After extending our stay in both San Diego and San Clemente, we are back on the road. Our first stop was at JTNP where the wildflower “super bloom” is at its peak.
JTNP is one of a limited number of National Parks that allows access to back country high clearance 4WD trails. Many of these trails exist due to the significant number of mines (300) that at various times operated in the area which is now JTNP. We took advantage of the opportunity by spending an afternoon traveling through Pinkham Canyon and were treated to spectacular scenery and solitude.
There are a number of great hiking trails within the park. Because this is the busy season at the park we chose several hikes that we thought would be less crowded including Mastodon Peak and 49 Palms Oasis.
An interesting aspect of the park is that portions of both the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert are within its boundaries. While the park is named after the Joshua Tree there are no Joshua Trees in the Colorado Desert area of the park; they are only found in the Mojave Desert area of the park.
JTNP is extremely beautiful at this time of the year and the temperatures are reasonable for hiking. But as this is a true desert environment we would recommend you that you visit between late fall and early spring before high temperatures go into the triple digits!
The Southern Arizona landscape is dominated by cacti. However, we never realized until we began exploring in this area that there are more than two dozen species of cactus living here. The most well recognized is the Saguaro. This species can live to be 200 years old, grow to 50 feet in height and weigh six tons. We have identified six species during our hikes: saguaro, barrel, teddy bear, ocotillo, prickly pear and cane cholla.
Saguaro National Park + Tucson Mountains
We hiked Kings Canyon Trail to Wasson Peak loop trail. Wasson Peak is the highest peak in the Tucson Mountains and provided us with tremendous vistas. We were able to clearly see Mt Lemmon, Mt Wrightson, Kitt and Picacho Peaks as well as the city of Tucson. This hike is a bit on the strenous side at eight miles with an elevation gain of over 1600 feet but well worth the effort. In addition to the views the trail was awash with wild flowers.
Looking to rest our legs between hikes we spent an afternoon making the drive from Tucson up to Mt Lemmon and the village of Summerhaven via the Sky Island Scenic Byway. The road winds up through the Catalina Mounatains with an elevation gain of more than 6000 feet. As you leave Tucson you are in the desert and by the time you reach Mt Lemmon we found ourselves driving through connifer forests. The temperature drop was more than 30 degrees. Picture below is a view of the San Pedro River Valley from an elevation of apx. 8000 feet above sea level. This byway is a beautifully engineered road with incredible views and scenery. The general store is Summerhaven can provide you with ice cream and fudge as an added incentive to go all the way to the end of the drive.
Picacho Peak State Park was our base of operation for six nights. This location provided easy access to Tucson proper (coffee and tea!) and plenty of hiking in Saguaro NP and the Coronado NF. The added bonus was that Picacho Peak presented us with several challenging hikes without needing to leave the park. We photos below are from our hike on the Sunset Vista Trail.
Pima Air + Space
As we are both aviation buffs we kicked off our stay in the Tucson area with a visit to the Pima Air & Space Museum. Pima has a large collection of primarily military aircraft. We were able to see two aircraft (pictured below) that we had never seen in person previously. The Convair B58 Husler (left below) was the first USAF bomber capable of Mach 2 flight and was operational with SAC during the 1960s. On the top right is the Boeing B36 Peacemaker. The B36 was used from 1949 until 1959. It was the largest piston engined plane ever built. It was powered by six pusher props and four jet engines and had a wingspan of 230 feet. It is ugly but could travel 10,000 miles without refueling and carry 87,000 pounds of nuclear bombs. Two rare aircraft that we were pleased to have the opportunity to see in person.
We also took a tour of the “boneyard” located within Davis Monthan Air Force Base. The boneyard is home to more than 3000 military aircraft not currently needed operationally. A portion of the aircraft staged to be ready to operate within 24 hours while others are being cannabilized for parts to keep active models of the same aircraft flying.
Our next stop is Kartchner Caverns State Park located at the base of the Whetstone Mountains, located about 50 miles southeast of Tucson.
Lastly, please continue to follow the coffee and tea adventures of our good friends @fikawithfiona on Instagram.
We spent a couple of nights in Flagstaff or “Flag” as the locals refer to the city. This city of approximately 70,000 sits at 7000 feet above sea level in the Coconino NF with the San Francisco Peaks as the backdrop. The town still boasts a lively and well preserved downtown with local merchants, restaurants and most importantly good coffee. Flag is home to Northern Arizona University (The Lumberjacks). We have found that many of the towns we have visited that have a nice vibe like Flag have a university or college located within the city or town.
We visited three coffee roasters while in Flag. All were legit but our favorite was Firecreek Coffee Company. We have included photos from all three below.
While traveling our focus is to see new places, meet new people, try new adventures, however, as we wander we do need to deal with the mundane. For one of us that means doing laundry, for the other it means getting a haircut. Pictured below is Hermanis Ulibarri. A haircut from Mr. Ulibarri turned out to be anything but mundane. Mr. Ulibarri is 77 years old and has been “barbering” since his return from serving in Vietnam over 50 years ago. He has given haircuts to tourists from all over the world and has quite a following of French clients that spend time in Flag on a regular basis. Lots of interesting stories. Oh, and cash only if you stop in for a haircut on your next visit to Flagstaff.
