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Small Parks in Arizona

Wupatki National Monument

Arizona and New Mexico are completely full of National Parks, National Monuments, and other NPS sites. A lot of these sites are quite small – you can see the whole site in an hour or two. I visited several of these sites in Arizona, between visits to the Grand Canyon and Zion.

I was planning on visiting my uncle in Arizona for a few days, in Sedona. The Grand Canyon is a few hours from Sedona, and there are three parks between them: Wupatki, Sunset Crater, and Walnut Canyon. I visited the first two and skipped the latter.

The ‘Citadel,’ a small pueblo in Wupatki

Wupatki is located in what, 800 years ago, was a heavily populated area of the southwest, and the stretch between the Grand Canyon and Phoenix is filled with hundreds of pueblo ruins. Wupatki is one of the larger sites: there’s 3 small pueblo sites, and one large one, which is near the visitor center. I arrived before the center opened, surveyed two of the pueblos and made a quick pass through the museum, leaving by 9:30.

The large pueblo ruins are actually pretty impressive. At one point it was home to 200 or 300 people, who were farming, mining and trading. The other ruins are more isolated, but it turns out that this stretch of land, north of Flagstaff, was more heavily populated 800 years ago than it is today.

One thing that’s pretty cool is that there was a circular ballcourt on the site, surrounded by brickwork and with two diametrically opposed entranceways. Nobody knows the rules of the game, but it’s believed to have been imported from Mexico.

Sunset Crater, covered in cinder from an eruption 800 years ago

Only 13 miles south of Wupatki is Sunset Crater, probably the dullest park I’ve visited. There’s some small lava flows, and a 1 mile trail, which goes nowhere near the crater.

This volcano erupted less than 800 years ago, and the cone is still covered in cinders. There’s a ton of small volcanoes in this area, which is peculiar because it isn’t on the edge of a continental plate. Sunset crater became a national monument in the thirties, after locals protested Hollywood plans to blow it up for a film. At one point in the 60s, there was a trail to the crater, but the cinders were so loose that the trail eventually grew waist-deep. The feeling was that it marred the appearance of the mountain, so it was closed and filled in by a bulldozer.

A prosaic view in beautiful Sedona

I continued south towards Sedona, where I stayed for two days. The saying (in Sedona) is “God made the Grand Canyon, but he lived in Sedona.” It’s a really remarkable tourist town, enclosed in a state park, surrounded by trails, and with lots of monolithic red-rock scenery.

Unfortunately, my good luck with weather wore out. For the first 6 weeks of my trip, I’d only seen two days of rain (in the Badlands, and in Port Townsend). But then I saw more rain in Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon, and it rained both days in Sedona – hard rain that persisted for much of the day.

Montezuma’s Castle, shot through driving rain

My uncle and I took a quick trip to a nearby monument – “Montezuma’s Castle,” a misnamed cliff dwelling that early explorers thought was an Aztec ruin. Although it rained heavily while we were there, it was still a cool park. The cliff dwellings are up perhaps 40-50 feet along a canyon wall; there’s a small stream and some more conventional pueblo ruins as well.

Funny ducks in a spring-fed pond near Pipe Springs

Leaving Sedona, I headed north – past the Grand Canyon by a different route. Along the way I made my final stop in Arizona, at Pipe Springs. This is jointly administered by the National Park Service and Paiute Indians. As the name would suggest, Pipe Springs has a spring that’s been providing water for hundreds of years. During the nineteenth century Mormons arrived and built a ‘castle’ around it – fearing Indian attacks. But by the time it was completed there was no longer any threat.

A section of the farm at Pipe Springs

I took a short tour of the inside of the castle – really about the size of a modern house. This also served as the first telegraph office in Arizona, for the Deseret Telegraph Company. Deseret, incidentally, is a word used in the Book or Mormon to mean ‘honeybee,’ and Utah is known as the honeybee state. For a while, the area surrounding this bastion was a tithe farm – local farmers would contribute livestock which would be used by the Mormon church. The park is still a small farm today, with horses, bulls, ducks, and other animals.

