Tag Archives: exploring

Exploring Flattop Mountain

Back in 2009 we visited Rocky Mountain National Park to hike to Flattop Mountain Trail and we did that successfully. Unfortunately that was done after a long day of exploring so there wasn’t much energy to continue further. I’ve wanted to attempt the trail again if the opportunity presented itself. Well, recently we made the opportunity happen and once again found ourselves on the trail. Surprisingly the beginning of the trail looks very different from what it looked like seven years ago as proven in the next two photos.

Flattop Trail in 2009

Flattop Trail in 2016

The top picture was taken in 2009 and the next one taken just a few weeks ago. I can find now similarities to them which made it a little challenging to begin this hike since there wasn’t really recognition of the beginning of the trail causing me to question if we were on the right path or not. Especially since it was still dark when we got to this point. Trusting in the trail signs we pressed onward towards the top.

Flattop Trail Head when we began our hike from Bear Lake

Our hike on Flattop Mountain began at 4:30am as we passed Bear Lake. The scene is pictured above. In the dark, armed with flashlights, our journey on this mountain trail began to climb towards to top. In a short time we began to see light on the horizon however the trail swallowed by trees continued to be dark requiring artificial light sources to make our way over rocks and tree roots as we went up, up, up, to the sky.

Sunrise from the mountain

As we continued on this trail we could begin to feel the effects of the ever thinning air making it more difficult to breath and hike at a fast pace. Increasing our breaks while we trekked higher the trees began to decrease in size indicating the approaching tree line where they can no longer grow in the cool mountain air. Daylight finally penetrated this forest trail just as we broke above the trees bringing spectacular views of the mountains surrounding us with Emerald lake in the valley below. Our climb began below this lake and now look how high above it we are. Progress.

Overlooking Emerald Lake

Marmots appeared from the rocks in the mountain to greet us as we passed their homes. They made for a more interesting hike once reaching the tundra of the alpine zone on Flattop Mountain. Watching as they climbed in and out of boulders and finally on top of them to grab the warmth of the morning sun before gathering food for the day was extremely entertaining.

Marmots came out to greet us

They would definitely not be outdone by their smaller tundra mates – the Picas. These smaller alpine mammals would give a sharp squeak but would not always come into view as they moved between the rocks and boulders. If you watched long enough there would be a glimpse of movement and out would come one of these soft Picas running across the surface as they gathered portions of plants to store in their nests giving another squeak as if to say good morning while we passed.

Picas roaming around on the tundra

After several hours of hiking and a number of breaks to catch our breath we reached the summit of Flattop Mountain. I always imagine mountains as these immovable pieces of solid stone reaching towards to sky. It surprises me as we walk the top of the mountain that the top is scattered stones and boulders showing they are not as solid as originally perceived. The elements continue to work on these mountains breaking them apart slowly over time. For now it’s a great challenge to climb to the top of these massive rock formations.

Reaching the top of Flattop Mountain

In our picture above you see Hallet Peak to the right which is the next mountain over and one we briefly discussed climbing but decided this was enough for today as the real  challenge rests in the left of this photo – Longs Peak. A hike for another day. With our goal achieved for today we spent some time exploring and taking in the sights of our amazing surroundings, and watching some of the animals as they went about their business for the day.

One of the vast views from up here

After a little rest and energizing food we ventured to the nearby Continental Divide Trail. I’ve read about people hiking this entire trail covering over 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada and wanted to walk a little of this beautiful trail. There were large cairns marking the trail most likely to show where it is during the spring and fall when snow could cover it making a more challenging hike and increased likelihood of getting lost. Further exploration on the CDT was tempting but it was time to head back down the mountain. With our destination successfully found we began the descent back to Bear Lake.

Exploring the Continental Divide Trail


Mystery Cave

A few years ago I searched for caves of Minnesota, after exploring Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and found Mystery Cave. This is a state park which offers tours through the largest caverns of the cave located in the bluffs of Southeastern Minnesota. We’ve attempted to plan a visit when we first discovered it but plans fell through so we kept it on a list of “someday” things to do. Fortunately this “someday” event actually was achieved this summer. We hosted a French student for a few weeks and thought this would be an enjoyable place to show some of the many faces of Minnesota. He had never been in a cave before and was fascinated with it.

