Leader: Mark Hougardy
Company: Road Scholar
Dates: Three trips, July-August, 2017
Participants: 15-25 per group
Type: 6-days of field outings and motorcoach travel in western Oregon
I enjoyed leading this Road Scholar trip for grandparents and grandchildren. It was a fun and educational opportunity for different generations to share time together exploring the world of animals. For my programs, I wanted to create a mentoring environment where, at the end of the program, everyone who is young at heart would think of themselves as a beginning zoologist. A zoologist is a curious person (a scientist) who loves to learn about animals and everything they can teach us.
An enrichment activity I created. A key skill in tracking is understanding of how animals move. We did this by measuring the stride and placement of tracks by various animals. This activity reinforced the story of OR-7 “Journey” Oregon’s most famous wolf who has traversed 4,000 miles during his lifetime (so far).
Llama and Alpaca visitors surprised participants on the first evening.
The next day we were visited by multiple small animals and even reptiles from a rescue center.
Our after-hours visit to the Oregon Zoo in Portland offered the opportunity to see and learn about exhibits that are often not experienced by the public. Here a lion and cheetah pelt could be touched.
And snakes too.
A visit to the sub-zero freezer where the animal’s food is kept. We did not stay long.
Examining a lion’s skull.
The next morning we traveled to the Chintimini Wildlife Center. An education owl is shown.
This hawk was too injured in an accident to return to the wild. Now she helps educate the public.
A wetlands touch tank.
A close encounter with skulls, pelts, feathers, tracks, and bones of local animals.
Dissecting owl pellets: discovering what an owl ate for dinner.
Exploring the Oregon Coast Aquarium. A “free time” opportunity made available with some creative scheduling.
A beautiful sunset on the Oregon Coast.
An excellent dinner of tempeh tacos at Cafe Mundo, one of Newport, Oregon’s fine restaurants.
Early morning beach exploration.
The giant octopus at the Hatfield Marine Science Center is one of the first non-humans we encountered.
A sea star, just one of the intertidal creatures both kids and grandparents could discover up close.
The marine science center has an array of great hands-on exhibits.
After visiting the marine science center we headed to the White Wolf Sanctuary. To continue the trip we departed the motor coach and boarded a school bus to drive up a forest road to the remote location.
One of the arctic wolves at the White Wolf Sanctuary. Copyright the White Wolf Sanctuary.
We returned from the wolf sanctuary to our motor coach. It waited for us at an abandoned gas station.
Spotting osprey on a nature walk at the Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve.
Admiring the 1,200-pound nest of a bald eagle.
This young zoologist spots the group leader. That evening all of the participants finished the trip with dinner and a visit by a local storyteller.
Imagine a child’s crayon drawing. The picture is populated with waterfalls, the iconic kind; horizontal on top, descending from great heights and sleek. The crayon water pours into white and blue rounded pools. The water streams from the pool to waterfall from pool to waterfall, repeating over and over again. Between the falls exists an immense green forest. Lines of color that streak in multiple directions as though a hand rapidly drew across the paper filling in all the blank areas. Woven around the falls and through the forest is a tan zig-zag trail. Here a stick-figure human explores the colorful world created for it. Now, imagine the young artist pointing to the stick figure, and with a toothy grin exclaiming, “That’s me by the waterfalls!”
If you thought such a world only existed within the mind of a child, look no further than the Trail of Ten Falls at Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park. Within a five-hour hike, your inner child can see ten fantastic and majestic waterfalls in under a 9-mile loop.
The most popular waterfall is South Falls. It begins as a gentle stream then suddenly plummets 177 feet into a misty pool. The scene is dramatic. Visitors can easily walk a loop trail behind the falls or enjoy views from a footbridge.
Located about a mile downstream is the Lower South Falls. Here the trail descends abruptly – by more than 180 steps – then sneaks behind the roaring 93-foot torrent allowing the visitor to see the world from behind a shimmering curtain of water.
The trail turns up Silver Creek revealing dozens of tiny waterfalls gushing from the side of the hill. In some areas, a hand gently placed on a moss-lined wall of green carpet disgorges water as a sponge when squeezed.
The 30-foot Lower North Falls gush into an azure basin. A nearby trail spur guides visitors to see Double Falls, a double drop, with a combined height of 178 feet, the tallest in the park.
A short distance upstream is Drake Falls. This is the smallest in the park, but at 27 feet they this grand cascade is a beauty. The falls were named after June Drake, whose early photographic work brought attention to the area and ultimately helped with the areas protection.
The North Middle Falls roar as water drops 106 feet over the top then crashes onto rocks underneath. Visitors can take a short side trail that allows them to walk behind this liquid veil – the water rumbles past just a few feet away.
Next, we take a side trail to the graceful looking Winter Falls. Standing at the base a visitor looks up 134 feet to the top. As the name implies Winter Falls is best viewed during the winter and spring seasons.
Twin Falls, at 31 feet, received its name from rocks in the streambed that splits the water forming two cascades.
The North Falls is powerful and thunderous. The water channels through a notch in the creek bed then is jetted into a canyon 136 feet below. Behind the waterfall is an impressive cavernous cutout that is almost like entering a different realm; water drips over the upper canyon wall forming a curtain of water across the path. Inside the cavernous area, ferns grow upside down on the ceiling. But, what really grabs you is the thunderous sound of water, which is a loud as a freight train when it passes frightfully close.
A short distance upstream is the Upper North Falls, a beautiful 65-foot cascade that plunges into a picturesque and deep pool. Often overlooked by visitors these falls are not to be missed.
The trail returns through the forest to the parking area near South Falls. Winter is a great time to visit; the park is less crowded, the falls are at maximum flow, and everything in the forest is green.
Silver Falls State Park is located less than an hours drive east of Salem, Oregon.
Within Lassen Volcanic National Park, at a chilly 8,000 feet in elevation, is a phantasmagoric location known as Bumpass Hell.
Bumpass Hell is the park’s largest hydrothermal area, but to many visitors, it appears unnatural, like a scene created by the imagination. Just hiking to the location suggests this is an irregular place. First, the pungent odor of rotten eggs rudely greets the nose. Then the landscape changes appearance; friendly greens and browns retreat to display barren, mineral stained soils of tan, orange, and yellow. Finally, looking into the active basin the ground’s surface is reminiscent of another world, it is etched, pocked and corroded; ghostly apparitions of steam hiss into the air while numerous mudpots pop and gurgle, and aquamarine pools roll with superheated water. It is harsh looking and very beautiful.
A wooden boardwalk allows for a more safe exploration of the area. Posted signs stress the importance of staying on designated paths for safety reasons. Bumpass Hell was named after an early visitor who severely burned his leg upon falling through the surface’s thin crust and into boiling water.
Upon leaving, the crude odor of Bumpass Hell diminishes with distance, but it haunts the nose for a long time afterward.
The hydrothermal area is accessible by two trails. The popular three-mile hike begins at the Bumpass Hell parking lot, on Hwy 89, and requires several hours for a round trip. The elevation gain is about 300 feet. Be prepared for a crowded parking area and a busy trail in the summer. If you seek a less explored route the trail leading from the Kings Creek trailhead is very rewarding. This five-mile trail passes through majestic forests, crosses gentle brooks, and meanders through an area of volcanic formations that are layered and twisted. Plan for a hike that covers roughly 800 feet of elevation gain. In the summer, look for retreated snow banks that are hidden in the woods just off the trail.
Learn more about Lassen Lassen Volcanic National Park:
The visitor center at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park offers visitors a glimpse into a salty past. Most visitors to San Francisco’s northern shore only see a tsunami of stores that sell trinkets and bobbles; however, the curious will find ‘ The Waterfront’ exhibit to offer a rich story.
The Waterfront is not just an exhibit; it is an experience more than 150 years in the making. You can discover a time before European settlement, learn about how the Gold Rush shaped San Francisco, hear voices of sailors in a Barbary Coast saloon, and even see lumber being transported over your head as a ship delivers its cargo. The exhibits also include fishing boats, actual equipment and several hundred artifacts woven throughout the walk. A very realistic looking street fish market impressed my young daughter.
Afterwards, make a short walk across the street to explore the historic sailing ships of the Hyde Street Pier. Visiting the ships will cost you a little, but it is far more valuable than what is sold in most of the surrounding tourist stores. The queen of all the historic ships on display is the Balclutha, you can get a better look with this video-
The 129-foot Burney Falls in northern California is one of the state’s most beautiful waterfalls.
The water does not simply pour over the top, rather the porous volcanic rock in the area encourages a dispersal of the water, resulting is multiple cascades that leap from the rock’s face along the entire height of blue and white waterfall.
The most popular vantage point for viewing is from the base of the falls, but this area can be crowded in the summer as heat-weary visitors find refuge in the coolness.
