The next section of my trip surprised me by being my favorite place we visited. I had traveled through the southern part of Yellowstone in 2009, and I had assumed all of Yellowstone National Park was like that: bubbling mud, alien landscapes and the occasional bison. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
We drove through the Lamar Valley in the north east portion of Yellowstone National park on our way towards the Northeast Entrance and beyond. The Lamar Valley is known as one of the best places to spot Yellowstone’s famous wildlife. This valley is habitat for bears, elk, pronghorn antelope, eagles, wolves, bison, bighorn sheep and more. In fact, Lamar Valley at dawn is the #1 place to spot wolves in Yellowstone!
Most of Yellowstone’s most spectacular wildlife are most active at dawn and dusk. Though we were a little late for dawn, we managed to see huge herds of bison, eagles and osprey, pronghorn antelope and elk. My phone camera isn’t up to snuff for wildlife photography, so I really only managed to capture decent pictures of the large, stationary bison.
In addition to the phenomenal wildlife, the drive from Gardiner, Montana through the northern part of the park has gorgeous mountain and river views. This part of the park was much less crowded than the southern sections, and we enjoyed the vistas in relative isolation.
Located at the corner of Highway 50 and Lakeview Avenue in South Lake Tahoe, this easy-to-access spot is usually bustling. During the summer, you can stake out a bbq, rent a paddle board or visit the high-class concession stand for gourmet hot dogs or local ice cream. You can also enjoy live music Thursday nights at Live at Lakeview. If crowds aren’t your thing, visit Lakeview Commons in the winter, when it is significantly less busy.
A quick, 1.5 mile flat hike on the Tahoe Rim Trail from the Mount Rose Highway trailhead will bring you to a great spot to camp out and watch the sunset. There are plenty of flat rocks to post up on and get comfortable while you watch the sunset over the West Shore mountains of Lake Tahoe. I’d recommend bringing in a couple of beers and some snacks.
Trout Creek Meadow/Lily Beach, South Lake Tahoe, California
Smoke particles in the air make for astounding sunsets.
If you’re looking for an easy to access, but not crowded beach in South Lake Tahoe, I have to recommend Trout Creek Meadow/Lily Beach. You can access this area from the west end of San Francisco Avenue in the Al Tahoe neighborhood or from the bike path behind Meek’s Lumber. The meadow is a great place for bird and wildlife watching, so be on the lookout for coyotes and waterfowl of all kinds. Dogs must be on leash (and are banned during certain key bird breeding seasons) and no alcohol!
Hidden Beach, Incline Village, Nevada
Sunset over the East Shore boulders is a Tahoe must-see.
Cascade Lake and Lake Tahoe from a different angle.
For our more adventurous sunset seekers, you could take a late afternoon hike up Mount Tallac, watch the sunset over Lake Tahoe and Desolation Wilderness, and then hike down under a full moon. This is a strenuous 9.5 out and back hike, with over 3,500 feet of elevation gain that starts at 6,500 feet. The views are definitely worth it!! Be prepared for the hike, especially if you plan to come down at night. You’ll need headlamps (plus extra batteries) and confidence in your ability to follow the trail in the dark.
We stopped into this awesome local brewery on a long drive between West Glacier and Gardiner, Montana. My dad and I tried a few of their beers (all delicious!) including the Rendezvous Red Ale and Smoke Jumper Strong Scotch Ale. I settled on the Rising Trout Pale Ale, which I thoroughly enjoyed. If you’re anywhere near Great Falls, Montana and looking for a fun space with great beer, I couldn’t recommend Mighty Mo Brewing Company and more highly!
We started the next leg of our journey (spoiler! my favorite part) in Gardiner, Montana. Gardiner is a fun little town that seems to be mainly populated by river rats and tourists heading in to Yellowstone. The Gardiner entrance is Yellowstone’s only year round entrance, and the Yellowstone River flows right through town.
