How Can You See Atlanta’s Carpet of Green? Pine Mountain!

Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors, creek, trees, forest

Atlanta is known for its crazy traffic and challenging airport.  But it is also known for the carpet of green that covers the city far and wide.  A week ago (or so), I was looking for a new hike not too far from the city and new to me.  Thankfully, we are not lacking for good hikes within 30 mins of the city (and if you expand that to 1.5 hrs, the possibilities are endless it seems!).

I opted to go north on I-75 to climb Pine Mountain in Cartersville.  The 4.6 round-trip hike was of moderate difficulty and not heavily trafficked.  When I arrived around 9:45 AM, the small parking lot of Main St. (not even a quarter mile from I-75) was pretty full.Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors

The trail has a West Loop and an East Loop connected by a pass where the summit is found.  We hiked the southern end of both loops and the returned via the northern loops.  It was beautiful terrain and, with trees still not fully covered with leaves, one could see much further around which is one of the things I enjoy about hiking in colder weather.

hiking, map, Pine Mountain, Georgia, outdoors, nature, photo, Atlanta

Trail Map

What I enjoyed about this hike, beyond its accessibility for this city dweller was that it offered a great view of the carpet of green that is the greater Atlanta metro area.  In the distance I could see the faint skyline of downtown, Midtown, Buckhead and Sandy Springs with Lake Allatoona in the foreground.  I have to say, this was a neat hike easily fitting in a half day.  I leave you with pictures from the hike and the view though the skyline is too small for it to show well on the photos so may not even see in these photos.  Beware:  a lot that looks like just green forests actually hides neighborhood after neighborhood in greater Atlanta!

Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors, creek, trees, forest

Atlanta, mountains, hiking, Kennesaw, Marietta, view, forest

The double hump mountain is Kennesaw Mountain, a famous Civil War battlefield

Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors

Of course, the highway (I-75) is not too far away!

Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors, bridge, forest, trees Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors, creek, trees, forest Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors, creek, trees, forest Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors, creek, trees, forest

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Lake Allatoona

Atlanta, hiking, Georgia, mountains, nature, outdoors, creek, trees, forest

Hiking in Nepal: To My Turning Point – Deboche (Day 4)

Ama Dablam, Nepal, Himalayas, mountain, peak, Everest Base Camp, majestic, Samsung Galaxy

After a restful and relaxing day in Namche Bazaar, it was time to hit the road for the last leg of my trek before turning back.  As I explained in an earlier post, I was shy a few days in my vacation bank so I would not be going all the way to Everest Base Camp this time.  Day 4 would take me past Tengboche with its beautiful monastery to tiny Deboche.  This day would represent the highest altitude I would reach in this trek, a hundred or so meters under 4,000 m (or some hundred or two feet under 13,000 ft.).

The day would start climbing up out of the half bowl that is Namche Bazaar past the museums and great viewing point I described on the Day 3 post.  And we could also see in the distance the two hanging bridges we had passed on our way to Namche Bazaar.

Nepal, Everest, Lhotse, ilivetotravel, monument,Himalayas, Everest, EBC, mountains, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Looking back at the spot from Day 3 from here we saw Everest

Nepal, Everest, Lhotse, ilivetotravel, monument,Himalayas, Everest, EBC, mountains, photo, Samsung Galaxy, hanging bridges

The hanging bridges

Then we skirted the side of mountains on a beautiful and changing trail that offered us a new and closer view of Mt. Everest and Mt. Lhotse than the prior day’s.  We passed a stupa/chorten honoring the sherpas of Everest.

Stupa, chorten, sherpa, Himalayas, Nepal, EBC, trail, Everest, Tibetan, design, colorful, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Samsung Galaxy

Headed towards the stupa with the best backdrop!

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Detail of the stupa

Stupa, chorten, sherpa, Himalayas, Nepal, EBC, trail, Everest, Tibetan, design, colorful, Samsung Galaxy

Beautiful and colorful detail of the stupa

Later on we had the best view of my favorite mountain in the area:  Ama Dablam.  It looks like it is a person with two arms and flowing robes!  Pretty darn cool.

Ama Dablam, Nepal, Himalayas, mountain, peak, Everest Base Camp, majestic, Samsung Galaxy

Ama Dablam!

Of course, as we did every day, we stopped for tea at a tea house.  Mint tea or lemon tea – I could never decide which was my favorite.  Sometimes one, sometimes the other!

tea house, Himalayas, Nepal, Everest, EBC, Tibetan, architecture, tea, break ,trekkig, hike, Samsung Galaxy

Loved admiring typical Tibetan architecture during tea time!

tea house, Himalayas, Nepal, Everest, EBC, Tibetan, architecture, tea, break ,trekkig, hike, Samsung Galaxy

Lemon tea, anyone?

tea house, Himalayas, Nepal, Everest, EBC, Tibetan, architecture, tea, break ,trekkig, hike, Samsung Galaxy

Typical outdoor area of a tea house

The team guides and our lead discussed whether to make the push for Tengboche (which involved a serious climb) for lunch or to stop short of the climb to have lunch and rest.  They decided to eat before the climb.  I was torn.  On the one hand, the sooner we got to Tengboche, the sooner the hardest part of the day would be behind us and then lunch would feel more lackadaisical.   I also would not be doing the hardest part of the hike on a full stomach.  But, on the other hand, it would delay eating lunch by a good bit.  So, I didn’t mind which way they decided.  Now having seen Tengboche, I think the spot by the water where we stopped for lunch was perfect for rest and recovery prior to the climb.

