idaho

Day 17: Boise, ID to Yakima, WA by Wookie Kim

Today was a driving day. I covered almost 400 miles from Boise, Idaho, to Yakima, Washington.

All along, I'd planned to spend today driving, not only to cover a lot of distance, but also to rest up for what I was hoping would be an uncomfortably long day on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that encircles Mount Rainier. Specifically, I was thinking about doing a one-day 30-to-35 mile out-and-back.

But that plan changed. I have a cold. It's a minor one. But it's still a cold. And I can't risk testing my body's outer limits in this condition. So I've scrapped my plan. Instead of setting a specific distance target, I'm going to compromise by setting a time target. I'm planning to spend roughly 2.5 to 3 hours running out on the Wonderland. I'll then have plenty of time to get back--slow if I need to. It will still be a long day, but I won't be beholden to any specific distance.

I spent the first part of the drive annoyed by the change in plans. I really wanted to see as much of the Wonderland Trail as possible. But I quickly got over this feeling of resentment. I focused on just getting to Mount Rainier ASAP.

The drive was actually quite pleasant. There were few cars on the road. The route also followed the Oregon Trail, and I spent most of the day wondering how the early settlers traveled by oxen-pulled wagon across this dry expanse. It was really hard to grasp.

I also saw a vehicle from the 1960s, cruising along at 50 mph on an 80 mph highway. It was a sight to see.

When I stopped for lunch, I decided that I wasn't going to make it all the way to Mount Rainier National Park. More precisely, it wouldn't make sense to drive all the way there and try and find a campground in the dark. I decided I'd instead look up lodging options in Yakima, the city just outside of the park. I found an absolute gem on Airbnb.

The price? $60. Unbelievable, right? (This is partly why Airbnb is revolutionizing travel. Every Airbnb I've stayed at has been exceedingly memorable and surprisingly affordable.) The hosts--John and Barbara--were incredibly friendly and welcoming. I felt right at home. To top things off, they have over half a dozen cats, and two dogs to play with. After a couple weeks of camping, it was nice to have an evening unwinding in a place like this.

This kitten likes my backpack.  

This kitten likes my backpack.  

Tomorrow, I hit Mount Rainier National Park.

Day 16: Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID by Wookie Kim

I could see why the pioneers on the Oregon Trail avoided this place. For miles in every direction, all I could see was black lava. It was dark, desolate, and dry. I was at Craters of the Moon National Monument, in the Snake River Plain of Idaho (AKA middle of nowhere).

One of the beauties of this trip is that I cast my net widely, and decided to include national monuments and other sites operated by the National Park Service as destinations. We have 59 amazing national parks, but it's too easy to forget that we have hundreds if not thousands of other sites that are still protected by the National Park Service in some way. In fact, many of our national parks were once mere national monuments, before they were elevated to that grand "national park" status (I want to learn a little bit about how the designation system works--I don't really know how it all works).

I began the drive over from Alta, Wyoming, a little bittersweet. I was driving away from the mountains--the location of several challenging days. As I proceeded west, all I could see were plains. Pretty soon, I saw a small mountain off in the distance. I forget the name of it, but the early pioneers also used this as a beacon as they headed west along the Snake River.

I told the park rangers that I wanted to run easy today. Something with very minimal elevation gain (or loss). I'd spent 3 hard days in the mountains--climbing over 10,000 vertical feet--and my cold was getting worse. I needed an easy day. The ranger had just the trail for me: the Wilderness Trail. It was 4.5 miles out to the end on flat, soft, cinder, and very little elevation change. This was also in the Craters of the Moon Wilderness Area--the first designated wilderness area in our national park system. I'd have unrivalled solitude back here.

On my way over to the trailhead, I marveled at the lava that surrounded me. There were also cones and mounds that had sprouted out of the earth. I was glad I wasn't climbing any today.

I reached the trailhead, and read up on everything I needed to know. With my cold, I wanted to stay hydrated. I topped up my 100-oz Camelbak again, even though at 1 p.m. it was only in the high 70s--relatively cool for an inhospitable place like this.

And just like that, I was off! The beginning of the run had me go into a pretty thick lava field. This was part of a shorter loop that I could see many families liked. It was definitely what one would imagine when one thinks about running through a lava field.

Pretty soon, though, the landscape changed. The path was wide cinder--almost like a red carpet. It sure felt like one; the cinder absorbed my footstrikes and the absence of any obstacles made for easy running. This was just what I needed after several hard days in the mountains.

I was able to pick up a solid, steady pace--just over 9-minute miles. I followed the red carpet out into the wilderness. That red carpet disappeared from time to time. Following the trail was only slightly harder. But there were cairns to follow, and the path was pretty clear.

This wilderness area was certainly not what I imagined when I thought of Craters of the Moon. I saw very little black lava. But the feeling of solitude was immense. I was all by myself in a vast desert-like environment. Every now and then, I'd see patches of black lava, which reminded me where I actually was.

After over 4 miles, I was confused by why I hadn't reached the end of the trail. Had I gone off track again? I rounded a bend and saw a cinder mound off ahead of me. I figured that that was Sentinel Butte, the end of the marked Wilderness Trail.

