Tips for Viewing Geysers, Springs, and Pools in Yellowstone National Park Plus Hiking Trails and Waterfalls

Previously, I discussed the layout, entrances, and basic information about geothermal areas within Yellowstone National Park, in my post here. Now for a little more in-depth information about the fun stuff. As I mentioned previously, Yellowstone is famous for its hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and geysers. Over 10,000 different hydrothermal features are estimated to be active within the park and more than half of the world’s active geysers are found in Yellowstone.

Everyone’s heard of the most famous geyser, Old Faithful, but this is just one out of many geysers in the park. Also famous is Grand Prismatic Spring with the blue center surrounded by green, green, yellow, red, and orange hues, but again, it’s just one of many springs in the park, with all colors of the rainbow represented. In general, what I learned is to try to see as many geyser basins as possible and get an early start or you’ll have to wait in a long line to find a parking spot (even then you’ll have to wait for parking as the day goes on).

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Viewing Old Faithful from above

Tip for viewing Old Faithful:  go up the Observation Point Trail for views of the Upper Geyser Basin, which includes Old Faithful. From the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, walk about 0.3 miles (0.5 km) counter-clockwise along the Old Faithful boardwalk, turn right at the Geyser Hill sign, and continue on the path. The trailhead is just after the bridge crossing the Firehole River. Although there will be some people up here with you, it is far less crowded than if you watch at the designated seated area directly in front of Old Faithful, and you’ll get a better view. Plus, there are many geysers, springs, and pools along the trails in the Old Faithful area. You can easily spend several hours in this area.

Tip for viewing Grand Prismatic Spring: park 1 mile (1.6 km) south of Midway Geyser Basin at the Fairy Falls Parking Lot. The trail is 0.6 miles out-and-back, or 1.2 miles total from the Fairy Falls Trailhead for a view from above of Grand Prismatic Spring and the Midway Geyser Basin. You can (and should) also walk around the boardwalks that surround Grand Prismatic Spring and the other springs and geysers in the area, for up-close views.

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Mystic Falls

If you want to see waterfalls, some of the best are Fairy Falls, Mystic Falls, and the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Fairy Falls are part of the Midway Geyser Basin, as I mentioned in the paragraph above. To get to Mystic Falls, go to the Biscuit Basin parking lot and you’ll see the trailhead for the falls there. Although it’s an easy hike to the falls, if you want to go down for a better view of the falls, it’s a bit rocky and slippery going back up so make sure you have good hiking shoes. The Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River are in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Take the South Rim Trail for the best view of the falls. Actually, Artist Point Trail, which is off the South Rim Trail will give you the best views of the canyon and falls together.

One trail to skip is the Ribbon Lake Trail. We got eaten alive by more mosquitoes on this single trail than we had encountered on all other trails in Yellowstone combined and this was with us wearing bug spray and bug bands. I didn’t even think the trail or lake were that scenic and definitely not worth all of the mosquito bites to get there and back. The Ribbon Lake Trail is off the South Rim Trail.

Safety

Buy or bring bug spray and bug bands especially if you’re coming during the summer months. You can buy bug spray at all of the general stores throughout the park. If you want to buy bear spray, you can find it at gift shops, outdoor stores, service stations, and bookstores inside the park. You can also rent bear spray in Canyon Village at the rental kiosk at the northwest corner of the visitor center plaza. Be aware that regular pepper spray is not good bear deterrent and is not recommended by park rangers.

Although there are bears at Yellowstone, my family and I never saw a bear on any of our hikes or driving through the park, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t bear aware. In any area of the United States where there are known bears, you should never hike alone; the recommended number is three or more people. It’s also a good idea to carry bear spray and make noise when you’re hiking so you don’t sneak up on a bear and startle it. Another option is to hike with a ranger.

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We saw this bison hanging out by one of the springs

In addition to bears, Yellowstone has many other wild animals. Always stay at least 100 yards (91 meters) away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 meters) away from all other animals, including bison and elk even though they may seem harmless. Less than a week after I was at Yellowstone, a small girl was thrown into the air by a bison, who park officials believe was spooked by noises from people hovering around it.

