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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL  (March, 2020)                                                                                                     March, 2020

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....".  Charles Dickens might as well had anticipated my situation when he penned this famous incipit.  I had just retired and the stock market was in free-fall.  Besides, the global coronavirus pandemic was about to hit USA.


Things were supposed to have been different.  We had planned to ritually bury my work life, and start my fifth life, by hiking in the sunny Joshua Tree National Park in southern California.  Instead, we were on our way to snowy Yellowstone National Park, as if heeding Horace Greely: “Go West Young Man”.


The destination was exciting.  We had been to Yellowstone twice before (here and here).  It is a beautiful National Park.  But the propositions were less clear.  My retirement actually starts on April 1 – still a month away.  But I had taken the entire month of March off.  I was good to go.  As for the young man part, let's take it figuratively.  

There was more.  Part of the thousand miles to Yellowstone goes through the flat plains of the Dakotas, notorious for blizzards in the winter.  Which risk was greater?  Catching the coronavirus at airports and planes while flying to Palm Springs or driving 2,000 miles back and forth through blizzard country in winter?  Risk assessment is not an exact science. It is more subjective than objective.


The abrupt change in plan had something to do with my friend Koni.  On the day before our flight, as we were finishing our leisurely Sunday breakfast, he texted me.  Will we be wearing masks during the trip?  I wasn't planning to.  But I don't take Koni's questions lightly.  Being a onetime top 50 black gammon player in the country is one of many feathers he wears on his hat.  


By that time, masks were a rare commodity.  So, down went Christine to the basement to see if any masks were still there from last summer's painting and sanding jobs.  Yes, there was a bagful. But which one is the right one?  N95, P95 or R95?  What's the difference? Better to use one that protects against dust or against solvent?  Droplet, airborne or aerosol?  How frequently should they be changed?  Do we have enough to last 10 days for both of us?  Are they really effective?  After a short and halfhearted Internet search I gave up.

We’ll not be flying; we’ll be driving to some other place.  On the short list stood the perennial Grand Marias (MN), Voyager National Park (MN) and Yellowstone National Park (WY).  The last one won out.  The decision also meant that we'll not be seeing my two childhood friends.  They - senior cadet and dean Asad, and bad ass investment banker Muhit - had already laid out a weekend plan and we were really looking forward to it.  Sorry dostora.  Next year for sure.

Driving west is always fun thanks to little traffic, no toll roads, a big sky and higher speed limits.  The temperature was unseasonably warm and the road dry.  It was good going, and we were kept in the mood by satellite radio's Y2K Country and Bluegrass Junction channels.  But there was one hiccup.  Shortly before reaching Bismarck (ND), our first overnight layover, we learned a lesson.  Out of nowhere and in the gathering darkness, it started to snow.  Within minutes we were surrounded by darkness on three sides.  And a white wall formed in front by the headlight. It was impossible to see anything beyond a few feet, including how the road ran.  It lasted only 20 minutes, but felt like forever.  Then all of a sudden, it was gone.  After that we never drove after sunset.


Enchanted Highway in North Dakota

Cruising Montana at dusk with full moon 

There were two more overnight stays along the way to West Yellowstone (MT) - Billings and Bozeman, both in Montana. Not much to say about either, except for the excellent dinner at Walkers restaurant in Billings.  We chose special of the day - sushi grade tuna lightly seared on one side, coupled with delicate asparagus in a light lemon sauce, and saffron rice on the side.  It was delicious.  I wish I had taken a picture of the dish.


Between Bozeman and West Yellowstone lies Big Sky - a  paradise for skiing and snow mobiling

As we approached Bozeman, driving became difficult because of extreme high wind.  But we made good progress along the snow covered, gorgeous mountainous route.  I'd have liked to explore Big Sky more, which is a skiing and snowmobiling paradise. But it was getting to be afternoon, and we had to move on.  Late afternoon, we arrived West Yellowstone, a small town right next to the national park.  That's where we'd stay.  But the town was practically deserted. What happened?  In our haste, both Christine and I had overlooked that the park entrance at West Yellowstone entrance is closed for regular vehicles in winter.  We had thought it was the Gardiner entrance.  On this part of the park, the yard deep snow on the roads is only "compacted", and not ploughed.  These roads are passable only with snowmobiles and snow cruisers.


