The Hills Are Alive … in British Columbia


Talk about alpine scenery, the Fitzsimmons Range in British Columbia has it in spades. A hike along the high trails will have you singing ‘The Sound of Music’ in spite of yourself. Whistler and Blackcomb, the two most well known mountains, not only have the best skiing in North America but are a major attraction for summer activities. Mountain bikers love it here. For a brief period, wildflowers abound. To boot, the hiking is exhilarating. Views are simply majestic.

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blackcomb lake

Blackcomb Lake

By the way, Whistler Mountain wasn’t named for an explorer, like places tend to be around these parts, but after the hoary marmot. Its whistling calls can be heard throughout the range.

Hoary marmots sunning outside Blackcomb Peak facility

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The Amazing, Colossal Sanctuary of Ollantaytambo


Streets in the old part of Ollantaytambo are narrow, cobble-stoned, inaccessible to cars and trucks. Along one side, water flows in ancient Inca canals, still used today, no more than a foot wide. Quechua is spoken more than Spanish. Life goes on here as it has for centuries. There is no indication that less than a half mile away, a crush of tourists descend everyday on the railway station to board trains for Aguas Calientes, gateway to Machu Picchu. What many don’t realize is that Ollantaytambo has some of the most impressive megalithic ruins in the world.

Water canals line one side of the streets in old Ollantaytambo

That Ollantaytambo lies between Cusco and Machu Picchu is why it gets short shrift by tourists who’d rather spend their time at those popular destinations. A shame really because Ollanta, which locals call it for short, has its own important history and architecture. The town used to be the royal estate of emperor Pachacutec. It was here in 1537 that during the Inca rebellion, Manko Inka Yupanqui defeated an invading Spanish army led by Hernando Pizarro, Francisco’s half-brother. Like a spectacular movie battle scene, volleys of arrows, slingshots, spears and stones rained down on the Spanish troops from high terraces and water flooded the valley that the Incas somehow diverted from Rio Urubamba. Despite the historic battle, Fortaleza de Ollantaytambo had more than a defensive purpose.

This was the first town in Peru where my wife and I stayed last year (2016), following the Amazon rain forest. Like all tourists, we were here to take the train to Machu Picchu. Still, I was also looking forward to spending a day to see ancient megalithic ruins that some regard as the equal of any in the world. No matter where we walked, The Fortress, as it’s sometimes called, loomed over the entire town.

The first thing I noticed was the impressive terracing (andene) that looks from the bottom like one side of a gigantic stepped pyramid, an illusion of perspective. Andenes are one hallmark of Inca engineering.

Terraces at Ollanta

A long stairway on the left side leads to the top. From anywhere along the climb, it’s easy to see why researchers think they served some agricultural purpose, much like the terracing at Moray; the surfaces are broad, deep and flat. Because they’re oriented toward the sun, it’s believed that the terraces were solar energy collectors to provide heat for crops, long after the sun set. Not only that, the resulting microclimates made it possible to grow corn, potatoes and quinoa at different altitudes.

Did the Incas use these terraces for agricultural purposes? Note their scale relative to people.

Near the top, we turned left to a stairway that led past incredible stonework that I saw time and again in Peru. Immense, polygonal stones were fitted together with such precision that no mortar was necessary. This section contains The Ten Niches (Diez Hornacinas). Why go to so much trouble to build a ‘fortress?’ The complex must have served more important ceremonial or astronomic functions.

Stones are fitted so tightly that a razor can’t be inserted in the seams. These have rounded edges.

Some edges are beveled (bottom, left). The planar surfaces are amazingly flat.

Why are these stones so non-linear? The enigmatic ten niches (Diez Hornacinas) are to the left and in the topmost image.

The much-photographed portal

Look at the precise vertical cuts in this joinery.

The Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol) is the site’s stunning architectural achievement. Monoliths weighing up to 50 tons and rising 15ft (4.6m) high form a six-section wall made of pink granite (rhyolite), transported from the Cachicata quarry 4mi (6km) away, each stone separated from its neighbor by shim-like inserts. Again, the seams are unimaginably tight. How were these stones brought here across the 1000-ft (300m) deep Urubamba river valley and dressed so beautifully? These are not the handiwork of Bronze Age tools.

Temple of the Sun (image from boletomachupicchu.com). Note the chakana pattern and the smoothing marks as if the surfaces were wet concrete.

The wall might have once been part of a larger structure. Where’s the rest of it? I noticed the ground nearby littered with other gigantic pink stones. Some researchers suggest that the ‘temple’ was left unfinished when the Spanish invasion happened, others feel that the rubble was the aftermath of a massive earthquake or other catastrophe that toppled the structure long ago.

Do these massive stones mean the Temple of the Sun was left unfinished or suffered a massive catastrophe?