A short loop trail allows visitors to explore both sides of the creek above and below the falls. However, if you are up for a larger hike try hiking a couple of miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes next to the falls.
The campground can be very crowded in the summertime, and the visitors, not the most quiet. If possible, try visiting during a down season or mid-week.
Unleash your inner train-loving kid at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento, California.
I could easily spend another afternoon exploring over 20 restored locomotives and railroad cars, but this is more than just a place about railroads, it tells the story of how trains transformed America.
After purchasing tickets you enter a large room with an impressive exhibit about the Transcontinental Railroad. This is an immersive, life-sized diorama that literally pulls the visitor inside to reflect on the arduous task of building a railroad over the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the center of the experience is a beautiful locomotive. In front of the engine is a tunnel – a masterwork of art – that plays on the eye and appears to continue into the snowy and cold mountains.
After this exhibit is a second immense room filled with trains and cars – all restored. Woven between these great machines are smaller exhibits that give glimpses and perspectives of how trains influenced a growing free-society in the United States. The exhibits also look at the daily life of train workmen.
My daughter enjoyed a restored sleeper car, featured as part of the “Golden Age” of rail travel. Inside, the car was darkened, it rocked and swayed, complete with rail noise and passing light signals through the windows. It really did feel like being in a passenger car at night.
The roadhouse is filled with monster-sized locomotives and railcars. Don’t miss out on the postal car, where you can see the organization involved with delivering mail to remote communities along the rail line.
Upstairs is a children’s play area, and a sizable model train layout complete with bridges, tunnels and lots of trains for those who want to be eight year’s old again. Make sure to explore the adjoining area, where you walk over a train trestle and get a bird’s eye view of the entire museum.
The Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California is a dramatic landscape sculpted by powerful tectonic forces, fierce winds, and the constant bombardment of ocean waves. It is also a gentle place with rolling hills, drifting fog and tranquil bays. This is a great geography for families to explore and enjoy a weekend away from the hustle and bustle. It is also a great place to discover a success story, the return of the majestic tule elk.
California was once home to large populations of elk, but after the 1849 Gold Rush these populations were decimated and within ten years the elk had disappeared from the land. Fortunately, a very small population (possibly fewer than 10 individuals at the lowest level) survived in a remote area of central California. Eventually, a rancher in the area protected the elk with a refuge on his ranch and later land management groups relocated small bands of elk to other areas of the state, but with limited success. In 1978 a handful of elk were relocated to the Tomales Point region of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Today, the elk at Point Reyes number over 400 and enjoy over 2,600 acres of land to roam.
During my family’s visit, we started on a weekend day in January. The temperature was a chilly 48 degrees and the wind blowing off the Pacific Ocean was heralding a storm that would roll in that night. We wore multiple layers of clothing and some heavy knit hats to cover our ears to shield us from the cool air. Some might be uncomfortable here; but the experience of breathing clean air, seeing the open sea and the expansive land uncluttered by structures provided ample warmth for something deep and primal within our souls.
We walked up the great peninsula; along with a trail that is roughly 5 miles from our starting point to lands end. Tomales Point is surrounded by the mighty Pacific Ocean to the north and west while the tranquil Tomales Bay is visible to the east. It is a curious geography formed by the San Andreas Fault. Here we were witness to the results of two gigantic tectonic plates of the earth grinding together; the peninsula where we walked was part of the Pacific plate while across the mile-wide bay lay the plate of North America.
After thirty minutes we saw them, a small band of elk. Several sentinels watched us while the majority munched upon shoots of grass. Further beyond we saw more elk and over the next rise even more. On our return walk we saw another band, but this time we saw the bulls with their noticeable and very intimidating antlers. As with all the elk, we gave them plenty of room. For the rest of the day, we spotted the elk along various rises on the trail or as dots on the sides of the hills.
We were glad to have seen these creatures upon such an inspiring marriage of land and sea. We are wealthier because of the experience. As we left we said a ‘thank you’ to the people who over the decades worked hard so others could enjoy such a majestic sight and appreciate a success story.
To explore more:
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a diamond of natural beauty along California’s central coast.
This beautiful place offers a treasure of colors, dramatic landscapes, green forests, rugged coves, weathered trees, and grey fog to brilliant sunlight. It can be easy to see birds of prey overhead, flittering butterflies, quiet deer grazing, or the heads of sea lions and harbor seals popping up from the surf.
The air is clean here and provides the visitor a measure of restoration.
This wonderful place does have a strict limit on the number of visitors at any one time, limiting visitors to 450 people, so not to cause unacceptable damage to this great setting.
The summertime can be very busy here and in the neighboring town of Carmel, sometimes causing traffic to become bottlenecked on the Coast Highway 1. Plan to arrive early for the best opportunities to see animals and avoid any late afternoon crowds.
If you can visit in the wintertime or spring when rains have restored the landscape.
The images in this short video were taken on the Winter Solstice when just a handful of visitors were on the trails and the low-angled light from the sun offered the grandest views and colors.
To learn more visit:
The Point Lobos Foundation
California State Parks
The Lüsenstal, a valley in Tirol, Austria, is one of the most majestic places I have ever beheld. For comparison, it is as elegant as two locations in America’s National Parks: the inspiring Yosemite Valley and the grand Kings Canyon.
The ride into the valley treated everyone in the car to vistas of mountains wrapped in green forests, streams that danced downhill and the occasional cow that munched on the abundant green grass.
The Lüsenstal is a great depression in the earth; like a child at the beach who scoops out a long channel of sand with her hand the Lüsenstal has a similar pattern, but on an immense scale like a great hand has dug into the Alps and pulled back the terrain creating a u-shaped channel that rises nearly a thousand meters on either side.
One feels small in this place, yet part of something more.
We arrived at a farm and guest house located on the valley floor and parked the car. We looked around a few minutes and were awed by the scale of the valley.
Several kilometers away, at the ‘back’ of the valley, the flat land ends and becomes almost perpendicular, climbing hundreds of meters high. At the lip of this wall, the rock appears to be slick with water. Looking through binoculars you can see channels of water emerging from the bright white surface at the very edge of the mountain. This is a glacier. The local Tirolean on our hike remarked that when she was a girl the glacier ice was visible a quarter of the way down the mountain. Several interpretive displays (written in German and English) along with a section of the trailing document the retreat of the glacier over the past century.
Our hike was steep but relaxing. We crossed streams, past open fields and woodlands. Wild blueberries grew along the trail and we ate our fill.
At the top of a distant mountain, I saw microscopic dots of snow that appeared to be moving! I looked closer, the dots jumped and moved in all directions along the edge. These tiny dots were actually sheep.
The trail meandered into the Lüsenstal and gently curved up a side valley allowing us glorious views of the valley below and we could see a little more of the glacier in the distance. More dots moved slowly on the valley floor, the more colorful dots were people and the slighter larger brown dots were grazing cows.
The view into the side valley was a jumble of boulders and stones. No trees grew in this place. The trail snaked jaggedly among the boulders and along the hillside to a building in the distance. This was another all, it did not look far, but it was still an hour or more away.
Instead, we meandered along the trail to a stream and crossed several footbridges.
Just beyond was a seasonal cabin. A gang of yearling cows stood nearby and deemed it important to search any and all hikers who passed. One cow was especially gentle and let us scratch behind her ears and pet her soft fur. This cow liked to lick people, hands, and backpacks.
The cow followed us to the cabin. Outside the cabin was a family of German hikers eating lunch. The cow took an immediate interest. A woman in the group thought the cow joining their picnic was great fun until the yearling, with bullet-like speed, stepped into the middle of their food and licked her sandwich. The woman squawked at the intrusion. The cow licked again. This time a man in the group clapped his hands and pushed the cow back a short way. The cow’s tongue, like an uncoiling rope, now reached for the morsel, but it was not able to reach the sandwich a third time. By now two others had joined the man and the invading cow was pushed out of the picnic.
It was great entertainment to see.
We walked down the rough mountainside and into the trees again. The sun now illuminated the opposite of the valley and I was astounded to see a great waterfall tumbling forth. It was hidden from view in the shade. It was still several kilometers away.
Stepping off the steep mountain and onto the green flat land of the valley I could appreciate just how deep the valley was and how high the glacier was above me. If I was the size of an ant looking up at a house, the edge of the glacier would be at the roof line.
We found a good spot to rest in an open field, next to a stream and enjoyed our sandwiches. We even soaked our feet in the stream, but only for a minute for the water was not just mountain water, it was glacial meltwater – and frigid!
Afterwards, we walked quietly back to the car and enjoyed the complex simplicity of the valley. We even spied another tall waterfall in the distance.