Keep on the designated pathways and trails. Children should be under close supervision by parents at all times. Do not touch thermal features or runoff, regardless of how beautiful and enticing they may be. More than 20 people have died from burns when they fell or entered Yellowstone’s hot springs (meaning some were on purpose and others were accidents).

See Everything (Within Reason)

Yellowstone is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful national parks I’ve been to and one that I’d love to return to and see more of the northern part. For me, part of the appeal is that it’s one of the most diverse parks I’ve seen, with everything from canyons, waterfalls, geysers, pools, forests, and wild animals. Probably my biggest tip for Yellowstone is to try to see everything you possibly can in the time you have there without spending the majority of your time in the car. Remember, it’s an enormous park and there’s no way you’ll be able to see everything so just choose where you want to spend your time and focus on those areas.

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Just one of many beautiful pools in Biscuit Basin

One way to save time is to skip at least one meal per day eaten at a restaurant and buy food and snacks you can quickly eat in your room or at a designated picnic area where there are picnic tables or seating areas (say, for lunch). Also, don’t focus on just one or two geyser areas but try to see as many as you can. At first, I was hesitant about Biscuit and Black Sand Geyser Basins, because I wasn’t sure what was there and if it was worth it. What I learned is everything is worth seeing (well, except Ribbon Lake, which I re-named Mosquito Lake).

Have you been to Yellowstone National Park? If so, what were some of your favorite things you saw or did? If not, is it on your bucket list?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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Learning Your Way Around Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana- “World’s First and Best Park”

Although it’s not the most visited of all of the US national parks, Yellowstone National Park is certainly high on many people’s lists. Since 2015, the annual number of visitors to Yellowstone has been steadily increasing from 4 million people. By the way, the reference in the title is because we saw someone wearing a t-shirt at the park declaring that Yellowstone was the “World’s First and Best National Park;” Yellowstone was established in 1872 and was not only the United States’ first national park but also the world’s first national park.

We spent four nights in Yellowstone (so I make no claims to being an expert) and despite the fact that it’s 3,472 square miles spread out over parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, or larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, I feel like we were able to see quite a bit of the park in that amount of time. Well, sort of. We saw a decent amount of the bottom part of the park, but we really didn’t see much of the top part other than driving through it on our way to the airport in Idaho Falls. In this post I will obviously focus on the lower part of the park.

I’ll give a little bit of background geographical information here, to give everyone an idea of the lay of the land. Yellowstone has five general areas within the park. In the north is Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt, which includes Lamar Valley. The central part includes Canyon Village to the east and Norris Geyser Basin and Madison to the west. The southern part includes Lake Village, Fishing Bridge, and Bridge Bay to the east; Grant Village and West Thumb to the central part; and Old Faithful to the west.

One more thing to know about logistics:  there are 5 entrances; north, northeast, south, east, and west. The North Entrance is the only park entrance open to wheeled vehicles all year. Winters are brutal in this part of the US, and the other entrances close in the fall and don’t re-open until the spring (which can be late May for some entrances). If you’re combining Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, some people say you can make a day trip from Jackson through Grand Teton and up to Yellowstone through the south entrance, which you could technically do, but it would be a really long day with most of it spent in the car.

Geothermal Areas:  Geysers, Pools, Mud Pots, Fumaroles, and Springs

There are an estimated approximately 10,000 geothermal areas in Yellowstone. Throughout the park, there are several geyser basins. The main geyser basins are described in detail below, but there are others including Norris Geyser Basin, which is the hottest geyser basin in the park and is home to Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world.

West Thumb Geyser Basin is the largest geyser basin on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. This is where you’ll find the following geysers, pools, and springs:  Abyss Pool, Black Pool, Hillside Geyser, Twin Geysers, Blue Funnel Spring, Ephedra Spring, Fumaroles, Big Cone, Fishing Cone, Lakeshore Geyser, Surging Spring, Ledge Spring, Percolating Spring, Thumb Paint Pots, and more. There is also a historic Ranger Station, Duck Lake Trail, and Lake Overlook Trail.