“…located in the heart of Yellowstone’s Northern Range, at the junction of the Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers. We are surrounded by the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to the east, the Gallatin Wilderness to the north and west, and the world’s first and most famous national park, Yellowstone National Park, to the south. This area is home to the most diverse herds of large wildlife species in the lower 48 states including bison, bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, and deer.”
The town obviously caters to the visitors who stop on their way to the National Park and to recreate on the Yellowstone River, but the town doesn’t feel overly “touristy”. Definitely get dinner on the huge deck at Iron Horse Bar & Grille. I drank a delicious Montana beer (that I immediately forgot the name of!) while watching the sunset over the mountains and the river flow by.
There are a ton of things to do in Gardiner! While we mostly used it as a base to head into Yellowstone National Park, there are plenty of activities centered in or around the town. You can raft the Yellowstone River – we saw plenty of individuals and guided groups, prime fly fishing, horseback tours, and much more!
As far as Yellowstone National Park goes, you get to enter through the Roosevelt Arch, dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Gardiner is only a couple of miles from the Boiling River, a great spot for swimming where a hot spring pours into the Gardiner River. This is also a great spot for wildlife. We saw bighorn sheep on the hillside almost as soon as we drove in to the Park! You’re also only about five miles from Mammoth Hot Springs, and can venture further into Yellowstone from there.
I would highly recommend the place we stayed in Gardiner – the Riverside Cottages. Our set up was a condo-type studio with a full kitchen. They also have a communal hot tub with a river view! After a great night’s sleep in the comfy beds we grabbed a quick breakfast at Tumbleweed Bookstore & Cafe (coffee + breakfast sandwiches + books = my 3 favorite things), and headed out on the road. Stay tuned for Lamar Valley, Beartooth Pass and Chief Joseph Scenic Byway!
Over the past few years, I’ve really expanded the number of US National Parks I’ve visited. I went from one in 2009 (North Cascades National Park) to my current count of twelve. Just last week, I was able to add another National Park to my list: Glacier National Park in Montana.
My parents and I spent a (too) quick day here on a drive through the park. I can’t wait to go back for a longer stay and more exploring!
We drove to Glacier National Park’s West Entrance and had to wait in a fairly long line to get in. We were there on a Saturday, so we definitely experienced the summer crowds. If you end up visiting in the summer, I encourage you to go midweek.
My parents aren’t huge hikers, so we didn’t get to experience much of Glacier National Park’s 700 miles of trails. In fact, in the couple of places we tried to go on short hikes, the trail head parking lots were so full we couldn’t park! We ended up just stopping at a number of little pull out areas along the way to stretch our legs, explore along the river, and take in the park’s amazing views.
One reason we chose to go in the summer was the opportunity to take the Going to the Sun Road over Lolo Pass. Glacier National Park describes Going to the Sun Road as
“One of the most amazing highlights of Glacier National Park is a drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This engineering marvel spans 50 miles through the park’s wild interior, winding around mountainsides and treating visitors to some of the best sights in northwest Montana.”
This drive is definitely worth fighting the summer crowds, at least once. We even got to see some great wildlife on the drive!
Despite the long lines and full parking lots, Glacier didn’t feel as crowded as Yosemite or Yellowstone often do. I can’t wait to come back and do more backcountry exploring. Go visit Glacier National Park soon, before all the glaciers melt!
Powerline Trail is a well established, popular trail right in the midst of South Lake Tahoe. This is a great trail for beginning mountain bikers who are ready to start challenging themselves, but is enough fun that intermediates and up won’t get bored. More advanced riders can use Powerline as a warm up and to access more challenging and technical trails like Cold Creek and High Meadow.
The trailhead is at the dead end of Saddle Rd.
Powerline Trail can be accessed at a few points, the most popular being at the end of Saddle Road, a few blocks west of its intersection with Ski Run Boulevard. While there is no parking on Saddle Road, there is parking on Mackedie Way. (This is a residential neighborhood, so please respect the people who live there with your parking!) You can also access the trail from the High Meadow Trail parking lot.