Nepal, Himalayas, Everest, base camp, EBC, food, Khumbu, Samsung Galaxy

Part of our lunch – soup and rice!

Nepal, Himalayas, Everest, base camp, EBC, Khumbu, Samsung Galaxy

Toilet in a very scenic place at lunch (you can thank me later for not putting a photo of the inside…)

Overall, that day we would cover about 4 miles (6.5 km) and were expected to be on the trail for about 6.5 hrs.  The most exciting part of the day was when we came to the top of a slope to find ourselves in fairly flat ground looking at the Tibetan Tengboche Monastery through the foggy afternoon.  It was not only a beautiful sight but very surreal.

Tengboche, monastery, Himalayas, Nepal, Tibetan, color, Samsung Galaxy

Entrance to the monastery (more pix on the next post)

Tengboche, monastery, Himalayas, Nepal, Tibetan, color, Samsung Galaxy

Lots of color and detail

Tengboche, monastery, Himalayas, Nepal, Tibetan, color, Samsung Galaxy

We entered the main prayer room but no photos allows – and I respect that

Tengboche, monastery, Himalayas, Nepal, Tibetan, color, Samsung Galaxy

You better follow these rules – especially no kiss!

Right past it, we stopped at a tea/coffee house before embarking on the short last hour (or less) to our stopping point for the night in Deboche.  With the hardest part of the hike for the day over, it was very enjoyable to kick back and sip away!

Once we got to Deboche, the teahouse was one of the sparsest, most austere of the teahouses I stayed at in this trek.  Being that we were higher, it was colder and the place had one tiny stove in the center of the dining/living room (as do most teahouses).  I definitely stayed more warmly dressed, even through dinner, as I tried to keep by body heat in me.

Deboche, trail, teahouse, tea house, Himalayas, Everest, base camp, Nepal,EBC

View towards the trail from our room

Deboche, trail, teahouse, tea house, Himalayas, Everest, base camp, Nepal,EBC

The rooms were basic but who needs more? Except heat…

Deboche, trail, teahouse, tea house, Himalayas, Everest, base camp, Nepal,EBC, dung, stove

Yeah… heating was very limited and crowds formed

The evening was nothing short of frigid.  There were two toilet rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. But the one upstairs was a Western toilet with a tank that would not fill.  I found it more effort to flush it so, in the middle of the night, I would walk down the very steep staircase to the non-Western toilet room, though by doing so I had to walk further in the cold of the night.  All indoors but, trust me, it was FRIGID; not sure there was much of a difference between inside and outside.  Thank goodness, I had the slight sleepwear and, more importantly, the right sleeping bag!!

Deboche, trail, teahouse, tea house, Himalayas, Everest, base camp, Nepal,EBC, Olympus

Yeah, that’s our ice-covered window in the morning…  Yes, it was THAT cold.

From this point out, the destination changed – back to Lukla for the flight back to Kathmandu!

On My Way Back to Trek in Patagonia

Perito Moreno, glacier, Argentina, Patagonia, nature, adventure, ice, blue, water, photo, travel

Soon, I will be headed on another travel adventure.  This one will be another trekking adventure with Trekking for Kids (TFK) with whom I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the Transylvanian Alps in Romania, and “pilgrimaged” on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  I am thrilled because I get to return to a part of the world that is remote, pristine, and with which I fell in love the first time I went in 2010:  Patagonia.  No, not the store but the southern part of the continent of South America.

The trip begins in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  OK, it really begins at the Atlanta airport but that’s just a technicality.  We will spend a few days in the Argentine capital working with a local orphanage that is benefiting from our trek.  If you would like to donate to the work TFK is sponsoring, please visit my fundraising page; all donations go STRAIGHT to the orphanage, not my costs and are 100% tax-deductible in the U.S.  In any case, I have gotten to visit Buenos Aires a couple of times and it is truly a great city!

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ilivetotravel in Buenos Aires MANY moons ago!

But I decided to take advantage of having some flexibility and will arrive a couple of days early to head over to a lesser-known jewel in neighboring Uruguay:  a colonial charming town appropriately and simply named “Colonia,” mentioned in the book 1,000 Places to See before You Die.  Not planning on dying anytime soon but better safe than sorry, no? 🙂

After the orphanage work, we will fly down to the town of El Calafate on the Argentine side of Patagonia.  From there we will hike around the iconic Fitz Roy peak and its siblings,  and visit the famous and imposing Perito Moreno glacier.

Perito Moreno, glacier, Argentina, Patagonia, nature, adventure, ice, blue, water, photo, travel

Note the size of the glacier when compared to the boat in the red circle on the upper right

After visiting the glacier park, we will transfer the next day to Puerto Natales, the Chilean town that is the real gateway to the wildness and beauty of Patagonia (I like the Chilean side better!).