Walking through the caverns carved by water

Caves are very fascinating places and this one was no different. As is common, it is cool in Mystery Cave which felt nice on a hot summer afternoon. After descending a couple of flights of stairs we were transported into another world. Here is complete darkness surrounded by layers and layers of stone carved over thousands of years of water carrying away each piece it can grab until it can no longer flow through this area. These natural tunnels continue to transform yet today as water from the surface still drips through these rocks altering their environment.

Veins of Mystery Cave

As this water drips down the stone walls it carries with it minerals from above which separate from the water as it flows down these walls creating these veins throughout the caves giving them an appearance of life. The veins of Mystery Cave give it a beautiful and amazing ambiance adding to the wonder around each new cavern. What will this cave look like in a thousand years from now? What will be the same, if anything? What did the cave look like a thousand years ago?

An underground lake

This is the first cave I’ve toured that I saw an underground lake. While it was smaller than I was prepared for it was incredibly clear and had a very deceptive depth that could only be realized by shining light through the surface and moving it around. Even then the deception required a focused realization and understanding of what you are viewing.  We continued through some of the narrow passageways returning to the beginning and climbed out to natural daylight squinting while adjusting to it once again. It was cool enough inside and hot and humid enough outside that everyone’s glasses fogged immediately upon exiting the cave making those with corrective lenses laugh as this usually happens during the winter, not summer.



Spring is a Time for New Life

While out and about recently I’ve been privileged to see life emerging to grow and flourish in the abundance of spring. Some has been persistently pursued while others have been fortunate surprises while exploring local lakes and forests during the beautiful days of May. I feel so lucky to have been a part of life in the greening woods and warming waters to share in the lives of animals as they begin to experience the world around them.

A pair of wood ducks enjoying an evening meal together

My goal is to go unnoticed by the animals around me so they will continue about their daily routines naturally. Usually I’m unsuccessful in this goal at first but eventually I become a part of the forest over time and the life around me goes on about their business as if everything is normal. At least that’s what I attempt to do and it’s a great feeling when I’m successful at it. Usually animals begin to notice I’m there as I move the camera to get pictures of their activity but I try to be as stealth as possible.

A Trumpeter Swan persistently incubating her eggs in her large nest

This becomes more challenging because of equipment limitations. Often to get the best pictures, wildlife need to be within 20 feet of me as my zoom lens is limited to this distance currently. I struggle with acquiring more equipment at a considerable cost in many cases and accepting the limitations of what I am fortunate to have. As other photographers will often say, there is always another piece of equipment to get and another lens they would like to get to make certain pictures easier.

Sandhill Cranes protecting and teaching their young

Going through the progression of these photos, the first picture is a pair of wood ducks paired up ready to nest and lay eggs. Next is a trumpeter swan sitting on the nest for the long process of incubating eggs. Third is a pair of sandhill cranes teaching their young what to eat and how to stay safe by watching and avoiding threats. Below is a group of baby ducklings skirting across the lake grabbing food along the way. The larger photograph above is of a baby coyote exploring the forest around it’s den while mom is sleeping in the den.

Ducklings speeding across the lake


Meandering Through the Smoky Mountains on a Horse

Exploring a National Park by driving and hiking through it is the most common, riding a horse was something different for us and what better place to do that than Great Smoky Mountains National Park? There are a couple of horse stables in this park. The one we chose was Cades Cove Riding Stables because that was the one closest to where we wanted to explore that day.

The Rhododendrons were just starting to bloom

Our ride lasted for about an 45 minutes through beautiful forests of the Smoky Mountains so it was long enough to enjoy it but not too long where those of us not use to horses would get sore. The day began cloud covered with the threat of rain but we managed to stay dry and see peaks of sun as the ride continued making for a great summer morning while taking in these surroundings. Several of the Rhododendrons were just beginning to bloom along the trail providing for an even prettier landscape to ride through.

