Sunday, May 29, 2011

Finding the Best Stargazing and the Darkest Night Skies in America

There they stand, the innumerable stars, shining in order like a living hymn, written in light.  ~N.P. Willis
Finding the darkest skies!
North America at Night Stargazing Map 
World Atlas of Stargazing Maps 

The Best Places in the US to Stargaze

There's nothing on Earth quite as enchanting as a starry night sky. For me, a starry sky reminds me of my time in the Boy Scouts when I was learning about constellations and navigation. Way up in the Sierras of California, the night skies are clear enough to see every major constellation and planet. Later, when I was in college, I made my first of many treks out to Utah and was astounded at how clear the night skies were. In Bryce Canyon National Park, I learned that Utah has some of the clearest night skies in the WORLD!  Believe it or not, there is actually a formal rating system for measuring a sky's darkness. So, I would like to provide you with the best places to stargaze!
Nevada, the Stargazing State
Nevada: The Stargazing State

If ever a state could be nicknammed "The Stargazing State" it would be Nevada. Bounded by both the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Range, the air of the Great Basin is as clear as it gets. Las Vegas puts off a fair amount of light pollution, however the other 95% of the state is incredible. In fact, most of Nevada's night skies are measured to be the clearest night skies that can be seen on land. Tonopah, a tiny town located 200 miles from Las Vegas, considers itself the best location in the country for stargazing. Great Basin National Park, in mid-eastern Nevada, is also hailed as one of the country's best stargazing locations. Great Basin NP is quite a long distance from anywhere, but the Spring Mountains and Fire Valley State Park are all within an hour's drive from Las Vegas.
Just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona
Flagstaff Arizona, America's first International Dark Sky City

Not surprisingly, Arizona's best adventure city is also one of the country's best stargazing cities. This is one of the few cities in America that has city ordinances to preserve the night sky. Was truely facinating about Flagstaff is that this city had these ordinances in place in 1958, long before it was ever of public concern. The San Francisco Mountains, Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater National Monument are excellent places just outside of town that are great for stargazing.

Stargazing in Utah's National Parks

My first experience with uninhibited stargazing was out in Bryce Canyon National Park. This national park is renowned for its night skies. The national park website (and I!) attest that you can see 7,500 stars on a clear night. Bryce Canyon is also one of the few national parks that has an incredible set of stargazing programs for adults and youth.

One of the things I love about Utah is that the parks treat the dark night sky in the same way they treat natural landmarks like Delicate Arch or Zion National Park. There are active efforts to preserve the sky as if its an environment and visitors can enjoy unhindered view of the Milkey Way and every constellation. You might even find it difficult to even find the North Star!

If I had to rank Utah's National Parks with regards to stargazing, the order would be: Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches, Zion .

Bryce Canyon is well known, but the best stargazing park in Utah is Natural Bridges National Monument. This park doesn't have the notoriety of Bryce Canyon so its much less crowded. Obviously you have 3 of the longest natural bridges on Earth here but it would be a shame if you only came for the rocks. Camping is permitted within the park and there's pleanty of highway spots along the drive out if you're too cheap to pay for one (like me).

I'm all for renaming Natural Bridges to "Natural Bridges and Night Sky National Monument". It would be more fitting.
Sunset upon the Mountains in Western Maine
Western Maine, the Stargazing Captial of the East

If you live in the Eastern Timezone, there's slim pickin's when it comes to a clear night sky. You're three options for great stargazing are the Upper Peninsula, West Virginia, and Western Maine. I haven't traveled to West Virginia so I can't make a valid judgement on this one. However, Western Maine is just as good as the west! For my west coast readers who scoff at anything eastern, please know that Maine is known as "The Oregon of the East". Honestly, after traveling on both coasts, I find that there are few places that match the sheer volume of wilderness of Maine. Outside of the I-95 corridor, its just trees, lakes, rivers and mountains. I was fortunante enough to live out in Western Maine for a summer and every clear night I enjoyed shooting stars and the Milkey Way.

Best parks for stargazing are Baxter State Park, the Mahoosucs Mountain Range, and of course, Moosehead Lake. But really, just go anywhere west of the I-95 freeway.

Eastern Oregon Stargazing
Defying the stereotype that Oregon is wet, green and constantly cloudy, everything east of the Cascades is essentially a desert with 300+ days of sun a year. Its another parts of the country that is simply devoid of people. Bend is the only significant city on the eastern side of the Cascades and is a great basecamp for adventures.

