You should go here: Acadia National Park

Seems like Acadia is the place to be this summer – everyone is going there! The National Park Service ran a great marketing campaign for their 100th anniversary, and so the Parks seem to be busting at the seams this year. I’m glad that more people are getting outside and enjoying these gems, but it does add a bit of work in order to not to get too caught up in the crowds. So here are some hints if you’re planning to visit Acadia during peak season (it’s probably very different during off-season).

First, if you, like me, have been recently enjoying the massive, epic National Parks and Monuments out West (Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Staircase Escalante, etc), make sure you adjust your expectations accordingly. Acadia is comparatively quite small, and it’s carved into and out of the towns on Mount Desert Island. This smallness means that you won’t be able to lose yourself in a 13-mile strenuous hike where all you see is wildlife and the occasional grubby adventurer. No, you will see people no matter where you go. Embrace this, and you’ll have a much better time overall.

That’s not to say there aren’t some chances for peace and quiet. There are – you just have to work for them. Here’s what we did on our recent visit, which turned out to be a lovely mix of populated and not. FYI: Acadia is located near Bar Harbor, Maine, about 5.5 hours by car from Boston – a long but doable drive.

The first thing to note is that Acadia is spread out throughout Mount Desert Island (and beyond) in several large chunks of land, mostly separated by sounds and peninsulas. It’s an ISLAND, and so you’d think it would be easy to get from A to B, but getting anywhere does take some driving. This is not a walkable park, though once you get to attractions, there’s plenty of walking to be done. There is a shuttle, which we didn’t use, but it will likely be helpful if you don’t want to worry about parking.

We stayed at Blackwoods Campground, the only official campground within the main confines of the Park. It’s perfectly fine – clean and well kept, good sources of firewood nearby, and a very short walk from a lovely ocean view:

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Blackwoods, while nestled within the most populous part of the Park, is not easily accessible via the Park Loop Road, which is your main method of getting around. This is a strange sometimes-one-way-sometimes-two-way road that I’m sure has some grand design behind it, but I found it confusing and had to consult my park map quite a bit. But if you want to be close to the action of the park, this is a good place to stay.

Our first night, we were chasing a sunset, so we headed to another part of the park to see the Bass Head Lighthouse. It was small, but still fun to see.

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After a night spent listening to the nearby church group sing by guitar and firelight, we woke, breakfasted, and then drove up to the Hulls Cove Visitors Center (not very impressive, to be honest, but it’s always good to watch the park movie and hear the rangers’ spiels). After determining – alas –that we would not be able to see moose on the island, we set out for Sand Beach and Ocean Path, some of the most popular parts of the park. I can confirm that at the end of August the Atlantic ocean is freezing, and that even when it’s cloudy, the coast of Maine is awe-inspiring.

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I highly recommend simply spending a few hours tromping over the rocks and breathing the salt air – you are never far from your car no matter how far down the path you go. You will see lots of people of all ages and mobilities at this part of the park – and most everyone will be smiling. One of my favorite sights was a bunch of senior citizens dragging their camp chairs out onto the rocks for a good old fashioned contemplation-of-the-ocean session.

By the time we got back to the campground and relaxed a bit, it was getting late in the day, and we decided to take a hike on the South Cadillac Mountain Ridge trail, which happened to start at Blackwoods campground. Here, we found quiet and solitude on a moderate hike that, had we been so inclined, would have taken us to the top of the famous Cadillac Mountain. However, it was getting late, and the shuttle does not run to Cadillac, so we had to remember that anything we hiked out, we had to hike back, so we turned around at the 2-mile mark. But we still saw some lovely views, got our legs in motion, and enjoyed some peace and quiet. I’d like to do this hike in full (about 8 miles out and back) someday.

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Hint when camping: invite friends who like to cook, are not intimidated by campfire cooking, and who have relatives who cook for you. Thanks to my companions, when we got back we feasted on Indian food, delicious vegetables, and banana-boat s’mores and can I just say…yum.

On Day 3, we rose at dark to make the drive up to Cadillac Mountain where we joined several hundred of our closest friends to watch the sun come up. It was glorious.

Next, three of our merry band departed, leaving two of us to enjoy, finally, a beautiful 70-degree sunny day. We decided to hike the Beehive, which was rated “strenuous” and promised ladders, bridges, and rungs to help us up the hard parts. This short and awesome little hike did indeed deliver on the mountain-goat factor; it was a blast!

