Sunday, November 29, 2015

Iceland Adventures - Reykjavik

Iceland Adventures – Getting There – 8/22/15

“You’re going where?”  Iceland.
“Who goes to Iceland?”  Me and other adventurous hikers.
“Sounds cold.”  It can be.
“Will you see the northern lights?”  No, not in August.

My friend Cathy proposed hiking the Laugevegurinn in Iceland, considered one of the world’s best multi-day treks.  Four hikers jumped on board (Paul, Kim, Mike and me).  Since we’re going all that way, shouldn’t we spend some time exploring the country?  And as easy as that, a two-week epic adventure was born. 

As my husband Jim put it, “You go on a trip of a lifetime about once a year.” 

Dates were set, a rough itinerary was sketched out, planning and logistics duties were divided up.  Paul and Kim arranged car rentals, Cathy booked hut-to-hut hiking permits and ferry reservations, Mike handled accommodations in Reykjavik, gear storage and bus shuttles to and from the hike, and I took care of Airbnb rentals in the tiny towns we visited.  We researched hiking on Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the remote Westfjords and scheduled the Laugevegurinn for the last four days of our trip. 

Reminiscing over the photos and writing about this months later, I am as excited as when we were there.  Would love to go again.  Put this on your bucket list. 

WOW Air flies from Boston and Baltimore to Reykjavik and then on to points in Europe.  The airline is clever, tongue-in-cheek and all flight crew members are unbelievably gorgeous.  But don’t expect a complimen- tary beverage on your flight.

At 5:30 a.m. we landed in climate shock.  We left 95 degrees in shorts and flip-flops.  Why was everyone else wearing boots and winter coats?  And what’s this drizzling rain all about?  We dragged our luggage to the rental car building, picked up our Suzuki Grand Vitara (Is it big enough for 5 people with lots of gear?  Yes, we’d like the GPS feature, please.)  God bless Paul for being our driver for the trip. 

Rendevoused with Mike, who had already been in Iceland for two weeks, then set off for a walkaround and breakfast in Reykjavik.

Already liking the vibe

Most shops were not yet open, but multitudes of people were streaming towards the main street. Everyone looked fit and athletic. We were just in time for the Reykjavik annual marathon, of course! 

At a cafe we enjoyed omelets, croissants and coffee, and learned that the server doesn’t bring the check.  Customers pay at the register after the meal, giving your table number and what you had to eat.  No tipping. 

We split up, Cathy and Kim and I setting off to explore while Mike and Paul managed logistics with hotel rooms, cars and gear.  Downtown Reykjavik is invitingly walkable, artsy and quirky.

Anyone lost a glove?

Touristy photo op:  trolls (prevalent in Icelandic folklore along with elves, gnomes and fairies)   

Runners passing the Reykjavik Opera House

A rainbow painted on one of the main streets for the Gay Pride festival earlier in August.  It leads to…

… Hallgr√≠mskirkja Church, constructed beginning in 1945 and completed in 1986.  This Lutheran church is Reykjavik’s main land- mark.  Inside the sanctuary, we listened to a choir rehearsing with amazing acoustics. 

We walked through the nearby sculpture garden of the Einar Jónsson Museum.

Graffiti is prominent, some sophomoric but much of it sophisti- cated.  I got the impression that it is welcomed or at least broadly tolerated, probably some commissioned.  I found it fascinating.  Once I started noticing, graffiti was everywhere. 

The stores were open now and we wandered through bookstores and gift shops.  Cathy enjoys clothes shopping, and we learned that in Iceland clothing is for sale everywhere, including coffee shops and fuel stations.  We exchanged a little cash for Icelandic krona and checked out the visitor center, collecting maps and guidebooks. 

The VC was near the race start, and we cheered with the crowd as the 5K runners lined up.  Everyone sang along to Icelandic songs and then the race began with Springsteen’s “Born To Run” blasting from the sound system – mind blown!  Lots of energy!  What a great welcome to Iceland!

We regrouped, found some lunch in an upstairs restaurant, then walked back toward the apartment Mike had secured for us.  At a small grocery store en route we stocked up on breakfast and lunch supplies for the next several days.  Discovered skyr, an Icelandic cultured dairy product similar to creamy Greek yogurt but with a milder taste.  We bought individual servings with fruit added (my favorite was pear). They say skyr has been an Icelandic food for a thousand years.  We loved it.