There are several places in this side of the state that have wonderful attractions in addition to the stargazing. Close to Bend, you have the famed Smith Rock State Park, Newberry Volcanic National Monument, and my personal favorite John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Well, hopefully this puts you on the right track towards seeing some bright night skys in America! This is, of course, a partial list and there are hundreds of other locations which are also worthy of a night-time visit. Don't forget to check the moon cycles before you go!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Packlist and Considerations for the John Muir Trail: Part I

Well, who would have thought that this blog is getting more google hits than anything! I'm pleased to say that people have actually been inspired to head off on some epic adventures from these posts. Not to brag, but there's even a couple folks doing the Pacific Crest Trail after reading some posts. So with a steady stream of traffic and readers, I've been receiving requests for more specific guides.
Near Cathedral Peak
This is the third instalment of several John Muir Trail related posts. I've gotten tons of google hits on my Suggestions that Aren't in the Guidebook post and I'd like to give some suggestions specifically related to packing and gear. 

I should first of all say that I am NOT in to spending lots of money on saving an ounce or two here and there. I'm a poor grad student who's simply collected a good permutation of gear over the years. Also, while my system of packing and gear has served me well in thousands of miles of packing, this is my experience and others may differ. On to the basics...

My pack!
Your Backpack

There's many schools of thought when it comes to selecting a backpack. It is generally accepted by the long distance backpacking community that you're pack should be the lightest internal frame you can afford. My pack was an internal frame with about 60Liters of pack space. For comparison, a daypack usually has 15-25Liters of space while some hardcore backpacks can have upwards of 75Liters of space.

You're probably thinking, long-trip=need more space. This is NOT necessarily true. I went with the 60L size because it was pretty lightweight and you can get away with this on the JMT. The 75L+ sizes are more appropriate if you're going on a long-distance trip AND carrying a bunch of technical climbing gear. So don't necessarily go out and buy the biggest one possible; its just extra weight.

Your Sleeping Bag

The John Muir Trail elevations range from 4,000-13,000ft and it would be wise to "spend" a little extra weight on a warmer bag. The 20 degree F (-6C) bags are considered the minimum for the JMT. I went with a 0F degree (-18C) bag because I went in September. This is really your call- do you get easily cold at night, do you have the room for a warmer bag ect. I know of people who have done the JMT without a sleeping bag and simply brought a down-jacket. I however was happy to carry the extra pound of a 0 degree bag, especially towards the southern terminus of the trail where I was sleeping at 11,000-12,000ft.
Virginia Lakes
Your Tent, Bivy Sack

If you've read my earlier post, you know I recommend a bivy sack on the John Muir Trail over any tent. Bivy sacks are much lighter and you can spend less money to get the higher end bags. My Outdoor Research Aurora Bivy is right around a pound in weight and has never failed me. It kept me warm in rain, hail, and cold nights on the JMT. I even spent a night at 13,500ft and was toasty. Unless you're going with a group of 3 or 4, go with a bivy sack.

Bear Canister

Let's get one thing straight; California bears are insane. The bears in Yosemite are know to tear off car doors in search of food. They are extremely aggressive when it comes to food. You absolutely, positively, and legally obliged to bring a bear canister with you on the trip. Technically you can get away with hanging a bear bag, but this is a tedious and not always possible task on the JMT. Yosemite National Park rents top of the line bear canisters for $5 a week that are large enough for about 5 days of food per person. I highly encourage you to take advantage of this. They weigh about 2 pounds and take up quite a bit of space in your pack- plan for this.
Lake Edison

This is another topic that has many schools of thought. I'll simply let you know what I packed. First of all, bring layers. There's a huge temperature difference in the Sierras depending on the time of day and elevation. It can get in the 90's in Yosemite Valley yet snow at the higher elevations well in to June. So, here is what I brought:
  • Two pairs of underarmor compression shorts and a pair of boxers
  • One pair of athletic shorts (for hot daytime temps)
  • One pair of hiking pants
  • Two short-sleeved polyester shirts
  • Rain gear; pants and a jacket
  • Two pairs of hiking socks
  • One fleece sweater
  • Long underwear, top and bottom
This worked well for me in September in warm (low 90's) and cold (low 30's) temperatures. Again, you have to consider your own needs when it comes to clothing.