Acadia2017 (2 of 12).jpgIt was as close to Angels Landing as I’ve gotten since, though it’s nowhere near as exposed. But you still have to be cool with heights and in relatively good shape to do this hike, because once you start up there’s no other direction to go. We saw a young girl get stuck on a bridge in utter terror, which reinforces that kids really shouldn’t do such hikes. But she made it up eventually, as we all did. The bonus to being at sea level is that you don’t have to get very high to get views.

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After the Beehive, clamoring up and down a few more boulders will lead you to the Bowl, a gorgeous little pond tucked between the hills. We stayed here for a long time, dangling our feet in the water and soaking up the sun and generally enjoying the quiet and the wind. It was pretty close to perfection.

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Then, a relatively easy trek back to the trailhead. Without breaks, this whole hike could probably be done in a little over an hour. But the stops are so worth it. I don’t actually know how long this took us, because I wasn’t watching the clock – a rare and wonderful little break from reality.

Our next destination was Echo Lake, a good 45 minutes away from the main park, and the only public swimming spot available. It was incredibly windy, so we only swam for a bit, but I was determined to swim and we did! Brrrr. This is a pretty little beach that is a wonderful place to read and relax.

Our final stop on day 3 was Jordan Pond, where the park restaurant and gift shop are located. The restaurant is famous for its popovers and views. Seeking to get a few more miles under our legs, we set out to walk around the Pond, about a 3 mile loop that took us about an hour, with a few little stops. The path is mostly flat, but one whole side is made up of “bogwalks” – boards that allow you traverse above the ground, so you have to watch your feet. And there was some climbing over boulders on the far side of the pond. But the flat gravel path was well maintained and gave me a chance to just walk without worrying about rolling my ankle, which is a big deal when I’m out in the woods. Such a pretty place; the pink granite is gently reflected in the water which makes everything feel a bit magical.

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We encountered very few people on this walk, which was confusing because it’s so pretty and easy. The park rangers do say that most of the activity in the park is from 10-4, and guess I guess this proves them right.

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We finished off the day with a nice meal at the restaurant – confirming that the popovers are indeed yummy and that wild blueberries are mighty tasty.

The next morning, on my way out of the park, I stopped for one last look at the ocean, which, for me, will remain the reason to come to Acadia.

Acadia2017 (10 of 12).jpgAll in all, Acadia is a lovely, lovely place. It’s wonderful for families and seniors in particular given how many easy hikes and rambles there are. If you are seeking grand-scale adventures, you won’t find them here, but you’ll find plenty to keep you inspired and get your heart pumping.

What are your favorite Acadia memories? Share in the comments below.

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The weekend that wasn’t

I blame summer reading.

After finishing some serious stuff like The Nightingale and Into the Wild, I needed something lighter. With perfect timing, a friend recommended The Tradd Street series by Karen White, and I dove in.

I should have known, dammit. As soon as I realized the heroine was a gorgeous 39-year-old singleton with great metabolism from Charleston, South Carolina – who just happens to attract the attention of the perfectly-flawed 30-something guy who loves every one of her various neuroses, but insists on pushing him away, because boo-hoo, she had no relationship with her mother – I should have known.

I should have known I’d find myself needing some adventure, since romance is, well…about as far from my summer as South Carolina. So, on Friday, I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to head West.

No, alas, not to Washington or Colorado or Utah. Western Massachusetts. I’ve got limited time and funds here, people.

Anyway, since hearing about a waterfall out there called Bash Bish, I’ve wanted to see it, but it’s a solid 3 hours one way, and that’s a long drive to do in a day, by myself, with a dog who hates the car.

But on Friday, as the minutes at work ticked away, by god, I decided I was gonna make it happen. I found a campsite in the “western mass region” (those quotes will make more sense in a moment) that had online reservations, and with a flourish, I booked it. I was consumed with delightful visions of hiking through the glorious Berkshires with my dog at my side. My lungs could almost taste the country air. I knew nothing more than I had a campsite and I wanted to see that waterfall. Surely that was enough for the perfect spontaneous solo adventure. Surely.

As you’ve probably guessed, it didn’t quite work out as planned.

