Our Northern Lights sightings…

We visited Iceland in winter with the sole purpose of seeing the Northern Lights. While we were determined to have a great time even if we didn’t see them, boy was it nice that we were able to catch a glimpse. Makes all these cold temps and copious layers of clothing worth it!

What are they, anyway???

First things first, what are the Northern Lights, anyway? Here is my non-scientific explanation. Enjoy!

The Northern Lights (aka aurora borealis) appear after solar storms on the sun send charged particles hurling through space. Most of them deflect off the Earth’s magnetic field, but some get through the weaker fields at both poles. When these particles react with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, the atoms get excited (yipppeee!).  As you’d expect after any great excitement (we’ll call them atomic parties in this case), there is an inevitable cool down period. In the case of atomic parties, this cool down period emits light. And specifically, the Northern Lights.

The intensity of the lights are based on 2 main factors: the number of particles the sun sends to the party and the clearness of the sky, so you can see the party happen. Clouds = no party to see. We had a lot of clouds during our stay. An additional factor is the presence of nearby ambient light (usually from cities). The darker the area, the easier the Northern Lights are to see.

Capisce?

Our first glimpse

As I mentioned in the previous post, we got our first glimpse of the lights at Kolsstaðir. At that point, we weren’t even sure if we were really seeing them, since they were so faint. Jeff set up a timelapse camera while we watched them and wondered if what we were seeing was real.

Here is what we saw first, on night 2 in Kolsstaðir:

As you could see at the very beginning, there were mere hints of green dancing in the left hand portion of the screen.  With the naked eye, those were even more faint. Hence the reason we thought it was just our minds playing tricks on us. (We really wanted to see those lights!)

Northern Lights secret

That’s when we learned something that people generally don’t tell you:

The lights look brighter on camera than with the naked eye.

Or at least in our experience. Let me explain.

Aurora forecasting

As I mentioned before, the weather was average during our stay. We were extremely lucky that the week of rain ended before we arrived and that a fresh layer of snow quickly transformed the soggy landscape into a winter wonderland.

That said, the conditions were less than average for aurora spotting — as Iceland’s aurora forecaster told us. The scale goes from 0 to 9 (worst to best) and during our stay the aurora score hovered between 2 (low) and 3 (moderate).

So it makes sense that we weren’t seeing much — and that they’d be hard to see. That isn’t always the way. With aurora scores at the high end of the scale, the lights take over the sky and create a wondrous work of art. We didn’t see that!

Our second glimpse

Despite staying up past midnight each night, we didn’t spot the lights again until we went out on a Northern Lights hunt from Reykjavik.

In a Super Jeep with a driver and 3 other folks, along with 2 other similarly-filled Super Jeeps, we went offroading on the Reykjanes peninsula to get sufficiently away from the (bright!) lights of Reykjavik city.

On this night, the aurora forecast was 3 (moderate). The temperature was a balmy -7degC/19degF. Jeff and I each had on more layers of clothing than we’ve ever worn in our lives (think: three pair of pants, two pair each of gloves and socks, at least 2 jackets, I lost count of how many tops, etc). Hopefully that helps set the scene.

Here is our first glimpse that night…We were thrilled (relieved?) to see this cosmic rainbow.

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The aurora shifts, disappears, and sometimes dances as it pleases. Or in this case, it makes 2 cosmic rainbows.

DSC_2054

Below, you’ll see me celebrating that we got to see some lights. According to our driver, this was the first they have seen of them in at least a week. Lucky us!

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Over the course of a couple of hours, the lights disappeared and reappeared several times — looking different every time.

DSC_2071

Our drivers had driven offroad (though on a bike track) and planted us in a bowl to shield us from the nasty winter winds. Thank goodness for that! I can only imagine how cold it would have been with wind — and how frustrating for those folks (including Jeff) trying to take pix with tripods!

DSC_2069

Our final glimpse

After the offroading was complete around 11:30pm, the 3 drivers reconvened for one last pow-wow outside of the bowl. Two of the drivers took their Super Jeeps home but our driver asked us if we wanted to see any more or if we were ready to go home.

Since I’d just seen a hint of the lights behind us, I spoke up and said I’d love to see more. (The 3 French woman in our Jeep didn’t disagree but also didn’t seem thrilled with the decision.)

A mere 2 minutes up the road, we saw what turned out to be the best lights of our trip.

DSC_2074

In this case, we think the pink/purple are the lights from the city. It’s best to be near pitch black to see the lights, but I liked the addition of the purply pink!

You can see how the middle of the arch seemed to dissipate first…

DSC_2075

Then the rest of the arch faded away leaving only the tail.

I can absolutely understand why cultures throughout history have attributed all kinds of causes to these lights — ghosts, demons, gods, you name it. They are definitely otherworldly. The lunar-looking foreground also contributes to that feeling.

DSC_2076

Once the green faded away, we were satisfied and ready to go home to a hot drink and a warm bed!

Aurora Reykjavik

While these were the last lights we saw in the sky, we also visited Aurora Reykjavik — a small museum in Reykjavik dedicated to the Northern Lights. We recommend the museum. It provides a more scientifically sound explanation of the lights, while also providing all sorts of examples of gorgeous Northern Lights sightings from around the world.

They also had a 20+ minute video that bordered on a meditation session. Soft music played while gorgeous pix of the Northern Lights scrolled through. I was jelly by the time we left.

What about you?

Have you ever seen the Northern Lights? What was your experience? Please share!

On a different note, are there any travel musts on your bucket list? If so, please do tell! It’s the start of a new year, so there’s plenty of time to check something off your list…we highly recommend it!!

Categories: Europe, Photos | 2 Comments

Introduction to Wintry Iceland

Visiting Iceland in winter may seem crazy to some, but what can I say, we wanted to see the Northern Lights — so here we are! Chalk this one up as a bucket list trip. And since we’d recently seen Iceland in summer, it seemed only right to visit in winter too!

