Monday, July 28, 2014

Holiday in the Sun

Time to catch up on the last 6 weeks or so.  It's been a busy time, with plenty of fun, not enough bicycling, and too much work - but such is life.

Diana, Kenny and I took a REAL vacation this year, the first one in too long.  After last years disappointing vacation attempt, where I got a killer cold the day we left, we were all ready for something a little more enjoyable this year.

So we packed our stuff and headed west.  It took a little driving, and we had to go through some nasty weather, but by the afternoon of the second day we were in the Badlands of western South Dakota.

Wind farm in Iowa.  We literally saw thousands of these during our trip.

It's an amazing experience driving west into the Badlands.  South Dakota takes a LONG time to drive across, and it's so flat, with very few features to differentiate one place from another.  Then you get to the Badlands, and it's like another planet all of the sudden. First of all there is now a vertical element to the terrain, and it can certainly be dramatic.

Inside Badlands National Park.
And then there are the colors on some of the eroded peaks.  Not really bright, but more subtle shades of yellow, green, orange and purple mark out different areas of sedimentation, now revealed.

Badlands National Park.

The incredible forms, and the fact that they're so densely packed together is something else that takes some time to get used to.  The ridges climb up like natural trails, and the valleys practically beg to be explored.

Kenny and I exploring.

And then there are the animals.  We saw a lot more bison than we did when we were here 15 years ago, as well as several pronghorn antelope and about a zillion prairie dogs (Diana's favorite).

10 cents worth of buffalos.

We saw these guys all over South Dakota.
Taking a nap.

This is the kind of place that I could spend some time getting to know.  There is a different feeling to the land, not nearly as hospitable to visitors as the forests back home.  The nearly total lack of trees on the higher ground is another thing that kept catching my attention.  I've lived my whole life in areas where treetops usually define the horizon, and seeing places where the entire view is devoid of woods is hard to get used to.

I didn't do any riding in the actual Badlands NP (no offroad cycling), but I did do a bit of back road riding up near Wall, South Dakota.  Interesting riding the gravel roads there, when you can see them going straight ahead of you for what?  Ten miles?  Just ride out till your halfway to tired, make a 180 and ride home.  Still some impressive looking country.

Sunset in Wall, South Dakota.
And if you're ever out that way, stop in the tiny town of Kadoka, just north of the National Park, and have lunch at the Aw Shucks Café.  Great food, great service - you'll like it.

After a couple of days in the Badlands we headed west just a bit further to the Black Hills National Forest.  We stayed in a campground at Whitetail Lake for a couple of days, and then at Grizzly Campground near Mt. Rushmore for a couple more.  It was great to be back in the woods again, even if there are huge swaths of dead trees from a mountain pine beetle infestation.  They're putting a lot of effort into controlling it, but the dead trees are widespread.

Diana and Kenny taking a breather while hiking at the Cathedral Peaks area, Black Hills, SD.

We spent some time hiking and exploring the amazing geology of the area.  Cathedral Peaks and the Needles are two must-see areas.  Coming straight from the other-worldly views of the Badlands, seeing the exaggerated rock promontories of the Needles is a jaw dropping experience.

Kenny in the Needles, Black Hills, SD.

I did get a chance to ride some in the Black Hills. There was a hike/bike trail around Whitetail Lake that went right past our campground.  It was fairly well maintained, and had some pretty steep, if short, climbs.  Riding through the relatively open forest was a blast, way different than the dense undergrowth we get in the woods in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

I also spent a little while riding a part of the Centennial Trail just a couple of miles west of Mount Rushmore.  There was a long, steep, technical, rocky descent to start out with, then a missed sign that left me wandering around on the roads, and finally another pleasant stretch through the aspens and back up into the piney hills.

On the Centennial Trail, SD.
This is our third time to the Black Hills, and I can definitely see how people come to visit and end up staying for the rest of their lives.  The landscape is stunning and the people are pleasant - what more can you ask for?  We stayed for almost a week, and I would have been happy spending the next week there too.
But instead we headed south across Nebraska and headed into the Rocky Mountains at Estes Park.  If the difference between the South Dakota plains and the Badlands is jarring, the difference between the Colorado high plains and the Rocky Mountains practically knocks you off your feet.  We headed into the mountains by following the Big Thompson River up.  There was some immense flooding there last year, and the signs are still all around.  A massive amount of rebuilding has already happened, but it will still be years before the area recovers fully.

Wreckage on the Big Thompson River, CO.
When we got to Rocky Mountain National Park I started having trouble breathing.  It's been 15 years since I was last at this kind of altitude, and unlike last time I was having a lot of difficulty adapting.  After spending some time in the park we decided against the fantastic one-way road up to the pass at 11,000+ feet - I was having enough trouble breathing at two thousand feet lower than that.  It was kind of a bummer, and I felt like I was ruining the day for Diana and Kenny, but there really wasn't another choice besides heading back down to the plains.  I'd love to come back again some day when we had way more time, and try to gradually get used to the heights over a couple of days.  At least Kenny got to experience the mountains, even if it only was for one day.

Diana and Kenny in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Since we had headed down out of the mountains well ahead of our schedule, we took a little more time heading east.  We camped at a state park near Sterling, where the campground was totally devoid of trees - a completely surreal experience to this forest dweller.