The plan was to rise at a decent hour on Saturday (say, 8 or 8:30), pack up and go. ETA at campsite – noonish. Perfect timing to unpack then get a hike in before dinner. Early to bed, then up early for another hike, then back home to Boston in time to do the dishes, do some laundry, cook dinner, and get ready for the work week.

The reality: at 7:01 AM on Saturday, the construction workers outside my apartment fired up their hammers and saws, and Sadie leapt onto the bed to poke me, so I took her outside, fed her, and around 7:30, dropped back into bed for what I figured would be a few more minutes of sleep.

2.5 hours later, I woke luxuriously (yes, friends with kids, I know, go ahead and hate me), and glanced in horror at the clock. Cue the accelerated packing.

We were on the road by 11:08, only a couple of hours behind. No biggie, right? As we headed west under a gloomy sky, I started to feel a little nervous about the idea of camping in the middle of nowhere by myself. Strangely, I was more worried about the scenario where I was the only loser in the campground, the rangers giving heavy sighs when they looked up from their card games and saw me, than I was about being in a crowded campground with a bunch of strangers.

And there was traffic. So much traffic. It added at least an hour to what should have been a 2.5 hour drive.

Somewhere in this traffic, I realized that I’d forgotten my first aid kit, extra batteries for my headlamp, and my pocket knife (see previous accelerated packing), all must-haves for a girl (or anyone) hiking alone, so I decided to detour to the nearest suburb with big box stores. At Walmart, I discovered a Coinstar (I’d been meaning to cash in those dimes sitting in a tupperware container in the backseat of my car for weeks now!), and then raced over to Eastern Mountain sports to get a knife and a first aid kit. Thus equipped (and $30 richer), I headed back down the state, just a tantalizing hour away from the campground.

Keep in mind that my long-suffering dog, who hates the car with the fire of a thousand suns, was strapped in the back whining her version of “are we there yet?”

But finally, we arrived at the campground, a lovely, normal place, with lovely, normal people camping there, and my nervousness faded away. For a few minutes, I basked in the fun of putting up my tent, noting the red dust still clinging to it from Utah, and then I just sat for a few minutes more, watching the light filter through the trees and thinking I would be perfectly content to just stay this way for the rest of the night.

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However, our late arrival meant two things: 1) we hadn’t hiked anywhere yet, and 2) I had nothing but a PB&J sandwich for dinner.

We half-heartedly wandered the park a little, but really, I just wanted to sit, so we went back and I did and I read a little more of the Tradd Street book, which is quite good, if a bit predictable. And then, remember those normal folks camping nearby? Yeah, they included 4 dudes in 2 pickup trucks with music blasting, which kind of killed my zen.

Back into the car we went, and we headed north to see if any of the cute Berkshire towns had good takeout. Short answer – they don’t, or at least not the ones I visited. Each new idea I had for the evening got negated: oh, maybe I can sit on that beach for a while. Nope, no dogs allowed. Oh, how about we drive to the top of Mt. Greylock to watch the sunset? Nope, it’s more than an hour away. Despite all this, we took a lovely stroll through the town of Stockbridge, met some nice folks, growled at the lion statue outside the Red Lion Inn (Sadie, not me), and eventually wound up at a country store that had, naturally, JUST stopped serving sandwiches.

It’s worth pointing out at this juncture, particularly for those who live outside of New England, that even though MA is a small state, it takes forever to drive to places in the Berkshires – all those small country roads. So my campsite in the “western mass region” was pretty far to the east and nearly at the Connecticut border; thus all the driving.

A box of crackers and some chicken salad procured for dinner, we headed back in the fading sunshine. As we made our camp that night – the first time Sadie and I had ever camped out – I kid you not, somewhere nearby was shooting off fireworks. Sadie sat on me for a bit in terror, but they eventually subsided, and I fell asleep to the fading sounds of campfires crackling and car doors slamming and people settling in for the night.

I only woke a couple of times in the night – typical for me when camping – once at 3:12 am, and figured I’d catch another couple of hours and then be up and head out to Bash Bish, because, by god, at least I’d get that part of the trip right.

At 6:15am, I startled awake to the song of birds all around and Sadie snoring at my feet. That was pretty cool.

IMG_0851We hustled to pack up and headed out on what promised to be a lovely day – blue skies, a breeze, not too hot. In other words, perfect New England summer weather. I was mentally setting up my camera for the photo shoot that would come once we reached the waterfall, and we would be early, so the crowds would be light.

