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52 Hike Challenge – Hike 13 – Greene Valley Forest Preserve

Hike 13 of my 52 hikes was another DuPage County Forest Preserve, this time at Greene Valley Oak Spur trail (1.7 miles out and back). It was especially important for me to get out for this hike on Saturday, May 14th because it was Hike Like a Girl weekend!

Unfortunately the weather for this hike was a mess. It was overcast, very windy and the wind chill was 31! I had packed for 70 degree weather (I was just visiting the area), so I put on a bunch of layers, made a makeshift hat and hiked at a brisk pace.¬†I didn’t see much wildlife on this hike, I think due to the weather, although I did see quite a few birds. I was once again surprised by the very rich variety of birds in this park.

This trail is extremely close to roads, so there is a ton of traffic noise. This was pretty disappointing and it never got much quieter throughout the hike. I like quiet/nature noise when I hike, but the close proximity to roads/homes on this trail may be comforting to new hikers or those who worry about getting lost in the woods. However, the trail is very clearly marked with yellow blazes, and is a wide gravel covered path that’s hard to miss. The path weaves through open spaces and woods and is very pretty this time of year with wildflowers and flowering bushes full of blooms, and trees very lush and spring green.

After my hike I drove to the Scenic Overlook, a point on top of a retired landfill at an elevation of 880′. From this Overlook Point you can see DuPage County and the Chicago skyline far in the distance. I learned that methane given off by the landfill is used to power homes around the landfill. Cool!

Frankly, after a cold flat hike in gross weather I was happy to head home (with my favorite Chicagoland food – Portillo’s), but I was happy I got out and got moving, especially for Hike Like a Girl Weekend! Greene Valley has many more trails that I would love to try out, so I suspect this will be a repeat for me when I’m back in the area.

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 12 – Oldfield Oaks Forest Preserve

It’s so easy to miss nature in our everyday urban/suburban environment. While staying with a friend in Northern Illinois I wanted to get in a few hikes. I was shocked to learn that her house is near many DuPage County Forest Preserve sites. I’ve visitied this friend dozens of times and had no idea! For my 52 Hike Challenge Hike 12 I decided to visit Oldfield Oaks. The best part was I didn’t even have to drive. Oldfield Oaks is just a mile from where I was staying, turning this into a 3.7 mile hike.

Oldfield Oaks has two trails: North Loop (1.1 miles) and South Loop (0.6 mile). I hiked both, making a large loop around the Preserve. The trails are wonderfully wide, flat and covered in crushed limestone. You get a lot of bang for your mile here, passing through mature oak woodland, restored prairie and natural wetland.

All of the variety makes for great wildlife viewing. I was lucky to see quite a few critters on my hike. One that really caught my eye was the American Goldfinch.

These birds are hard to miss due to their bright yellow coloring, but hard to capture in a picture since I didn’t have my DSLR with me. I was lucky to be crossing the only footbridge on the trail just as a pair of ducks was floating by. I love the coloring of Mallard ducks and it was fun to get such a close look at these two.

They stopped close by to preen (clean) themselves, and I got a quick video:

The highlight of my trip, though, was the 20 minutes I spent with two deer who were chomping their way through some yummy spring ¬†leaves in the forest. I stayed silent and motionless, and while they definitely noticed (smelled) me, they didn’t run. I remained glued to my spot on the trail until they had moved on to deeper cover in the woods. It was a beautiful moment, connecting with nature.

You can see the “lead” deer here, munching away:

I loved playing some hide and seek with the following deer. I see you!

The rest of the hike back to the trailhead was quick, flat and quiet, except for the western-most part of the loop, where you get quite close to the road and hear a lot of traffic noise. I did stop when I noticed some nut shells on the ground. Once I got home I could easily identify the tree they came from by the pictures I took of the shells and the very distinctive bark of the Shagbark Hickory.

There are three log benches evenly dispersed along the trail to stop and rest, or to take a break to watch some of the many bird species in the Preserve. Many wildflowers were blooming throughout the Preserve, adding pops of yellow, white and purple to the landscape.