The valley was intensely beautiful and worthy of our last day – on this trip – to Tirol. But, this a great place to explore, I will be back.
A lifelong resident of Innsbruck, Austria, recommended the Zirbenweg Trail for a pleasant and active day hike.
The morning started in Innsbruck. My wife and I caught a bus that quickly shuttled us to the nearby town of Igls, where we walked a few minutes up a hill to the Patscherkofel Talstation (valley station) and purchased the aerial cable car tickets, which included our tickets on a lift down the mountain and a bus ride back to Innsbruck.
Fifteen people boarded a colorfully painted and well used looking cable car. The attendant asked us to stand back as he closed the door. The door failed to latch so he returned with a large wrench and gave the latch a solid whap, the door locked. He looked at us with a sly smile. The tram started to rise and glide over the treetops and up the mountain. We were treated to a birds-eye view of trails, fields, woods and of the serpentine curves of Innsbruck’s Olympic Bobsled run. Twenty minutes later, and one kilometer higher in elevation, we arrived at the Bergstation (mountain station) and enjoyed a gorgeous view of the valley below. The temperature was a chilly 6 degrees C (43F).
The Zirbenweg Trail was well marked with signs. The hike would take just about 3 hours and follow an elevation of approximately 2000m (6000 feet). This popular trail offered a visual bounty; our eyes were always being fed with intoxicating Alpine scenery or pleasant vistas of the Inn Valley below.
After about an hour of hiking, we saw several red and white banners appearing over a small hill. These marked the quaint Boscheben Alm. The wind was beginning to blow strongly and the sky was darkening with clouds. We questioned the intent of the weather and thought it best to observe it for a little while longer. The Alm provided shelter, and after looking at the menu, we thought it prudent to supply our bellies with a warm meal. Inside the Alm were walls and tables made of heavy wood. Decorating the walls were pelts of animals that had supposedly been collected from the mountain: there were foxes, marmots, birds and a giant wild swine that in U.S. we would call a Razorback.
The soup of the day was a Knödelsuppe. We ordered one bowl between us; ten minutes later a bowl was delivered with a large knödel – a baseball-sized orb made with dried bread, milk, eggs, speck (smoked meat), onions, parsley, flour and salt that had been boiled in beef broth – that sat like an island in a sea of it’s own broth. It was delicious.
Afterwards, we looked outside, the weather was less intimidating so we continued on the hike. The trail was densely forested in this area but was quickly replaced with giant boulders and jagged rocks. As the trail curved we were greeted face-to-face with three Brown Swiss cows. They had kind faces and did not seem to mind our company. Their fur was some of the softest I had ever touched and we took several photos with them. One cow appeared to have stepped in a hole and had a skinned knee. The injury did not appear to be life-threatening but it must have hurt. As we left, a family rounded the corner on the trail, and the cows enjoyed a repeat of human affection.
The trail crossed several streams and passed a number of interpretive signs that further introduced the hiker to the natural features along the trail. The most curious, or pleasant, items were some ‘reflection’ benches that had been placed on the trail for the enjoyment of hikers. Each reflection bench was placed along the trail at a most enjoyable vista.
Now, we could see several buildings in the distance, they appeared like dots. A stream briefly blocked our path but a well placed wooden plank allowed us safe passage. The clouds overhead had been disappearing and the sunny, blue sky was now unimpeded, making for an absolutely gorgeous day.
One of the reflection benches sat in front of a great boulder. As I sat down I noticed that embedded in the stone was a marker dedicated to the man who helped create this trail.
A newly built and modern building was close by, this was a small chapel. Several hikers, older men with gray beards, were sitting near the front door and enjoying the vista of the green cultivated valley far below. They were sitting in a human-made chapel within a larger natural chapel of mountains and valleys. We nodded at each other from a distance as we passed.
The next building, the Tulfeinalm, was still a good twenty minutes walk away. We crossed another stream that poured and danced down the steep mountain that blocked our path. Several cows watched us pass the area. The Tulfeinalm provided another opportunity to replenish our stomachs. The waiter plunked down a tall half liter of golden wheat beer and a desert in front of us; he informed us that if we did not clean our plates it would be such a disappointment to the cook that she would be emotionally devastated and not want to cook again. We did not disappoint the cook and finished our meals.
Our return trip down the hill was via a ski lift, though when I saw this bouncy single-chair lift, I questioned the logic of this route.
An attendant directed me to place my shoes on some painted feet outlines that were on the pavement. I moved my backpack to my front and turned my head – a levitating chair moving rapidly in my direction. The chair quickly arrived – and I sat – making firm contact on the seat but the floating chair was not stable, it bounced and rocked as I wrestled with an arm handle – to turn, rotate and turn back the contraption which then allowed a footrest to appear by my feet. I rested my feet and the chair steadied. For the next 20 minutes, I was floating thirty feet above the ground enjoying million dollar views.
Near the end of the ride, the cable stopped moving. Silence. My chair was suspended in mid-air. The sounds of the mountain started to be heard: a cowbell in the trees below, a bird chirping, with the wind gently whooshing through the branches of the trees. The view of the valley below – one immense and a grand display of nature of mountains, sunlight, snow, forests, streams, and rivers. Those four minutes were some of the most pleasant moments of my day.
The lift station arrived, or rather I arrived at the lift station and jumped off my chair. I watched it for a minute make the return journey up the hill, I really wanted to return with it.
A second lift, this time a two-seater was close by and would take us down the remaining half of the mountain. My wife and I took this lift and in 15 or so minutes arrived in the village of Tulfes. We had only a minute to make the bus stop or have to wait an hour – which would have been pleasant for we were in a lovely village, but we had promised to return by an early time. We ran like youthful deer to make our bus connection and did – just barely.
The thirty-minute ride back to Innsbruck was pleasant. We passed through several villages, past farms, and fields of corn and wheat.
Our hike had taken about 7 hours with the tram rides, eating, enjoying the views and petting cows. What a fantastic day.
Imst is a beautiful town in Western Tirol. Here visitors will find a wonderful gorge that gushes with cascades and roars with waterfalls. The hike begins in the middle of town near a centuries-old church, within minutes a visitor is traversing a series of catwalks and footbridges while exploring this rugged landscape. Steps along the trail are often carved from the rock itself, and if wet, can be slippery so wear decent hiking shoes. In fact, my local guide would not go on the trail for several days after a rain as she believed the steps to be too slippery.
The actual hike is not difficult, but there are several areas where the trail is very steep while other sections have low overhangs. Expect a 250 m (820 ft) elevation gain while exploring the 1.5 km (.9 mile) long gorge.
This is a beautiful place but be prepared for a good number of people in the summertime. Consider going on the early side to lessen the number of people on the trail with you. Be prepared for an unexpected rain shower; during my visit, a sudden and very unexpected rain shower poured from the sky on us for about ten minutes, then as quickly as it started, the rain ceased and the sky was clear again.
The sound of water is always around you in the gorge.
Near the top of the falls is a recreation area with opportunities for playing and dining. Plan for several hours to fully explore the gorge at a leisurely pace.
The scenery on the drive to the mountain village of Kühtai, located in the Tirolean Alps, was splendidly delicious. The town was located less than an hour’s drive from Innsbruck but passed all manner of natural delights: mountains helmeted with snow, cascading streams of water, thick carpets of forests and open expanses of glacial carved valleys. Tan colored cows were commonly seen walking on the roads and signs warning drivers of their presence were common.
Our goal that warm summer day was to locate and touch snow.
The village was basically closed when we arrived. It was a winter ski town and sat snuggly within a mountain pass, far above the trees.
The empty town had a number of buildings but it was not uninhabited; two good-looking blondes approached our group, horses, of course, a mare and a yearling greeted us. They were soft to the touch and were curious about our backpacks. At that moment a tourist bus drove past. Everyone inside looked longingly as we pet the horses and they nuzzled our hands in return, but the bus did not stop, it just continued down the road.
We started the hike. The unseen trail was at a 45-degree angle and hard to navigate. Fortunately, we located the real trail and the ascent was lessened but we still gained elevation. For some time we walked on this thin ribbon of trail that spiraled around the side of the mountain. The terrain was barren, only small plants and grasses grew at this elevation above the tree line. The metallic clank of bells informed us that cows were just ahead – one was very friendly. As we walked out of an indented section of the trail we came to an open area where we could see a great distance, a number of cows and horses were grazing. A guard horse stood at attention and watched us closely, the wind blowing wild streams of blond and tan colored hair across his face. In this open area, when the wind was just right, we could hear bells from several kilometers away being worn by cows on the opposite side of the great valley.
Gentle trickles of water rippled down the mountainside offering opportunities to hop and skip over streams, rocks and sometimes slip to find a quagmire of mud. The wind was cool on the mountain, we placed warm knitted hats over our ears to protect us from the nippy chill.