As I got closer, I realized that this must be it--the mound rose up out of the plain, providing a perfect vantage point for a sentinel to see miles in every direction.

I noticed a human-trodden switchback trail up the butte. I figured I'd follow it up. It was steep and slippery, the lava rocks were like little ball bearings. Every step I took, my foot would slide back halfway down the mound. One step forward, half step back, one step forward, half step back. Here, you can kind of see the incline.

The view from the top was pretty spectacular. I found a father-son duo resting at the summit as well.

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What was particularly pleasing about the view was the juxtaposition of all the different colors and environments. You had red cinder right in front of you, black lava interspersed with yellow and brown grasses, occasional greenery, the brown mountains off in the distance, and the clear blue sky above. Really, it was unique.

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My feet took a break too.

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On the way back, I grew tired. It was getting hot. I began rationing my water. I drained the 100-oz reservoir right before returning to the trailhead. The trail had been nice and flat. But I was beat.

Almost back to the trailhead.  

Almost back to the trailhead.  

Salt from my sweat.  

Salt from my sweat.  

I wasn't about to leave Craters of the Moon just yet. I'd been told about the caves that one could explore. I decided to take my headlamp and head into Boy Scout Cave.

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It was pretty scary in there. There was no lighting except the light that you brought in. And there was no guide except a railing that you could hold onto as you passed through the initial crawl space. Inside, I looked around, like a cave explorer, using my headlamp for light, and also occasionally my iPhone. There were 4 other people inside with me. I led the way.

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It was also very cold inside. We could see ice formations on the cave floor. Slippery! My hands began to get numb. Certainly, this was a nice respite from the dry heat on the surface. After reaching the end, we turned around and headed to the surface. It was hot--really hot.

Just outside the cave entrance.  

Just outside the cave entrance.  

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And then, I was gone. I had many miles to cover. I drove straight west on route 20 straight into the setting sun. It was somewhat monotonous, but I enjoyed tracking the sun as it set off in the distance.

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Eventually, it grew so red that I had to pull over and take a photo of it with my zoom lens.

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And so ended another beautiful day exploring our national parks.

Day 15: Grand Teton National Park + Caribou-Targhee National Forest by Wookie Kim

Life is lived for these moments. Not the ones that you put in your resume, or find in a history book, but the ones you'll remember forever, and tell your grandchildren about over and over again until they beg you to stop. My moment today was summitting Table Mountain, a mountain on the Idaho side of the Teton Range, just a few miles west of the Grand Teton.

I woke up in Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park. I'd slept like a rock. I'd been battling a minor cold for the last couple days, and, combined with the vertical I'd gained over the last few days, my body needed rest. I packed up my tent, and was too lazy and cold to fire up the Whisperlite. Instead, I went to the restaurant that was located within this campground (no wonder I paid $24!). I chose the buffet option, and proceeded to eat everything.

I then hit the road for the trailhead. Table Mountain's actually was outside Grand Teton National Park, on the Idaho side of the range, right near the Targhee ski resort. On the way down to Jackson, I saw my first sunrise views of the Grand Tetons. 

The Grand Teton. 

The Grand Teton. 

Apparently, what makes the Teton Range so spectacular is that it lacks any foothills; the mountains rise straight up from Jackson Hole. I stopped by the roadside over and over again to take photos.

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Eventually, I made it the 30 miles to Jackson, a town that has a special place for me. For spring break my senior year of college, my best friends and I spent a week skiing at Jackson Hole. It was the best week of skiing I've ever had. Entering the town, I took a photo of the antler arch in the town square (there was some photo shoot going on). 

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From Jackson, I crossed over the Teton Range and into Idaho. 30 miles later, I found myself on a gravel road ascending on Alta Ski Road back east towards the Teton Range. I could see the Grand Teton towering in the distance. 

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After 6 bumpy miles, I made it to the trailhead and geared up. I wasn't taking any chances this time. I filled my Camelbak to capacity--100 oz--and topped up my reserve handheld bottle with Tailwind. I also had an assortment of snack items, including KIND bars, and Justin's almond butter (thank you for fueling me!).

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And then I was off at almost exactly 11:30 a.m. There was no warm-up involved. The trail went immediately into switchbacks in a thick forest.

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After about a half-mile of ascending, I finally came out into a flat meadow, and a sign indicating that I was in Caribou-Targhee National Forest. 

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I'd told myself that with the 5,500 feet of vertical I'd ascended in the previous two days, I needed to start the day conservatively. I made it a point to cool my jets and not run or even power-hike, even though I felt strong. I came through the first mile in just under 20 minutes. 

As with every hike, the scenery was already changing.  

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I trudged through the meadow and through forests, sometimes crossing over a stream on logs. 

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Soon, I could see my destination on the horizon. Table Mountain is the little hump on the right side, under the lens flare. I realized I still had a long way to go before I got there. 

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I continued pressing through the meadow. The trail started switchbacking out of control. I kept my pace conservative, and tapped out a rhythm with my trekking poles. I didn't breath hard once. 