The rest of the complex consists of Inca-era walls, buildings and passageways of mortared field stones that, while impressive and extensive in scale, clearly don’t match the technical sophistication of Templo del Sol or Diez Hornacinas. Why is there such a big difference?

The construction here is not as sophisticated as the Diez Hornacinas or Templo del Sol.

The stones are considerably smaller with lots of mortar holding them together.

We wandered through this sprawling area until we got to an area called Inka Misana. The crowds were sparse. Most visitors don’t go through this part, though it’s not far from the main entrance. More large blocks of impressively finished stone were on the ground. Equally incredible were what appeared on the hillsides. You could even say, what didn’t appear. Large cubed sections had been skillfully and smoothly removed from solid rock, with no visible gouge marks, as if the stone were cut by some sort of machinery or unknown technology.

Excavations in rock, some appearing as cubed cutouts, others like stairs.

The planed surfaces are flat with no gouge or chisel marks.

How in the world did the builders accomplish this? Certainly not with hammer and chisel. I’ve wondered before about the different building styles at Machu Picchu. I think the same applies here in Ollantaytambo. Is it so hard to imagine that different peoples may have been responsible for the three styles, the Incas being the most recent, calling into question everything we think we know about human history and its technological achievements?

ollantay pan

(Click to enlarge)

Ollantaytambo should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.

Baby alpaca at the entrance

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Ambivalence About Grand Teton National Park


After the jaw-dropping visit to Glacier, my wife and I headed for another national park we never visited. Grand Teton was predictably snowed in ten years ago when we drove past on our way to Yellowstone. We’d finally get to see what many consider the most beautiful mountain range of the Rockies. The experience was a mixed bag, as I’ll explain.

We had a choice of three routes between Butte (MT) and Jackson (WY). The fastest would have been to skirt Yellowstone altogether via I-15. Time was a factor; we had to get to Teton Village by 5pm for a tour. Still, to skip Yellowstone while in the area would seem like an opportunity lost. Could we at least witness Old Faithful?

Confident, I opted to drive into the heart of Yellowstone, then take the south entrance out. Big mistake. As is becoming more commonplace at national parks, Old Faithful was overwhelmed by tourists with traffic to match. A visitor center ranger informed me that Teton Village was another 2½ hours away. We couldn’t spare 45 minutes until the next Old Faithful eruption, so we reluctantly hopped back in the car but got to drive through a part of Yellowstone we missed last time, Yellowstone Lake.

I took this picture of Old Faithful in April 2007

Yellowstone and Grand Teton could almost be mistaken for a single park. They’re separated by a blink of an eye, a mere 8 miles via Highway 89 (half that, if you consider park boundaries) which traverses the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.

The parks couldn’t be more different in character. Yellowstone, of course, is a showcase for the world’s greatest geothermal attractions. An enormous caldera is all that remains of several stupendous volcanic explosions that literally wiped out all living things for hundreds of miles around. To me, the idea of a still active supervolcano that could literally go off at any time is a little unnerving.

The Tetons, on the other hand, are a picture-perfect mountain range that rises majestically above the Snake River plateau, the result of massive fault-blocking from the stretching of the North American continent and of plate tectonics. Glaciers gave the Tetons their present rugged shape.

As an anecdote, French Canadian trappers are linked to the naming of both parks. Yellowstone (or, yellow stone) is the English translation of the name given to the river by the trappers (Roche Jaune), the equivalent of the Hidatsa tribe’s name for it. Another story goes that trappers saw fit to name three peaks Les Trois Tetons after female breasts, the biggest called Grand Teton. Some historians, maybe motivated by Victorian propriety, insisted that they were named after the Teton (Titunwan) Indian tribe. Guess which story endures? Regardless, the park continues to be known by its French name which most of us can repeat without embarrassment.

Because of the Yellowstone detour, we barely made our rendezvous time with BrushBuck Guide Services in Teton Village for a wildlife viewing tour, the reason we were strapped for time after leaving Butte. It was also why I couldn’t afford to stop to take snapshots. I had to suck it up as we passed Snake River Overlook where Ansel Adams took his famous photo.

We only got to the Village a half hour before the tour. Over its four-hour length, we did get to see some animals: pronghorn antelopes, moose, ground squirrels, elk and bison, but no bears, bighorn sheep or wolves. It was too much to expect to see them up close, so we were happy enough with binoculars, telephoto lens, telescope or our own eyes.

At one overlook, our guide was able to spot with her telescope an animal practically camouflaged by trees and shrubbery.

See if you can spot what the guide saw with her telescope

As in any tour where wildlife sighting is hit or miss, the guide filled the time with lots of interesting facts on the area’s landscape, history and biology.