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The Upper Geyser Basin includes Biscuit Basin, Black Sand Basin, and the Old Faithful area. The walking paths that connect the Old Faithful area, Biscuit Basin, and Black Sand Basin contain a huge amount of springs, pools, and geysers. If you only have time to visit one basin, this is the one where you should spend your time. Some of my favorites on the walk between Old Faithful and Biscuit Basin are Morning Glory Pool, Grotto Geyser, Chromatic Pool, and Castle Geyser.

Don’t make the mistake of just viewing Old Faithful explode into the air and then leave. There are many other geysers, springs, and pools on the walkway around the Old Faithful Area. Some other great ones include Beehive Geyser, Grand Geyser, Riverside Geyser, Sawmill and Daisy Geyser. Also, in addition to the seating area in front of Old Faithful, there’s an observation point a short walk uphill where you can get a less-crowded view of Old Faithful from above. More on that in a later post or this one will be way too long.

Biscuit Basin includes Silver Spring Globe, Shell, and Avoca Springs, Sapphire Pool (one of my favorites), Black Opal Pool, Jewel, Cauliflower, and Black Pearl Geysers. The Firehole River and a highway divide the basin.

Black Sand Basin contains only five geysers and hot springs but is one area not to be missed. You’ll see the colorful and aptly named Rainbow Pool (my daughter’s favorite), Emerald Pool, Spouter Geyser, Cliff Geyser, and Sunset Lake which discharges into Iron Creek, and overflows into Rainbow Pool creating a large microbial mat between the two thermal features.

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Midway Geyser Basin is technically part of the Lower Geyser Basin but is given its own domain. The famous Grand Prismatic Spring, which is almost 370 feet in diameter, is here, as is the now dormant Excelsior Geyser.

The Lower Geyser Basin is the largest of the geyser basin areas in Yellowstone, at 11 square miles. If you take the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, you can see the beautiful Celestine Pool; Clepsydra, Fountain, Morning, and Jet Geysers; Fumaroles (steam vents), Leather Pool, Red Spouter, Silex Spring, Sizzler, and Spasm Geyser.

Where to Stay

We decided to stay inside the park, at Grant Village, which was a wise decision especially after hearing a co-worker who went there a week before I did say he had to drive one hour just to get to the entrance of the park and then another hour or two from there depending on what part of the park he was going to that day. By staying inside the park, you’ll greatly reduce the amount of time you spend driving each day. There are nine hotel/lodges within Yellowstone and 12 campgrounds, so you do have some options. Just remember they fill up several months to a year in advance so you’ll need to make your reservations early.

However, even if you stay within the park, you will still spend time driving within the park, just because it is so spread out and enormous. For example, to get from Grant Village to Old Faithful, it will take about 30 or 40 minutes if you aren’t slowed down by construction, traffic, or animals crossing or blocking the road (we had to deal with all three of these at one time or another). If you were staying outside the park and drove in the north entrance, for example, it could easily take you 2 1/2 to 3 hours just to drive from your hotel to Old Faithful. Believe me, we saw first-hand the huge line of cars trying to enter the park from the north entrance one morning.

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Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

As you may guess, there are no Airbnb properties or non-National Park Service hotels within the park, but there are some near the entrances if you truly don’t mind a long drive into and back out of the park or can’t get reservations in the park. Within the park, Canyon Village has Canyon Lodge and Cabins. Tower-Roosevelt area has Roosevelt Lodge and Cabins. Mammoth Hot Springs has Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins. Old Faithful area has three options:  Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Cabins, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins. West Thumb and Grant Village has Grant Village. Lake Village has Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins and Lake Lodge Cabins.

If you want to focus your time on the northern part of the park but also have relatively quick access to geysers, I would stay in Canyon Village. Tower-Roosevelt and Mammoth Hot Springs to the north are great if you want to explore Lamar Valley. If you will be fishing and spending more time at Yellowstone Lake or want a fairly central location in the park, Grant Village would be a good option. Old Faithful area is great for focusing on geysers, pools, and springs since a large proportion are in this area.

Just by taking some time to learn the layout of Yellowstone and deciding where you want to focus your time, you can reduce the amount of driving you’ll be doing within the park and be able to spend more time outside enjoying the park. I feel like Grant Village was a good choice for accommodations for my family and I since it was only about a thirty minute drive to the Old Faithful area of the park (as I mentioned earlier), which is where so many of the geyser basins are but we could also get to the Canyon area in about an hour so it was a relatively central location for the places we went during that week.