A lake appeared before us. It was difficult to see from afar as its mirrored surface reflected all that shown upon it – it was a perfect camouflage, that is until the stillness was disturbed by a thrown stone. Then, as the rolling ripples raced away from the disturbance, in perfect circles, the colors and tones of blues and greens revealed themselves. The lake revealed that it hid some deep water.
The trail grew steep again. Several cows watched us from nearby. One even let us pet it – it was surprisingly soft. Ahead of us was lettering etched on the side of the mountain, they were large capitals, possibly as large as a man is tall, the letters spelled M-E-I-N. In English, this translates to ‘mine.’ Such a statement gave a person pause to contemplate the meaning.
Our small troop was still well below the snow line and there was concern that maybe our hopes to touch snow would be dashed. We crested a rise in the trail. A stream with a respectable flow of water was disgorging itself from the ground. Beyond lay a marshy area, more appropriately the ‘ground’ was mossy, spongy and acted like a trampoline as we walked, astronaut-like, across this green moonscape.
A hole, about the size of a large grapefruit, was in the ground near some rocks – there were tracks around it. This was a Marmot’s home. A Marmot is a furry creature that looks like a giant Guinea Pig – but tougher, more independent…rugged. Just beyond lay another hole, possibly several Marmots lived here, but more likely this was just a back entrance.
The spongy area now turned to grass, but it was littered with the candy-sized droppings from mountain sheep. We skipped on rocks to avoid the abundant sweetness on the ground. With our eyes patrolling where we stepped none noticed the rubble field that lay before us.
We stood at the base of a great alluvial fan of shattered, shocked and shards of granite that had fallen from the face of the mountain. The source of this stone projected itself skyward into the blue many hundred of meters. Part way across this expanse of gray rubble and dark boulders were two tiny dots of white snow. We carefully hop-scotched and danced across stones; some as voluminous as autos, others the size of a phone book. After fifteen minutes of trudging the white dots were now the size of a small room. We had found the snow! Those who arrived at the snow ahead of us slower, more careful and diligent hikers, took inventory of their resources and seeing an abundant supply of not just snow, but icy-cold-slushy snow, decided to pelt their comrades.
The Snowballs rained down! The icy artillery slammed into the rocks with a ‘splud’ releasing spray and ice. Most of the snowballs were tossed in amusement and humor, but on occasion, I felt the sting of a good joke as the spray from a snowball made contact – or worse found an opening in my jacket and felt like frigid fingernails down the back of my shirt!
Finally, everyone arrived at the island of snow in this ocean of stone. We built a small “Schneemann” (snowman). We devoured our small lunches and contemplated the beauty around us, though my thoughts kept returning to my lunch, rather the lack of it, and that next time I would pack edible provisions with significantly greater mass.
An arctic type chill descended on the valley. The vagrant white clouds that had lazily wafted overhead all day had quickly gathered into a sizable gray mob on the horizon. The Grandpa in the group informed us to pack up, it was time to leave the mountain.
We departed the snow patch, over the jagged stones and through the spongy marsh area, and over the mountainside but on a downward path. We passed another lake. It was beautiful but oddly warm to the touch – it lacked the expected chill. A large boulder in the lake appeared to rise from the temperate still waters.
It started to rain. We donned our rain gear and continued down the mountain. After twenty minutes the rain let up and the sun briefly illuminated the valley. After a few additional minutes the warm sun was replaced with overcast clouds.
Ahead of us was a herd of horses that was very pleasing to the sight. They were tan, muscular, healthy and dined on an abundance of the green mountain grass.
We called them ‘the nibblers’ at first, as their nibbling was cute. A mother horse nibbled on a jacket, a shirt then a backpack. Something about the backpack was intriguing so she informed her yearling, who bounded over to engage in a taste test. Then other horses arrived. These majestic creatures must have thought of us as walking food bins as they too nibbled on us and everything on us: our shoes, pants, backpacks, jackets, rain jackets, shirts, hands, arms – even my daughter’s head! This behavior had quickly passed from cute to annoying and was starting to border on fear. In the midst of this nibbling chaos, a horse appeared to slowly glance this way, then that as though he was looking to make sure no one else was around before we, the humans, would be devoured. That same horse then looked squarely at me – and it is not a stretch of the truth to say this – the horse licked its lips as though anticipating wolfing down a decadent meal! Now I was genuinely concerned for my safety. These were not gentle Alpine horses, but mountain piranhas! We took our leave of them and scurried down the hill and to the village. As we moved away one horse stepped from the hungry pack to look longingly our direction, possibly out of curiosity, but more likely with a pang of hunger! Other hikers were in the distance and would soon pass the horses; sensing a second chance the horses re-staged themselves for their next performance and returned to their melancholy grazing. They would be having visitors for lunch…
The buildings of the village now appeared before us, but in miniature, like toys in a child’s room. In our bid to escape the horse-piranhas we had lost the trail, and instead invented our own, which was now 45 degrees in decent. We moved down a small crease in the side of the mountain, occasionally scaring up a frog. Some of the frogs were of good proportion and we joked that we were always seeing the same frog who was trying to escape us. My daughter collected wildflowers on the way and made a beautiful bouquet.
Back in the village, it was quiet. We looked for a place to grab a coffee and relax, but none was to be found in this Alpine ghost town of modern buildings. A chilled wind blew around us so we gave up on coffee and headed back to the car. At the vehicle, everyone gladly unleashed their barking feet from the restraints of the hiking boots. We then slid our feet into squishy, roomy and comfortable sandals.
Our feet were sore, our knees ached, our faces were slightly windburned, we had too much sun, we were thirsty, hungry and tired. But, it was a good tired!
Everyone had a fun, eventful and meaningful day being outside, with good company in these beautiful Alpine mountains.
I breathed in a deep breath of cool mountain air and held it in my lungs, savoring the ‘deliciousness’ and not wanting to breath out.
Another tour bus blared past. Eager faces were pressed near the tinted glass, they appeared to be anxious and wanting of an active experience.
The Achensee (ah-khen-say) is a beautiful natural lake nestled in the mountains of Tirol, Austria. The lake is sizable being 1 km wide and 9.5 km in length. It was to this lake that we traveled for a day trip.
The Austrian countryside sped past our window as the modern, aerodynamic train shot down rails of seamless steel. After a quiet, thirty minutes ride from Innsbruck, we departed at the Jenbach Bahnhof (Jenbach Train station) and proceeded only a few steps to the waiting Achenseebahn (Achensee train).
Here stood a mechanized anachronism; an old-time, coal-burning, steam engine. It traveled on a narrow gauge rail, yet the engine was surprisingly large. The engine was oily, smelled of grease and belched and hissed steam. Inside the engineer’s cockpit, a messy pile of coal was sprawled across the metal floor. Along the sides of the machine were giant metallic wheels which supported the steam engine’s carriage. Underneath and between the wheels was a giant gear – a third rail – this was used by the train for traversing steep gradients.
We boarded one of two open-sided passenger cars. An antiquated latch locked a mini-door and kept several of us pinned in our row. A plaque on the wall stated the car was built in 1889 for Kaiser und König (Emperor and King).
The steam engine’s whistle was activated and a long high-pitched wail announced the start of the journey, with a small chug the behemoth came to life. The chugs grew with intensity and the entire train lurched forward as the engine pushed the cars uphill. Just one minute into the trip the tracks became steep and the third rail was activated, a clank-clank-clank of the greased metal gear could be heard.
Geysers of dark smoke belched from the engine’s stack, the plumes repeated faster and faster as the machine’s power came to full strength. An engineer or an assistant shoveled coal into the engine’s furnace to feed the fiery beast. The burning coal boiled water and produced steam, this in-turn powered gears that moved the locomotive ever further up the hill.
The cars were pushed by the engine about as fast as a person could jog; through forests, past houses, small villages, and fields. Cars would stop at crossing signals and patiently wait for the train to pass, the people inside the autos were smiling just from seeing this historic train. On occasion tourists would run to a fence and start snapping photos, people in the train would wave back. The engineer would blast the whistle to add some zest to the excitement.
Sitting in the passenger car with my arm on the railing, I noticed my outside arm was suddenly covered in ash! The great billow of dark smoke had risen over the cars and the heavier ash particles were softly raining down.
After the train crossed the highest point the engine was detached from the cars, it then traveled on a parallel track to the front of the train and was re-attached. Now the engine pulled the train. We resumed our trip. After a few minutes the track curved and in the distance was a sheet of blue hidden among the trees – this was the Achensee, a great inland lake, the largest in Austria. The lake rested in a deeply carved valley surrounded by high Alpine mountains.
