Zion!

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Zion is our favourite National Park so far; so filled with contrast and unimaginable beauty that adjectives are inadequate and our conversation on the trails was often reduced to “Wow”, “Beautiful“, and “Look at That.”

Before we arrived we were warned by fellow travellers in rather ominous tones that, “Zion will be crazy.”  We were a little nervous about having to cope with long line-ups, parking nightmares and conveyor belt trails, but none of that came to pass.

Yes, Zion was busier than other parks we have visited so far, but it is also the beginning of the high season and weather right now is ideal. The real crowds don’t start until the summer.

We were also warned we would not get a campsite in the park; they are reserved months in advance. Also true, except Stephen kept checking online and managed to get us a total of five nights from cancellations, with just one move.

This is the view from one end of our campsite:

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When the first Mormon settlers arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century, they called this area Little Zion or “a place of refuge”. The original Paiute name was Mukuntuweap, meaning “straight-up land.”  It officially became Zion National Park in 1919 and has become one of America’s most-visited parks.

Zion has a number of trails closed this year due to rockfall and road washouts, including a chunk of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway that heads east out of the park. Very luckily for us, we arrived on the last day that portion of road was open before they closed it to begin road repair. The ranger urged us to hop in our car and drive the  nine-mile stretch – we are so happy we had the chance. The masterpiece of this road is the one-mile tunnel that was blasted through the rock; opening the Park from the east side of the state.

Normally we would have entered the Park from the east and come in on this road, but with the washout, they were only allowing vehicles of a certain size and weight through.

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A view from the lower level – that hole is one of a number of portals blasted out for ventilation and views and it will give you an idea of the magnitude of the project.

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We weren’t the only ones enjoying the rush of this switchback mountain road.

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The Checkerboard Mesa was one of the notable landmarks along this road.

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The sandstone mountains in Zion present in a stunning array of colours; from the deepest pink to the palest grey.

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Zion has set up an excellent and efficient people-moving system – they provide free shuttles that lead up and down the canyon and into the nearby town of Springdale, where most of the hotels and inns are located.

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Cars are not allowed in the main part of the canyon; drivers must attempt to snag a free parking spot in the Park (usually gone by 10:00 a.m.) or pay $20 a day in town. This system works like a charm – visitors hop on and off as the shuttles move up and down the canyon road.

There is never more than a couple of minutes wait and zero congestion on the road, making it a joy for the numerous cyclists who travel the route.

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There are dozens of hikes in Zion, from half-hour strolls to multi-day hikes. Due to the extra precipitation and rockfall this winter, many of the longer and more difficult trails are closed. This didn’t impact on us, as our idea of a long hike is five or six hours.

One of the most popular hikes in Zion is The Narrows. We began by hiking The Riverside Walk; a 2.2 mile hike along the Virgin River – The Narrows hike extends at the end of this walk. The Riverside Walk was one of our favourites, and we were in good company that day. Because it is described as “Easy”, there was a bit of crowd on the paths. But somehow it all worked out well and never became annoyingly congested.

This little Virgin River is responsible for the creation of the Zion Canyon. Over the centuries, it cut through the walls  and carved out the formations we see today.

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Slightly different perspectives along this trail

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One of a number of waterfalls in Zion

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And finally – the entrance to The Narrows. This is a hike that is done entirely by wading in the Virgin River and probably best done in summer, as the water is always cold. The hike takes two days, requires overnight camping and at times is done in chest-deep water, with one’s pack hoisted overhead. We laughed just trying to imagine ourselves as two senior voyageurs with our freeze-dried stew and our wicking shirts tumbling into the river and floating away.

Normally this river is running a lot slower; due to rockfall and other obstacles upstream, it is currently closed as the river is not safe. This is where one would normally begin The Narrows hike.

It is also possible jut to hike in as far as you want and then return back. That would have been a lot of fun and we’re regretful we missed out on that experience.

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The other big iconic Zion hike is called Angel’s Landing. We encountered two young women who had just completed it and they were pretty shaken. Going with the adage that one must do what one fears, I was considering it, but for the fact that I’m not good with heights and people have plunged to their death.

This legendary hike goes for 5.4 miles, climbs 1488 feet, and has a series of chain-assisted narrow switchbacks, with 1000 foot drop-offs on either side. You pull yourself up over the ridge to claim victory, and then you have to make your way down again.  I’m sorry to have to admit it, but we took a pass.

Heights aren’t an issue for these big-horned sheep, although we didn’t have the chance to see them in action. They were quite contentedly munching away on the side of a trail.

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Climbing is very popular in Zion, and we saw a number of climbers from our shuttle rides up and down the canyon. This is definitely not an area for beginner climbers – take a look and see if you can pick out the climber on this rock face.