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Pretty soon, the ridge line rose above the tree line.  I'd be ascending up to the ridge on the right side and then making the final climb up to Table Mountain (out-of-picture to the left).

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The meadow switchbacks wwere relentless, but the scenery was nice. 

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The trail carved a clear path through the meadow and up to the ridge. 

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I was almost out of the meadow area when I took a short break to refuel, rest the legs, and take in what I was about to conquer. 

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Finally, I ascended the last switchback and was out on the exposed ridge. 

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The trail followed the ridge line around. One mis-step and you were in for a serious tumble down into the canyon. 

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This was the homestretch. I'd come around the ridge and the trail was practically leading straight to the summit. Adrenaline pumped again, and I actually decided to run a little just to see how I felt. I felt good, so kept at it. 

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I looked over to my right and saw more of the Teton Range. 

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I stopped running when the dirt trail turned to rocks. I was now trudging steadily upwards. 

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At one point, I looked back to see how far I'd come. Basically, the switchbacks ended at the very end of the ridge line, to the center right of the photo. 

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At some point, Table Mountain dropped out of sight. But I never lost sight of Grand Teton. Its summit is over 13,000 feet. 

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The end of the forested ridge area meant the rocky, exposed final stretch. I was probably less than a mile away here, but the incline was challenging, and the terrain made moving difficult. 

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There were plenty of hikers trudging along here. I passed by a half dozen. They were winded, and stopping every now and then for breaks. Again, I must be getting fit, because I didn't really need to stop at all.  

Several people were also descending, including this canine friend, who was a pleasure to play with as a break. 

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Perhaps as an in-your-face gesture by Mothr Nature, about a half-mile from the top was a rocky minefield. These rocks were loose, and made for very treacherous footing. Again, I was grateful for my trekking poles, which made it relatively simple to cross.

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And then I was there--the final half-mile. Despite the photo, it was impressively steep. For the first time all day, I resorted to taking 5-second breaks about every minute or so. I was also pulling down on my poles with my arms with full force, to lessen the load on my legs. I was trudging and trudging. 

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I looked back down the ridge I'd come up. In the distance were several people I'd passed. Specks. 

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And then I made it! To the summit of Table Mountain, 11,106 feet above sea level. Certainly not the tallest point I'd ever reached, but one of the most impressive vistas I've ever seen. From the table-like summit, I stared directly east where, just 2-3 miles away, were the Grand Tetons. 

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The photos are deceptive. I'm actually standing on the edge of the summit here, even though it looks like I could walk back onto the dirt mound. That's thousands of feet away. 

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Looking to the northeast, I could see Cascade Canyon, which I'd partially hiked into the day before (to reach Inspiration Point). I was finally getting a sense of the lay of the land. This area of the country is impressive. 

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Other people at the summit explained the names of all the mountains. I just looked out at the rest of the Tetons in awe. 

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These four from Idaho Falls were fun to talk to. One of them gave me the rest of her sandwich. It was delicious--exactly what I needed.  

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To the north, you could see more of the Teton Range and also part of Yellowstone. 

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The people at the top were all locals, and all had been up here many times. One woman brought a kite and tried to fly it. It was too windy. 

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After chatting with everyone at the top for 45 minutes, I was beginning to get cold. I was wearing nothing but short shorts and a t-shirt (even though I had tights, a tech fleece, and a rain shell in my pack). I decided to descend. From the ridge line, I looked down at the upper half of the trail I was about to descend on.

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It had taken 2:38 to reach the summit. I reached the trailhead in 1:27. Let's just say I ran down the mountain when I could (which was not very often). 

It was only 4 p.m. I thought the day would've taken at least until 6 p.m. (again, I can't trust the estimates from the guides I read--one said 11-12 hours, and 6-8 for strong hikers). I was, however, feeling tired, and wanted to chow down. The hiker with the dog had finished just a minute before me, and he recommended a bar in Driggs, the town from which I'd come up to the trailhead. 

While eating a buffalo burger, I decided that I deserved a shower and a hotel bed. I began searching on my phone for availability. But I discovered that all lodging options within 100 miles of Jackson were full! I was stunned. Labor Day was behind us, yet this place was still teeming with people. 

I was a little bit panicked, because I really didn't want to spend another night camping in a row. I asked the bartender if he had any ideas. It turned out that one of the servers managed a ski property that was vacant at the moment. For $90, I could stay there. I immediately pounced on the option and headed to the place.

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Once again, I found myself driving east towards the Teton Range. 

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It just so happened that this ski studio had a hot tub, with a view of the Grand Teton. After a long day (and set of days), I decided to treat myself to a relaxation session in the hot tub while the setting sun lit up the Grand Teton in reddish hues. 

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After washing up, I opened up the little medallion that the kite-flyer at the summit had given me. I'd conquered Table (Rock?) Mountain. Even if this medallion disappears into the abyss that is my knick-knack drawer, I'll forever have the experience of this day etched into my memory. And, for that, I'm thankful.

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