Where to Fly Into

If you don’t live within driving distance of Yellowstone and/or don’t want to take a cross-country road trip, you can fly into Idaho Falls Regional Airport and drive in through the north or south entrance, which should each take about 3 hours. An alternative is to fly into Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah and come up through the south entrance, which would take about 6 hours. Jackson Hole Airport is the quickest way to Yellowstone, at only about an hour’s drive to the south entrance, but it’s also likely the most expensive option.

I have another post coming soon with specific tips for viewing geysers, pools, springs, and waterfalls plus trail info and safety.

Have you been to Yellowstone National Park? If so, what did you do there? If not, is it on your bucket list?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Stuck in a Running Rut? Sick of Your Running Routes? Here are Some Suggestions.

If you run enough, sooner or later chances are pretty good you’ll grow tired of running past the same places over and over again. Getting stuck in a running rut can suck the joy out of running if you don’t do something to mix up your running routes, or at least it can for me. Last year I was struggling with this and I was in serious need of some new running routes. I felt like I was running the same paths and/or streets every week and I desperately needed some new places to run.

The funny thing is for years I would run my long run on the same exact path every single Saturday. I would tell my fellow runner co-workers how great this converted railway trail was and how much I liked running there. Fast-forward to present day and I would never choose to run there. I find it terribly boring and monotonous with pretty much the same scenery for miles on end.

Sure, this path is scenic to the newcomer, with trees on both sides and the occasional bridge over a small creek. There’s crushed gravel in parts, asphalt in parts, and packed dirt in other parts. What it’s lacking in is a change of scenery, though, since it was once a railway line and goes in a straight path through the woods. There are no turns, no curves even, just miles and miles of one straight path.

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Running in Hawaii. I could never get bored of this view!

I am somewhat a creature of habit, however, and I run all of my long runs on the same trail now, but there’s a ton of variety along this path. This is a greenway, so it’s asphalt for the most part, but there are large sections of wood (boardwalks, for lack of a better term) that go over wetlands and other water sections like creeks. There are also many twists and turns along the way, with one tunnel, and some hills to mix things up. The greenway goes along and through many different neighborhoods so you may see a wide variety of trees, flowers, ponds, houses, and the occasional road to cross (but not too many). In short, I never get bored of the scenery here plus there are often adorable dogs being walked along the way to brighten my run.

As I said earlier, though, I began to grow bored of the running routes I was running during the week and I started Exploring While Running and Fighting Boredom. I discovered entire neighborhoods that I previously never even knew existed, just by deciding to run somewhere and see what was there. Instead of running the neighborhoods around where I lived, I would change into my running clothes on my way out of work, stop at a place along the way home, and just park my car and start running. Sometimes this worked out, sometimes it didn’t but I learned a few things along the way.

One big thing I started doing that was really simple but I had never thought to do it before is open up Google maps, choose a neighborhood, search for greenways or trails, and figure out where they are in relation to the neighborhood. I’m lucky that we have miles and miles of greenways and other running/walking/cycling paths in the 20 mile radius between and around my home and work places, although unless you live in a particular neighborhood you may never even know that greenway exists unless you look it up like I did.

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Running a race in another state is a fun way to mix things up! This was taken in Utah.

I also do a Google search for running paths and include the city and state I want to run in. Inevitably what will come up includes greenways, routes from mapmyrun.com, traillink.com, and alltrails.com. Yelp also comes up, with links to greenways and parks. You do have to register with traillink but it’s free, with the option to upgrade for $29.99/year. You also have to register with alltrails.com if you do anything other than just a simple search, but again, it’s free for the basic plan and $29.99/year for pro. I don’t use either enough to warrant paying for the upgraded plans but the basic plans are really basic.

You can also search local running stores online whether you’ll be running in your area and want new places to run or will be running while on vacation. Sometimes if they do group runs, the routes and days/times will be on their calendar, but if not you can always give them a call and ask where they recommend for safe places to run. Another option is to try meetup.com where you can search for running groups. Click their sports & fitness box and go from there.

