Blog Posts Tagged ‘The Great Outdoors’
The people who take the time to catalog such things report that there are about 900 species of wildflowers in Grand Teton National Park. That’s good to know, because most of us are never going to look down while we are here: We are going to be looking up.
The Grand Teton range is a relentlessly spectacular, 40-mile-long series of serrated peaks. Jutting dramatically from the broad Jackson Hole (pioneers’ term for a valley), the Tetons may be North America’s most impressive mountain panorama. To stand awhile gazing at them is to ponder mankind’s tentative position in the planet’s scheme.
As with Yellowstone, just a few miles to the north, this park is the result of massive geologic activity: About 9-million years ago, two huge slabs separated, one rising to fashion the mountains, one dropping to form the valley.
While the tallest peak, Grand Teton, soars to 13,770 feet, it has to vie for attention with 11 partners that top 12,000 feet. Their jagged, gray granite faces are laced with patches of snow and with glaciers. Trees seem to quit their climb early on these slopes; even the valley’s green carpet abruptly halts to let the mountains rise.
Awesome yet approachable
But the Tetons can be approached and even scaled: There are more than 200 miles of hiking trails that wend around the sparkling lakes and up into the mountains.
For instance, you can circle pretty Jenny Lake in just six miles or take a turn-off at the south end to find the aptly named Hidden Falls, whose sound reaches the hiker’s ears long before the waterfall appears through the trees.
Two paved roads run north and south through the park, roughly parallel to the mountains on the west, and there are enough scenic overlooks to fill even a big memory card.
But for a languid look at the Tetons, get aboard one of the popular raft-floats on the Snake River, flowing about 6-8 miles from the mountains. The trip is calm, the young people handling the steering oars are full of history, corny jokes and naturalist lore. They are also quick to point out the eagles, ospreys, waterfowl, wading birds and beavers’ lodges on the river and its shores.
When people lived here
While several Indian tribes had migrated regularly through the flat valley, the first white settlers brought cattle herds here in the late 19th century. Just a trace of this pioneering effort remains, so it’s worth a stop at the Cunningham Cabin Historic Site, on the eastern edge of the park.
Pierce Cunningham had led the effort to have the area proclaimed a national park, which came to pass in 1929; more land was added in 1950, making the park 485 square miles.
Another remnant is the Menor’s Ferry Trail, where a half-mile path takes visitors to look at homesteading ways, including a replica of a turn-of-the-century ferry across the Snake.
Close by is the 71-year-old Chapel of the Transfiguration, a tiny church that features a special backdrop to its altar: a picture window showcasing the Tetons.
Horseback rides, lasting from an hour or so to overnight camping trips, are a special way to enjoy the back country, or you can pedal your bicycle along the paved roads – no bikes allowed on the trails.
For a brief foray on the water, check at the Colter Bay Visitor Center for the breakfast and dinner trips to an island in big Jackson Lake. The grilled steaks taste special amid the natural splendor. The wildlife enhances the meals: Rare sandhill cranes shatter the stillness as they call from their nesting area, and white-tail deer prance by the picnic tables.
Back at the Colter Bay Visitor Center, make time to visit the well-done Native American art. Creativity and craftsmanship are the focus. The center also shows films on wildlife and on Native American history.
Best of all, when you step back outside and turn around, those marvelous mountains are there, defining the horizon and encouraging you to dream.
If you go
Grand Teton National Park is on the western edge of Wyoming, just north of the city of Jackson, which has commuter plane service.
The park is open year-round, but visitor centers and concession services in the park close in the late fall through the winter. Snowshoe and snowmobiling trips are available in the winter.
For information about Grand Teton National Park, call (307) 739-3300 or go to www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm.
The park has five campgrounds with 865 sites, and five hotels that offer rooms and rustic cabins. For information on accommodations, contact the Grand Teton Lodge Co., (800) 628-9988 or go to www.gtlc.com.
For lodging in Jackson, a few miles to the south, go to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce site, www.jacksonholechamber.com/lodging/hotels-motels-lodges.php.
DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — Time and the forces of nature will decide if Mount McKinley is immortal, but it’s so mighty that it seemingly decides when to display its 20,320-foot-tall majesty.