The next day, our hikes started on the other side of glacially carved Jenny Lake which we crossed by shuttle boat (for a fee). (You can also walk around the lake.) At the landing, the trail splits to the left and right, the left leading to Hidden Falls and Cascade Canyon, the right to Inspiration Point and Paintbrush Canyon. The falls were a real gem. There was no evidence of it at first, just Cascade Creek roaring through a chasm.

Cascade Creek

But a short walk to the side of a foot bridge revealed why it’s called Hidden Falls because it suddenly came into view.

Hidden Falls

Inspiration Point took longer to reach. It had expansive views of Jenny Lake.

Inspiration Point

Photographers have been inspired to capture the Tetons like Ansel Adams did—as a dramatic backdrop to the Snake River, a juxtaposition of craggy range and sinuous waterway. The most striking images are a combination of mountains, river, golden hour light and clouds. Because I never got an opportunity to take this shot, I’ll share again an image taken by Jim Brandt (who is husband of my wife’s cousin) in October 2013. It’s plain to see that Teton’s appeal owes much to how the absence of foothills accentuates the drama of the range.

Teton range (by Jim Brandt, October 2013)

We spent only two nights in Jackson. Is that enough time to spend in the Tetons? The answer is an obvious ‘no,’ but we had little choice. My wife and I would love to have stayed longer, but the rate at one of the chain motels (hint: it has a number in its name, and it isn’t 6), nothing to write home about, was an astronomical $265 per night! This is what you can expect to shell out during prime summer months. Most other inns and lodges, including those throughout the park, will ream you even more. It’s hard to know if ‘gentrification’ by the rich and famous who live here caused this or the properties are just taking advantage. While the Tetons are a beautiful public treasure, it’s likely I’ll never return, the first time I’ve ever felt this way about a national park.

Treasures of Dinosaur National Monument


People are fascinated with dinosaurs. I’m one of them. Like for most people, it all started out when I was a kid. I learned all I could about T-Rex, triceratops, stegosaurus, brontosaurus, diplodocus. When Life magazine published its groundbreaking illustrations that appeared in an early 1950s issue, they grabbed my attention from the start. With time, my interest waned, but never went extinct.

For the longest time, I wanted to go to Dinosaur National Monument, but because of its location in Utah’s remote northeast corner, I could never fit in a visit as part of a logical Southwest itinerary, in 2008 or 2011. Neither was the monument a part of the plans my wife and I made to visit Glacier (in Montana) and Grand Teton (in Wyoming) national parks last month. But, as we were about to leave Jackson, Wyoming, a week remaining to get back home to the Seattle area, I studied a map and realized we could drop in on DNM with time to spare.

The monument features a treasure trove of in situ fossilized dinosaur bones, approximately 1,500 of them, in the Dinosaur Quarry. Never completely excavated, the fossils were left in place partially exposed along a hillside, called the Wall of Bones, that is now completely enclosed in a modern, air-conditioned building where visitors can admire specimens up close.

Dinosaur Quarry (aka Carnegie Quarry)

Without trained eyes, it’s impossible to tell what you’re looking at. The exhibit is a jumble of bones embedded in an 80-foot wall of bedrock. Interpretive panels and publications help. The disorder immediately suggests some sort of catastrophe entombed the animals, maybe suddenly. The current theory is that raging waters swept many down to a river bed where they got covered by sand and mud, which later lithified. Considering the size of the park, 200,000 acres spread over two states (Utah and Colorado), I got the feeling that many more of these fossil mother lodes have yet to be discovered. Amazingly, the monument already has some 800 paleontological sites.

The specimens here are Mesozoic era, lodged in a depositional layer known as the Morrison Formation, about 150 million years old and characterized by very colorful rock strata. The nastiest dinosaur unearthed was allosaurus; the biggest were sauropods, like diplodocus and recently discovered abydosaurus. Studies have shown that they and other creatures lived in a moderate savanna environment with several rivers, but this is hardly the case now. If they were to awaken this minute, the animals would not recognize where nature (geological forces) has put them today, thousands of feet higher in conditions they would find inhospitable.

Reassembled Allosaurus in front of an artist’s concept

Embedded dinosaur skull

The fossils are what attract visitors but Dinosaur National Monument is important in another respect. It has a significant number of Fremont culture petroglyphs, which I hadn’t realized until I got here. After visiting the quarry, we hopped in the car to go see them.

Rock carvings for public viewing are found in five areas of the park. Many more sites are not publicized to protect them from vandalism. It’s a sad state of affairs that this is necessary. The pre-Columbian Fremont peoples, who for a thousand years inhabited parts of what are now Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Colorado, used vertical rock faces, particularly those stained by desert varnish, as their palette on which they chiseled representational figures of humans and animals, and abstract designs. Their culture disappeared around 1200 CE suddenly and mysteriously.