It took just over an hour to get to the state park housing Bash Bish Falls, and as I pulled up to the parking lot, I noticed that it was empty, and there were orange cones everywhere. Uh oh. A grim-faced ranger asked where I was going, and I said “well…maybe I’m in the wrong place?”

“If you’re going to the falls,” he said. “It’s all closed. They’re in search and rescue…er…recovery mode. Someone fell.” You could see on his face that it was bad, very bad. And just like that I could imagine the whole scenario – all the SAR folks, the family, the friends. I was glad I was wearing sunglasses so the ranger couldn’t see my eyes well up.

I turned around and left, and found a parking lot where I could google, and sure enough, a 21-year-old man went missing Friday night, and they still hadn’t found him as of Sunday morning. Ugh. How terrible.

Update: it’s now late Sunday night, and they found his body.

At this point, I couldn’t even be mad…all I could do was just shake my head and officially give up on my perfect Western Mass adventure. Sadie and I found a paved railroad trail to stroll along, because I had to get her some exercise before forcing her back into the car to go home. The good news was a nice couple told us it was ok to have her off leash, so she got to run a little bit, but that’s a long way to come to Western Mass to walk your dog on a flat paved trail for a few miles.

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And here’s the thing that gets me – the young man fell from the falls Friday night. I spent the whole weekend clueless to the whole drama. Those poor rescue folks were out there for 2 days looking for him while I was driving around and sitting around and generally taking up space with no purpose in mind. So of course I can’t be upset about my weird, nothing of a weekend. Clearly, there were other, bigger things going on in the southwest corner of my state.

On the plus side, I got over my nervousness at solo camping. Sadie and I figured out how to share a tent. I got lots of fresh non-city air. And, well, I have a new knife and first aid kit. Let’s hope I don’t have to use them anytime soon.

Great day hikes near Boston: Hiking Mt. Wachusett

Today, for the first time in a while, I feel a literal spring in my step. Also a metaphorical one. For weeks now, I have felt strangely weighed down, either by my actual body feeling stiff and creaky, or my head feeling clouded into inertia. I’m not a fan of this feeling, which is why it feels good to write this post.

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The literal spring comes from my legs feeling like they finally got some use as I hiked up, down, and around Mt. Wachusett in Central Massachusetts this past weekend. More on the details of that hike can be found below, if you just came here for the hiking details and have no need to hear my philosophizing about life.

A lot of folks out there talk about the power of a detox – and I sort of feel like that’s what yesterday’s 4-hour hike was for me. It was a chance to worry about nothing more than a few immediate, real-time things:

Sucking in enough oxygen to keep climbing up;

Placing my shaky feet to avoid breaking an ankle on the way down;

Watching (and occasionally helping) my dog navigate her way down some pretty steep rocks;

Oh, and of course, letting the gorgeous blue/green colors of summer in New England wash over my pale, office-bound, city dweller’s body.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures, and failed at taking a panoramic photo (see the really long and skinny photo I posted here), proof that I probably shouldn’t even have taken out my phone as I enjoyed a nearly perfect summer New England Day.

We talk of hiking as therapy, and I guess, in my case, it’s true. I definitely felt like I’d hit the reset button on my soul this time around.

Now, for those who are interested, here are details of this hike.

Mt. Wachusett is the tallest mountain (just over 2000 feet) within a relatively short (just over an hour) drive from Boston. I have a hard time making the trip to NH (for Mt. Monadnock or the White Mountains) in a day, mostly because of how much my dog hates being in the car (plus I am SO BAD at getting up before the sun when I’m hiking solo), so finding something with a bit of elevation a little closer to home is always a bonus. I hiked this hill last year but took a relatively short route that left me feeling less than challenged. So this year I scoured the interwebs for other hikes and found a good one. Here’s an abbreviated description – I recommend getting a map of the Mt. Wachusett State Park so you can either follow this or find your own route. There was a whole box of them at the trailhead, or you can download it here.

From Boston, take Exit 25 (140 South) off of Route 2. Follow the signs to the Mt. Wachusett Ski Area. Avoid the first parking lot you see and turn right onto Bolton Road to the main Ski Area parking lot. Look for a light brown warehouse to the right of the main lodge. The trailhead is right next to it.

