Thursday, November 29, 2012

Autumn Along the Grand Canyon's North Rim

          North Rim or South Rim?  The choice is yours when visiting Grand Canyon National Park.  Most visitors enter from the south, passing through the gateway town of Tusayan which offers all the amenities—an airport, shops, hotels, even an IMAX theater.  During an autumn visit several years ago Tim and I chose the quieter north entrance and encountered a herd of bison grazing a meadow on the Kaibab Plateau.

        Indoor lodging on the North Rim is limited to the Grand Canyon Lodge—North Rim.  We checked into our Western Cabin, then booked dinner reservations for the lodge’s dining room.   From the lodge we drove along the rim, stopping at two lookout points—Cape Royal and Point Imperial—along the way.  Cape Royal offers a half mile trail to the point.  We walked through stands of pinyon pine, enjoying the canyon views.  The trail passes through Walhalla Ruins, an old settlement of ancient Pueblo Indians.  I wondered:  Did the Pueblos pick this spot for its scenic beauty, or as a strategic place to escape predators and other tribes?  We’ll never know.

View from Cape Royal Point.

At Cape Royal, I'm sitting over an area named "Angel's Window".

         After photographing the canyon we drove through the only full-service campground on the North Rim.  Families were checking in, setting up camp, busying themselves around their campsites, and I was reminded of all the campgrounds I’ve stayed in over the years.  And, unlike most people at the North Rim who are probably thinking “Thank goodness I’m staying in the lodge”, I found myself watching the happy campers and thinking:  “Isn’t this wonderful; how great to be staying and sleeping outdoors on a pristine October day.”  
        Back at our cabin we relaxed and read (Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” for me), and then walked to the main lodge for dinner.   Seated by large picture windows, we watched the setting sun pour its light over millions of years of rock layers in the canyon. We couldn’t have asked for better seats for dinner.  And the food was great too; I enjoyed salmon pasta and Tim feasted on pork with mushroom and green salsa sauce. For dessert, we shared chocolate cake with mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Sunrise on the North Rim.
View into the Grand Canyon from the cabin area of
The Grand Canyon Lodge—North Rim.

          In the morning I woke early to photograph sunrise in the canyon.  Bright Angel Trail, a three minute walk from the cabin, provides unparalleled canyon vistas.  As the sun peaked through the clouds ravens flew overhead, heralding a glorious start to the new day.
        We returned to the lodge for breakfast; I don’t know about you, but for me nothing quite compares with sipping morning coffee and tea on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
        Today’s plan: hiking in the park.  After breakfast we found the Widforss trailhead, named for Gunnar Widforss—an early 20th century artist who lived in and painted the Grand Canyon.  The trail winds for five miles along the canyon rim and through a spruce and fir forest.  At mile 2.5 we heard the piercing cry of a Redtail Hawk and were treated to the sight of two hawks circling overhead.  
        We turned around at that point and decided to hike partway on the Kaibab trail which descends into the canyon.  The Kaibab is the trail into the Grand Canyon—on it you can walk rim-to-rim from the north to the south, or vice versa.  Tim and I only hiked 3/4 of a mile to the Coconcino overlook, a ledge affording sweeping views of the trail down-canyon.  Mule riders, out for a four-hour afternoon trail ride, passed by on their way down.  Looks like fun, but it’s an activity that will have to wait for our next visit.

October is a wonderful time of year to visit The North Rim.

Tree-framed views are common on the Widforss Trail.

Mule riders descend into the canyon on the Kaibab Trail.

         Readers, which would you choose—the hustle and bustle of the South Rim, or the laid-back atmosphere of the North Rim?  Either way, you can’t go wrong with a day spent in Grand Canyon National Park. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

More Views from Grand Teton National Park

         National parks have been called America's best idea—places of beauty and history, protected for everyone to enjoy.  Now that's something to be thankful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!

A still pond reflects the majestic mountains.

An old stump frames Teton's snow-capped peaks.

The Old Patriarch tree stands alone in a sagebrush meadow.

Early morning mountain close-up.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Wyoming's Watchable Wildlife

        Leaves rustle.  Twigs snap.  Branches sway and bend.  If you’re hiking Grand Teton National Park, these sensory alerts are tip-offs to the presence of wildlife.  

