16. New Mexico

New Mexico’s nickname is the “Land of Enchantment” and you’ll get no arguments from the Windusts.

We started our travels as we shot through southern New Mexico to the city of Las Cruces. Our original plans were to drive straight to the nearby national parks, but life on the road and dental emergencies require one to be flexible, so we had an extra day or two to explore this city.

Before too long, it was on to Carlsbad Caverns, the 17th national park on our journey.

17th! Wow.

Upon arrival, we learned the elevator that typically brings people 750′ out of the cavern was broken. Indi was dismayed, but Wendy and Jason were thrilled (feeling like the exercise would justify a cold one later) and decided the extra hiking was well worth seeing such an amazing site.

The caverns here are immense, amazing, otherworldly… it’s really difficult to capture in words or even photos. We signed up for a ranger-led hike to go along with our own exploring.

Anytime you can take part in a ranger-led anything in a national park, do it.

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After 5 hours and 4 miles of trekking up and down and across and through the caves, we were happy and exhausted– but not too exhausted to take Indi to her first drive-in movie.

“It’s just like Grease!” Indi exclaimed as we pulled into our spot. Seriously, who doesn’t love going to a drive-in movie? After loading up on popcorn and sweets, Indi self-nominated herself as chaperone, sitting between her parents so we couldn’t make out.

This Tina Fey movie wasn’t our favorite, but who doesn’t love a drive in? We just read that drive-in movies are making a resurgence. Portland needs to jump on the retro bandwagon and reopen some theaters near us. Stat. By this summer, thank you.

Our last stop in New Mexico was  White Sands National Monument. We stayed in-between the Missile Range and the national monument and were well rewarded with a gorgeous colors after a long, winding drive up, up, up to the BLM campground Aguirre Springs.

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Sunrise at probably the best U.S. camp spot we’ve had on our trip.

We were trying to figure out why our campground only charged $7 per night…

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Mystery solved

The nearby White Sands National Monument did not disappoint. We spent a fun afternoon exploring the cool to the touch sand dunes and getting in a little sledding sans snow.

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And what trip to New Mexico wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a Missile Museum –and of course Roswell to checkout the Alien controversy first hand.

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The truth is out there

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Don’t panic… it’s just a re-enactment

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Aliens in Oregon, we’re not surprised. Now, if they’ll just open up a drive-in.

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Missile museum 10 minutes from our camp

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Aptly named

 

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Still not sure what in the hell this thing is.

 

Next up: the Lone Star State!

 

10. Death Valley National Park

You head off to a destination, maybe you’ve done some research–maybe not–and you have this preconceived notion of what it will be like. Then you arrive and realize you were totally wrong.

For us, this was Death Valley.

Other than the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Death Valley was probably the National Park we knew the least about prior to this trip. What were we expecting?

Searing heat. Sand. Desolation. Flatness.

What did we find? As we entered the park, we were greeted with pleasant 80o F (250C) temperatures, almost no sand, a surprising amount of vegetation, and a vast basin surrounded by mountains and canyons too numerous to explore.

Initially we had planned on staying in Mesquite Springs campground (another Sunset magazine recommendation), but after consulting our map we felt that either Sunset or Texas Springs would be more convenient for the limited time we had in our nation’s largest national park (1.8 million acres). Upon pulling into Sunset we were greeted to a huge gravel parking lot filled with mega-motorhomes. We inwardly, or quite possibly, outwardly groaned in dismay. However, as we continued up the hill and into the adjacent Texas Spring Campground and were happy to find at least a few trees and a bit more separation between sites.

Texas Springs Campground

So, we set up camp and headed to the nearby Furnace Creek Resort to check out the visitor center and plan our next few days. Furnace Creek was the site of an old mining community that has now become an upscale-ish resort; complete with cabins, restaurant, pub, grocery store, and the world’s lowest elevation golf course.

From here we headed towards Artists Drive Loop, only to arrive and discover, like several other park roads, that it was closed due to flash flood damage. However, on the way back to camp we found the Golden Canyon Trailhead and decided to check it out. We ended up discovering a cool little canyon that became even more dramatic on the way out due to an amazing sunset.

