Buffalo National River

After a grueling drive through the entire state of Kansas and spending 2 nights outside of Kansas City, MO, we were ready to get back in the woods. Since the Buffalo River, which is nestled in the Arkansas Ozarks, had been recommended to us by a couple of people, we decided to make a slight detour away from Atlanta to check it out. We’re sure glad we did.

Buffalo National River offers camping, hiking, and 120 river miles of unspoiled wilderness. This wilderness area is especially unique since its location allows plant and animal species of the Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast to coexist together.

After spending the first day hiking to a nice river overlook, we spent the next two days paddling different sections of the river for a total of 14 miles accessed right from our campsite. The river is clear and unpolluted, with high bluffs framing its banks and long stretches of sandy bottom — perfect for our crew. The weather was unseasonably warm and hit 90 degrees while we were there so we took every opportunity to get wet. Fortunately, the Buffalo River offered both deep swimming holes for rock jumping and plenty of slow, shallow spots for the kids to practice their swimming.

This area was previously unknown to us but being only 9 hours from ATL and offering another 106 miles of river to be paddled, we will definitely be back.

 

Rocky Mountain & The Mile High City

Our trip through Colorado marked the end of our Western journey as we began to head back east to Atlanta for two dear friends’ wedding. Luckily the timing was just right, we pulled into Rocky Mountain National Park three days before the campgrounds closed for the season. We camped at Timber Creek where we were serenaded all night, every night by the resident elk population bugling to their mates. Liam and I explored the campground and got a front row seat to watch one particularly large male elk calling to his ladies, it was quite the sight.

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One of the resident campground elk bugling to his ladies.

We spent our days hiking around the park and keeping warm. The first day we enjoyed a quiet 7.4 mile hike to the headwaters of the Colorado River – the same river we paddled in Moab that nearly swamped the boat. We enjoyed a pleasant picnic along these calmer banks, watching minnows dart among the rocks and even stumbled upon a mother moose and her baby.

Later in the day we explored the Alpine Visitor Center and hiked up to an alpine overlook that offered stunning views of the Rocky Mountain peaks and lakes far below. In case you’re curious alpine environments are designated to anything above 11,400ft. Few species, both plant and animal, can survive up here and those that do, are extremely susceptible to the effects of climate change which threaten to destroy their delicate ecosystem.

The next day Rick and I traded off parenting duties and each of us got to do our own solo hike while the other minded the kids. During my turn entertaining the kids we stumbled on a herd of elk moving through a thicket. As we tried to back away so as not to upset them a mother moose and her baby came charging through the trees. It was the equivalent of a traffic jam in nature. Luckily the kids and I were far enough out of the way that the animals ignored us and quickly went their own separate ways. Meanwhile, Rick thoroughly enjoyed his hike to the top of Deer Mountain where he stood above the clouds and got to watch them sail gently by beneath him.

Despite the short stay, we felt like we got to see much of the park. After a short stint boondocking in Fort Collins and exploring their local farmers market, we made our way to Denver to visit my Uncle Paul’s family.

Liam and Cora Jean were excited to meet another cousin and had fun learning to golf with Sylas and playing with the neighborhood kids. Rick and I were well fed by my Uncle Paul and cousin Shaina, and enjoyed hearing colorful family stories each night over delicious meals. My aunt and uncle have been living in Denver for well over 30 years and as a painter my uncle knows the city and it’s neighborhoods like the back of his hand. He took us on several tours of the city and surrounding towns giving us the history and fun backstories on the various properties he’s worked on in the past.

I hadn’t seen that side of the family since our wedding, so it was a long overdue visit. I enjoyed a chance to catch up, meet our newest cousin and sincerely appreciate my aunt and uncle opening their home to us!

Bones and Bootleggers

The drive between Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain National Parks is a long one, so we decided to add a stop in between to visit Dinosaur National Monument. We thought this would be a nice change of pace for the kids, swapping miles long hikes for something more their speed.

The monument didn’t disappoint. To give you a little point of reference Dinosaur National Monument is located in two states, Utah and Colorado. We entered from the Utah side, where you can visit the Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry. The Quarry is what remains of the original dig and is enclosed in a beautiful modern building. Inside you can comfortably enjoy looking at and learning about the nearly 1,500 dinosaur bones still partially buried in the quarry walls. You can even TOUCH dinosaur fossils that are 149 million years old! Some of the dinosaurs include Stegosaurus, Allosaurus and Diplodicus. For Liam and CJ who are big dino fans, this was a pretty amazing experience.