Continued in next blog...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Life on the Road and a Renewed Sense of Patriotism

I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.  I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.  ~Abraham Lincoln (American President)

Love your country.  Your country is the land where your parents sleep, where is spoken that language in which the chosen of your heart, blushing, whispered the first word of love; it is the home that God has given you that by striving to perfect yourselves therein you may prepare to ascend to him.  ~Giuseppe Mazzini (Italian Politician)
North Dakota
We live in strange times. It seems that valuing one's country and origins is negatively associated with blind nationalism. In the United States, patriotism is increasingly treated with disdain and hostility. It could be said that people generally associate pride in one's country as a sign of backwardness and a token of the unrefined. I find this greatly disturbing.

Globalization has its benefits and I'm proud that Americans are becoming more well traveled and culturally aware. International travel is highly appealing to me and my generation. There has never been a time period in history where we could move so freely across the globe. Students, such as I, can cheaply travel around entire continents and gain new insights and perspective.
Having said that, I believe a traveler must know where he comes from: his homeland and country of origin. Being well-traveled isn't simply the sum of how many countries you've visited or how many miles you've traveled (or kilometers!). A great deal of people from this generation have visited many foreign countries yet have no idea what's in their backyard. Roam the world if you must, but remember where you came from. As for me, I am glad that I know and love my country. This recent road trip has furthered my appreciation for my home.

In a completely un-political way, I am proud to be an American. This does not mean I agree with every politician and policy of the country, indeed you will find me most critical of many of our politicians. This does not take away from my allegiance to our values and history. The more I travel, the more I love the place that I call home.
To the traveler, America is unique. There is simply no other place where one can freely travel the distances you can in this country and see nearly every ecosystem on Earth. I've traveled 11,000 miles (17,000km) in the past two years and I've seen it all. I've experienced the harsh beauty that is the deserts of California and Arizona. I've gazed across a hundred of miles of treeless landscape in Nevada's Great Basin where the night skies are the darkest on the continent. There is nothing quite as lush as the rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington and no coast quite as serene as Maine's. Southern hospitality is no lie and you can befriend just about anyone in the Midwest in a single conversation. I've felt the fear of God and the fury of a winter storm upon a hundred icy summits and known the peace of a clear mountain sunrise. There's something beautiful and wild to every state and place I visit.

I wish I could convey all I've seen through some artistic medium. A poem, a painting, or even a song would be more fitting than simple photography or writing. Perhaps I will pursue this someday.
South Dakota
All I can really say is that I encourage my generation specifically to get out  there as see America for yourself. Stop watching the news and reading journals; they only highlight radicals and tragedies. Go somewhere new and take a hike, eat the food, meet the locals, experience some history, spend a night under the stars and learn about some place you've never been. I guarantee its better than what you've read or seen on TV. Please, don't just be a tourist, be a traveler- open-minded yet willing to appreciate your own heritage. As the song says, this land is your land, this land is my land and whether you're an American or a traveler from abroad, enjoy what's been preserved for you.
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”  ~G. K. Chesterton (English Writer)

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” ~Dagobert D. Runes (Ukranian Philospher)

“A wise traveler never despises his own country.” ~Carlo Goldoni (Italian Playwrite)

"He who does not travel does not know the value of men" ~Moorish Proverb

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mt Greylock, Massachusetts and Arrival in Maine

Day: 30
Miles: 6,666 (exactly)
Location: Gorham, Maine
Love that quote...
One adventure ends and another begins... I've arrived safely in Maine after traveling 6,666 miles exactly through some of the wildest parts of America.

I couldn't resist squeezing one more adventure out of this trip; the climbing of Mt Greylock. It was a very easy "climb" that was not more than a mile. Really, it was more symbolic than anything. I'm not big on ceremony or long goodbyes, but this was my last mountain on this adventure but also the beginning of a new adventure! I mean this in two ways; its the first mountain of a new quest to climb New England's 50 finest mountains and also my first "metaphorical" adventure in New England. I thought it was a nice touch! Mt Greylock also happens to be my 12th state highpoint climbed!
The War Memorial atop Mt Greylock
Geez, what an adventure. I haven't seen the sun set upon the same horrizon in 30 days!

By the numbers...
  • Total Milage: 6,666 miles
  • Total Time Spent Driving: 155 hours
  • Average MPG: 30 mpg
  • Cost: $1,100 (about)
  • States Visted: 18 (California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario (Canada, obviously), New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine)
  • National Park Units Visted: 19 units, 9 of them being National Parks
  • Mountains Climbed: 9 (Mt Humphreys, AZ, Mt Elbert, CO, Panorama Point, NE Middle Teton, WY, Deer Mtn, CO, Harney Peak, SD, White Butte, ND, Mt Greylock, MA)
I accomplished nearly 33 separate goals on my "List of things to do before I die". I say separate because I actually accomplished over 40 but some of these overlap such as "Visit Minnesota" and "Kayak Voyageurs National Park".

