Tag: Nature (Page 2 of 2)

The Scottish N500: The Scenic West Coast of Scotland Part Two

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Smoo Cave (c) ABR 2016

Waterfall in Smoo Cave (c) ABR 2016

Waterfall in Smoo Cave (c) ABR 2016

One of our first stops on the N500, after John O’Groats, was a place called Smoo Cave . I simply love caves (although I have not had the chance to go caving, I have visited caves in several different countries and continue to make it a priority when I travel), so based on that and my immediate love for the name, I just had to check this place out. The outer part of the cave that opens out onto the beach is a sea cave, while the inner cave, past the waterfall is a karst cavern. For the casual passerby, there is a section of Smoo that is freely available to anyone that hikes down the path that winds its way down the sea cliffs from the parking lot to the beach-front. This includes a large, stone room that is covered by a thin carpet of green, and a wooden walkway that leads back to a view of the waterfall that is the main visual prize of the location if you can’t go on the tour. Unfortunately, we didn’t do the tour ourselves, although it was very affordable, because we weren’t sure when the last group had left, and we didn’t want to wait around for a half hour for the next one. Pretty lame excuse! But we did still have a lot of driving left to do, and the weather was steadily going downhill, so we weren’t even sure that there would be another tour at that time, since rain can cause flooding in the cave.

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The bridge between Loch a’ Chairn Bhain and Loch Gleann Dubh (c) ABR 2016

The views coming south from Smoo Cave south to Lochinver were some of my favorite from the trip, and heavens, I was sad that we weren’t prepared for a hard hike. For one, if you ever drive this way- please stop at the turn off just north of the bridge between Loch a’ Chairn Bhain and Loch Gleann Dubh. The bridge isn’t particularly artful, although it is oddly pleasing to the eye… perhaps due to the juxtaposition of the concrete structure and the towering highland mountains beyond. The Lochs are breathtaking too, and I hate to say it, but in my opinion, much more beautiful than Loch Ness, although they are much smaller and lack a prehistoric monster (as far as we know). Driving past the bridge (south) you will then get some great views of the mountains that have stuck in my mind ever since the trip- three peaked Quinag to the west and Glas Bheinn to the east. Even when we visited the Isle of Skye, there were not mountains that outmatched these for beauty and mystique, in my opinion. And regardless, they are both great examples of highland mountains, and worth a gander if you like challenging hiking.

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Little Assynt Estate (c) ABR 2016

There is also some easier walks that you can check out on the way down from Lochinver to Gairloch. For instance, the Little Assynt Estate has a very nice area to walk around in with great views of a little loch and the mountains, as well as a place to sit and relax (and maybe fish as well?). The trails are dry and mostly flat here as well, so they make for a nice break from driving if you don’t have the proper equipment for a highland hike. We also walked up from Gruinard Bay to Eas Dubh Falls – which was a nice stroll along the beach, but the hike itself, up from the ocean into the hills to the waterfall, was quite boggy. Due to this, and our lack of proper, high-top hiking boots, forced us to walk through the bracken more than I would have liked, and I ended up getting a tick. So, do plan ahead, bring good, waterproof shoes, and be aware that Scotland does, in fact, have ticks. I definitely did not regret this second hike, however, as the waterfall was beautiful and the trail was deserted.

If you want to see more picture of my journey through Scotland, as well as past pictures, check out my travel Tumblr here.

On July 1st, I am planning on posting about the cities and castles of Scotland.

Feel free to leave relevant comments and/or questions below.

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Eas Dubh Falls (c) ABR 2016

The Scottish N500: The Scenic West Coast of Scotland

Example of the route (not exact to what we did).

Example of the route (not exact to what we did).

I love roadtrips. How many times have I mentioned this in my blog? Many, I am sure. But it is still as true now as it ever was, so please take that into consideration when I say that the N500 of Scotland is one of the best roadtrips that I have ever been on. I got the idea for this journey from a Guardian article, and we actually replicated this intinerary fairly closely. It is a great little outline, unless you have more time, in which case I would suggest taking a day or two more on the way down from Wick to Lockinver- especially if you like to hike (or walk as they call it in Scotland). In any case, this means that we travelled from Inverness to Wick, Wick to Lochinver, Lochinver to Gairloch, and then Gairloch to Oban over the course of our roadtrip.

When I used to think about the UK, I imagined rolling green hills sprinkled with little villages, and webbed by narrow roads. The image is based on what I can remember of a two week trip I took to Ireland in 2012. This was nothing like that.