Dinosaur fossils aren’t all the Monument has to offer though. Later in the day we popped the canoe in on the Green River, aptly named for the deep green hue of the water. We took a short paddle meandering past thousand-foot-high canyon walls. The exposed rock layers tell a geological history millions of years old and are painted the most vibrant hues of pink and orange. The kids enjoyed playing on a sandy beach at the takeout while we waited for Rick to ride his bike back to retrieve the car – this was one of the last warm days we would spend out west and it was nice to relax by the water.

Before heading back to camp we made one final stop at Josie Bassett Morris’s homestead, a woman who is the very definition of a “Bad Ass.” Accounts of Josie describe her as charming, independent and strong willed. After divorcing four men during a time when divorce was unheard of, Josie struck out on her own building a cabin on Cub Creek and homesteading the surrounding land where she lived for nearly 50 years. During Prohibition she brewed up brandy and chokecherry wine. A local resident regaled us with a story about a Prohibition agent who thought he’d make a name for himself by busting up Josie’s liquor business. What he didn’t realize was that the townsfolk were unwaveringly loyal to Josie. After the agent announced his intentions and demanded help from the town, a resident offered to show him the way to Josie’s liquor stills. Unbeknownst to the agent, he was being taken the scenic route while another citizen mounted his horse and made a beeline to Josie’s and helped her empty and destroy the stills. When the agent finally arrived at Josie’s he found her innocently knitting on her front porch. If you’d like to read more about this amazing woman check out the NPS site here.

We only stayed in Dinosaur for two days and barely had a chance to scratch the surface. If you happen to be traveling in the area I STRONGLY recommend checking out Dinosaur, it has plenty to offer to visitors both young and old.

Hike, Bike, Paddle: Grand Teton

After 10 days navigating Yellowstone’s massive roadways and crowds, we ventured south to Grand Teton National Park, which quickly eclipsed our enjoyment of Yellowstone thanks to its smaller size and even smaller crowds. As you enter Grand Teton you notice the immensely flat landscape broken by a single chain of mountains. With no foothills to obscure the view the Tetons are visible from nearly the entire park and provide the most jaw dropping backdrop to everything you see.

As with Yellowstone, many of the campgrounds were closed for the season, so we settled on Gros Ventre at the very southern border of the park. The campground is situated along the Gros Ventre river and is heavily wooded with cottonwoods whose leaves had turned a brilliant shade of yellow, which contrasted perfectly with the never-ending blue sky. In addition to the outstanding scenery of the campground, Gros Ventre is a hot bed for moose activity. We could hear them walking by the camper at night and watched them grazing in the mornings and evenings.

Nearby was Mormon row which we explored one evening near sunset. This area includes several old structures left over from some of the earliest settlers to the area. It includes an old barn that is in nearly every picture you see of Grand Teton. We had fun poking around the old farmsteads imagining what life was like, the back-breaking labor probably didn’t seem quite so hard when you had that fantastic view to look at all day.
One of the things we liked most about Grand Teton was the variety of activities we could enjoy. There is plenty of hiking to be had, but there are also several bodies of water and a bike trail that travels from the park all the way into Jackson Hole. We managed to put the canoe in twice, once on the Snake River where we observed four bald eagles flying over us – 2 of which were squawking up a storm as they swooped and circled, playing in the sky. The river was pristine and at times we would look down and see nothing but fish blanketing the bottom. On another paddle we canoed across Jenny Lake before hiking to a waterfall on the other side. Shortly after leaving the boat we ran into a young black bear on the trail, which was quite a treat.

 

Our last day we hopped on our bikes for an 8-mile ride to the National Museum of Wildlife Art located just a few miles outside the park. While the family was skeptical at my suggestion to visit an art museum, they were all quickly smitten. The museum hosts artwork from the 1500s to present day, all with the common thread of wildlife. Many of the subjects were from the western parks we had been visiting and the historical descriptions given next to each of them added a layer to our appreciation of the American West. My favorite artist by far was Carl Rungius, an impressionist who completed some of his most popular work in the early 1900s and became one of America’s most notable wildlife artists. For as much as Rick and I enjoyed wandering through the galleries, Liam and Cora Jean had a ball in the children’s wing. It was full of books, puzzles, dress up clothes all related to animals. And the crowning jewel was the art studio where the kids could work with clay, paint, or sketch their own wildlife art. The studio even had animal models from bird beaks and feet, to various mammal noses and eyeballs!