Kenny at the high plains campground, Colorado.
We ran into bad weather again crossing Kansas, and actually spent a night in a hotel - all the rest of the trip we tented.  But the wind and rain were truly epic, and we were all spent from a long day, so it wasn't that hard of a choice. 

From there we headed further east and ended up at Brown County State Park, in Indiana.  This park is famous across the middle of the country as a mountain biking destination, and has been designated an IMBA Epic trail.  We camped in the park for a couple of days, and I had the chance to explore some of the trails. 

At first I didn't really expect much - after all the terrain isn't really much different than what we have at home.  After my first ride I got it - these trails were special.  They were designed extremely well, having the best flow of any place that I've ever ridden.  They were built well, with no short cuts and time tested methods.  And they are maintained well - I could see dozens of instances where nicks were taken out of low spots in the trail to prevent puddling.  It rained the day we got there, and by the next morning the trails showed almost no sign of it.

By this time in the vacation I must have been getting pretty tired of taking pictures all the time, because I really don't even have a single good shot of Brown County, much less the video that I had intended to take.  The truth of the matter is that it was just so damn much fun riding the trails that I didn't really WANT to stop and take pictures, or spend my time messing with the video camera.  All I wanted to do was RIDE.  Truthfully, I do feel bad that I didn't capture a single frame of the trails at Brown County - but it was just too much fun to stop.

We finished out the two weeks with a visit with my wife's sister and family in Columbus, and then made our way back home.  There were a few issues with equipment, and then the problem with me at altitude, but besides that everything went very well, and we all had a great time.  Kenny was glad to be done with the long driving days, and probably doesn't want another travelling vacation for a good long while.

It wasn't easy getting back into the groove once we got back home.  I had turned off my cell phone on the first day of vacation, and hadn't turned it back on for two weeks.  Getting used to all the daily crap we have to deal with wasn't unexpected - it just wasn't any fun.  Add to that the fact that it seems to rain an inch at least every three days - way more than enough to put the trail off limits - and July was a hard month to get into.

When I finally saw that the trails out at West Branch were posted as being dry enough to ride I headed out to get in some miles.  Turns out that I was on the trail for less than an hour when the skies opened up and heavy rain chased me right back out of the woods.  All that rain did make the creeks come up, so I got in a nice easy whitewater kayak run on Slippery Rock Creek, but I need some mountain biking to keep happy.

Finally it got to the point where my brother and I just decided to head out and find some trails.  We had hoped to drive back to Brown County, but the weather forecast for the weekend was pretty depressing for that area.  We were juggling possible destinations up until the last day, but finally we decided to limit it to a day trip and head over to near Warren, Pennsylvania to ride Morrison Trail in the Allegheny National Forest.

Morrison Trail is an old hiking trail that drops down a tiny creek watershed for about 500 vertical feet, then turns back uphill on a tributary, and completes the loop by cutting back across the ridge between the two.  The scenery is classic Allegheny foothills - mature forests, sometimes hardwood, sometimes mixed, across a hemlock lined creek valley.  The initial downhill was amazing - lots of steep technical sections, lots of rocks and roots.  There were also lots of wet drainage crossings and a couple dozen trees down, but when you ride this kind of trail you have to expect some obstacles.

Me riding downhill on Morrison Trail.

Matt enjoying the trail.

After a couple of miles of downhill you have to head back up.  Parts of the climb up were rideable - even by an old wheezer like me.  But there was a LOT of hike a bike on the way back, much of it up really steep trails.  This is not a trip for people who despise the slog, because the climb out is tough and seems long.  But all in all, this is a great trail and I hope to return to ride here again in August.
Great to be back riding in the Allegheny National Forest.


  1. Ahh, wish I would have known about your visit to Estes Park, we could have gotten lunch! Next time you come out let me know and you can acclimate to the altitude for a day and then I will be your personal guide up onto Trail ridge road, (we'll drive!! I won't make you ride!!)
    We went to Black Hills a couple of times when my boys were in scouts and we went to summer camp up there. My friends that I rode the Katy Trail with this summer have wanted to ride the Mickleson rails to trail up there in the Black hills sometime, so I will get there again here in the next few years.
    Great post. It is great to spend vacation time with your family!!

    1. I'd love to head back out that way again, ideally with more time to spend. It was disappointing to have that part of the trip cut short, but no use complaining. Thanks for the invitation, and I hope I can take you up on that some time.

      Loved the Black Hills. We saw parts of the Mickelson Trail, and I had originally planned on riding part of it, but things change on the fly so I missed out on that.

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  3. Brown County was a constant weekend destination when I was a student at Indiana University. A magical place, to be sure.

    Rain. Some tropical storm has us under constant rain and both (!) my bikes are down and it would be good to saddle up and head for the mountains right now.

    When it is all said and done, Swampy, family time is the only thing. It sounds like a good summer.


    1. Amen to that. It was a good thing to get a chance to see some new horizons with the boy. He's seen a lot of eastern forests, and now he's had a taste of the plains and the mountains. He really wasn't fond of all the drive time, but mostly accepted it with good grace (amazing in a teenager). Next year I'm thinking about the north woods...

      Brown County was just great. My wife loved it, even though she's not a mountain biker, and is already talking about going back. Its beautiful country out there, lush forests and rolling hills - almost has the feel of home.

      Rained again last week, so I parked the bike for the weekend and went whitewater kayaking. Of course I missed riding, but it was absolutely a blast on the water, and I feel like I'm getting my kayaking moves back a bit. Good times.

      Steve Z