(c) ABR 2016

Urquhart Castle with Loch Ness in the background (c) ABR 2016

Actually, the drive from Inverness to Wick was somewhat like what I imagined, but that was no indication of what was to come. On the particular day that we did this drive, we first went a little south from Inverness down to Loch Ness to visit the ruins of Urquhart Castle . While the castle itself is little compared to the sprawling fortresses that you can see elsewhere in Scotland, there was something enchanting about these ruins. Maybe it was the fact that the famous loch was the backdrop to the crumbling walls, but I think there is just something that I love about such places… the element of imagination that you need to immerse yourself there can be so personal. It wasn’t a long drive down from Inverness, and even though it rained during the free tour, we enjoyed our time there, and it was unique among the castles that we saw in Scotland. After spending the afternoon wandering through the old rooms, now open to the sky and elements, we started north, up to Wick, and through the green pastures that I naively expected (somehow, despite having read the article that I posted above).

Pole at John O'Groats with the Orkneys beyond (c) ABR 2016

Pole at John O’Groats with the Orkneys beyond (c) ABR 2016

Our longest drive was on the day that we traveled from Wick to Lochinver. That morning, we drove as far north as possible, joining the ranks of bicyclists that had made the long journey from Land’s End in the south of the British Isles all the way to John O’Groats, the northern most point of mainland Scotland. There we looked out across the sea to the Orkney Islands, and posed next to the white post that marked this special point. After that, it was down the west coast and into some of the most beautiful landscapes that I have ever seen in my life.

The road that we followed south took us into the mountains and along sweeping coasts. While the white beaches and cliffs dropping off into the blue sea were lovely, it was really the peaks that I fancied the most. Many of them swept up from the ground with steep, stark and treeless flanks. Those mountain sides reached up into the low lying clouds on many occasions, but when their crowns were revealed, the bracken and grass gave way to dead stone, traced by veins of water making its way back to the earth after its stay on the summits during the winter. On some mountain tops, that snow may never melt, even in the depth of summer.

To be continued on June 15th.

The highlands (c) ABR 2016

The highlands (c) ABR 2016

Hiking Picacho Peak

Picacho Peak State Park is one of the most characteristic landmarks of the drive

Picacho Peak (c) ABR 2016

Picacho Peak (c) ABR 2016

between Phoenix and Tucson, and I have been wanting to explore this mountain for a very long time. However, the ~1.5 hour drive between Phoenix and the state park has been a bit of a deterrent for me. This spring I finally made it out there, and not only was the hike everything that I was hoping it would be, it really felt like an accomplishment to make it to the top.

Our first stop when we got to the state park, was the visitor’s center, where a friendly ranger told us about the trails that the park offered, and warned about Picacho Peak’s trail to the top- Hunter Trail. She told us the normal things first: bring water, wear good shoes, etc. All the things that experienced hikers are used to hearing before setting out, but then she also told us something that we scoffed at, that Hunter Trail was “extreme.” However, I would like to pause to say that she wasn’t wrong. This trail is very steep at several points, so steep in places that there are cables permanently secured to the mountain to make it safer to climb. It may be easy for some, but I do think it is worth coming to this trail with some amount of respect and caution. Also, bringing a pair of gloves for the cables would make things a bit easier, so consider it.

Picacho Peak (c) ABR 2016

Picacho Peak (c) ABR 2016

Anyway, the first section of the trail up to the saddle of the mountain is steep but not particularly surprising when it comes to Arizona trails. This means the trail is rocky, sometimes slippery, and surrounded by amazing views of the desert. The area around Picacho Peak is also quite breathtaking to look at, I think, because the desert stretches out, seemingly uninterrupted for miles, but for the highway and the farms to the west. If you don’t think you can make it to the top of the mountain, it is worth trying for the saddle. It is still difficult, but not nearly as hard as the second half of the hike. Furthermore, there is a more moderate trail that leads up to the saddle if the base of Hunter Trail is too difficult.

The way up from the saddle is very steep. It first drops down, and then weaves its way up the cliffsides of Picacho’s peak. The cables certainly do help with the ascent, but for anyone with a fear of heights I wouldn’t suggest it. There are a couple places near the end that are so steep, I would say that the cables are the only difference between

Picacho Peak (c) ABR 2016

Picacho Peak (c) ABR 2016

hiking and climbing, because they help you scale some nearly vertical sections of the path. Of course, the strain and fear involved with getting to the top make getting there an accomplishment (and getting home safely even more of one). The views from the top are beautiful, but I would say, not much better than from the saddle, although they are 360 degrees of amazing Arizona landscape. If anything, I think it is the trail itself that makes this hike worthwhile. It is dangerous, and although it sounds funny, it is “extreme.” But if you enjoy hiking and climbing, respect the mountain and the dangers it represents, and come prepared, I think it is a worthwhile journey. That being said, I would like to remind all my readers of something, thanks to the Hike Arizona warning: ” WARNING! Hiking, travelling and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.”