Pipe Springs is right on the Utah-Arizona border, so leaving the park in late morning I continued my journey north to Zion.

San Francisco


Walking the Golden Gate Bridge

I’d delayed my visit to San Francisco by a few days, spending time in Point Reyes and Silicon Valley, but I’d also figured out a more suitable way to travel into the city: taking a train from Mountain View downtown. For $7 each way, I was able to circumvent the parking, traffic and driving nightmare of the city – definitely worth it.

I didn’t have too much in the way of plans: I wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, and see Fort Point and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Site. Otherwise, I didn’t have much in mind. Mostly, to keep walking. Thankfully, compared to Seattle and Portland, I was able to amble aimlessly around the city, rather than worry about the van.

My walking route: red outbound and green coming back.

San Francisco felt like a cross between New York and Seattle, with good weather. The parts I saw had the same energy and density as NYC, but with the geography and aesthetics of Seattle. I think it’s my second favorite city I’ve seen so far (favorite: Reykjavik!).

I started by angling for the waterfront, to see the ’embarcadero,’ because I knew it would be easy to keep my bearings near the water rather than in the confusion of unnumbered streets. The embarcadero is a sort of park/gallery area along the water, similar to the west side highway and shore in NY. It was nice, but felt a bit sterile.

Lombard Street – the crooked section is in the distance, with lots of gardens

Next I angled in to see Lombard St, famous as ‘the crookedest street in the world.’ Along the way I stopped at a cafe for what I thought would be a quick bagel. It turned out to be a bagel with eggplant, feta, onions, oil, and pesto. It was amazing, and maybe the exact opposite of a bagel in NY (slow, required a fork, very fancy, the bagel itself mediocre with awesome toppings).

Then I walked up Lombard Street. Most of the street is straight but there’s a crooked section on one of the hills. It’s a cable car stop and it seemed a busload of Japanese tourists had stopped here (at 8:30 in the morning). The street seemed to take it in stride: the gardens were meticulously maintained and everything in its proper place. In truth it was a little overdone – a tiny Stepford. The streets of San Francisco are famously steep; everyone studiously turns their tyres into the curb when they park, in case their e-brake fails. The steepest streets have cars park so they aren’t on an angle, like they’re in a parking lot.

A pile of sea lions. There were at least 4 times this many there.

Then I walked north on Hyde along the cable car tracks (they hum ominously) to the waterfront. Because I arrived before the park opened, I walked down the famous Fisherman’s Wharf. This is the San Francisco equivalent of Times Square, with a nautical theme (if you see a Ripley’s Believe It or Not or wax museum, you know you’re in a tourist area). I liked seeing it, but also was glad that it was mostly empty of tourists. The highlight, for me, was seeing the docks covered with sea lions – probably a few hundred dozing just 30 feet away from the main wharf. Some of them were playing – chasing each other in the water, sumo wrestling trying to push each other off the docks, and so forth. They made a constant barking sound and the noise was immense. Interesting, biologists are unsure whether sea lions (and seals) are descended from the bear or weasel families; in any event they acted like dogs.

The lower passenger deck of the Eureka

When the park was open, I headed over to the San Francisco Maritime NHS. This is a set of boats ‘essential to the history of San Francisco,’ and it includes a timber schooner, tugboat, steel sailing ship, and, my favorite, a ferry. I particularly enjoyed the ferry because it was in use through the 50s, but retained the same elegant art deco style from the 30s – the same style you see in old pictures of Penn Station, that’s mostly been erased from public areas. This was an auto ferry so there were some classic cars of 30s vintage as well. There were working coin-operated stereoscope viewers, probably dating from the 30s, which of course I had to try (“THE GREAT 1906 EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE: Authentic! Vivid 3-D! Do not miss seeing these unusual pictures.”)

The Balclutha, a sailing ship. Swimmer in the foreground, Alcatraz behind the ship. The Eureka and a timber schooner are also visible.

The area is enclosed in piers that form an ellipse around a section of port and beach; there were people swimming in the water here, right between the park’s boats. Looking North, Alcatraz was visible. This was a surprise to me, too. I knew Alcatraz was near San Francisco, but the island dominates the waterfront view. It must have been strange living here when the prison was operating, knowing these maximum security prisoners were right there. Wouldn’t you dwell on that? Not that they might escape – just having a prison always on your mind, like a cloud across the sun on an otherwise cheerful day.