A jet of steam was released from the side of the engine as the train stopped just meters away from the lake, we had arrived at the Achensee. The engineer jumped out and pulled a large faucet arm over to the engine and released a great flow of water. The steam engine greedily guzzled water to replenish itself for the return trip – a trip this steam engine had made thousands of times over the past hundred years.
The lake was beautiful, and because it was easy accessibility by automobiles and buses, the lake was a tourist haven, especially along the southern and western shore of the lake where we had arrived.
We walked on a lakeside trail for about 5 kilometers before we finally passed the last of the restaurants, tour buses and a multitude of visitors. It seemed odd that so many folks who visited these areas of comfort and relaxation looked unhappy and solemn from behind their sunglasses and wide-brimmed sun hats.
The trail we were on followed the edge of this elegant lake. Once we were past the touristy area the paved pathway narrowed, then became gravel walkway, then smaller again to become a dirt footpath. The lake began to reveal itself as we walked and passed small springs and quiet pebbled beaches. At one point a waterfall burst over the edge of a precipice – from fifty feet above – and tumbled down upon the path. The force of the water was strong but this part of the trail was shielded by a tin-roofed structure that looked all the worse for wear. The falling liquid drummed loudly on the roof as we passed under it.
The trail meandered along the inlets and indented shoreline of the lake. At one point we passed a great disgorgement of stone that had slid off the mountain – the action had created a jumble of rocks that fanned into the lake – we stood at the tip of a giant landslide. The mountain above was scarred like a great wound had been inflicted upon the surface.
We had been walking for two and a half hours since we left the train and were hungry. The plan was to meet several family members at an Alm about halfway up the northwestern side of the lake. They would arrive by ferry. We met them at the Alm and ate lunch, though, afterward we wished we had not eaten, for the meal was industrial in its preparation and it was presented without emotion. The meal was a disservice both in flavor and price paid -it did not represent this beautiful area. Having said that I must add that as I left the restaurant we passed others wolfing down the same meal, they were raving about how good it tasted.
We went outside and waited for the ferry. Our return trip would be by boat rather than by shoreline.
A large ferry boat out on the lake blurted its horn. It approached and with surprising agility maneuvered up to a small dock; we boarded. Not many people were on the ferry and we had the ship mostly to ourselves. Placards inside the main cabin advertised a nighttime cruise, an attached photo showed a sparkling and illuminated vessel on a dark body of water with a setting sun over a backdrop of mountains.
The ship hugged the shoreline. Now, just offshore I could study the topography of the steep and rugged mountains; from the sharp angle of the land entering the lake, it was obvious our ship traversed over deep waters. Looking overboard and into the lake’s water, the late afternoon sun shot lances of light down into the depths. The visibility was about 9m (27 feet) or so.
The recently eaten lunch sat in my tummy like a brick and I thought that if the vessel was struck by a calamity and sank into the dark waters of the Achensee that I would sink with it, like a stone, all because of that unfortunate meal that weighed so heavily on my stomach.
Within twenty minutes the vessel covered the same distance that I had walked in about 2 and half hours on the shoreline. It was then I realized I had not been so far away from the touristy area as I perceived myself to be, in fact, I had been in the middle of it. We docked near some hotels to gather passengers and the same solemn looking tourists I had seen earlier boarded. I guess they had eaten some terrible food too and that unhappy experience had etched itself on their faces.
In another fifteen minutes, the ship docked again and we disembarked. The Achenseebahn was quietly puffing away, waiting for us and others to board and be returned down the mountain.
The engine growled to life and we enjoyed a pleasant journey back to the train station. Everyone was tired and some of the people on the train slept, which was surprising considering the noise from the engine.
The late afternoon light provided great opportunities for photos as the train descended into the Inn Valley. In the distance, the train station and our final stop. Ten minutes later a modern, electric powered train arrived at the adjoining station and transported us back to Innsbruck in comfort.
If you stand anywhere in Innsbruck, Austria, you will notice an imposing mountain range rising 2454m (8051 feet) over this beautiful city. This is the Nordkette (Northern Chain) – an immense wall of granite with numerous peaks and trails to explore. Visitors can easily visit via the Nordkettenbahn (gondola) which whisks people up the mountain in 20 minutes.
Starting near downtown Innsbruck (560m, 1837 feet), visitors can take the fast and modern Hungerburgbahn and in ten minutes be within a few steps to the Nordkettenbahn (gondola).
The Nordkettenbahn (gondola) glides over rooftops and farms, hiking and biking trails that quickly reveal themselves hidden among the trees. The sun that day was bright and the clean air allowed for endless vistas as the gondola ascended ever higher. After 15 minutes we stopped at a solid rock building known as the Seegrube.
The Seegrube station is located at 1905m (6350 feet) and offers a restaurant and areas outside for play and exploration. It is a joy to walk down the mountainside from this location, but that is another story.
In the summertime musical events are held outside Seegrube and people often bring tents and camp out on the side of the mountain. The terrain here is rocky and barren looking, but quite beautiful. As people disembarked from the gondola a nippy temperature embraced everyone. People quickly began putting on warm hats and an extra jacket.
We walked a few paces inside the building to the second leg of the gondola ride. A small cable-car glided into the station; this was the more petite-sized Hafelekar station bound gondola. In a few minutes our gondola-pod, holding maybe 10 or 12 people, rose over the shattered and rough looking stones below. We climbed, at a very steep ascent of 40-45 degree angle up the mountain. Upon the barren rock face were large metallic structures, fences designed to hold great weight and guard the city below against avalanches.
As we approached the Hafelekar our gondola slowed to a crawl. At that moment a powerful wind gush pushed the car to one side and people in the pod briefly lost their footing. As the pod swung back the operator increased the speed and the pod – with a hard bump and then a dull thud – arrived safely at Hafelekar, elevation 2256m (7729 feet). The landscape here was naked, only grass and lichens were visible on a barren landscape of jagged stone. The air was cold – around 6 degrees C (42F) and made colder by the fierce wind that boxed our ears and made our eyes tear.
Several tourists wearing only shorts, a t-shirt and a camera bolted quickly up the mountain for photos. After ten minutes they vigorously returned and clamored into the warmth of the station.
Reaching the actual top of the mountain requires 15 minutes walk up a steep and rocky path to the summit of Hafelekarspitze. This small trail was well worn during the years of visitation. The top of the mountain has a small protective rock wall for visitors, near this area sits a large cross. From the mountaintop, you can see miles beyond in every direction. Below, Innsbruck appeared like a miniature toy city, with tiny buildings and small train yard. The mighty Inn River was just a appeared to be a gentle ribbon of water.
Standing on top of the mountain the setting was peaceful; a bit windy, but the sun was shining, a blue sky was overhead, and the dramatically sculpted mountains surrounding us looked peaceful, but that was about to change.
While exploring some side trails the wind grew very fierce and some menacingly gray clouds appeared to spontaneously generate overhead. We quickly removed ourselves from the mountain via the gondola and shortly we stood again in Innsbruck. We peered up the great line of mountains, the area near the top – where we were – was blanketed by dark clouds and was hidden from view.
An hour afterward, these clouds had silently marched down the mountainside and were bathing Innsbruck in a cool rain.
An enjoyable outing while visiting Innsbruck, Austria, is Schloss Ambras. Schloss in German means castle. Plan to spend at least half a day to explore the armory, the chamber of curiosities, the gardens and the many rooms of this Renaissance palace. The castle houses a splendid collection of historical items and artifacts that have been collected over the centuries.
The first stop is the armory. Here visitors are greeted by a life-sized exhibit of armor-clad knights on horseback. The craftsmanship of the armor is first-rate. The metal work is so shiny that at times a visitor can be momentarily blinded by the reflecting lights. Adjacent rooms have a weaponry-cornucopia of swords, pikes, lances and a variety of hunting blades, even some of the earliest rifles.
The Chamber of Arts and Curiosities lives up to the name. Some of the items in the collection do not need an introduction, like a painting of Vlad the Impaler, who was notoriously known throughout the centuries as inflicting horrific, slow and grotesque deaths upon his enemies. His atrocities have sobered many throughout the years, causing a person to wonder if such a human was really a monster? Vlad was the inspiration for the character we know today as Dracula.
Another painting features a man who survived being impaled in the head at a jousting tournament and apparently survived well enough and long enough for his portrait to be painted.
The collection includes hundreds of items, but one tiny wooden sculpture, called the Tödlein, less than foot tall, is so ornately carved with such precision and detail that one catches their breath – only then to see the carving is without facial features – a skeletal head with deep and empty eye sockets and the toothy face of Death – and one catches their breath again.
Walking across the green courtyard in the brilliant sunlight you pass a small cafe and walk to the upper castle. Here is the Elegant Spanish Hall. This beautiful hall was built between 150 and 1572 and is truly a feast for the eyes. As in years before people have donned their finest attire to attend waltzes, balls, and social events and visit this hall for an evening of revelry and fun. Today, waltzes and other events continue held here in this lovely hall.
