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.
Imagine a childâ€™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, â€œThatâ€™s me by the waterfalls!â€
If you thought such a world only existed within the mind of a child, look no further than the Trail of Ten Falls at Oregonâ€™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 like 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 â€“ 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 parkâ€™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 groundâ€™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 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 surfaceâ€™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 Franciscoâ€™s northern shore only see a tsunami of stores that sell trinkets and bobbles; however, the curious will find â€˜ The Waterfrontâ€™ exhibit to offer a rich story.
The Waterfront is not just an exhibit; it is an experience of 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.
Afterward, 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 stateâ€™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 in multiple cascades that leap from the rockâ€™s face along the entire height of the 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 quietest. 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 â€“ a masterwork of art â€“ 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 â€“ all restored. Woven between these great machines are smaller exhibits that give glimpses and perspectives on 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 â€œGolden Ageâ€ 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. Donâ€™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 childrenâ€™s play area, and a sizable model train layout complete with bridges, tunnels and lots of trains for those who want to be eight yearâ€™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 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 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 familyâ€™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. 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 â€˜thank youâ€™ 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 Californiaâ€™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 with 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 LÃ¼senstal, 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 Americaâ€™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 LÃ¼senstal 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 LÃ¼senstal 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 â€˜backâ€™ 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 LÃ¼senstal 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 cowâ€™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!
Afterward, 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 Innsbruckâ€™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 the U.S. we would call a Razorback.
The soup of the day was a KnÃ¶delsuppe. We ordered one bowl between us; ten minutes later a bowl was delivered with a large knÃ¶del – 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 itâ€™s own broth. It was delicious.
Afterward, 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 â€˜reflectionâ€™ 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 KÃ¼htai, located in the Tirolean Alps, was splendidly delicious. The town was located less than an hourâ€™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 â€˜mine.â€™ 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 â€˜groundâ€™ 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 Marmotâ€™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 â€˜spludâ€™ 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 â€œSchneemannâ€ (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 â€˜the nibblersâ€™ 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 daughterâ€™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 childâ€™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 â€˜deliciousnessâ€™ 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.