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.
When traveling in Europe ask the locals about farms that serve meals. It is a great way to eat fresh food, discover someplace new and experience the countryside.
During a trip to Tirol, Austria, we found a farm that served breakfast. There are many such farms in the Alps but this particular one was in the village of Mühlau, a district of Innsbruck, Austria. Breakfast is offered to the public on select Saturday mornings, and the locals suggested we arrive – earlier the better – as it was a very popular location.
We managed to catch a ride that morning. As the car drove quickly through the narrow streets of Mühlau not many people were out. Many of the houses had yards and bright and bountiful looking gardens. Several farms were in the area, but they integrated well with the houses and with other buildings in the town. A large green space weaved its way into the town and it was hard to tell where the town ended and the farms and green space began.
We arrived outside a small green yard with a sturdy looking house and several large wooden barns. Attached to the house was a newer section made of wood and glass. We entered through a heavy wooden door that swung inward, the inside building was made of a light colored wood with windows near the ceiling which allowed in an abundance of natural light. The room was clean and basic in design. A crucifix hung on one wall. Inside the room were nine or ten long tables, each with accompanying wooden benches at the sides. At these tables were maybe 80 people eating with a plate of food. The breakfast assortment included traditional items: homemade fresh bread, freshly made jam, slices of thin meat, speck, yogurt, cheese, fresh milk, some fruit, hard boiled eggs and cups of coffee.
A small line of folks was standing in front of a serving table that included baskets and serving plates. The line was held up because a basket of some critical food item was out. At that moment a woman emerged from a recessed back room, scurried over and refilled the basket of bread. Then another person, this time a child, ran over with clean mugs to refill the inventory, then another child walked over with a plate of cheeses. Then an older woman came out, this was the Mom; she straightened a few things, looked around and instructed the kids to work on some other items.
The atmosphere in the dining hall was relaxed and the people eating were content. Almost everyone there was locals.
A small sign with the letters ‘wc’ (water closet) hung on a large, carved wooden door. Opening the door you walked through a storage area that included a variety of farm implements and boxes of dried food, there was an inside door that opened into the family’s house! There was a hand-scrawled sign on the wall, that looked like a child hurriedly wrote it, with the letters ‘wc’ and an arrow. The arrow pointed to a small guest bathroom. I could hear a TV in one room and people talking from another room. It was an odd feeling just walking into someone’s house.
I was surprised that so many guests visited this house, yet the facilities remained very clean; it was also surprising that the family allowed strangers into where they lived.
Everyone visiting the small, local farm was courteous and treated the place and each other with respect. It was a refreshing experience.
When we finished our breakfast we found the farm Mom and paid for our meals. The cost was €7.50 (about $10) person. She invited us to look around outside.
The big barn was inhabited by 4 large brown cows and nearby we heard chickens, but they were cooped up because of all the visitors. We looked for horses, but a sign said they were up on the mountain. The kids who were visiting the farm enjoyed petting some bunnies and guinea pigs.
It was great being in the city and enjoying some good fresh and locally produced food.
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 a 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.
Religious shrines are abundant in the mountains, cultivated valleys, and forests of Tirol, Austria. The observant visitor will see them everywhere: at the edge of roads, on city streets, in the woods, at restaurants, in businesses, outside of cafes, and even on remote hiking trails.
Many of the smaller shrines are carved from wood, are raised off the ground, and sit at eye level. They can even be displayed on a tree. Inside these shrines, protected from direct wind and rain, can be paintings or photos of revered figures: the Madonna, Jesus, Saints or even loved ones.
Some shrines are large and placed in prominent places like sidewalks; while others are small and in out-of-the-way places. One of the smallest shrines I saw rested about 4 meters (12 feet) up a cliff, directly overhead, on a hiking trail. I would not have seen it if I had not stopped for a drink of water and happened to glance up.
Other shrines are made of stone or cement; they can be the size of a small car or that of a small bus. These shrines generally have a gate or a fence outside while inside are paintings or statues. Frequently I saw flowers, candles, and photos of people resting just inside such shrines.