All in all, I accomplished everything I wanted to do when I set off 30 days ago save for one thing; I couldn't climb Longs Peak in Colorado due to weather problems. I'm not sad though, I set some ambitious goals and accomplished them!
One of the first pictures I took on this journey
In case you wanted to know, here's the list of everything I set of to do!
  • Hike Mojave National Preserve, CA
  • Climb Humphreys Peak, AZ
  • Visit Wupatki National Monument, AZ
  • Visit Sunset Crater National Monument, AZ
  • Hike Monument Valley, AZ/UT
  • Visit Valley of the Gods, UT
  • Hiking Natural Bridges National Monument, UT
  • Hike Hovenweep National Monument, UT
  • Hike Mesa Verde National Park, CO
  • Canyoneer to the River of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO
  • Climb Mt Elbert, CO
  • Visit Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, CO
  • Visit Garden of the Gods, CO
  • Visit family!
  • Hike Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
  • Climb Panorama Point, NE
  • Cross Country Ski Medicine Bow Mtns, WY
  • Hike Yellowstone National Park, WY
  • Climb Middle Teton, WY
  • Visit Teton National Park, WY
  • Cave in Jewel Cave National Monument, SD
  • Cave in Wind Cave National Monument, SD
  • Climb Harney Peak, SD
  • Visit Mt Rushmore, SD
  • Visit Minutemen Missile National Historic Site, SD
  • Visit Badlands National Monument, SD
  • Visit the Geographic Center of America, SD
  • Climb White Butte, ND
  • Hike Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
  • Kayak Voyageurs National Park, MN
  • Hike Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, WI
  • Hike Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI
  • Hike Mt Greylock, MA
I'm damn proud. It's been a great adventure. I'll post something more reflective soon!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Kayaking the Kabetogama Peninsula, Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Days: 23-25
Location: Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
The last great adventure of this trip!
Every Boy Scout who enjoys paddling dreams of paddling the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. This is perhaps the capital of freshwater kayaking and canoeing in the United States. Its also a fishing destination. I simply could not pass up such a destination!

I decided to kayak around the Kabetogama Peninsula (Kabetogama is pronounced cab'toga-ma) of the Voyageurs National Park area. This was a serious undertaking which required some serious gear! I found an excellent outfitter with Northern Lights Resort in the town of Kabetogama, Minnesota. They were very kind and set me up with a touring Kayak and all the necessary gear for $27/a day (great price).

So I set off for a complete circumnavigation of the Kabetogama Peninsula! Right from the beginning it was raining. This is classic for Minnesota! It can be cold and rainy straight into June! I set off just one week before the season opener for fishing. This ended up being an opportune time for some serious wilderness solitude. It was warm enough to kayak comfortably but there were absolutely no boats or crowds!
A vast wilderness
I don't think I've ever experienced a wilderness quite as immense as the North Woods of Minnesota. I've traveled in some pretty empty places; the Sierras of California, the Great Basin of Nevada, the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, the deserts of Utah, ect. Yet, I never felt so completely alone as I did in the Boundary Waters. In a wonderful way, I felt like somehow, humans did not belong here. It was almost like I was an intruder. This is truly the edge of an incomprehensibly large wilderness; there is NOTHING between here and the Hudson Bay. If I were to head North, it is conceivable that I could simply not see another human from here to the North Pole.

There were hundreds of islands, inlets and smaller bays. Getting lost would be so easy up here so it was a constant challenge in navigation. I bought some hardcore navigational charts for the entire area and depended on my compass as a lifeline. Cell phone and GPS coverage are very spotty.

I can't deny that I felt a strange sense of loneliness on the first day of kayaking. I've been on the road for a full 25 days now. Although I've had good times with some friends, the majority of this time I've been alone. I guess it all just hit me on that first day. This isn't my first time dealing with loneliness; I've spent weeks alone in the wilderness. For me, its a feeling that simply passes with time. By nightfall on the first day, I was back to enjoying the solitude!
Alone in the wilderness
I was able to cover 20 miles on my first day. This included the Gold Portage on the North Western edge of Lake Kabetogama, Black Bay, North Rainy Lake and finally through the narrows to South Rainy Lake. I actually camped out on the island that separated USA from Canada (on the US side, of course!). The Black Bay was particularly enjoyable; I listened to a cacophony of loon calls. Kayaking the Rainy Lake section was very windy, but I finally found that island.