This is probably a good time to mention that we’ve never been to a place with more dramatic sunrises and sunsets and this is a case where pictures are definitely worth a few thousand words, I only wish our photography skills could match what we saw in nature.

The next day we had planned to start our day in Mosaic Canyon –another amazing hike– walking, and in places scrambling, up a narrow canyon.

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After our hike, we headed to Badwater Basin. At 282 feet (86 m) below sea level it is the lowest spot in the U.S. By the time we had arrived the wind had picked up, I mean really picked up!

 

We didn’t really expect much visiting Badwater Basin and the salt flats, but once again were blown away (almost literally) by the otherworldly landscape. A short drive away we also stopped at the Devil’s Golf Course where deposits of salt have been sculpted by water and wind to form a sharp and jagged ground that you would not want to trip and fall on.

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After getting back to camp, we discovered our bins and some other camping equipment that had blown across the campground into some bushes; actually it was the park’s camp host and our neighbors that discovered and returned them to us… camping rookie mistake. The wind was still howling, our Good Samaritan neighbor had a weather station on his motor home and informed us the wind was blowing 40 Knots. We’re not sailors so we don’t know what a knot actually is, but now we know that when you put 40 of them together, that’s a hell of a strong wind (actually Jason did just look this up and 40 Knots = 46 MPH = 74 KPH).

Wendy and Indi retreated into the tent trailer, which felt as if it was in jeopardy of being blown over, while Jason turned the truck around to create a wind barrier and moved our stove into the back of the pick-up under the canopy to whip up dinner. Later in the night the wind did die down and we woke up to rain showers… rain in Death Valley? Yet another preconceived notion blown out of the water.

As we packed up the next morning, it was with a little sadness because the rest of this leg of our journey– Las Vegas, Kanab, and St. George– will be spent in a hotel, an Airbnb rental, and with friends, so our camping nights in Trailblazers are finished (maybe for good if we upgrade our trailer over the Christmas holiday back in Oregon).

So long Trailblazer

So long, Trailblazer

Death Valley gets six huge thumbs up from the Windusts.

Next stop: Viva Las Vegas!

7. Mesa Verde National Park and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Before our schools put the–thankfully, temporary–kibosh on the yellow, iconic geographic magazine, two afterimages branded our juvenile minds: the feathered, painted, topless tribes in Africa—brought to teachers’ attention by the huddles of snickering boys—and the cliff-dwelling ancestral Native Americans of Arizona.

Balcony House

So, it was no accident that Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) was one of the first destinations mapped in Roadtrippers as we commenced planning for the first leg of travels in the Western United States. We were not disappointed as this national park delivered a heady dose of southwestern culture.

Since we couldn’t find adequate information about camping in the park (later, we drove through Morefield Campground and it looked awesome), and we needed showers and laundry facilities, we paid $35.00 a night for a water and electric site at Mesa Verde RV Resort and, once again, were thankful for our earplugs as it is located adjacent to the highway. Other than the noise for just a few hours at night, this was a great starting point for the close proximity to Mesa Verde as well as the small towns of Cortez and Mancos. After we arrived and set up Trailblazer, we headed to Cortez to the popular Pippo’s Café for our first taste of Navajo Tacos, recommended by our friend Deanna (who is now working in Moscow and would probably do anything for a taco right now), one of the best meals we’ve had on our trip so far. Imagine an unsweetened elephant ear topped with ground beef, shredded lettuce and cheese, and healthy dollops of sour cream and salsa. For the rest of our time in the southwest, Wendy was vigilant for these tacos but only found them one more time.

Found this recipe on cookingclassy.com so it must be for sophisticated palates.

For our first full day, we set out the next day on a ranger-led hike to Balcony House, which is located on the Chapin Mesa. When we arranged this hike at the visitor’s center, the description of Adventurous Cliff Dwelling Tour” caught our attention and we signed up for this hike only to later learn that this is the only tour offered at this time of year. We found it interesting to find out about Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason (Wetherill’s brother-in-law) who first discovered the ruins in 1888. Although most of the artifacts found by Wetherill and Mason found their way to museums, because of public looting in later years, in 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park, the very first national park of its kind. On the guided hike, our ranger guide Jess also communicated not only the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people (formerly known as the Anasazi, which is not politically correct in current times) who lived in this area for 700 years, from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300, but also gave anecdotes about the missteps of the well-meaning archaeologists who used—ultimately damaging—techniques to fortify the archaeological sites of over 4,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. Despite the archaeologists, today Mesa Verde retains some of the best-preserved sites of stone, mortar, and plaster in the United States.

