Friday, May 26, 2017

Hiking Rib Mountain, Wausau, Wisconsin

After spending a relaxing 4 days in the famous Door County, I turned my sights North.  The great Northern Highland of Wisconsin keenly remind me of the wilds of Maine. Though not high in altitude, it is quite rugged. The sentinel of the Northern Highlands is Rib Mountain near Wausau. 

Rib Mountain is perhaps one of the true mountains of the Midwest. It rises 700 ft above the surrounding terrain to a height of 1,942ft- Just 9 ft shorter than the highest point in Wisconsin, Timms Hill. Unlike Timms Hill, Rib Mountain’s jagged summit has substantial prominence. It would be a great place for a hike!

There are several ways to get to the summit. It is a state park so it is possible to drive to the summit and walk the five minutes to the fire tower. In the winter, the largest ski area in Wisconsin runs list to the summit. None of these would satisfy me period I would have to climb from the bottom! 

The “Summit Trail”  begins just outside of town at the end of Grouse Lane. there is not a formal sign or a parking area. Most people prefer to just park at the end of the dirt road. There are signs for the turkey vulture trail which is a loop that includes a vista above the Quarry. I would say that it is important to have a map of the area because there are several heard paths, hunting paths and other trails that are not well marked and don't lead to the summit. About two hundred yards after the trail leaves the end of the dirt road, there is a turn off to the left that brings you further up the mountain by the Homestead Loop Trail. From here, the trail steadily climbs up Rib Mountain, passing by several Pleasant streams. After 4 tenths of a mile, the trail Forks again and  both directions are part of the homestead Loop. Making a left turn (or heading south to be more precise) Is the way to the summit. The trail continues for a quarter of a mile before intersecting the Quarry Trail. Here, you want to head Southeast or left. In another hundred yards, the trail again intersects and you want to continue left or East.

At this point, you start encountering some fantastic views.  Unfortunately the trail becomes even more confusing. You are no  more than a quarter of a mile from the summit itself though be prepared for several side trails and unmarked paths. I believe these are hunting Trails.  I generally skirted around the talus slopes close to the summit which brought me some what North and then East. Eventually I intersected a paved trail and was on The Summit in no more than 5 minutes.

The summit itself has a public fire tower which should absolutely be climbed. At the top is one of the greatest views in all of the Midwest. The city of Wausau can be plainly viewed- considered the regional hub of Northern Wisconsin. The famous waters of the Wisconsin River can be seen to the north and east. The southern view includes a view of the three other Monadnocks in the area.  Then there is the Southwest view which has miles and miles of Wisconsin farmland and forests. It is a special treat.

The fire tower is not the only point of interest on the summit. The two massive outcroppings are fun to scramble upon. It should be noted that these are some of the oldest exposed rocks in the United States. The true natural Summit is at the top of the larger rock outcropping.  Interpretive signs and nature trails are also abundant.

In true upper Midwestern fashion,  there is Paul Bunyan lore in every single parcel of land. Some would say that Rib Mountain is the burial place of our famous face of Americana. It is a fantastic hike and much different than what you would expect in the Midwest. If you're on your way “up North” or “up Nort”, it can’t be missed!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Four Days Hiking, Eating and Drinking Through Door County, Wisconsin

Within minutes of arriving, we understood why this was such a destination for all of us Midwesterners. We were entirely immersed in natural beauty as we drove up the peninsula. This was broken up by charming small towns on the lakeshore. Surely I am one of millions to wax poetic about Door County, but in spite of its notoriety we were surprised by it's timelessness charm in unassuming character.

Egg Harbor sunsets...
Admittedly I had some trepidation about spending 4 days at such a well-known location. We typically prefer unknown and out-of-the-way locations. Our wariness was quickly replaced with awe as we drifted further and further away from our Midwestern metropolis.

There's a lot that could be said about Door County that is already quite obvious. What was not evident to us prior to our visit was the sheer vastness of it all. With 5 state parks and 14 county parks, I don't think that I've been a place that has such a high concentration of natural areas. In fact it reminded me a lot of Sedona, Arizona; It was effortless to get onto a rugged wilderness trail or sit quietly by the lake side without the obtrusiveness of civilization. Nevertheless, each town has its own unique character and draw. There are those that seem to be suspended in a time when Wisconsin was almost entirely agricultural. Others were reminiscent of lobster towns that I used to frequent in Maine; posh though still quite accessible to the casual wanderer.