The next morning was hell. As most these things go, it started off well! I was in great spirits and hit the water early. I came around the very exposed Soldier Point and headed off into the southern part of Rainy Lake. As I was kayaking in the furthest section from land, a GALE FORCE wind hit me! I mean it- there were white caps, full-on waves and everything. I was literally 5 miles away from being halfway around the peninsula. Nevertheless, it was so bad that I had to turn around. Or rather, I had to let the wind and current take me. It was so bad, that it was useless to try and fight it. I paddled (drifted ) to about a mile south of Soldier Point and was able to make my way back to the island where I camped. The wind and waves were simply intolerable.
Soldier Point, after the weather
In true Minnesota fashion, an hour later it was sunny. I had lost too much time to try and paddle in that direction. Fortunately, the wind was at my back as I retraced my path. It wasn't that discouraging to turn around though! The sun was finally shining and I enjoyed my paddle back to the Black Bay.

I had to go back through the Gold Portage but I was able to camp on Lake Kabetogama again. I found me a nice little site with a dock, a tent pad, and even a bear locker! There are perhaps 70 campsites in the Voyageurs National Park area that have such amenities.
Docked on an island
The third day was just a short paddle back to Northern Lights Resort! It was sunny and very windy again today. Paddling into wind is too frustrating for me, I was glad for the shorter paddle. Anyone who intends on paddling in the lakes of Minnesota should be prepared for Ocean-like conditions.

All in all, it was a 55 mile trek! Its funny because a full circumnavigation around the Kabetogama peninsula is around 60 miles in length. I pretty much did half of it, twice! Oh well, its just one more reason to come back here! If you would like to kayak in Voyageurs National Park, let me know and I'll help you with your plans!

"Say Ya to Da U.P., Eh?" Hiking around the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Day: 28
Miles: 5,700ish
Location: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan (da U.P.)
On to da U.P., eh?! I found the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to be one of the most delightful parts of the country I've ever visited! It really is a cultural enclave. Essentially, this area is a huge logging and mining location which has caused there to be a huge amount of immigration of Finnish and English people. The culture of the U.P. is friendly, proud, quirky, blue-collar, and hunter-friendly. They have their own dialect of English that's similar to the way that people in Canada speak. In some areas its so pronounced that it can be difficult for an "outatowner" to understand!

Yoopers, as they call themselves, are more closely associated with Wisconsin and Canada than they are the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Everyone here roots for Da Pack (Packers) in American Footbacl and they call folks from the Lower Peninsula, Trolls or "flatlanders". I didn't feel like there was any real animosity between the two peninsulas, just a lot of regional pride. I can understand that, its similar to the way we Californians have rivalry between Nor-Cal'ers and So-Cal'ers.
Rough Wates on Lake Superior
The National Park of the Upper Peninsula is Pictured Rocks National Seashore. This is another great place for kayak touring and hiking. Hikers are treated to a large number of waterfalls, rivers, and smaller lakes. Hiking along the coast of Lake Superior is also a real treat! Calling it a "lake" is somewhat of a misnomer. Its an inland sea and should be treated as such. As you can see from the picture above, there are real waves and currents on the lake! I was able to appreciate the beauty of Superior by hiking on the lakeshore trail. This trail brings you along the few beaches and the massive cliffs of the lakeshore. There are several lookout points where you can see the 200ft cliffs and arches.
200ft cliffs
Spring turned out to be an excellent time to hike the park! It was muddy and rainy but this caused the waterfalls to be really flowing. The seldom seen Bridalveil falls was flowing in full force down one of the cliffs. This happens for maybe a month out of the year. If you go to Pictured Rocks in late summer, the waterfalls will be a mere trickle. Hiking in the spring requires some hardcore raingear and a solid pair of boots. There were sections of the hike that had 2-3 inches of standing water. But hey, it kept the crowds down!

There's one rather "touristy" thing that you must do when visiting the U.P. ; eat a pasty! Pasty is an English-miner dish that's become a staple of the Yooper diet. Its a meat, potato and carrot filled turnover that was originally ment to be easily carried down into a mine for lunch. The dough is usually fresh baked and similar to a biscut. You will have to greatly contimplate whether you will eat it with gravy, ketchup, or nothing The "Gravy-vs-Ketchup-vs-Nothing" debate is what determines your personality in the U.P. Chose wisely!

