Throwback Thursday: Dusk hike to Grotto Falls, #hike30 of the #52hikechallenge

So yeah, it’s been a little busy around my life, y’all. Finding/securing/moving in to a new apartment, figuring out a new job, hunting foliage and views in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s all good stuff, but it means I’ve had little time to do more than experience whatever event or emotion is right in front of me before moving on to the next…not a lot of time for blog-worthy introspection.

This is why I decided to force myself to write tonight. Because amid all the wonderful, I worry that I will forget the lessons and discoveries. So without any more ado, let’s dive in.

Exactly two weeks ago I was in the Smoky Mountains with a friend, enjoying one of our twice/thrice yearly adventures. It was day 7 of 12, but it was only our 2nd full day in the Smokies. Until the day prior, we’d been adventuring amid waterfalls and caves, but we hadn’t done any real hiking up anything worth writing home about. It’s worth noting that there had been a few uphill sections and those had pretty much kicked my ass, because, you see, I have been living at sea level for several months now. Not just on flat land, but literally next to the sea. I hadn’t been up a real hill since I’d left Boston back in the summer. Plus, living in a place where the only real way to get around is to drive, I’d let myself get out of shape. No doubt about that.

So, it was Thursday. The day before we’d done our first real “hike” in the Smokies, a relatively easy 4ish-mile trek that nonetheless killed me. On that Weds hike, I’d had one of my moments where I had to send my friend ahead because I was freaking myself out: about how slow I was, how tough the uphills were, how much of a loser I was. It got to the point where the anxiety in my head was defeating my determination to be cheerful, and my body was threatening an onslaught of tears that really had no basis in reality. I told my friend (who, incidentally, had been living and hiking in the Western mountains for the past 6 months, and thus was barely even breathing hard) to walk ahead for 5 minutes and wait for me, and I stopped and gazed, mostly unseeing, out at the gorgeous mountains, willing my throat to relax and my eyes to dry.

I have come to recognize that these moments are likely to happen any time I take myself out of whatever routine I’m in, and jump feet-first into adventure; they have happened on every trip and I’m sure they’ll happen again. That doesn’t make it any easier to cope with in the moment. After all, I’m supposed to be a fierce and strong and independent woman who can do anything, right? It’s tough to claim that when you can’t breathe after walking uphill for a barely more than a mile.

Anyway, I got myself together, set the slowest pace I could manage, and plodded on. I eventually found my friend lounging on the side of the trail. He gave me a smile and said “pull up a rock” as if absolutely nothing was wrong in the world, and I knew it would be ok. I would make it up the hill and through whatever else we planned to do. Maybe slower than I’d like, but I’d get there.

The next day, Thursday, I was feeling better. I had to work that morning, so that afternoon, we did a wonderful – and again relatively easy – trek up to a gorgeous place called Alum Cave Bluff. I’ll share pictures when I get them off my camera; that’s how busy it’s been around here! Anyway, I felt good about the hike – we weren’t speedy, but I didn’t suck wind quite as much. The views were lovely, and we enjoyed a leisurely journey down, stopping to take pictures of the river and the just-beginning-to-turn leaves. At the end of the 4ish miles, as late afternoon was turning to evening, we weren’t ready to be done with the day. So we decided to find a hike we could do in the dark.

My friend, fearless one that he is, would have been fine tackling another 5 miles or so of mountain, but I knew I needed to treat my newly-found confidence with care. So we hopped in the car and drove out a long, winding, one-way road to Trillum Gap, and the trailhead for Grotto Falls. By the time we got there, dusk was falling.

The whole reason I wanted to write this post can be summed up by the first few minutes of this hike. As we started up the trail, 2-3 groups were finishing up, and they all looked a bit askance at us. After all, it was getting dark. But you see, this friend and I have figured out the night hiking thing. Our first hike together ended as an unexpected night adventure, where I was so slow coming down from a NH White Mountain that we had to hike our last 1.3 miles out via one measly flashlight. We’ve climbed to the top of canyon overlooks to take star pictures, and there was that time we got separated, at night, in the middle of Arches National Park (a story for another time). We are prepared; we have headlamps, layers and batteries, plus a healthy appreciation for the invisible power of hidden tree roots.

So as one outgoing hiker suggested we bring carrots to help our vision, and another asked warily, “Um, do you have lights?”, I felt a sense of tremendous satisfaction that we never broke stride, just smiled and said “yes, we do”, and headed off into the evening. How far we’d come…how far I’d come in the years since we started these adventures, that I was actually planning on and really looking forward to a hike up a hill in the dark.

Because, you see, we were heading for a waterfall, and I’d never seen a waterfall at night – at least not one that I’d hiked to. The trek was easy, muddy, and quiet…I don’t remember talking much. As always, I watched my feet and concentrated on breathing. Before long, we could hear the rush of tumbling water, and a few careful steps on slippery rocks later, we glimpsed Grotto Falls. It was lovely, and after a few moments of looking, we both agreed that we needed to get closer, so up we went, this time over some slightly more serious wet, rocky terrain. In fact, we went all the way up and UNDER the falls, and had a riot shining our headlamps on the water to try to take pictures. Well, my friend did, at any rate. For some reason, I left my fancy camera in my bag and on a whim, just held up my iPhone to see if I could capture the contrast of white water reflecting the last smidgen of light left in the day.

I got this:

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When I looked at it on my phone, I gasped. Magical, I thought to myself, then tucked my phone away and headed back to the falls to run my hands under the water.

Then, it was back down the hill by the light of our headlamps. I joked with my friend that this was one time I would not ask him to go ahead of me. I wanted to lead the way down, to enjoy knowing he was right behind me and not likely to wander off, to appreciate the feeling of dawning strength in my legs, and to ponder how incredibly lucky I am to get to see waterfalls in the dark.