Just a few miles east of Flag is the Walnut Canyon NM. We spent an afternoon there viewing some of the extremely well preserved ancient cliff dwellings. These dwellings were constructed by the Sinagua People during the 12th to 13th centuries. The dwellings sit 300 feet above the canyon floor and provided protection from the weather, animals and rivals. The Island Trail has been constructed so that visitors can descend 200 feet down into the canyon and actually go inside a number of the dwellings. Amazing to think of an entire community raising families, growing crops, hunting, storing water and food while living 300 feet above the canyon floor.
We are off to Sedona for some hiking in the Red Rocks and perhaps to experience the energy of the purported vortices!
We have been taking full advantage of the great weather to boondock and hike in the Hurricane area and Zion NP. We also had an great afternoon on the dunes in Sand Hollow. We have arived in Kanab after about a four hour wait as a section of the Smithsonian Butte was impassable due to a strom that passed through early this morning. Fortunately the Sun appeared with a light breeze to help the road dry out enough for us to make it through the clay section. If the weather remains dry over the next several days we will be able to hike in several exciting slot canyons in the nearby Vermillion Cliffs area.
We did an overnight at CMNM which is in Eastern Idaho about 20 miles west of Arco. This is a 752,000 acre monument and wilderness area. This massive tract was once an area of significant volcanic activity and features huge lava fields, spatter cones and the remnants of a number of smaller volcanoes. This monument is so otherworldly that NASA sends astronauts to train here for Moon and Mars walks. We also did some caving in several lava tube caves which were formed by underground molten lava flows. 0058,0059
GTNP is a small NP compared to YNP. The dozen or so peaks that exceed 12,000 feet are a spectacular sight rising straight up from the floor of the Jackson Hole with no foothills. The park is abundant with Elk and Moose feeding along the Snake River.
Over the last several years hundreds of miles of mountain bike trails and paved trails have been added all around the Jackson Hole. You can ride your bike from Jackson all the way to and through way the park. This area is really becoming a biking meca. Aditionally, there are a number of excellent hiking trails of which we were able to take advantage of with the mild day time temperatures and dry conditions.
The town of Jackson has become very touristy and pricey. There has been a considerable influx of foreign tourists coming in large bus convoys. The good news is that despite all the crowds you can still find relative solitude on the trails since most of these groups hop on and off the buses to take photos and then move to the next scenic look out. Can’t help but feel sometimes that the more popular parks feel Disney like in the way they now have to manage transportation and crowds to accommodate up to four million visitors a year. Some of the parks are way to small to handle these numbers and now have waits of hours to get a shuttle into the park.
Excited to be heading west into Idaho to spend some time at several unique national monuments that require backcounty travel capability.
We traveled through Big Horn NF on our way to Yellowstone NP. The weather in Big Horn was cold and windy but we managed to hike out to the Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel is a sacred site for Native Americans, constructed by Plains Indians between 300 and 800 years ago. The various spokes of the circle align to astronomical events.
The weather at Yellowstone NP was cool but mostly dry, so we were able to complete a number of hikes and drive the park loop roads.
We made the obligatory visit to Old Faithful Geyser to see the eruption which we have to say is pretty cool. The thermal activity throughout the park is spectacular, especially in the morning when the air is cool.
Grizzly Bears were out and about while we were in the park. Many folks seem disappointed not to have seen a Grizzly up close however, they clearly do not understand the danger of an encounter with a Grizzly. We did have a terrific view from a safe distance of a female Grizzly by the lake. We also had to wait on one trail while park law enforcement drove off a Grizzly by firing blank shotgun rounds – a little too close for comfort.
The night time temperatures are dipping consistently under freezing so we are heading south towards warmer weather.
From Rapid City we looped back east to spend some time in Badlands NP. We had fabulous weather which enhanced the spectacular scenery. We did several short hikes and were fortunate to catch spectacular sunsets. We also took advantage of the Baja Motorized Travel Area within Buffalo Gap to spend some time driving overland and putting the “Beast” to the test on some great terrain.
We camped one night at Wind Cave National Park just south of Custer Sate Park. We did some hiking, toured part of the cave system and were serenaded by the bugling of the park’s elk herd as we relaxed by our campfire. We were forced to turn back on our first attempt to hike because the bison pictured below would not budge from the trail and we decided ticking off a 2000 pound bison that can sprint at 30 miles an hour is just a bad idea! We were able to instead hike the Wind Canyon trail pictured below.
Wind Cave is the sixth longest cave in the world with 140 miles of cave discovered to date. The cave has three lakes at 600 feet below the surface. We toured with a park ranger and descended to a depth of 212 feet. This cave system is truely a maze with all 140 miles of passage contained within a square mile. The cave is also notable in that 95% of the known boxwork (photo below) in the world is contained within this cave system.