Fort Point, below the Golden Gate Bridge

Next I crossed over the first North-South ridge, through the marina area (sterile; pastel; tropical) to the Presidio. The Presidio is a sort of park compound containing a variety of sights: the Walt Disney museum, a national cemetery, a beach, an open field, and so forth. Honestly, I couldn’t find any sort of theme to the place (college? military base? park?), which is vast. It forms the southern anchor of the Golden Gate Bridge. Before I checked out the bridge I wanted to see Fort Point.

Seals, parasailers – even a helicopter flew below the bridge!

Fort Point was on the northernmost tip of the peninsula and the southern edge of the Golden Gate before the bridge was built. Scheduled for demolition, Joseph Strauss redesigned the bridge to preserve it. It’s now also a National Historic Site. For its time (the 1850s) it was considered state-of-the-art, but it was determined to be obsolete during the Civil War (as similar sites on the East Coast proved incapable of holding up to bombardment). It never saw action. A major innovation for the construction of the bridge itself was to put up safety netting (they only thought of this in the mid-1930s!) This saved 19 lives; those who it saved joined the ‘Halfway to Hell Club.’

I liked this graphic design on the bridge. Sinister?

The bridge is actually directly above the fort, and there’s a set of trails leading up to it, all with stunning views. On the bridge, there are six lanes for traffic bracketed by two narrow lanes for people and bikes. When I started across bikes and people were all crowded on one side, each going both directions. It was hectic and frustrating – I looked constantly over my shoulder for bikes bearing down on me. I felt like I was in Amsterdam. At some point they transferred bikes to the other side (the ocean side of the bridge, rather than the bay side) and it became much more enjoyable. The bridge is 1.7 miles across, so the walk constituted more than a stroll, but with pleasant weather, a stunning view of the city, and the waves below dotted with boats, parasailers and windsurfers, it was very relaxing.

Crissy Field, with the city in the background.

Back on the San Francisco side, I stopped at Crissy Field, an open park, to relax. Boy, it was a relief to take off my shoes and socks and let my feet breathe! There were huge steel statues in the park, and nearby was a ‘trampoline gym and cafe.’

After that it was getting dark, and I kept going towards the Caltrain terminal. I definitely passed through a few streets of ghetto around Leavenworth that made me very nervous (15 guys standing around aimlessly on the corner; overheard conversation: “Hey man, you know where I can get some pain pills?”). I also saw someone walking a pig on a leash.

In the end I walked 24 miles around San Francisco, my longest ‘hike’ to date. I really enjoyed the city and would love to come back, I feel I only got to see a very small section and missed some highlights entirely – Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park.

Beach Reading in Port Townsend


Seattle as viewed from the Bainbridge Island ferry

Leaving Seattle, I headed to Port Townsend via ferry from Seattle (a 45 minute ferry ride and then 90 minutes of driving), to spend a week relaxing and preparing for the next leg of my journey. I’ve spent a lot of time in the town, enough that it feels in some ways like a second home; at least, it feels more like a home to me than NYC does. I love living near NYC and spending time there, but to me, it doesn’t feel like a “home.” Just a staging ground.

Port Townsend has a population of just under 10 thousand people. It’s supported by a few industries: a paper mill, boat repair and production, and tourism. The town is on the very upper northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, so you see a lot ships headed back and forth into Puget Sound. Cruise liners, cargo ships, even warships and submarines cruise past.

Port Townsend from Puget Sound

The town itself is composed mostly of restored Victorian buildings. Most of the homes are in many ways closer to cottages, because property near the center of town is quite expensive. Nonetheless these small homes feel quite roomy compared to an apartment! About 90% of homes are surrounded by tidy gardens, white picket fences, imaginative festive colors – the works (the other 10% have cars on cinderblocks and decaying Westphalias sitting in the front yard).

