Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Trail links Voyageurs to International Falls

Rainy Lake Recreation Trail. Photo courtesy of Voyageurs NPS.
Visitors to Voyageurs National Park looking for an easy trail to hike or bike will enjoy the new Rainy Lake Recreation Trail.

Opened in 2015, the fairly flat, paved trail covers 1.7 miles one-way in the park’s Rainy Lake area. If looking for a longer walk or bicycle ride, the trail conveniently connects to the International Falls Bike Trail, which runs for another 12 miles.
Trail map. Map courtesy of Voyageurs NPS.

To reach the trailhead, from International Falls take Minn. Hwy. 11 east. Turn on County Road 96 and follow the signs to the Rainy Lake Visitor Center. Park at the center.

Before heading out onto the trail, stop at the center to enjoy its exhibit, children’s activity center, and small theater for enjoying a film about the park. Rainy Lake is the only one of the park's three visitor centers that operates year around. A bike rack, picnic table, and benches are available at the visitor center plaza.

From the visitor center, the trail runs alongside the park road and County Road 96, dipping into the woods and curling around rock outcroppings.
The trail reaches the International Falls Bike Trail at the junction of County Road 96 and Hwy. 11. Running 12 miles, the bike trail offers views of Rainy Lake, heads through woodlands, and passes vibrant marshes and lakefront neighborhoods. A portion of the bike trail is in Koochiching State Forest.

At Jackfish Bay, the Bike Trail becomes a designated on-road shoulder route, which is fine for bicyclists but not so great for hikers or walkers. It turns back to an off-road trail after passing through Ranier.

After passing the Voyageurs National Park Headquarters in International Falls and running alongside Rainy Lake’s southern shore, the trail ends downtown. Parking is available in the Chamber CVB lot (301 2nd Ave.), close to where U.S. Hwy. 53 meets Minn. Hwys. 11/71. The trail is a quarter mile east of the CVB office.

Accessible to the disabled, the connected trails are open to walkers, bicyclists, runners, and snowshoers. Pets are allowed but in the national park must be leashed of no more than 6 feet and attended at all times.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trail leads to great Yellowstone Lake vista

View from atop Yellowstone Lake Overlook Trail.
Photo courtesy of Allan Harris/Flickr.
Day hikers can enjoy a beautiful vista of Yellowstone Lake and the mountain range beyond via the Yellowstone Lake Overlook Trail.

The 1.8-miles round-trip lollipop trail at Yellowstone National Park is fairly level though the loop consists of a moderately strenuous 400-foot elevation gain to the overlook.

More than a mile above sea level, the trail is accessible only from about May until October.

To reach the trail from Grand Loop Road, at the U.S. Hwys. 89/191 and U.S. Hwy. 20 intersection, head north on Hwy. 20, taking the first right into the West Thumb parking lot.

The path begins at a trailhead marker on the West Thumb Geyser Basin parking area’s southeast corner. Head southwest onto the trail, which is fairly wide for the first quarter mile.

This section of the trail crosses a burned woodlands, though new growth forest is taking root there. Between small groves of spruce and pine forest is a mountain meadow that boasts beautiful wildflowers from spring through summer. Among them are purple harebells and yellow Rocky Mountain helianthella. Sometimes, you’ll be able to spot elk or hear their bugling in this area.

After crossing the South Entrance Road (Hwys. 89/191) and about 0.3 miles from the trailhead, the trail’s loop begins. Go left/southwest onto it and begin your steady climb up.

A few minor hot pools and vents can be found as you near the summit. For your safety, stay on the designated trail to avoid burns from the hydrothermal features.

The overlook sits atop a treeless hill. Because of the trail’s direction, you’ll first see the Red Mountains to the southeast, but the real treat is to the east – Yellowstone Lake and the majestic Absaroka Mountains beyond.

The national park's largest lake, Yellowstone Lake covers 136 square miles with 110 miles of shoreline. It's deep, too, averaging 139 feet. The lake sits atop the caldera formed when a magma chamber beneath the region collapsed about 640,000 years ago.

Often snow-capped, the Absaroka Mountains rising over the lake is a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains. The range stretches about 150 miles into Montana, and are 75 miles at their widest, sitting on the park’s eastern boundary. An incredible 47 peaks in the range top 12,000 feet in elevation.

To the northeast in front of Yellowstone Lake is the West Thumb Geyser Basin hydrothermal area. You’ll notice steam billowing and even hear some gurgling from it. The West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail, which can be picked up from the parking lot, rambles through the hydrothermal area, allowing you to get up close to them.

The loop is about 1.1 miles long. From the overlook, head downhill back to the stem trail. Once there, go left/southeast onto it and retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Trail passes wild river, 400-year-old trees

A section of the West Manitou River Trail.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR.
Day hikers can enjoy rustic North Shore landscapes on a scenic loop at Minnesota’s George H. Crosby Manitou State Park.

