado River whisks you away. Depending on the season and height of the river – you’re thrust into Class III rapids the moment you hit the water.
“Man Eater”, “The Wall”, and “Tombstone” demand to be conquered immediately. Be ready to follow instructions, listen to your guide, and get wet. If you’ve got a little anxiety, don’t worry. Our five-year-old daughter loved every second of Shoeshone. The entire experience is no rougher than taking a spin on some bumper boats. The rafts are massive, rugged things that seem impossible to tip over.
A Leisurely Float
The first two miles rush by quickly, and you’ll wish you could go back and do it again. The rest of the trip is more like a lazy river. The Colorado calms down and you don’t even have to paddle.
The guides treat you to tongue in cheek histories of countless local points of interest – Bear Claw Caves, a giant mansion built into a cliff, the history of Glen Canyon, and many, many others. Most of their jokes are of the “so good they’re bad” variety, but the guides on both our trips were super-friendly, great with our kids, and the type of people you’d want to sit down and have a beer with.
Where the river widens there are several opportunities to hop in for a dip. With all the rafts are close together, splashing wars break out often.
The guides encouraged (peer pressured) some of us into standing on the front of the raft while everyone else paddled to spin, trying to knock us off. A few of us stood on the edges, linked paddles, and then leaned back in a twisted trust fall exercise, only to get rammed by another raft. At some point, everyone who played ended up in the water.
As we floated back into town, my daughter helmed the raft for awhile. She was in heaven. My son got to “ride the bull” for most of the trip, which meant he sat on the nose of the raft with his legs dangling in the water.
It’s easy to see why they had a blast and wanted to do it again. Even though we knew what was coming on our second trip down the river, we were able to enjoy the little moments even more. Sort of like seeing a great movie again.
Just outside Aspen, Colorado, is a fantastic bit of hiking that’s also one of the most photographed places in Colorado.
We came to the Maroon Bells Snowmass-Wilderness on the recommendation of our tree house hosts. We probably would have ended up here anyway, since it’s so close to Aspen and Dumb and Dumber was one of the formative movies of my youth. If we didn’t visit the place where the beer flows like wine, and the women flock like the salmon of Capestrano, it probably would have been a wasted trip.
After a quick lunch that was promptly spilled all over our rental car by our daughter, we headed up to the park. Getting there is a little confusing, you actually have to buy shuttle tickets to access the wilderness between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. It takes about a half hour to get up there, and busses stop promptly at 5 p.m. We arrived in the afternoon, so we were on a little bit of a schedule to make sure we didn’t get stranded.
Maroon Lake Scenic Trail
We opted for a short loop trail that was just enough to give us a taste and get us back in time for our bus. Even this little jaunt was phenomenal – the mountain lakes were teal and blue and every shade in between. The texture of the Apsen trees giving way to winter’s avalanches gave the mountainside a dimension I haven’t seen anywhere else.
The trail is easy and flat. It hugs a stream gurgling from the snowmelt on top of the mountain and was only two miles long. If you want to go longer, you can continue on to Crater Lake. For us, it was plenty of time to stop and enjoy a view or folly if we wanted to.
As we made our way back, we emerged from the woods into a small clearing and discovered we’d stumbled onto a pair of moose. Well, as much as you can stumble on an 800 pound animal. I’ve heard plenty of stories about their aggression, so we quickly moved past them.
Once it became clear they had zero interest in us, we paused on the edge of the clearing to watch them feed in tranquility. Several other people stopped with us to take in the incredible animals – I was just happy no one got charged or trampled.
We never planned on staying in Glenwood Springs for two weeks. We planned on spending a month in southwestern Utah exploring national parks.
But when my wife found a tree house just outside of town in Glenwood Springs, we knew we had to make it part of the plan.
We even changed when we were traveling and booked two solid weeks without knowing whether or not there was anything to do. You could argue that we planned our entire trip around this tree house.
So, of course, we went in with high expectations.
The Tree House Itself
From the outside, this place was just as good as the photos. The back of it is built into the mountain and the front supported by three trees. That meant we were able to enjoy a full kitchen and bathroom plus a view overlooking the property from a rustic porch.
It also meant when the wind picked up, the whole house creaked and swayed. The first time it happened, the kids kind of freaked out.
The space felt like a small cabin out in the woods. Plenty of knick knacks, a fireplace, and an upstairs filled with nooks to tuck yourself into and read a book. This would be an amazing place to hole up in the winter. Just get all cozy in front of a roaring fire and cut yourself off from the world.
As we read through the guest book, we found lots of people who had the same experience. One in particular stuck out. A young couple had visited the house over Christmas and gotten engaged during their stay. I’m assuming (from the handwriting) that the writer was female. You could almost feel the excitement and hope on what was probably one of the most memorable weekends of their lives.
As we flipped through the rest of the stories, we came the most recent entry. It was a friend of the engaged couple, who’d come here because of the special time her friends had shared. It must have been a bittersweet visit, because they wrote that the woman who’d gotten engaged had passed away between the two entries. It was one of those eerie moments that you can’t help but be touched by. To be getting a short glimpse into the unknowing words of someone who’s passed. Then imagining what it must have felt like to be her close friend. To come back to this place and read the words of someone you love who is gone. To wish that you could re-write the story, but at the same time be thankful that she experienced that amazing memory from the treehouse before she passed away.