Visiting in the summer, there’s a lot going on: nearly every week there are festivals (Jazz Festival, Wooden Boat Festival, Blues Festival, etc), and many bars have music from local bands 2 or 3 nights per week. However, if you don’t like antiquing, it’s easy to exhaust the downtown area in 2-3 hours.

Luckily, Port Townsend has the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten (at “1-2-3 Thai Food”). I don’t say that lightly – Thai is my go-to cuisine and I’ll sample it whenever possible. The Pad Thai, Massaman Curry, Crispy Tofu – all excellent, and prepared for me at spiciness level 5 (out of 4!). I gorged myself every day.

Normal Port Townsend-style bunker, with deer (“rats with hooves”)

There’s some state parks in the area, which unfortunately aren’t all that imaginative. Most of them are on the beach, feature some forests and fields, and lots of old cement bunkers. Which are cool, and could be amazing, but they’re stripped down and typically covered with graffiti. This describes Fort Worden, Fort Ebey, and Fort Casey, all in the area. The water this far north is too cold to swim in, so mostly you sit on the sand, or fish. I must have seen two or three hundred fisherman and never once saw anyone catch a fish.

There’s also a lot of places to pick up cheap used books: goodwill, the library, book sales, and an actual honest-to-goodness used book store. Combine that with what I had on my Kindle and I was able to do a lot of reading. Including:

  • The Climb, a first-person account of the ’96 Everest disaster (made famous by the inaccurate Into Thin Air). It’s a matter-of-fact book. I wouldn’t mind mountain climbing, myself, if I could acclimate to the altitude. One of the authors of the book actually climbed 7 of the 8,000 meter peaks without supplementary oxygen, including Everest 3 times. In light of my experiences at Grand Teton, this was incredible. At its summit, Everest has half as much oxygen as exists at sea level!
  • Firewall, a Swedish mystery novel. Mediocre but had some funny paranoia about computers and teenage hackers
  • Wild, a chick-lit book about a woman hiking part of the PCT. An enjoyable read, but I don’t find books about unprepared hikers stumbling around the woods particularly funny.
  • The Gnostic Gospels, about alternate gospels and texts that didn’t make it into the New Testament. A little dry but nonetheless interesting
  • Jesus, Interrupted, about what we know about the historical Jesus & early Christianity, given contradictions in our sources (particularly the gospels)
  • Band of Brothers, probably the best company-level military history and one of the best WWII books out there

A typical beach…

On Wednesday and Thursday I took the ferry to nearby Whidbey Island, which has a few state parks and a “National Historic Reserve,” though I couldn’t really figure out what that was. On arrival, I was shocked at how foggy it was – visibility of under 100 yards, I’d say. I waited a little while for the fog to clear inside a Starbucks while I planned my route.

First I went to Deception Pass State Park (the most popular state park in Washington), which is quite nice – it has some beautiful beaches, dense forests, and a nice mountain/hill. The pass itself features, bizarrely, turquoise water. I hiked to the top of the mountain and could see two jets from a nearby airfield maneuvering. I say “see,” but mostly you could hear them, the noise was immense. Apparently it’s routine to do these sorts of drills at night, which must be fun for the residents. There’s a large military presence throughout the Seattle area – Navy and Coast Guard in particular. I continued hiking around Deception Pass, through what appeared to be a temperate rainforest and along the shoreline. The problem with many of these state parks is that they don’t have the sort of contiguous hikes I look for. A park might have 30 miles of trails, but when each trail is 1 mile and they sprawl all over the park, it’s very difficult to piece together the 10+ miles of hiking I’d like to do.

Whidbey Island wildlife

I spent the night at a Wal-Mart on Whidbey because all the parks were full – this in the middle of the week – and the next morning visited Fort Casey, on the southern tip of Whidbey Island – Port Townsend is just visible from it. This was the biggest set of the ubiquitous fortifications that I saw.