It is interesting how snow is compacted.  Once we did see such a machine.  But we were in no mood to take any pictures. That's because as it drove by, we were busy getting mentally composed after being pulled out by a tow truck from a snow hole.  One late evening, our 4-wheel SUV had gotten stuck on a lonely side-road of the deserted little town.  We were in no immediate danger, but it did leave me somewhat shaken.  Get your AAA membership folks.  


Now I understood why regular vehicles are not allowed there in the winter - only snowmobiles and snow cruisers.  As luck would have it, all the snowmobile permits for the year were gone.  The only option left was a snow cruiser.  No big deal.  We visited many of the must-see places on a snow cruiser.  We knew most of them from earlier summer visits.  But the scenery is very different in the winter - in fact more beautiful.  Add to that the absence of hordes of tourists.  See the video of the Old Faithful below.  In the summer, you'd never see it without throngs of tourists around it.  


Only snow cruisers and snowmobiles allowed 

Old Faithful - as faithful as ever   (video credit Christine)

Thermal Geysers in Yellowstone

Then there was snowshoeing.  I highly recommend the Riverside Trails - both the up and the down trail.  And if you go, go in the afternoon.  Then you have a good chance of watching bison herds grazing across the bank of Madison River (see video below).  Besides being able to enjoy the beautiful winter landscape, this time of the season also has the advantage of not having to worry about bears.  They are still hibernating.  Bears we have seen plenty already! (here  and  here)


Snowshoeing along Madison river

Apropos bear - the town of West Yellowstone has a beautiful Wolf and Bear Center.  I took many pictures but none were good enough to qualified as hobby photography.  Instead, I am posting a few of them here, rather than under the photography section​.  The memory pictures right here were mostly taken with my iPhone.  


All that remains to be said is how we drove thousand miles back to Minnesota.  It may not have been as adventurous as the drive to Yellowstone, but our hearts were already yarning for home sweet home....

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Impressions from West Yellowstone Wolf and Bear Center


ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK   (February, 2018)                                                                                 April, 2019

Christine had planned our solar eclipse trip well (see here).  Lincoln, NE is already halfway between Twin Cities and Colorado.  Why not keep going west, do some hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park before returning home?  This turned out to be a very wise decision.  As we traveled west on Interstate 80 towards Denver, others went east.  They were headed home in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin; all eager to arrive in time to go to work the next morning.  Not surprisingly, the traffic was a mess.  In contrast, we had a mostly deserted highway, albeit through a somewhat monotonous Nebraska plain.  We took it easy, making an overnight stay along the way, and arriving next day early afternoon at Estes Park, CO.  Estes Park is a small town right at the border of Rocky Mountain National Park.  

We checked out the park right away, entering at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.  It was already late afternoon.  So, we chose a short, 2.4 miles trail leading to Bierstadt Lake - a beautiful lake, sitting atop Bierstadt Moraine and surrounded by a spruce and fir forest.  No biggie for an afternoon hike, with a total elevation gain of just 700 feet.  But what we had ignored is that the lake is at an elevation of 9,000 feet.  In hind sight, we should have waited until the next day to get acclimated to the high elevation.  The view was certainly worth the effort.  

Bierstadt Lake (iPhone pic)

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Climbing on Alberta Falls Trail

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Nymph Lake (iPhone pic)

Up there, on Glacier Gorge Trail (after Alberta Falls)

The next day, we got busy.  Unfortunately, so did a huge number of other folks too.  The park was well organized though, with shuttle buses that carried hikers to different locations.  We did Nymph Lake (named for the yellow lily, Nymphaea polysepala, on its surface).   Then we went on to Dream Lake, and finally arriving at Emerald Lake – the crown jewel.  It was a perfect spot for a a quick sandwich lunch before heading back.  Too bad I did not take any (memory) pictures of Emerald Lake.  Back then I was not thinking of starting a website.  The entire hike was at an elevation of 9,000 – 10,000 feet.  Every foot worth it!  