The mountain is also called by its American Indian name, Denali, meaning the Great One or the High One. Indeed, it is the highest point in North America and, because of its immense bulk, on a clear day it can be seen in Anchorage, about 150 air miles away.
But that isn’t often: McKinley creates its own mini-climate and usually is wreathed in clouds. Thus, at least two-thirds of the people who travel to the vast Denali National Park and Preserve — larger than Massachusetts — never get to see even the top half of the namesake mountain.
So when it does show itself — when the mountain is “out” as they say here — it inspires joy, and awe, in viewers.
Yet the same can be said for the much-easier sighting of wildlife that roams the park, including parking lots and roads. How many of us in the Lower 48 get within 20 feet of a female grizzly bear as it munches on berries? Or watch a moose cow with its youngster, grazing on a hillside, or see a caribou sitting in a patch of snow to get relief from insects?
I could have checked off all of these critters, and more, on my seen-that list during the free, narrated Tundra Wilderness Tour on my recent visit. But I also brought home pictures, and the memories.
Driver-guide Jeff Farragia took his busload of 47 on a graded but unpaved road 63 miles into the park, to Stony Hill Overlook. We were 33 miles from Denali, and clouds covered perhaps the top fifth, but it was still a spectacular sight.
I got the up-close-and-personal view, though, by plunking down $350 for a flightseeing tour. I made the one-hour flight in an eight-seat, twin-engine Piper Navajo. Pilot Dan McGregor took us within 2,000 feet of the Wickersham Wall, a 50-degree slab of snow-covered granite, at 12,000 feet up on Denali. It was dazzling.
I added to my mental scrapbook with a two-hour raft ride down the 11-mile Canyon Run of the Nenana (nee-NAH-nah) River. Class III rapids bounced us around as we sat bundled head to booties in rubber suits and life jackets.
You can also get a taste of the park by hiking or biking over dozens of miles of trails in the untouristed backcountry, by jouncing along on a Jeep safari, and by camping, visiting with the park’s sled dogs — used for ranger patrols in the winter — taking other narrated bus tours, strolling ranger-led nature walks, or just sitting in on films and live presentations at the Visitors Center. Many of the paths and the rides are wheelchair accessible.
Open year-round, Denali offers thrills and inspires awe, but most of all, it creates memories, mountains of them.
If you go
Denali National Park and Preserve main entrance is 237 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Entrance fee is $10 for individuals, or $20 per vehicle, for up to seven days’ visit. To learn more, call (907) 683-2294, or go to .
There are hotel rooms available just outside the park boundaries; call (907) 683-4636.
I flew to Mount McKinley on Denali Air, www.denaliair.com; (907) 683-2261.
I rafted with Explore Denali, which has several options, from challenging to less so; toll-free 1-800-276-7234.
DINGLE, Ireland — All five bar stools are occupied this spring afternoon in Dick Mack’s, a pub of some acclaim in this village at the western edge of Ireland. Yet untouched on the bar are pints of beer just served to new customers.
Two of them, women in their early 20s, ignore their beers and start to sing in fine voices Will You Go, Lassie, Go. The other three at the bar, all men, join in the song that mentions the heather that covers much ground with tiny purple blooms.
“Written by a Belfast man, that was,” one of the men informs me and the others when they finish singing.
Without any signal, the young women begin a sweet version of Down In The River to Pray, a gospel hymn heard in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The men quickly join this song, too.
After the gospel number, everyone finally reaches for a glass of beer. A couple more customers wander in, get their pints and go stand behind a low wooden counter that is parallel to the bar and a few feet away. Behind this counter are shelves and cubbyholes filled with cobbler’s gear, boots, metal taps for shoes and a pair of “Wellies,” the rubber boots every farmer owns.
The fields are a patchwork quilt, stitched together by walls of stones.
Though Dick Mack’s has been a pub a long while, it was also a leather worker’s shop. “They stopped that more than 10 years ago,” a man at the bar tells me. “No one has leather soles on their shoes anymore.”
Just then, a man in his 20s pulls a black flute from his jacket and starts playing a traditional Irish tune. As soon as he finishes, another man takes the flute, and he begins to play.
The flute’s owner goes to the wall and takes down a bodhran, the hand-held drum that resembles a large tambourine. The man cannot find the traditional knobbed stick to thump the bodhran, so he expertly uses his thumbs.