Fort Casey bunkers

Most of these date from the very beginning of the 20th century, before they were rendered obsolete. There’s nothing imaginative about them, they’re simply poured concrete blockhouses, searchlight emplacements and watchtowers. They look like a prison, or Stony Brook University. A lot of the grounds – owned by the federal government – were used for training soldiers during the second world war. The guns were almost universally melted for scrap during the same period. At Fort Casey, they did have two guns still there – huge 10″ cannons. In an interesting coincidence, the rifling in the barrels was produced in Watervliet, just half an hour from where I grew up. Quite a journey to end up in the other corner of the country. There was also a nice lighthouse, also rendered obsolete and rescued from decades of neglect in the 70s.

In the end I spent a bit over a week in Port Townsend. I had thought of doing some camping, but the campgrounds around town were full – and incredibly expensive to boot. In the summer the prices seemed to be $35/night. To camp! Instead, I parked near a friend’s house and was able to have continuous internet access, electricity and showers. It was a nice refresher from scrounging for these ‘necessities.’ Thanks, Nancy!

After Port Townsend, my goal was to head to Portland via the main south-bound interstate, I-5.

Grand Tetons

After getting the car jumped at Devil’s Tower in the morning, I backtracked to an auto parts shop and replaced the battery, then continued on through Wyoming (Devil’s Tower is at the extreme Northeast Corner of the state).

Wyoming is an interesting state. There’s extreme beauty at either border (Devil’s Tower/Black Hills, Grand Teton, Yellowstone), but the center is… desolate. This is an adjective I head from people who live in Wyoming! The center of the state is a square of dirt and dead scrub 200 miles on a side. At one point, I saw a forest fire and 5-6 fire trucks flew past. I don’t know how they were going to get water to put it out, though.

Powder River Pass, the pass through one mountain range in the Rockies

I spent the night near the western border of the state with some family friends, where I was stuffed with plenty of home-cooked food. They lived in a little tree-filled oasis on the outskirts of the nice border of the state.

Another view of the pass.

We went to a local state park after eating and saw huge lazy trout, and a fundraiser. It seems this state park had a mountain goat that would constantly ram cars (but never people). This goat was named Bam-Bam and was, as punishment, shipped to another state park, where he eventually died. The fundraiser was to get the goat shipped back, stuffed and put in the visitor center (“as an honor”).

The Tetons via Snake River.

The next morning, freshly showered, laundered, and filled with food, I headed to Grand Teton, possibly the most picturesque mountain range in America. From a distance it looks like a solid, serrated slab of granite, but many of the hikes are in the valleys between the mountains, so it’s not so monolithic as it appears.

My first priority was to get a campsite – since Teton lies directly next to Yellowstone, and is a major tourist destination. With that secured, at about 2pm, I decided to go on a hike.

The view up Cascade Canyon.

I chose Cascade Canyon, and it was probably the best hike I’ve ever been on. It was a straight out-and-back 13 miles, starting by skirting the picturesque Lake Jenny, and then ascending a few hundred feet to Inspiration Point, and finally hiking up the canyon next to Grand Teton itself.

Inspiration Point.

The views from the canyon were absolutely stunning: huge snowcapped peaks, crystal-clear streams; the vegetation in the valley made me feel like I was in Alaska. There was an additional perk: two moose lounging on an island in the middle of the stream. When I got to the end of my hike, I didn’t want to stop – but it was getting late and I didn’t want to hike in the dark.

Two sleepy moose.

Emboldened by my 13 miles, I decided on something more ambitious for the following day: a 20 mile loop (Granite Canyon -> Open Canyon, if you’re curious). This proved overly aggressive: I followed the most scenic hike I’d been on with the most difficult. The hike started fine, and it was only after the initial 7 miles of moderate grade that it began to ascend steeply and soon I was in what could only be described as alpine meadows, which were filled with flowers.

Alpine flowers.

The trail continued to ascend… and ascend. The problem wasn’t the steepness of the trail, but its altitude. Once I hit 8500 feet I began to feel altitude sickness. I’d never experienced something like it before: 10 minutes of hiking along a slight incline and my heart was beating, my legs felt like they could barely function. It was a peculiar sensation. The air didn’t feel thinner, and I didn’t feel that out of breath. Just… exhausted. Soon I was walking for 10 minutes and resting for 10 minutes. The sun was blazing, but at this altitude it was too cold to sweat.