I had mine at a total local bar somewhere 'sout of the national park. I was a little bit worried that I'd invaded a local-pub but they ended up being happy to have an outatowner! I struck up many conversations with the Yoopers and we all told stories of travel! One guy was talking about the John Muir Trail in California! (hey I know a little bit about that place!)

The U.P. was a wonderful experience for me! This is closer to the top of my list of places I want to visit again! "Say ya to da U.P. 'eh!"

Hiking Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Upper Midwest

Days: 27
Miles: 5,600ish
Location: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
Calm waters on Lake Superior
So I have finnished up the last part of my journey through the Great Lakes of Michigan and Wisconsin! This has been a much more relaxed part of the trip; I'm just hiking and hanging. Both of these locations offer some epic kayaking adventures but I've spent enough money on this trip. Hiking opportunities are not as great, but it is nice to simply wander along the shores of Lake Superior.

Apostle Islands was my destination for Wisconsin. Surprisingly, most Wisconsiners have never been to this place! It is very picturesque- there are dozens of islands along the shore with massive sea caves and pleanty of campsites. This is a true destination for kayak touring and there are several companies that will outfit you. Perhaps on another trip I will take full advantage of this! I'm already sold on coming back out to the Northern Midwest.

Honestly, I didn't do much in Wisconsin which is unfortunante. There was one land based hiking trail along the beach to see the sea cliffs. The cliffs were interesting, but obviously better viewed from a kayak.
Sea Cliffs on the shore
This is an extremely friendly part of the country! The rangers were all happy to assist me in learning about whats available and the town of Bayfield was welcoming. I actually got to take a shower at the community center! Its very typical of the midwest to have a YMCA-like community center that is primarily a workout facility but also serves as a gathering place. Everyone meets here; Veterans, Boy Scouts, 4H, swim lessons, environmental groups, art clubs ect.

I also was able to visit the museum of the North Great Lakes. This was a well put together museum with hundreds of exhibits and mounted animals. This area of the country is very rural, yet conservation-minded. It seemed like a healthy medium of conservation because there are hiking trails everywhere, ski resorts, snowmobile trails, businesses and farms but also community-wide efforts to keep the area beautiful. (much different from attitudes towards conservation in California)

This road trip really has been a huge lesson in the different cultures of the United States. People have very skewed ideas of the Midwest and its often lumped into blanket opinions. In reality, the Midwest is like a "Little-Europe" and each town has deep roots in European cultures. Traveling from one town to another is like traveling from one country to another in Europe. Its not an exact replica; each culture has evolved over time.It is funny how one town can be mostly Italian and Catholic and then three miles away is a town that's mostly German and Protestant and then there's another town on the same road that's entirely Scandinavian . That's essentially how much the midwest was settled!

Almost everyone I've met has been extremely welcoming towards visitors, even weird Californians like me!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Highest Mountains in North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Day: 21
Miles: 4,330
Locations: White Butte, North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Wildlife everywhere in North Dakota!
I've had some great times in a state that is not well known for tourism! North Dakota has had some of the best wildlife viewing I've seen this trip. Not kidding! I've seen three herds of bison, four prairie dog towns, two herds of wild horses, and a herd of... ticks... on my leg. Oi, I pulled off 10 ticks yesterday... BLEACH!!!

Nevertheless, I've highly enjoyed North Dakota! The day started off with a hike up White Butte, the state highpoint. This was another interesting mountain to find. Its actually private property, for one. I obtained permission from the nice owners to climb the mountain. All they require is a small fee. It was actually somewhat of a mountains too, as opposed to a slightly raised hill on a sea of flat land.
White Butte, the highpoint of North Dakota
So I drove through Slope County, North Dakota. Its the least populated county in the 49th least populated state. Also, its almost the same exact size of Rhode Island. The Butte is near the county seat of Amidon, North Dakota and is the second smallest county seat in the country. (This will be useful knowledge on Jeopardy some day)

Take home message, I passed the "middle of nowhere" 200 miles ago and I'm in a place that has less people than the Moon. The High Point is 5 miles south of Amidon and is a nice little mountain. I parked at the kind folk's mailbox and made the customary donation. I decided NOT to try and drive the road to the base as it is a very rough jeep road.