The trip wouldn’t be complete without Rick sneaking off to tackle one of the more difficult hikes in the park, which for the Tetons was Amphitheater Lake. The hike offers views of Grand Teton from a beautiful sub-alpine lake located at 10,000 ft…or so I’m told. ☹

A Little Place Called Yellowstone

After leaving Glacier, we traveled south towards Yellowstone, briefly stopping in Helena and then Livingston, MT. Neither Maggie nor I had ever been, and I didn’t realize just how massive the park was. The park has an upper loop and a lower loop that look like a figure 8. Each loop takes a couple of hours to drive. Since we arrived late in the season, many of the campgrounds were closing or had closed for the year which made the remaining campgrounds pretty scarce. Luckily, we were able to secure a site at the Norris campground, located in the southwestern portion of the upper loop.

Since it was close by, we started our exploration of the park at Norris Geyser Basin where we all learned about Yellowstone’s different hydrothermal features (hot springs, geysers, steam vents, and mudpots). From there we drove to the Old Faithful visitor’s center to watch Old Faithful erupt along with hundreds of our closest friends.

While Maggie and I found the hydrothermal activity very interesting and different, the kids really wanted to see the herds of bison, pronghorn, and wolves which are located in the Lamar Valley on the northeastern side of the park. The drive to Lamar Valley did not disappoint. We saw dozens of buffalo herds, some of which were only a few feet from the road and several pronghorn antelope. We made the drive late in the afternoon in the hopes of doing a dusky hike along Slough Creek which, according to the ranger we asked, was the best time/place to spot one of the park’s wolf packs. While we didn’t see any wolves, we were treated to some gorgeous views and a few bison bulls.

The next day Maggie had to head into the nearby town of West Yellowstone to do some work. After dropping her off at the library, I took the kids to the Bear and Wolf Discovery Center. The BWDC is a non-profit that takes in nuisance bears (bears that have learned to associate people with food) and allows them to be ambassadors for their wild counterparts. It is also where a lot of bear proof containers and trash cans are tested before they can be certified as “bear-proof.” Liam and CJ enjoyed seeing all the animals as well as several mangled prototypes that did not pass the bear-proofing test.

Later in the week, our friend Jacob was kind enough to pop in and visit us for a few days between business trips. The kids enjoyed the car full of junk food that Jacob brought for them and, in return, I enjoyed taking Jacob on a short, but punishing hike to the top of Avalanche Peak.

Jacob also joined us for a hike through Pelican Valley which is touted as “some of the best grizzly country in the lower 48.” While we did not see any grizzlies while we were hiking, we did see and pick up two Dutch tourists who asked to join our crew for safety since the ranger told them that they should not hike this particular trail with less than 3 people in their party. After 6.2 miles of Liam and CJ yammering away at them, I expect next time they’ll take their chances with the bear.

After a long day of hiking and exploring the park, we all decided to get dinner at the Old Faithful Lodge. After waiting close to an hour to be seated, we had a bizarre dining experience in which we had to sit at a table with a random person who was pounding liquor. A fellow customer who was observing our dining experience, felt badly enough for us that he surreptitiously paid our tab. After dinner, Maggie had to drive Jacob’s rental car, because neither Jacob nor I were able to drive. I’m not sure if it was the speeding or lack of headlights that first caught the park ranger’s attention, but within minutes of leaving, Maggie was pulled over on the side of the road and getting grilled by the park ranger. It appeared that she was about to get a slew of tickets, but when she told him that she was the designated driver and the ranger saw the two numbskulls that she was having to drive around, he immediately softened and let her go with a warning.

Yellowstone is a massive and well visited park, but it’s beauty really does live up to the hype. Even though it was more crowded than we like, we were able to find plenty of solitary hikes and breathtaking vistas without another human in sight. Seeing bison up close, watching the mist rise from the rivers in the morning as they meander through fields of golden grasses, and observing coyotes hunting down their lunch were just some of the unforgettable sights of Yellowstone.