The previous highest mountains I’d hiked were some of the high peaks in the Adirondacks, which were only 4-5 thousand feet. The pass between the two canyons here was 9710, so just a slight contrast.

The Mt Hunt Divide, above the snow line.

After I reached the pass, the Mt Hunt Divide, it was only 8 miles back to the start of the trail! In total, I estimated that I covered 20 miles, including 2 miles above 8500 feet. Oh, and on no food. It was rough.

The view from the divide.

I slept well that night, and the next day I relaxed, going kayaking for 2 hours and swimming in the park’s lake. The next stop was the adjacent park, Yellowstone.

Black Hills, South Dakota

07/16/2013 – 07/18/2013

After two days in the Badlands and 1800 miles of driving, I stayed at the Rapid City Motel 6 the following night to recharge everything and shower. (I also saw Pacific Rim… a great summer movie).

It’s funny, Teddy Roosevelt absolutely despised Jefferson. He’s stuck next to him on the mountain.

I got an early start the following day, because Mt Rushmore was on the agenda and I knew it would get crowded after it openedat 8 am. It was an hour drive to Mt Rushmore, and my first reaction upon seeing the mountain was… “that’s all?” Mt Rushmore is of course really famous, and it’s also on every South Dakota license plate. But it’s smaller than you’d think. The sculpture is impressive, but it’s rather peculiar – like someone took a tacky idea (carve 4 presidents into a mountain) and made it as dignified as possible.

There’s a nice granite entrance to the park and then the mountain is visible above a large plaza. There are classy pillars on either side with an inscription of each state, along with its flag and the date it became a state. At the end of this is an ampitheatre… which is used to view light shows on the mountain. Like I said… tacky and classy.

The original plan for the mountain. It couldn’t be completed because the rock wasn’t suitable.

I did a quick hike, which was also a bit disappointing – not at all close to the carving. The verdict: not worth the $11 (!) parking fee.

Mt Rushmore as seen from Custer.

Next stop was Custer State Park. Custer is supposed to be the “jewel of South Dakota state parks,” according to my guidebook (maybe a dubious honor), and it’s a spectacular, diverse park. The roads to Custer are winding, mountainous, and closed in with the ubiquitous pine forest of the Black Hills, so the maximum speed you can sustain is about 20 miles per hour.

The view from the top of the mountain.

After I got to the park, I went on a short hike – about 4 miles and my most strenuous to date. It was about a half mile switchback ascent toa beautiful view (pictures don’t do it justice) and then a slow descent to a river valley. I’d never seen as much poison ivy as I did in that valley. Needless to say, I was glad I wore long pants.

Pinnacles along the road.

After the hike I headed to the northern part of the park. This was via the Pinnacles scenic highway. This was as winding as the entry to the park, but there were various one-lane tunnels (“honk before entering”) through the mountains. One particular tunnel was about 200 feet long and had parking areas at either end; this caused an enormous traffic jam. I parked and wandered around the pinnacle, which actually allowed me to cross over the tunnel. It was fun, but I didn’t want to go through that again on the way south, so after I got through and found the northern campground was full, I decided to continue on to another nearby National Park: Wind Cave.

I managed to reach the park before the final tour of the day. Here’s the secret to cave tours, which I discovered 1/3 of the way through this tour. Unlike most cave tours, this one allowed flash photography – the people in front of me must have taken at least 50 photos… not an exaggeration. It really messes with your night vision. The secret is to be at the end of the tour. You can turn around, and it’s like you have the whole cave to yourself. You can take your time and catch up during the less interesting parts.

Wind Cave got its name because a local rancher supposedly discovered it when his hat was blown off by the wind, which is caused by a difference between the barometric pressure inside the cave and outside. It’s a peculiar cave: there’s no stalactites or stalagmites, but the walls have a strange curved look, and the intense wind creates a strange box-like formation (which unfortunately doesn’t photograph well).

Short hike near the Wind Cave visitor center.

After the tour I was still in a walking mood and 1.5 mile walk along a path near the visitor center (the original entry way was still visible and it felt like the AC was turned on outside in the late afternoon sun. This was really beautiful.