Beautiful scenery on a beautiful summer morning in the Smoky Mountains

The trail leader was very knowledgeable about the horses and trails and took care of any potential issues with the horses quickly. Some horses just don’t perform as well next to certain other horses so sometimes it’s best to keep them separated in a group. Once in awhile a horse wants to go at a different pace than the rest of the group and needs to be put back in their spot to follow the group for the best and safest ride for all. If your in Great Smoky Mountain National Park and are interested in spending time on horses, I definitely recommend Cades Cove Stables. And NO, I was not compensated to say that.

Riding through one of the numerous streams

The Frozen River

After a day snowmobiling through Northern Wisconsin we (my cousin and I) wanted to take in a waterfall or two coated in fresh snow so off to Gooseberry Falls we drove. That was the last weekend of the season the trails were open for snowmobiling as it worked out. How fortunate for us?! I was expecting the river to be flowing freely surrounded by fresh snow for some very picturesque landscapes. To my surprise the ice was still well intact over much of the river and waterfalls. For a comparison I’ve included a photo of these same waterfalls during the summer.

Surrounded by Ice

I’ve never been to this area during the winter to see what the waterfalls look like iced over so this was interesting to explore in a completely different perspective. Seeing the waterfalls frozen made me wonder what the process looks like during the winter as the ice gets thicker and thicker. I was also surprised how many people were visiting the falls and taking in a beautiful winter day exploring this state park.

Gooseberry Falls in the summer

Most of the visitors were hiking around the falls, which is what we were doing while some were there to photograph the ice covered waterfalls and one individual was climbing up and over the frozen portions of the falls. Taking some time to talk with him, he says this is his winter version of rock climbing, an activity keeping him out and about enjoying life. It was fun to watch as he picked through the ice with axes and cleats.

Climbing the ice walls

While hiking through the state park I discovered trails in locations I wasn’t aware of trails before. I’ve been to this state park a number of times and never discovered a trail on the opposite side of these waterfalls on top of the cliff overlooking this gorgeous landscape. The views from this newly discovered trail are well worth the extra distance required to get to them. That’s were many of these pictures were taken from. You can see the different angles between most of the waterfall photos and the summer shot.

Peering inside the layers of ice covering the river.

Because one of my goals for 2016 was to photograph snowflakes, I’ve started to look more closely at some of the details in the ice and snow this year. Especially melting ice and snow. The picture above shows the layers that make up ice covering the river as portions are beginning to melt. Some of the freshly fallen snow was beginning to melt and gliding down the ice creating interesting trickles across the several inches of ice still coating the river.

More layers of melting ice.

As we continued our hike around a portion of the Gooseberry River I found a few other locations providing a snapshot into the layer upon frozen layer of water making up this thick sheet of ice. In the above photograph you can see the layers underneath the top layer which is still coated in snow. The darkest portions are running water flowing underneath all of this ice. I believe the water depth in this area is several feet so while it looks relatively shallow, that look is deceiving.

Waterfalls frozen in place

Making our way to the lower falls you can see the magnificent rocks covered in all of this ice. in our explorations we confirmed water running under much of this as there were a few spots open to the water underneath as well as sounds of rushing water muffled by layers of ice. There were some great shapes created from the freezing and thawing during the recent days. It’s interesting to look at all these little details that combine together to make this amazing ice walls. Sometimes I forgot I was standing over running water as I was attempting to photograph these small icicles and crystals and their curious shapes.

One of the many icicles making up this huge ice wall.

Darkness was approaching on this already cloud covered light and the wind was growing colder so it was time to exit this beautiful ice river and falls. Before we did I was amazed further by the resilience of trees that grow out of these rock ledges as in the winter they are also ice covered. How they continue to grow surprises me and I work with plants almost every day. These tree roots and icicles clinging to the side of this stone wall made for a sight you don’t expect to see.