We learned about the ancient farming practices, looked into kivas—which are subterranean, circular ancient apartments—viewed the pottery, murals, and found, once again, the importance of first hand experiences to bring history to life. We’d highly recommend this tour although it is most definitely not for the claustrophobic or acrophobic as we climbed 60-foot ladders and inched through a tiny exit tunnel before climbing another shaky ladder to the cliff’s exit.

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For the remainder of the day, we visited museums, went on a few hikes to other cliff dwellings and soaked in the culture of these amazing people. In contrast, in the early evening, we experienced current, popular culture and Indi had a sewing lesson for a few hours while Wendy and Jason added another brewery to the list. Later that night, we experienced more American culture through the new Goosebumps movie in Cortez.

Our southwestern girl

Our southwestern girl

The next day we packed up and hit the road, back to Utah traveling through four different states (Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico) as we headed to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. We stayed at Goulding’s Lodge Campground and RV Park, just around the corner from the historic lodge frequented by John Wayne in his heyday. Since we were staying just one night, we set up Trailblazer and headed to the park’s visitor center and decided against a formal tour, instead driving ourselves the scenic, 17 miles of the public areas of the park. The famous sandstone monolith monuments are truly spectacular, including The Mittens, John Ford’s Point, Three Sisters, North Window, Totem Pole, Yei Bi Cheis and Artist’s Point; so well-worth the drive here.

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That evening, we headed to Goulding’s Trading Post Museum, learning about the relationship between the Goulding family and the Navajo people. We watched a movie about the history of this area and funny enough, there was more information about the Western movies shot in this area of the southwest and the many movie stars who vacationed in this area than the history of the Navajo people. Before heading back for a campsite dinner with our new wild dog friends, we said goodnight to John Wayne’s cabin.

The next morning, on our way out, we fortified our bodies with Navajo Huevos Rancheros. Wendy was thrilled to have her second dose of delicious fry bread and this was a great way to part ways for now.

Next stop: the Grand Canyon!

6. Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, (Southern) Utah

Dead Horse State Park

Dead Horse State Park

After an amazing month spent driving south through Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado we have reached southern Utah. Unlike the rest of the journey up to this point; Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands National Park are places Jason visited, albeit 22 years ago with a group of college friends. Jason and friends spent several days backpacking through Canyonlands where he almost succumbed to dehydration after running out of water on a 100+ degree day before being rescued by a generous group of rafters on the Colorado River. Good times.

We decided to live it up for a couple nights with showers, wifi, and even a community kitchen for a couple of nights at ACT RV Resort in Moab. The downsides: expensive (at least for us) and right on the road (loud). The creature comforts were nice but after two nights we eagerly moved on to a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campground, Kens Lake, about 10 miles out of town. Surrounded by dramatic rock formations, a babbling brook that ran adjacent to our camp site, a waterfall ¼ of a mile up a trail from us, and nearby Ken’s Lake (which Indi and Jason tried to briefly swim in while Wendy lifeguarded on the beach), we decided this was definitely our best camp spot of the trip thus far. This is probably why we stayed six nights here!

Sunrise at our campsite

Sunrise at our campsite

When first arriving in Moab, we were greeted with 85-degree weather and decided to take advantage of the heat and book a rafting day trip on the Colorado River. To our delight, our bus driver Davin regaled us with stories about his skilled exploits as a stand up paddle board entertainer. Some of his songs were reminiscent of The Band of Larrys’ “Fire Drill”, which made us think of our good friends in Warsaw once again. During the morning, it was just us and our river guide Lisa, a former NYC actress who entertained us with a spot-on Patsy Kline impersonation. Several other rafters from all parts of the world joined us in the afternoon. Indi was pleased with the addition of a couple of other tween girls as they spent the rest of the afternoon daring each other to “ride the bull” through rapids and to jump into the river. Although the rapids were tame at this time in the year, the gorgeous weather and scenery more than made up for it. We highly recommend Canyon Voyages Adventure Co. if you’re in Moab and want to book a great company.