The trail is well marked right from the start. There are two options to begin the trail which meet up about halfway through. I recommend following the more obvious trail up to the left, not up the more gravel road-like section to the right.
There is a pretty steep and short climb almost immediately, but don’t worry, that’s the most difficult climb on the whole trail! Powerline Trail is pretty unique for the South Lake Tahoe area, as it tends towards rolling and doesn’t require a long slog of a climb. Not that there’s no climbing involved! You’ll gain about 600 feet over the 6.6 mile trail.
Most of Powerline Trail travels through shaded forest, making for good trail conditions. There are some sections of that famous South Lake decomposed granite, resulting in some short, but intense, sandy sections by mid-to-late summer. However, if you happen to time it right with some summertime afternoon showers, Powerline has some of the best dirt I’ve ridden in South Lake. I rode it last week after a couple of days of intense rain, and it reminded me of riding in Washington. There are a few spots along the way where the trees open up, and offer incredible views in every direction.
Thunderheads building earlier this week.
After about 1.25 miles, the trail comes to a tee, where heading straight will keep you on Powerline Trail, and going right will take you down to Al Tahoe Boulevard, if you want to bail out. You can access Powerline Trail at the intersection of Pioneer Trail and Al Tahoe Boulevard, and, after an exposed, sandy climb, this is where you’ll connect with the trail.
Al Tahoe Blvd bail out intersection
After this, you’ll head down to a bridge that crosses a small stream, climb out of that small valley and be on to my favorite part of Powerline Trail. The trail gets really flowy with small rolling hills, great dirt, and banked turns so you can fly! Just watch out for hikers and dogs, as this is also a popular trail for walkers and trail runners!
Handmade “Powerline Trail” signs point you in the right direction.
Powerline Trail essentially hits the turn around point at the bridge over Cold Creek. More advanced riders can add a climb to your route by heading up Cold Creek Trail which follows the creek up for about 1,400 feet of climbing over 5 miles (or go up even further on the new and extremely steep Star Lake Trail). You can also continue a little further up the trail, which will end at High Meadow Trail parking lot, and connect with a dirt road that will take you to the Corral area trails.
The back half of this out-and-back trail is even more fun than the first part! While there are still a few (short) climbs, Powerline Trail trends more downhill in this direction. Enjoy the momentum, and have fun! Before you head back to your car, climb up the little rise to the south that you ignored on your way out. The views of Lake Tahoe and the mountains are incredible!
This weekend I was lucky enough to experience possibly the coolest spot I’ve explored since moving to Tahoe – Webber Falls.
Webber Falls is created by the Little Truckee River pouring out of Webber Lake. Water cascades down two tiers of solid granite, creating a nearly perfect swimming hole above the main part of the falls. The two tiers total about 65 feet, with about 15 feet above the pool and 50 feet below. The view down the canyon is incredible, and the surrounding rocks and deep waters make for perfect jumping off rocks or just lounging in the upper falls’ light mist.
While Webber Falls often feels isolated, it’s not too far off the road and is becoming a more popular destination. If you do find your way to this natural playground, be respectful and pack out everything you pack in. While this place is still nearly pristine, we did find some garbage, including cigarette butts and beer cans.
Though Webber Falls is not very far off the road (less than a 1/4 mile hike), the way down is steep and could be treacherous. Not recommended for dogs, drunk people or children! During the spring the flow is too high (and cold) for safe swimming, but the water is usually perfect by mid-summer. However, use your best judgement! Don’t swim there if you feel it is unsafe and be sure to check water depth before jumping.
This spot is an absolute gem, and I’m so glad that I got to experience it. I’m sure I’ll be back many times in the future.
What: Webber Falls
Where: North of Truckee, California
How to get there: I’m not going to tell you! This is such a small and special spot, you’ll just have to ask a local.