In family-owned cafes or in people’s houses a small shrine might be found, but usually, the most common symbol to be seen is a large, ornately carved wooden Crucifix hanging in a corner or along the wall.
If you travel to the top of a mountain a large cross will be located at the highest point. A walk through a thick forest can even reveal a small shrine.
Every town has a church. These Alpine churches are often graced by the well-known tall rectangular spires that symbolize the Alps. Larger towns might have a basilica and in some cases cathedrals.
Tirol is sometimes referred to as the “Holy Land Tirol” by residents.
The great majority of Tirol’s populace are Roman Catholic.
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.
Ever wonder how those gigantic bells at the tops of cathedrals and town halls in Europe are made? A visit to the Bell Museum and Grassmayr Bell Foundry in the middle of Innsbruck, Austria, can help to answer that question.
For over 400 years bells have been forged at this small business. Visitors can explore the bell museum to learn about the manufacturing process, tour the old foundry and get a peek into the modern facility that continues to make bells. This is not a large museum, but a good amount of information and history is packed inside.
A ten-minute video plays continuously in a small room. It chronicles the birth of a bell from ore, through being produced, to completion. The video is in German, but English only speakers will still learn a good deal. Two items from the video are of particular interest: with all of the wars in Europe over the centuries few enterprises survived, however this bell foundry continued by producing cannons; the video also states that records were kept of all the bells that were made (over 6,000) but no records were kept of the number of cannons produced.
In the museum are bell patterns and casts of all sizes. Markings on the floor show sizes of some of the large bells – some of which are several meters in diameter! Outside is a courtyard lined with bells where you can see just how big and sturdy some of these amazing bells are up close.
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Whether you are visiting family members, on a tour, or independently exploring Tirol in Austria, you will ultimately find yourself eating at a restaurant or cafe. Here are four tips to help you have a more enjoyable meal.
In the U.S. a glass of drinking water (tap water) is always served in a restaurant and is complimentary with the meal. It is OK to have just water, and not any order social drinks, with a meal. Mineral water can appear on a menu, but is sometimes considered extravagant.
In Austria and much of Europe, a glass of (tap) water is not a complimentary item. Asking for just tap water, and not ordering social drinks, is considered rude and cheap.
Water can be ordered but what you will receive will be mineral water. The waiter will ask, “Do you want Stilles Wasser or Prickelndes Wasser?” Prickelnd means with bubbles, the water is carbonated; Stilles Wasser means no bubbles, just mineral water. The waiter will then bring a small bottle of mineral water to you.
If you want regular tap water, you can ask for it, but request it AFTER the other drinks have been ordered or when your meal is delivered to the table. Requesting water in this way will save any locals at your table any social discomfort or embarrassment.
The prices listed on menus have the tax included. A dinner that is advertised at €15.00 will cost you €15.00. Tipping will be extra.
What to Tip:
In the U.S. a waiter often earns a base pay (sometimes under minimum wage) and makes up the difference in pay through tips. In the EU, a waiter, as an employee is already covered by a handsome benefits package and has state-run health care. So, tipping in Austria has different rules than it does in the U.S.
I checked with natives of Innsbruck to ask how they tip. Their general rule is: if you order drinks, tip up to the next Euro. If you order food, tip several Euros. So when drinks cost €6.20 you might pay €7 which includes the tip; if dinner costs €25.40 you might pay €28.00 which also includes the tip. Be careful of touristy restaurants (a place that talks to you in good English and gives you a menu in American English) because they sometimes play to the American custom of tipping at 15% – 20% and will even print this request in the English worded menu. In the end, wherever you eat, if you receive excellent service tip what you wish.
Paying the Bill:
In America, a bill is placed on your table near the end of your meal. In Austria, you must ask for the bill. This custom does allow you to stay at the table and talk sometimes for hours. When you are ready to pay, identify yourself to the waiter and ask for the bill. In smaller restaurants, the owner will approach with a small change purse and a copy of the bill. The owner will show you the bill and say the total amount. You reply with the amount you will pay, (following the tipping rule). Any change will be returned.
Camping in Tirol, Austria, can be very different from camping in the U.S.