This trip is also likely one of the quickest we ever planned. There were 10 days between the time Jeff got final confirmation of his green card renewal and when we took off.  [That man can plan when he wants to!]

Despite losing the first 2 days of our trip to Winter Storm Jonas (which dropped 30+ inches of snow on the mid-Atlantic and wreaked havoc on airport travel) — we had set our mind on enjoying the trip and seeing what we could. Here’s our story! (I apologize now — this is a long post — simply because we didn’t have time to break it into 2!)

Our arrival

Once the airport delays were over, the trip was a piece of cake. Icelandair rocks (!) and upgraded us to comfort class (less than first but much better than cattle). Sweet!

We arrived to flurries (better than where we left!) but upon landing we got the first taste of the wintry conditions. Remember – we live in the southern parts of the US. We don’t experience winter scenes like this. Ever.

Arrival

What can I say, but BRRRRR!!!!! (And OK, I will admit that at this point, the thought crossed my mind — what have I gotten myself into?!?!? Happily, I was too tired to pursue that line of thought for very long.)

Driving in Iceland

After sailing through Customs (by this I mean, walking through a door labeled Nothing to Declare), we headed off to get our rental car.

If you ever plan to drive in Iceland, hear this: Know your car insurance coverage before you arrive. They scare you mightily (and rightly so) with stories of gravel chips, windblown doors, undercarriage protection (in case you plan to ford any rivers — we do not), and sand/ash damage. You can purchase extra coverage for each of these.

Happily, Jeff had already contacted our credit card company (that we purchased the car rental on) and knew we were to refuse it all. So once we had checked the car over, we were off.

Our Jeep Grand Cherokee with 4WD and studded tires was ready for our winter adventure. Armed with handy URLs for weather and road conditions as well as for general safe driving in Iceland, we were off!

It’s at this point that I’ll remind you that we’d flown all night, slept little to none, and arrived before sunrise. So it took us a minute (or 60) to get our bearings. [Another tip -- bring your trusty GPS with you (don't forget to download an Icelandic map) -- it has served us well!]

To remind you of the geography of Iceland, check out the map below. Reykjavik (the capital) is in the southwest corner (pink star). Our first rental is near the purple star in West Iceland. While this may seem “remote” once you see where we stayed, checking out the map below will tell you that we really weren’t remote after all.

The below map indicates the driving conditions. At their worst, the conditions to our rental were classed as “slippery” (light blue) whereas much of the interior of the island — where the famous F roads go — were impassable (red). So we really weren’t that remote. [Of note, some of the F roads are also impassable (or only available to 4x4's) even in summer.]

Iceland

Following our trusty GPS, we navigated our way through the dark, around Reykjavik, and out the northern end before the sun began to rise. Unfortunately for us, the clouds were thick and we were socked in, so sunrise really just provided light but not bright. Being cautious given the conditions, it was interesting/slightly terrifying to watch locals fly past us on the salty but snowy roads. Hmmmph.

Along the route, we went through a 6km tunnel under a fjord  (who thinks of building one of those?!?!?!) before heading up into West Iceland.  The most notable/harrowing part of the trip for me was heading through the Brattabrekka mountain pass. I’ll admit that I had my second moment of wondering what we had gotten ourselves into at this stage. (Don’t worry, it passed quickly too!)

Here is the view looking back through the pass. (In looking back at it now, I would have told you it was way darker than that!)

Mtn Pass behind

And here was our view as we crossed through the pass and over the other side. Much better! Ok, maybe the road wasn’t much better, but the blue sky and sunshine were nice to see! [Mental note: thank you studded tires!]

Mtn pass ahead

After this point, our driving experiences only got better from here. Whether it was that we got used to the roads, or perhaps just that we got a full night’s sleep — driving after Day 1 was much, much easier than this initial route.

But anywho, more important than that, it’s time to get to that cottage!

Kolsstaðir

Jeff found us an AWESOME Air BnB to stay at named Kolsstaðir. The sign below points to the cottage. See that black speck way in the background? That’s where we stayed for 2 days (supposed to have been 4!).

When we first arrived, it would have been ever so helpful if this sign was actually cleared and in view. Another tip for Iceland in winter — follow distances or GPS, don’t always count on signs since they are often covered in snow! So, knowing our distance, we turned up the “driveway” and found our way to the house. Given the fresh snowfall the day before, we were following our noses to the cabin more than a visible road. Oh me!

Kolsstadir Sign

Once in sight, though, this cottage was amazing! Check out the view below. This was the view on Day 1, after the fresh fallen snow. The temp around this time was a balmy 32degF/0degC. So really not bad at all.

Kolstadir Pano - Day 1

Below is the view on Day 2, after a night’s worth of wind gusts of 15 to 20 miles an hour (that sounded much mightier than that!).  This gave us our first idea that snow may fall in Iceland, but it often gets blown away rather than accumulating. Or at least that was our experience.

Of note, the lowest temp we saw that night (we were up periodically looking for the northern lights!) was 23degF/-5degC. So really not bad, though I’m sure with the wind chill it felt much colder! You’re kidding yourself if you think we ventured out in that…

Kolsstadir pano Day 2

Okay, back to Kolsstaðir. Here is a closer view. We enjoy tiny houses — so this cottage gave us the chance to live that lifestyle for a couple of days! Gorgeous! And notably, this house is solid. Even in the gusty winds, the house never once creaked, much less moved. Awesome.

Cottage

And while the outdoors looks frigid, the inside was warm and inviting with our newest obsession — a woodstove. Ever since our Montana trips, we have wanted a woodstove. Now we just want one even more…

Woodstove!

The interior was super cozy and the view from the many windows were all gorgeous. The huge window on one end provided a panoramic view of the valley below.

Kolsstadir interior

Even the view from the kitchen sink was stunning! (note the snow-rimmed windows…)

View from Sink

Given that daylight hours were from 10ish to 5ish, with about 1 hour of sunrise and sunset on each end of that, we toured the surrounding area during the light of day and chilled by the fire while watching the Australian Open, designing our dream house, blogging, and/or just relaxing during the dark hours.