Tree roots growing through ice and rock

Gooseberry Falls State Park has a beautiful visitors center with great information about the North Shore of Minnesota but was unfortunately closed as we were exiting. In the absence of park personnel, we were sent on our way by some of the park residents. Although they seemed to prefer our departure instead of wanting to be interacted with.

Local resident deer sending us on our way

Agate Fossil Beds

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument one of the smallest national parks we’ve visited but an interesting place to explore with some surprising things to learn. Before finding this place because of the Monopoly board I had no idea that fossils have been found in this part of the Midwestern United States. Once again another pleasant surprise from our Monopoly adventures.

Some of the mammals fossils

This park requires only a few hours to explore but has much to offer for it’s size with information on the significance of the area for the Sioux as well as fossils to view both in the visitors center and along trails. In addition there are great views of the plains that make up large expanses of the landscape in western Nebraska.

Looking out at the vast prairie

One of the unique fossils which has been preserved in this national park are corkscrews dug deep into the earth by a type of land beaver that use to reside in these hills. When you see them you can’t help but wonder why they dug these burrows in the shape of a corkscrew. I question if it was to help them get in and out of their underground home. Maybe they couldn’t climb in and out of these deep holes any other way. Still, these corkscrews called, daemonelix or devil’s corkscrews, added a lot of steps each time entering and exiting these dens. A workout just to get up and go outside and retreat back into shelter. Probably worse than stairs in our houses.

There are fossils hiding in these hills

Waterfalls at Tettegouche

High Falls on the Baptism River

While hosting a student from France this summer we took a couple of days to head to the North Shore of Minnesota to see Lake Superior. A great place to stop is Tettegouche State Park to see both Lake Superior and the highest waterfalls entirely in Minnesota (there’s one slightly taller but it borders Minnesota and Canada). This was in the middle of August so the waterfalls are not gushing with as much ferociousness as earlier in the year but still a beautiful sight. It was raining and nearing nightfall during our time here which actually allowed us to have these falls all to ourselves. A rare opportunity this time of year.

Jumping into the Baptism River at High Falls

The Baptism River is cold (yet warm when compared to Lake Superior) people like to swim near the falls and jump from a nearby cliff. A dry towel to wipe the water from your skin and warm clothing to put on shortly after was a good idea on this day as the temperature was not very warm and there was no sun to warm up in so hypothermia was certainly a possibility. If you’re ever in the area I highly recommend a stop at Tettegouche State Park to explore the high falls. There is a short hike of just under a mile to get there from the nearest parking lot which is worth it if you can make it. There are a couple of smaller waterfalls to see if you have the time to hike to them. Darkness was approaching so we were unable to check out the rest of the smaller waterfalls. That will have to wait for another time.

Up the River to The High Falls

The Place of a Thousand Drips

Waterfall Stream at the Place of a Thousand Drips

On our last morning exploring Great Smoky Mountain National Park we decided to find one last waterfall or two that are listed as waterfalls that you can drive to on our Waterfalls pamphlet we purchased the day before at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. This is a stop on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail which is basically a hiking trail for cars for those unable or unwilling to hike. There are several places to stop on this trail and hike if you desire otherwise there’s much to see from the comfort of your vehicle. I don’t recommend bringing a large RV through this area as the roads are one land with several tight corners.


There is a pull off on the right side of the road which you have to cross to see this tiny waterfall. At least it was a tiny waterfall while we were there. Looking at other peoples pictures of this place show much more water flowing during wetter times. In order to see the waterfall up close we had to scramble up a few steep rocks which is just the sort of challenge made for a younger person and so up we went. Once near the falls you could see many areas where water was dripping through the moss making its way eventually to a small stream in on to one of the many rivers in the park. It was easy to determine that we were there during a dry time as the moss which clings to the sides of rocks was beginning to dry down in the summer sun. During the wetter times this climb may be too dangerous to do because of the slippery rocks so a definite advantage of the lower water flow.