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We might not have been scaling mountains or hanging onto chains, but Zion still left us with lots of hiking and fabulous views.

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A short but lovely hike was to an area called Weeping Rock. It was possible to climb up under the ledge behind a waterfall.  This was one of the views from the ledge.

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Look to the wall on the left of the waterfall – it is a hanging garden of ferns and other plants created by the constant moisture.

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We were going to take a day and drive up to Bryce Canyon. That park is at a much higher elevation and two days ago, a storm front went through. We got high winds and a bit of rain – they got several inches of snow. Sadly we will not have a chance to see Bryce this time – it means a return trip to Utah for sure.

We leave tomorrow to hit a few more spots before we arrive at The Grand Canyon. It’s hard to imagine, our trip is winding down.

 

 

Travelling to “the end of the pavement.”

The “end of the pavement” is a wild 26-mile stretch of rainforest on the west coast of Vancouver Island,  anchored by Ucluelet on Barkley Sound on one end and Tofino on Clayoquot Sound on the other.  The main body of water is the open Pacific Ocean which  creates changeable, tempestuous weather.  In our four days there, we experienced sun, fog, drizzle, rain, heat and cold – sometimes all in one day.

Cautionary signs warn of unsupervised beaches, rogue waves, treacherous rip tides and dangerous swimming conditions.

It’s hard to imagine the danger when the waves roll in softly and the surface is like glass.

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Clouds add drama, and the ocean looks a little less enticing for a swim.

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Waves have kicked up a bit but these are still a pale shadow of what is to come a couple of months from now. From November to February tourists flock to the coast to watch huge gales blowing in from the Pacific. This stroke of marketing genius called “Storm Watch” has enticed full houses with reduced rates, gumboots and slickers and cozy fireplaces to return to after a chilly and drenching experience.

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The “end of the pavement” used to be “the end of the dirt road” – a twisty dirt and gravel  nail-biter of a logging road  that would take two-and-a-half to three hours to drive from Port Alberni through the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The remoteness attracted early pioneers, misfits, hermits and hippies. Rough-and tumble camps were set up right on the beach and rumour has it a young Margaret Sinclair (Justin Trudeau’s mother, and pre-Pierre) might have been one of the early  beach campers. My own parents were among the intrepid tourists who braved that road, although they did not partake of the beach camp lifestyle.

By 1972, the road was paved and tourists began to arrive in numbers to visit the newly-opened Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. This shiny new road and the National Park helped to seal the fate of the beach camping and some of that local colour was lost.

The beaches and old-growth forest remain unchanged and that is still the main draw. We camped at Green Point Campground in the National Park and since we only booked in early June, we considered ourselves lucky to nab the last walk-in site. This campground is absolutely gorgeous, offering a delicious mix of large, private treed sites with the conveniences of plug-ins and hot showers.  Sites are booked early, or as one woman noted, “it’s worse than trying to get concert tickets.”

Our site was one of 20 walk-ins – cars are left in the parking lot and wheelbarrows are available to lug your stuff to your site, about a two-minute walk in the woods. It worked out just fine, but now we know for the next time to plan a little further in advance.
This was our site – our tent tucked in between two huge  stumps. We fell asleep listening to the ocean waves crashing on shore below us.

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This area is home to a large population of bears, cougars and wolves. Just a few days ago a pack of wolves killed a local resident’s dog – a good reminder that we’re not hanging out in a city park.

Rules in the campground are strict – they ask for a “bare” campground – tent, camp chairs and lantern are the only things to be left unattended. Those choosing to ignore the rules are kicked out, so you can imagine our chagrin when we returned to our campsite to find a note letting us know our plastic water jug was a no-no.

The Park staffer was very understanding when I apologized. She told us they pride themselves on not having lost a bear (to being necessarily put down after becoming habituated and dangerous) in 18 years. She hauled out the evidence of what might happen when you leave out attractants.

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Surfing is huge here and the beaches are long, so at least from our vantage point, there appeared to be room for everyone to take turns catching a wave, without the aggression that can mar some surfing areas.

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They start ’em young here – this little girl was learning the basics from her dad, while her mother recorded the event from shore.

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A group of surfers arriving, with a little boy doing what little boys do really well – running around with a stick.

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Hiking is another huge attraction, with numerous trails to choose from. Our favourite is the Wild Pacific Trail, near Ucluelet. It can be walked in chunks or as a whole – about 8 km. in total – and much of it runs right along the ocean.

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Every bend on the path brings another viewpoint that is slightly different.

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The lighthouse.

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A gnarly tree with unusual local fauna.