It is hard to say whether we would have had a better experience in a different town, but we felt that Egg Harbor was the best choice for us. It has a secluded public beach where we elected to park our chairs and idle our time though we could have rented kayaks. Downtown had plenty of restaurants and a fully stocked grocery store. It was also central to all the places that we wanted to go on both the Green Bay side as well as the Lake Michigan side.  Last year, my in-laws stayed in Sister Harbor and had an equally great experience. Fish Creek would have been a close second for us. We found Fish Creek to be surrounded by the cliffy wonders that are so frequently photographed in Door County. The downtown area was also very chic and we spent plenty of time poking around the shops and bistros. My impression was that Jacksonport, Baileys Harbor and the northern Peninsula would have been perfect for a cozy long weekend in a cabin in the woods. I don't think you could go wrong spending time at any of those little towns though each would be an entirely different experience.

In true Wisconsin fashion, every local we met was friendly and unpretentious. Door County has been a travel destination for over 50 years and it remains steadfast in it’s warm and welcoming personality. I've traveled to many places in the country that I would describe as glorious, though fraught with aloof locals wanting to keep it hidden and detached. There is no such attitude in this part of the country!

Gastronomy and Libations

Gosh, where do I begin?

There’s a few basics that are important to know about eating in this part of the Midwest.  First of all, the great tradition of a Fish Fry and Supper Clubs is the why-go-to-Egypt-and-not-see-the-Pyramids experience of Wisconsin. Like many parts of the Upper Midwest, there's also a particularly heavy influence of Nordic culture. Naturally, breakfast food is decadent and filling. Al Johnson's Swedish restaurant is often cited as the favorite breakfast experience on the peninsula. Had we not been there in the early season, it is often a several hour wait.

Nordic States of America
We loved the Nordic cuisine but our favorite restaurant was actually a Southern-European place called Parador in Egg Harbor. There are those out there who would say can't get a good tapa outside of Spain. But when the farm that sourced the meal is practically two blocks down the road from the restaurant, that is pretty hard to beat. And believe me, I've had some great Tapas in Granada, Spain (they basically invented Tapas). Later in our trip, we literally visited the creamery and farm that produced our charcuterie and cheese plates.

It almost goes without saying that  the meals are hyper-local. The same goes with spirits and beer. Though it might not be obvious on a map, Door County is an ideal environment for the  growth of apples, cherries and even grapes. The farm tour of Lautenbach's Orchard was well worth the nominal fee. On the tour, we learned a lot about how the combination of the comparatively temperate climate created by Lake Michigan along with the ideal soil created by the Niagara Escarpment essentially makes this a Napa Valley of cider production. Our favorite cider that we tasted was the Island Orchard Apple lavender cider produced by Farms on Washington Island. It is Wisconsin summer, bottled.
Our favorite restaurant in Egg Harbor
A fairly accurate photo of how much we enjoyed our Wisconsin tapas
As for other spirits, we were never far from a vineyard nor a microbrewery. After one of our hikes, we stumbled upon Door County Brewing Company in Baileys Harbor. Ever the connoisseur of darker beers, I gravitated towards the Polka King Porter; Rich and earthy, toffee notes without being overbearing, it almost had a tobacco like finish. Dee who is an unapologetic hophead appreciated the In a Factory Downtown which was only available on tap at the time. The tap room is a great spot for a flight or a pint- I wished we had brought back a growler for the stuff you can only get on draft.

As for liquor, Door County Distillery is a good stop on the way in or out in Sturgeon Bay. The bourbon is an interesting take on the Kentucky classic.