I enjoyed this hike quite a bit! It wanders through a lot of cow pastures and eventually leads to the "parking lot" Once you hit the actual trail, it wanders through the little badlands of the mountain and up to the "summit". Word to the wise, bring a hiking pole for the rattlesnakes and wear long pants; its tick country.
Upon the precarious summit
Summit View
I loved the summit views. White Butte rises about 500ft above the surrounding plains so the view is phenomenal. This part of North Dakota has many of these buttes making the landscape look almost lunar. I did spend a good half an hour enjoying this vista. The summit register is funny too because its signed by a bunch of crazy folks like me trying to climb the 50-state highpoints. I'm not the only lunatic out there. For proof, please visit southwestern North Dakota.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park was only 40 miles away so I headed off! This national park is one of the least visited parks in the country. It is far more interesting than you might think. First of all, it preserves the place where Theodore Roosevelt, an American President, became the wild man that he was. He was a cowboy, a wrangler, and a deputy out in these badlands. He credited North Dakota as the main reason he ended up becoming president. This is, in many ways, where the concept of a "national park" got its beginings. The president believed that places, such as these, should be preserved for all time. Thank you, President Roosevelt!

Standing TALLER than my car
Wild horses
Prairie dogs, aka the Rats of the Midwest
Wild Horses
Bison on the move
That's all I can really say about Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Thank God there's still places in the country where the wildlife is still wild. I could go on and on about how beautiful this was. I do hope that you find the time to make it out to this wilderness that is western North Dakota.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Minutemen Missiles, Badlands and the Geographic Center of America

Day: 20
Miles: 3,700ish
Locations: Minutemen Missile National Historic Site, Badlands National Park and Belle Fourche, the Geographic Center of the Nation
The Badlands!
Whew, what a day! It turned out completely different then I planned! I was about 60 miles out of Rapid City, South Dakota and came across a very interesting National Historic Site. In the Cold War, South Dakota was our central hub of nuclear missiles pointed at Russia. We had over 1,000 missiles spread out over the ENTIRE western part of South Dakota. The ranger remarked, "If South Dakota were to ever cede from the United States, it would be the 3rd most powerful country on Earth."

This was one of the most profound historic sites I've ever toured. The ranger, a veteran of the Air Force, will actually take you down into the control center for the Minutemen II Missiles. To put it bluntly, you get to stand in the control center of a place which could have blown up the Earth. You get to see the living quarters, the underground elevator, and the control room itself for free.
The missile control room
If there is any doubt in your mind that we needed places like this in the Cold War, please visit this site. The rangers do a very good job of explaining the concept of "deterrence". The ONLY thing stopping Soviet Russia (and Cuba) was these Missile Silos. It is extremely important that sites such as these be preserved for history. I highly recommend people my age visit this site and gain better perspective on the Cold War and how close humanity came to extinction

After the tour, I headed off to the Badlands! The National Park is one of the more crowded ones in the country, but it doesn't have the scenery that I saw in Wind Cave National Park. The wildlife viewing is excellent, especially in the spring and most wildlife can be seen from the car. Unfortunately the hiking is not so great. There are a couple of established trails and hiking off trail is permitted in the park. However, there just wasn't much to hike to that you couldn't see from the car. I know that kind of defeats the "spirit of adventure", but I like to hike TO something and see things along the way. Ahh well, it was worth the drive anyways!
The classic "painted" look of the Badlands
The NEXT adventure of the day was a highly unique one. I went to the Geographic Center of the United States near Belle Fourche, South Dakota. There are actually two markers. The first marker is in the actual town of Belle Fourche and is at the Tri State Museum. This is a very nicely done granite marker with a plaque and the 50 state flags. Its a huge part of the town's pride. This is where most tourists get their pictures.

I, however, am not a tourist.
The "tourist" monument
So just like I have to get to the actual summit of a mountain, I have to get to that EXACT spot that is in the center. This is a far more difficult affair. First of all, most of the directions to it are ambiguous at best. Basically, the center is about 20 miles north of the town on Old Highway 85. (I'll post specifics on the directions later)

Anyways I took the wrong road and drove 8 miles down it. It was night, by the way. I searched all over the place for the damn thing and it was nowhere. I reread the directions and realized that I'd missed the true road by .7 miles. Damn!

So I finally got back to the highway and found the real Highway 85. What do you know, there's a sign "Center of Nation 7.8 miles". What a strange sign to see on a highway. I turned the car and carefully marked my odometer.