To hike the wilderness, we made two trips into Arches National Park. The first was to the popular (read: crowded) Delicate Arch, a three mile hike to probably the most well known arch in the park. We were so lucky to go when we did because a flash flood closed the road for the next week. Although we’re not big fans of crowds, it was a very cool hike.

Our second hike was through the “Fiery Furnace”. If you haven’t hiked this area before, it is a must because it’s an area of the park where you need a permit to enter, or to go on a hike led by a ranger. There are no trails and it isn’t hard to imagine getting lost among the narrow slot canyons and rocky spires. Our ranger guide told Indi about one guy who had his own permit and tried to jump from one side of the cliff to the next, fell, broke both ankles, and had to be flown out via Life Flight on his dollar. This hike was probably the best one of our trip thus far, which is saying a lot! First, since access was limited, there were few other hikers other than our group. There was dramatic scenery, narrow passageways, and chasms that needed to be leapt across. Best of all was our ranger, Alison. Indi took a liking to her and was attached to her hip, peppering her with questions during the entire three hour hike. She is still giving us facts about Arches!

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Trips to Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point State Park provided some of the most dramatic views we encountered during our week here. And our second best hike of the week came not in a national park, but on the not-so-politically-correct trail “Negro Bill Canyon”  (although this is a whole lot better than its originally name) back to a natural bridge.

The city of Moab provided its own entertainment. We were able to eat some good meals, visit Moab Brewery, do a little bowling and Jason slipped away to watch a bit of football while Wendy and Indi splurged on a Sunday brunch at Red Cliffs Lodge. We also discovered a great city library where we bumped into former colleagues, Mark and Betsy Gathercole, who we taught with in Jakarta. Can you say small world? Probably our best city experience was attending Reel Rock, a rock climbing film festival where there was also a tribute to Dean Potter, a Moab resident who died while BASE-jumping in May. We all loved the films they showed and getting a glimpse into the rock climbing subculture that is so prevalent in Moab. We thought of our good friend, Scott Barber, once again, and how much he’d love it here.

Next up… Mesa Verde, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon. Bring it on!

8. The Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim)

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Our last night in Monument Valley had been our 13th in a row in our tent trailer Trailblazer. The original plans had us heading straight to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, but civilization was beckoning. One of the best things about our year so far has been a lack of reservations and definite plans. Although at times this has been a challenge for those of us type A personalities (i.e. Jason), it’s been great to be able to change plans on a whim. So, we rented a place on Airbnb in Flagstaff, Arizona and spent two wonderful days lounging around, getting our tech fix, going to thrift stores to piece together Indi’s Halloween costume, and (Jason) getting to soak in two full football games–unfortunately they were both Oregon State and Dallas Cowboy losses, quite a common theme this year. We were also pleasantly surprised by the cool town of Flagstaff with the same great vibe we’ve found in other college towns and much greener than what we ever expected to find in Arizona. We spent a ridiculous amount of time in Bookmans Exchange, finding amazing deals on secondhand books. It was like a smaller version of Powell’s City of Books, a favorite destination in Portland, Oregon. If you find yourself in this town, also be sure to check out Beaver Street Brewery and Whistle Stop Cafe for lunch. Windust stamp of approval!

The downtime also allowed us to reach a couple of big decisions. First, we withdrew Indi from her online school. We were finding access to the internet a challenge, and more importantly, we felt like we didn’t have the time to incorporate what we were seeing and doing on the road into her education, a huge reason we went on this trip. Check out “Parks as Classrooms” for more information on what/how we’ve been teaching Indi (and learning ourselves!) through experiences in these beautiful and diverse environments.

Secondly, as much of a trooper as Trailblazer has been, we’ve decided to upgrade to a small, hard-sided trailer for the second half of our journey. The thought of a non-leaking roof, no drafty gaps, and being able to cut down the time we spend packing and unpacking are proving to be too alluring. We’ll miss the ease at which we can pull a tent trailer, but if we get something small enough we hope that it will still be A-Okay behind the truck. We’ll most likely buy something used when we are home for the holidays and then resell it at the end of the year.