Sometimes you have to just think differently about your runs if you want to mix things up. Instead of running straight out your door and heading down the same way you always run, just make little changes like going right instead of left or straight instead of turning like you usually do. You can make as many or few of these changes along the route as you feel like that day. Just pay attention when you make changes so you don’t get lost!

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One of many beautiful trails near where I work!

You can also try running near your work place if you drive to work but don’t normally run near where you work. If you’re lucky enough to have showers at your work place, you have multiple options of when to run- before work, during your lunch break, or after work but before you drive home. If you don’t have showers at work, you’ll have to either make due with body wipes and deodorant (which you can possibly get by with during cool to cold months if you don’t sweat a lot) or run after work but before you drive home. Just be sure to bring a towel for your car seat (and another small one to dry off with before you get in your car).

If you have school-age children who are in after-school activities, you can even run near their school. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to drive there, run, and have a bit of a buffer before you pick them up. I’ve run during my daughter’s soccer and swim practices many times. This helps break up the monotony of not running in the same areas all the time plus gives you something productive to do rather than just blowing that time sitting around on your phone while they’re at practice.

What about you guys? Do you prefer to run the same routes every week or do you like to mix things up? If you do mix things up, what do you do to choose new running routes?

Happy running!

Donna

 

Final Days and Final Thoughts in Alaska- Girdwood

After spending the bulk of our vacation in Alaska in Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Seward, we decided to spend two days hiking around Girdwood, which is just under an hour from Anchorage. We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. My husband took advantage of the fitness center and sauna and said the fitness center was the nicest one he’d ever been to at a hotel.

I’ll be honest, though. As nice as the hotel is (and it’s very nice), a big reason we stayed here was for the tram, although you certainly don’t have to stay here to take the tram. After taking the tram up to the top, we hiked Mighty Mite and Mountain Top Trail. A pdf of the hiking and biking trails from the Alyeska Resort can be found here. You can also hike up the top without taking the tram but we thought the tram would be a fun experience and since the tickets were included in our hotel stay, it would have been silly to have not used them. From the top, we saw seven glaciers, high-alpine tundra, the Chugach Mountains, and Turnagain Arm. There is a lookout area, gift shop, Bore Tide Deli and Bar, and the fancy Seven Glaciers restaurant.

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Hotel Alyeska and a tram

After hiking and admiring the gorgeous views from the top, we checked out some of the shops in town. Girdwood is tiny and there aren’t a ton of shops or restaurants but you can find a handful. For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop. There’s also a couple of small art galleries, Girdwood Center for Visual Arts and Slack Tide Gallery.

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View from the top above Hotel Alyeska

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to  hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

Since we were pressed for time and had to fly out of Anchorage that evening, we only had time to turn around after taking the hand tram across the gorge (so we went across the gorge then immediately got in line to go back across the gorge in the tram). From the hotel to the hand tram and back is a 2 to 2.5 hour round-trip adventure. If you have time and energy to continue hiking, it’s one mile to Crow Creek Road. Crow Creek Mine is a few hundred miles up the road from there. If you want a quicker route, you can start at the Winner Creek Gorge Trailhead at Milepoint 2.9 of Crow Creek Road, hike for one mile to the hand tram, another 0.2 mile to the Gorge, then hike back to your car.

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The hand tram over Winner Creek Gorge

You can also extend your hike by turning right at the gorge and taking Upper Winner Creek Trail. There are multiple water crossings and the trail gets more primitive the further up you go. If you want you can continue over the pass down to the Twentymile River on the other side and packraft out to the Seward Highway. From the Hotel Alyeska to Twentymile River to the Seward Highway is a full day excursion and only recommended for experienced hikers in the Alaska backcountry.

Of course you can always just make a day-trip from Anchorage to Girdwood. Since I ran a half marathon in Anchorage, Skinny Raven Half Marathon, and we were going to drive straight after the race to Denali National Park, which is north of Anchorage, I didn’t want to hike that much before the race to save my legs. Our big loop of Anchorage to Denali to Seward to Girdwood before flying out of Anchorage seemed like the perfect way to do it and I’m glad we planned it that way.