Apple Lavender Cider

"Keep Wisconsin Beer'd"
Hiking and the Outdoors

Our thought was, “Well if we're going to be spending so much time eating meats and cheeses in washing them down with local beer, we better be doing something to deserve it!”  We love hiking anyways and the peninsula did not disappoint. After striking up several conversations with locals, it was clear that Peninsula State Park is the main attraction in the way of hiking. Our favorite hike of the entire trip was to Eagle Trail-  Steep and rugged enough to be a workout, the effort is rewarded by sweeping views of Ephraim Bay and 10 story tall Cliffs. Road and mountain biking is also a popular pursuit within the park. I enjoyed our drive on the Skyline Road, especially the classic view of Green Bay from Sven’s Bluff. To top it all off, there's a quaint Lighthouse open to the public in the High season.
Peninsula State Park
North of Peninsula State Park and also on the green Bayside are Ellison Bluff State Natural Area and Door Bluff County Park. Both parks are characterized by panoramic views that are easily walkable. The hike to Deathdoor Bluff does involve a little bit of ruggedness. However you could get to it within about 15 minutes.

Another hiking destination that is often cited as the favorite of locals and regular Travelers is Cave Point County Park. I don't think I've been anyplace where County parks have such a high distinction. Typically I am avoiding them for the lure of national and state parks. Do not mistake the modest title as being any less deserving of a visit to the state parks. Cave Point County Park is perhaps one of the best photography locations and an excellent place to kayak. Facing the  Lake Michigan side of the peninsula, the place is marked by extremely clear waters and rugged Cliffs. I would say that most of the top photographs of Door County come from Cave Point County Park. It is nestled Within Whitefish Dunes State Park which is also a great place to hike. With just a 10-minute walk along the coast, we were able to leave any sign of a crowd behind and felt like we had the park to ourselves. It's a pleasant feeling to  have a place like this to ourselves.
Cave Point County Park
Ellison Bluff State Natural Area
Deathdoor Bluff County Park
 Washington Island

At the northernmost tip of the Peninsula, Washington Island creates the namesake of Door County. Many who visit wonder why it is called “Door County”  and in spite of the pleasantness of it, the name of the county is actually from the French name “Porte des Morts” (Death’s Door). Porte des Mortes  is the narrow channel that weaves between Washington Island and the mainland and it connects Lake Michigan with Green Bay. In the much earlier days of sailing in the Great Lakes, this notoriously treacherous strait  cut travel time by as much as a day at the cost of the risk of a shipwreck. Although the “ Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”  has made the general populace aware of the sailing hazards in the Great Lakes, Death's Door was much more notorious in the two centuries prior to the famous song.
Schoolhouse Beach
Fortunately, with modern Lake going vessels, it is a less dangerous trip. In fact we loved our crossing by the car ferry to the hamlet of Washington Island. There are several things that cannot be missed by visiting this isolated place. The first is the moped rentals  which is an appropriately European way of traversing the island. The little downtown area of the island has several shops and amenities. However we preferred the several beaches that were extremely  photogenic.  The first one we stopped at was Sand Dunes Beach. Again we were amazed that we had such a beautiful place to ourselves. We had lunch at one of the picnic tables and listen to the sound of the lake. Naturally there was plenty of tomfoolery with running up and down the dunes.

The lavender farm on Washington Island, is one of the largest in the country. You can smell the lavender from a mile away prior to arriving.  You can essentially get anything and everything Lavender in the little shop. Our favorite part of the farm was wandering through the actual lavender Fields.
Sand Dunes Beach
Continuing with the theme of island hopping, Rock Island State Park is another can't-miss destination of this part of Wisconsin. A small passenger Ferry brings you to the entrance of the State Park, and the hiking opportunities are abundant. It is a very well-preserved wilderness with plenty of opportunities for more strenuous hiking or careless  beachcombing.

My absolute favorite destination on Washington Island was the Mountain Wayside Park. A wooden stairway leads to the summit of the island where there is a old fire lookout with a 50-mile view at the top. On a clear day you can see the entrance of Green Bay as well as a massive portion of Lake Michigan. The state of Michigan can be clearly seen as well. The Summit is an excellent place to see the rural beauty of the island.
View from Mountain Wayside Park
The last destination of our tour of the island was Schoolhouse Beach, frequently cited as the most scenic beach of the Great Lakes (if not the country).  I could not keep my camera in my pocket, everything looks so tropical. Crystal blue waters and white stones created an ethereal look.  I wished I could have spent all day lounging on the shoreline.