I had my first campfire of the trip that night, too (the firewood was free at the campground).

Campground at Wind Cave.

The next day I’d planned on doing a long overnight hike with some backwoods camping, but in the morning I found my battery had died. The previous evening I’d seen my GPS was still plugged in and drawing power directly from the battery, so after I got the car jumped, I drove to nearby Custer, South Dakota, to get some supplies and get enough driving time to charge it.

Upon returning to the park, I did a 6 mile hike through some canyons and nice prairie terrain. This wasn’t exactly a success. The trail was not well worn, and typically amounted to a barely-noticeable twisting of the grass. The trail markers had been broken, propped up with rocks, and then knocked down again.

After staring at the ground, huffing and puffing up one steep canyon ascent, I came to the top. As I was plodding along, I looked up and… there was a buffalo. Maybe 20 feet away. Buffalo will scratch themselves by rolling in the dirt. This leaves a distinctive oval pattern of bare earth, which is where this buffalo was sitting. I stopped immediately when I saw it, and we stared at each other. I took a step back, and he jumped up with a snort and ran about 30 feet further, then stared at me. I thought at first he was charging. Believe me, it was terrifying.

I’ve seen a lot of buffalo, but always from the window of a car. They’re a different beast when you’re on foot and there’s no car in sight: they’re about my height at the shoulder, and this one probably weighed a ton (literally). I backed away and the buffalo returned to its patch of ground, and I detoured around the path and continued hiking without further event.

Wind Cave from the highest point in the park.

Then I drove to the backcountry trail I was going to take, which started after about one and a half miles of gravel road. If the first trail was poorly marked, this one wasn’t marked at all. The path didn’t seem to follow the map, so after 15 minutes of hiking I decided to call it quits – it wasn’t worth hiking an unmarked path without an accurate map. Instead, I took a short 2 mile hike up a ridge to a former fire tower, which was the highest part of the park. It was a nice hike and a great view.

It rained that night. I was scrupulous this time about making sure all the lights were off and everything was unplugged. But the battery was still dead the following morning.

Badlands, Day 2


The next morning I woke up early, it having rained the night before, and headed out. Usually I’m able to pack up the tent, brush my teeth, and have everything organized within about 30 minutes.

Breakfast at this overlook: 2 apples

As you can imagine, this left a lot of time to spend the day at the Badlands. Unfortunately, the park is essentially a straight road, and a maze of about 13 miles of hiking trails, most of which I’d already hiked. I spent the morning going through the overlooks along the road – the park was deserted this early.

Another nice overlook.

Sometimes as you visit overlooks you get into the same rhythm as other people, which leads to the weird ‘office corridor’ syndrome. You’ve said hello, you commented on where they were from or where they’re going, and then you just nod awkwardly. I had to flee a few outlooks to avoid having these conversations with a French couple.

Watch Out!

After visiting the overlooks, I took a trip into Wall (home of the infamous Wall Drug) for supplies. Wall Drug is a tourist trap known to anyone driving in South Dakota, as there are billboards plastered all along the highway.

I went once as a kid and was considering visiting again, but didn’t have the heart. Wall Drug has grown quite a bit, but at heart it’s a town in the middle of nowhere, whose entire appeal is based on gimmicks and the roadtripping families who pass by. The only real appeal is watching the other tourists. But the uncomfortable fact is that you’re a tourist, just like them, and only so much ironic enjoyment can be derived from observing people just like you.

I returned to the Badlands from Wall, then headed to the rest of the park – which was dirt road. Immediately, this cut out 80% of the crowds. The dirt road portion of the park has nothing in common with the rest; it might as well be a separate park. It focuses more on grasslands and prairie, rather than rock formations. I think that in the end, I enjoyed this part more.

Everybody loves these large rats

The first stop along the dirt road was a small prairie dog town). I found these interesting at first, but would eventually get quite jaded by these little beasts. They look like guinea pigs, but when they flee to their holes there is a resemblance to a running terrier, which I guess is what gives them their name.