Now I’m already planning another trip to Alaska. We’re thinking it would be cool to go a bit further north, say Fairbanks to see the northern lights during the winter. That won’t be for a few more years probably, but I have a feeling we will definitely be returning there.

Have any of you been to Alaska? What was your favorite part? If you haven’t been, what would you most like to see or do? My favorite part was going to Denali National Park but I loved so many other things as well. The boat tour in Kenai Fjords National Park was incredible and just being able to hike as much as we did and get to see as many amazing views as we did of glaciers and mountains was awesome. Do any of you plan your next vacation to a place before you even leave?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Denali National Park in Alaska

Although it would mean riding in a car for around 4 1/2 hours right after running a half marathon in Anchorage (Skinny Raven Half Marathon), I knew I couldn’t go to Alaska and not go to Denali National Park. Sure, I could have added another day to Anchorage and left the day after the race, but we only had so much time to spend in Alaska and I preferred to spend that time in Denali instead since we had already spent three nights in Anchorage.

Denali National Park is a whopping 6 million acres, most of it natural and untouched by humans. Don’t expect to see even a quarter of the park when you go. There is one road that goes through the park and you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15 (the park entrance is the beginning of the mile markers, so Mile Post 15 or MP15 is as far as you can drive yourself into the park).

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Grizzly bears (a.k.a. brown bears) in Denali!

When you go to Denali National Park, you have some options as to how to spend your time in the park. You can camp in either a tent or RV, and there are six campgrounds, from mile 0.25 (Riley Campground, the only campground open year-round) to mile 85. If you stay at a campground beyond mile 14, you will need to take a camper bus to get there, with the exception of Teklanika River Campground at mile 29, which allows RV’s as well as tents. You can find information on camping at Denali here.

Since you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15, if you want to do some hiking beyond that in the park, you have to take a transit bus. Transit buses run from the Wilderness Access Center with the first stop at mile 53, Toklat River, which takes about 3 hours, 15 minutes each way or you can go as far as mile 92 to Kantishna (it will take 6 hours in and 6 hours out from here). We decided to go a bit more in the middle to mile 66 to Eielson Visitor Center, which takes 4 hours in and 4 hours out. More information on transit buses can be found here. In short, transit buses give you the flexibility to get on and off pretty much anywhere you want. There are bathroom breaks and our transit bus driver gave us some great narrative along the way and stopped for animal sightings any time someone from the bus saw something. Don’t believe what the website says about transit buses not being narrated, because ours were (both in and out, although the first driver was much more talkative than the second) and we were told most transit drivers do narrate along the way.

Although we wanted to do some hiking in the backcountry, we knew with such a long bus ride back (4 hours) we should keep it fairly short. At Eielson Visitor Center, there are two options for hiking, the Alpine Trail and the Tundra Loop Trail. Our transit bus driver told us we should only go on the Alpine Trail if we had bear spray but we should be fine without bear spray on the Tundra Loop Trail (but to still be aware of bears since they’re always a possibility in the park), so guess which trail we chose- yes, the Tundra Loop it was! The Tundra Loop Trail is around a third of a mile through alpine country. A spur trail adds an additional quarter of a mile, one-way, off the Tundra Loop. After hiking that, we waited at the visitor center for another bus and made our way back to the park entrance.

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View from the Tundra Loop Trail

Your third option for spending time in the park if you want to go beyond mile 15 is to take a bus tour where you stay on the bus the entire time other than to take bathroom breaks and short stops. There are three bus tours, the Denali Natural History Tour (4.5 to 5 hours round-trip), the Tundra Wilderness Tour (7-8 hours round-trip), and the Kantishna Experience (11-12 hours round-trip). Some walking is involved on bus tours, but you don’t have the option to hike on your own.

The final option for spending time in Denali National Park is to explore the first 15 miles of the park on your own. There aren’t many trails in the park considering how large it is, but many of the trails are near the front part of the park, rather than the backcountry part, which is left natural. On our second day at Denali, we hiked the Horseshoe Lake Trail, Taiga Trail, Spruce Forest Trail, Morino Trail, and Rock Creek Trail. Information about all of these trails and more can be found here. We found a perfect balance to all of this hiking by sandwiching our hiking with a stop at the sled dog kennel and watching a demonstration after doing a few trails, then doing a few more trails after going to the sled dog kennels.