That's a mighty grand canyon

That’s a mighty grand canyon

Onto our 10th national park, The Grand Canyon. We’d heard the Grand Canyon is hard to describe, and with my limited writing skills (Wendy would probably have better luck), I won’t even try and express the scale and majesty of the place. Needless to say, we weren’t the least bit disappointed. I don’t now if our first glimpse of the canyon from the South Rim was the best I’d ever seen, but it’s definitely in the top five. We camped in the park at the Mather Campground on the South Rim, a sprawling but well laid out campground. You never felt too close to your neighbor, and it helped that it was mostly empty. We continued to be blessed with great weather. The nights were chilly, as is to be expected when you are 7000’ (2130 m) above sea level, but the days were sunny and beautiful. Our best memory from Mather was finding us surrounded by a harem of Elk, and the large buck that wandered up to us.

During our three nights in the Grand Canyon, we did a short hike to the aptly named “Ooh Ahh Point”, walked the Rim Trail, visited the impressive “Desert View Watchtower”, and listened to a great ranger lecture on the history of the California Condor.

Ooh Ahh Point

Desert View Lookout

During our last evening, we decided to have a sunset picnic on the rim. Despite being on the road together for the past 50 days, I guess Wendy and I still need to work on our communication. We got a late start, and I drove us to a part of the park she wasn’t expecting. On top of all this the clouds rolled in and hid the sunset that we were too late for anyway. But all was not lost. We set up on some rocks in front of one of the lodge’s restaurants, enjoying our 99 cent cup-a-soups while feeling sorry for all of the people behind us spending 10 times the amount on their soups… without nearly as good of a view. To Indi, these “campers” have become known as the “fancy people”.

The time went by quickly and before we knew it, it was time to leave. Both Wendy and I felt the pull of the Colorado River and were disappointed that we weren’t able to hike to the bottom of the canyon on this trip. At the same time we’re confident we’ll return.

5. Rocky Mountain National Park

It was with a heavy heart that we left the majestic Grand Tetons, but at the same time we were excited to get to Colorado to see the Rockies, friends and family. Along the way we stopped in Thermopolis, Wyoming for a couple of days on the recommendation of our good buddy Jeremy Philips. Thermopolis, apart from the cool name, is home to the worlds largest mineral hot springs, rock shops, and a sweet dinosaur museum. Great little town! Wendy was a little put off by the huge mineral pools our RV park, aptly named “The Fountain of Youth”, said it reminded her of a B version of the pool in the movie “Cocoon“. However, I found soaking with the elderly campers from our RV park, under the stars, quite relaxing.

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After soaking in Thermopolis, we moved on to the Horsetooth Reservoir near Fort Collins. We found a good campground to explore it from, called Inlet Bay. Unfortunately, we just missed the season but in warmer weather, you can rent out everything from party boats to stand up paddleboards (SUPs). Right next to the campground is a great restaurant you just can’t miss called Al’s Canyon Grill where we waited out a few storms in the comfort of classic rock, bacon cheeseburgers, pizza and Shirley Temples (Indi). However, we were sad to miss the Tuesday special:

Canyon Grill near Horsetooth

Another highlight of this leg was not only exploring the sites of Fort Collins, but also taking our brewery visit count to four. Make sure to check out Odell and New Belgium (and the other 50 kazillion breweries) if you find yourself in Fort Collins.

We did run into some inclement weather during our stay in Fort Collins. I guess we can’t complain, as it has been sunny for 21 of the 22 days we’ve been on the road so far. But after looking at the forecast, we sadly decided to bypass the Rocky Mountain National Park. We were sure it was beautiful, but figured rain, sleet, and freezing temperatures would put a damper on our stay. Regardless, it was more or less on our way so we decided to do a drive-by. Upon reaching the gateway town of Estes Park we found blue skies, warm temperatures, and elk that were in the middle of their rutting season. Glad we didn’t make any reservations in Boulder because we headed into the park and got the last campsite in the Moraine Park campground, definitely the best campground we’ve stayed in so far on our trip.