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At the waterfront in Puerto Natales, gateway to glacier boat tours

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Example of the local architecture in Puerto Natales

I stayed in Puerto Natales when I visited in 2010 and there is something about its remoteness, its simplicity that was charming to me.  From there, we will launch our trek to the impressive Torres del Paine, surrounded by lakes and glaciers.  Our route is the typical route to trek there – it is called the “W” route.  Take a look at the map (with the route in red) and you will see where the name comes from!

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The W circuit

I am thrilled at this upcoming adventure and have tons to do to prepare.  I also wonder if I am physically ready enough as I will be needing to carry about 30 lbs on my back – a first for me in any of my hikes.  Wish me luck and stay tuned for future write-ups on the experience!

 

An Unexpected Climb of Blood Mountain

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Jarrard Gap, photos

I enjoy hiking and love exploring new routes.  Living in Atlanta, I have access to great hiking an hour and a half away at the start of the Appalachian Mountains, host of the famous Appalachian Trail (AT) that runs from north Georgia, all the way to Maine.  There is nice hiking closer to Atlanta but for longer and more strenuous hikes (and overall better vistas), I like going up to the north Georgia mountains.  I was looking for a long hike to do on a daytrip and was seeking a loop, instead of an in-and-out hike.  A good friend who also enjoys hiking offered to come along (I don’t hike solo) and we set out to do Jarrard Gap Trail connecting it to the Slaughter Creek Trail by traversing a 1.85 mile stretch of the AT for a total hike of around 5.75 miles.

While I have hiked in interesting places (like the Transylvanian Alps in Romania and Mt. Kilimanjaro), I am not an expert hiker who knows all the tricks of the trade, who is used to half-missing signage, who is secure in his inner compass, etc.  So I rely on maps and stuff I find on the Internet to create a route.  (My friend Val in Real Life would probably laugh her rear off at my lack of innate outdoor skills!)  On this occasion, my friend and I got a little complacent thinking we had clear in our head the route we were taking.  I will first share with you the hike we DID as it was definitely diverse in terrain and views, and enjoyable, if long.  I will then tell you what we THOUGHT we were going to do that day and highlight the difference between the two.  And then, I will share some lessons I learned!

The innocent start to the hike

After driving about 1.5 hrs, we arrived at Winfield Scott Lake, a rather small lake at the start of our hike.  To get there, we passed the entrance where visitors are supposed to take an envelope and place $5 in it and drop it in a locked box.  One is supposed to tear off part of the envelope and hang it on the rear view mirror of the vehicle (the number on that stub and the envelop in the locked box would match, telling the part ranger that this car has paid).  There were no envelopes to be found so we improvised and dropped the fee with a label that indicated my license plate in case someone checked.  We doubted anyone would be checking on this Sunday but we preferred being good citizens.  I took a picture of what I dropped in in case I needed it later to fight a citation!dollars

The hiked route: from Winfield Scott Lake via Jarrard Gap to the top of Blood Mountain and back

We entered the trail and, after crossing a narrow and single-side handrail bridge, we were dumped on a paved road where we saw a house with Halloween decorations still on the mailbox (this would prove useful later!).  There was a simple sign indicating the way and we walked maybe 0.25 miles on the road until the real entrance to the real Jarrard Gap Trail.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Jarrard Gap, photos

On the Jarrard Gap Trail

The terrain was a nice upward slope but not too intense.  Nice views of the downhill on this winter day.  Once we exited this trail at the Jarrard Gap, we walked a little to the next set of signs which helped point the way in this 4-way intersection.  Except it was not all too clear as it did not have any of the names in our map.

Someone told us which way was the AT and we walked little on it until we saw the white mark that is used to mark the AT so on we went.  So we entered the AT in the direction of Blood Mountain.  There were slight (rolling, I would call them) downhills and flat bits of terrain.  We passed a camp area on the left after having taken a quick break, and soon on the right we saw the trailhead to the Freeman Trail which sort of parallels the AT (it re-meets the AT on the opposite end).  At that point, we were 2.6 miles from our beginning point and so we went off on Freeman Trail.

Freeman Trail is about 1.8 miles of very different terrain than what we had been on on the Jarrard Gap Trail and the AT.  At parts narrow, often very rocky (small and big), it was actually a fun trail to hit as long as one is not expecting a cozy walk.  We were not.  We even passed an icy spot on our way to the other end of the trail.

We understood we would exit Freeman Trail and take the AT in the direction back towards the entrance to Freeman Trail.  But, before setting on the AT, we stopped to eat our lunch at this popular intersection.  At this intersection, besides the AT and the Freeman Trail, there is a trail that leads to a parking lot 0.7 miles away.  That parking becomes probably the point with the shortest route up to Blood Mountain.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, Samsung Galaxy, photos, climb

At the spot where Freeman Trail hit the AT

By taking the AT in the direction of the entrance we took into the Freeman Trail, we were proceeding to ascend Blood Mountain which, at near 4,400 ft, is the fourth tallest mountain in the state of Georgia and one of the most popular mountaintops in the state with breathtaking views all the way to North Carolina and Tennessee.