There was no TV at the cottage — yay! (before you say anything, sports don’t count towards my opposition of watching TV on vacation) — but as with many places in Iceland there was an excellent internet connection, which we used often.

So even something remote as this may seem, really isn’t remote at all. The world is getting smaller…

And on that note, we slowly realized that the cottage wasn’t truly remote — there were several other houses/farms scattered around — and these were most easily seen at night, when their lights would be on with smoke coming out of their chimney. The next day, we realized there was a sign at the end of the road indicating each of these houses. Yep, you read that right. This sign indicates houses/farms not towns. Different, eh?

Sign for houses

Had we visited Kolsstaðir in the summer, this is an excellent hiking area, with beautiful walks throughout these hills/mountains and great fishing to be had in the nearby river. But in winter, not only is it too cold (for us!), but you also have to be very careful not to walk on/fall through any unseen water or geothermal activity that could ruin your trek.

Kolsstadir

If you think you’d like to visit Kolsstaðir, check it out here on AirBnB. We highly recommend it! Our host, Kristján, was lovely to work with and clearly the place is gorgeous!

Now let’s talk about the surrounding area. West Iceland is one of the areas that we really didn’t explore on our last trip, so it was fun to try to see a bit of it.

The glory of small towns

One thing Jeff and I always LOVE to do when we are visiting new places is to find a small coffee shop or restaurant and talk to the locals. This always seems easier in small towns, where people are generally more open. And in the case of winter in Iceland, cafés in small towns are so empty that they have plenty of time to talk with us foreigners.

Borgarnes

We went through Borgarnes on our initial drive to the cottage. The view below gives you an idea of the winter storm we had driven through. Brrrrrr!

Borgarnes Pano

As we drove through the seemingly empty town, we came upon a café/restaurant with an open sign and ducked in. One other couple was in there initially. Jeff ingested caffeine to help for the remainder of the drive while we ate delicious muffins that we would have sworn were fresh baked this morning, only to find out they were the best of the best imported frozen from Germany. Didn’t see that one coming!

Our server told us of stories about this building and town and how it has changed hands over the years, all the while preparing the below lunch buffet for people who may or may not arrive. Winter in Iceland is slow except for the locals who frequent the restaurants.

Borgarnes Cafe

Búðardalur

Búðardalur is the closest town to the cottage — only a 15-minute drive down a very scenic road.  Driving into the town, it looked cold and isolated, but we were able to find a little activity. The below house has provided the brightest color we have seen on this trip thus far!

Yellow House

We pulled into the parking lot for Leifsbud Cafe (below), which seemed warm and abustle with activity, only to find out that it was closed to visitors and they were having a seminar for locals. Bummer! We soooooo wanted to be in that warmth with the camraderie that could easily be seen through the windows.

Liefsbud Cafe

Instead, we headed up the street to Dalakot, a restaurant/pizzeria/accommodation that was open from noon to 1:30 each day — and it was 1:15 at the time. So we hoofed it up the street to find the below setting. Of note — by the look of it outside, there was no evidence that it was open. So it always pays to peek your head in and give out a tentative  “Hellllloooooo?????” That will tell the story.

Empty, save one local who was just leaving, this restaurant provided us with a place to have a drink and a delicious homemade pizza. We ended up buying 2 pizzas, some fries, and drinks. Not necessarily because we were that hungry (though it did make for great dinner) but because we really wanted to practically give our server our money. She had clearly stayed open to feed us and we were grateful.

[Note the pic of the northern lights on the wall to the left -- so.want.to.see.them!]

Dalakot

Bellies full, we then went down to the water, where we were reminded that this area’s main industry is fishing. How picturesque! Reminded me of Siglufjörður on our last trip.

Farming is big here as well, as told to us by our servers in both Bogarnes and Dalakot.

Boat

Near Reykholt/Ás

We were also reminded that driving through small towns can provided some of the most idyllic scenes. Check out the church below.

Church

Icelandic horses

Besides small towns, the other (gorgeous!) thing that peppers the hillsides in this area (and throughout Iceland) are the horses. I fell in love with them on our last trip. On this trip, I just feel horrible that they have to stay out in such cold weather. But apparently, they are built for it!

Stocky and sturdier than American horses, these guys are simply beautiful!

More horses

Undoubtedly, whenever we started talking to one of them, his friends would come over and gather around. Everyone wanted a pat and some sweet nothings whispered in their ears. [Mental note: Tomorrow we'll bring apples!]

Horses

This one made me laugh — candid camera, indeed! It’s not all beauty and grace…

candid horse

Scenes like this were everywhere. Sigh…

Horses3

This guy looked as though he was posing just for us. Sometimes great things happen when you take a wrong turn down a less-traveled road.

Horse by river

Winter light

One of the notable features of Icelandic winters is that the sun never rises very high in the sky. So it’s perpetually excellent light for photography (although sometimes too cold for our fingers to work the knobs on the camera!). And with sunrise and sunset about an hour each, there was ample time for good photos. That said, 2 days isn’t enough to scout out good sites and really take good photos, so we’ve done the best we can in the time we have!

Below is a frozen lake. And also a reminder to pay attention when driving on Icelandic roads. Many of them have dropoffs on each side that you can easily run off if not paying attention (or if sidetracked by looking at the gorgeous scenery). And as with walking, this could lead to running into streams, lakes, or rivers, some completely covered in snow and unidentifiable as streams, lakes, or rivers.

Lake near Erikstadir

Below is a common scene while driving. Stunning, eh?

And perhaps a bit frigid…shiver.

The light

Waterfalls

On our way out of West Iceland, we stopped to see the famous lava falls – Hraunfossar. Called such because this water flows through the layers of the lava field above and comes out the side in many rivulets. Gorgeous!

[Note: This is the coldest place I think I've ever been. Jeff and I had to both stop taking pix for a bit until our fingers stopped feeling like ice bricks. Woah! The things we do for photography...That said, the lowest temp our car indicated in this area was -7degC/19degF, though I am certain it was colder in the shade!]

