July 12, 2013

The Baddest Land on the Plains


I've visited the Badlands more times than any other park (aside from our nearby Rocky Mountain National Park), and each time I'm amazed by the colors and shapes of the rock formations there. At 244,000 acres, the Badlands includes a lot of varied terrain. 69 million years ago, the area was covered in a massive sea, and sediments that sunk to the bottom created these colorful layers (and also made a great spot for fossils)--then erosion carved out the different formations.

Badlands is the sort of park that you can just drive through--with a couple photo stops here and there--and still get a great experience. In fact, the road is so winding that it manages to pass by nearly all of the best parts (though nothing can ever really compare to hiking and camping in the backcountry).

The last time I went was with Andy, and we decided to stay overnight mostly because camping was free (and we had a National Parks Pass so admission was free, too!). We were passing through after a long day of driving (with another one ahead), so backcountry felt like a bigger endeavor than we were up for. Instead we drove down a ridiculously long gravel road, past endless stretches of grass speckled with bison, to arrive here:

We were far from the famous rock formations, but it was also quiet and there were no bison roaming past. It was also close to a walk up a little grassy hill, which led us high enough to take this photo (click on it to see it bigger):

And jumping pictures are the best (if you've never done one, you really need to give it a try--they're sort of addictive), so we got some of those in too:

One of Andy's favorite stories comes from the next morning, when I was driving us back down that long gravel road to the main park. There were bison everywhere, and warning signs like this:

And I thought out loud, "Man, my worst nightmare right now would be coming across a stupid bison right in the middle of the road!" So of course, we rounded a corner and BAM! There was a gigantic (and not particularly smart looking) bison right in the middle of the gravel road. We were in my dinky 2-door car, and I didn't know what to do. Andy suggested revving the engine (with me all "No! We'll make him mad!"), which caused the bison to turn towards us, dip his head down, and paw the ground with a front hoof.

I had kind of been joking about the nightmare thing originally, but now there was an angry buffalo putting a macho show on in front of us and I was freaking out. Which Andy thought was hilarious. But he agreed to switch so he could drive (I think I crawled into the passenger seat while he walked around the car). And then an SUV came up on the bison's other side and he moseyed nonchalantly back to his herd. Crisis averted, I say.

For me I would say that the Badlands makes a great 1-2 day experience, but to make it part of a bigger trip rather than a destination. Though pretty far from Yellowstone (pushing 9 hours on mostly 75 mph roads), the Badlands is only 1-1.5 hours east of Keystone (with Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and a bunch of toursity things) plus Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park a little ways past that. That same area also includes Jewel Cave and Devils Tower National Monuments, though I haven't been to either of those. And around 3 hours west of the Badlands is the Mitchell Corn Palace (the world's only corn palace, if you can believe it). Yeah buddy.

Here are a couple more shots for the road...

July 11, 2013

The Most Beautiful Buttes You'd Never Expect to See

In college my girl friends and I convinced a huge group of people from our dorm to go out to this place called the Pawnee Buttes to watch the sunrise. No one had heard of these buttes (and some seemed a little suspicious of their existence), so it was pretty surprising when we were able to get everyone in the car and on the road well before the (it's the buttes--have to say it!) buttcrack of dawn. I can't blame the skepticism--to get to the buttes from Fort Collins, we had to drive east into the middle of nowhere (if you haven't been to Colorado, much of the eastern half feels like the middle of nowhere) and pull into a grasslands area that was, well, just a whole lot of flat, grassy land. The only reason the girls and I even knew these buttes existed was because our ecology professor offered extra credit for going (and we were a little skeptical ourselves about taking him up on it, to be honest).

After entering the grasslands, it takes a good bit of driving along gravel roads and past slightly sketchy old buildings amidst seemingly endless stretches of grass and dirt (see the picture above)... but then, out of nowhere, there is this:

It's hard to express our surprise through photos--but seeing these formations in the middle of those flat grasslands was pretty spectacular. And so we returned on a dark October morning, with a whole troop of dorm friends in tow, to watch the sunrise.

And after this spectacular display, we of course had to take some pictures jumping over a yucca:

It might have helped that we were a bunch of nerds from the science dorm. At some point someone even thought to pull the backseat out of our friend's old Suburban.

So sacrificing some early morning sleep on a college weekend to visit the middle of nowhere... completely worth it.

July 10, 2013

Calypso Cascades (aka our first hike together)

Calypso Cascades is one of many trails leading off of the Wild Basin Trailhead near Allenspark, Colorado. It's pretty easy trail and only 3.6 miles round trip, which is probably why Andy took me there for one of our first dates (to sort of test the hiking waters). It's in Rocky Mountain National Park (so you have to pay admission unless you have a parks pass) and can get crowded, but waterfalls in Colorado are pretty special--especially one that's so easy to get to. You can access the ProTrails page here if you want directions, camping info, or just extra detail.