The remainder of the main castle offers 4 floors to explore. On these floors are 250 paintings from over 400 years of members from the House of Hapsburg and relations. You can also find special traveling exhibits. There is also a small, but the ornate church, and a bath hall.
Finish up the visit by exploring the lush grounds that surround the castle.
A very curious place to visit in Innsbruck, Austria, is the Hofkirche (Court Church). The Hofkirche houses the tomb built for Emperor Maximilian I and is ringed by 28 ornately crafted bronze statues that stand 2 to 2.5 meters high. These tomb guardians represent the Emperor’s ancestors and his heroes of antiquity, including King Arthur.
These statues were cast with magnificent detail and some have facial expressions with such workmanship that when the light is just right you have to look twice to make sure the statue did not blink.
On top of the cenotaph (the Emperor’s Tomb) in the center of the Hofkirche is a kneeling Emperor Maximilian. He is surrounded by the cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence. Maximilian is kneeling in the direction of the church’s alter. Below are ornately carved wooden pews. It is common to see visitors to the church sitting in the pews, or kneeling in prayer. The church itself is surprisingly bright with lances of natural light shooting in from the windows. The light plays well with the dark statues and alternating black/white diamond pattern inlaid into the floor.
Construction on the tomb began around 1500 and took more than 80 years to be completed – long after the Emperor’s death in 1519. Perhaps the most curious item about this ornate place is that the Emperor is not buried in the tomb. This slight oversight in the original plan does not diminish the artisan craftsmanship, metallurgy, stonemasonry, or stone carving skill that helped to create this amazing place and is considered Innsbruck’s “most notable work of art.” (Innsbruck, the City Guide).
Visitors to the Hofkirche should begin their visit with a short video followed by an immersive presentation that highlights the life and legacy of Emperor Maximilian I.
We purchased our tickets and walked into a pleasant courtyard. There a docent-led us into a small room. The wall included a number of paintings featuring the Emperor. The docent selected the language of the program (German, English, Italian, and Spanish that I saw, possibly more are offered) from a small device in the wall then left the room. The lights darkened and a presentation began about Maximilian’s early life and sections of the wall illuminated when being discussed. Then a section of the wall opened and we were beckoned into a dark chamber with a giant globe at its center. This part of the presentation focused on one of Maximilian’s favorite sayings, “He who does not make his monument in his life is not remembered after death and will be forgotten with the toll of the bell.” An unseen booming voice speaks and highlights Maximilian’s work, patronage of the arts, wars, marriages and ultimately his legacy, which shaped European events for centuries. The lighting and sections that open on the globe help to emphasize the words of the disembodied voice. Then another section of the wall opened and we are enticed into a third chamber that is dark and playing calming monastic songs. In the far part of the chamber is a painting showing the dead Emperor, at the edges of the chamber are white linen forms that resemble the shapes of the statues that we will later see. Additional history and story are given by an unseen voice and the program concludes. As it does loud bell tolls… the sound of a latch opens and a door opens and we step into blinding light. I suspect the desired effect was to simulate a ‘going to the light’ experience. Once my eyes readjusted to the light I looked over ten meters or so and the docent was inviting another small group into the first chamber. It was only a few steps to the Hofkirche and to see these ornately crafted bronze statues. The presentation was fun, educational and took about 15 minutes to complete.
When visiting plan thirty minutes to an hour for both the presentation and the visit to the Hofkirche.
An American visiting the Tirol of Austria will quickly learn the German word, ‘schön’ (sh-oo-n; the ö is pronounced like the double-o in ‘took’), the word for beautiful.
The Gleirschtal valley of Tirol, Austria, is schön, it is a feast for the senses, it is a place for playing, walking and seeing beautiful expanses of mountains, valleys, and sky.
The visit began with a 40-minute drive from Innsbruck up to the Sellraintal valley to the picturesque town of Sankt Sigmund im Sellrain. From here we could gaze into the adjoining Gleirschtal valley – our destination. We parked in a gravel lot just off the main road and walked a short distance to the Fuchs Spielplatz (the Foxes playground) so the kids could play. The playground offered young explorers tunnels, rope swings and structures for both the children – and parents. After half an hour, everyone continued up the trail, past a small bridge and up a gentle grade of this most picturesque valley.
The trail meandered through open fields and forested hillsides until opening up in a most astounding view; a green, and glacially sculpted valley with cows and horses grazing on the side of one mountain. The scene was punctuated with a gentle and cool wind in our faces and a sky was freckled with clouds.
After an hour’s walk enjoying similar vistas we arrived at an Alm. Outside the Alm were half a dozen tables, each packed with hikers and some families who drove up to the Alm. Most adults were enjoying large half-liter sized glasses wheat beer and having plates of yummy looking food. Cows grazed nearby and one seemed overly curious about our presence and approached the fence, but stayed beyond arm’s length. The kids stayed at the Alm with relatives to play while my wife and I continued up the trail another 30 minutes.
Soon the trail became extremely steep and zig-zagged up the valley. It appeared we were approaching the top as snow-topped peaks were ahead, but the mountains were just playing with us – as we reached the top the peaks were actually many kilometers away. Our thirty minutes were up and we had to return to the Alm.
We stopped to drink in the views; our thirst was quenched beyond expectations. From our vantage point, we saw snow capped peaks, mountain streams, forests, and carpets of green in the valley below. A cowbell could be heard somewhere far in the distance. In such an immense place a person feels small, yet connected to this land. It is a good place to recognize what is really important in a person’s life.
Walking down the valley was difficult, not because of the terrain, or altitude, but because the valley is astoundingly schön and you are intoxicated by the experience.
We retrieved the kids and returned down the valley. The walk provided an opportunity for all family members to explore the woods and run in the fields.
Experiencing a thunderstorm in the Austrian Alps is a mixture of angst and awe. One such storm was witnessed in the beautiful Alpine city of Innsbruck, Austria.
The morning was warm and muggy with just a few innocent puffy clouds lounging overhead. Throughout the day a haze of moisture slowly grew on the skyline. Beyond, in the western part of the Inn valley, menacing looking clouds slowly matured. As the sun lowered in the sky the stillness of the day was replaced with a breeze. The breeze quickly became stronger and was punctuated with stiff gusts of wind that pushed against trees and buildings. Lightning appeared in the distance over the mountains. The storm was approaching.
The lightning would rip down to the ground; the effect would envelop the entire sky with a blaze of light and simultaneously create outlines of two or three giant Alpine peaks. Many kilometers away it was obvious that a huge amount of energy had just been released. A few moments later a deep rumbling roar of thunder could be heard.
The storm seemed to race down the ancient Inn valley and approached Innsbruck. The lightning came closer and the wind grew in intensity. Drops of spat rain quickly became a sidewise wall of water forcing most of the onlookers inside. Gusts were so intense that objects on outside porches were blown over. The heart of the storm was close.
Lightning cascaded high in the clouds and illuminated the sky directly over the city. Mountainsides only several kilometers away were punched by great bolts of electricity – immediately followed by a loud boom. The lightning, at times, seemed to appear, disappear for a half-second, and then reappear in the same path as the first.
The intensity of the storm subsided as the lighting moved eastward. The thunder continued but this too diminished. Soon only the steady and peaceful beat of the rain was heard.
Winter can be a wonderful time to visit Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California.
We arrived at 10 a.m. (December 29th) and parked across from the old log building known as Big Basin Headquarters. The temperature outside was 44 degrees and the damp air was crisp. The morning clouds had dissipated and sunlight streaked through the forest canopy onto the ground below.
Surrounding the headquarters were goliaths – redwood trees that were 4, 5, and 6 feet across. One tree appeared to be 8 or 9 feet at the base. Even though I have visited here many times I am always impressed by the size and grandeur of these magnificent trees. But, today my family was here to see other sights – three magnificent waterfalls: Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls, and Golden Cascade.
We made sure our water bottles were full before crossing over Waddell Creek and onto the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail that would lead us to the waterfalls. The winter rains had made the forest green with color. The forest was quiet, peaceful and restorative.
After an hour or so of walking through the redwoods, the sounds of rushing water could be heard. The creek next to us, Kelly Creek, was alive with water and small cascades. Everything around was green and moist. The redwoods towered above us. The only sounds we heard were our breathing and our footsteps on the ground made gentle gushing noises as we walked on the damp trail. The cleanliness of the air was a joy to breathe! Something small at the side of the trail moved ahead of us, it was a newt that was slowly traversing the fallen logs and fern fronds.