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Views from the Tundra Loop Trail

A note about the sled dog kennels. Denali National Park is the only national park in the US that has sled dogs. The sled dogs originally patrolled the park for poachers but continued the tradition once the rangers found the sled dogs were more reliable than snowmobiles. The kennels are open to visitors year-round. After a brief talk about the dogs and the history of the sled dogs by a ranger, we got to see the dogs in action as they pulled the ranger around on the cart used during the summer, then we took our own self-guided tour around the facilities. It’s obvious these dogs are true working dogs and they love what they do; they got so excited when they knew they were going to get to run. We were there for about an hour to hour and a half total.

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Denali sled dogs in action!

We spent three nights in Denali, with 2 full days at the park, and found that to be a perfect amount for us. The transit bus turned out to be my favorite part of our entire time in Alaska. We got to see many brown bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots in the park. The bear sightings were all from the safety of the bus, so my fears of coming upon a bear while hiking were unfounded.

Have any of you been to Denali National Park? What did you do there? Would you like to go if you haven’t been?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

My Alaskan Adventures Begin in Anchorage

For those of you that don’t already know, I’m on a quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. I chose the Skinny Raven Half Marathon in Anchorage for my half marathon in Alaska. My family and I did not go the popular Alaskan cruise route so we could have more flexibility with our schedule and what cities we went to. That and the fact that my husband and daughter suffer from motion sickness, something that came back to bite them hard later in this vacation.

Our flight from the east coast to Anchorage was a long one, so when we arrived in the evening and it was still daylight despite being 9 pm, we were tired and ready to check in our hotel and call it a night. We stayed at Duke’s 8th Avenue Hotel because of the proximity to the race start and finish. I could literally walk just a few blocks from the hotel the morning of the race, which I always try to do if possible for a race. We also enjoyed having a two bedroom suite and full kitchen at our disposal. If you’d like to read about my race, state number 43, you can find it at Skinny Raven Half Marathon, Anchorage, Alaska-43rd state.

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One of our first hikes near Anchorage

I had planned on doing some hiking on Friday but take it easy on Saturday, the day before the race, and pack up and drive up to Denali National Park right after the race, so honestly, we didn’t do a ton while we were in Anchorage. We went hiking at the absolutely enormous Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska. We were very excited to see our first moose ever on our first full day in Alaska, despite having been to eastern and western parts of Canada, Montana, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont and never seeing a moose at any of those places.

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Our first moose spotting!

Other than hiking in Chugach National Forest and seeing the moose, some of our favorite things from Anchorage include walking along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, driving along part of Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout. Even though the weather was pretty terrible when we were at Turnagain Arm, with strong winds and rain, we made the most of it, knowing our time in Anchorage was limited.

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Part of Tunagain Arm

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops. We went for breakfast at Snow City Café, and it was definitely worth the wait. I can see why it’s so popular! I had some hand-made pasta at South Restaurant the night before my half marathon and it was just what I was looking for and tasted delicious. Wild Scoops is known for its different flavors of ice cream, like the Sleeping Lady that I had, Earl Grey ice cream with local black currant swirl. It was unlike any other ice cream flavor I had ever had, but more importantly, it was one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had; very creamy and full of flavor.

We enjoyed our time in Anchorage and our first taste of Alaska. The weather seemed quite chilly to us southerners, who had just come from highs about 30 degrees warmer than in Anchorage, but it was a nice break from the heat for us, so we weren’t complaining. We just wore plenty of layers so we could be comfortable. As we left Anchorage, we were very much looking forward to heading north to check out Denali National Park for the second part of our vacation.

Have any of you been to Alaska or would like to go? Do you think you would take a cruise or just pick a few spots and either drive or fly between them if you haven’t been yet or did you do this if you have been?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Why I Love Trail Running and How it Can Make You a Faster Road Runner

I grew up in the southern part of West Virginia and since the Appalachian Mountains run through the entire state, pretty much the whole state is full of mountains, hills, and nature. I remember spending a lot of my childhood at state parks and walking on the trails with my mom, brother, or friends. My childhood friends and I would ride our bikes through trails and we would go for walks through the many wooded areas around where I grew up.