On a recent trip to Tirol, I was invited to go camping at a location about an hour east of Innsbruck in the beautiful countryside. What I encountered was very different from my expectations: camping under the stars, cooking over an open fire, and being away (or at least not too close) from other people. What I encountered was a more leisurely and communal form of camping. The closest American counterpart I can think of is staying at a KOA.
The experience began with turning off the main highway and traveling down a nicely paved road lined the waving flags. This guided us to a central building that included a restaurant, recreation room, showers, and a small cafe. I was surprised to see the campground even offered Wi-Fi. Cars and trailers were parked in organized rows, each in a specific lot. We parked our car in a side parking area and walked to our trailer.
Outside the small trailer was a raised platform where a small table or chairs could be set and a shade cloth raised overhead. The remaining grassy area was maybe 9 meters square. The neighbors’ trailer provided the boundary of the lot on one side, some bushes on another with the road providing the third side, the trailer fenced in the fourth side. You could pitch a tent in this space if you wanted.
At one point in the afternoon, everyone walked to a small lake about 5 minutes away, it was surrounded by a large green space with an abundance of geese. The lake was picturesque and a good many folks enjoyed swimming in it. Nearby was a small water monitoring facility. I was told that on weekends the lake is packed. Some locals visiting the camping area told me the owners are very concerned about the quality and safety of the water as it “was the basis of their livelihood.” Afterwards, we returned to the campsite.
A long extension cord snaked from some unseen power box into our site and into the side on an electric grill. Dinner was prepared on the grill and everyone helped to set the table. We took the dishes to a large building that offered hot showers and included a large bank of sinks for washing dishes.
In the evening people stayed inside their trailers, socialized or watched tv. For those in tents, they stayed up talking.
I was surprised that for all of the compactness of the campground, it was quiet and the neighbors were very pleasant.
Many of the campers had brought their RV or trailer to the campground and leased space on a long-term basis; the purpose being that on weekends or during time off they might come to the campground to relax.
If you get the opportunity to go camping in Europe by all means do, you will have a good time; but set your expectation that such ‘camping’ might be more leisurely and less roughing it.
Grocery shopping in Austria is one of the best ways to learn the German language and discover this great culture. First-time shoppers from America will see many similarities in the grocery stores, but there are some differences. Here are some tips to better enjoy grocery shopping.
Bring a Bag
In the U.S., bags are often included as a ‘courtesy’ item when you shop. In Austria, the stores expect you to come prepared with your bags. The locals generally use cloth mesh or fabric bags that are lightweight. If you do not have a bag the store will be happy to sell you one, for a small fee. Most of the paper bags I saw for purchase were 20 cents. If you are traveling and don’t have a bag you can use a daypack. The store does not mind what you use for bagging as long as you quickly make room for the next customer.
Weigh Those Veggies
At most U.S. stores you take the fruits and vegetables to checkout and the checker (from memory) enters a code into the register while the items are weighed. In Austria, you might need to approach a scale, weigh the food, and type in an item code. A sticker emerges from the scale and you attach it to the item or bag. Some pre-packed veggies are already weighed and marked. Be observant, don’t just grab some veggies and rush to the checkout, take a second to look to see if it needs to be weighed or it is already marked.
Bag Your Groceries…Quickly
In the U.S. the checkout person will scan/weigh the food and send it down a small chute where the food queues up and, if we’re lucky, a store employee bags the groceries. In Austria, you or another person in your group needs to be ready to bag the food immediately after it has been rung up. There is generally little space for food to queue and in some cases no area at all – as in a drop-off. If you are slow with this process and food backs up, you might earn a wrathful look from the checkout person or others in line. Best to be ready to bag.
Rent a Shopping Cart
I have seen in a few places in the U.S. where grocery carts are rented using a quarter or a dollar coin as a deposit, but it really has not caught on in the States. However, in Austria, and much of Europe, use of coins are commonplace. When you approach a grocery store you will see the shopping carts are locked together. Have a 50 cent coin or a 1 Euro coin in your pocket. Insert it into a coin area on the cart’s handle and unchain the cart. At the end of shopping, return the cart, re-chain it, and your deposit money is returned.