Hraunfossar2

Here is a closer look at the main part of the falls…

Hraunfossar

And below is one of my photos (noticeably less gorgeous than Jeff’s above), but I was bound and determined to put this one in, since I fell on the ice (not once but twice!) getting to it. Aye, aye, aye. That’s gonna hurt tomorrow.

Below is Barnafossar — the falls/rapids that lead into the Hvítá river just above where the Hraunfossar come out. Though hard to tell, there is a lava arch in the middle of the picture that has been carved out by the water. Quite beautiful.

Barnfossar

Again, apologies for the long post — but this gives you an idea of our first 2 days in wintry West Iceland. This country is truly a winter wonderland.

And to answer a question you haven’t asked yet but may be wondering, we saw the faintest glimpse of the aurora borealis on night 2 of our stay at the cottage, before the clouds rolled in. So we have our fingers crossed that we may be able to see it more clearly at some point before we leave. Time will tell!!!

Until we meet again, it’s time for us to head off to Reykjavik, where we’ll spend the rest of our stay. Over and out!

Categories: Europe, Impressions, Photos | Tags: , | 6 Comments

Wildlife abounds out West

Regardless of where we were (Glacier, Tetons, Big Sky), there was one common thread — the presence (and preservation) of wildlife. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing signs warning of the presence of wildlife — on the roads, trails, picnic areas, etc.

We traveled with 2 other couples on this trip, and all of us have contributed our wildlife pictures to this post. We hope you enjoy!

Da bears (Black and Grizzly, not Chicago)

There is no doubt that this neck of the woods is bear country. There are signs EVERYWHERE indicating such.

These signs are as much about ensuring the safety of the bears, as they are the safety of the humans. Bears will forage for food wherever available – including picnic areas and trash cans. As such, bear resistant trash cans are prevalent throughout the national parks…

Bear Sign 1

And you can’t picnic without seeing some version of the below sign…The slogan “Be bear aware” is plastered throughout this region.

Bear Sign 3

As in the below sign from the Grand Tetons, about 14 bears have to be put down each year in the Greater Yellowstone area due to inappropriate activity with humans. Once a bear associates humans with food (from backpacks, picnics, cars, or otherwise), the bear could become aggressive and a public menace.

Hence the signs that plea for people not to feed bears (openly or inadvertently). As the slogan goes “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

Bear SIgn 2

If you should run into a bear, there are signs for that too! The below sign lists what you should do to prevent bear attacks, and how to avoid them if possible. Bears really don’t want much to do with us, but on some of these trails it’s easy to just happen upon them. A mother with her cub is typically the most dangerous type (same with humans, really!).

Bear Sign 4

In the event that we meet a bear on a trail, it’s crucial to have bear spray. This is essentially the pepper spray equivalent for bears…Jeff and I bought some in Glacier and carried it everywhere for the full 2 weeks. Happily, it was not needed!

Bear spray

Now that you’re schooled in bear etiquette — here are some pix of the cuties. [If I ever met one on a trail, I'm fairly sure I'd need a new pair of pants!]

Black bears

Black bears are a bit misnamed, since they can actually be blonde, cinnamon, brown, or black in color.  The below black bear could be found (by everyone but us!) frolicking near the Murie House in the Grand Tetons. (Photo courtesy of L. Davis.)

Black bear-Twton-LD

This one took up residence on the hill in Many Glacier in Glacier National Park. Is he not adorable? (Photo courtesy of B. McNulty.)

Many Glacier black bear 6-BM

Besides their coloring, black bears can also be differentiated from grizzly bears by the flat profile of their face, lack of a hump in their shoulders, and different paw/claw marks.

Grizzly bears

As with last year, we saw grizzly bears in the Grand Tetons — this time at Oxbow bend. Remember from the last post that we spotted wildlife 1 of 3 nights at Oxbow Bend? That first night we saw 2 different grizzlies. Crazy! The first was walking along the river and then posed at the corner…See the small hump in the shoulders?

Grizzly 2-Oxbow

Then, not 5 minutes later, a different grizzly appeared out of the grass in the opposite direction. Happily, Jeff was perfectly positioned to photograph him.

Grizzly-in

He quickly decided he’d rather be on our side of the river, so he went for a wee swim…(they are big, but quick!)

Grizzly-swim

…before getting out on our side and promptly walking up the hill and causing a bear jam in the road (when cars stop and gawk and people get way too close to the bear so they can take a picture).

Grizzly-out

Possibly the best bear photo on this trip was of the bear that was never seen. Lori and Jay hiked the Highline trail in Glacier National Park in the snow and saw evidence of bear activity on the trail (eg, paw prints, scat) – but the best evidence was the bloody paw print below. They never actually saw the bear…(phew!) (Photo courtesy of J. Wheeler.)

Bloody bear paw-Glacier-JW

Moose

After bears, moose were what I wanted to see most. I never saw one last year in Montana or on our trip to Maine, so I was bound and determined to see one on this trip. Please, oh, please!

Well, I sort of got what I wished for. We saw this urban moose and her calf in our condo neighborhood in the Tetons. Apparently some moose choose to raise their young in neighborhoods where there are fewer predators. Jeff spotted these lounging in our back yard and then eating the neighbors tree…

Moose rumps

I’m still on the look for a bull moose…and won’t be fulfilled until I see one. But until then, Barb and Mike spotted a not-so-urban moose on their Beehive Basin hike in Big Sky. (Photo courtesy of B. McNulty.)

Moose-BM

Bison

In Yellowstone, bison are equivalent to waterfalls in Iceland, or churches in Italy — nice once you’ve seen the first 5 or 10, but after that it’s just another waterfall, church…or bison. Here was the first herd we saw — exciting stuff! (As was the wildfire that you can see to the left — that fizzled out after a couple of days of rain, thankfully.)

Herd of bison-Yellowstone
And here is one on his own…Like bears, these guys are huge and lumbering, but man, they can move when they want to!