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes the Grand Tetons and surrounding national forests, is home to the greatest diversity of wildlife in the United States.  During a recent trip to the Tetons, Tim and I spotted wildlife in a variety of habitats.  
When one thinks of Wyoming wildlife, large animals such as bison, moose and grizzly bears come to mind.  However, our most cherished wildlife sighting occurred as we walked Swan Lake Trail along Coulter bay.  A golden blur dashed across the trail, then up a tree.  We stopped.  A furry creature peered around the trunk to check us out.  A Pine Marten!  This member of the weasel family is rare and elusive; it prefers old growth forests and wilderness.
        The Pine Marten was trapped to near extinction in the 1800’s; the Hudson Bay Company alone killed 180,000 of these creatures one year, all because of their luxurious pelts.  Their coats are stunningly beautiful, but how nice to see this healthy animal, intact and still wearing its own fur.

The Pine Marten is simply stunning.

         The following photos document the variety of animals we saw over three days in the Tetons.

While walking Taggart Lake Trail we practically stumbled into a deep
hole—a badger hole.  This badger was nearby, waiting for us to leave.

The cow and calf (above) and bull moose (below) are browsing
sagebrush meadows between Jackson Hole and Grand Teton
National Park.

A ground squirrel takes a moment to check us out.
As we drove by this stand of Elderberry bushes
I noticed swaying branches.  Sure enough, this black bear
was stocking up on berries for his long winter's nap.

         If you’re considering a wildlife watching excursion to northwestern Wyoming  grab a copy of Todd Wilkinson’s terrific book “Watching Yellowstone and Grand Teton Wildlife”.  The book describes the habits and habitats of different wildlife species, the best driving routes for wildlife photography, and even offers a wildlife watcher’s code of conduct.

 Autumn wildlife viewing in the Tetons is superb, but winter in Yellowstone provides an even better opportunity to get close to the animals.  See for yourself by clicking here.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Taggart Lake Trail in Grand Teton National Park

         Clouds cap the peaks and a sprinkling of snow clings to the crags and folds of the Grand Teton skyline this morning.  Driving north from Jackson Hole, mountains dominate the view from Moose Junction at the park’s south entrance. 

The snow-cloaked Tetons, sporting their cloud caps.

Our first stop today is the Craig Thomas Visitor and Discovery Center—a $21.6 million, 22,000 square foot facility, opened in 2007.  What an atrocity!  The building is cold, forbidding and impersonal.  It’s U-shaped fortress surrounds a most unwelcoming concrete plaza.   The visitor center’s website proclaims: “...a captivating interior persuades visitors to stay inside”.  Really?  I didn’t want to spend any time inside the cavernous, not captivating, structure; I didn’t want to view the exhibits, I didn’t want to browse the gift shop, I just wanted to get out.   And so that’s what we did.  
          We drive three miles up the road and find the Taggart Lake trailhead parking area; a few other cars are there, as is a group of horses from nearby Gros Ventre ranch, standing by their trailers and waiting to be saddled.  Will they be sharing our trail?

        The trail takes off to the west, the first quarter mile in open country.  The path crosses a cascading waterfall and follows the stream before heading into thick woods.  We last hiked this trail ten years after the 1988 Yellowstone wildfires.  Although those disastrous fires had minimal impact in the Tetons, the last half mile of trail was surrounded by burned trees and parched vegetation.  Today, 14 years after our last visit and 24 years after the fires, many of the dead trees have fallen and the once shrubby young pines have grown 10-12 feet tall.  

Strolling down Taggart Lake Trail on a bright blue October morning.

         We arrive at Taggart Lake and crawl over a pile of tree trunks, scattered like pick-up-sticks on the shoreline.  We gaze at the reflection of 13,000 ft. peaks on the water’s surface, a splendid reward for this short hike.

Logs tossed on the shoreline create an obstacle course to the lake.

Looking for a hand-out, or for shade?  These chipmunks take a break
next to, and under, Tim's hat.

Taggart Lake.

         Our solitude is broken by horses snorting and people laughing.  It’s the group from the ranch, clip-clopping across the bridge spanning the lake’s southern end.  We wave hello to the happy riders as they pass, then begin the return hike to the trailhead.  
         Whether on horseback or on foot, my advice is to skip the Craig Thomas Visitor Center and head directly to Taggart Lake Trail, a worthy destination for day-tripping in Grand Teton National Park.  


         Journey along with us next week, as we view wildlife in and around the Grand Tetons.