The 3.3-mile Middle-West Manitou-Misquah-Yellow Birch Loop combines four trails as it winds through the highlands overlooking Lake Superior. Along the loop, day hikers can experience a river rumbling over ancient rock and an old growth forest boasting centuries-old trees.

George H. Crosby Manitou State Park is perfect for hikers and campers who prefer a primitive nature setting. The park has no developed facilities, in accordance with the wishes of its namesake, a famous Minnesota mining executive who was an avid outdoorsman.

To reach the park, from Silver Bay travel north on Minn. Hwy. 61, turning left/northwest onto Minn. Hwy 1. In Finland, go right/northeast onto County Road 7 (aka Cramer Road). Take a right/east into the park, using the lot where the road loops back on itself.

Superior Hiking Trail
The first leg of the loop, the Middle Trail, starts on the lot’s north side. This portion of the trail also is part of the Superior Hiking Trail.

In keeping with the park’s primitive nature, the gently rolling dirt trail is narrow and crosses several small stones and tree roots. A boardwalk runs over a wet, boggy area, then the trail climbs a rocky slope.

After 0.3 miles, a side trail heads to an overlook. The view is worth the few extra steps. Past the overlook, the side trail rejoins the main route; at that junction, go right/north onto the Middle Trail.

Among the interesting sights following the overlook is a birch tree growing atop a boulder with roots clinging to the rock as breaking into the ground. The trail next passes an open log shelter that is a great spot for a break.

At 0.9 miles, the Middle reaches the West Manitou River Trail. Go left/northwest onto the latter.

River views
An overlook is 0.15 miles from the intersection. The rock knoll offers great view of the river valley below. The vista is stunning in autumn, when the changing leaves paint the forest in a rainbow of harvest colors. From there, descend several wooden steps to the Manitou River’s cascades.

After taking in the rapids, turn back, following the trail southwest along the river, which can be seen through several tree breaks. The Manitou River rushes over basalt set down in lava flows some 1.1 billion years ago. The water is the color of frothy root beer due to the dead leaves, grasses and other organic material that drain into the waterway; the hard rocky river bottom causes the water to tumble and aerate. Manitou means “spirit” in Ojibwe.

In 0.6 miles, after passing several spurs to campsites, the Superior Hiking Trail splits to the left/north where it crosses the river. Instead, go right/south onto the Misquah Trail and away from the Manitou.

This section of the loop heads through an old growth forest for a half-mile with a couple of overlooks just off the trail.

Ancient birch
After passing a spur to campground site 7, the trail curves west. In 0.4 miles from the spur, you’ll reach the Yellow Birch and Cedar Ridge trails. Go right/northwest onto the Yellow Birch.

This portion of the loop also runs through an old growth forest. Some of the birch trees here are around 400 years old, starting as saplings when the Pilgrims first arrived in America. Because of the thick forest, the trail here is rugged.

Wildlife frequently can be spotted along this part of the loop. Be forewarned that black bears are among the park’s denizens; should you see a bear, simply make loud noises to scare it off. Being noisy while you hike usually is sufficient to keep bears deep in the woods.

At 0.3 miles, the trail passes a connector to Bensen Lake. Stay on the main route. Then, in another 0.3 miles, you’ll reach the road to your parking lot. Follow it right/north to your vehicle.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Hike across Midwest’s largest earthen dam

Eau Galle Reservoir, aka Lake George, from an overlook west of the dam.
Day hikers can walk across the largest earthen dam in the Midwest on the Eau Galle Dam Trail near Spring Valley, Wis.

The 0.8-mile round trip hike sits in the popular Eau Galle Recreation Area, nestled on borders of St. Croix and Pierce counties. To reach the trailhead, from Spring Valley, head west on Wis. Hwy. 29. In about a mile, turn right/north onto Van Buren Road then right/west onto Eau Galle Dam Road. Next, go right/southwest onto Overlook Road, which curves north; after climbing a hill, turn left into an overlook. Park there.

North of the lot is an overlook where you can take in a view of the 150-acre Eau Galle Reservoir, aka Lake George and on some government maps as Spring Valley Lake 64. The view is from the reservoir’s south shore northward across the lake’s center.

The lake boasts thriving populations of bluegills, crappies, largemouth bass, and sunfish. Anglers often can be spotted on boats and along the shoreline. Recreation here isn’t limited to fishing, though. A campground, playgrounds, beaches, and several hiking and equestrian trails also can be found. Many of those amenities are visible from the overlook, which sits at about 1100 feet elevation.

A dirt footpath runs west from the overlook through a wooded area then curves north to another vista of the lake. From there, follow the asphalt road south before curving onto the earthen dam itself.

A rolled-earth and rock-filled dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ construction holds back the Eau Galle River. The waterway rises out of farm fields just south of Woodville, Wis. Fed by a 64-square-mile drainage basin, the river’s floods frequently devastated Spring Valley until the dam was built in the mid 1960s. The controlled river eventually makes its way to the Chippewa, which in turn drains into the Mississippi River.

