Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Rocky Mountain High

After the brief detour to Mt Rushmore we headed south and into Colorado, our eventual destination being the Rocky Mountains National Park (RMNP). Hopefully since we had not been under 1200m since Seattle I would be acclimatised by now to the higher altitudes.

We stopped off to visit our tour leader from Russia (he was the one who did the sauna/vodka then roll in the snow naked thing), who actually lives in Fort Collins. Chris is very proud of his town and showed us around. With high mountains, lakes, lovely countryside and a progressive populace sporting a large variety of alternative shops and eating places we were spoilt for choice. After a couple of weeks of the limited food choices of the Upper Midwest (not very gluten free vegetarian friendly), we were disappointed that we could only choose one.

Marijuana Shop
First visitors from Perth :-)
Colorado is the first State to legalise marijuana and we visited a shop called Organic Alternatives to see it in action first hand. We had to show our passports and were then seated in the waiting room. Eventually a salesman calls us into the showroom where there are two long display cabinets, one on each side of the room. One side is for medicinal products and the other side is recreational. Everything from edibles such as muesli bars, chocolates, cakes, biscuits, lollies etc to soaps, creams, lip balm, massage oil and much more. Elizabeth briefly considered buying a bath soak but we were not sure if we could finish it before leaving the State, a point at which the product becomes illegal. Really interesting. There was a map on the wall with a pin for the different places in the world visitors have come from. Perth was not represented until we placed our pin there.

We bid Chris goodbye and headed off to the charming tourist town of Estes Park, the town that borders RMNP. Surrounding the town the towering mountains looked gigantic. We had a fabulous time there on small hiking trails and driving around the mountains but one day stands out in my mind.

Since it turned into a fine day (we had some dodgy ones), we decided to do the drive up to the RMNP Alpine Visitor Centre, the highest visitor centre in the US. There were many overlooks on the side of the road showing off the fantastic scenery, and a few small hikes, gradually changing to the rich colours of a harsh alpine tundra landscape as we got closer to the top. We reached the visitor centre at just over 3,500m (11,769 feet) then made our way back down.

As the weather was still fine we decided to do a hike and headed towards Bear Lake. We did the hike to Alberta Falls and took in the fantastic power of the raging falls, clambering over rocks to get that 'perfect' picture. We then walked around Bear Lake before deciding it was getting late and we were getting hungry so time to make our way back to town and our favourite Italian restaurant (yes you can have a favourite after a few days).

Not this bear!
This one
On our way back we noticed a herd of cars gathered all over the road and decided to add to the mellee as this normally means there's some wildlife near. Sure enough there was a brown bear in the brush, first bear since we had arrived in the contiguous US. We watched it jumping for leaves, running and eating before disappearing into the forest.

Content and pleased with ourselves we headed off again only to come up against another herd of cars. We found a safe spot and hopped out to see a large bull elk with numerous females in tow. He was a loud boy, regularly 'mooing' as he wandered around, first time we had heard that sound. He tried to cross the road but found it too difficult with all the cars and then tried again and successfully crossed near us. As is normal practice I kept several tourists and sometimes a car between me and the wild animal, but needed to call back Elizabeth at one point. I tried to catch the sound but kept missing it, but finally succeeded by fluke, just pressed record to catch him walking away and he let rip at the same exact moment. I showed off my brilliant timing by playing it back to Elizabeth and the phone was so loud a man in front of us whipped around thinking an elk was right behind him. We needed to calm him down and explain it was just a recording :-)

All in all another fantastic US national park to cross off the bucket list!

Bear Lake

Alberta Falls

Rocky Mountains

Gem Lake

Hero of the moment

The elk letting rip (turn up the sound)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The presidents who shaped a nation - Mt Rushmore

A 600km 3 day detour took us to another historical bucket list item for me, Mt Rushmore. I've seen many monuments and statues during my travels, and one that stands out in my mind is the huge Genghis Khan statue in Mongolia. But they do not compare to the huge 20m faces carved into an actual mountain.

Originally it was meant to
go to the waist
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt peer down at you from among the trees as part of this granite mountain. Over a period of 14 years, 400 workers and with the predominant tool being dynamite, these four faces emerged and are predicted to withstand the forces of time for at least a thousand years. The idea being that a future civilisation will understand this one better. To that end there is a small room built into the mountain that has 16 porcelain panels of information including the words of the Declaration of Independence. Interesting bit of trivia: Washington's nose is 1 foot longer than the others.
The creator, the workers and the tools
Wall of US history
The area around the mountain has been kept mostly natural and you cannot go near the monument itself. There is a path you can look up from to see the faces from different directions, a sculptures studio containing the tools used and the original sculpture model, and a museum.  The museum has a documentary about the construction of the monument and a room devoted to Gutzon Borglum the sculptor, and the workers who created it, as well as information on the history of the US from Washington on. Finally there is a ceremony at night in an amphitheatre.