Final Thoughts

Door County is a special place. This is news to nobody, but it is a special place nonetheless. For us, it was one of those rare well-known places measured up to its reputation. (We have been disappointed by places with similar notoriety such as Niagara Falls, Cape Cod and Oahu). The congeniality of the locals, the characteristically glorious and craggy shore line of Green Bay and Lake Michigan and the intensely local flavor of the food and spirits all contributed to the timeless feel of our vacation. I hope that we can return again, perhaps to catch the fall foliage.

Door County, your reputation for travel is well deserved!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Five Favorite Outdoor Adventures in Indiana Dunes

As the Spring approaches, the Upper Midwest explodes in to a lush wonderland and I start planning my summer escapes. A destination that I've become particularly fond of is the Indiana Dunes area. Here are my five favorite outdoor adventures in the area

Mountain Biking the Outback Trail at Imagination Glen 

I've literally mountain biked all around this country and I'm so thankful that one of the best destinations I've ridden is 40 miles from the Chicago Loop. Composed of the "Front Side" and the "Dark Side", the Outback Trail is certainly on its way to being and International Mountain Biking Association "Epic Ride". Each trail has a different personality- the Front Side has a more relaxed flow where you can appreciate the abundant wilderness of Salt Creek. On the other hand, the Dark Side is the double-black diamond of mountain biking trails in Chicagoland. While novices can still enjoy both trails, it certainly attracts its fair share of hardcore enthusiasts. Thankfully they are very welcoming of more casual riders too!

Hiking the Indiana Dunes State and National Parks

The first time I ever visited the Dunes, I actually took the South Shore Line from Downtown Chicago right to Dune Station. Before I knew it, I was hiking in the backcountry! I liked the "Three Dune Challenge" because naturally I want to hike all the high points of a place. A few years later I discovered "Big Blowout" which is a more elusive dune near the boundary of the state and national park. The view from the "summit" is incredible, especially on a summer day. Lake Michigan looks just so blue! "Big Blowout" is also an excellent place to catch a sunset and see the Chicago Skyline off in the distance

Hiking/Biking Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve

This is a place that took me a while to discover. Usually I'm so focused on getting to the beach that I forget that there's a lot more to see in the area. Quiet and secluded, there's an abundance of wildlife and wilderness tucked away in this park. I found it to be a fantastic birding location. There's about 5 miles of trail systems that circumnavigate the park, which are great for casual meandering or enjoying some stillness.

Dunns Bridge 

Further South is Dunns Bridge which crosses the Kankakee River. The legend is that it was constructed from the infamous Ferris Wheel of the 1892 World's Columbian Exposition that put Chicago on the map. This section of the Kankakee River is particularly scenic and paddling opportunities do exist as there is a boat launch. Locals love this place for dropping a line, either from the shore or a boat. Personally, I just love spending time taking in all the nature at this place.


Birding is something that I've only recently been introduced to.  What really began this interest was the fact that the Indiana Dunes are such a destination for serious and amateur birding. While the entire Midwest acts as a highway for migratory birds, the Indiana Dunes has a particularly high density and concentration of species. The reason for this is far better explained by serious birders, but essentially the North-South orientation of Lake Michigan acts as a funnel of species to the Dunes Area. Its a major rest-stop for the massive journey. Hence, it is very easy for people like me with less experience to have a great birding experience. In the spring, especially on a windy day, it is very easy to spot larger birds of prey. Fall offers excellent warbler viewing with many bright and musical specimens. I would venture to say that in the circle of professional birders and photographers, Indiana Dunes is known nationally as a destination for this pursuit. 

Can't wait to get out there soon!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hiking the Closed Canyon Trail, Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Though I could write volumes about the number of hiking opportunities in Big Bend Ranch State Park, one of the highlights would certainly be the Closed Canyon Trail. I would not be the first person to wax poetic about this glorious slot canyon though I was totally unaware of it prior to coming out here. The ranger said I must see this place before I left. I'm so glad I did!