When we got back to the car, I didn’t really want to drive away. I stood for a moment, looking up at the black sky, smelling the trees, and wishing I could freeze time so I could always feel how I felt at that moment. But we did have to leave, back down into the reality of what to cook for dinner and the knowledge that life can’t be entirely about wandering in the woods. That’s ok, really. I’m just glad I get to have moments where I know for a fact that no one, other than us, got to see the world as it was on that night. That night, the world was nothing but a waterfall and some rocks to clamor over, and it was more than enough for me.

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Starting the #52hikechallenge at Split Rock Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

Greetings blog readers! I’ve decided to join the 52 Hike Challenge, both to get outside as much as I can in 2018 and to blog more regularly because, well, both are my cheapest forms of therapy. The challenge is simple; hike 52 times, once a week at a minimum. I’ve decided to do mine in a calendar year and see what happens.

I’ll be documenting my hikes, trying to surface any deep thoughts or revelations that come up. Or, if none of those exist, I’ll just share pretty pictures. If any of you are doing this challenge, let me know in the comments!

Without further ado, let’s get to #hike1: Split Rock Loop Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

As 2018 dawned, I felt decidedly tired and worn out. Being single, I don’t have the pressures of partners or kids and family that most people do, so I feel a bit guilty complaining. Still, between big and frustrating projects at work, travel obligations, and lack of sunshine during a New England winter…I was grumpy. So I made the somewhat indulgent/selfish decision to take a weekend off, and fly a bunch of miles to get as far away from my normal life as the continental US would permit. Hence, Joshua Tree National Park in California. I wanted a couple of days to put sandy, rocky miles under my legs and point my camera at pretty, non-New-England-ish things.

I was prepared and happy to go solo, but got lucky when a friend was available to join up. We arrived in the 29 Palms area after dark, so I didn’t know what the terrain looked like until the following morning. When I woke up, the ground was wet from recent rain, which seemed odd to me given that we were in the desert, but just goes to show how little I know about deserts. As we drove into the park, the delightful weirdness of Joshua trees began to appear, along with occasional huge piles of giant boulders amid a sea of desert brush and cacti.

Joshua Tree National Park straddles two different desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, and our first hike was in the high desert, where to our great surprise and delight, we discovered that the rain we’d experienced at our hotel had turned to SNOW at the Split Rock trailhead. We have a history of magical snow on our hiking trips, so I guess this just proves we’re on to something. I mean, how often do people get to see snow on Joshua Trees?

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This “hike” was more of a ramble/scramble; the loop is a 2-mile one, but we quickly got distracted by the big, climbable rocks. My friend, with whom I’ve been hiking/exploring for the last couple of years, is a fearless climber, with actual rock climbing skills, who loves to get to the highest point possible as quickly as possible.

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I am not so fearless, nor do I have any such skills. So, I tried to get up there, too, but there came a point when I felt my shoes slip a bit on the snowy granite. Involuntarily I did some quick physics in my head, and my overactive imagination obligingly modeled what it would look and feel like if I slipped, so I chickened out and climbed slowly back down.

It’s worth noting at this point in our narrative that my personal hiking and exploring goals are usually about getting over myself. See, I am often self-conscious about the extra weight that I carry around, and tend to obsess about whether or not I am physically capable of keeping up with everyone else. It’s been that way my whole life, no matter how many sports I’ve played or miles I’ve run. There are times, like this one, when it has really impacted my ability to enjoy myself in the outdoors.

So, that little moment of timidness was a red flag. The good news is that I know myself well enough to shrug it off and give myself another challenge, which I did. I decided to see if I could find my way around the large rocks my friend was currently conquering, which I did successfully. The only problem was, when I got back to the front side of the rock feature, my friend was nowhere to be seen.

We are not strangers to losing each other while hiking/exploring, and we were no more than 1/4 mile from the car, so there was no real danger. Just empty, windy, chilly desert under a sky full of rapidly changing cloud formations. I wandered the trail a bit to no avail, and then, eyeing a large, seemingly easy-to-scale-but-pretty-high-up rock formation, braved my way to the top to look for my friend. I stood up there for a long time, scanning for a human among the rocks…

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…and also taking inventory of my body, which hadn’t been challenged in this way for quite a while. I noted that my ankles were trying to remembering how to be supple on the rock, that my knees were trying to loosen up. I took huge breaths of desert air, calming my heartbeat. I shook out my hands and noticed my posture, which is always at its strongest when I’m on top of a high place.

After a while, I got chilly and headed slowly down, feeling that familiar war between my brain and my gut; my brain KNEW that my boots would hold on the rock, but my gut was convinced I was about to tumble arse over teakettle (isn’t that a delightful saying?). As I neared the bottom, and my boots held, my confidence poked its head out for a look, and I bounded quickly down and set off on the trail to find my friend.

I didn’t get very far before we found each other, and like a little kid, I proudly pointed out the big rock slab that I’d just been hanging out on, feeling unreasonably satisfied with myself in that moment.

As we headed back to the car, my friend suggested we climb a large, boulder-strewn crack in another set of rocks, which we did, albeit slowly since I was in the lead. Here, we had to navigate around some prickly bushes…

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…but we were rewarded with a gorgeous view.

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It was my first “hike” of the year, and I have no idea of the mileage, but it was probably pretty minimal, since we never even made it around the 2-mile loop. Still, it was enough to shake me out of my funk and careen me through the roller coaster of self-analysis that seems to begin every adventure I find myself on. At the end, my muscles felt stretched and my hands were gritty and my camera was full of gorgeousness, and we had an entire day of more adventures in Joshua Tree ahead of us. It was a good start to the 52 Hike Challenge.

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.