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We ended the day by walking around Bear Lake.  It’s a trailhead and is set up for easy walking.   That was the final event of our short excursion to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Next day we headed home, retracting the long drive to Minnesota.  In 2-1/2 days we saw only a tiny, tiny part of the park.  We’ll be back!


THEODORE ROOSEVELT, YELLOWSTONE AND GRAND TETON   (June, 2018)                               October, 2019


Technically speaking it was a road trip to three National Parks, but practically to two.  And even more strictly, and hiking-wise, only to one.  They all lie to the west/south-west of Minnesota. That’s the direction to go if you want hassle-free, toll-free roads and a big vista landscape (as opposed to traffic jams and toll roads to the east :)


Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Dickinson, ND was our first stop from Minnesota.  We had done Dickinson, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 10 years ago.  That was when we were bringing our youngest, Ilias, to Stanford to start as freshman.  Instead of flying out to California we had made it a three-week family road trip, with Yellowstone NP, Glacier NP and Seattle along the way…. then down south on highway 101 along the beautiful Pacific coast, to Palo Alto.  


This time it was an overhung, drizzly day.  But we wanted to take advantage of our annual National Park permit and say hello to Roosevelt Park again.  It has some beautiful views from atop observation platforms, and we saw quite a few buffaloes.  After driving around the park for a while, like typical tourists, we moved on to our real destinations to the west.


Yellowstone National Park, Montana and Wyoming

Bozeman, MT was our next stop, which I already “knew”. By “knowing” I mean being familiar with the hotel we spent the night in, and its conference rooms.  That was by virtue of having attended a conference there several years ago.  Bozeman may well have its charms, but cities don’t excite me as much as the nature does.  So, we left early morning for Gardiner, which is just a stone’s throw away.  It is a small town located at the southern border of Montana and right next to the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.


Yellowstone National Park is the oldest of the 60 US National Parks and was signed into law by President Ulysses Grant in 1872 - the establishment of any National Park requires the act of the United States Congress.  


After arriving at Yellowstone, we embarked upon the typical touristy thing.  That means driving from one geological attraction to the next, together with a crowd of tourists from all over the world, then walking along a trail, vying for the best possible angle to take a picture, usually under the most unfortunate lighting conditions, and inevitably being irritated by at least one tourist asserting his rights, most likely with malintent, to position himself at a location that completely ruins the composition of the picture I am attempting to take (while being completely oblivious to the fact that by waiting for that disruptive tourist to move, I am actually irritating a bigger number of other tourists, who likewise just cannot understand why I am being so stubborn and intent on ruining their pictures), but ultimately giving up and doing the obligatory click, click, click …. then getting back to the car, racing to the next spot, and repeating everything…..


But the places are stunningly beautiful, and this is a must do exercise.  Our obligatory trek took us to Mammoth Hot Springs, the Norris Geyser Basin, The Artists Paint Pots, Midway Geyser Basin, West Thumb Geyser Basin at Grant Village, and of course the Old Faithful.  More pictures are posted under "Photography - National Parks".  

The next day, we drove around in Lamar Valley with its rolling hills, wide vistas and rivers.  It is at its best at sunset when hordes of bison congregate.  Bisson are coming back, and I’ll feel slightly less guilty when I eat my next bison burger!.

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After two and a half days, and after having seen more tourists than bison, we had it.  We headed to the South Entrance and towards Grand Teton National Park. On our way, we made an encounter with a grizzly bear.  We were lucky on two counts.  Grizzly sights are not that common.  Besides, we were at a safe distance in our car.  Grizzlies can be aggressive and dangerous.  The picture was taken by Christine with her point and shoot camera with a 14x digital zoom.


Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

For Grand Teton we stayed in Jackson Hole.  “Hole" supposedly comes from early trappers, who primarily entered the valley from the north and east and had to descend along relatively steep slopes, giving the sensation of entering a hole.  Today Jackson Hole is a nice little touristy town.