I would call this more of a walk than a hike. However it does involve a bit of scrambling especially as you get deeper into the canyon. From the map it looks as if you can get all the way to the Rio Grande River.  About halfway to the river, it becomes impossible to go further without ropes. The park does not allow canyoneering as far as I'm aware.

If you have ever traveled to Utah, this place would seem like it is straight out of Zion National Park. From the trailhead, the canyon entrance is not apparent. After a short walk, the imposing walls loom overhead. From the entrance, the trail runs roughly a half a mile into the canyon. Parts of the canyon can be slippery after rain. I would say that the risk for a flash flood is generally minimal, though of course rain even 80 miles away can cause a sudden flash flood.  It's always good to check the weather in a large area to know whether there's a risk for flash floods.

There are many opportunities for photos deep in the canyon.  obviously the light can be tricky. It is a north-south oriented Canyon so some of the better light can be at midday. When I went to is fairly cloudy though this actually help with some of the photos. 

The drive up is not too bad either! 

Overall, a single day is not nearly enough to explore Big Bend Ranch State Park. Nevertheless, it was a good teaser of things to come in future visits!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Hiking the Fresno Divide Trail, Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

In my most recent adventure to Big Bend Country, I mostly repeated several adventures I have done in past. This included canoeing down Boquillas Canyon, hiking Emory Peak, and walking through Santa Elena Canyon.  I did have the opportunity to explore several areas that I've never been to before. One of them was Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Though only about 20 or 30 miles from Big Bend  National Park, Big Bend Ranch far less accessible to the casual passerby- adding to its elusive charm. Most the roads are unpaved and require high clearance. It is also a major mountain biking destination. In fact, it's achieved one of the greatest awards in the mountain bike world from IMBA - an “Epic Ride”. As I didn't have a mountain bike today, I was satisfied by taking the park by foot.

A great hike which is not too far off the beaten path starts at the West Contrabadio Trailhead leading to the Fresno Divide-Dome Loop Trail. I like to this hike because it involved quite a bit of wilderness travel though with fairly minimal effort. At 8 miles and length, it can easily be done in about a half to three-quarters of a day. There are some great vistas with plenty of opportunities for photos of desert life. In the early winter and spring, the blue bonnets are in bloom adding to the allure of the trail.

I happened to hike this trail on a Saturday. In spite of the high season, I ran into no other hikers. It was a windless day and the silence was welcoming. It is at a lower elevation than most of Big Bend Ranch State Park as well as the National Park and so desert life seemed sparse. With no trees nor hills to obscure the view, I admired the unnamed desert mountains in the distance. Ribbons of color created an ethereal look. It felt like traveling across the ocean, where you know you’re moving but without any point of reference, it is hard to say how far. It’s dreamlike.

Towards the halfway mark of the hike, the trail does come to a vista with views of the Fresno Divide as well as the valley below. Then it sharply dips into an arroyo with steep walls. It's funny how such a stark landscape can hide elusive canyons such as these. At the heat of the day there was not even a bird nor a bug to break the silence. Quiet contemplation was very natural here.

As it loops back towards the trailhead, the topography remains flat.  I enjoy the arduous Trek to a distant Peak, I also like hike like these where walking is as effortless as breathing.  I was back to the trailhead after only four hours of  deliberately slow hiking.  Perhaps next time I will bring a mountain bike and have a similar experience.

I would highly recommend this hike in the late winter or early spring. I think the Blue Bonnets were just beginning to bloom and would have loved to experience the explosion of color that occurs later in the season.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Solo River Trip down Boquillas Canyon, Big Bend National Park

A return to a favorite wilderness

Normally I'm not much for repeat adventures. With the opportunities I have to take a week away from work, I'm much more apt to make a headstrong foray into some new wilderness I've never been to. But Boquillas Canyon had been such a captivating trip last year that I just couldn't stay away. The perfectly sunny and warm West Texas skies were beckoning once again. 

Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grand Wild and Scenic River are not exactly unknown to the world though their visitorship pales in comparison to similar national parks. This is likely due to their remoteness- 4 hours from Midland-Odessa, 5 hours from El Paso and about 6 hours from San Antonio. You don't just stumble upon these national parks, you make a destination out of them. Anyone who has been would confirm that its worth the laborious drive!