At the Timms Creek trail junction, a fallen redwood had created a natural bridge (shown). We rested and played here for a few minutes then continued on. Soon, a rock overlook along the trail let us peer down onto Kelly Creek – a myriad of small white cascades dotted the creek, large brown boulders sat among ferns and broad-leafed plants and a color chart of green moss dotted the sides of trees.
The trail descended and crossed over a small footbridge. In a few minutes, we rounded a corner – ahead of us were the Berry Creek Falls.
These 65-foot falls drop vertically – plunging abruptly into a valley of redwoods and moss. To say this is ‘picturesque’ is an understatement.
We enjoyed the view then continued to a viewing platform about three-quarters the height of the falls for a direct look (shown is the view from the platform). For ten minutes we had this view all to ourselves. Then several other hikers arrived, they deserved the same tranquility we just enjoyed, so we moved on.
The trail continued upstream for about twenty minutes. Small cascades danced in the creek and gurgles of water made curious sounds as pools emptied over steep rocks. Here we saw a huge, bright yellow, banana slug about seven inches in length next to the trail. We had seen several banana slugs on the trail but this was by far the largest. The sound of falling water was coming from just up the trail.
Silver Falls began to appear through the redwoods. These falls were slightly hidden by the mass of trees, but it was easy to see the white and frothy ‘silvery’ water as it poured over the top and dropped a wonderful 60 feet or so into a pool below. A series of stairs on the trail wound up the side of the valley to the top of the falls. At the top was a single cable handrail (shown in the photo). The trail was a little slick so we proceeded with caution.
In just seconds we were at the Golden Cascade. These were actually two cascades; at the base was a vertical fall of about 15 feet, just above it was a much more impressive drop. I am not sure about the height, but for perspective notice the person in the photo (top right, wearing a red vest).
We enjoyed a well-deserved snack in this tranquil place then continued on our hike back to the car. Although it was an hour before sunset it was close to dark when we arrived at the parking area. These are some deep valleys and the trees are very, very tall. It can become dark quickly in the redwood forest.
I like to visit between rainstorms when the weather grants a two to three-day rest between showers allowing the trails to harden up a little. Seeing these waterfalls in the winter (and spring) are spectacular. The summer is a great time to visit too, but the streams have less water and sometimes can become just a trickle of water as fall approaches.
On our wintertime day hike, we passed only 14 people on the trail! The loop took us about 6 hours to complete and required roughly 11 miles of hiking – it is strenuous. This is a hike for families with older kids.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park was established in 1902 and was California’s first state park.
Big Basin is located a one hour drive from Saratoga, California and roughly half an hour from the town of Boulder Creek. The entrance fee is $10.
To continue your own explorations of Big Basin Redwoods State Park visit:
The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is the largest tree in the world!
How big is it? An interpretive display near the tree gives some perspective about the size of this giant, “Looking up at the General Sherman Tree for a six-foot-tall human is about the equivalent of a mouse looking up at the six-foot-tall human.”
In our video we provide a ‘sense of scale’ with a visit to a stone inlay ‘footprint’ found along the trail. This footprint represents the size of the tree at its base. Stand in the middle of this footprint and turn slowly around to better appreciate the size. The tree at its base is 103 feet in circumference (31 meters); and 36.5 feet (11 meters) in diameter.
The General Sherman Tree is approximately 2,200 years old. It is not the oldest, or the tallest – it is the biggest in terms of volume. How big? Back to the interpretive display, “If the Sherman Tree’s trunk could be filled with water it would provide enough water for 9,844 baths. That’s one bath every day for 27 years.”
If you want to see the tree even closer continue down the trail. The trail has lots of opportunities to see more, learn about and better appreciate this magnificent wonder of nature.
Visitors to the park can easily travel to the tree via the park’s shuttle. The shuttle is a free service offered to park visitors in the summer. An added benefit is that after walking half a mile downhill from the main shuttle stop you can easily jump on another shuttle and continue to see the sights of the park. Walking half a mile is not that far for some, but it you have an elderly relative who is not used to the altitude they will thank you for not having to climb back uphill.
Car parking is available at the main parking lot, but finding space can be a pain in the summer. Take the shuttle to avoid these headaches.
Buck Rock a great day trip for those visiting the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park and the Lodgepole area of Sequoia National Park.
A visit to the Buck Rock fire lookout in Sequoia National Forest is a combination of adventure and play. Just getting there from the main road is exciting: you drive up a dirt road through forest lands, then climb a rugged staircase up to the side of a granite wall to a fire lookout on top of a massive rock dome.
Most people who see Buck Rock will view it from Kings Canyon Overlook along the General’s Highway. The General’s Highway is the primary road between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. From this often crowded car turnout folks who look east will see a small, and remote looking fire lookout about 2 miles in the distance.
We wanted to go exploring and take a closer look.
Our trip started from the General’s Highway at the Big Meadows Road turnoff. We drove east on this paved road for about 3 miles through beautiful forest service lands to a Horse Camp. Here we turned north onto a dirt road and continued for roughly another 2 miles. The dirt road became a little rocky in some areas and was a little intimidating. We were glad to have a car with some higher clearance. [Note: later that day we did notice a mini-van and a small sedan that had made the drive.]
The parking area was essentially a pull-over along the side of the dirt road. A sign directed us to walk the last quarter-mile. As we rounded a bend in the trail and saw the impressive looking Buck Rock (shown); a chain of stairs rose from the base of a great stone and directed people to the fire lookout at the top.
At the bottom of the stairs were several friendly volunteers from the Buck Rock Foundation, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the tradition of fire lookouts and other historic facilities. The volunteers gladly answered questions and told us more about the history of the fire lookout.
We started our ascent on some very rugged and sturdy looking stairs with equally solid side-rails. The wind was a little strong so we tightened down our hats and continued on. The stairs included 172 steps – each with a breathtaking view. Finally, we reached the top of Buck Rock (shown) and entered the 14 x 14 foot, well-maintained fire lookout staffed by Ranger Kathryn. She is on duty 5 days a week during the fire season. Volunteers and other staff help maintain the station during her days off. This tiny station, located at 8,500 feet in elevation, commands some fantastic views!
In the corner of this tiny space was a small, but comfortable looking bed. In another corner was a tiny refrigerator and cooking stove, next to it was a miniature wood stove. All of the food, water, and firewood must be carried up the same 172 steps. One wall included a desk and work area. In the middle of the lookout was an Osborne Fire Finder device, an instrument that allows Rangers to sight a fire and determine the directional bearing (shown). The Ranger demonstrated how it worked by using two sighting apertures on the side of a large circular map. A fire was actually burning in the distance and from this high vantage point, we could easily sight it. The fire was burning 8 miles away! The sides of the lookout had large and roomy windows that made this small space feel spacious. I was surprised at how organized, comfortable and non-claustrophobic this tiny place was.
Outside, the building had a small walkway around the perimeter of the structure. Looking over the edge you felt as though you were suspended over open air. On the roof, hanging from one corner was a Hummingbird Feeder. During our visit, several times a Hummingbird (Anna’s or Rufus) zipped up and drank from the feeder.
We thanked everybody for a great visit and slowly walked back down the 172 stairs enjoying amazing views with each step.
For her adventurous spirit and climbing Buck Rock our youngest family member (age 9) earned an “I Climbed the 172 Steps to the Top of Buck Rock Fire Lookout” certificate. All kids who make the ascent can earn this certificate.
A visit to Mist Falls in Kings Canyon National Park is one of the great sights of the park.
The hike is moderately strenuous with about 800 feet of elevation gain. The round-trip is roughly 9.2 miles and can take up to 5 hours to complete, though we took 6 hours with all of our sightseeing.
Our day began at 8 in the morning. We started at the aptly named, ‘Roads End.’ This circular loop on Highway 180 is literally the ‘end of the road’ as this main Highway in the Kings Canyon stops and doubles back. From this point, the rugged wilderness is enjoyed on foot.
Immense glaciers once ruled this place, everything has been scoured and etched in some way by their great presence. Perhaps the most dramatic result is the great canyon walls that rise from the valley floor several thousand feet.
The sand and gravel trail continued for roughly 2 miles through forests, past great boulders and along the beautiful South Fork of the Kings River. Near the Bubbs Creek Trail junction, we saw a Black Bear. It was a magnificent sight! We quietly continued on our journey and allowed the bear to enjoy his day.
At the Bubbs Creek junction, the trail begins an incline. Here the river can conceal emerald pools hidden like gems along the trail. Quickly these pools turn to gentle rapids then become a series of white-water cascades that continue all the way to the falls two miles up the trail.
We rounded a corner and met a couple who had just returned from Mist Falls. We had seen several backpackers heading into the backcountry but these folks were the first-day hikers we had met. This active couple looked to be in their early 70’s. They must have started their hike at about 6 in the morning. We asked about the distance to the falls, both smiled but one answered, “It just keeps getting better from here.”