Nevada Road Trip Part One: From Phoenix to Great Basin

Created by Google Maps

Created by Google Maps

I have a life goal to see all of the national parks in the United States, which is easier said than done, because there are a lot of them! But so far, this has led me to visit more than a few places that I didn’t previously know existed, and I haven’t regretted any of them. One of the national parks that I had never heard of was Great Basin, which seemed fascinating based on its name and its location north of Las Vegas in Nevada, an area that I had never explored. My dad and I were further intrigued by this place after learning that it is home to the Bristlecone Pine, one of the longest lived life forms on the planet. Finally, when we had a few days free, we decided to take a road trip up to Great Basin, and without much planning we ended up visiting several beautiful and intriguing places. The following account will mostly cover the places that we visited during this road trip, but I will also highlight a few places along the way that would be worth stopped at but which we didn’t have the time to visit.

Day One: Setting Out

(c) Sweet Tea @ http://www.rentcafe.com/blog/cities/great-phoenix-day-trip-lake-pleasant/

Lake Pleasant (c) Sweet Tea @ http://www.rentcafe.com/blog/cities/great-phoenix-day-trip-lake-pleasant/

The first day of our road trip didn’t start until 15:00, so our only goal was to make it up into Nevada for our first night. Luckily, the drive between Phoenix and the Las Vegas area is pretty nice, and it would actually have several good stops along the way for travelers with a full day. First, Lake Pleasant is worth a stop for anyone that hasn’t been, as it is a good example of Arizona’s artificial lakes, even if it isn’t one of the most beautiful. After living in the desert for a few years, it is hard to not appreciate water where-ever you find it, and besides some good desert winds for sailing, Lake Pleasant also has some nice hikes nearby in the Hells Canyon Wilderness. Furthermore, this area is home to wild burros, which I have seen on several occasions, and they are some great charismatic megafauna to see in the Sonora.

Further down the road, there is also the Hassayampa River Preserve just outside of Wickenburg. I actually haven’t made it to this area before, so I don’t have any personal experience with it yet, but it is somewhere that I hope to visit in the near future. Another oasis in the desert, the river preserve protects something that is rare now in Arizona, a river still flowing in its banks, thanks to the Nature Conservancy. There are plenty of trails here, and like Lake Pleasant it is good to experience any water that the desert has to offer, even more so, in places where some natural riparian ecosystems remain.

Hoover Dam at Night (c) AB Raschke

Hoover Dam at Night (c) AB Raschke

Of course, the biggest attraction between Phoenix and Las Vegas is the Hoover Dam, which we hit around 20:00. When I initially envisioned this trip last year, I had hoped to visit during the day and take a tour of the Dam. There is actually quite a bit there to see and do during the day, and in any case, this place is a major historical landmark for the country, and it has also shaped the Southwest in a very serious way. Las Vegas certainly owes its size to the resources provided by the dam, and the life-line of the Central Arizona Project shows the link between Phoenix and the Colorado River. Sadly, I didn’t get to take a tour this time around, but the dam is open to visitors until 21:00. So, we at least got to drive across the dam, park and take pictures of the landmark at night. It was a very peaceful place without the crowds, and there were some good views of the stars to boot.

Our day ended in Boulder City, where we spent the night in a Quality Inn a mere five minutes from Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Day Two: Through the Desert to the Great Basin

(c) AB Raschke

Lake Mead (c) AB Raschke

Before we hopped in the car for the day, I dragged my dad to Lake Mead, because I had to get my national parks passport stamped and I wanted to go on a little hike before our journey. As it turned out, we found a really great little trail outside of the fee area, and we both really enjoyed this stroll. The Historic Railway Trail is right by the entrance to the park, and as its name implies, this trail follows the former track of the railroad that brought materials from Boulder City to the site of Hoover Dam as it was being built. Besides the great views of lake from the trail, we really enjoyed getting to see the massive tunnels that were built through the mountains in order to fit the large pieces of dam equipment through. From the trailhead to the first tunnel is about a mile, so it was a great section of the trail to walk when we only had a limited amount of time.

From Wikipedia

Lower Lake Pahranagat Lake From Wikipedia

From Boulder City to Baker was quite a drive. Most of the towns that we passed, besides Las Vegas, were quite small. Alamo, which is perched just north of Pahranagat Lake, didn’t have much to offer along the side of the road, and when we asked about places to grab lunch there, the gas station attendant only told us about two different restaurants. We ended up at the Windmill just north of the town, and it was quiet enjoyable. Not only did they have some good standard American fare, but they also had a nice little bakery where we got a fresh cookie and a lemon square.

From there on out, we entered the Great Basin region, which gave us a taste for what we would see and learn more about in the National Park. This region is characterized by parallel ranges of mountains, which remind me of the sky islands in Arizona, rising up out of the dry lowlands to peaks of lush forests. The lowlands, instead of being Arizona desert, however, were large, flat plains of sagebrush and grasses, where we spotted herds of cows and even a few ranchers on horseback.