Map of my adventure down the Rio Grand

Depending on the year, the Rio Grand Wild and Scenic River can be the least visited national park unit in the entire system (including Alaska!). Snaking north of the boundary of the national park, this pristine river has almost no connection with civilization save for a few primitive campsites and some abandoned mining camps. There is absolutely no cell phone reception, no visitor centers and no way out except down the river- that's the draw for me.

With all the talk and politics of the southern border, one might mistake this area as a dangerous place. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this vast, unpopulated corner of North America, the border is as insignificant as a line on a board game. There are no walls, no signs and nothing other than a river that divides the two countries. Livestock, feral horses and bears frequently hop back and forth across the border when the river runs low. As the international boundary is technically only at the deepest point in the river, the paddler floats back and forth across the boundary as well. 
The tower and mesa in the distance rise about 1 mile above the Rio Grand in about 2 miles
Without a doubt, Boquillas Canyon is a Grand Canyon. Its about 20 miles in length and anywhere from 800 to several thousand feet deep. Unlike the grand canyon, there are no official hiking trails from the rim to the river. A few primitive herd paths exist though they are difficult to get to, involving at least a 14 mile round trip from the nearest road. In both my trips down the canyon, I saw no people for 3 days. 

The most traditional way of canoeing Boquillas Canyon is putting in at Rio Grand Village and taking out at Heath Canyon. This is a 33 mile trip that is typically done in 3-4 days depending on the comfort of the paddlers. There are two rapids that range anywhere from class 2-3 and numerous other smaller ripples that still require a little skill to navigate. The water levels of the river entirely depend upon the Rio Conchos, a major tributary entirely in Mexico. Irrigation and dams have made the river more of a creek North of Presido, Texas-Ojinaga, Mexico. Though the Rio Conchos is also extensively developed, it releases far more water. March is considered the high season for paddling though many wilderness seekers try to avoid the spring break season when the swell of tourists creates a veritable metropolis. January and February can result in lower water and lining the river at times though I did not find this oppressive. 
One of the rapids, created in the past 6-7 years by an unwitnessed rock slide from the Mexican side of the river
My favorite section off the river about 5 miles past the entrance 

It was funny how similarly this trip was to my former adventure. I camped at the same sites and made about the same progress. In spite of the repetition, I was no less enthralled. I could go on and on about the scenery though that's obvious. The parts that aren't communicated in pictures are the silence and serenity of being totally alone along a desert river. Ripples broke the silence occasionally though it was hauntingly quiet for the most part. At several sections, I simply landed on a sandy spit and allowed myself to be enveloped by the tranquility. 

At night, I simply relaxed by a campfire and gazed up at the trillions of stars. There are few places I've traveled that have a clearer night sky. Being 4-5 hours from anything considered a city sure has its advantages. The Milky Way was like a big silver ribbon crossing the sky and it seemed like constellations I've never seen were etched with perfect visibility. The canyon walls themselves looked like jaws though I didn't feel enclosed. Shadows and dim evening light did create an ethereal sight-

Time seemed to ebb and flow with as much variability as the river itself. There were really only two important events in the day- sunrise and sunset. In my world as a healthcare provider, time is far more regimented and counted. How pleasant it was to have a far more indefinite way to pass the day. 

Though I'm sure I would have loved to spend weeks going up and down the river, it had to end eventually. The finish of Boquillas Canyon is fairly anticlimactic. After leaving the walls behind, the landscape becomes flat though not uninteresting. It offers some panoramas of distant desert mountains and the river teams with noisy life. Note that campsites are few once leaving the boundary of the National Park and both sides of the river are privately owned. Thankfully there are a few large islands in the river that offer respite. 

Finishing near the abandoned mining town of La Linda, the takeout is at the end of a paved road. A bridge marks the end though this boarder crossing has been closed for 20 years. It almost looks like the infamous "Bridge of No Return" between South and North Korea. Its a ghostly site though without any sort of danger.

So once again I had an unceremonious end to another grand adventure. My driver picked me up right on time and I was back to Big Bend for some more land-based adventures. I'm sure I'll make a habit out of returning to this river!