This ceremony is quite moving. Obviously it is designed to fire up US patriotism and they talk about what the four presidents accomplished and what it means to current US society. We see a documentary movie on a big outdoor screen, after which the mountain is illuminated with huge lights, extremely impressive. Then past and present members of the armed services in the audience or their representatives are invited to come down on to the stage. There is a flag lowering and folding ceremony after which every single person on the stage gives their name and rank or that of the person they represent. The crowd shows its appreciation for them and their sacrifices in the usual way and we all go home. The amount of respect shown to their servicemen and servicewomen in the US is impressive and unlike anywhere else in the world we have been.

I really enjoyed seeing the US history presented here. There are quotes from all four presidents peppered throughout the complex, some of which seem even more relevant today...

"I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us." Theodore Roosevelt

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Yellowstone, a prehistoric wonderland

Two million years ago Yellowstone first erupted then 700,000 years later it erupted again. The third time was 660,000 years later, which was 640,000 years ago. That means it is due for its fourth eruption sometime within the next 10,000 years. But don't let that scare you off visiting the world's first ever national park (created in 1872). With a 30 by 45 mile wide caldera and half of the world's hot springs this active volcano allows you to glimpse what prehistoric Earth may have looked like, with smoking, gurgling, bubbling, boiling, thumping, flowing, erupting, smelly and colourful geysers, hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles. What a fascinating and unique environment. So glad we came here.

Add to all of that some iconic creatures including bison, wolves, bears, elk, chipmunks, and tiny microbes in the springs that are descendants of the first microbes to evolve on the planet.

First day here we went on a ranger walk to orientate ourselves to the park and came across a huge herd of bison. It was still rutting season and the males were a tad energetic. We saw bison butting heads and chasing each other in their efforts to become the dominant male in the group. While fascinating and exciting the ranger had us make an orderly retreat as all of the action was occurring on the actual trail. She apologised profusely while we were all excited at what was the highlight of our day. Does she not know that action like this is what we travellers dream about?

Over the next week we marvelled at the beauty and awesome power of the park's many thermal features. We've seen geysers and hot springs before but never so many over such a large area and boasting such amazing colours. In one week I took over 300 pictures.

From start to finish
I saw Old Faithful erupt four times, each one different. The teasing geyser has an estimated time of eruption posted by the rangers, give or take 10 minutes and on average about 94 minutes apart. So you sit there patiently waiting, and the geyser bubbles, everyone whips up their cameras expecting it to erupt but it settles down. It also spurts and smokes, and everyone is staring at it for up to 20 minutes, arms going numb holding cameras, not wanting to miss the initial eruption. During one of these gurgles the girl one person away from me whipped up her mobile phone so fast it flew out of her hand, smashing on the ground into three pieces. Finally it erupts, immediately going up to its full height for about 30 seconds before it starts to settle down and stop over the next five minutes.
Waiting for Old Faithful to erupt

This is by no means the only erupting geyser and is among a forest of other geysers. During a walk around Old Faithful Loops (as it was called) we came across Castle Geyser. It had a posted eruption time of 8:15pm give or take 45 minutes and it was currently 7:55. People were sitting there so we assumed it had not erupted yet but could not be bothered waiting. Barely 100m further along the track the geyser erupted. Going on previous experience we watched from there, assuming it would blow itself out by the time we got back, but the geyser kept erupting. A young girl ran past us with a camera trying to get back for a photo, and the geyser kept erupting. Her parents walked past mumbling about how they hoped their daughter gets some good pictures, and the geyser kept erupting. I was getting annoyed so I decided to go back since this normally makes them stop, and the geyser kept erupting. I took my pictures and video and walked back to Elizabeth and a new friend we had made, and the geyser kept erupting. The stupid geyser erupted for more than 40 minutes. It was going dark and we kept looking back at the still erupting geyser and eventually had to find our way back to the lodge by mobile phone torch since we dawdled so long. This was the ever-ready battery of geysers. Definitely one to put on your must see list if you ever come to the park, and you should come to this park, it is really awesome.

Breakfast at Grant Village overlooking
Yellowstone Lake
Finally, a traveller's tip: book early so you can get lodgings in the park. There are cabins here with nice beds, bathrooms and heating that are cheaper than the motels just outside the park. Food is also good value compared to outside. (The surrounding areas hike up their prices because they are near the park.) It will also save you at least an hour of travelling time getting to the scenic areas inside the park each day and the same going home.

A few of my favourite pictures out of the 322 I took...

Grand Prismatic Spring from a trail above

Just because they are cute :-)

Hiking with a new friend
Yellowstone Falls

Hey buddy! Where are you going?