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The Rainforest walks are located between Tofino and Ucluelet – 1-km. boardwalk loops on either side of the highway that feature old-growth trees, nurse trees, bogs and moss-draped branches. This is forest bathing in the truest sense of the word – we came out feeling disoriented and over-oxygenated.

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The requisite tall-tree photo

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We loved this part of the path – constructed from a fallen log.

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Grice Bay was described to us as being a “hidden gem” – accessible by a scenic 10-minute drive from the highway to a sheltered tidal cove. It was a calm and peaceful switch from the spectacle of the Pacific, and we intended to have our picnic there but discovered piles of broken beer and liquor bottles littering the area, as well as an unpalatable smell. It may well be a local party hangout. The Park is so pristine and well-cared-for that this was unexpected and jarring.

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We spent a bit of time in both towns, primarily to pick up a few groceries, access wifi or treat ourselves to a dinner out.

Tofino is the better-known of the two towns and has more amenities in the way of shops, restaurants and adventure tourism. The setting is lovely and compact, but the strains of tourism are starting to show – this is a destination that feels at capacity.  We lived in Banff for two years and the crush of tourists clogging the streets, taking up every available parking spot and filling every restaurant seat grew very tiresome. I imagine Tofino locals must feel the same way after a while.

This woman, apparently unimpressed with the popularity of Tofino, has posted a warning sign to anyone who might consider blocking her driveway or trespassing on her property.

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You can’t argue with the setting; hopefully the town can keep a bit of a leash on development, and not spoil the very elements that make this area so appealing.

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Ucluelet seems to have a bit more of a local flavour – it has a good range of accommodations and tourist attractions, but is geared more to daily life.

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In both towns and along the beach strip, accommodations are pricey. The crown jewel of this area is The Wickaninnish Inn, described as possessing “rustic elegance on nature’s edge.” Their spa has been voted by Travel & Leisure readers as being “the #1 Spa Worldwide.” This strikes me as being incredible – surely there is a spa in Bali or the Maldives or Mustique that competes? Spa prices are available upon discreet inquiry, but rooms during Summer Season run from $560 to $1800.

We mustered as much attitude as we could, decked out as we were in our campground finery, and walked through the lobby to the beach below. Nicely appointed, but not intimidatingly beautiful.

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This is a particularly blessed part of British Columbia, and is our fourth trip out to the coast. Every time we come we always say the same thing, ” we should come here more often.”

This will be our last posting until the end of October. In the meantime, we will be housesitting, doing some family visits, and planning for our next big adventure.

We’ve bought a trailer, and are planning a seven-month trip through the Pacific Northwest and southwestern United States as well as two months in Baja.

Thanks for following us this summer and see you again in a couple of months.

 

Camping: the good, the bad and the ugly

Camping can be a crapshoot. Our ideal experience involves shady treed sites, quiet neighbours, a campfire and perhaps a babbling brook. Our less-than-ideal involves all-night parties, little or no privacy, and a cast of characters that we would never otherwise meet (and that’s good thing.)

We’re happy to say that 90% of our camping experiences meet the former description – the latter is a reminder than camping is just another version of real life.

In the past seven days, we have travelled from Fernie to Manning Park, with Christina Lake as our first stop.

We’ve wanted to check out this lake for a long time –  friends have raved about the great swimming and mountain-wrapped views.

There was a hint of smoke in the air from the many forest fires that have burned all summer in the U.S. and Canada. This was the clearest day we had and the water was cool and refreshing.

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We booked into a private campground on the south end of the lake, just a block from a small beach and right around the corner from a burger/hot dog/soft-serve ice-cream stand that looks as though it’s been in business for decades.

Christina Lake has that kind of atmosphere – a summer favourite that hasn’t been gussied up yet – the tiniest bit tacky and filled with people who have been coming here for years. It’s homey and family-oriented. The kids get to play without too much adult supervision.

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The very next day, the smoke was back:

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Our campsite was fine, but for two days we were entertained by the shenanigans of the campers two sites over. The owner had already warned us about them – they had been turfed out of another campground and were “on notice.”

The main perpetrator (she of the tight clothing and bleached hair) swanned about in a shirt that boasted, “KINKY AS F–K” (we tended to believe her).  Her hapless male partner did little but smoke and sulk and at one point walked right through our campsite with a pillow and blanket, enroute to a vacant site, saying “She’s making too much noise.”  They had two young girls (quiet) and three small dogs (yappy) who barked and barked until the woman yelled out “SHUT-UP”, which would quieten them for exactly 30 seconds until the next go-round. On Day 3, they abruptly left and the rest of our stay was perfectly peaceful.

Christina Lake is not far from Grand Forks – a town that suffered terrible damage this spring from flooding. We drove in one day for something to do and discovered a surprisingly pretty town; parts of which are still recovering and likely will for years. These posters were on many storefronts that are closed and under renovation.