Tax is Included
In Austria, the food is taxed, but the tax is included in the final price. If something costs you 1 Euro, you do not have to pay additional. As a traveler I find this helpful with budgeting my daily expenses; I do not have to consider an additional 7% -10% on top of the final price. I found this to be the case with many food items in restaurants as well, taxes were included in the price.
Know About Bio
Some food will have the letters B-I-O written on the packaging or signage. This food is generally more expensive than conventionally grown food. This is Bio (pronounced, be-oh), and the closest thing in the U.S. we have to this is the ‘organic’ label. Bio is part of a healthy foods movement and like the organic label has made tremendous strides to improve food quality, but (this my observation) it is possible the label often gets used when possibly it does not meet required standards – or people refer to something a Bio when it is not. I did buy some food (vegetables and walnuts) that were Bio but found it originated from overseas at a location I would question. I asked some locals about the Biolabeling, they were comfortable with buying bioproducts “because it was safe.” When other locals were asked about a recent Bio food scare in Germany involving tainted sprouts, where several people contracted food poisoning and some even died, the response was, that it was a terrible accident, and to be safe, “shop from the local farmer first, then buy Bio, then look at conventional foods.”
Farmers markets are alive and well, but you might need to look for them. Innsbruck has a downtown farmers market and on Saturday such markets can be found on certain corners. The corner market near me in Innsbruck is small, with just a few farmers selling items, but they have the standards: fresh greens, fresh bread, some meat products, and honey. Some items are high in price, but the in-season veggies and bread are more reasonable.
Visit at Off Times
If you are uncomfortable speaking German try to visit stores at down times when they are not packed with customers. The staff is more open to helping you find things and are more willing to speak. You might have several conversations in broken English/German with the store staff but it is always good fun.
Check the Hours
In the U.S. there is usually some store in town that is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. In Austria, the stores have more standard hours (like 9 am to 6 pm) and might be closed on Sunday. Plan ahead and take note of when your local store is open to make sure you have the food items you need.
When traveling overseas it is important to observe how local families interact with their kids, it will tell you a great deal about the culture.
The playgrounds in Tirol, Austria, speak volumes.
The playgrounds are nothing like the low-risk, cushioned, gently-sloped, plastic, shredded rubber turf play structures that dot the city parks and schools in the US.
Many of the Tirolean play structures are two to three stories tall, made of solid wood, have pulleys, rope bridges, ramps, water flumes, sand pits, lengthy slides, zip-cords, and … teeter-totters! I cannot remember the last time I saw a teeter-totter in an American playground. One play area even had a small rock climbing wall.
Most interesting is that when playing on private land a parent does not need to sign multiple liability waivers just so the kids can play.
I have seen a variety of playgrounds in Tirol, all have safety designed into the structures, but they are also architected to foster independence, spark creativity, and provide a setting for kids to make decisions – and some decisions on these play structures of have an element of risk.
Of all the play areas I have seen, except one, parents were engaged with their kids and having fun as a family.
Below are some photos of what families can expect playing in Tirol.
A visit to Año Nuevo State Park along California’s central coast is a must for active families.
Seals can be seen at Año Nuevo throughout the year, but in the wintertime, the beaches are packed as males battle for mates and females give birth to pups. The size of this gathering makes it one of the largest mainland breeding colonies for northern elephant seals in the world. What makes this place especially fun is that visitors can get up-close with these amazing creatures.
Elephant seals are curious to behold; at first glance, they look like giant sausages on the beach, when they move it is similar to the way Jello moves when giggled. The males have large elephantine-like noses which give the seals their name. Some of the males are huge – they can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and be 15 feet in length! If you are curious how heavy 5,000 pounds are, it is roughly the same weight as 16 football linebackers! These giant seals might look slow moving but when provoked these undulating masses of blubber can move a speedy 25 feet in several seconds.
Possibly the most unusual feature about elephant seals are their bellowing vocalizations. At best, it sounds like a deep guttural burp mixed with low-frequency popping noises. You can hear moms, pups, and males here.
The seals spend much of their life at sea traveling great distances, sometimes swimming an astounding 5,000 miles before resting on land.