Bison-Jeff

Which is the reason there are rules about interacting with wildlife — stay 100 yards away from bears and at least 25 yards away from bison. Clearly, the below tourist wasn’t following the rules. And you wonder why several tourists are gored each year? Stupidity…(oh wait, did I say that? Oops!) (Photo courtesy of B. McNulty.)

Woman near bison

And, as always, bison can be expected to create “bison jams” where they walk down the middle of the road and wreak havoc on drivers trying to get from one place to the other. We had 2 bison tag-teaming a jam — one was walking alongside the road while the other was walking smack dab in the middle of one of the lanes. This tag team delayed our route by 20+ minutes. What a power trip…

Bison Jam

When people stop and take pictures of bison in Yellowstone, you know they haven’t been there long. By day 2, most people are driving right by them.

Elk

Surprisingly, there are more elk than bison in Yellowstone. Below is a majestic bull elk…What an impressive rack! (Photo courtesy of B. McNulty.)

Bull elk-Teton-Moose Jxn-BM

And here is a female elk enjoying the river…

Elk-Ystone

Mountain goats

Mountain goats frequent the hills of Many Glacier in Glacier National Park — and interestingly, they weren’t too far from the grizzlies and black bears. I guess they all get along?!??!?! (Next 2 photos courtesy of B. McNulty.)

Glacier mountain goats Many Glacier-BM

Here is one of the cuties on their own…

Glacier mountain goats-BM

Birds

We saw a variety of birds throughout the parks, the most regal of which were seen on the Snake River float trip in the Grand Tetons. As with last year, we saw bald eagles (gorgeous!)…

Eagle-Teton

…but this time we also got a good look at osprey (who remained elusive last year).

Osprey

The coloring and wing span were impressive…

Osprey in flight

And unexpectedly, we saw a white pelican fly by…

WhitePelican

The mergansers were fascinating. They seemed to propel themselves over the water easily. I loved their red mohawks…

Merganser-in motion

Once in Yellowstone, we saw these 2 ravens at one of the stops. I wonder what they were conspiring about?

Ravens

Beaver

Back at Oxbow bend in the Grand Tetons, when we viewed the grizzlies, we were also greatly entertained by the fattest beaver I have ever seen. He swam around, ate some grass, slapped his tail, etc, as we looked on…

Beaver-Oxbow

On the float trip, our guide pointed out the type of damage a beaver can do. Those little things can take down large trees! Industrious…

Beaver damage-Teton

Other critters

We saw all kinds of other “critters” around the parks.

Lori and Jay saw the cutest pika (below) in Cascade Canyon in the Grand Tetons. They sort of look like small bunnies with big ears and no tails. Our ranger on the Hidden Falls hike explained that pikas don’t hibernate in winter, but rather they burrow under these boulders and stock up on grasses, flowers, etc. to eat throughout the winter. Their thick coats require that they live in high elevations — they get too hot otherwise.  (Photo courtesy of J. Wheeler.)

Pika-Cascade Canyon-JW

For comparison, here is a pic of a cute bunny Jeff and I saw at Crail Ranch in Big Sky. He was not worried at all to have us nearby…

Big Sky Bunny

Chipmunks (below) abounded in the parks (along with red squirrels, that were too quick to photograph!). Jeff captured a photo of this chipmunk as he was trying to steal some food from a nearby hikers bag at Inspiration Point in the Grand Tetons. Cheeky buggers!

Inspiration Chipmonk

Despite spending 2 weeks searching for wildlife, there are still things we didn’t see — bull moose (sigh), bighorn sheep, and lynx, to name a few. Jay and Lori braved the early (early!) mornings to watch wolves in Yellowstone and were able to see a pack of wolves run off a grizzly. Very cool stuff!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this wee introduction to the wildlife out west. As with everything, it’s always best if you come out and see them yourself!

Cheers, Lori, Jay, Barb, Mike, Jen, and Jeff.

Categories: North America, Photos | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Getting to know the Grand Tetons

If you recall, we visited the Grand Tetons for a mere 24 hours last year and left awe inspired and determined to come back for a longer stay. This year, we stayed for 3+ days and left feeling like we really got to know the park.

That’s the glory of the Grand Teton National Park – it is small enough to feel intimate and quickly familiar — especially when visited after the larger nearby parks of Yellowstone and Glacier that could each easily take weeks to really get to know.

Here are some of the areas of the park that we explored more deeply this year.

Sunrise on the Teton Range

As with last year, we just haaaad to get up early one morning and view the Tetons at sunrise. It’s positively breathtaking. Grand Teton (at 13,776 feet) is in the center of the pic below and is my favorite due to its shape and position among the jagged teeth of the mountains.

sunrise 2

This is really just to serve as a reminder of what the park looks like — it consists of a 42-mile loop road that lies to the east of the Teton range (foreground in the below pic) — with the Tetons being the main focus of the entire loop. Mmmmmmmm.

Sunrise panorama

The Lodges

Last year we didn’t stop in any of the 3 main lodges in the park, so this year we decided to take a peek at each of them. (In case we want to return, of course!)

As it turns out, they were not quite what I would have expected of mountain lodges (read: huge wood-laden lobbies with stone fireplaces that instantly inspire coziness).  That said, they all blended into the landscape of the park really well, which was a huge plus in our opinion.

Jackson Lodge is the biggest of the three. The main focus of the lobby is the mountain and lake vista through the massive windows. This lodge had a bit of a contemporary look to it. Beautiful, but not cozy.

Lodge-Jackson Lake

Signal Mountain Lodge had no lobby to speak of in the front entrance — only a restaurant and gift shop. That seemed odd to us so we didn’t venture much further.

Lodge-Signal Mtn

Jenny Lake Lodge, the smallest of the three, was my favorite and was definitely the most intimate with that cozy feel.

Jenny Lake Lodge-ext

Not only did the lobby house the expected wood beams and stone fireplace but it also sported the obligatory moosehead over the mantle. Very important (poor moose!)