The climb to the summit was hard.  Rocky and steep with many switchbacks, with vegetation everywhere.  It definitely worked out my gluteus maximus and my hamstrings!  I had the same trouble I had had on Day 4 on Kilimanjaro after passing the Barranco Wall segment of that hike.  I carried a 16-lb backpack as part of my training but ended up emptying my extra bottle of water (one that I carry precisely as a way to drop backpack weight should I feel like I need to; it is not the water I expect to consumer during the hike). It indeed was a challenge – an unexpected one – but I am glad I did it as it was good training for my upcoming hike and a great workout.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, photos, climb

On the way to the summit!

At some point, we reached a clearing with large smooth rocks replacing the ground, like how Stone Mountain is when you are climbing it.  We stopped briefly and chatted with some folks who had gone up ahead of us; they had not heard of Slaughter Creek (which was a little unnerving but they had come from the “nearby” parking lot so they were likely not expecting to hit the creek on the other side of the mountain).  From this clearing, one could see Stone Mountain and Atlanta in the distance.  That was very impressive given how far north we were.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, photos, climb

The view from the clearing

The AT is well-marked with rectangular white boxes painted on trees and rocks so no issues knowing where we were so we continued on it as we knew the AT would connect to the Slaughter Creek Trail.  Not long afterwards, we reached the summit which has a neat rock outcropping from which to soak the entire view.  It is located right next to a nice shelter structure for those who stay overnight (further down, there is a “privy” or basic toilet facility).  After checking the view and confirming which of the two possible ways was the way down (other than the one we came up from), we began our descent which I welcomed as going up had been hard.  I read later that the side we went up was harder but I am glad we did it that way because going down that way would have killed my knees with all the rocks…

The descent was uneventful.  We passed a campsite area on the left and it was a little mis-leading as the white box marking the trail made us think we had to detour at the campsite because the other part of the trail did not have the white rectangular boxes.  But the crude wooden map on the campsite and a brief exploration of the other trail (where we saw a sign that said “Water” and pointed down that path) led us to determine that the unmarked way was the way to go.  Confidently we moved forward and downward and soon we ran into a trio that confirmed for us that was the way down indeed.  So it was nice to have that validation.  They told us that we would make a left at the steps at the bottom that were still iced over.   The descent was not too rocky at all so that made it better for our knees.

We reached the iced-over steps and felt really good that we were on the final stretch.  We walked maybe 0.4 miles before we hit the entrance that we had taken to enter the Freeman Trail and then returned to repeat backwards the way in – a final 2.6 miles to get to our parking lot.  Along the way, we had forgotten about the road we had been dumped into before hitting the real Jarrard Gap Trail.  Thankfully, the house that still had Halloween decorations on the mailbox saved the day as we remembered having passed it.

The intended route:  from Winfield Scott Lake to Jarrard Gap to Slaughter Creek

So after having read what we did.  Here is what we had intended to do…

We were supposed to get on Jarrard Gap Trail (check) and hike it until it ended at the Jarrard Gap (check) and then connect with the AT (check) and walk towards Freeman Trail (check) but continue 0.4 miles past the entrance to Freeman Trail without taking Freeman Trail (NOT CHECKED!).  After the 0.4 mile stretch, we would encounter the trailhead to Slaughter Creek Trail which would have taken us back to the road near Winfield Scott Lake.  End of a moderate day hike.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we were supposed to do.  5.75 miles that could have taken us 2.5-3 hrs, perhaps.

What went wrong on this north Georgia mountain hike?  No, no banjos or bears

The map from the website where I got the route instructions did not label the trails the proposed route would take us on.  Thank goodness there was a clear map at the parking lot by the lake that had trails with names on them.  We could not quite reconcile this map to the one in our printout so we took a photo of the map so we could have handy along the way (boy, was that a good idea!).

map, Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, photos,Jarrard Gap

The parking lot map

However, the map sort of helped get us confused – we saw that there was clearly a way from Freeman Trail on to Slaughter Creek Trail (via the AT) so we thought we were good.  But, what we failed to grasp was the increased distance such a route meant:  instead of our intended 5.75 mile plan, we ended up doing about 10.5 miles (per our reconstruction of the facts once back in the comfort of our respective homes).  This is how…

Remember when I said earlier that we encountered the start of the Freeman Trail so off we went on it?  Well, as you read on the “intended route” bit above, we were not supposed to take Freeman Trail.  The route instructions we had printed were just highlighting that at mile 2.6 we would encounter the trailhead for Freeman Trail. The explanation of the route was peppered with beautiful photos that certainly kept us from focusing on reading the text carefully as, upon careful reading later, we realized it never indicated that we needed to get on the Freeman Trail!

0.4 miles after passing the Freeman Trail, we were supposed to find the start of Slaughter Creek Trail at which point we would be returning along the same-named creek.  After a while on Freeman Trail we wondered if we had missed a turn 0.4 miles after we had started on it to find Slaughter Creek Trail (the connection to that trail was not evident in the map from the parking lot).

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Freeman Trail, Olympus, photos

Along the Freeman Trail

We should have turned around…  However, the map we had taken a picture of did show that we would hit the AT again and would swing back to hit Slaughter Creek Trail at some point (which we didn’t realize was much later than expected…).

And so we kept going on the rougher trail that is Freeman Trail.  Partly perhaps because we were distracted by our conversation and maybe partly because the trail was unusual (narrow, rocky, with more interesting vegetation that leafed-out winter trees).  Maybe it was just such a nice day for a hike so why rush it?  Eventually,we ran into a man and his dog and we asked him how far to hit the AT and he told us “one mile or so.”  We were taken aback but pressed on as we knew this way we would get to where we wanted to go.  We finally hit the AT and decided it was time to sit down and eat our lunch.  We had worked hard and had, at least, the same effort to go still to finish!

As we continued the hike by getting back on the AT, I still didn’t realize we were headed all the way to the top.  I thought this trail would swing on the south side of the mountain and some other trail would take hikers all the way to the top since I didn’t think the AT would run through mountaintops.  But we agreed we didn’t want to backtrack across the Freeman Trail so we went forth.  I think this was a good decision as, at least, we experienced reaching the top of Blood Mountain.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, photos, climb

Yours truly on the climb to the summit – note the white mark towards the bottom

The descent from Blood Mountain was uneventful except that we totally missed the entrance to the Slaughter Creek Trail!  When we reached the spot where we were supposed to turn off, we ran into a group of folks and we briefly chatted as we passed each other (after having seen a sign indicating the trail was coming up) and seemed to have missed the trailhead.  We had seen a little of the creek but missed the fact that we lost it at some point.  Or we assumed that for part of the trail, it would not be right by us. I am not really sure.  Anyway, we realized something was amiss when… we encountered the sign that marked the entrance to Freeman Trail that we had seen a few hours before!

At this point, I don’t think we were in the mood to backtrack and find Slaughter Creek Trail.  We understood we had missed the entrance and, given how much we had done already, we decided to back out the way we had come in via the Jarrard Gap.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Jarrard Gap, Olympus, photos, climb

Back in the familiar territory of the Jarrard Gap

So, there you have it.  A series of mis-steps that, while annoying, did give us what looking back was a challenging and rewarding day of hiking.  However, there are lessons to be learned and that is also a good by-product of this experience!

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain,  photos, climb

Nice views on this hike – worth the effort

Key lessons learned for future hikes

  • Read the route carefully and if it does not explicitly say to take a trail, do not; do not be distracted by pretty pictures!
  • Corroborate the route on another website if possible.
  • Use a clear map that labels all the trails and shows a scale so you can properly estimate things.
  • Take a photo of whatever map you find once you arrive on-site and compare to your map to be sure you are clear.
  • Signage will not always be clear so the points above are important.
  • Cell service, though not always available, can be at some clearings.
  • Be prepared with enough food and water (we were, mercifully).
  • Bring a headlamp even if you think you are hiking in the daytime (had the hike been even longer than we thought, it would have started getting darker).
  • Always hike with someone.  Certainly, solitude can be an aim of hiking for some – but not for me!  If something goes wrong, I want another head thinking about things along with me!
  • Never stop hiking because you had one hike were you were not “with it.”  That is how one learns and it can still be very rewarding and worthwhile – plus it gives you a good story to laugh at and not take yourself too seriously!  And one does learn.

Regardless of all this, if was great to be able to do such a long hike to help my training for Patagonia and to prove to us that we were fit enough for such a hike combining length and climbing.

——————————————————————————–

Read about other hikes in Georgia:

Sope Creek

Sweetwater Creek

Island Ford

Tallulah Gorge

Panther Creek

Postcards from Iceland: Dalvík

Dalvik, Dalvík, Iceland, fjord, Eyjafjordur, fishing town, mountains, boats, churches, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

Dalvík, in the north of Iceland right at around 12 o’clock, is a small town of about 1,400 inhabitants on the western side of the Eyjafjörður fjord.  We drove through this fishing town on the way to our base in Akureyri as we rounded the peninsula where Dalvík sits on route 76 going east after visiting Hólar earlier that day.  Route 76 is not part of the famous ring road.  It is a very scenic road hugging the coastline and passing through a couple of charming small towns (Siglufjörður and Olafsfjörður) – a drive I would recommend.

We enjoyed some of the views around Dalvík and here I share some of my favorites.  What do these images remind you of?

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Incredible landscape around Dalvík and across Eyjafjordur.

Dalvik, Dalvík, Iceland, fjord, Eyjafjordur, fishing town, mountains, boats, churches, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

Dalvik, Dalvík, Iceland, fjord, Eyjafjordur, fishing town, mountains, boats, churches, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

Fishing and fish processing are the key industries in Dalvík

Dalvik, Dalvík, Iceland, fjord, Eyjafjordur, Dalvíkurkirkja, fishing town, mountains, boats, churches, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

Beautiful church (Dalvíkurkirkja) that must almost get lost in winter with it being white!

 

Dalvik, Dalvík, Iceland, fjord, Eyjafjordur, fishing town, mountains, boats, churches, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

What seemed to be the main church stands out well against the mountains around the town

 

——– More on Iceland ——–

My itinerary for my week visit to Iceland

A stroll around Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik

Þingvellir:  Where History and Nature Meet in Iceland!

The Blue Lagoon

Goðafoss:  The Waterfalls of the Gods

A Northern Town:  Akureyri

Whale Watching

Iceland’s South Shore:  The Dyrhólaey Peninsula and Vik

Photo of the Week – The Breathtaking Alps of Transylvania

Romania, Transylvania, Transylvanian Alps, hiking, nature, outdoors, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

This scene was what we were rewarded with after arriving at the Cabana Curmatura in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania and hiking on for another hour.  I dream of returning to amazing Transylvania.  Too bad people’s only notion of it is the legend of Dracula:  there is SO much to enjoy and explore there!

Romania, Transylvania, Transylvanian Alps, hiking, nature, outdoors, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

11 Experiences to Have in Puerto Rico

El Morro, fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico, fields, kites, Caribbean, view, vista, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Because I lived in Puerto Rico for 15 years, I often get asked about what to do and where to stay in this beautiful island.  Of course, these things depend on the type of vacation one is looking for, one’s general preferences, etc. but I can usually provide a varied list of recommendations so others can then pick and choose what sounds good for them.  I will share here the recommendations I have for someone wanting to experience Puerto Rico.  Feel free to ask questions!

Take part in the fiestas patronales (patron saint feasts)

Each town in Puerto Rico has its patron saint.  Around the feast day of the saint, the town has a “fiesta patronal” with a lively parade (heck, everything is lively in Puerto Rico!), music, games, artisans, and food and a very lively atmosphere!  Find a piragüero to make you a piragua (shaved ice with your favorite flavor syrup on it!).

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(Source: www.latinamericatoday.net)

Enjoy Luquillo’s beaches

The beaches of Luquillo, along with Rincón‘s on the west coast, are some of the best on the island.  Luquillo is due east of San Juan and along the way one can stop at the food kiosks off the main road.  These kiosks used to be “huts” but, along the way, the government decided to build them better structures.  I don’t know how many there are but probably over 50 of these eateries.  Stop and taste some of the different foods and maybe a cold beer!

If you feel like it, drive further east to the town of Fajardo.  You can visit its old lighthouse “Faro de las Cabezas“.  You can also drive to the former El Conquistador Hotel (it seems to change name every few years so I stick to the original which everyone knows there) which offers great views cays and the sea below.  It was a very famous hotel in its heyday before it went into decay in the 1970s.  It has been resurrected a few times and it is currently a hotel open for business.

Visit the world’s largest single dish telescope

Made even more famous by the Jodie Foster movie, Contact, and the James Bond movie, Golden Eye, this observatory, built in 1963, is famous for being the largest single dish telescope in the world.  Its diameter is 1,000 ft and it is impressive to see it firsthand, nestled in a small valley.  When I went many years ago (when it was being run by Cornell University), there was a recording playing at the observation deck describing the observatory.  It is from this radio observatory that a message was sent in 1974 by SETI to anyone out there listening that Earth existed and was populated by us.  “Look at me!  Look at me!”  (Like I want angry or scary aliens being alerted to our existence…)

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(Source: www.naic.edu)

Go off the mainland to Vieques and Culebra

If Puerto Rico is small, Vieques and Culebra are even smaller but they both offer a nice getaway to a more remote part of the island group.  Vieques was the former location of a U.S. military base so part of it is not as developed as you would expect since the closure of the base is relatively recent.  But I hear that it has been developed smartly.  I have not been to Culebra and, from what I gather, it is less developed.  Either would be great for R&R!

Go under in the Cuevas de Camuy

The caves (or is it more accurate to say “caverns“? some day I will study the difference…) of the Río Camuy, just west of Arecibo, are definitely worth a visit (60 mies or so west of San Juan but miles in PR do not equate easily to time – lots of traffic!).  Due to the proximity to Arecibo, it may be worth combining this visit with the radio telescope since the latter is a fairly quick stop.   The Río Camuy, it may surprise many to know given the smallness of the island, is the world’s third largest underground river.  The river has carved these caves (about 10 miles of them, very little of it accessible to the public) from limestone and you can visit them and ride in them – no worries, the assumed half a million resident bats are likely asleep during the daytime.  But if you go, go early as they stop letting people in after a daily quota has been met (1,500 visitors last I checked).

Visit the pearl of the south:  Ponce

Cross the island from San Juan to Ponce (an hour plus drive) via a scenic drive, and visit the “pearl of the South.”  Ponce is named after the first governor of Puerto Rico:  Juan Ponce de León and later explorer of what became Florida.  Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second largest city.  It has a totally different feel than San Juan’s metropolitan area:  a slower pace, and even the climate is different being a little drier.  Its art museum is well done and its old fire station (Parque de Bombas) is very picturesque.  Both were the target of a special field trip from my high school for the freshman class every year (only an hour plus from San Juan but THAT is considered a LONG trip in this small island!).

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Ponce’s Parque de Bombas

Explore Old San Juan 

Founded on 1521, there are not enough words to describe how unique Old San Juan is.  Only Havana is competition for OSJ, I hear.  It is the oldest city in the United States, pre-dating St. Augustine by a few decades.  Its cobblestone streets, its beautiful multi-century old buildings (built before anything was built by Europeans in the continental U.S.), and its plazas make this a true jewel of a town.  I appreciate it a lot more now that I no longer live there and have seen more of the world – beats a lot of old towns I have seen.  (Check out my post about OSJ here.)

As a kid, my Dad used to drive us up the hill to enter the old quarter, then along the north coast (with the shantytown La Perla down below the city wall), into the heart of old San Juan to then drive through the old San Juan Gate (a sea-facing gate in the city walls).  Right after going downhill through the gate, the road turned immediately to the left but my Dad used to pretend we were going straight into the water, a thrill ride that I fell for every single time!

Puerta de San Juan, San Juan, Puerto Rico, city walls, fortifications

This is where the gate met the water (Source: www.topuertorico.org which offers great tips)

This gate is the last remaining gate along the city’s walls.  This gate is now pedestrian only and the left turn now takes you down a pleasant walk down the Paseo La Princesa (site of a former jail!).  The city walls are incredible and are preserved along the waterfront but not the inland part.  You can explore these by walking into a garita (guard posts) where Spanish soldiers used to keep watch for foreign invaders and pirates.

The crowning pieces of Old San Juan are the fortresses of San Cristóbal and San Felipe del Morro (El Morro).  The latter is more imposing but the former is also worth a visit.  Do take a tour when you visit so you can grasp how incredible these structures are due to their age, their construction and their history.  The field in front of El Morro is great for a picnic or fly to kites as you look out on the Atlantic Ocean.  I loved going there as a kid.

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Great fields facing the ocean (note the kites and the city walls) in El Morro

There is a cemetery at the foot of the city walls of that field but, be careful if you decide to go to the cemetery…  visitors are easy prey in this important cemetery in San Juan.  I will not keep expanding on all there is to do in OSJ (there is a LOT to see!) but there are small museums, art galleries, bars, etc.  Just walk around and explore!

See La Parguera’s bioluminescent bay in the southwest

This bay in the southwest town of Lajas is a unique place.  The thing to do is to get in a small boat and go into the bay at night.  When the still waters are disturbed, the microorganisms that live in the bay glow.  I have actually never gone but it is famous.  When I return to Puerto Rico some day, this is on my list of things to check off!

Experience Loíza aldea

Loíza is a coastal town east of San Juan that seems to have preserved more of the African heritage of the island than the rest of the island.  Stop and try any of the local restaurants / stands and try “salmorejo” (crab dish) or any of the fried foods!  This is definitely off-the-beaten path for visitors.

Drive the mountain towns and see their main plazas

This is my favorite thing.  Puerto Rico is made up of 70-odd towns, each with a center following the traditional Spanish colonial pattern of a main plaza with the town hall on one side and the main church on the opposite side (the other two sides were houses of better-off families back in the day).  Though they sound very similar, each is quite unique and it is fun to visit and see the differences.  Some of the towns are on the coast but the center of the island is mountainous so visiting the inland towns also has the side benefit of driving around the mountains and tropical forests of the island.  Of course, the main plaza in the capital city, San Juan, is very nice but others compete favorably!  Though I have never visited it, I hear Guayama‘s is one of the prettiest.

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Vintage photo of the Porta Coeli church in San Germán

Go tropical in El Yunque

The mountain of El Yunque east of San Juan, past the airport is actually not Puerto Rico’s tallest point but it is its most notable one as it is quite standalone in comparison to Cerro de Punta (the tallest point in the island at around 4,400 ft).  It is neat to visit as it allows you to see tropical flora at its best.  My favorite are the gargantuan ferns.  You can also get off at the waterfalls and climb around or get in the water.  It is a neat visit, especially if you are headed to the Luqillo beaches or the food kiosks!

There are other neat places to see and visit (e.g., the Bacardi distillery!) but I did not want to write my favorite 111 things to see and do, so I chopped off a digit (not a finger!) and kept it to 11.  Please feel free to ask any questions if you are planning or thinking of a visit to Puerto Rico!

Photo of the Week – The Mountains of Utah

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Ah, this picture really makes me long for winter (or a trip to the southern hemisphere where IT IS winter!).  Taken many years ago while I skied awesome Alta, I long to return to those wonderful slopes and setting.  I need to ski next year as I missed this season and I also have Europe in my sights for a ski trip…

Are you a ski fan?  What is your favorite place to ski?  Where do you want to go ski?

Alta, Utah, ski, mountains, vista, photography, freedom, sports, outdoors, photo

Criss-crossing the southern island of New Zealand

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Besides flying into and out of the country and riding the TranzAlpine train, buses (or coaches) were my main mode of travel. I was surprised that trains were not talked about much in my readings about how to move about the country but it seems buses are the main way to get around (outside of driving).

Backtracking a little, I did not sign up for a standard guided tour but instead bought a package of transportation and accommodations based on the places I wanted to visit. The agency that helped me basically ensured the places were sequenced in a logical manner and handled the synchronization of schedules when connections were required or when special linkages to other events were needed. The package also included a couple of main attractions (like the ferry ride through Milford Sound). I really liked the idea of an independent tour, as they are called, since I wasn’t looking forward to the “confines” of a guided tour nor of driving around solo.

The “Bus/Coach Experience”

I was not sure what to expect from taking a bus around and in between towns. I was not expecting a regular public transportation bus (as I know them in the U.S. and Europe) but also was not expecting a major tour bus type. These inter city type of buses (InterCity seems to be the largest bus company around but there are others affiliated with tour companies) pretty much go everywhere and are fairly comfortable. Many will have a restroom (or “toilet”) on board and, if not, they will make frequent stops every couple of hours or so for nature breaks, food breaks, and even some photo opps. The drivers for these buses will even do some narration of what you are looking at or going through which was a very nice surprise so that you could understand better the land you are observing. Some of these drivers were a veritable fountain of facts and knowledge! The buses were also on time and some even picked you up/dropped you off at your hotel. In researching the options, there were buses that seemed to be focusing on college-aged tourists – I sensed as much and stayed away from those as I am well past that age. Make sure you understand the focus of any bus company you choose!

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Early morning view of the Tasman Sea from the southern island coastal road

Following a circuit around the south island of New Zealand

Another curious thing about doing an independent tour and using the bus system to get around in the south island is that, more likely than not, you are really following a circuit that goes something like this with variations possible: Christchurch, Greymouth, glaciers, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Te Anau, Dunedin, and back to Christchurch. Some of the variations include the Catlins, Invercargill, Stewart Island and a few other places at the very south and very north of the island. (I didn’t do the same type of travel in the north island so I am not as familiar with what a good circuit might be there.)

New Zealand, driving, roads, travel, explore

Nice roads on New Zealand’s southern island

The neat thing for me was that I began to run into the same people at different stages of the circuit (people who were going counterclockwise on that circuit; the opposite direction is also possible!). Sometimes we would be in the same bus 2 or 3 places in a row. Sometimes we broke the sequence only to reconnect later in the trip. It took at least a couple of times of coinciding before really chatting them up. And I actually enjoyed running into the same people later in the trip. Grace from NJ, Chris from London, the Lees from Hong Kong, a couple from Delhi, etc. were some of those folks I ran into a few times. I also did meet other folks whom I only saw at one spot but got to chat or hang out (Ben from Tamworth and Ryan from Melbourne).

New Zealand, southern island, lake, mountains, snow, road, travel, nature, outdoors

One of the most majestic segments of the circuit – I wish I could have sat there for a few hours!

Finally, because of the various stops the buses make, you get to see a couple of smaller towns even if for a short 30 minute walk. We are talking small towns (the largest I reckon was about 4,000 people) so 30 minutes gets you at least a peek at the town center which is better than a drive-by. If you like seeing small towns, clearly driving around would be better as you can decide how long to stay somewhere but I enjoyed seeing places like Wanaka (on the shore of Lake Hawea and somewhere I would stay instead of Queenstown if I ever return!), and Hokitika near Greymouth.

Wanaka southern island New Zealand lake mountains travel nature outdoors explore Canon EOS Rebel

The town of Wanaka by the lake of the same name was peaceful and in an incredible setting

So, among the various good ways to travel the country, the bus system gets a thumbs up. And you will never be a total stranger to everyone while going around NZ!

New Zealand – Traveling from Christchurch to Franz Josef

Canterbury mountain landscape in New Zealand's Southern Alps

In order to get to the village near the Franz Josef glacier on the west coast of NZ, I had to take a train across the mountains in the center of island (which are called unofficially the southern Alps, hence the train is called the Tranz Alpine train).

This train cuts through the plains of Canterbury where Christchurch is on the eastern side of the southern island and then climbs up to Arthur’s Pass before beginning the descent towards Greymouth, a small town on the western coast where I connected to a bus that would then drive me south to Franz Josef village.

Canterbury mountain landscape in New Zealand's Southern Alps

View of the Canterbury terrain

The views were spectacular along the route.  The train had a viewing platform from which one could take pictures without the glare of the train window – but only if one was willing to freeze in the cold wind that hit the platform.

Western side of the island from the train (after crossing the southern Alps of New Zealand)

Western side of the island from the train (after crossing the Southern Alps)

The train ride was very comfortable and made a stop or two where we were allowed to get out and stretch our legs.  The train ride took about 4.5 hours.

The bus ride was also very interesting.  Bus rides here include the driver providing commentary that is quite good for a tourist.  The bus also makes several stops along the way not just to pick passengers but at some scenic spots for pictures or to take in the view.  It also makes one or two stops depending on the route and duration for people to eat something or go to the local supermarket.  This made the trip quite comfortable as one always had access to food and restrooms!  These, I learned on my next trip in the southern island, were typical of bus rides not just the one from Greymouth to Franz Josef.

View of road in New Zealand's southern island

I may become redundant at some point but the beauty of the land is incredible.  I have been to many places I have liked and it continues to amaze me how many types of natural beauty there are around the world.  What strikes me about New Zealand’s west coast is how close the different types of terrain are.  The alpine mountains and glaciers almost touch the ocean where rainforests dominate.  It is like Switzerland by the ocean, sort of (the statement probably doesn’t do justice to NZ or Switzerland but it is the best I have come up with so far!).

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