Crown of the Continent – Glacier

Despite a couple of wild fires raging in the park, we made the most of our visit to Glacier by staying in four different areas of the park and enjoying what each had to offer. Since we were coming from the West, our first stop was Apgar, the western portion of the park. Unfortunately, this was the area most heavily affected by the fires and most trails and roads were closed. We had a long drive from Spokane so we decided to camp there for two night anyways to give the kids (and us) a break from the car. Despite the closures, we still managed to enjoy some short hikes that were open and paddled on Lake McDonald and down McDonald Creek. We were desperate to see some moose and beaver, but instead spotted a baby fawn and a bald eagle and had ourselves a pleasant float. The second day we explored the nearby town of Whitefish. We enjoyed our favorite treat – huckleberry ice cream – and the kids got to play on the playground while I worked at the library. We spend so much time in the woods, “town days” are really special for us. The kids love a chance to play with other kids, I can usually get some work done, and Rick usually gets a break from dish duty.

After taking it easy at Apgar we headed southeast to Two Medicine. We almost didn’t stop here, but over concern about the other campground’s availability decided to pull in. We are so glad we did, we found a beautiful spot on the creek and were treated to a moose walking right through our site on the first evening to munch on some bushes along the opposite bank. The setting of the campsite alone was gorgeous, and the hikes even more so. There were numerous trails spurring off straight from the campground, but to avoid a mutiny from the kids, we were selective in the ones we chose. Many of them included waterfalls, and the longest one we did, Scenic Point via Appistoki Falls, gave spectacular views of the mountains. Liam and CJ seemed less interested in the views at the top, and more interested in sword fighting Rick (whatever keeps them motivated). The only downside to Two Medicine was the wind. We had several sleepless nights as the camper rocked and swayed. Our final day Rick had hoped to paddle across Two Medicine lake for a paddle/hike combo, but to the relief of both me and the kids, it was too windy to take the canoe out. Instead, we hit the road and headed northeast to Rising Sun. While Rick went to the dump station, the kids and I walked along the lake and got up close to two young bighorn sheep.

Rising Sun is one of two campgrounds located on the eastern side of Glacier, the other being St Mary’s. We chose this one because of reports of high bear activity – the park service has banned any tents or soft-sided campers in the campground. For Rick, this was the equivalent of sending up a bat signal. After 9 months of hiking the kids are starting to rebel a little, so Rick and I took turns completing the Hidden Lake trail at Logan Pass – one of the prettiest we’ve done. The trail leads up through alpine meadows and among steep cliffs covered in wildflowers and fluorescent lichen. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, marmots, and bear are all common sightings and we got to check each off our list. The kids got to pick the evening activity and Liam was stoked to listen to a ranger talk about Ice Age animals. Liam was spouting off saber tooth facts while the ranger tried to get through her lecture. The highlight was learning about the short-faced bear and getting to look at it’s skull.

Before leaving Rising Sun, I did get to spot one of the campground’s resident bears. It was an adolescent black bear who was munching berries on the hillside that buffered the campground. I was working inside the camper while Rick took the kids to the ranger station when I was roused by to the sound of repeated clapping. Curious I started walking around the campground, along with several other campers only to find out it was a ranger trying to chase the bear off. Clapping/talking loudly, but calmly are common techniques the rangers employ to haze the bears. They encourage hikers to use these tactics while hiking – it turns out they are a lot more effective than bear bells.

Our final stop in our grand tour of Glacier was Many Glacier – also bear central and high on Rick’s list. If you want to see wildlife, this is the place to come. Our first day was relaxed, we indulged ourselves with lunch at the lodge before heading for a short hike around Swiftcurrent Lake. The lake is nestled into the foot of towering rocky mountains, synonymous with Glacier. It’s also a hot bed for moose activity and we saw two as we made our way around the lake. That evening we enjoyed one of the most engaging ranger talks, which discussed…time – or atleast how animals use their time. We learned some interesting facts, such as Grizzly bears get much of their protein not by snacking on hikers, but by eating MOTHS!

Our down day was with a purpose, the next day was a grueling but rewarding paddle/hike combination, where we had close in counters with some of the top mammals found in Glacier. The first leg of our trip required a two-mile paddle across two lakes with a quarter mile portage (carrying the boat) in between. Rick and I carried the canoe over our heads while we called out “heeeeey bear” in the hopes that we would scare off any nearby grizzles. With the canoe over my head, all I could see was the ground in front of me and the massive piles of bear scat we kept stepping over. I was just hoping the site of a giant green canoe moving on legs would be enough to scare off a bear before they noticed the tasty morsels trotting along at our heels…Liam and CJ.

 

Once we got across the second lake we stopped on a pebble beach to have lunch before we began the 8-mile hike. We had just finished our sandwiches when hikers on the cliff above us shouted, “Bear!”