Your first leg is on Balance Rock Trail (yellow blazes). You will, after a relatively short and mild uphill hike, realize why it’s called Balance Rock trail.

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There are lots of rocks and roots on this entire hike, FYI, so be prepared.

A little way beyond Balance Rock you’ll come to an intersection – take the Old Indian Trail. This trail will cross a few other trails, and also a few (4) ski slopes, and one summit road, but basically, just stay on this trail as it’ll take you to the summit. It’s about 1.2 miles long. There are a few places that are fairly steep, but nothing truly difficult, although if it’s rained recently, there will be mud and the rocks could be slippery, so it’s worth proceeding carefully. This was my first real uphill in quite a while, so I stopped several times to…ahem…catch my breath, but the good news about this hike is that it’s never the same challenge for very long. If it gets steep, it’ll flatten out pretty soon. Unlike a hike into the Whites, for example, you’re not facing 3 miles of steady uphill until you get to the good stuff.

Right before you hit the summit you’ll come upon a ski lift platform with a lovely view of a lake – if one of the gondolas is open for lounging, take it, and remember that these summer days are what make the long, snowy winter bearable.

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Anyway, the good stuff on this hike is 360-degree summit views that on a clear day, will show you the Boston skyline, the Berkshires, and Mt. Monadnock. The summit is likely to be crowded unless you’re hiking really early, but the views are worth it. Definitely make sure you climb up to the viewing platform and snap some pictures of the prettiness. There are plenty of warm rocks to grab a snack and a drink on as you soak in the views.

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There are several options to get down from the summit. You could turn around and go back the way you came, but I’m a loop person, so I chose a different way down.

Harrington Trail, my way down, gets pretty steep and rocky. It reminded me a lot of coming down East Oceola in the White Mountains. There were a few times when my pooch watched me slide down a big rock on my butt and gave me a look as if to say “I’m not jumping that.” Dogs should be on leash in the park, but on the hike down, I did let Sadie off occasionally because it was simply safer for her and me to let her find her own way.

This trail heading down was significantly less crowded than the Indian Trail heading up, but it was also later in the day so that probably contributed to the relative peace and quiet. Anyway, Harrington Trail will cross two “roads” as it descends, and you want to take the 2nd one and head right. This is West Road, and it’s flat and goes on for a while. I was getting pretty zen at this point, so I don’t know the mileage, but I’d say it’s at least a mile or a mile and half before you reach the gate marking the end of the road.

There, you’ll turn right onto West Princeton Road, which is open to traffic, so be careful. You’ll stroll along here for a bit, and then you’ll want to take a right onto North Road, also marked by a gate. This road climbs a bit, but it’s gentle.

There will be an intersection relatively soon, and you want to take a left onto it. This is Balance Rock Road, and soon you will find yourself back at the intersection of Balance Rock Trail. Take a left onto the trail and head back past Balance Rock to the parking lot.

I read that this hike should take 5-6 hours and is rated moderate/difficult. I would say that, unless you are with kids, stopping frequently, and/or having a several course meal on the summit, it’s more like 4+ hours. The total mileage was about 6.25 miles. There are only two parts I would call “difficult”: one stretch of Indian Trail near the summit, and coming down Harrington Trail. Otherwise, this is a pretty easy/moderate hike, with the benefit of a lot of different terrains so you never get bored, and plenty of flat strolling that allows you to just zone out and enjoy being in the woods.

So if you can’t make it up to the White Mountains, this is a nice alternative. It’s not a 4,000 footer, but it’ll get your heart pumping and give your legs a little challenge.

If you do this hike, let me know what you think in the comments! Have a great day, everyone.

A toast to the slow and average

I’m not gonna lie…I’m slightlyhugely addicted to my hiking and running tracking aps. I love logging my treks on MapMyRun and MapMyHike, I love trying to figure out my pace, and I love seeing what my (few) friends on the aps are up to. It gives me that little jolt of competitiveness: “oh, look, he/she ran/walked/hiked…I need to get out there and do it too!”

However, this also happens on a regular basis:

I finish a 2.5 mile run or maybe a 4 mile hike. I’m feeling good and proud of myself. And then my phone buzzes, and I see it:

So-and-so ran 5 miles at an 8 minute pace. 

Another so-and-so hiked 12 miles in 4 hours. 

Or Alex Honnold free-solos El Capitan.