In other words, trails are nothing new for me. As an adult, I now live in North Carolina and have access to numerous trails near my home. If I get tired of the trails that are within walking distance of my house, I can always drive 30 minutes or less and get to many different trails at several different parks that I can run, walk, or ride my bike on. You should know when I say trails here, I mean everything from dirt trails that go past ponds, lakes, or creeks and have tree roots sticking out in random places to mulch-covered trails in wooded areas of parks that are less “technical.” I also run on asphalt trails, but that’s not what I’m referring to here.

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About 2 or 3 years ago I decided to do more trail running and I have to say it did not go well. I was running along a very thin dirt trail that was lined with giant rocks on either side. From the beginning, I didn’t have a good feeling about running here and I should have listened to my gut but I kept going. After some time, I fell and hit my face just below my right eye on one of the rocks. Fortunately I didn’t hit my head or do major damage to myself but it did scare me and I had a nice scar on my right cheek for quite some time. I couldn’t help but think if that would have been just a fraction higher, that would have been my eye. I haven’t been running on that trail since then and I backed off running on other trails after that happened. I have to add that I recently had a pretty bad fall when I was running on an asphalt trail and I got bruised and cut up much worse on the asphalt trail than on this dirt trail.

Last year I began getting my courage back up to run on dirt trails and began incorporating about one trail run a week into my weekly runs. This year I’ve found myself running on trails or portions of trails about 2 or 3 times a week and I’ve gotten more comfortable running on trails. I’ve found trail running can be a great way to beat the heat, as they’re usually very shaded and feel several degrees cooler than running on the roadways.

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A trail without much mulch but more gravel and dirt.

I also started noticing that when I would run on asphalt trails or on roads, my times seemed to be getting better; I have been getting faster. Maybe it was because I started a new training plan but maybe it was because I have been running on trails through the woods. Without changing where I run and not running on trails at all, there’s no way to know. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

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One of the mulch-covered trails I sometimes run on.

Don’t just take my word for it that trail running can make you a faster runner. Runner’s World has an article on this very topic that you can read here.  In addition to helping you increase your speed on roads, running on trails has many advantages such as helping to make your ankles and legs stronger, helping with balance, and helping to strengthen muscles that often get neglected with road running. Running on trails is also great for those runners such as myself that are over the age of 40 because the softer surface is easier on your joints.

If you’re a bit nervous about running on trails, you can gradually ease into it both in distance and trail difficulty. Find some nice wide trails near where you live that are pretty flat without big tree roots sticking out or big rocks on or along the trail and run there for a short run. Gradually increase how long you’re running on trails like this until you feel comfortable. Once this seems easy, branch out and try a bit hillier trails.

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My daughter actually built and hung this bird house as part of a Girl Scout project in a park where I run trails!

Another thing you may be concerned about when running on trails is encountering wild animals. If you live in an area where there are bears or mountain lions or other large wild cats, I strongly suggest you run with a friend (or a few friends), a big dog if you have one, and talk to other runners in the area about where the safest trails are. Fortunately for me, snakes are the worst I have seen on a trail when running. Last weekend in fact, I came across what looked like a juvenile copperhead snake crossing over the path. One time I remember seeing a giant black snake lying across the trail and it wasn’t moving in either direction. I certainly wasn’t going to jump over it even it was a nonpoisonous snake, so I just waited for it to slither off the path before continuing on my way. Generally if you leave snakes alone, they will leave you alone.

The funny part of all of this is, I’ve never run a race on a trail. The closest I ever came to a trail race is when I ran a race on loose gravel and dirt along a river in Nevada. It was perfectly flat and more what I would call a small dirt road than a trail. The race was one of my least favorites, though, because it was so hot, not scenic at all in my opinion, and I was just ready to be done with that race. You can read about the Laughlin Half Marathon in Nevada my 11th state of my quest for a half marathon in all 50 states. Not that I’m necessarily planning on running a trail race but I guess you never know. It seems like most races on trails are ultras and believe me, I have no intention of running one of those!

Do any of you run on trails but consider yourself a road racer? Have any of you run a trail race and if so which ones are your favorites?

Happy running!

Donna