Hike Eighteen: Virginia’s James River

It was forecast to be a rainy weekend in the mountains . . . again . . . but we were still hopeful.  Each morning, we set our alarm clock then checked the weather, waiting with anticipation for there to be news that the clouds would break to let sunshine in.  Unfortunately, that never happened.

“What about the weather in Richmond?” I asked Andy after we checked the weather once more early Sunday morning.  He investigated.  “It’s supposed to rain later this afternoon but for now, it appears to be holding off.”  That was it — all we needed to determine we could pack our small packs and head towards the James River in the city.

We had found two river hikes earlier and were holding out for a day, just like this one, where we were prevented from traveling to the mountains to enjoy a trek through the forest.  This is where I’d soon learn that sometimes a river hike is just a grand as a walk through the woods.  Here’s more on the one we did:

  • Six-point-three mile circuit
  • 160-foot elevation gain
  • Two of Five difficulty rating

Since the elevation and difficulty level were low, we decided to increase the distance, doubling the hike’s length to over twelve miles.  As you may know by now, normally when we choose to challenge ourselves past what is originally planned, this would mean a troubling story follows: one that details how we were nearly mauled to death by bears or how we were one inch from being perpetually lost in the wilderness or even how we were about to perish due to a lack of water.  Fortunately, none of this happened.  The good news about choosing city hikes is that there are no bears or expansive forests, and water — along with a variety of other restaurant drinks — is plentiful and just around the corner.  Because of this, dear reader, you are left with essentially one of our first tranquil hikes and that means it will be told primarily through pictures.

Our path started on a sidewalk adjacent to raised train tracks.
IMG_1195.JPGIMG_1190.JPGParalleling this, a foggy canal, which we followed to the river.IMG_1193.JPGIMG_1201.JPG28170844_10160047906615711_20498288_oFrom there, we followed the grey under the train tracks towards the heart of the city.IMG_1200IMG_1205Quiet Spring was barely visible, pushing slowly up through the earth and blossoming on limbs.
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Soon, the city’s pipeline was in sight.  Slipping down the thin metal ladder, we walked on the grate above the pipeline, which slowly began to disappear under the high James River waters.
IMG_1221.JPGIMG_1223.JPGIMG_1236.JPGHigh waters mean strong rapids.  Flashes of bright orange could be seen under the surface as geese and duck feet paddled furiously in the opposite direction.  They tried to brave the force but were carried away with the current.IMG_1231IMG_1228IMG_1238IMG_1244IMG_1241IMG_1249.JPGIMG_1248

Close to the end, the James River rushed over the pipeline with waters so high and strong that we were forced to turn back and find another route.

Passing an area of murals, we soon made it to Brown’s Island.
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As we approached the Tredegar Iron Works — the start of our initial James River Hike — the train approached and slow-chugged past.IMG_1266IMG_1268.JPGWalking under the train trestle, we continued towards Richmond’s famous suspension bridge, which hangs underneath the Lee Bridge.
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The bridge is half a mile long and links to Belle Isle where our hike ignored the Belle Isle loop and instead headed straight towards the southside pedestrian bridge.
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There, we saw a beautiful blue heron that stood with its beak open until it spread its wings and flew towards an abandoned building, landing on the muddy river’s edge.IMG_1303IMG_1301IMG_1304IMG_1305IMG_1306

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The heron is at the bottom right of the larger building, standing in the middle of — what appears to be — a path that slopes down to the river.