And ugh, cue the wha-wha of a deflated-sounding trumpet. Because damn, I am SLOW!

When I first got into running in Boston, about 3 years ago, I figured it would be fun to find a running group. I stumbled on one right in my ‘hood, and I was excited, because they said on their facebook page “all levels welcome!” Then I started getting notices about runs with descriptions like “We’ll do an easy run on Tuesday. 5 miles, about a 9-mile pace.” A friend who was running a 10k said casually to me once: “Just train for an hour and you’ll be fine.” That’s basically a 10 minute mile, FYI.

I have been “running” for 3 years and the fastest mile I’ve ever run was 10:30, and I wouldn’t have minded getting some oxygen after I was done.

I am a slow runner.

The same can be said of hiking. I admit to being slightly terrified of joining a hiking group, because I’m pretty sure that their “moderate” pace would leave me gasping for breath within a few strides. It’s one of the reasons I like hiking alone, even as I’m lapped by children, dogs, and those incredible lean-legged mountain men/women.

I might be called an average hiker, whatever that means.

I don’t look like a runner. I don’t look like a hiker. And frankly, it’s easy to let such comparisons get you down. But to that, I’ve gotta call bulls#!%.

I don’t know the stats (and Google didn’t give them to me in 10 seconds of searching, so I gave up), but I do know that those of us who are out there hiking and running are NOT in the majority. We are a small percentage of the population. And again, I’m guessing, but I bet the slow/average folks outnumber the super fast folks. It’s just that the fast folks will win the races and get to the top first and generally be more visible (and usually less red of face and less out of breath).

And there is only one Alex Honnold.

So to my fellow 11, 12, 13 (or more) minute-milers…you go, friends! You are awesome and you should be proud of yourself.

To my fellow bringing-up-the rear/stopping-to-catch-your-breath hikers…keep on with your bad selves. You will get there eventually, and don’t let anyone ever make you feel less than proud of yourself for doing it in the first place.

To the slow and average among us, I salute you with my Nalgene bottle, and wish you happy trekking. I’ll be happy to high-five you as we are lapped by the gazelles at our next 5K, or stop to “admire the view” with you on our next hike. Anytime.

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Off the beaten path: Vermillion Cliffs National Monument

So, who knew that National Monuments were such a big deal on our national political stage? You may have forgotten amid the daily…er…activity coming out of the White House, but a while back, President Trump ordered a “review” of 25 National Monuments, as designated by Presidents (via the 1906 Antiquities Act) going back to 1996, amid talk of “giving control of the land back to the people.” Much as I’d like to, I’m not going to get into the political argument here, because, well, I am an unabashed lover of national parks and monuments and that’s that.

Instead, let me introduce you one of the monuments on the list, which I had the good fortune to visit on my trip out to Southwest Utah a couple of months ago.

I’ve already written about exploring a tiny part of the unbelievably vast and wonderful Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (which is also on Trump’s list). But this visit was unique in that I didn’t know I was heading into a National Monument. In fact, I didn’t really know where I was heading, period.

After quite a few days of planning our own itineraries, this part of our trip was surrendered entirely to a tour company (Dreamland Safari Tours –  I highly recommend them), which made me unreasonably happy. For a day, someone else was going to drive us; I didn’t have to worry about navigating or finding a good place to eat or what activity we were going to do next. We just got in our suburban and let our guide, Steve, drive us out to the middle of nowhere.

Now, it turns out that we were heading south and east from our base in Kanab, Utah, into the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. Apparently, somewhere near this part of the country, there is a famous place called The Wave; it’s so popular the lottery to get permits resembles that of Hamilton on Broadway. We, however, were heading in a different direction, to explore South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket. Those words meant nothing to me, honestly – I really didn’t know what we were about to see, but I had faith that it would be awesome, like most things we encountered on this trip.

So anyway, 6 of us piled into our monster vehicle and settled in for a 2 hour drive on a chilly, misty, cloudy day. We headed far, far out onto a dirt road, and when we stopped to let the air out of our tires in anticipation of a bumpier ride, we got to view these gorgeous red cliffs, that it turns out, are the Vermillion Cliffs for which this monument is named. Supposedly you could see endangered condors here sometimes; we didn’t.