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We had an excellent lunch at a place called The Board Room; packed with customers since so many restaurants have yet to open. Fantastic sandwiches, great coffee, watermelon-scented ice water – a welcome change from camp food. The mood among the locals seemed to be quite upbeat – Grand Forks is a small community where everyone rallies to help out.

We also went to the Saturday market, but since it was threatening thunderstorms, there were not many people there. We did stop to talk to a couple who transplanted from Vancouver last year, bought a farm in Grand Forks and are valiantly making a go of it. It’s been a good move for them – they love the area and are obviously doing something right.

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On the way back to our campground, we saw a bunch of cars lined up on the highway, which usually means one thing: wildlife viewing. Lucky us –  a small herd of big-horned sheep.

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As we got closer, we realized there was a territorial spat going on – two males facing off, presumably for the rights to the females, who kept their backs turned to the posturing.
We watched for a long while but aside from a couple of fake charges, nothing much was happening.

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Leaving Christina Lake, we had another weird experience. Stephen was driving and out of nowhere, a car zoomed up behind him and aggressively tailgated. At the first opportunity, the driver sped past us,  honked his horn, and flipped us the bird; his face ugly and contorted.  We were gobsmacked by this unprovoked display of road rage and hugely gratified to see him pulled over a few kilometres down the road.

We drove on for four hours through tremendously smoky conditions, but by the time we arrived in Manning Park, the air quality was much better.

I’ve given you the bad and the ugly sides of camping – Manning Park was nothing but good. This was our campsite:

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We walked about 10 yards from our site to the creek. We fell asleep at night to the sounds of rushing water and rustling trees and woke up to really cool temps – about nine degrees. This is mountain camping – even in August.

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We met an interesting couple from Moncton in the site next to us – they were on their honeymoon, riding across Canada on His and Hers Kawasakis.  We wondered if they kept in formation as they rode.

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She is a PhD student who had been in Bali to study the phenomenon of the high rate of  deafness in the small community of Bengkala. Due to a geographically-centric recessive gene, 40-50 people in a population of 3,000 have been deaf since birth. The amazing thing about it is that rather than treat these folks as “other”, everyone in the village learns to sign so that everyone can communicate. This is a story for our troubled times.

Manning Park is huge – over 83,000 hectares and the main attraction is the vast number of hiking trails that range from a half-hour stroll to a six-day backcountry hike. The wildlife is another big deal – during our three and a half days here, we saw a number of animals up close.

Mum was very watchful as we approached and as we continued to slowly walk toward them, they made their elegant way into the forest. Just like that…they were gone.

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We came across a couple of bucks, who seemed far less worried about us and bounded up the slope in their own good time.

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In many areas of the park, especially around Lightning Lake, we saw an impressive system of tunnels, and every once in a while, up would pop a Columbian ground squirrel. They have no fear of people at all – as soon as this little guy saw me taking his photo, he started scampering toward me.  I’m not proud to admit it,  but I screamed and ran. I had an unpleasant image of those sharp little nails climbing up my leg.

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Hiking in Manning Park this time of year is glorious – no bugs, comfortable temperatures and over 20 trails to choose from. Since neither of us were inclined to choose from trails that were 16 km. (one way), we chose a couple of 9 km. hikes – just enough grade and distance to give us a bit of a workout.

On our first hike out, the park ranger alerted us to a mother bear and cubs that had been sighted the day before – alas, no such luck for us. Still, the scenery more than made up for it.

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We thought we might see bears on this open area – maybe Stephen’s “Hey bear” calls and my shrill whistling scared them off.

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This hike promised three waterfalls, but we saw just two. After months of hot, dry weather, neither of them were terribly exciting. It’s funny how people will walk miles if they think they might see a waterfall, and almost invariably they are a trickle, not a roar.

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Another hike we took was a 9-km. loop around Lightning Lake – the central lake in Manning Park that is a magnet for canoes, kayaks and swimmers.

We followed this path to the end of the lake and onto the other side, to pick up the trail.

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The water was like a millpond that day; we almost had the trail to ourselves.

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A bridge at the halfway point.

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Another small bridge in the woods.

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We loved Manning Park – there is so much to do there and the campgrounds (there are four) feel like the wilderness. It was the perfect way to end our camping adventures for now. We would highly recommend this park to anyone, but be sure to camp. Manning Park Lodge (the only accommodation in the park) has seen better days.

We stopped in Hope on our way to Vancouver and I would like to leave you with this photo. I don’t know why, but the sight of dogs sitting in the driver’s seat always makes me laugh.

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We will be out of cell service and wifi range for a bit – see you again in about a week.