Our apartment was great, two bedrooms and a foldout couch, a bathroom and a full kitchen.  Everyone repacked gear for the road trip, gathering our backpacking gear for storage.  We shared a little happy hour toast around the kitchen table. 

Finding supper was a challenge as Reykjavik is a busy social place at night, crowded restaurants and long waits.  We landed at an Italian restaurant with a sign on the door “desperately need waiter” and got to practice our patience as one young woman did her best to run the place. 

Tylenol PM and lights out!  We’d been up for 35 hours and tomorrow we hit the road.

“Every story has two sides and every song has twelve versions.” ~Icelandic proverb

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Yellowstone National Park: Bunsen Peak & Goodbye

Yellowstone National Park - 7/28/15 – Bunsen Peak & Goodbye – 4.2 Miles

Our last day in Yellowstone, eyeing Bunsen Peak from my original list of must-do’s, but sleeping in luxury delayed our start (until 7:15 a.m.)  A sumptuous breakfast and real coffee dragged it out a little more.  The overnight rain ushered in a cold front and a surprise:  snow on the high mountaintops.

Interesting facts about Bunsen Peak:  It is named for Robert Bunsen, inventor of the Bunsen burner. Bunsen Peak looms over Mammoth Hot Springs. The summit is 8,564 feet high.  The trail up is 2.1 miles, gaining 1,300 feet of elevation, strenuous enough to get my attention.  A weather station greet hikers at the top.

The frosty morning sent us searching for all our warm hiking gear. Still July!  We hit the trail at 9:15 a.m. 

The first mile wove through an area impacted by wildfires in 1988, numerous standing dead trees and new growth, similar to our hike yesterday to Fairy Falls.  In a meadow a majestic doe exchanged glances with me before she melted away.  From left:  Trilobite Point, Dome Mountain and Antler Peak.

Each glance over the shoulder showed the big sky and the landscape expanding.  Swan Lake in the center.

Still climbing

Cathedral Rock

Feeling small

The last stretch consisted of tighter switchbacks over loose talus that we were now familiar with skating across.  Awesome views at every turn.  The hike felt effortless due to our slow pace and frequent stops. 

Electric Peak in the center background

Are we there?  Not yet.  Bunsen Peak consists of three bumps.  The weather station and hut at the first bump are not the true summit.  This photo was taken by a young woman we met at the hut.  She was chaperoning a group of teenagers from Alabama.  Small world:  she's a teacher at an elementary school in Charlotte, helping out her father who worked with the group.

Yellowstone River

Electric Peak straddles the state line of Montana and Wyoming, dominating the western view

Looking at Electric Peak

We spent more than an hour scrambling around on the summit, soaking up the view that we may never see again, taking photo after photo trying to capture the feeling.  On the hike down I felt reflective and a little sad to be leaving when there is so much more to explore in Yellowstone.

We spent our last hour in the Park on the lower boardwalk terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, back with the crowds, but I’m glad we took the time to see Minerva Terrace.

At the Visitor Center I bought a photography book and we donated the bear spray we had purchased (did I mention that we finally did that?) to the backcountry office.  Can’t take it with you, so might as well give it to the rangers. 

Last look:  a placid elk at Mammoth Hot Springs

The drive back to Bozeman was more scenic than I remembered, plus today we enjoyed snow-covered peaks.  Hint:  Take Highway 540, the East River Road that parallels Highway 89, to get closer to the mountains. 

We stayed at a hotel in Belgrade, MT to be as close as possible to the airport for our early morning departure.  Looking for a local restaurant, we found the Desert Rose, all organic, natural grass-fed beef (one of their suppliers is a local all-female run ranch).  The steaks were tremendous and the blueberry-huckleberry pie with ice cream was the exclamation point at the end of an extraordinary vacation.

In the hotel parking lot we purged our teeny red rental car, threw out the trash, and donated our tailgate chairs to Goodwill.

How do you summarize Yellowstone National Park?  You can't.  Just…go.