“What?” We called back. “There are FOUR bears headed your way!!!” Picnic over, we quickly instructed the kids to hop in the canoe while we gathered up all our food and threw it haphazardly into the boat. Just as we were picking up the paddles and preparing to shove off, we saw a momma grizzly and three cubs emerge from the brush and splash across the water 25 yards from us. We jumped in the boat and paddled a short distance from the shore. The bears were completely uninterested in us and we got to watch the cubs play on the beach while mom ate her fill of grass and berries. It was completely unforgettable and I’m so glad we opted to take our own canoe instead of riding the concessionaire boat across the lake. Every now and again, Rick’s insistence on doing things the hard (and cheap) way pays off…

With our recent bear sighting buoying our spirits, we began our ascent to the Grinnell Glacier. This was a really long and difficult hike for the kids, but Rick and I thought it was extremely important we get up to see it before it disappears. Unfortunately, there are only about 25 glaciers left in Glacier NP (down from 150 when the park was created in 1910) and scientist expect the remaining glaciers will be gone by 2030. To keep our hike interesting, we had several more animal sightings as we made our way up. First was a momma mountain goat and her kid. Snowy white and shaggy, they seemed oblivious to the hikers ogling and snapping photos of them. Further along, and in between the stunning views of Grinnell Lake, we spotted two large male bighorn sheep. Their brown coats blended perfectly with the talus rocks on the mountainside and we marveled at their enormous curved horns. Finally, after shepherding the family up 4 miles – Rick often carrying both kids tandem, we made it to Grinnell Glacier. It was both a heartbreaking and breathtaking sight. The glacier stands out as a shock of white against the surrounding brown mountains and at its base, a brilliant turquois pool of glacial water, complete with floating chunks of white ice. The sadness in looking at it is realizing that it is only a fraction of what it once was and that it will not be around for CJ and Liam to view as adults. Oblivious to this fact, the kids had a blast fishing ice out of the water, CJ of course ate some. While we sat and marveled at the view, a giant cracking sound echoed through the air and we watched as a corner of the glacier broke off and crumbled into the icy waters. The sound reverberated off the cliff wall and about a minute after the ice hunk had fallen, waves began to slam into the shore that had previously been placid. After enjoying the glacier and resting our legs, we began the trek back down. Along the way we say marmots, ptarmigan (an alpine bird similar to a grouse), and the same bachelor bighorn sheep from earlier. As we paddled across the lake, surviving the second portage, we spotted a young male moose bedding down along the bank. This brought our critter count up to the highest of any hike thus far on the trip. We finally pulled into the boat ramp 8 hours later, satisfied that we had just completed the prettiest, most exciting and definitely most grueling hike of the trip.

It’s pronounced Spo-CAN

We decided to break up our drive to Glacier NP by stopping in Spokane, WA. Using one of our camping apps, we landed at Wild Rose RV Park, a little north of the city. In addition to the usual perks offered at a private RV park, Wild Rose also boasted a club room with a full kitchen, TV, movies, board games, and most importantly SPACE. Our family took over the clubhouse each night with oven-cooked meals, games of Candyland, and movie screenings.  I’d be shocked if a more enthusiastic group ever descends upon the Wild Rose RV Park’s clubhouse. In addition to the clubhouse, we also took full advantage of the large kitchen garden the owners made available to guests. Maggie and the kids went out each day to pick tomatoes, lettuce, kale, cucumbers and squash that were all incorporated into the day’s meals.

 

When we weren’t hanging out in the clubhouse cooking up tasty dishes, we were exploring Spokane. Spokane is the second largest city in Washington and has a vibrant downtown that is centered around the Spokane River. We explored the riverfront area where the kids got to ride on the Looff Carousel (hand-carved in 1909) and got to play on the world’s largest Radio Flyer Wagon (27 feet x 12 feet). After chasing the kids around the riverfront all day, Maggie and I decided to treat ourselves to several new books at a cool, independent bookstore called Auntie’s.

The next day, we took the kids to Manito Park which is a 90-acre park that contains multiple playgrounds, a duck pond, and the most beautiful European flower garden that we’d ever seen. The garden was bursting with color from orderly rows of zinnia, marigolds, and dahlias which framed a large ornate fountain in the middle. We haven’t been to a city park with so much variety, it’s a real treasure for the people of Spokane.

I’m also happy to report that we trapped the four little stowaways that we picked up in the North Cascades and that Liam passed the rock that he swallowed. All in all, our time in Spokane was as enjoyable as it was productive.