The elephant seals were once thought to be extinct. The seals have a lot of fat on their bodies, and at one time their fat was a hot commodity as a fuel source for oil lamps. In the 1800s as whale populations diminished from over hunting a new source of prevalent, easy-to-obtain oil was sought. The large, slow-moving (slow at least on land) elephant seals were an easy harvest. Their population soon plummeted and the seals were thought to be extinct on the California coast. Fortunately, a small group survived in Mexico; this population, thought to be less than 100 individuals, was eventually protected and their population slowly grew.
In the winter months, primarily in January and February, the males battle for control of harems and mating rights. When two males challenge each other they loudly slam their massive bodies into one another sometimes raking teeth across their opponent’s body. It is common to see males with bloody scars and lacerations on their heads and fronts.
During December through March, access to the breeding area is only available through guided walks. These docent-led groups consist of 10 to 20 people and are led every quarter hour. You can easily make reservations online. On the day of your appointment check in at the visitor center to confirm your arrival. Then make your way to the staging area, which is about a three-quarter mile walk. At the staging area, you will be introduced to a docent who will guide you into the protected breeding area. This walk takes about an hour and a half. Afterward, enjoy a walk back to the visitor center, or explore a nearby beach and trails.
The docent lead tours are held rain or shine. Bring layered clothes, a sun hat (or rain gear) and plenty of water.
Año Nuevo is located a 45 minutes drive south of Half Moon Bay, California.
To learn more and make reservations:
Families can find solace and fun along the rocky shoreline, living dunes and restful lodging at Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California.
The word Asilomar means ‘refuge by the sea’ and this beautiful place represent its name well.
The State Beach area offers many sandy coves to explore, fascinating tidepools and rock bluffs. The two-lane Sunset Drive provides a number of car turn-outs for those wishing a quick look. However, to maximize the experience take the entire family out to explore the one-mile trail that hugs the shoreline. Do not be surprised to see the head of a sea lion or harbor seal popping to the surface looking inquisitively back at curious humans.
At the southern end of the trail visit a beautiful beach area, or cross the road to enjoy a half-mile meandering boardwalk through picturesque dunes. Immediately a visitor recognizes the dunes look different from other coastal areas; it does because only native plants grow in this protected area. Once the native plants that grew here were almost lost, but through many years of replanting and stewardship the dunes today are an ecological masterpiece of native plant restoration.
A forest of beautiful Monterey pine trees greets visitors as they exit the boardwalk. Here sits the conference center and grounds with: a lecture hall, meeting rooms, overnight lodging rooms, and dining facilities. These structures fit nicely into the landscape and are dotted throughout the trees. Many of the buildings were designed by the famed architect Julia Morgan; she embraced an architectural style “to bring people back in touch with nature, and thus restore balance, health, harmony, and happiness.”
Deer are a common sight along the side paths at the conference center.
Brochures about the Coast Trail, the Living Dunes, and Julia Morgan’s Architecture can be obtained at the Front Desk of the conference center.
Sunset Drive can be very busy with sightseers during the summer and on weekends. The morning and sunset hours can be especially beautiful along the beach.
Reference: Julia Morgan’s Architecture Brochure
To learn more about Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds visit these web addresses:
One morning Grandpa announced that he was hungry for pecan pie. His eyes doubled in size when he purred the words ‘pecan pie.’ He knew of an Amish bakery about 30 miles away that made excellent pies, cookies, bread, pancakes, eggs, grits, and of course no Oklahoma country breakfast would be complete without bacon. He looked at his watch then rubbed his hands together with enthusiasm, his eyes widened again as he exclaimed, “They are still open for breakfast!”
Driving thirty miles just for breakfast seemed extreme and a waste of gas, but Grandpa had spoken. Our morning drive took us through town and out in the eastern Oklahoma countryside of prairie and gently rolling green hills. Cows dotted many of the fields like pecans on hotcakes. Grandpa’s 30-mile drive was not so much about breakfast, as it was spending time with family while enjoying some beautiful scenery.