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Photo by Shawn Bagci

This was our last chance for an outhouse, and then we headed deeper into the Monument, the road becoming more and more rutted, and the terrain more and more remote. We passed farms scratched out of the desert, saw jackrabbits, and even had to slow down for some horses that were sharing our road.

Eventually, we arrived at the trailhead for South Coyote Buttes, which was unremarkable – just a path through red sand with various shrubs and bushes surrounding us. We had about a mile to hike in, all flat, and still, I really didn’t understand what were about to encounter.

Then…this came in to view:

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Photo by Shawn Bagci

As we got closer, I realized the formations were all some variation of this incredibleness:

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I don’t even have a frame of reference to describe these formations; they’re unlike anything I’ve seen before. We could tell they were shaped by water – sometimes it felt like we were walking on the ocean floor – and we could only imagine what the colors would look like on a clear day. But on this day, the peaks and swirls and lines were shrouded in fog that moved in and out around us, hiding and revealing a magical landscape that we could wander mostly at will. The light changed constantly; sometimes the base color was red, sometimes orange, sometime lavender. There were no trails; we just wandered and took pictures and slid down the sand and scrambled up the sandstone and generally had a blast. Here are just a few of my favorite shots:

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This was the entrance to a section called Hogwarts:

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When is saw this one, I immediately exclaimed – that’s the Sorting Hat! Which was not as big a deal to my fellow travelers, who apparently were not Harry Potter fans:

South Coyote Butte (14 of 30)

South Coyote Butte (7 of 30)

I was completely enchanted by this little arch:

South Coyote Butte (25 of 30)

Our guide said this section didn’t have a name, so we dubbed it The Kremlin:

South Coyote Butte (23 of 30)

This is the Yellow Wave. A smaller version than the more famous one, apparently, but clearly the best:

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South Coyote Butte (8 of 30)

South Coyote Butte (27 of 30)

South Coyote Butte (29 of 30)

We eventually and reluctantly had to head back so we could get to our 2nd destination and have lunch. Which we did, bouncing on more rutted dirt roads as snow began to fall.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that we were expecting rain, but snow? Not on the itinerary. So, when we got to the parking area for White Pocket, our plans for a picnic were scuttled by a wet, slushy mess coming down. So we ate in the car – a sandwich buffet that, like always happens when you’re hiking, tasted divine. And then we set out to explore White Pocket.

It was snowing so hard that it wasn’t easy to get a sense of the entirety of this area, and full confession; I was really cold during this part of the trip, so I wasn’t paying as much attention. But my memory is of a large, ocean-liner like formation on the right, and a lumpy, brain-matter-like formation to the left. The place must be utterly stunning with a blue sky and sunshine, but did I mention we were basically in the middle of a snowstorm? Yup.

But intrepid folks that we were, we weren’t going to let a little snow slow us down. Except when it got all slushy and slippery on the gray rock…that definitely made us step more carefully. My favorite moment of this trek was when Shawn, my hiking partner, decided to go scramble up one of the tougher parts to get up out of a canyon, and the rest of us took a slightly easier route. I’m usually a follower when we’re out on hikes – it’s just my nature. But I was ahead of the group, and our guide basically waved me on and told me to find my own way out of the canyon while he waited for the others. “Just go right at that waterfall and you’ll be fine!” So up I went. There really was a waterfall pouring down the rock (it’s not there normally, but the snow/rain changed the entire nature of the place) making it really slippery. It took me a while, but I got myself up there and stood all alone, turning a slow, awed circle amid the silence until Shawn appeared on the ridge far above me.

I mentioned it was cold – I put my camera away for most of White Pocket, so the following cool photos are all by Shawn:

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Then it was back to the car and the blessed heater, and a long drive back to Kanab through a pretty serious snowstorm.

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As we drove, I couldn’t help but think about the math of this little trip. See, a permit is required to visit South Coyote Buttes, and according to our guide, the Bureau of Land Management issues about 40 of those a day. So, just for fun, if each group has 6 people in it, that’s 240 people a day who get to see what we saw. When you think about the volume of tourists that make their way through national parks and other attractions in our country, it’s a pretty elite club we joined that day. I found myself feeling incredibly grateful to know that such remote, amazing, unusual places exist, and that they are being protected. And that somehow, I got to see them.

Someday, I hope I get to go back, and maybe bring my niece along with me. Hopefully these magical places will still be protected when that day comes.