Viewing the Falls From a Nearby Small Cave

Early Spring in the Woods

The First Flowers of the Spring

We had a few absolutely beautiful spring days with temperatures in the upper 60’s to lower 70’s and I couldn’t stay inside and take care of the many things needing attention. I had to escape to the outdoors and go exploring. The first flowers of the spring were just beginning to open up providing a comfort in knowing that winter has lost its grip once again and it is time for our landscapes to come alive. In searching for these early signs of life I learned that the flowers that bloom before the trees leaf out are called ephemeral flowers. Time well spent avoiding the to-do lists as these types of days are limited each year and must be taken advantage of if at all possible. The photo above is of bloodroot growing under the protection of a massive oak tree. Below is moss which has the old spores from last season along with new spores for the current season. The last photo is of a rue anemone. All of these flowers opened up while I was exploring the woods they were found in making it fun to witness.

Moss Actively Growing


More Ephemeral Flowers

Exploring Louisville Kentucky

Louisville Kentucky

At first thought, Louisville Kentucky is not in a lot of peoples list of places to go. That is except for one day a year – The Kentucky Derby! We took a weeklong trip recently and once we started looking at what there is to do, we found plenty to keep us busy. The number one attraction on TripAdvisor is the Mega Cavern. This was certainly on our list but we never did make it. If you’re looking for a unique adventure, this would appear to be it with underground ziplines and ropes course. For sports enthusiasts there is the Louisville Slugger Museum and factory. That was something I forgot about until getting to Louisville and seeing signs with the bat on it.

Walking Bridge Over the Ohio River Connecting Kentucky and Indiana

Moving on to areas to explore that we personally experienced. In the past few years Louisville has put quite a bit of emphasis on rebuilding their riverfront and they have done a great job providing a place to relax and get out and enjoy an afternoon or sunset along the Ohio River. Currently they are still working on improvements to make it an even better experience. You can walk across the river on an old rail bridge and go from Kentucky on one side to Indiana on the other. It’s a great bridge to enjoy the sights with the beautiful Louisville skyline in the background. The only thing that would have made it a little better would be to have a Kentucky State sign on one end and an Indiana State sign on the other. There really isn’t a good place to take your picture by state signs as the entrances to the states are over a river.

Henry's Ark Tour Guide

If you like animals, Henry’s Ark in a Louisville suburb is a nice place to spend a couple of hours. This is a nice place especially if you have kids. For our tour we had a special tour guide that the kids really enjoyed – one of the resident turkey’s. For a little faster paced adventure there is the largest go cart track in the world at Kart Kountry. Their track is 1.5 miles long and quite challenging. They offer two different types of go carts. Most are the average cart while you can upgrade to their Thunderbolts and pass many of the other drivers on the track. Warning: you have to have a driver’s license to upgrade as these definitely go faster and you need to know how and when to pass the other carts. We all enjoyed the challenges this track offers.

Kart Kountry

While in the area, a visit to Churchill Downs should be on your list if for no other reason than the historic nature of this place. There are tours offered throughout the week with visits to different areas of the racetrack. I couldn’t believe the amount of money horse racing is worth. I’m not a big horse racing fan but there was much to learn about the sport at the museum. We were able to pet one of the retired race horses at the completion of our tour making this more interesting and fun for the younger people. Along with the numerous education displays there is an area in the museum where you can practice betting on taped races and even a game area where you can get on a simulated race horse, select your type of horse and race against others. After a visit, watching the Kentucky Derby (or watching Secretariat) will be more fun and interesting since you’ve seen this place in person.

Churchill Downs

For those older explorers, there is another item Kentucky is famous for – Bourbon. There is the bourbon tour if you are willing to travel to many different distilleries. Louisville is considered the gateway to this tour with many distilleries requiring quite a bit of travel. There are 10 places to stop on this tour to complete the bourbon tour and is recommended to take all these in over 3 days or more. Apparently at the end of the tour there is a free gift with a completed passport. We didn’t get the opportunity to experience this first hand but looks interesting if we get the opportunity again.

Mammoth Cave

For natural wonder seekers, a few hours away resides Mammoth Cave National Park. You can read about our adventure here…..