Within half an hour we arrived at a small and simple building located at the edge of a dusty farming town. Inside was a large sparsely furnished room filled with a dozen well-worn tables. A small wooden cross was the only item displayed on one wall, two walls featured framed pictures related to farming and cattle. On the fourth wall were the register and several racks filled with baked items. Next to the racks was an unkept bulletin board with postings of local church events, carpentry work, horses for sale, and bulletins about veterinary services. The folks eating breakfast worked in the livestock and farming industries. Sitting at one very long wooden table, which was set slightly apart from the main dining area, were several modestly dressed Amish families. They were speaking in hushed voices.
At the far end of the dining room, just under the cross, was a large yet utilitarian buffet cart. Inside were golden waffles, fluffy scrambled eggs, thick slabs of bacon, and medallions of freshly made sausage. Adjacent was a smaller cart containing bins of large biscuits and what looked like real gravy – not the fake stuff. At a side table was a bank of pitchers that housed milk, orange juice, coffee, honey, jams, and cream. All of the food, with the exception of the juice and coffee, had been produced locally on farms and prepared fresh.
As Grandpa and I served ourselves the kitchen door quickly swung open and a thin muscular man wearing an apron came out to re-stock the food trays. He was carrying a large bin of waffles. As the door swung back it provided a glimpse into the kitchen, inside were several women hard at work, they were dressed in simple garments that harkened back to an older age. I said to the man, “Good morning.” He said nothing, only politely smiled and nodded as he took inventory of the food and restocked what he could before returning to the kitchen.
A large font hand-written sign on the buffet cart read, “Do not waste food. Take only what you can eat.”
As we found a table we passed two grizzly-sized men eating their breakfast. These men reeked of a hard day’s work and a no-nonsense attitude. They were dressed in dirty jeans, worn flannel shirts, and appeared to be returning from a work shift rather than starting their day. One man was using a fork as a stabbing implement rather than a utensil for eating. The other man chugged a glass of milk, the glass appeared tiny in his massive hand. Instead of speaking they used grunts and low tones. These were intimidating fellows.
After cleaning their plates they swaggered to the buffet and restocked with copious quantities of sausage, biscuits, and gravy. Ten minutes later the two prepared to leave, but a good supply of food remained on their plates. As they gathered their jackets and started to stand a young Amish girl of about 12 years, who helped at the restaurant, approached and politely chided the two for taking too much food. She only said, “Food is a gift.” Then motioned with her hand to the sign posted on the buffet. One man was still chewing, and at hearing the interruption he stopped for a second then slowly continued his bite – unsure how to react.
he glanced over and read the sign. The girl crossed her arms and pinched her mouth to reinforce the point. The two giants glanced at each other. A few tense seconds passed – it was a standoff! Nobody moved. Then she slowly began to tap the tip of her foot on the floor. At that moment some unseen boundary was crossed because fear now appeared on the men’s burly faces. One man respectfully said, “Yes Ma’am.” He sat down, quickly followed by this friend. The girl thanked them and returned to her duties. The two cleaned their plates, bused their dishes, and left a respectable tip in the church donation jar.
In another part of the bakery, Grandpa had scoped out the pecan pies that were on display. He had identified the pies that were still warm. Then he asked a young woman at the register for her help. She told him in great detail about the number of pecans in each pie, the number of eggs used, the crispiness of the crust, and the density of the filling. Two pies were in the final run-off; both had been baked early that morning, each flaunted a crispy crust and were golden brown on top, they also had a wonderful aroma. He wrung his hands together over and over. The decision was too much so he bought both pies.
One of the pies was enjoyed with relatives at a family dinner. The other pie was enjoyed with Grandpa over the course of two evenings as we told stories and laughed.
Some of the most interesting places are located just a short drive off the main road. Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin in the beautiful forests and hills of eastern Oklahoma is just such a place.
Sequoyah is known as the inventor of the Cherokee’s nation’s written language. He built this cabin in 1829 shortly after his move to what is present-day Oklahoma.
Sequoyah was born about 1770 in Tennessee to a Cherokee mother and non-Indian father. Sequoyah was intrigued by “the fact that white men could convey messages by the use of writing or ‘talking leaves’…. Sequoyah came to realize that the Cherokee language is composed of a set number of reoccurring sounds. With this insight it was possible for him to identify and create a symbol for each sound, thus producing a syllabary rather than an alphabet.” After 12 years of work, in 1821 he completed the Cherokee syllabary.