It is not quite 4 in the afternoon. The pints of beer largely are being ignored in favor of upholding this pub’s tradition of impromptu music.
Outside on the sidewalk, dark gray stars have been painted, a la the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The stars bear the names of celebrities who have stopped in at Dick Mack’s: actors John Mills, Julia Roberts, Timothy Dalton, Robert Mitchum.
Also painted there are the names of some who might have led the singing: Dolly Parton and Paul Simon.
Though the pub/cobbler shop dates to 1899, the earliest settlers on the Dingle Peninsula arrived about 6,000 years earlier.
They probably had been sailing along the western edge of the European continent when they came ashore, because this peninsula juts 40 miles into the Atlantic from the southwestern edge of Ireland, and it is the end of Europe.
“The next parish is Boston,” says Timothy Collins, repeating a common joke based in fact.
Collins was a policeman on the 8-mile-wide peninsula for 35 years, and he now leads archaeological tours. There were few tourists to guide until the last quarter of the 20th century.
It was in 1970 that master director David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter was released. It is about a romantic triangle complicated by World War I animosities, and it takes place on the peninsula.
Lean’s film crew spent a year on the Dingle, constructing an authentic village from tons of newly quarried granite. Cinematography filled with spectacular landscapes began to draw tourists way out to the Dingle. Even now, many can recall the overhead shot of Sarah Miles on a stretch of vacant beach, a beach that Collins points out to the tourists piled into his minivan.
Though Dingle Harbor still receives ships returning with catches of herring, sole, cod, lobster and salmon, tourism has become more important to the economy. The town’s year-round population of about 1,400 at least doubles during the summer.
“In 1970, we only had one hotel, no B&Bs, and the only visitors here were archaeologists,” Collins recalls.
“Now we can only hope that Ryan doesn’t have a granddaughter!”
What the stones have to say
Visitors don’t need a guide to take the breathtaking coastal road, often high above the Atlantic, to view the settings of Ryan’s Daughter and the 1992 Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film Far and Away. But travelers probably will want someone like Collins to explain some of the estimated 2,000 ancient stones and structures left by the earliest settlers.
Pieces of granite are everywhere.
In the towns and villages of west Ireland, they often were used to make walls that have since been covered with stucco and painted in a rainbow of rich colors.
Outside the villages, the stones are stacked in countless miles of knee-high fences that divide farmers’ fields. Circles of granite remain as Bronze Age stone forts, dating 3,700 years.
The ruins of an ancient stone ring fort partially date to the Bronze Age.
Standing stones — upright pillars — were inscribed as far back as the fourth century A.D. with Ogham, a series of straight lines forming the letters of an alphabet now long-dead. In many places, huge slabs of stone were positioned upright to support a capstone, creating rudimentary tombs 5,000 years ago.
And just a few centuries ago, more pieces of granite were stacked to become farmhouses and barns, workers’ humbles cottages and nobles’ castles.
All the stones have stories to tell.
Guides and researchers such as Collins discuss the rise and fall of ancient peoples, their religions and writing forms. The narrative often winds to modern day.
Halting the minivan, Collins gathers his passengers by two upright stalks of reddish sandstone to discuss their Ogham carvings.
Various standing stones might have told stories of a chieftain or served as directional posts. Now, however, he wryly observes, “they are mainly cow-scratchers,” against which wandering cattle rub themselves.
A road past history
The coastal road, designated R559, is a scenic drive even without the stone artifacts. It winds through crossroad villages, past a few two-room schoolhouses built in the early 1900s. These schools usually have “20 or 25 children and two teachers,” Collins says.
The minivan passes familiar-looking highway signs, except that the wording is in Gaelic. Tag Bog E, which is pronounced “toe-g boe-g eh,” literally means “Take it easy,” Irish for “Please slow down.”
Western Ireland is the stronghold for Gaeltacht, pronounced “gwail tawkt,” which is spoken and written Irish. Some schools here are conducted entirely in Gaelic.
On the inland side of the road are the gentle slopes of 1,600-foot Mount Eagle, dotted with beehive huts –dome-shaped, stone, one-room places. There is also the occasional graveyard and, everywhere, grazing sheep.
There are 23 monastic settlements on the peninsula, but perhaps the prime attraction from the early Christian era is the Gallarus Oratory.
Dating between the seventh and ninth centuries, this is a perfect example of the corbel, or dry-stone, construction: Relatively flat rocks were placed atop each other in the shape of an inverted boat, so rainfall followed the slanted rocks down and away from the building. The interior of the tiny church is dry, despite an average rainfall on the Dingle of 80 inches.
The Oratory is usually the last stop on Collins’ tour. But the peninsula offers dozens of other sites easily located with a good map.
And so my trip to Ireland had begun with song, but at other times, I heard the stones talking.
If you go
PLANNING YOUR TRIP: If you prefer to drive yourself, check car-rentals before leaving the U.S. – this is usually cheaper than hiring at the airport.
But plenty of tour operators will be glad to coddle you as they move you about. These companies can group folks who share interests in walking tours, horseback riding, seeing pubs, visiting gardens, viewing castles, staying in cottages, playing golf or just eyeing the well-publicized sights.
For all sorts of information – tour operators, lodgings, attractions – go to the government’s fine web site, www.discoverireland.com/us.
FALKIRK, Scotland — There was a time, a couple of centuries ago, when the best way to move people and freight across the land was on canals.
Scotland, surrounded by water on three sides, became the first nation in the world to dig intersecting cross-country canals. They connected the North Sea, near Edinburgh on the east, with the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles to the west of Glasgow.
That was in 1790, and the trip took most of a day, including the 6-10 hours to move through 11 locks needed to raise or lower the boats 115 feet.
But in the next century, an enhanced steam engine greatly cut the transit time — and also opened other routes, on land and sea. The railroad further reduced the need for canals.
Finally, widespread use of the internal combustion engine meant trucks and cars could take people and cargo much faster than could boats.
What had been a busy canal system was largely abandoned in 1933. In the 1960s, it was closed when two major highways were constructed through the canals.
But everything old is new again, and then some.
The national government spent the equivalent of $124-million to eliminate the need for the original 11 locks by creating the world’s first “rotating boat lift.” Opened in May 2002, it is named the Falkirk Wheel, after the middle-of-the-nation town where it was constructed.
The structure is futuristic in appearance, yet it uses an ancient law of physics to operate. Basically, a huge wheel is fixed to an axis, and on either side of the wheel are two boxes that hold water. Each box, called a gondola, is 70 feet long by 21 feet wide.
This is when Archimedes’ Principle comes into use. This states that an item placed in water displaces its own weight; thus one or more boats push out of the gondola an amount of water equivalent in weight to the boat’s weight.
The opposing gondola has the same weight, whether it is water only or also boats. A number of electric motors turn a cleverly designed series of gears that rotate both the large wheel and lesser gears that keep the gondolas level while the big wheel turns.
The gondola on the bottom is filled with water from a basin, and boats glide in before a water-tight door is closed behind them. The gondola at top opens onto an aqueduct that connects through a tunnel to the original, higher canal.
When both gondolas are closed, the wheel rotates — eerily quiet, considering the size of the structure. What was below goes up and what was up comes down.
When the big wheel’s half-rotation is complete, the water doors are opened and the boats glide out, to continue their canal journey in either direction. The cross country canal is about 68 miles long.
Since it opened, thousands of pleasure craft and more than 1-million visitors have come through the gates to watch it happen, with many of them booking rides on the 40-passenger tour boats kept in the basin.
The half-rotation takes about 15 minutes; the tour boats going up send their boats into the 330-foot-long aqueduct, which leads to a 475-foot-long tunnel beneath an ancient Roman wall. From there the tour boats enter a small lake, turn around and come back.
If you go
GETTING THERE: Several trains a day from Edinburgh and Glasgow stop in Falkirk; the ride takes little more than a half-hour. Phone your departure train station for the schedule.
The Falkirk Wheel is on a bus route from Falkirk’s Grahamston and High train stations. The No. 3 Red Line Bus, operated by First Bus, runs about every 15 minutes from stops near both stations to the Wheel site. Or, cabs can be hired at the stations.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to
Built to attract wealthy visitors to Yosemite, The Ahwanee hotel lavishes guests with elegance and eye-popping panoramas.
This is what it’s like to be wealthy, the hotel architect wanted you to know. Wealthy, and with a 2,425-foot-tall waterfall in the back yard.