Jenny Lake Lodge-int

In addition to the lodges, there are a variety of campgrounds and RV parks (also well nestled among trees) where people can stay, if they want to overnight in the park.

Nearby Jackson Hole is another option — if you like people. For whatever reason, while we were there the town was packed, so we steered clear. Except for dinner at Snake River Brewery followed by an excursion to the Million Dollar Cowboy bar to celebrate Jeff’s birthday. Definitely a place with character! (Think: bar stools made of saddles, honky tonk vibe, live music, taxidermy abounding.)

Million Dollar Outside

The Lakes

Ok – now back to the Tetons. In addition to the lodges, we made a point to see as many of the lakes as we could. Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake are the ones that are most easily viewed from the loop road, so of course we visited each of those. But this year we also made sure to hike a bit to see some of the other beautiful lakes in the area (there are many!)

Jackson Lake is the largest in the park. The below view is from Signal Mountain Lodge Marina, where we stopped to have a picnic one day. The highest peak in this picture is Mount Moran (height: 12,605 ft).

Jackson Lake

Jenny Lake is smaller, and likely the most popular lake in the park. The picture below is from the Jenny Lake Overlook on the loop road. It looks across the lake into Cascade Canyon (more on this area later).

Jenny Lake Overlook

Alongside Jenny Lake were String and Leigh Lakes that involved a short hike to get to each. String Lake was particularly idyllic and it made me yearn for our kayaks. What a gorgeous spot.

String Lake

Some of the fall colors were just beginning to appear, and the turquoise of the water really made me want to hang out and enjoy this area for awhile.

String Lake 2

A bit further up the trail was Leigh Lake, another gorgeous mountain lake.

Leigh Lake

Not long after we arrived, we saw something in the water. Hoping it was wildlife, we took a closer look and realized it was a woman swimming while towing her dry bag. When she arrived on shore we asked her if she was ok. She was fine — just going out for a refreshing swim. Having just finished an Ironman triathlon, she missed the water and wanted to get back to it.

They grow them strong here…

Lucky for us, friends we were traveling with did a huge hike (read: 2500+ elevation gain!) to Delta Lake (9,016 feet!) and shared these gorgeous photos with us (next 2 photos courtesy of L. Davis).

Delta Lake 1

The hike was more strenuous than they anticipated and included “scrambling” over the below boulders.

Our ranger from the Hidden Falls hike had explained that scrambling was more than hiking but less than rock climbing. Kudos to Lori and Jay for their successful scramble! Yikes!

Scramble to Delta Lake 1

They are MUCH more adventurous (and fit!) than we are, so it was lovely to see the results of their many hikes over our 2-week vacation!

Hidden Falls

Since my plantar fasciitis of the past 2 years has finally gone (yippee!!), we decide to go on a couple more (easy) hikes to see the area.

One of the most popular day hikes in the Grand Tetons involves taking a shuttle boat across Jenny Lake before hiking up to Hidden Falls (0.5 mile in and out hike). We did this as part of a very informative ranger-led hike. During the course of this trip (in both Glacier and the Tetons) it struck me how many young female park rangers there are — many of whom are geologists by training.

The ranger leading the Hidden Falls hike was particularly enthusiastic about the geology of the area, explaining how this is a wonderful place to study because the Tetons are the youngest range in the US (~10 million years old) compared with the older nearby Rocky Mountains (at least 40 million years old). Oh me.

One example of her enthusiasm was towards this “recent” rockfall — accumulated over the last tens of thousands of years.

rock fall near Hidden Falls

The ranger information was the best part of the hike, so once we got to Hidden Falls (below) we took our obligatory photos and moved on. There were too many people and too much bright light for Jeff to take any stunning photos, so off we went.

Hidden Falls

On the way back down from the falls we passed Cascade Creek, which on an overcast day would have made a beautiful subject for some photography.

Cascade Creek

Inspiration Point

After Hidden Falls, we then decided to hike to nearby Inspiration Point — a hike that would take us closer to Cascade Canyon (mentioned above). This hike was 0.9 miles uphill (gained ~450 ft in elevation), with the starting elevation (6,783 ft) being higher than our East Coast bodies are used to. Hence there was a bit of huffing and puffing along the way. Good times! The views and fresh air were definitely worth it.

The path was well maintained and easy to follow, and periodically we would get hints of the glory to come…

Inspiration Point trail 2

The early yellow fall color also made this hike beautiful.

Inspiration Point trail 3

In addition to the view forward, the views to the sides were equally appealing, with the steep cliffs leading us into the canyon.

Inspiration Point trail 4

Eventually, we reached a fork where we could continue left 0.3 miles to Inspiration Point, or go right into Cascade Canyon. We chose the former, but in hindsight should have chosen the latter. I mistakenly assumed that Inspiration Point overlooked the Canyon, when in fact, it overlooked Jenny Lake.

The view from Inspiration Point was beautiful, mind you, but not what we thought it would be! [On our next visit, we just may need to hike back into Cascade Canyon so we can see it properly!]

Inspiration point view

But lucky for us, Lori and Jay did hike deep into the canyon. Here is one of the stunning views they saw…(photo courtesy of L. Davis).

Cascade Canyon1

Signal Mountain Summit

That was all of the hiking that we did on this trip — the remainder of what we saw was either by car or by boat. We drove to the top of Signal Mountain summit (from the loop road) to get a view of both the valley and the Tetons from higher ground.

The valley, with the Snake River snaking its way through….

Signal Mtn 1

And the view back towards the Tetons from Signal Mountain…Grand Teton to the left, Mount Moran to the right.

Signal Mtn 2

Snake River Overlook

One of the overlooks that we didn’t get to see last year (because it was closed for construction) was the famed Snake River Overlook, where Ansel Adam took his iconic photo.

You can’t get that same image now, because the trees have grown and blocked some of the view. Regardless, it was still beautiful. It was also very cool to think we have photographed where Ansel himself once photographed…

Snake River Overlook

Snake River float trip

As with last year, we also viewed the Snake River from a boat, on a 2.5-hour float trip down 10 miles of the river. We stuck with Barker-Ewing since we had such success with them last year.