Street views in Jackson Hole, WY

The first thing we did was to head to the park service and get trail maps.  During our five days in Jackson Hole, we did three separate day hikes: one to Bradley/Taggert Lake, one to Jenny Lake and one to Glacier Gulch.  Each of them beautiful and very different.  The most strenuous one was the Glacier Gulch Trail taking us to a glacier lake at an elevation of 9,000 feet. 

Jenny Lake video

Bradley Lake video

In one of the hikes we became rather familiar with a brown bear.  It must have taken a liking to us because we encountered it five times during a one-day hike.  Brown bears are not as dangerous as grizzlies, and we were equipped with bear spray.  But they are still wild and dangerous animals.  


At our third encounter, while Christine was resting on top of a big boulder, and I was absorbed trying to take the perfect picture of an idyllic mountain creek, I was suddenly awakened by a commotion – by Christine’s frantic calls and a soothing command from a park ranger. The bear was approaching the trail!


The park ranger told us that this was a young juvenile bear simply minding its business and foraging.  We would be safe if we gave it enough space and allowed it to use the trail if it wanted to.  Even for bears, it is easier to go along a trail than in the underbrush.  If approached, he advised, we should move quickly but calmly at a right angle to its path, rather than directly away from it.  It is understood that nobody in his right mind would approach it.  Therefore, we would have two lines of retreat (one to the right and one the left – which may also mean uphill and downhill; or more approachable and less approachable; or more wooded and less wooded, etc.).  So, we should be aware of the alternatives.


That was good advice.  Then shortly afterwards, on the fifth and the last encounter, the bear decided to go uphill by using the trail at a spot between Christine and me.  I had to move away at a right angle, leaving the trail and downhill into the woods.  Then I went parallel to the trail for a while and then back to the trail to join Christine.  Whew!


Brown bear video

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The next day, we got busy.  Unfortunately, so did a huge number of other folks too.  The park was well organized though, with shuttle buses that carried hikers to different locations.  We did Nymph Lake (named for the yellow lily, Nymphaea polysepala, on its surface).   Then we went on to Dream Lake, and finally arriving at Emerald Lake – the crown jewel.  It was a perfect spot for a a quick sandwich lunch before heading back.  Too bad I did not take any (memory) pictures of Emerald Lake. Back then I was not thinking of starting a website.  The entire hike was at an elevation of 9,000 – 10,000 feet. Every foot worth it!  


ZION NATIONAL PARK   (February, 2018)                                                                                                           April, 2019

2018 was an exceptionally “productive” year because we hiked four national parks in one year!  First, we did a dual trip to Zion National Park and Death Valley National Park.  That was in February - although I am posting it only now.  And later in June, we did another dual trip to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park  (already posted here).  


Zion National Park is the oldest NP in Utah and is just a 2.5-hour drive from Las Vegas.  The 229-square mile (590 square kilometer) national park is diverse - represented with desert, riparian, woodland and coniferous forest zones.  Its highest point is 8,726 ft. (2,660 m), and its lowest 3,666 ft. (1,117 m).  The name Zion is derived from a Mormon expression.

Our lodging in Springdale was beautifully located with a gorgeous view of the mountains both from our balcony and from the dining area.  See the picture below as we were heading to the park on the first morning.  But it was February, and the weather could be fickle.  Accordingly, we had planned for only three days at Zion.  For the same reason, we did not hike the Narrows, a classic Zion trail. 


The hotel and the view from the hotel

Instead, we went on the Observation Point trail - an 8-mile long strenuous hike with a steady climb of 2300 feet.  It zig zags up the mountain, the switchbacks getting tighter as you go higher.  The entire hike goes along a beautiful trail bordered by yellow and white sandstone rock formations, with occasional patchy vegetation and evergreen trees. The final viewpoint is at an elevation of 6,520 ft.   From there, you get a spectacular view of nearly every major attraction of the canyon, including Angels Landing.  We were fortunate to have a clear and sunny, albeit somewhat cool, day the entire time.