The drive to the cabin takes visitors along some beautiful country roads. The first thing you notice when you enter the grounds is the air – it is clean, moist and just makes you feel good. The next things you notice are the well-maintained grounds followed by how solid the buildings are constructed. It is obvious this is a well loved and appreciated landmark.
The cabin is actually preserved inside a modern building. After opening the door of the outside building you enter a single open room; at the center is a hand-hewn log cabin, along with the walls, are displays about Sequoyah’s life and his work. What is nice about this exhibit is that visitors can actually step inside his cabin for a close-up view of the period furniture and items that would have been in his life. Unlike many places that hide stories from the past behind cold glass, this landmark is open, inviting and warm.
The people working at the landmark were all friendly.
Sequoyah’s cabin is located about 6 miles northeast of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, on State 101. The cabin and grounds are open Tuesday – Sunday. Check the website for hours. Admission is free.
The cabin is preserved as a National Historic Landmark.
A special ‘thank you’ to Arethia Stann for her introduction to this great place and a tour of the surrounding countryside. Wado, Arethia!
For additional information visit:
A short drive outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma is the 220-acre Redbud Valley Nature Preserve. This preserve has a great deal of scenery packed into a small space: woodlands, prairie grasses, a creek, springs, small caves, and rugged looking cliffs.
Families will enjoy the main loop trail that takes about an hour and a half to complete. Kids will especially enjoy the many small caves and overhangs in the cliffs area.
As your family explores look for what really makes this place special – many of the plants traditionally found further west on the prairie and much further east in the Ozark Mountains can be found here in this preserve. Think of Redbud Valley as a unique spot, between the prairie and the Ozarks, where these plants live.
A small visitors center is onsite. Flush restroom facilities and picnic tables are located near the parking area. Admission is free. Redbud Valley is open from 8 am to 5 pm Wednesday through Sunday. From Tulsa drive east on Interstate 44 to the Hard Rock Casino on 193rd E (also known as Hwy 167). Go North on 167. Drive 2 miles to Redbud Drive, make a left. Drive roughly 5 miles until you reach the parking area.
For more information about Redbud Valley visit:
When people think of a log fort from the 1800’s they might envision a large square-shaped structure made with an outside wall of sharpened logs to keep out attackers. Watchtowers at the corners of the fort keep a lookout over ‘untamed’ lands. Inside the fort are soldiers cooking, cleaning, writing letters home and maintaining weapon readiness. In a modestly furnished room officers are engaged in negotiations with local peoples, trying to keep the peace while projecting American interests on the western frontier.
If you have ever wanted to explore such a place – you can at the Fort Gibson Historic Site in eastern Oklahoma. Fort Gibson is a great place to explore; kids will enjoy the cannon in the plaza while Mom and Dad can peek into various rooms and quarters that are refurbished with period furniture and equipment. During your visit check out many of the surrounding buildings in the area, many are from the 1840s -1870s.
Fort Gibson is not known for one particular historical event like some forts in the west, rather it had a long service that affected many events in U.S. history.
Some of the people who walked the grounds at Fort Gibson greatly influenced American history especially leading up to and during the Civil War, including: Robert E. Lee (General of the Confederate Army), Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederate States of America) and Zachary Taylor (General and 12th President of the U.S.).
In 1824 the site for Fort Gibson was chosen because it is strategically located at the confluence of three major waterways in the region: Grand, Verdigris and the Arkansas Rivers. At the time it was the most western fort on the American frontier. The fort’s mission was “to protect the nation’s southwestern border and to maintain peace on the frontier, particularly between the feuding Cherokee and Osage.” After the 1830 passage of the Indian Removal Act, the fort “became increasingly involved in the removal of eastern tribes to Indian Territory.” The Fort also provided troop deployments to Texas when Americans in Texas were rebelling against Mexico. During the Civil War, the fort served as a Union base of operations. For more than sixty years the fort served the country until 1890 when the site was abandoned. After the abandonment, many of the buildings fell into disrepair. In the 1930s much of the log fort was rebuilt and many of the surrounding buildings repaired.