These furry cows are also crowd pleasers

Also near the prairie dogs were a few buffalo, my second large animal sighting. These are much bigger than you can easily convey, and they simply don’t care about people in cars, a few of whom had pulled over to the side of the road. I snapped some pictures and moved on.

Finally I came to a beautiful overlook. There was a grazing buffalo nearby, and then a large herd in the distance, and the terrain was wonderfully varied and diverse: hills, buttes, rivers, small forests, and a few rock formations.

I ate here, sitting in back of the van with the gate open, and saw something interesting near the normal descriptive plaque: a backcountry log. These logs are for hikers to sign in, so that rangers know to send out a search party if they go missing. But there was no trail. It seemed bushwhacking was endorsed! I threw on my pack and headed down into the valley. Here are three rules I discovered for bushwhacking in this environment:

  • Keep your starting point in visual range, or behind at most one hill.
  • Wear sunscreen
  • Long pants are preferable unless you want your legs scraped raw by the grasses.

I spent about an hour wandering around, but then wanted to secure my campsite. I’d chosen to spend this night in the Sage Creek campground, which was marked on the maps as primitive: “no water available.” It was also free. That sounded good to me.

View of the primitive campground from a nearby hill.

The campground required an additional 10 miles of dirt road to reach, which became quite rough. It seems that the park service drove some tractor over this road, which left huge tread marks that caused the van to grind noisily over the road.

The campground itself was another loop in a field, but it was in a bowl of hills similar to the environment I’d just bushwhacked in. I set up camp, and then wondered what to do. It was about 2 in the afternoon. The sun was fierce, but so was the wind. There was a small trail leading out of camp and up a nearby hill, so I decided to hike that.

View after bushwhacking a ways from the campground.

This trail lasted half a mile or so, before dwindling into nothing. I’d summitted the first hill and decided to bushwhack my way around the rest of the hills that surrounded the campsite.

There were huge fields of wild lavender. Smelled great when hiking.

There wasn’t that much brush to contend with, mostly grasses. There were various paths through the grass which appeared and vanished; I think many were old buffalo-trails. In all I bushwhacked about 11 miles around the campsite (much more rugged than the previous day), forded a stream, fought through some brambles, had a ton of fun and earned a terrific sunburn.

My setup.

When I finally went to sleep that night, I was really happy. This was definitely among the most memorable hiking experiences I’ve had.

Quick Note

I may be delayed a few days with each update as I travel between areas with internet access. So some of the posts may be posted after they’re written, or written after they occur…

Intro & Itinerary

A few people have expressed interest in reading about my trip, so I figured that I might as well throw together a blog to record my journey. I don’t know how frequently I’ll post – maybe daily, maybe weekly. Will I even have much internet access? Probably not!

I anticipate my trip taking about 3 months, from mid-July through mid-October. I have a huge list of sites I’d like to see, but I’d prefer to determine the rate day-by-day… if there’s one place I want to explore I can stay a few days longer, or if something turns out less interesting than I anticipated, I can keep moving. Infuriating, I’m sure, for people I plan on meeting along the way (I do apologize!). That said, I do have an itinerary planned out:

Here’s the highlights I’d really like to see:

  • Badlands NP
  • Wind Cave/Jewel Cave NP
  • Custer State Park (South Dakota)
  • Grand Teton NP
  • Yellowstone NP
  • Seattle
  • Olympic Peninsula
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Oregon Coast
  • Crater Lake NP
  • Redwood NP
  • San Francisco
  • Yosemite NP
  • King’s Canyon NP
  • Sequoia NP
  • Joshua Tree NP
  • Grand Canyon NP
  • Bryce Canyon NP
  • Zion NP
  • Canyonlands NP
  • Capitol Reef NP
  • Arches NP
  • Denver/Boulder
  • Rocky Mountain NP
  • Cheyenne, Wyoming
  • Colombus, Ohio

Ambitious? Maybe, and those are just the highlights… there are plenty of places I want to see that don’t even make the list. I’d prefer to spend the most time in South Dakota, California & Utah. Based on previous trips, Utah is my favorite state and South Dakota the most underrated; I’ve never been to California. Half the sites are vague memories from my childhood; the other half will be brand-new to me.