As part of a larger road trip last fall, I visited Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. Joshua Tree NP is located in southern California and spans two ecosystems: the hotter, dryer lower elevation Colorado Desert (which is part of the larger Sonoran Desert), and the cooler and wetter high elevation Mojave Desert. The Mojave Desert is the home of the famous and strange Joshua Trees, from which the park takes its name.
The National Park Service describes Joshua Tree National Park as
“…immense, nearly 800,000 acres, and infinitely variable. It can seem unwelcoming, even brutal during the heat of summer when, in fact, it is delicate and extremely fragile. This is a land shaped by strong winds, sudden torrents of rain, and climatic extremes. Rainfall is sparse and unpredictable. Streambeds are usually dry and waterholes are few. Viewed in summer, this land may appear defeated and dead, but within this parched environment are intricate living systems waiting for the opportune moment to reproduce. The individuals, both plant and animal, that inhabit the park are not individualists. They depend on their entire ecosystem for survival.”
I visited in late September, which meant beautiful weather, sunny but not overly hot. I’d love to check it out in the spring as well, for when it’s a little greener. In addition to the acres of otherworldly Joshua Trees, the park is filled with fascinating desert plants and unbelievable rock formations.
Don’t stab yourself!
During the cooler months, Joshua Tree NP is a rock climbing and bouldering Mecca. Now that I’ve gotten into climbing, I’m excited to return and check it out! The Mountain Project calls it
“a world famous area with thousands of routes, countless boulder problems and a very limited number of campsites. Long popular as a winter destination, it’s appeal has only grown throughout the years as climbers of all abilities have discovered the mild temperatures, grippy rock and surreal landscape which make it a must visit area on any climber’s list.”
While Joshua Tree National Park might seem flat on first glance, this is deceiving. Head up to Keys View for an incredible (but likely hazy) look at the Cochella Valley and the San Andreas Fault.
There is camping available in Joshua Tree NP, though it can fill up quickly during popular times of year. We stayed in the Joshua Tree Inn in city of Joshua Tree, California on the northwest corner of the National Park. The city of Joshua Tree feels like a high desert artist’s paradise, full of funky motels, eclectic restaurants and tons of arts and culture for a city of that size. The Joshua Tree Inn is where rock legend Gram Parsons died, and there is a small shrine to him in the courtyard. Some people come to talk to his ghost, be we certainly didn’t have any ghostly experiences!
This weekend I set my feet on my highest ever point: 11,760 at Kearsarge Pass in Kings Canyon National Park.
The Kearsarge Pass trail is a popular re-supply route for Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail through hikers. The trail wanders uphill through the John Muir Wilderness on the way to Kings Canyon National Park with sweeping vistas of the high Sierra in every direction. The trailhead begins at the Onion Valley campground about 15 miles outside of Independence, California in the Eastern Sierra. To get to Onion Valley Campground, head towards Independence (about 42 miles south of Bishop) on Highway 395. Once in Independence, turn onto West Market Street, which quickly turns into Onion Valley Road. There are several campgrounds along Onion Valley Road or you could stay in Independence, as there is non-campground parking near the trailhead. We stayed in one of the walk-in camping spots at Onion Valley Campground, which makes for an easy and convenient early start. Note: Onion Valley Campground is high (above 9,000 feet!) – so pack accordingly. You’ll want more warm layers than the temperature in much lower, hotter Independence seems to indicate.
The entire Kearsage Pass trail is a steady climb from about 9,200 feet up to a maximum of 11,760 feet at the top of Kearsarge Pass over 4.8 miles. While the trail is never extremely steep, be aware that you are at high elevation. The going is much more difficult than a steeper, lower elevation climb. I live at 6,200 feet and I was really feeling the difficulty when I got about 10,500. Be prepared to go more slowly and take lots of breaks, especially if you are new to high elevation hiking. We hiked the 4.8 miles and climbed just over 2,500 feet with a moving time of 2:05:40, however our elapsed time was 3:20:20 which means we took nearly 1:15 in breaks across the nearly 5 miles.