Once we got to Baker, we were somewhat surprised at how small the town at the gateway to Great Basin NP was. In fact, since we traveled to the park out of season, there were no open restaurants, and according to Wikipedia the population is 68. That being said, we had a reserved a great little place to stay for the night called the Get-Away Cabin. The owner was very friendly and welcoming, and she even bakes her guests delicious little loaves of banana bread.

Baker Archaeological Park (c) AB Raschke

Baker Archaeological Park (c) AB Raschke

After getting some tips about what to do in the park the at the visitor’s center for the next day, we drove a few miles out of town to check out the Baker Archaeological Site, which wasn’t much more than a few outlines of Fremont buildings among the sagebrush. There was some good information in a little guide book that the BLM provided at the site, however. After a short stop there, we made it out to the Border Inn where we enjoyed a delicious dinner, and picked up some groceries.

Day 3 and 4 to come on April 1st! And Washington DC… someday!

If you have any questions about my experience in Nevada and Arizona or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂

Montezuma’s Castle and Well

Montezuma’s Castle is one destination that I hear Arizona visitors talking about visiting on a regular basis. It is relatively close to Phoenix, for people that want to stick to a shorter day-trip, and it is on the way to a variety of highly popular Arizona destinations including the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Flagstaff. That being said, of the National Parks/Monuments that I have been to, I find Montezuma’s Castle to be disappointing. It is $5 to get into the park (this ticket also buys entry into Tuzigoot National Monument, but this is a considerable distance away and I think you would have to plan ahead to do both to really be willing to utilize the joint ticket), and there is only one short trail in the entire park. Being an avid hiker, this detracts from the destination for me, but there is a very nice visitor center at the monument and there are a variety of informational signs lining the trail.

The ruin is breathtaking to behold, and of the cliff dwellings in North America, it is one of the best preserved. As you walk down the park’s sole trail towards the ruin, you immediately catch sight of it tucked into the side of a sandy colored cliff that runs along the shore of the Verde River.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

The cliff itself has horizontal layers, which have been worn by the Arizona weather to the point that they have become accentuated, and a variety of small caves have been carved into the cliffs. In the largest of these is perched Montezuma’s Castle, its sharp, human-made lines in stark contrast with the natural accents of the cliffs and surrounding landscape. The cliff dwelling dominates the view wherever you stand on the cliff-side trail, and it is hard to take your eyes off of it.

The Sinagua people built this cliff dwelling here due to its choice location next to the Verde River, which helped feed their crops. This area was rich enough that before the Sinagua people, the Hohokam had used this area as well, and in fact, the people of Montezuma’s Castle used the old Hohokam irrigation system in their city (similar to the modern city of Phoenix). Besides being a splendid example of a Southwestern Arizona cliff dwelling, Montezuma’s Castle provided archeologists with many artifacts that allowed us a glimpse into the Sinagua’s world.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

The last half of the trail passes along the shore of the Verde, and it is a good idea to stop here and take in the powerful river that once supported the ancient peoples of Arizona and continues to provide life sustaining water to modern people. In the middle of the desert, there is nothing that I find more special than water; it is the rare life blood of the desert, and I can’t help but stop to appreciate it.

Now, something that I hear less people talking about, but which I found to be much more of a “must-visit” is Montezuma’s Well. This area is just a short drive down the road from Montezona’s Castle, and while it is part of the national park it is FREE! Here visitors follow a trail up to the unique freshwater environment of the Well, which is a small, circular lake surrounded by cliffs.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Tucked into the layered, aged walls of the shore cliffs are small, one-room ruins that have stood the test of time (and which should not be entered due to their fragility and their importance to the Hopi people). There are no fish in the Well due to its relatively high levels of carbon dioxide, and in fact, the top predator here is a swimming leech found no where else in the world.

This special freshwater ecosystem is fed by ancient underground water, which enters the well through two main vents at its floor. Due to this the Well was an important location to Native Americans in times of drought as it never ran dry. Even better, the Well’s waters flow out through a crack in its crater into Wet Beaver Creek, and this water was channeled by Native Americans as a reliable source of water for agriculture.

Exploring the Montezuma’s Well trail will take you along the shores of the Well, offers great views of the ruins here, and then leads out of the crater to Wet Beaver Creek. The abundance of this area, in the midst of the dry desert all around, is breathtaking. Trees gather around the edges of the creek, birds sing persistently, and a diversity of insects call the creek home.

If you want to learn more about this beautiful AZ spot, be sure to check out Wanderer Writes’ “A Quick Stop At Montezuma Castle in Arizona.”

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

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