Not a bad spot

Not a bad spot

The weather forecasters continued to be proven wrong and we got three days of sun and mild temperatures at night. The elk were in full on rutting (mating) season as advertised. We probably saw a couple hundred during our three days in the park; our last day there, we woke up to a harem of more than 15 elk probably 20 feet from our trailer (for you city folk that’s what you call an elk herd). Not only could you see the elk, but the bulls were busy bugling to announce their presence to other elk, either staking claim to their territories and harems, or posturing.

We enjoyed a great ranger talk all about the park and the non-stop elk party.

Aside from the wild life, we of course went on a great hike to Cub Lake, where Indi discovered a love of “bouldering”. We also drove across the park on Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the U.S., topping out at more than 12,000’ (3650 m).

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Our final night, we met up with our neighbors in the campground, a younger couple on their honeymoon. Jill and Ronan. Jill was from Connecticut, where they started their journey, and her husband Ronan was Irish. Well, we figured it would just be rude to not invite an Irishman over for a wee bit of Jamesons, which of course turned in to a fun evening of sitting around the campfire getting to know one another.

All in all, a great stop on our journey. Next up: catching up with friends and family in the Denver area before heading on to southern Utah.

4. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Da da da! I give you the ginormous and ridiculously, unbelievably pointy—well they are part of the Rockies—awe inspiring, jaw-droppingly, Hollywood special effect-y Grand, Middle and South Teton mountains. Take a look at these babies.

Equine residents and Grand Teton spires

The Grand Teton National Park is just one of those special places that you don’t want to listen to music or read a book (while someone else is driving!) or make conversation dare you miss out on any of the wild and majestic scenery. Each curve of the road brought the mountains into view, visible throughout the park and, if I may say, each new vista and viewpoint brought, somehow, an even better view.

Hello beautiful

Hello beautiful

Sunrise? Check. Pink and mysterious and misty. Sunset? Yep. Check it out. We oh so secretly tramped through another campsite in the Gros Ventre campground to get this picture. We had to. What you don’t see is the field full of white-butted deer, unworthy of our attention, shadowed by this flirty mountain range rising mystically into the clouds 7,000 feet above us.

Sunset @ Grand Teton NP

Jenny Lake Hikes

First of all, as we rolled through the Jenny Lake campground, we were super-jealous of the tent campers and would highly recommend this spot. In retrospect, we should have ditched our tent trailer in the parking lot, trading it for the tent we decided to leave at home. Next time. This campground not only supplies views for days but the sites were spacious and private, two features we hadn’t seen in national park campgrounds until now. After a few moments of regret, we picked ourselves up from a mental tantrum and decided a hike would make us feel better. From the Jenny Lake parking lot, you have two options, one lazy (boat shuttle) and one awesome (leg locomotion). Heading clockwise around the lake to Hidden Falls, a very nice lumbersexual convinced us to check out Moose Ponds to see the beaver dam and the herd of moose. A flat 2.7 miles later, Indi, our little magpie, had pockets full of metamorphic and igneous quartzite, silica and mica studded rocks. We got to check out the beaver dam and evidence of the yellow-toothed rodents but only heard and didn’t see any moose on this hike.

When we made it back to the trail, we headed to Hidden Falls for lunch and then round-tripped our way back to the parking lot. Total miles hiked: 7.7. Calories worked off: who cares?

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Mormon Row

On our way back to our campsite, we accidently stumbled upon a really cool old homestead and decided to check it out. The gravel road brought us to Mormon Row, previously homesteaded with 17 buildings, and originally named Grovont. Now, as you can see, there are only a few rickety testaments to the Mormons who left their comfortable lives in Salt Lake City and Idaho to expand new communities in the rocky soil in the shadow of the Grand Teton mountains.

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We loved our time at Grand Teton National Park and the moose, beavers, water features, and wide-open sky and scenery. Next time, we will make sure to hike the Two Ocean Lake Loop (the trail was closed due to contained burning), we will stay at the Jenny Lake campground, and stay away from the uppity town of Jackson Hole.

Next stop: The Rocky Mountains!