The Observation Trail, bordered by stunning limestone formations along the way

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The vegetation becoming sparse - just a few evergreens

Finally at the Observation Point

The next day was different.  It was all snowy, cold and windy.  Fortunately, we were well prepared.  So, we ventured out to the Emerald Pool trail.  It is one of the most popular hikes in Zion, and has three pools - the lower, the middle, and the upper Emerald Pool.  All hikes lead to sparkling waterfalls and glistening pools.  But the scenic beauty, as well as climbing difficulty, increases as you go higher.  On that day, with snow, ice and slit, it got a bit difficult as we went higher.  But we made it safe - and it was worth it.  Views of Lady Mountain, the Great White Throne, Red Arch Mountain and cliffs in all directions were stunning.  And the pools were partially frozen, and partially covered with snow.  At the Upper Emerald Pool, we laid out our poncho on a raised, snow covered rock, and enjoyed a lunch of sandwich and banana, all by ourselves.

Middle Emerald Pool

Upper Emerald Pool

We had learned that in the summer of 2016 five hikers from this trail got lost.  They had to be rescued at night.  It was late in the afternoon, and we didn’t want to risk anything.  Besides, the weather was getting unpredictable.  So we headed back .  Down at the visitor center, it was lonely, with hardly any visitors around.  The landscape was quiet, and the atmosphere had an eerie, melancholic mood.  We drove around a bit more, taking in the mood, and tried to capture it with my iPhone.  We finally called it a day, knowing that it was time to move on to Death Valley National Park - the hottest place on earth.


The eerie and desolate Zion National Park landscape on our last day


DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK   (February, 2018)                                                                                      April, 2019

Death Valley is an apt name.  This is what Oscar Denton, the caretaker of the Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley, had recorded on July 1913, "It was so hot that swallows in full flight fell to the earth dead and when I went out to read the thermometer with a wet Turkish towel on my head, it was dry before I returned."   Fortunately, when we went, in was February in 2018.  The temperature hovered around a blissful 60 - 70F (16 - 21C) during the day, and the days were bright and sunny.  Perfect conditions for hiking, and we did quite a few of them. 

But first, we had to survive passing through the notorious Area 51, which we obviously did successfully.  We ended up staying in a hotel at a deserted, rather strange place.  It was Jack Longstreet Hotel, named after a notorious gunfighter and renegade.  All I can say is that it had seen its better days in the 50's.  But to its credit it did have a character, and a line dancing floor to boot.   


Danger, danger!!


Mr. Jack Longstreet and his sidekick appreciate the pleasure of your company

Back to hiking.  We started the first one at Zabriskie Point and went along the northern flank of Badland Loop, past Manly Beacon (see video), with an incursion to the Red Cathedral, back to Golden Canyon, then Gower Gulch and then back to Zabriskie Point along the southern flank of Badlands Loop.

Starting off at Zabriskie Point 


I have never been to moon, but this is how it'd probably look like up there.  To make the experience more dramatic, we met just three pairs of hikers the entire day (except at parking lots)

Along the Red Cathedral

The next day took us to Mosaic Canyon Trail.  It is a family favorite because the trail goes along beautifully polished and mosaicked marble walls.   What the prospectus doesn't tell is that this is true only for the first segment of the trail.  It is also not well marked.  Pretty soon the narrow trail becomes quite challenging because the smoothly polished marble boulders are extremely difficult to climb.  But we made it alright all the way to the "dry waterfall" (that's how I call it).  There was no way I could climb the posted marble wall.  Besides, it was getting late - so we retracted our path.  


Pretending to climb the polished marble wall at the end of the Mosaic Canyon Trail


Starting off for the Badland Loop

The next day was reserved for Bad Water Basin, which is a huge dry lake bed covered with the most amazing salt crystals. The Bad Water Basin is 282 feet (85 m) below the sea level.  It is the lowest point in the entire western hemisphere.


Bad Water Basin

We spent the final day visiting the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  See above Christine capturing sunset at the dunes.  I have posted another picture of the dunes under photography section.  That was the great finale of our Death Valley trip.  We drove bak to Las Vegas, where we stayed overnight to fly back to Minnesota the next day.  But not before hitting the jackpot in Red Rock Casino!!!