The trail runs the full length of the dam, which is almost 2000 feet. It’s fairly wide, but the sides are steep. If heights are a problem for hikers, instead take the footpath to the left/west before crossing the dam; that route heads along the dam's west side to the lake’s shoreline.

After crossing the dam, retrace your steps back to the overlook parking lot.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Six National Parks to Enjoy the Holidays

Old Faithful Snow Lodge, Yellowstone National Park
The following article originally was written for and appeared in the December 2016 Coach-net newsletter.

A little secret: Among the best ways to escape holiday stress is a national park trip. Though often thought of as a summer destination, only a couple of the parks close in winter, and almost all offer warm, cozy and peaceful holiday experiences. A bonus is that almost all parks are less crowded during winter.

Here are six great holiday-themed must-do’s at our national parks:

Winter wonderland
Yellowstone National Park
Book a getaway at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, which can only be reached this time of year by snow coach or snowmobile. The Christmas-decorated lodge keeps its fireplace burning with plenty of hot cocoa for visitors. During the day, hike past “ghost trees,” formed when the steam from the Old Faithful geyser freezes on pine tree needles. Bison with snow-covered manes often feed across the geyser valley.

Polar Express train ride
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Each December prior to Christmas, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s Polar Express chugs through the scenic Ohio park. Among the highlights on the refurbished passenger train is a reading of the children’s book “Polar Express,” which inspired a movie and this trip. Many passengers ride the train in their pajamas! If in the Southwest, a private company also runs a Polar Express to Grand Canyon National Park.

Luminaria-lit skiing
Denali National Park
Every December, rangers light the small paper lanterns that line ski trails at the Alaska park. Visitors also can snowshoe or stroll the route, which leaves from the Murie Science and Learning Center, Denali’s Winter Visitor Center. Several other National Park Service sites offering luminaria displays and hikes including Florida’s De Soto National Memorial and Arizona’s Tonto National Monument.

Snowshoe wildlife hike
Rocky Mountain National Park
Ranger-led snowshoe tours lead visitors of this Colorado park to a variety of wildlife, including elk, coyotes, deer and snowshoe hares. The trail is utterly quiet as snow-capped mountains and evergreens rise around you on all sides.

New Year’s Eve Candlelight Walk
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
Bonfires, roasted marshmallows, and miles of candlelit trails can be enjoyed throughout the National Park Service area surrounding North America’s longest river. The festivities are centered on historic Fort Snelling State Park, which sits in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area’s national river and rec area.

Caroling in a cave
Mammoth Cave National Park
In early December each year, the Kentucky park holds Christmas carol singing in the world’s longest cave system. It’s a tradition that goes back to 1883 when local residents held the first Christmas celebration in the cave’s passageways. Though this year’s caroling has passed, mark it on the calendar for 2017’s must-do’s!

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Five great national parks to visit in winter

Yosemite Falls in winter at Yosemite National Park.
The following article originally was written for and appeared in Coach-Net’s November 2016 newsletter.

Most travelers think of summer as the best time to hit national parks – but winter also offers several spectacular sights that make for memorable visits.

So when the snow starts falling, consider a road trip to one of the following parks.

Birders paradise
Winter marks the best time to hike Florida’s Everglades National Park, as the subtropical climate means unbearably hot and buggy summers. Indeed, a number of birds already know this and spend their time in the Everglades after migrating from a northern clime. Among those you can spot on the Anhinga Trail are the double breasted cormorant, great egret, great blue heron, snowy egret, tricolored heron, white ibis and woodstork; turkey vultures congregate during the early morning hours.

Wildlife sightings
Leafless trees and snow’s white backdrop makes sighting large wildlife a lot easier in winter than summer. The Warner Point Nature Trail on the south rim of Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park offers the chance to spot elk and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Look for the elk in clearings and the bighorn sheep on the rocky cliff sides.

Heavy waterfalls
At most parks, waterfalls are most active in spring and early summer, thanks to snow melts. Not so at Washington state’s Olympic National Park. Rain is more likely there during winter, meaning the water flow is higher, making for a more spectacular creeks and falls. One good trail through the park’s lush, old growth forest that ends at a waterfall is the Marymere Falls Trail.

Bearable heat
During summer, unbearable heats makes California’s Death Valley National Park at best a pass through seen from a motor vehicle. The park’s average high in January is a pleasant 67 degrees, though, making winter the perfect time to walk the foreboding desert landscape. Among those sights is the lowest point in North America. Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below sea level and can be accessed in a mile-long round trip hike.

Avoid the crowds
Visitation drops during winter at most parks, so the trade-off for bundling up in coat, cap and gloves is seeing the great scenery without all of the crowds. A good bet is Yosemite National Park’s spectacular Yosemite Valley in California. The Lower Yosemite Fall Trail offers a number of fantastic views of Yosemite Falls in a 1.2-mile loop with the added coolness of falling water frozen in mid-flight on the granite rocks.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.