Here are some photos from our little hiking date (June 2009):

July 5, 2013

In the Land of the Kiwis

The Moeraki Boulders on New Zealand's South Island

In the five months I lived in New Zealand, I couldn't seem to get over all of the breathtaking landscapes and incredible adventures this country had to offer. I've never been anywhere quite like it; within a couple hours of driving, you can start at tropical coastlines, pass through desert-like sands and snow-capped mountains, and end in the fjords of the western coast. And that's just east to west. The southernmost point of New Zealand is also the southernmost land before you encounter Antarctica, so their beaches contain a wide variety of penguin species and the climate is much more temperate than that of neighboring Australia (but if you visit, remember that their winters are our summers). On the North Island, there is  Hot Water Beach along the Coromandel peninsula where you can dig your own hot tub out of the sand (numerous hot water springs flow under the beach, and can be easily accessed at low tide). Not to mention the country is Middle Earth and Narnia rolled into one (there are even signs at some locations stating which Lord of the Rings scene was filmed there).

Hanging out in our sandy hot tub
In the 6 years since visiting New Zealand, I don't think a month has gone by that I haven't thought about going back. Granted, I don't expect to ever be able to stay for such a long span of time (the five months was for a semester of study abroad), so the next time I go I'll being doing some things pretty differently. Here are some things I would change for my next visit:

  • Clothing: The town I lived in was called Dunedin, located near the southern end of the South Island. And I was there from July to November, meaning I arrived in the dead of winter and left at the start of summer. It was during my stay that a law was passed requiring insulation to be included in new homes... so our (old) little flat was often colder inside than outside, and central heat (at least at the time) was practically unheard of. Even the university's library used only baseboard heating. Our flat, alas, had one little heat pump in the living room/kitchen that we ran only on rare occasion because of astronomical utility costs--and our little personal space heaters that followed the same rule (we also kept a tally for each time we used the dryer and chipped in extra for the bill for every use, it made that big of a difference in the power bill). In any case, an unheated/uninsulated home combined with island humidity made for a very different winter than I had anticipated. I would most definitely pack more layers (including Smartwool shirts, long underwear, and fleece) if I returned in non-summer months.
View from the top of a ski hill in Wanaka
  • Toiletries: This is a more widely applicable packing statement, but I definitely did not need to bring full size shampoo, toothpaste, etc. I had read such mixed advice on whether to bring my own that I just decided to go for it... and that was so not necessary for a country like New Zealand. And it would have been way more fun to try out some of their products.
  • Planning: Before leaving, I did very little research on New Zealand. I had a Lonely Planet guide (provided by AustaLearn, the company I went through to arrange my study abroad), had watched some movies filmed there, and could point to it on a map... and that's about it. Actually, the Lonely Planet guide proved to be an incredible resource and the friends I made did an excellent job of planning and executing adventures. But after living in this little country (though stretched more vertically, the whole country contains about the same land area as the state of Colorado) for 5 months, there are a lot more things I have realized I want to go back and do. Plus the logistics (planning routes, where to stay, what to see, where to keep our stuff) of visiting rather than renting a room in a flat will force a whole different way of travelling.
My parents came to visit & vacation (great trip planners, also)
And here's what I'd like to do again:
  • Acquire a car (especially if I stay a while): Rules for car ownership (at least in 2007) were much more relaxed in New Zealand than in the US. Two of my friends went in on a car for the months we were there, and to the best of my memory they only needed to have the vehicle checked out by a mechanic to get a Warrent of Fitness (WOF), possibly a registration tax, and it was street-legal. No new license plates, and insurance (though of course a good general idea) is not required. In any case, the convenience of having a car could not be overstated, and it was even better to not pay daily rental fees. So many backpackers visiting the country do this that I've heard it's pretty easy in one of the bigger cities to get a car from someone who's leaving. This site has the info: http://www.backpackerboard.co.nz/articles/buying-car-new-zealand.php
Stewy may have been a little moody, but we loved him just the same.
  • Stay at hostels: Honestly. I loved New Zealand hostels, and they were way more fun and unique than any expensive hotel I've been to. The Lonely Planet guide was an excellent resource for finding these, and if you become a member of YHA (http://www.yha.co.nz/) or BBH (http://www.bbh.co.nz) you can get discounts at their network hostels (just be sure to check whether the places you want to stay belong to one of these networks so you get your money's worth).
The Jailhouse Hostel in Christchuch (Used to be a... wait for it... jail!)
  • Leave time for tangents: One of the most charming aspects of New Zealand was how many unexpectedly awesome things you could find while on your way to something else. Roadside trailheads leading to waterfalls, penguins waddling along the beach, bizarre circular boulders emerging from the ocean... while planning is great for major "I HAVE to do that" things,  I can't imagine trying to stick to an overly tight schedule there. There are just too many incredible places to see and things to do to account for them all in a plan.
Sandfly Bay, Otago Peninsula

I'll put together another post sometime of the things I did during my New Zealand trip and the things I would like to do the next chance I get to go there... which couldn't be soon enough!
And if you'd like to look at more photos from my trip, here's a link to the blog I kept (picture links are on the right side of the page--warning: there are a lot):