I drove right past the damn thing ONCE AGAIN and got really frustrated. I mean, in the day, its pretty obvious, but its pitch black outside. I spent 30 minutes in the Middle of SOUTH DAKOTA roaming around a prairie at NIGHT trying to find a stupid cement block and pole that just says CENTER. You ever have moments where you actually realize the absurdity of what you are doing? That was one of those moments.

I didn't find it and gave up. But... as I was driving back, I saw a little pile of rocks. Could this be it? A poorly painted sign let me know it was. I WAS THERE!!!! After 4 hours of searching, I found the actual marker! (It always has to be difficult for me) From here, I hopped the barbed wire fence and walked 50 yards into the prairie to the cement block. There's a pole, a USGS marker, and it just says "center". What an uninspiring way to mark the center of the United States. But hey, I was happy!
So there you go, I made it to the middle-ist part of our country. If you plan on doing the same, don't go at night. That's my story.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hiking the Willow Creek trail up Harney Peak, South Dakota

Day: 19
Miles: 3,560
Location: Harney Peak, Black Hills, South Dakota
Harney Peak, the highest mountain in South Dakota
Another day, another State Highpoint climbed! If you haven't figured it out by now, I am trying to climb the 50 state highpoints of the United States. This is another one of my life long goals which so far has taken me to some crazy parts of the country: Hood and Rainier were serious mountaineering challenges, Whitney was done on a 230 mile long backpacking trip, Katahdin was absolutely one of the most rugged mountains in the country ect... its been a good run so far.

Harney Peak sits at 7,242ft and is the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees Mountains of Europe! The Black Hills themselves have been a charming place for both tourists and serious climbers alike. You might be familiar with Mt Rushmore, the famous stone carvings of four American Presidents; Harney Peak is less than 10 miles away from that site.
The same granite that makes up Mt Rushmore composes Harney Peak
Well I had to see the infamous Mt. Rushmore before climbing Harney Peak! The area is an architectural masterpiece. Much has already been written about Mt Rushmore so I won't write anything more than what I thought. I found it to be an exquisitely well done feet of sculpture and worthy of the accomplishments of those four men who have so profoundly shaped our country and the world.

Onward to Harney! I decided to take the Willow Creek Trail to the top because its much less crowded. Sylvan Lake is the easiest route up but it is neither scenic nor challenging. Willow Creek is a 10 mile roundtrip trail which meanders through the pine forests and by several creeks along the way to the top. I saw only one other person on the trail! I'm climbing Harney a little early in the season so the trail is very poorly maintained. It's not difficult to follow, but there are several fallen trees on the trail from winter storms.
The hike gains roughly 1,000ft of elevation to the summit and is strenuous at times. If you're worried about distance, take the Sylvan Lake Trail. Along the way you will see many pinnacles and large rock outcroppings. Climbers are very fond of these areas and if you get far enough away from the road, you could be the first or second person to ascend those routes!

It took only a couple of hours to reach the summit. There is an abandoned fire lookout tower on the top which allows the hiker to climb another 10ft for a panoramic view. It interesting to note that without the stairs to the fire lookout, the last 50ft would be a Class 5 climb! Nevertheless, the summit is bare which allows views all the way to the Rocky Mountains on a clear day. Additionally, you can see the great swaths of pine forests of the Black Hills.

Views of the Black Hills
I was able to spend about a half an hour on the summit and I chatted with some other hikers. One group was on their way to Alaska and was stopping by Glacier National Park and even Banff National Park in Alberta! Apparently I'm not the only one who's on an epic road trip to see National Parks!

So there's my 10th highpoint! It wasn't quite as rugged as the Cascade climbs nor as green as the New England climbs, but it was an adventure in itself. This is the only mountain in the midwest that has some serious elevation gain and its worth climbing whether or not you're a highpointer!

To date, I've climbed 10 state highpoints-
  • Mt. Whitney, California - 14,496ft
  • Mt. Elbert, Colorado - 14,440ft
  • Mt. Rainier, Washington - 14,411ft
  • Mt. Humphreys, Arizona - 12,633ft
  • Mt. Hood, Oregon - 11,239ft
  • Harney Peak, South Dakota - 7,242ft
  • Mt. Washington, New Hampshire - 6,288ft
  • Panorama Point, Nebraska - 5,429ft
  • Mt. Katahdin, Maine - 5,267ft
  • Mt. Mansfield, Vermont - 4,393ft
So I'm a 1/5th of the way there! But hey, I've done some of the really difficult ones like Hood and Rainier!