Float trip

Our guide this year wasn’t quite as informative as last year, but I did love the message on his hat. So true!

Float trip hat

We will spare you pictures of the whole float trip (the pix and stories are better from last year — read that post here), but I thought I’d include one more, just because the view from the water is different and certainly peaceful. We were the first boat on the water this year, too, (8am) so it was nice to really feel like we had the whole river to ourselves.

[This float trip was also part of a birthday celebration for one of the other friends traveling with us, so it had a celebratory feel to it. Happy Birthday, Barb!]

float 2

Oxbow Bend

Another iconic area in the Tetons is Oxbow Bend, best known for its early morning and early evening wildlife activity. For that reason, we went there every evening from ~5:45 to 7:30pm with the hope of seeing wildlife. Zoom lenses and binoculars in hand, we all peered anxiously in the direction of the bend, willing something to happen.

I won’t give it all away (more on that in a later wildlife post) but I will say that we had success one day out of 3. Which meant for 2 days, we saw a whole lotta nothing. Except for these always present images…

Oxbow bend in the early evening…I love the color of the light…

Oxbow Bend

And the sunset over the Tetons…

Oxbow bend - sunset

Beautiful!!!

The Night Sky in the Tetons

Knowing Jeff, surely you didn’t think photographing the sunrise and sunset would be enough did you???? Of course not — the enthusiastic lad went out 2 nights from 10pm to ~2am filming the night sky. He came back with truly gorgeous photos…(while all I did was sleep, oh me).

How’s this for stunning? Have you ever felt smaller than viewing the whole Milky Way above 13,000+ foot mountains that look like ant hills against the vast sky? Wow…

Tetons Night Sky

Or better still, watching the stars trail across the sky over the course of an hour. Breathtaking.

Tetons Star Trail

To gain more foreground interest, Jeff then took pix of the iconic barn on Mormon Row. It’s famous for its roof line that mimics the shape of the peak of Grand Teton.

Mormon Row Night Sky

As with last year, we hope you’ve enjoyed this pictoral tour through the Grand Tetons. We truly felt like we got a feel for the park this year, which was great. That said, I also feel like I could come back year after year and discover new trails, hikes, and tours to do, if so desired. This park is also very cyclist-friendly, so that may be another way we see it in the coming years.

Over and out from Wyoming!

Categories: North America, Photos | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

One perfect day in Glacier National Park…

Three of our 4 days in Glacier National Park were mostly rainy with overwhelming cloud — and for 2 of those days, a main portion of the famed 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun road was closed to traffic due to snow. Sadly, it was the most beautiful part (see red, below).

1-map

Could it be that after a year of waiting, we may not get to see the whole park?

No.

We had one perfect day of weather where we basked in the utter grandeur of Glacier National Park.

Here is our story.

Two Medicine (Part Deux)

Labor Day started with the Going-to-the-Sun road still closed due to weather. That meant Plan B (yet again), which was to head back to Two Medicine to hopefully see what we missed the first time. [Note that this means we circled around the bottom of the park (again), since we couldn't go through the middle.]

Luckily for us, the clouds lifted about halfway through our 1.5-hour drive. From there, all went right, including this visit from a cow during our drive. Made me laugh.

1b-Cow

But more importantly, we got to see the previously elusive backdrop at Two Medicine Lake. Yahoooo!!!! It was definitely worth a second trip.

3-Two Medicine pano

And better still, we got to take the boat ride across the lake, in the oldest of the Glacier National Park boat fleet — the Sinopah, a wooden boat built in the 1930′s. The boat was presumably named after the triangular peak of the same name in the pic above. These names come from the Blackfeet Indian Nation.

The Sinopah boat is one of 5 boats that tour the lakes of the park — we rode 4 of the 5 during our stay (only because the 5th was closed for the season).

4-Two Medicine boats

While the tour was informative, I really didn’t hear much of what the guide said! I was just mesmerized by the beauty of the mountains. The view below was from the other side of the lake, where we docked to let hikers disembark.

5-opp side of lake

This was the last day of the season for the boat rides at Two Medicine and the Campstore we had visited just 2 days earlier was already closed up for the winter. How quickly things change!

On the way out we checked out the Running Eagle/Trick Falls before deciding to head northward to Many Glacier on the east side of the park.

During spring, this waterfall actually has 2 tiers, the highest of which is due to spring run-off. At the end of the summer, the high tier is no longer visible, and the lower tier looks like it comes straight out of the rock.

2-Running Eagle Falls

As we left Two Medicine and got back to the main road, this is when our day changed.

Back in the land of cell phone reception, we quickly learned that the Going-to-the-Sun road had re-opened! This meant we could finally take in all the famed road had to offer…after our trip to Many Glacier, that is.

On the way up to Many Glacier, the scenery changed dramatically. While the mountain scenery remained on our left (west), the scene on our right changed to what almost looked like plains.

6-landscape

One of our boat drivers explained that this was due to the geologic upthrust that formed this area. The Rocky Mountains were formed when 2 plates collided, pushing both plates upward to form the mountains. In Glacier National Park, the Lewis Overthrust (millions of years ago) caused one plate to slide over the other, pushing old rock over new and resulting (uncommonly) in plains adjacent to mountains. [I'm sure there is a more scientific explanation than this, but this is what I took away from it!]

Many Glacier

We knew we wanted to do a hike at Many Glacier the following day, so we went ahead and visited, to see if we needed to book in advance. As it turns out, we got a bit of a crush on the area instantly, so stayed longer than anticipated.

The heart of Many Glacier is the Many Glacier hotel — a Swiss-chalet style hotel at the head of Swiftcurrent Lake.

8-Many Glacier Hotel

When you view it from the front (above) it is clearly an impressive structure against a stunning backdrop. But when you go across the lake and view it against the mountains (below), it seems to shrink in size. This gives you an idea of the sheer size of these mountains!