This trail is in an area with ticks, and bug spray is essential. I hiked on a cool but muggy May day and the trail was already buggy. I can only imagine this will get worse as the temperature rises. I was surprised at how many birds there were in this Preserve! If you’re a bird watcher I think you would love this trail.

This was one of my favorite trails this year and if I lived closer it would be a repeat. Have you been surprised by finding a great trail close to home? Tell me about it in the comments!

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 11 – Amicalola Falls

In my hike 10 post, I mentioned that committing to the 52 Hike Challenge had pushed me to focus more on my diet and fitness. I chose CrossFit as my method to get more trail fit, so I was super pumped when my gym organized a hiking trip to Amicalola Falls this weekend.

Amicalola Falls is the tallest waterfall in Georgia (actually tallest east of the Mississippi at 729 feet) and is included in pretty much every list of best hikes in Georgia that I’ve seen! Amicalola was named by the Cherokee who lived in this area pre-Trail of Tears and the word means “tumbling waters”. Amicalola State Park now serves as a popular starting or ending point for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, being only about 8 miles by trail from Springer Mountain, the official start/end point.

There are several trails in the park. Our group chose to hike from the Visitor’s Center to the top of the falls via the Amicalola Falls Trail, then traversed the Fitness Trail (perfect for CrossFitters with 20 exercise stations along the one mile loop), and returned to the Visitor’s Center via the last mile of the Southern Terminus Approach Trail, also known as the East Ridge Trail.

The Amicalola Falls Trail is considered moderate to difficult in part because of the 425 stairs leading to the top. Luckily we’re used to lunging and stepping/jumping onto objects so we were in good shape for so many stairs (but it was still tiring and sweaty)! You are right on top of the water action the whole way up, so even if you want to stop and take a breather on one of the many benches on the stairs, you still have a great view. The view from the top of the falls is spectacular, looking the 700+ feet down, and the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills in the distance. We were lucky to catch a clear day and could see forever. And FYI, conveniently there is a bathroom at the top of the falls.

At the top of the falls we stopped at a small creek that was perfect for having a snack and a few of us dunked out feet in the freezing cold but refreshing water.

After this little breather we hit the Fitness Trail. If you skip all the exercises this trail is a cinch, nice and flat, and wide/clearly marked. We got to show off our fitness tricks along the wat and had extra fun at the pullup bars.

Having completed the Fitness Trail we headed back to our cars via the rocky and moderately steep East Ridge Trail. This trail gave us some awesome views of the Blue Ridge foothills before descending into forest and eventually reaching the Visitor’s Center.

Only about three miles of distance covered in this hike, but quite a bit of elevation made this a great workout for a Sunday afternoon. There were some first time hikers in the group which was especially fun. What a great first hiking experience to conquer a tough trail and see a magnificent waterfall! Hopefully the hiking bug grabs them like it has me! Have you hiked Amicalola or other Georgia waterfalls? Tell me about it in the comments!

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 10 – Yosemite Valley West Loop

For hike 10 I joined a group of about 15 people for an educational hike of the Western Loop of the Yosemite Valley Floor trail. You can read more about my trip to Yosemite here, as well as check out my hike 8 and hike 9 which took place in the Valley as well.

Let me just start by saying this program with Pete Devine was wonderful. Pete seems to be naturally curious, brilliant and a gifted communicator. I felt very privileged to have spent an afternoon in the Valley with him.

Our hike was a 6-ish mile loop, starting at El Capitan Bridge, hiking west on the north side of the Merced River, crossing the Merced at the Pohono Bridge and heading back to El Cap on the south side of the river. This hike was jam packed with both huge highlights that everyone looks for when they visit Yosemite as well as little-known stories and off-trail details.

We started by spending quite a bit of time admiring El Cap and watching some so-tiny-they-were-barely-visible climbers. We also got to see Horsetail Fall which you may recognize by its other name when conditions are just right – the Firefall. The next showstopper was Ribbon Fall, the longest single drop waterfall in North America. As this fall is fed by snowmelt, in drought years the fall may not run. Luckily I visited in a year with almost average snowfall and the waterfall was magnificent.

Along our way to the Pohono Bridge we stopped at an abandoned chimney and fireplace built and used by the CCC, and had a picnic around this weathered but beautiful hearth. Another stop yielded a hidden surprise: a “Bedrock Mortar” which is a small indentation in the rocky ground used by Miwok women to grind up grain. It was fascinating and I was happy that this course included this as well as quite a bit of other information about the Native Americans in this area and not just the white men who “discovered” Yosemite.

Next up was Bridalveil Fall which was my favorite fall in the park. It’s not the biggest, but I loved feeling the power of this fall in the mist that hit us on the ground below.

We traveled past Leaning Tower, the Cathedral Rocks and Cathedral Spires, with the Three Brothers and Half Dome always ahead. We learned all about the rocks we were climbing over including facts about talus, frazil ice and different types of moraines. I was disappointed we didn’t see any bears, but we did pass by a deer having her lunch.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed my time in the park no matter what (understatement much? This visit was life changing), but participating in this event with the Yosemite Conservancy made the experience so much better. As part of the 52 Hike Challenge Adventure Series I am to complete contemplative hikes at the beginning, middle and end of the year. It’s a little early, but I may use this hike as my midpoint, because I sure did a lot of thinking about the last 10 hikes.

My Yosemite experience was overwhelming and I had a hard time processing everything around me. I was traveling solo and my entire first day in the park I was screaming inside my head, “HOW DOES THIS PLACE EXIST?!?!” I spent a lot of time on hike 10 thinking about just how different I am from hike 1. If I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have even taken this transformative trip without the challenge. Yes, I was hiking some, but joining this challenge and especially the Adventure Series has led me to take spending time exploring our natural environment much more seriously. I’ve found myself becoming more curious about my environment where ever I am, as well as feeling the pull to go deeper¬†into nature. I have started taking my diet and exercise more seriously in order to become more trail-fit. Unfortunately I’m not going to get mountain-climber-fit by taking a moderate 5 mile hike once a week and eating junk (wah).

I also experienced a deep and emotionally moving connection to John Muir and his writings and studies on this hike. I have never felt so moved and so able to understand and relate to another’s writing before. One of my big take aways and goals from this hike is to dive deeper into his studies, books and letters. If you’re not familiar with his work, I encourage you to check out some of his quotes. If you are familiar with his writings I would love for you to leave me a comment with your favorite Muir quote! I’ll leave you with one of my favorites below.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 9 – Mirror Lake, Yosemite National Park

Hike 9 was an adventure! It was an easy out and back 2.6 mile trail in Yosemite National Park. It was my last hike on a day that had started at 4AM. I was exhausted, but since this was my only chance to hike this trail on this trip I took it.

Panorama on Mirror Lake trail

Panorama on Mirror Lake trail including Royal Arches, Washington Column, North Dome and Mt. Watkins

I only mention how tired I was because I think by this point in the day it was making me a little loopy. At the trailhead there is a sign warning hikers that this trail is in mountain lion territory. Well duh, I was in the mountains in California. At this point I wasn’t even really worried about bear encounters which are much more common, but for some reason (exhaustion) this mountain lion scared me. Irrationally.

This trail is heavily used, but for most of the hike in to the “lake” (actually just a still section of Tenaya Creek) I was alone. Since I didn’t have my bear bells with me, I did what any irrationally-afraid-of-a-chance-encounter-with-an-animal person would do – I slapped my thighs with my hands as I walked and sang the chorus of Justin Bieber’s “Company” for 15 minutes. Turns out when I told other hikers about this “strategy” they all thought it was decent so…thanks Biebs?

Anyway, the hike. Easy and flat. Despite the boogeyman mountain lions I did enjoy myself. The hike is along Tenaya Creek which is very pretty, but the real reward is the clearing at Mirror Lake a little over a mile in. Since I visited in spring there was actually some water to be seen – the lake dries up in the summertime and it becomes “Mirror Meadow”. From the lake you have huge panoramic views of North Dome and Mt. Watkins.

The hike out was much more relaxed – I just jumped in behind a couple and stayed about 20 feet back of them. I’m glad I pushed through this hike and my completely irrational spook. The view from Mirror Lake was one I wouldn’t get again during my trip, and it helped snap me back to reality that (1) I needed more sleep and (2) the mountain lions weren’t hunting me.

Highly recommend this trail for any age or level of hiker. Have you ever done the Mirror Lake Trail? Or better yet had a run-in with a mountain lion?! Tell me about it below!

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 8 – Lower Yosemite Falls

Hike 8 was not only a way to check off an item on my 2016 Adventure Series, but fulfilled a DREAM trip. Yosemite. National. Park.

Hike 8 was only a small part of this trip. For tons of pictures and a summary of my overall experience at Yosemite, you can visit this post.

Back to Hike 8, I visited Lower Yosemite Falls for a quick but impactful hike.

The falls are running delightfully full this spring with near average snowfall. This was my first waterfall stop during my visit and it was a thrill. It might be faint, but the mist you feel as you approach the falls connects you to the power and life of the mountains.

I would love to return and hike the Upper Yosemite Falls someday. Maybe during the 2017 52 Hike Challenge?

Two Days in Yosemite Valley

One of my biggest bucket list items used to be a visit to Yosemite National Park. I had spent countless hours reading about the park, scrolling through Instagram posts from the park and gasping with excitement any time I unexpectedly ran into a reference to the park. So when I found out that my husband would be attending a conference in San Francisco and I was tagging along, my Yosemite side trip planning began almost immediately.

Because I was traveling solo, I hoped to join up with some sort of group or class to meet some people along the way. I found the perfect class from the Yosemite Conservancy. More on that later. Due to the timing of the class, I had to ditch my plans to take public transportation to the park and was pleased to find out that the drive from San Francisco to Yosemite is only about four hours and rental cars were cheap.

As soon as I cleared the SF metropolitan area the drive got exciting. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day that accentuated all of the natural features around me. Rolling open ranch land kept me company for some time until I reach the Stanislaus National Forest. The landscape became more and more impressive and I had to pull over quite a few times to take in the view, both at developed vistas and wider turn outs. At my first sight of a snow-capped peak very far in the distance I actually shouted with excitement. My first glimpse of Half Dome incited an even stronger reaction. Nearly in tears I made a few more pull-over stops before finally entering the park.

I decided to set up my camp first and then try to hit a few trails before sunset. My timing worked out perfectly. I was able to hike Lower Yosemite Falls, hike to Mirror Lake and visit the Welcome Center before dark. Because I was only staying one night, I decided to skip building a fire and whipped up a hot dinner on my camp stove. I should mention that while I had a car, this trip was done more backpacking style, as it was part of a longer two week ¬†ATL -> IL -> CA trip and I could only pack a backpack’s worth of gear. It got cold in the Valley, so I turned in pretty early after chatting with folks around the campsite for a bit.

My favorite part of any camping trip is that first emergence from my tent early in the morning. The air feels clean and new. The light is beautiful. A new adventure begins. I grabbed breakfast and headed out to meet my hiking group to learn all about the western part of the Yosemite Valley. Most people spend their time in the eastern part of the Valley, so this was a great way to see some less-traveled areas and learn from an extraordinary guide who is the Conservancy’s resident naturalist. The hike was over seven hours of nonstop learning and observing, and I can’t recommend the Yosemite Conservancy’s classes enough after attending this one. Some highlights included El Capitan, a hidden abandoned fireplace & chimney, Horsetail Fall, Ribbon Fall and Bridalveil Fall.

Following this all-day hike I returned to my campsite, broke camp and headed for San Francisco. I returned via Hwy 140 (I had entered the park via Hwy 120), a different but still amazingly beautiful drive. There were fewer vistas and places to safely turn off on this return, and I was hoping to hit the freeway by sundown, so I just kept driving.

All in all, my entire trip lasted about 42 hours, about 26 of those hours in the park. So if you’re short on time and not sure if the visit is worth it, you can certainly see and do a lot in a day or two.

While I covered a ton of ground during my short trip I can’t wait to get back ASAP for a number of reasons. First, the park is gigantic and I need a little more than 24 hours to explore in the backcountry (also, a permit is required). Second, because I visited in the early spring much of the park is closed or inaccessible due to snow cover at higher elevations. Visiting in spring is a wonderful time because the waterfalls are flowing with snow melt (and the summer crowds haven’t arrived yet!). Many of the falls are dry by mid/late summer. However, as seasons change, so does the park, and I would love to see how it differs through the year. Third, I would love to hike Half Dome, but this is another permitted activity and one I should probably train for. And fourth, I’ve got to get my husband there! Words and pictures don’t come close to communicating what Yosemite is really like, and I want him to have the experience of standing nose to nose with El Cap.

As a solo female traveler in the park, I felt safe at all times, even in the packed campgrounds. I stuck to hiking trails that were busy, but I imagine if you wanted to be truly alone, even in the front country, it wouldn’t be too difficult.

Overall, it was a life changing experience for me, and I would love to hear if you’ve had a similar experience or have visited Yosemite. What did I miss? What should be on the top of my list for my next trip? I’ll be writing¬†a post about each of the three hikes I took in the park as part of my 52 Hike Challenge with more detail and lots more photos so stay tuned for those!

To truly sum up my experience at Yosemite National Park, I will quote the so, so wonderful John Muir:

“Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers; even one learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds. This one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study and aesthetic enjoyment. It is good for everybody, no matter how benumbed with care, encrusted with a mail of business habits like a tree with bark. None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”

Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito & Tiburon by Bike

A few months ago, I challenged myself to do something deliberately active once every day. Recently, my husband and I visited San Francisco, and while I’ve been there several times, I’ve never biked across the Golden Gate Bridge. My husband had, and he thought I would really enjoy it. So in the spirit of staying active, we grabbed rental bikes¬†and off we went (our selfie game needs serious work).

We enjoyed the ride, stopping A LOT along the way (don’t miss the in between when you’re getting from point A to point B!), and the fantastic view from the bridge on a great clear day (hooray, no fog!). Instead of hopping a ferry back to the city once we made it to Sausalito we decided to park the bikes for a bit, do some exploring in Sausalito, then continue on to Tiburon and do some exploring there. We had taken several meals with us as well as plenty of water and lots of layers, so we were prepared for a long day out.

20+ miles later we returned the bikes and headed for dinner. We were a little tired and sore, but had a great day of adventure seeing some new parts of the Bay Area in a fun and active way. I’ll definitely keep bike rental in mind for future tourist outings – it was a fun, cheap, healthy way to cover a ton of ground in just one day.¬†Would love to hear what other suggestions you have for interesting, outdoorsy ways of exploring new places.

Traveling with a View – Don’t Miss the In Between

Ask someone which seat he prefers on an airplane and more often than not you’ll get a passionate response. I always go for the window seat. Some people say they feel too closed in and claustrophobic in this seat, but I actually have that issue when I’m sitting on the aisle. As a former map maker, I also like sitting at the window so I can appreciate the earth from above. As far back as the first grade I was drawing aerial maps of my neighborhood. So it’s no surprise how excited I get when my window seat comes with a clear day and incredible view.

Aisle-sitters, here’s what you would have missed on a recent trip from Chicago to San Francisco:

Pretty neat, huh? I was sad to see that every single other window shade in my cabin was closed for the duration of the flight. I suppose not everyone is as captivated by the mountains as I am, but it still seemed like even the most frequent fliers were missing out on some impressive scenery.

Since I was taking these pictures with my phone, I have GPS information for each of these locations. When I’m back on the ground and have some time I like to look up some of the more interesting locations, like Montgomery Pass, Nevada. For those who aren’t snapping pics from a GPS enabled device or who don’t have/want a window seat, a friend just told me about an app called Flyover Country. I’ve only looked at it from the ground so far, but it looks like a neat way to see what you (might) fly over. You enter your departure and arrival locations and the app shows you points of interest that lie inside a buffer around the line connecting the points you entered. Pretty cool!

I have to admit that flying over the mountains of the west was a little bit more exciting than a lot of my travel that occurs around the midwest. What’s the coolest sight you’ve seen from your airplane window? Share in the comments!