Today, what is the most fun about Fort Gibson is that it is not a glitzy tourist destination – it offers visitors an honest and refreshing ruggedness not found in many historic sites. If you want a real treat to start a conversation with a volunteer to hear some interesting stories and learn more about the people who lived and worked at Fort Gibson.
Oklahoma Historical Society Encyclopedia: Fort Gibson
Along California’s central coast is a wonderful family destination called Natural Bridges State Beach.
The park derives its name from naturally formed arches that were carved from the sand and mudstone cliffs. In the early 1900s three arches were visible, but over the years wave action undercut the formations causing two of them to fall. The third, and last remaining arch is visible today (shown).
Most people think of summer as being the best time to visit the coast, but November can offer clear skies, warm sunshine, very comfortable temperatures, and beaches generally free of crowds – even on weekends. At noon on this weekend day, only two-dozen people were visiting this 65-acre park.
But the park was being visited by hundreds of non-human visitors.
In just a quick five-minute walk inland were hundreds of monarch butterflies! A stroller accessible boardwalk near the visitors center leads to a monarch preserve hidden in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Here monarchs flit overhead and offer great opportunities for humans to see and photograph these beautiful butterflies. In the side photo is a winsome looking monarch that flitted down and landed near the boardwalk. An interpreter at the preserve said that an estimated fifteen hundred monarchs were currently visiting.
Every autumn, generally mid-October, the monarchs begin arriving at Natural Bridges State Beach. This is just one of several hundred locations along California’s coast where the monarchs stay for the winter. The coast offers them shelter from the cold inland temperatures of winter.
Especially fascinating is the monarchs arrive at the coast after traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles.
North America is home to two distinct populations of monarchs. The continental divide along the Rocky Mountains provides a natural barrier that the monarchs rarely cross. The monarchs from southeastern Canada and the eastern United States migrate to their wintering home in Mexico while the monarchs in southwestern Canada and the western U.S. migrate to areas along California’s coast. When they arrive they bunch together on branches sometimes forming large clusters. In the spring, as the weather warms, the monarchs begin traveling north looking for milkweed. The milkweed plant is the food source for monarch butterflies.
This year at Natural Bridges the monarch population is low compared to previous years when an estimated ten thousand would arrive. When I first saw these monarchs twenty years ago the branches were weighted down by massive clumps of monarchs. Although the number the monarchs are less this year they are still an impressive sight.
Autumn at Lake Tahoe offers beautiful vistas, vibrant colors and the rare opportunity to see Black Bears along a creek catching spawning Kokanee Salmon.
Recently some relatives, visiting from overseas, made a trip to California and included a side trip to beautiful Lake Tahoe. We suggested they see the Lake’s sights in October during a tourist ‘down time’ when the weather is still warm and the summer crowds have disappeared.
The relatives were not disappointed by their visit. One trip particularly amazed everyone in the family from age 3 to 67.
Walking next to Taylor Creek, at the southern shore of the lake, they saw vibrant red colors moving in the clear and cold water. These were spawning Kokanee Salmon. Then hearing some nearby splashing in the creek they looked up and saw a mother black bear and a young cub wading in the water. They were surprisingly close so everyone backed-off a little to allow the bears their space. The bears were catching fish to build up their fat reserves for the coming winter. Several good pictures were snapped including the picture of this young bear devouring a just caught salmon.
Taylor Creek is a picturesque mountain stream that flows into the southern waters of Lake Tahoe. The nearby U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center at Taylor Creek is a great starting point to learn about the Kokanee Salmon and this wonderful area. The Rainbow Trail is a short hike and very good for families with young children. Make sure to visit the underground Stream Profile Chamber for an up-close and fish-eye view of Taylor Creek.
To continue your own explorations by car drive past the “Y” in South Lake Tahoe drive three miles north on Highway 89 to the USFS Visitor Center. To learn more about this area online, and an annual Kokanee Salmon Festival held at the area, visit the USFS website.
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 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.