Soon afterward we stopped on an expanse of granite. This great monolith provided a good place to rest, drink some water and have a snack. From this place, we could turn around to fully see the valley below us. The view was jaw-dropping. Describing this scene is not possible, only that the word ‘beautiful’ is a weak word to define this spectacular sight. Dominating the view, 3 miles distant, was the uniquely shaped 9,146-foot mountain called, ‘The Sphinx.’
Finally, we reached Mist Falls. We could hear a roar as white-water exploded over the falls and tumbled beneath. The wind moving over the falls carried a fine mist downstream and into the surrounding forests. It was actually chilly. After drinking in this view we continued up the trail to another vantage point. Here the river’s channel created a flume. The flume slammed into a submerged boulder and catapulted a frothy and boiling mass of water 20 feet into the air – then disappeared over the edge of the falls. Further up the trail, we found a great view overlooking the falls. It was a sight. We enjoyed some lunch and this delicious experience.
A great family adventure is to go whale watching. Recently we heard the Blue and Humpback Whales were in large numbers in Monterey Bay off California’s Central Coast. The whales were feasting on the great population of krill, a shrimp-like a creature, that baleen whales love to eat.
Several companies in Monterey offer whale watching trips. We selected “Monterey Bay Whale Watch,” because they were recommended and have Marine Biologists and Marine Naturalists as guides on all trips. On the day we selected the morning trip was booked but we were able to reserve space for an afternoon 3-hour trip. The price was $36 per adult and $25 for kids – a price well worth the experience.
We boarded the 70-foot (21 meters) Sea Wolf II with about seventy other people. At first, this seemed to be a large number but we later found space not to be an issue. We had brought daypacks stuffed with hats, gloves, and extra jackets. At first, we felt awkward with our plump packs but once we entered the open water the wind became colder and we were glad to have the extra clothes.
The waves ranged between 2 and 4 feet (.6 -1.2 meters) that afternoon and the unpleasant sense of nausea was not felt – any suspicion of it was even forgotten when the whales appeared.
In the distance, we could see small geysers of vapor on the water. The whales were close!
We watched several groups of Humpback Whales before moving on to see the mighty Blue Whales. Blue whales are immense creatures – at 90 feet (27 meters) in length, they are the largest creatures ever on earth. These giants glided in the waves and apparently took no notice of us. At one point you could hear them breathe as they passed by.
Then we moved near a group of Humpback Whales. This group included a mother and calf that came within 40 feet (12 meters) or so of our vessel. The Calf was about 10 to 12 feet (3- 3.6 meters) long, the mom was possibly 45 feet (14 meters) in length. The mom made several dives to feed while the calf stayed near the surface. The calf seemed to enjoy frolicking, splashing and playing. Much of our video includes footage of this Humpback Whale Calf.
All too soon we returned to the harbor. Everyone in our family had a great time and no one had been sick. Even if we had felt sea-sick it would have been a treat to see these amazing animals – especially the Humpback calf who gave us great memories.
If you and your family have the opportunity to visit the General Grant Tree of Kings Canyon National Park you are in for a treat.
Parents can walk among and appreciate the majesty of these ancient and immense Giant Sequoia Redwood trees. Kids will enjoy being outside, playing in an old cabin and walking through the Fallen Monarch, a cave-like giant redwood that is so big that it once stabled 32 U.S. Cavalry horses.
The General Grant Tree is important because it is the world’s third-largest living thing (by volume). The General Grant is 268 feet (81.6 meters) in height and has a circumference of 107.5 feet (32.7 meters)! It is not just big, but ancient; although the exact age of The General Grant is not known the National Park Service’s web site estimates the tree to between 1800 and 2700 years old.
When visiting this tree spend a few minutes contemplating about the civilizations and people who lived about 2,000 years ago – then consider, the General Grant was likely an old tree when those people walked the earth. Wow.
Some ‘fun facts’ displayed on a placard near the General Grant Tree help visitors better understand more about this immense redwood.
If the trunk of the General Grant Tree was a gas tank on a car that got 25 miles per gallon, you could drive around the earth 350 times without refueling.
The General Grant Tree is so wide it would take about twenty people holding hands to make a complete circle around the base.
If the General Grant Tree’s trunk could be filled with sports equipment, it could hold 159,000 basketballs or more than 37 million ping-pong balls.
President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the General Grant Tree to be the Nation’s Christmas Tree in 1926. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated it as a National Shrine, a living memorial to those who have given their lives for their country.
Many of the Giant Redwood trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains were named just after the American Civil War. It was at this time the General Grant Tree was named after Ulysses S. Grant the final leader of the Union forces. A short distance away from the Grant Tree is the Robert E. Lee Tree, named for the leader of the Confederate forces. The Lee tree is the 12th largest tree on the planet.
The General Grant Tree and other Giant Sequoias are located in Kings Canyon National Park and the adjacent Sequoia National Park. Visitors to the Grant Tree can enjoy a self-guided trail that is half a mile (.8 kilometers) in length. The trail from the parking area is paved so wheelchairs and strollers are welcome. The location of the Grant Tree is roughly a 1.5 hours drive east of Fresno, California.
The High Peaks Trail takes you through the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations.
The hike can be strenuous and is not recommended for children. Start at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and walk up the Condor Gulch Trail. This part of the hike offers some great views of the Pinnacles. Stop at the Overlook for some water but also drink in the views.
The trail continues to climb but loops back allowing hikers to see the Bear Gulch area below. In the distance are rolling hills and beautiful views. The trail moves through chaparral and to a sparse, yet beautiful area before joining the High Peaks Trail.
Walking along the High Peaks trail a large monolith rises to the north of the canyon. This is Machete Ridge, below it is the Balconies Cave – but that is another hike. This trail winds through strange finger-shaped Pinnacles rock formations. A sign tells you the trail will become steep and narrow. After a few minutes hikers are rewarded with a vista of the High Peaks.
Continuing down the trail the path becomes steep, then appears to stop. Here the trail becomes footholds carved into the rock; well-worn handrails beckons hikers higher.
At the top of the Pinnacles, stop. Enjoy the view.
As the trail descends keep an eye out for Condors gliding overhead.
The High Peaks trail drops sharply then levels out revealing even more bizarre rock formations that hint at the monument’s volcanic past.
Note: This was produced several years before Pinnacles National Monument was renamed Pinnacles National Park. The references within the article and videos still use the term Monument.
The Balconies Cave and Cliffs loop is a great family hike at Pinnacles National Monument.
Start at the Chaparral Ranger Station at the West Entrance of Pinnacles National Monument to walk this easy to moderate 2.4-mile loop trail. The trail passes house-sized boulders and follows a small creek, gradually the trail funnels into a small canyon and the entrance of the Balconies Cave.
Balconies Cave is generally dry, but in the winter and spring wading might be required as you duck under boulders and scramble through tight squeezes. A flashlight is required. It is easy to imagine that this hidden trail takes you to a lost-world on the other side.
Just past the cave is the Balconies Cliffs Trail junction. Walk up the trail while keeping an eye open for a possible Condor or Turkey Vulture. At the top of the trail take a break and enjoy the breathtaking views of the surrounding area; in the background are the towering Machete Ridge and the immense Balconies Cliffs.
Walking down the path the scenery becomes greener. Enjoy the occasional wildflowers and great views. The Balconies Cliff Trail trail soon reconnects with the Balconies Trail and will return hikers to the parking area. Keep a watchful eye for the small waterfall on the left side of the trail during your return trip.
This is a great family hike at Pinnacles National Monument.
Visitors can start at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and hike up a moderately inclined trail to the entrance of Bear Gulch Cave. The hike to the reservoir is a short hike of 1.3 miles (one way), but it is action-packed.
The trail pleasantly meanders past a creek, between the rocks and through the trees. In about twenty minutes we arrive at the entrance of Bear Gulch Cave.
Inside the cave, we hear water trickling and light can be seen streaming down onto the trail in several sections. As we move into some dark passages the sound of rushing water becomes louder. Then the cave opens up into a large room. A waterfall rushes next to us as we climb steps that take us further into the cave.
Depending on the season the upper section of the cave might be closed to help protect a sensitive species of bat and their young. In our video this section of the cave is open to explorers – here a flashlight is required. We sometimes have to squat down and duck walk through several narrow sections while wading in ankle-deep water. For an eight-year-old (and adults too) this is a lot of fun.
Soon we emerge from the darkness and walk below house-sized boulders that are jammed into the canyon above us. Then we see a staircase chiseled from the rock itself. We walk up and are greeted by a small reservoir. Walking around the reservoir we look back at the dam and several amazing rock features that rise into the sky.