Around the Tree House
The property the tree house sits on is probably its best feature. It’s built on a wooded lot and backed up against a mountain. A creek meanders through the middle of the tall grass. There’s a geodome house close by, but aside from that you feel as if you are truly on your own.
Our kids spent every moment they could outside climbing trees, playing pretend games with troops and soldiers and princesses and animals.
We found two cherry trees and an apple tree bearing fruit when we arrived in August. So when I had to head back down to St. George to pick up our car from the mechanic, my family made the most of being stranded. They made pies that we gave to the owners of the tree house and as gifts to our family and friends back home.
If our kids remember one thing from this summer vacation, I bet, and hope, it’s the hours they spent with nothing but the outdoors to entertain them.
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Like I said before – we planned our stay here not knowing anything about what there was to do in town.
Luckily there was loads!
We went whitewater rafting down the Colorado River, which we loved so much we went back to do a second time. The Shoshone Rapids are perfect for young kids and families, especially around the time of year we went. The first twenty to thirty minutes are a blast – all the class III and II rapids are packed into the beginning. The rest of the trip is a leisurely float filled with so-bad-they’re-good guide jokes, interesting facts about Glenwood Canyon, and even stop to take a quick dip in the river.
Glenwood Springs was built around an area of hot springs activity, and there is a massive pool fed by these springs with slides and old school diving boards.
Atop the canyon after a tram ride is Glenwood Caverns, an adventure park with cave tours, an award winning Alpine coaster that even I couldn’t get enough of and rides that sping or swing you out over the edge of a 1450 foot cliff.
With Aspen a short drive away, and Hanging Lake, Mt. Sopris, and Rocky Mountain National Park all short drives away, we found Glenwood Springs to be a relaxing, but fun two weeks that was completely different from all the driving and hiking we did in Utah.
Anyone who wants to see Zion Canyon, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase, Las Vegas, Glen Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, etc. etc. and be within a few hours drive of all of it should stay in St. George, Utah.
While we stayed in Pine Valley, St. George was our connection to civilization. It’s big enough to have lots of restaurants, grocery stores, heck, even a Walmart. Anytime we needed anything (which was a often) we headed to St. George.
The city itself has a few highlights worth noting, and good options if you’re staying outside town like us, or looking for a “down” day.
St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm
Our kids are nuts for dinosaurs, so Johnson Farm was a must stop. Even without kids, if you have anything above a passing interest in paleontology, swing in. They have ultra-rare fossils. Stuff that doesn’t exist anywhere else, like dinosaur swim tracks.
Everything in this place was discovered on a farm when the owner was plowing up some sandstone, flipped it over, and found the tracks underneath. It harkens back to a time when St. George sat on the edge of a giant inland ocean and dinos roamed the shores.
There’s a separate room with more fossils, skulls, and coloring activities for kids, plus an outdoor fossil dig area. All in all, a great way to kill a couple hours.
Washington City Community Center
When it gets hot out (and it gets blistering), the Washington City Community Center is a phenomenal place to go cool down. The pool area is gi-normous with two of those aqua structures with the giant buckets on top and all those squirting hoses and guns.
Basically, heaven for kids.
There’s also a couple slides that actually fun to zip down. There’s zero lines since you’re at a community center, which is great. The entire place is open air too – one whole wall opens up and looks out over the rest of the town and the red rock desert.
Tuacahn Center for the Arts
We didn’t go here, but felt like it was worth mentioning because it looks freaking awesome. They put on broadway quality plays in an auditorium that backs up against Snow Canyon State Park, with its gorgeous red rock formations.
We’d definitely put Tuacahn in “must-see” territory, even though we didn’t plan far enough ahead to be able to snag tickets.
We surrounded ourselves with hoodoos and red rock for an entire day in Bryce Canyon National Park.
After a while, some landscapes start to look the same if you spend enough time in a region. Bryce Canyon defies that – the rock formations and colors found here are unlike anywhere else. The drive into Bryce is amazingly picturesque as well. Red Canyon holds some of the reddest red rock we’d seen on our vacation so far.
Queens Garden Trail
Our first hike of the day was down to the Queens Garden via its titular trail. It’s a manageable two miles with only three hundred or so feet of elevation change. Our kids didn’t have any issues, aside from the upper 90s heat and arid atmosphere on the walk back up.
This trail has loads to look at, from the expansive views of hoodoos at the top to the arched doors carved through towering rock. No matter how far you go, the real treat of this trail is unlike most other destination trails – it’s the journey, not the end.
Queens Garden itself is actually fairly anti-climactic, with the trail ending unceremoniously at a small grove of shade trees and a sign marking “end of trail.” The hikers we met had to search around to find what the Queens Garden was. Even then, there was a distinct air of “meh” among folks who made it to the bottom.
Like I said, the views along the way are incredible though, and well worth it. Keep your eyes up!
Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, and Fairyland Point
After our short hike, we drove around the rim, stopping at several of the points available just off the main drive. This is a great way to see the canyon – and easy too. Just drive as far down the main park road, turn around, and all the overlooking points are on the right on the way back.
Bryce Point was my favorite, there was a full spectrum of colors from the white chalky arches of rock to the red and orange hoodoos that numbered in what must have been the thousands. Fairlyland Point was my kids’ favorite, probably in name, but the natural amphitheater affords a view of the hoodoos at eye level. So it’s easy to see why Pauite Indians believed these formations were people turned to stone.