It’s rare to come across a national park that feels like a well-oiled tourist attraction, but Zion National Park in southern Utah had all the vibes of an outdoor adventure park. In place of the choking masses of tour buses and cars, the park relies on a bus service to take visitors up the canyons to the popular hikes. On a September visit, we camped at the park’s Watchman Campground. The well-manicured grounds were only a short walk across a pedestrian bridge from a brew pub and shopping mall with a small movie theater outside the park. There are two popular hikes inside the park, and both should be visited early in the day to avoid getting bogged down in large crowds. The Narrows takes visitors up the flowing Virgin River, which carved the canyon of the park over time. There we took a fork into Orderville Canyon, which finally offered respite from the crowds. This path was more challenging than the main course, but the views were worth it.
The next morning we made our move on Angels Landing, which offers some of the most stunning views of the park. The well-trod path narrowed greatly to a path with just a heavy chain to grip. On our ascent, there were some traffic jams, but things resolved quickly. The height of the drop appeared daunting, but once at the top it was clear how safe it had been. As we descended later in the day, crowds were pushing their way up the climb and the choke points took longer to navigate. It was a great relief when we reached the bottom of the chain section.
There was much more to explore in Zion, but the two hikes provided the best of the park in the time we had.
Hurricane Matthew veered east as it approached north Florida, sparing the coast from what could have been. The city of St. Augustine still saw flooding and high winds, but not the power of the full storm that ravaged Haiti and the Bahamas. I spent Saturday morning in the city and St. Augustine Beach surveying the damage with a group of men who live on the island. Trees were downed and shingles torn, but for the most part the lack of damage was what impressed them. Each had the storm surge either enter or approach their home, but were spared lasting damage. We visited the Conch House Marina Resort, where one of our guides worked on some of the boats. The surge had hit the marina hard, leaving at least a half-dozen vessels at the bottom and damaging many of those still floating. We left St. Augustine Beach in the afternoon just before vehicles were allowed back on the island and many more residents could take stock of the storm. The image of Perkins surveying the flooded road made the front page of a New York edition of The New York Times.
What began as a simple Labor Day getaway turned into a multi-state road trip through the Smoky Mountains. Things kicked off with a campsite at Georgia’s Cloudland Canyon State Park. Even in north Georgia, the humidity was as potent as a Florida summer. As we prepared for a night in bug-heavy backcountry, other visitors started asking us for the location of tennis courts at the park. Through good timing, we were staying at the park the same night as an astronomy event hosted by the Barnard Astronomical Society. After a night of stargazing, we hiked the west rim of the canyon. The views along the way were worth dealing with the humidity.
A long drive north took us to Mammoth Cave National Park, the world’s longest known cave system. The park service’s history tour explored human interaction with the cave, from the earliest Native American visitors through modern uses before it became a park. After a morning in the cool caves, we headed East towards the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where we made the Deep Creek campground just after dark. The grounds right outside Bryson City provided a great base for exploring both the national park and the Nantahala National Forest, where we hit the river and mountain bike trails at the Tsali Recreation Area. A long week of outdoor adventure wrapped with a beer quest through Asheville.
Even as Denver deals with temperatures in the seventies and dry weather, the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park continue to be blanketed. With an easy drive from Denver and cheap snowshoe rentals in Estes Park, it was impossible to pass up the chance to hike in the mountains. The snow-laden path starting from the Glacier Gorge trailhead took us past the Alberta Falls, which are a tourist attraction when flowing in the summer. With an initial goal of reaching Mills Lake, a diversion up the mountain along the path of stream lead us to the beautiful Loch.
A team of researchers from Colorado State University’s Loch Vale Watershed project were busy cutting holes in the ice as another team from Illinois College worked nearby. Seeking sediment samples from the bottom of the lake, the teams dropped tubes into the icy waters. The CSU team takes samples every week of the year as part of a long-term project to measure changes in the environment. Leaving the teams to their work, we made our way back out of the park, stopping for a heard of elk grazing in Moraine Park.
Florida’s springs usually flow at a pleasant 70 degrees. This can make winter trips bearable even when you need to bundle up above the water line. Weeki Watchee Springs offers a five-and-a-half mile paddle in clear waters. Sandbars on bends in the river provided places to relax and snack with traveling companions. With the cold weather, manatees also pushed in from the coast in search of warmer waters. Those in the river drew crowds, and as swimmers tried to draw close, the animals swam away into the main stream. The wilderness of the upper river makes way to homes layered in Florida tchotchkes along the banks. A blend of aesthetics as interesting as the forest before it.
I recently followed Nikolai Vitti, the Duval Schools superintendent, around a school visit for Politico. It was a fun trip that resulted in a portrait with the piece on his time at Miami’s Education Transformation Office.
Teams of riders swarmed through the back trails of San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park as the 8 Hours of Labor endurance mountain bike race returned on Sunday. I’d pondered entering, but without recent rides I kept to the camera to record the race. Still, getting to the more scenic parts of the route required skirting the course on jeep trails and sometimes hopping on the route in a lull. Riders in teams or solo took turns making laps with an eight hour time limit, passing off armbands in a relay as a new rider picked up the course. The race was a shorter version of the 18 hour event I took part in and photographed last year in Fruita, Colo.
On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I made a diversionary trip to hike Old Rag Mountain in Virginia. On a sweltering morning, we began our four and a half mile climb to the top of the mountain. A local’s empty booth for homemade ginger ale teased at the base of the hike. It would be nine sweaty miles before we swung back by. A steep climb with about a mile of scrambling through rocks lead us to the summit. While eating a needed breakfast, a boy put the view into better words than I can. “You know how some people say they have a 52″ TV? Well, we have a 52 mile TV!” After the rigor of the climb, I was surprised to find a straightforward hike back down on this side of the mountain. We eventually passed the soda stand again, now with a tablecloth but still empty. Dehydrated and disappointed, a park ranger at the parking area let me know that I hadn’t missed out on anything.
We wrapped the Berlin study abroad trip with the traditional group dinner atop the TV Tower after students turned in their projects. It’s always exciting to get to the top of the tower after using it as a landmark for the previous two weeks. We had a good group of students this year who really seemed to bond together. Some came having barely touched a camera, and it was great seeing them shooting manually by the end of the trip. Their projects will be published in the next few weeks.