Kearsarge Pass trail closely passes several gorgeous alpine lakes, with Flower and Gilbert Lakes close enough for a refreshing dip or quick fishing pit stop. Warning: these lakes can be extremely mosquito-y! We were chased off before doing more than dipping our toes in, but there were a number of other hikers and fishermen that braved the swarms (probably armed with bug spray). The stunning views of the hike begin almost immediately, and we were frequently stopping to admire the vistas and take pictures.
The whole trail is incredibly well built and maintained. There aren’t too many tripping hazards and the switchbacks are gradual, allowing you to soak in your surroundings and concentrate less on your feet. The rocks surrounding the trail and making up the nearby peaks are interesting enough to catch the eye of the geology inclined in your group. You’ll see a bunch of California’s state rock, serpentine (hint: it’s the greasy looking, greenish one). I’d also recommend bringing along a field guide with a good wildflower section (like the Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada or Wildflowers of California). We saw at least a dozen different varieties of wildflowers during our hike.
The trail climbs at a fairly steady 500 feet per mile, and I started really feeling the exertion of hiking at high altitude at about 2.5 miles and 10,500 feet. Luckily, the gorgeous views help distract from the hard work.
At about 4 miles, you’ll come to your last couple switch backs and the end is in sight! You might see people up at the top of the pass that seem very far away, but the final push wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. There are only a couple of switch backs, and you’ll mostly be headed straight toward your goal. The vistas are even more incredible in this section. Keep your eyes out for a very steep summit to the south that only gets more interesting as the trail climbs higher.
When you finally reach the top of Kearsarge Pass, take your time to soak in the views and rest for the trip back down. Check out these amazing views!
At the pass, you’ll enter Kings Canyon National Park, and could continue your hike onto the John Muir Trail and down to Kearsarge and Bullfrog Lakes, and even further to connect with the Pacific Crest Trail. We decided the top of Kearsarge Pass was enough of a climb for us. Unfortunately, I had a user-related Strava malfunction on our trip down, so I’m not sure how long it took. I paused Strava when we stopped to check out one of the lakes. Mosquito swarms descended, and, in the panic of our escape, I forgot to re-start it! It took us about an hour to do the first 2.4 miles, and I imagine the second half took about the same time. So we’ll say the descent took about 2 hours.
This was a difficult and rewarding hikes with some of the best views I’ve encountered in the Sierra. If you are looking for a high Sierra hike or backpacking trip (permits needed) that’s challenging but completely doable for an in-shape individual, I would highly recommend the Kearsarge Pass trail.
Length: 4.8 miles to the top, 9.6 round trip
Elevation: 2,500 feet of elevation gain
Duration: ~5:20 total, for reasonably in-shape hikers that live at 6,500 feet
And here are two more photos, just because I like them:
Hidden Beach is a gorgeous, fairly secluded beach on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. The beach is a few miles south of Incline Village, Nevada. While there is no actual parking for this beach, there are some spots along the side of the road, and a well developed trail and set of stairs that can get you from the legal parking area to Hidden Beach about half a mile away.
The best place to park is on the lake side of the road, about two miles north of Sand Harbor. There will probably be cars there already. Be sure you are parking in a legal parking area! You will be ticketed and possibly towed if you park in residential During the summer, arrive early! Parking is often full before noon, and I would suggest arriving before 10 am.
The water is the trademark Tahoe aqua and very clear. It often tends to be warmer than some of the other Tahoe beaches, so it’s a great place for swimming. The sand isn’t as nice as some of the North and South Shore beaches, but it’s definitely good enough for lounging around and enjoying the sun. It’s also a great place for watching the sun set over the mountains.
The last time I was there, I saw an osprey fishing, 3 paragliders showing off, and no naked people! Legally, this is not a nude beach, but I’ve heard rumors that sometimes there are nude beach goers. If you do decide to get naked, watch for cops and don’t forget your sunscreen! This beach is also a great place to take a break on a kayak or stand up paddle board trip, and you’ll often see them glide by.