From there, we headed down the Low Water Trail, only to learn that too was impassable due to high waters.  Secretly, I liked that we had to keep backtracking.  Because we were on a river hike, I thought there was nothing better than having a river so high and powerful that the water surged over our trail.
IMG_1313.JPGTurning back, we took the High Water Trail.  Initially it wasn’t quite as scenic due to the fact that it was bordered by this chain-link fence.
IMG_1316However, our path soon opened to a bit of woods with the trees so vibrant, I could have mistaken the season for autumn.IMG_1318IMG_1320IMG_1367IMG_1344IMG_1346IMG_1337.JPGIMG_1338As we walked, I cut invasive vines from the trunks of choking trees then took the English ivy, Oriental Bittersweet, Wintercreeper, more and wove them into a wreath.  This act reminded me both of my past and future: The past with my Papa on his farm, where my sister and I would stand for what felt like hours, watching him cut woody vines dangling from high tree limbs before twisting them, delicate in his large calloused work-hands, into wreath after wreath.  Once he would get them started, he would pass them to my sister and I, cutting more vines and handing them to us; but our little hands, too quick and eager, kept breaking the vines so that our wreaths had more sharp corners than smooth twists.
But my future, I saw that too as my engagement ring sparkled with my moving fingers: Me, making a smaller wreath for our wedding.  Those vines, ones we wove together during trails like this, creating a crown that I would wear above my head in lieu of a veil for our bohemian-ish wedding — outside, maybe in the mountains beside a trail leading to a overlook.
IMG_1353Carrying our wreath with us, we darted on cutaway trails toward the river’s edge.IMG_1335
A little over a mile later, our High Water Trail came to an end beneath the Boulevard Bridge.
IMG_1347IMG_1350Crossing railroad tracks, we climbed up to the top of the bridge before strolling down its walkway.  There, the milky brown waters of the James stretched around us and small flocks of Canadian geese honked above our heads.
IMG_1356IMG_1359IMG_1362IMG_1360Walking far above railroad tracks, we headed towards the Northbank Trail, which took us out of the woods and into civilization.
IMG_1364IMG_1365IMG_1371.JPGHere, we passed the first of three cemeteries before walking through a neighborhood.
IMG_1373.JPGLead by Richmond’s skyscrapers, we walked beside a passing train, cars brimming with coal.  Here, we headed towards the city, to the end of our hike.
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Many times, I believe the word ‘hiking’ is synonymous for ‘mountains’ — mountain trails, cliffs, rocks, overlooks.  Often I forget the true definition of a hike, and that is simply ‘a long walk.’  Over twelve miles later, with sore feet and aching legs, Andy and I came to the end of our quickly-decided hike.  As if on cue, the clouds opened and began to release a drizzle of rain.  I looked down at our boots splattered with thick clay and brown mud.
IMG_1382.JPGIt made me realize we don’t have to travel to the mountains for hikes.  Some days, it’s okay to take a different path because there is beauty everywhere.  You just have to look.

Gear Review: Daypack

When it is cold outside, I find myself choosing shorter hikes, and shorter hikes mean I don’t have to lug around my sixty-five liter pack.  For these quick trips, I grab my Osprey Daylite Daypack.
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  • Pros
    • Lightweight, weighing in at one pound.
    • Perfect size for a day hike.  Personally, I hate those middle-size packs (the ones around thirty/forty liters) because they are not big enough for a backpacking trip but they are too large for a day hike.  That’s why this pack is ideal.
    • It has a foam backpanel and then mesh over that so my back is comfortable and cool.
    • There’s a basic design here, which I love.  Companies are starting to do away with the ‘extras’ (extra pockets with extra zippers, extra straps, etc) because all of these additions equal weight.  This pack has a basic design — two zippers, two buckles — which means it is light.
    • Fits my three-liter hydration bladder perfectly.
    • Great multi-use pack: Because it is light and small, I often use it for purposes beyond hiking, such as my carry-on for flights.
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  • Cons
    • I’ll be honest, the need for a daypack may be in the past due to companies designing large packs with removable top lids that can be converted into daypacks.  Because of this — if you are serious about getting into camping and/or backpacking — I’d go straight for a large pack because it may come with a removable lid.  By purchasing the large pack first, you may automatically get your daypack too, which means you will end up saving on money.
    • This pack’s side mesh pockets for drinks needs to be deeper.  My drinks fall out often when I set the pack down or make drastic movements.
    • The small front pocket is very small.  It can essentially fit my cellphone and a couple other tiny bits but that’s it.
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  • Rating: IMG_2397IMG_2397IMG_2397 out of Five Vistas
    I feel a daypack should have two functions: One, be able to carry a minimal amount of gear and two, be able to carry drinks easily.  Because this pack scores low on carrying drinks in the sidepockets, it holds down the overall rating.
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  • Tips when tracking down your own daypack
    • Remember, if you want to get into backpacking, check out larger packs and see if they have a removable top lid before purchasing a little day pack!
    • Short and sweet: Be sure the pack’s liter-size suits you.  Test it out and if you don’t like it, take it back.  Don’t grab those medium-sized packs for day hikes because all you’ll find it that it is extra weight and has unused space.
    • Determine what your priority is for a daypack — If it is having space to put layers you shed, be sure you have room to do that.  If it is storing drinks to hydrate yourself, be sure there is space for a hydration bladder and side pockets that are large enough to secure drinks.
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Happy trails!

Hike Seventeen: Virginia’s Tibbet Knob

“Alright, Andrew.  I’ll set the GPS going but you’ll have to remember it only gets us in the area, not to the area — only in the area.  Okay?”

“Right,” he told me, starting the car.  “Let’s go.”

Off we headed to George Washington National Forest’s Tibbet Knob, our first hike of the new year together.

  • This is a four mile hike, though HikingUpward says it is only about three miles, which is incorrect.  (Oh, and for those interested, there is a thirteen-point-three mile hike that combines Tibbet with a second trail on nearby Long Mountain, but you need to get the shuttle between the two.)
  • It is an 830-foot elevation
  • Rated a Level Two of Five difficulty

On and on we drove, twisting up and down mountains, going as backwoods as backwoods gets.  Here’s an example: I needed to go to the bathroom so Andy stopped at some ultra-remote, hidden gas station on the side of a gravel road.  The place had one pump.

“I’ll be back,” I told him before literally jumped from his car then sprinting to the door as he parked.

BATHROOMS ARE FOR PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY!!!!!  The handwritten sign on the door yelled — all caps with way too many exclamation points.

I ran back to the car, cross-legged and fearful I may have to use my ‘appendage‘ and find a tree soon.  “ANDY!” I screamed.  “ANDY!  I NEED MONEY!”

“Wot?!  Are you alright!”  He looked alarmed, glancing over my shoulder as if a thief with a gun would show to steal the cash I was begging him for cash.

“I NEED TO PEE!  There’s no time to explain — just trust me.  PLEASSSE!”  His confused look grew but he unlocked the doors regardless, allowing me to rifle through his pack.  “Thanks!” I hollered then darted off a second time.  “Oh and do you want anything to eat?” I questioned over my shoulder.

“A Snickers!” I barely heard him say as I opened the door.

“Can we help ya find sum’m,” the older hunched woman said to me.  I didn’t see anyone else to make there be a “we.”  Regardless, her question wasn’t a question.  She glared with eyes that followed me around the shop and a scowl that showed she did not trust me.  Clearly my appearance screamed “I’m going to steal your toilet paper and waste your water.”

“I am going to buy a Snickers and . . . ” I looked around.  I didn’t care what I was going to buy.  I would have bought suntan lotion in the middle of winter if I saw it first.  ” . . . food — um, crackers and . . . ” I kept looking ” . . . more crackers.  Then I’ll go to the bathroom.”  I think this was the first greeting I’ve had with a stranger where I announced my toilet-destination less than a minute into meeting.

“Go on t’tha bathroom first then,” she remarked and aggressively pointed towards the direction.  Her expression changed but I couldn’t tell if she was angrier or a bit happier now that she knew I would be making a purchase.  Let’s be honest — This place did not indicate it got a high volume of traffic.  Or any traffic for that matter.

“Thank you!” I squealed as I dashed to the bathroom door.

BATHROOMS ARE FOR PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY!!!!! the sign repeated with the same crazy amount of exclamation points.  And this wasn’t the only message — The bathroom door was plastered, graffiti-style, with other hand-scrawled signs that were covered in packing tape in an effort to preserve the words.  I could feel the anger increasing, too, hear the train of thought, the conversation.  I imagined it went something like this:
“Ya know, Hank.  They may have ignored that first there sign.”
“Yea.  I reckon.”
“Hank.  We need ta do sum’m!  Those hooligans com’a inta MA store ‘nd use MA toilet paper ‘nd MA water ‘nd leave ‘out payin’ fa anythin’?!  I’m NOT havin’ it!  Those damn  misfits need ta PAY!”
And that’s where Hank and Scowl made the decision to vandalize their own property with signs.  THE TOILET PAPER AND WATER ARE NOT FREE!!!!!! message was adjacent to the WE HAVE TO PAY — SO DO YOU!!!!!” sign and the CAN’T YOU READ — YOU NEED TO PAY!!!!!!!!!!  It was the first time I felt scared — as in life threatened — when going to the toilet.  I knew they would get my money but their messages made me felt like a criminal, as if I had done something wrong and I began to rethink my desire to go.  Running out of time though, I opened the world’s most flimsy door.  And the lock didn’t work.  I tried again.  Still didn’t lock.  It must have been Protocol Two (after the messages) in which Hank and Scowl planned to forcefully rip the poor victim off the loo if that person didn’t identify the items he or she was going to buy.  I tried the lock again to avail so I dug into my pockets for my phone — Surely I could ask Andy to stand at the door — but I left my phone in the car with him.  Suddenly having a body guard at the door no longer mattered — What was critical was having a device to make emergency calls in case I was about to be murdered in the bathroom seemed very important.  Panic began to overtake me until I was about to pee myself so I decided to take the risk and use the bathroom.  If Hank and Scowl wanted to come in that badly, I determined a lock wouldn’t stop them.  To my relief though, I peed alone.

Closing the door behind me, I searched for the Snickers and crackers I mentioned earlier.  Scowl moved behind the counter.

“It’s $3.78.”

I went to grab my card (because who carries cash?) and she smiled a gummy grin as I moved.

“There’s a $5.00 limit.”

“Of course,” I told her, not the “of course” that sounds in agreement but the “of course” that made it known I thought she was odd and her bathroom was odd and her entire daggon store was odd.  You know, they say Southerners are nice and welcoming.  I am a Southerner; I like to believe this is true.  Here and now though, I was sorely let down.

I looked around.  There was bug spray coated in a layer of dust next to dog food which was above bread.  Grabbing another set of crackers, I walked back to the counter.

“$4.76,” she gummed.

We were on only-essential-words speaking terms so I declined to comment a second time and glanced around again — The bug spray still had dust on it, the dog food was still one of the most peculiar gas station items, and the bread was still — I don’t even want to know.  Skittles — I saw a large pack and let them fall in front of her.

“With tax, that brings your total to $7.12,” she smiled.

“Great,” I told her and I meant it — I don’t know if it was more due to relief that I didn’t have to buy the dog food or sarcasm at having to go through all those hoops just to pee but I was finally able to leave.

“L.  It’s scary here,” Andy confessed once I was in the car again and we were well on our way again.  “Let’s hope something doesn’t happen to my car because if it does, I have no doubt we are going to die a bloody and tortured death like those in horror movies.”  I couldn’t agree more.  “Can you tell me how much farther we have to go on this road?”

Taking his phone, I began to navigate, following the GPS which lead us down one-lane dirt roads . . . past a closed zoo . . . and into a massive circle, and that’s around when I started feeling carsick so I relinquished the phone and closed my eyes.  A few moments later, I was woken up to Andy’s un-amused voice.

“It says we have arrived, L.”  I looked around — We were in the middle of nowhere.  Not the “Let’s go on a hike in the middle of nowhere”, but actually and truly nowhere.

“We’ve arrived?  You mean at the destination?  You’ve been listening to the GPS for the exact spot?!” I asked incredulously.

“Yea?!” he questioned, equally incredulously.  He has this way of making the simple one-syllable word ‘yea’ carry multiple pitches, sounding something like ye-ah-ag, with each pitch breaking into another syllable so that the middle “ah” almost sounds as if he is clearing his throat for effect.  “It is the GPS, L!  Why would I NOT follow it?!”

“It’s not God!  We don’t have to follow it exactly!  Remember when I said, ‘The GPS was only going to get us in the area, not to the area?’  It was only meant to be a guide!”

This didn’t turn out so well and, as I am writing this, I am having a realization that the most used term Andrew says to me is “bloody hell” — used in the sense of “Bloody hell, why would I not follow a GPS?!” and “Bloody hell, I’d expect to at least be on the same road to where we were going!” and “Bloody hell  — Then where IS the area?!”

Turns out his solution to the problem was to drift, turning left and right down little mountain roads because surely, the hike would just pop up.  Still nothing though — no parking lot, no signs, no trail head.  To add to frustrations, we lost all service so were unable to find useful information or directions online.

“What streets are mentioned on the paper you printed?” he asked.

“You mean a cross street?”

“What’s a ‘cross street’?

“Oh Andrew.  Not now,” I told him because sometimes it is just too difficult to explain the differences in American speech and British speech.  “Okay — Streets I see are VA 675 and . . . Wolf Gap Campground . . . ?”

“Thanks.  That helps a tremendous amount.”

Ambling down more roads, we determined it best to backtrack until we got some type of signal and could plug in a better address.  About half an hour later, we finally had service so Andy punched in information until a better address showed.

“WOT!!!” Andy’s calm, dejected personality abruptly changed.  I didn’t want to ask.  There are times when his ‘what’ is a question and there are times when this word is simply an exclamation of disbelief.  This one was the second.  “It says we are 174 MILES AWAY!!!”  He looked at me.  I refused to give in and look at him.  “It says we are TWO HOURS AND THIRTY MINUTES from our destination!”  It’s not as if he did not have reason to be astonished; all the same, I’d never heard a person be more astounded.  “I thought you said it was in the area!”

“Andy!  I said it would get us in the area — not to the area!  You remember me saying that when we first set off, don’t you?”

“Bloody hell, L!  You are kidding?!  In the area?!   We are two and a half hours from the area.  I’ll have to fill up with petro twice.  Two full tanks.  That’s not in the area!”

Maybe my stubborness got the best of me.  “I mean . . . it is still . . . in the area” and I motioned to the vast nothing-ness of trees and dirt and dead grass.

“We aren’t even near the area!  ‘In the area’ is a couple miles away.  ‘In the area’ is we are on the same road.  In the area?!  We might as well be in a different STATE!”

I didn’t know what to tell him except that we were still in Virginia so that must have meant we were technically ‘in the area.’

“And why on earth was I even taking directions from you!?  Bloody hell — Something must be wrong with me!  To trust you with directions!”  I didn’t want to tell him I agreed but I did — That was the question worth answering.

Regardless, after moments on silent contemplation from the both of us, we determined we were ready to go home.  A five hour and fifteen minute drive total was not worth it for a short four mile hike.  So, just like that, first hike of the new year together — cancelled.

Unfortunately, due to looking at the directions and glancing down at my phone to check for service, I felt carsick again so I apologized and closed my eyes a second time while Andrew re-traced our drive — two hours and thirty minutes — back home.

“Hey, Andy?” I asked after I’d slept for about half an hour.  “How far are we now?”

“Close to two hours,” he responded before asking if I felt better.

“I do actually.  I really do.”  I hesitated.  What I was going to say needed to be broached lightly.  “So . . . you’re still heading home, right?”

“Yea . . . ”

“And we are still about two hours away, yes?”

“Yea . . . ”

“And the hike is about two hours away, right?”

“Yea . . . ”

“Well.  I was just thinking — The reason I called off the hike was because I didn’t feel good.  But now I feel much better after that nap.  So . . . if it’s the same distance for each direction . . . then maybe we should just go on the hike?  I mean, we put all this energy in so far . . . for . . . nothing . . . ?”

It was quiet for several minutes.  I waited.  I knew he needed those moments.

“Right.  So you’re telling me that after you slept and I was driving half an hour home that — now that you’re awake again — you want to go back on the hike?”

“I mean . . . only if we don’t have to go in a different direction?”

“No, we don’t have to go in a different direction,” his voice was even.  He wasn’t angry but it was clear he had to focus on remaining calm.  “We are almost at the point where we have to make this decision though.”

“Okay.  So what do you think?”

“Fine.  For the past half hour, I’d been determining what I was going to do when I got home — have some lunch, maybe play video games, go fishing — I was getting excited about that.  But you’re sure you want to hike now?”  I nodded.  “Alright.  Fuck it.  I wanted to hike.  That’s what we came out to do and I’d still like to go so let’s go.”  And with that, decision made — We were hiking again.

A long two hours passed until finally we were welcomed to our hiking spot with this sign that seemed to pop from the forest: WELCOME TO WEST VIRGINIA, as if on cue for Andrew.  I saw his facial expression out of my peripheral vision.

In the area . . . ” he puffed quietly.

“Not to the area,” I responded.

“Ohhh, I know, I know.  Not to the area.  How I know.”  Then he paused, turned to me, and smiled.  “You’re bloody hard work, you know that, right?”

I did.  And do.

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Notice that welcome to West Virginia sign . . .

Finally though, after our five hour car ride we were on our way!  And goodness, it was a gorgeous day.  Unlike my earlier hike that had below freezing temperatures, this one was sunny, warmer with a light coaxing breeze.  The sky seemed to be celebrating the temperatures too, throwing as many hues of blue above the gnarled limbs.
IMG_1036Following the yellow blaze trail, we set off for the Tibbet Knob overlook.
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I’m trying to correct my crazy hair, which had flattened under my knit hat I had on earlier.

Other than the crunch on fallen leaves, the forest was quiet, the way we adore on hikes.
IMG_1015.JPGPlus, the bare trees allowed the sun to almost guide us as the rays streamed in just right.
IMG_1029More visibility also allowed us to see we were bordering fantastic views of Big Schloss and Mill Mountain.IMG_1034IMG_1143IMG_1152IMG_1144IMG_1145
Because there are two short but steep rock scrambles, this hike is not as family-friendly; therefore, it is more secluded.  This left us feeling we had a private tucked away location where nature welcomed us.  Even the fuzzy green moss stretched before our feet, illuminating the trail.
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Pines fanned their needles beside us and the rhododendrons held delicate buds that waited for spring . . .
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We continued to weave around the yellow blaze . . .
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and soon came upon this (below) tree, which appeared to have been heavily scratched.IMG_1061.JPGIMG_1062The damage did not seem to be from a fallen limb as there were no limbs nearby and there were many wood chips on the ground, scattered at the base of the tree.IMG_1063The damage was also about five or so feet high and seemed to be fresh as the wood was a bright cream and did not have a large amount of dirt or debris covering it.  Andy and I think this was done by a black bear.  According to park rangers I’ve spoken to before, black bears in Virginia don’t hibernate due to temperatures never getting cold enough so they are actively walking the forests.  However, in all of our hikes we have never seen these markings so we are not positive.  I did do some research and found similar markings other hikers have posted. For instance, the hikers that had these below pictures all claim it was due to bears.
black-bear-markings.jpgmarked-tree-bear-clawAnyway, help us out and take a guess to tell us what you think caused these markings!  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Returning to our hike: I will say it seemed a bit more strenuous than it actually is.  Phrases like ‘short, steep rock scrambles’ and ‘one of two steep sections’ and ‘may require hand-over-hand climbing’ can be seen when investigating this trail beforehand, but we found it wasn’t that serious (this coming from a guy and girl that haven’t been out hiking in months).  Still, it does require a more energy than a casual walk in the woods so an occasional rock-touch was embraced by us as it made this hike different.  Anyway, here’s a good example of how it wasn’t a difficult hike — I apparently did not find the first rock scramble astounding enough to photograph as I see no pictures of it now that I am writing.

Anyway, onward we walked pass these tickets to our last rock scramble.
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After that though, we were instantly greeted with amazing views of the valley below and mountains ahead.
IMG_1082.JPGIMG_1083IMG_1091IMG_1108IMG_1110.JPGIMG_1126IMG_1087IMG_1112Dramatic drop offs allowed us to dart from one overlook to the other . . .before coming to sit at the cliff edge.
IMG_2506IMG_1122.JPGWe stayed on the top of the mountain for awhile, nestled into one another, before trekking back down the trail, an easy and calm hike.

Preparing to go, we got back into the car, started the engine, and headed out.  That’s when we came across this massive heron in a river of melting ice.
IMG_1161IMG_1012Life felt stable and good . . . until we got further on our journey when our two and a half hour drive ended up being over five hours as two major roads were closed.  Let’s just end here saying the trip back felt as if it were the never-ending drive from hell because every possible turn that could have lead us home was somehow thwarted.

But there was a huge bonus: Circling and turning down numerous roads allowed us to be beside this exploding sunset so that in the end, even though the trip there and back drug at a crawl, we had this to look at and know there’s only more in store for us as our 2018 hikes have just begun.IMG_1169.JPG