7-Swiftcurrent lake

The view of Mount Grinnell from the almost Titanic-like balcony was also incredibly impressive.

9-hotel balcony

Many Glacier also made an impression on us because it was the first place on this trip where we saw wildlife– a grizzly, a couple of black bears (adorable!), and some mountain goats grazing on a hillside.  [It was also the place where we accidentally got back into the wrong car after viewing said wildlife --- ooops! Fortunately we realized it quickly and jumped into our own car.]

The Many Glacier hotel also had a unique fireplace in its lodge — the warmth from the fire was definitely welcomed after being out in the cold.

9b-Many Glacier fireplace

After enjoying a coffee by the fire, we finally set out for the pièce de résistance – the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

The Going-to-the-Sun Road is an ~50-mile long road that goes through the middle of Glacier National Park and contains (by far) the most popular sights of the park. It is open from about June through September and is the first US road designated as both a National Historic Landmark and a National Civil Engineering Landmark.

How do people decide they want to build a road in the side of cliffs? And how did they decide to do it in 1921? And better still, continue building until 1932? That kind of vision and carry-through impresses me. As does this road…

Going from East to West, the first thing we came upon was Two Dog Flats — the meadows in the foreground (below). I didn’t even realize what we were seeing — as I was mesmerized by the backdrop.

10-Two Dog Flats

Next up was the area called Rising Sun, much of which has been closed due to fires this year. This lake (St. Mary Lake) was already closed for the season, but still provided a gorgeous setting for a pic of one of the 5 boats in the Glacier NP arsenal.

10b-St Mary Lake

Next up was Wild Goose Island, the tiny island counterpart to the mountainous backdrop. You really have to look in the below image to find it (look to the left).

11-Wild Goose Island

Several of the next points of interest were closed due to the recent fire, the results of which were easily identifiable on both sides of the road. This fire broke out on July 21st of this year and, miraculously, some green undergrowth is already starting to bloom from the ashes. Nature is amazing.

12-Fire damage

One of the next stops was to view Jackson Glacier, one of the only glaciers that can be seen from the Going-to-the-Sun Road (see it in the far back, below, behind the tree).

13-Jackson Glacier

As the placard describes, of the 150 glaciers present in 1850, only ~25 are left. It is expected that they will all be gone by 2030 — so if you want to see them, visit soon!

Also, FYI, we learned the definition of a glacier on many of our tours — the ice must cover 25 acres, be at least 100 feet deep, and be moving. Many of the glaciers are retreating and decreasing in size after which point they will no longer qualify as a glacier.

At this point, I really stopped caring about particular stops and “points of interest” because the landscape got ridiculously gorgeous. I had to pick my chin up off of my chest. Here is an example:

14-scenic pano

The sheer size of these mountains was incredible. And I’ll admit, the equally sheer cliffs on the side of the road had me white knuckling part of the drive. Woah…

15-scenic zoom

Here’s another view:

16-scenic pano

Are you starting to understand why I was so devastated at the thought of not being able to see this whole road? WOAH!

As it turns out, we were incredibly lucky for the rain that had fallen in previous days. Not only had it extinguished most of the fires, but it also cleared the smoke (so that the mountains could be seen), covered the gray glaciers/snow with freshly fallen powder above ~6000 feet, and provided the pristine vista we were able to see.  Thank you rain and snow!

Clearly, someone enjoyed the snow enough to make a little snowman on one of the ledges.

17-snowman

From here, it was on to Logan’s Pass, site of the Continental Divide, which separates where the waters of the US run to the east or to the west. Logan’s Pass sits at 6466 feet in elevation, is the highest point along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and was covered in snow when we went through. Hard to believe that it’s in the upper 80′s (degF) back home!

18-Logan Pass

[Notably, we drove through Logan's Pass again the next morning, and it was completely shrouded in cloud. Aaaaack! Talk about white knuckles!]

At Logan’s Pass, we saw a typical site in the Park — the red buses. Red bus tours are a popular way to view the whole Going-to-the-Sun road without having to drive it yourself. Our tour of the park had been cancelled due to the road closure earlier in the week — so we never rode in one, but did see them all throughout the park.

In good weather, the canvas tops open up, allowing an overhead view of the park as well. Very cool.

19-red bus tour

Just after Logan’s Pass, this view from Oberlin Bend is of the Garden Wall, which is covered heavily in flowers during the summer months. I bet that is even more stunning than being covered in snow.

20-garden wall

The amazing views continued (until I was almost at sensory overload — are you???)…

21-scenic pano

The focus of the below pic is not the gorgeous river in the valley (though beautiful) but rather the “hanging valley” in the upper left (looks like a bowl of snow). These valleys “hang” above the actual valley floor and are a unique feature of Glacier National Park.

22-scenic pano

The below pic is from a random pull off that was ridiculously amazing. Note that it takes about 2 to 2.5 hours to drive the 50 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, depending on how many pullouts you turn into. We turned into most of them. (You’re shocked, I know!)

23-scenic pano

Given that it is late summer/early fall (and after the first snow fall), we didn’t see many of the flowers that usually cover the park in the summer. So when I saw these, I had to take a pic.

24-wildflower

From there, our journey along the Going-to-the-Sun road was almost complete, as we made our way to Lake McDonald Lodge for our 7pm boat tour of Lake McDonald. This was the last boat tour of the season, and a perfect way to end the day.

As it turns out, it was the perfect end to the perfect day as well as the perfect end to the boat tour season. Our guide said this was the best rainbow she’s seen all summer. I believe it!

25-double rainbow

Some things are just meant to be. And today was one of them.

We felt very, very, very fortunate to have been able to see the Park during good weather. Especially since we talked to a woman on the boat tour who had been here for 2 weeks and had never been able to see the Going-to-the-Sun road at its best (due to smoke or cloud).

Deep exhale…so thankful we were able to see such beauty. We highly recommend that you plan a visit!!

Hope you enjoyed this pictoral tour of Glacier National Park. Thanks for letting us relive it!

Categories: North America, Photos | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments