Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Vindication of my choice to wake up early and hike up to Hohensalzburg Castle was what I experienced when I reached the top and looked out to this view. The sun was rising behind clouds, allowing the mist to linger over the homes of south Salzburg. It had recently snowed and hiking up the ice covered (northward facing) cobblestone road had felt more like mountain climbing, with me having to pause frequently and plan out my next few steps. Having made it safely to the top, I realized that the entrance fee was nearly double what the sign at the bottom of the hill said it was. Because I didn't want my climbing efforts to have been in vain and I also was scared to imagine descending that hill without a sled I went ahead a payed to get in. Whichever archbishop of salzburg was responsible for the castle walls must have also been a saavy businessman. The walls on the path leading up to the castle are designed in such a way that you can't see any glimpse of the city skyline until you have payed and passed through the turnstile at the main gate. I had thought that once I had reached the main gate, I could at least look out and see the city without having to pay, but it was impossible.

The castle itself is a wonderful piece of architecture, but the real draw and the numerous open battlements from which you can view the domes of Salzburg's churches and Salzach river. Just as I had made my way out to one of the battlements, the bells in the Salzburger Dom began to ring providing me with by far my favorite memory of my trip. These bells can be heard in this video

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The unexpected detour will often prove to be the highlight of your day. I was driving around the outside perimeter of Arches NP looking for a view that I might like to revisit at sunrise the next day when I spotted a sign for a trail that I had not read about. It was a 5 mile out-and-back trail through Negro Bill Canyon. First, a bit on the etymology of this particular canyon. The name, which has obviously been awkwardly reworked into something only slightly less offensive actually refers to a part black cowboy named William Granstaff who ran cattle here in the late 19th century. I was surprised to learn that despite the seemingly racist overtones of the name, it referred to a man who, by what I can tell, was a business partner in equal standing with white cowboys in the 1870s.
The trail through the canyon is exceptional. You crisscross the canyon floor and climb up and down the canyon walls to work your way upstream without getting wet. The trail ends at Morning Glory Natural Bridge, which is one of the largest natural arches in the world with a span of 243 feet. It is also not technically a "bridge". A bridge is what an arch is called when it spans over running water. This distinction has to do with the mechanisms that formed the arch, running water being a very different process from normal weathering. However, this arch is merely next to a running stream and was actually formed by the collapse of part of the wall it is attached to, the correct term being "alcove arch".
As I made my way along this trail, I apparently missed one of the points where the trail crossed the stream and I continued further along the narrowing bank. Eventually the stream came so close to the canyon wall that I had to shuffle sideways with my back against the wall to continue. I had just completed a tricky jump and balance maneuver on a tiny rock in the stream when I noticed a couple of hikers on the opposite side of the stream. I asked them where they had switched sides and it was far enough back that I decided to risk it and hop the rest of the way across the stream.
As I caught my breath on the other side, I took a drink from my water bottle and noticed that it was already half empty. I hadn't thought to refill it before setting out from Arches not knowing that I'd be doing any long hikes. The trail had been pretty level so far, but I resolved that I'd turn back once I had drank half of what I had left.
Just around the next bend, the canyon walls narrowed and progress was made only by alternately scaling and descending the sandy cliff base. Not knowing the distance to the end of the trail I tried to ration my water intake, but still found the canteen quickly depleted. Just as I was about to turn back, I spotted the natural bridge in the distance. I realized that it would be unwise to continue and had to admire the bridge from a distance content in the knowledge that i would return again someday soon.
Dark wedges in the starry sky was the form that the sandstone skyscapers of park avenue took the first time that I saw them. I was heading into Arches for the first time ever at 4 in the morning. The sun had not yet started to glow behind the La Sal mountains in the distance and I was driving the winding road up into the park. Looking ahead, I could not tell whether I was looking into the distant expanse of the petrified dunes or surrounded by cliffs looming overhead. Then I turned the corner leading to park avenue and I realized that the sky was not black, but riddled with more stars than I had ever seen. What I thought had been the black sky were the forms of sandstone cliffs towering over the road leading into the park. Having no sense of where I was, a strong feeling of uneasiness set in as I looked up at these dark forms that always appeared to be moving from the corner of my eye. However when I turned that corner and saw the shapes of these rock formations outlined in stars I knew instantly where I was. This view had become very familiar to me through the countless pictures I had found of the site while I was longing to visit Arches. They were unmistakeable, but so much larger than I had imagined. It was when I saw this that I finally felt that rush of being "there" where I had wanted to be for so long.

The effect may have been comparable if I had seen all of this for the first time during daylight, but I don't think that anything can compare to those magical hours that I spent in the park before sunrise that first day. Both the familiar and unexpected where slowly revealed as the sun rose, allowing me to compare what I had imagined during the pitch black drive in to the reality of my surroundings.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Privacy is the best part of visiting the southwest during the winter. In late February, snow has become less frequent and daytime temperatures begin to climb out of the 50s making hiking through the desert extremely pleasant. However, this is not the best part of this time of year. For some reason, possibly because people don't believe in wearing jackets in the desert, most of the parks and sites in the southwest are all but deserted this time of year. You may still run into other tourists at the ranger station or at the most famous sites like delicate arch and mesa arch but the vast majority of your time will be spent alone, the way it should be in the desert.

Not having a vehicle capable of traversing the washboard like riverbed leading to Antelope Canyon, I had to get a ride from one of the Navajo men that oversee the site. Luckily, I was the only one who showed up and was able to have my own personal guide through the area. If there where any place that fosters a desire for solitude it would be Antelope Canyon. Early in the year, the sun never gets high enough in the sky to crest the walls of the narrow canyon. The light, reflected back and forth between walls of navajo sandstone, fills the canyon with a warm glow. The dappled light gives one the impression of walking through a dense forest. The temperature, kept low due to lack of sunlight, feels like it would in a cave. The Navajo do their part to restrict the number of tourists in the canyon during peak seasons to help preserve the site as well as to allow each person a glimpse of the sublime solitude contained within.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The northern end of the Taiya Inlet, just outside Skagway, Alaska. We had rented bikes to ride up into the hill behind Skagway, as we had heard that the views on the road back down were breathtaking. The idea was to walk the bikes up the forested hill to a paved road and then enjoy a leisurely coast back into town.

To start, the road was much farther up the hill than expected and there were few trail blazes to keep us on track as we carried our bikes up. As a result we kept thinking we must be going the wrong way and started searching side to side along the hill for the road which we eventually found by following some hikers that were going in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately by the time we found the road, we were getting close to being late coming back to our ship. So in the interest of time we chose to take the shorter, unpaved road back down to the city. All that we could glean from the tourist map was that we would need to make a left turn roughly half way from the bottom. It seemed simple enough as there appeared to be only one turn-off on that whole stretch of road. So, we happily took the first turn we came to, marveling at the great time we were making. Then we came to a dead end, but off to the side there was something resembling a dirt road, so we continued, confident that we would be out of the woods shortly. Then the dirt road turned into a dirt path which turned into a path covered in sticks and pine needles which led to an impenetrable net of branches. But in the distance! it appeared to be a continuation of the trail! We could have doubled back and looked for the right road but there was no time now, the only way was to find a path through the forest. So we dismounted and crawled under the tangled branches and dragged out bicycles after us. Now it was a matter of weaving between trees until we reached the trail. The closer we got to the trail along our winding route the more it looked to just be a short linear patch of dirt. When we were finally upon it, it turned out to be a steep drop-off further into a brown leafy abyss.

With pride swallowed we climbed back to the dirt road and pulled the twigs from the bikes spokes and chain. Sure enough, not more than 100 feet further down the road there was a nice paved turn off that led straight back to town. When we finally reached the bottom and approached the bridge that crossed over into Skagway we stopped to catch our breath and looked out at this view. While the journey had been misery, it had led us to something much more beautiful than we would have found on the regular road.