"I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took." ~W. Somerset Maugham

Monday, October 26, 2015

Yellowstone National Park: Fairy Falls, A Grand Prismatic View & A Warm Dry Bed

Yellowstone National Park - 7/27/15 – Fairy Falls/Grand Prismatic Spring/Mammoth Hot Springs – 6 Miles

This morning we broke down our campsite for the last time.  Back in January when we made our Yellowstone plans, we figured that after five nights in a tent we would be ready for cushier accommodations, and we wanted to experience one of the Park’s historic lodges.  Inspired advance planning.

We’d covered a lot of ground in the previous five days and this afternoon we had our eyes set on hiking Bunsen Peak near the north entrance.  This morning was our last chance to enjoy the lower Grand Loop.  Looks like Fairy Falls is a good little walk. 

After a little confusion with the instructions in Hiking Yellowstone (for those of you who care, I think the description narrative incorrectly says Fountain Flats Drive instead of Fountain Freight Road), Jim and I began at the trailhead off of the lower Grand Loop just south of Grand Prismatic Spring.  After crossing the Firehole River on a bridge, we walked for one mile on the wide flat gravel road bed.  We saw a couple of keep-off signs on the mountainside on the left, alongside some obvious trails and even more obvious people scrambling on those trails.  Make a note.



The Fairy Falls Trail was totally flat, passing through lodgepole pine remnants of a devastating 1988 fire…

…and new growth regener- ating.  We took a side detour to check out backcountry campsite OD1.

Fairy Falls, 197 feet tall, has carved its niche in the rock.

A closer look at Fairy Falls

On the walk back out, the multitudes were catching up to us.  We scaled the hillside we had noted earlier, suspecting that it gave a bird’s-eye view of Grand Prismatic Spring, part of the Midway Geyser Basin.  The scramble was surprisingly difficult, multiple eroded paths steeper than any trail builder would create, but nevertheless people in flip-flops were making their way up.  I was most concerned that what goes up must come down, and we ended up descending by a different route away from the crowd.  I wonder why the Park doesn’t create a structure to accommodate the hundreds of people who take the risk to see the GPS from that vantage point.

Because you’ve got to admit, it’s a sight worth seeing. The colors are real. (Read about the science behind Grand Prismatic Spring here.)  Click on the photo to see full screen.  WOW.

We back- tracked to our car and headed north, stopping in Norris to visit the Museum of the National Park Ranger, a small but fascinating exhibit.  Did you know that Gerald Ford was a seasonal park ranger in Yellowstone in 1936?  One of his assignments was as an armed guard on the bear-feeding truck. 

I enjoyed a long chat with the young seasonal ranger on duty, asked him if he goes backpacking in the Park (he does).  I mentioned that I had seen a hiker carrying a firearm.  The ranger had a lot to say on the subject, primarily that the Park puts forth a great effort to educate about bear activity and the use of bear spray.  Even though firearms are legal, if a person shoots a bear in self-defense, he/she will still be fined because he/she had been advised to use bear spray to deter rather than wound or kill the animal.  The ranger doesn’t carry a firearm for those reasons and because they are too heavy to be practical. And to quote the ranger:  “A gun is not going to stop 800 pounds of pissed off running at you anyway.”  When visitors ask him about the subject, he engages them to find out what their safety concerns really are and encourages them to carry bear spray. 

Continuing north on the Grand Loop, we lost some time caught in major road construction.  Meanwhile, the winds picked up and the clouds rolled in.  We realized that hiking above tree line to Bunsen Peak wasn’t going to work out, and once again we shifted focus, this time to the thermal features at Mammoth Hot Springs.  

We walked the 2-mile Upper Terraces Road and took lots of pictures that fail to convey the other-world strangeness of the mineral formations

Butter-and-egg blooms in the millions
White Elephant Back Terrace

Orange Spring Mound

New Highland Terrace

We walked a little bit of the Lower Terraces area, a series of boardwalks with more features that defy description


The rain set in and the temper- ature dropped.  We were delighted to check into the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, luxuriate in a hot shower and have a very short lie-down on the comfy queen-size bed before moseying over to dinner at the Dining Room.  At the bar we got into a conversation with three college age guys who were working on a ranch for the summer.  Where did they go to school?  University of South Carolina.  Small world. 

Rained all night. 

“Nature never hurries. Atom by atom, little by little she achieves her work.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson