Saturday, June 12, 2010

Stories from the Road -- Latourell Falls, OR

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a fan of waterfalls. Mom was beginning to figure it out on our Pacific Northwest trip in 2008. After all, we spent the previous days visiting Upper and Lower Falls in Yellowstone and Shoshone Falls in Idaho. Little did she know I had an entire day of waterfalls planned in Oregon.

Columbia River Gorge is a beautiful section of northwest Oregon, near and east of Portland along I-84. The drive from Boise to The Dalles is one of my favorites in the country, and it preceded the day of falling water. I'll have separate entries on the other waterfalls in future posts, including the absolutely astonishing Multnomah Falls -- one of the best waterfalls in the world. We actually ended the day with Latourell Falls, after seeing five spectacular ones in the previous hours.

Latourell Falls was the perfect cap to the day, in part because you could walk right up to the waterfall -- which was generally impossible with the others. The waterfall is simple enough: a straight-down plunge that looks far less imposing than it actually is. The waterfall is very tall (>100 ft) and is extremely loud. Mom and I had to shout to communicate, but our visit was generally silent. When you see something so naturally imposing, you tend to just stare and admire.

Unfortunately, photographing the waterfall is difficult. It is extremely challenging to capture the entire waterfall in one photo, even from far away. This is because the vegetation does not provide many clear shots of the entire waterfall. Thus, I tried something else, which clearly failed in hindsight. I used the hand-held "profile" snapshot. I guess the sound of water was dizzying my brain by this point. Whatever the reason, you only get a sense of the height of the waterfall when seeing my weird faces blocking the more appealing site.

One thing about the Latourell Falls area -- it is very thick with vegetation. Columbia River Gorge is in a rain forest. In some ways, this was my first genuine rain forest experience, and it is something to behold. Plants are everywhere, and it is easy to understand the phrase "air you can wear" after walking from the base of Multnomah Falls to the top. By the time Mom and I reached Latourell Falls, we were exhausted. A day of frequent stops and lengthy hikes led to a gentle hike downward to the base of Latourell Falls. Actually, the trek to the base was a perfect closer for the day -- the waterfall was basically always in sight, or at least audible. The hike was generally flat -- and short (which was key).

And then the view opens up, right near the base, and the fortissimo crash of the water -- ahhhh.

Waterfalls are nature's version of violent change. The rocks the water batters endlessly erode at a geologically rapid pace. Harsh, beautiful, soothing. Three words rarely used in the same description -- perfectly comfortable with each other here.

Columbia River Gorge is a fantastic outdoor destination. Make it a top choice for your next vacation in America.


Stories from the Road -- Mills Lake, CO

Rocky Mountain National Park is my favorite place in America. That may change as I explore new corners of the country (Alaska, Hawaii, Mount Rainier, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Zion, Bryce), and retread some ground that at least competes with it (Glacier, North Cascades, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Kings Canyon) -- but right now, this place is my Fortress of Solitude. I have a permanent smile on my face when I go here, and the closest thing to true happiness for me has been visiting this place.

The reason RMNP does it for me is that it forces me to be outdoors. Sure, the drive on Trail Ridge Road is superb, and the views are thoroughly outstanding -- but the best views require hiking. This is a hiking park, and if you don't hike here, you don't get the true story behind the magic of this place.

When I was hiking here in June 2009, I ran across a woman who had literally hiked her shoes off. Her shoes had become so worn by walking through the forests and mountains that one of her shoes basically fell apart. The sole had disconnected from the rest of the shoe, rendering her barefoot. Given the rocky terrain and endless ground obstacles, this would seem to be an enormous inconvenience. As I walked up to her, quickly noticing her predicament, she looked up and smiled: "Can you spare a shoe?"


"Just kidding. Not the first time this has happened."

"How did it happen?"

"I've been out here for days. These shoes are five years old. Had to go sometime."

"Do you have a way to get back?"

"Yeah. I just follow this trail back to the trailhead."

"Uh, I mean, do you know somebody with an extra pair of shoes?"

"Nah. I don't think those are required to finish the trip, though."

"Oh. Okay..."

"Don't worry. I'm not new at this."

And she began to walk off. She turned around and said, "Have you ever seen a place like this?" She asked the question rhetorically, as she turned around and never looked back.

This is the story of RMNP. Substantial inconveniences are challenges, not obstacles. People smell the mountain air, squint when they see the snow-capped peaks, and bend their ear toward the rushing mountain stream. To experience RMNP means to surrender yourself to it -- become the park. Hiking here means briefly living here. The beauty of this place is in more than the visual -- it's becoming a part of the environment.

The day before, I hiked to Mills and Black Lakes. This day was a stormy one, with a strong thunderstorm drenching me between Mills and Black Lakes (a future entry will describe this adventure). The clouds were beginning to build by the time I reached beautiful Mills Lake. As far as alpine lakes are concerned, RMNP can do no wrong. My personal preference is for smaller lakes, typically in cirques. Mills Lake is relatively big and is not in a cirque. But this lake has a lot going for it, including a stupendous backdrop of Longs Peak and adjoining mountains. It also is relatively narrow, enabling views from multiple spots along the shore that are wildly different. Finally, it is within a gorge, making the area seem surrounded by natural giants. Mills Lake is an ideal setting -- typical for this park.

The magic of this place, for me, was the color contrast. The darkening clouds beginning to cover up a deep blue sky, blanketing a brown-to-metallic mountain ridge, atop a reflective lake, forest, and remnant snow from the previous winter. Every color is bold, clashing in spectacularly natural ways. And it is so silent here. The wind doesn't even make noise. The scene is a real-life painting.

In such a setting, the senses begin to overwhelm. The flap of a bird's wings can echo in your head for minutes. The small waves of the lake seem to crash into the shore. A contrail looks completely out of place. The smell of the trees is powerful. Dripping water from a snowmelt waterfall reflects loudly across the water. Everything is exaggerated here.

This is what I mean by experiencing RMNP. Staying in your car or walking to a lookout is not what this place is about. The sights are glorious everywhere. But the magic of RMNP is the environment. Walking in this place allows you to become primal, absurdly aware of your senses -- one with nature. It allows you to observe things you would otherwise skip over.

With traveling, the best times usually involve simple, good things. The rush of a stream, the trickle of water dropping off a cliff, the reflection of the sky in the water, the pattern of snow on a mountainside, the waves of wind in the grass, the leaves gleaming in the sun, the cheerful warble of a hidden bird. Simple, good things make up this place -- and there's no other place like it in America.

Pictures from the Road -- Happy Trails

Enjoy National Trails Day. Take a hike!

Jenny Lake -- Grand Teton National Park

Just above Multnomah Falls -- Columbia River Gorge

Top of Multnomah Falls

Bridal Veil Falls -- Columbia River Gorge

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Downstream of Zapata Falls, CO

Crater Lake, CO

Dream Lake -- Rocky Mountain National Park

Emerald Lake -- Rocky Mountain National Park

View from atop Mount Bierstadt, CO

Lost Valley, AR

Whitaker Point, AR

Mills Lake -- Rocky Mountain National Park

Black Lake -- Rocky Mountain National Park

Hallett's Peak -- Rocky Mountain National Park

Lake Haiyaha -- Rocky Mountain National Park

Black Mesa, OK

Highline Trail -- Glacier National Park

Roaring River Falls -- Kings Canyon National Park

Moro Rock -- Sequoia National Park

Stories from the Road -- Lake Taneycomo, MO

When you look at people from high above, they look no different than any other animal.

There is a viewpoint at Table Rock Lake Dam in southwest Missouri above Lake Taneycomo, which basically is the water downstream of the dam to the headwaters of Bull Shoal's Lake in Missouri and Arkansas. Lake Taneycomo may even be a misnomer to those who see it -- it looks much more like a river than a lake or reservoir. In fact, it is. Taneycomo is actually a part of the White River.

At this viewpoint, it is quite common to see a school of fishermen with fly rods casting and retrieving in such learned motions that you would swear they were involuntary. The overalls are a dead giveaway. In winter, wet suits make an appearance. Sometimes the clothes are flashy, even neon -- at others, perfect camouflage. Many times, there appears to be no rhyme or reason behind the recreation. Everyone seems to have a different approach, though chatting with them individually, they always seem to have great success.

These are trout fishermen -- a strange sight in latitudes this far south and in summers this warm. A companion location is Roaring River State Park (a future Stories from the Road entry), where the headwaters are from a deep, cold spring. Lake Taneycomo thrives from the cold, deep waters of Table Rock. Even though summertime temps commonly soar into the 80s and 90s, the waters of Taneycomo stay chilly enough for the trout population to thrive.

A hatchery is located at the dam and is worth a visit. I think hatcheries are amazing places -- thousands upon thousands of fish, requiring food frequently, necessitate a substantial amount of work and care to support the trout population in Taneycomo. The employees here know an uncanny amount of information about individual fish living in the hatchery, and their eyes alone indicate they love their jobs immensely.

From far above, the fishermen lose their distinctions. A neon hat may stick out, and an impatient fisherman may make a splash from time to time -- but they look like grizzlies waiting for a salmon to jump. Indeed, fishermen are hunters -- and they function no differently than an eagle prowling the water for its next kill.

I have many fond memories of Taneycomo. The canyon downstream of the dam is gorgeous. The first time I visited, I felt very, very small here. Taneycomo heads toward the south and east side of Branson, a frequent stop for Missouri visits. Here, Taneycomo boasts one of my favorite bridges of the area. The Lake Taneycomo Bridge is a beautiful open-spandrel bridge that connects Branson with eastern portions of Taney County. In one of my recent visits to Branson, I noticed the bridge had some structural issues. The website linked above confirms this, and renovation is planned next year. Hopefully, this bridge stays around for a long time.

Walks along Taneycomo now feature an open mall area on the east side of Branson. Though the area is obviously touristy, the walk is pleasant and the water simply a reminder of why this area is a relative hot spot of tourism. In fact, people almost involuntarily stare out at the water here. It is a part of their life -- a happy part of it.

A couple of mallards are a common sight on the water. They approach you in curiosity, then go about their business. They always seemed like happy birds. Given their surroundings, it's not that difficult to understand why.

The magic of this area is that it encourages people to become more primitive, more primal. The water makes things simpler, more basic. Days are spent fishing here, or taking a boat ride, or taking a cruise through the woods. The people who live here enjoy the simple things, and live among them. From far above, you can see that.

Lake Taneycomo Bridge

Shore walk on Branson side of Lake Taneycomo


View of Lake Taneycomo from the Table Rock Dam

The hatchery

Trout -- including an albino.

Lake Taneycomo -- Spring 2009

Table Rock Lake Dam