Petroglyphs, Dinosaur Quarry

Petroglyphs, Cub Creek site

Petroglyphs of lizards

As if dinosaurs and rock carvings weren’t enough, DNM also has another noteworthy distinction. Of all lands under National Park Service jurisdiction, it contains the most complete geologic record, spanning 1.2 billion years. All the rock layers known to science except three are represented here. I was amazed at the stratigraphic variety even in the small section of the park we visited. More dramatic than that, many layers were contorted, folded, broken or tilted. Continental drift and the upheaval that caused the creation of the Rockies, known as the Laramide orogeny, did a number on the landscape.

Tilted rock layers laid bare through erosion

I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here. It’s not for the lack of significance, spectacle or things to do, but for the same reason that I hadn’t come before. I was glad— overwhelmed actually when it comes right down to it—that I finally did visit. It’s worth a stop at least once even if you think paleontology, anthropology or geology holds no particular interest for you.

The Great Idleberry Pie in Brigham City


The idleberry pie ranks as one of America’s great pies. It’s served deliciously warm at Idle Isle Cafe in Brigham City, Utah, a dessert specifically made for deliberately holding back on the main meal to make room for it. A la mode, with scoops of their intense vanilla ice cream, it serves henceforth as a reason to stop at the cafe every time I drive through the Salt Lake City area.

And what is idleberry exactly? Originally created as a combination of blueberry, blackberry and boysenberry, our waitress a few days ago said it is a mixture of blueberries and marionberries. If the recipe changed, it hasn’t missed a beat since I had it last six years ago.

The cafe is not a one pony show either. It has been dishing up comfort foods to locals daily ever since the Idle Cafe, originally opened in 1921 to sell ice cream and candy, became a full-service restaurant.

But, it’s their side orders that deserve special mention. Their homemade rolls, fresh out of the oven, are a yeasty masterpiece, especially slathered with butter and the cafe’s incomparable apricot jam. No one makes better rolls, period.

Idle Isle Cafe’s rolls

And think twice before skipping the french fries, which you might inadvisedly be tempted to do for any number of health-related reasons. They’re so perfectly made and addictive that it took all my will power not to polish them off to make room for THAT PIE. 

French fries

Idle Isle Cafe
24 S Main St
Brigham City, UT 84302
435.734.2468

What’s With the Spokane Contempt?


“Spokane Doesn’t Suck.”

Did it take a young, Texas migrant who moved here recently to defend his new home by marketing apparel decorated with these words? Derrick Oliver loves Spokane.

Spokane is Washington state’s second largest city—for now—with over 200,000 residents. It could be overtaken by Tacoma any day now. Yet, if you ask folks around here what they think of Spokane, basically ‘it sucks.’ Travel & Leisure magazine didn’t do the city any favors last year by declaring it as the third least attractive big city in America. It was referring to the residents. Why would a publication conduct such a survey, let alone exactly how it ranked the 10 cities on the list?

Spokane just don’t get no respect.

My wife and I felt it was time to visit Spokane. Previously, we had only once come here many years ago; it was driving through at night on our way back to California (where we lived) from the Canadian Rockies. We’ve been living in Washington for over 30 years so far, and not once did we go. I have to be honest that even now Spokane wasn’t a destination so much as a waypoint to Glacier National Park. Still, we decided to spend three nights here.

We were happy we did.

Our motel was in the downtown area. It would turn out to be a great place to stay, for not once did we need the car except on the last day. We walked everywhere we needed to go. Riverfront Park was only blocks away. Nearby there were plenty of restaurants, breweries, cinema and bookstore.

Downtown is a curious animal right now. In some perverted way, I could say it was deserted. Big name stores are moving in, redevelopment is in full swing and all the elements of a commercially vibrant core are in place. Yet, I never got the feeling of big city frustrations, like traffic and crowds. Literally, a traffic jam is five cars in a row. Why are there so many one-way streets? Surely, city planners are preparing for the future, because I could almost always cross the street without a single moving car in sight, whether it was ‘rush hour’ or the weekend. A fleet of sparkling clean, modern buses bunch up at the transit center, ready to take passengers to all corners of the city, but there didn’t seem to be many riders. There are very few people walking the streets. The situation is like a dream for tourists. It was as if downtown was all mine.

Riverfront Park is Spokane’s biggest attraction. Its 100 acres sits prettily by the Spokane River, featuring a clock tower, carousel (currently closed and being renovated), IMAX theater and miles of footpaths, including a portion of the Centennial Trail that continues on for over 20 miles all the way to Idaho.

Riverfront Park

The most famous part of the park is Spokane Falls. What a spectacular feature to have in the middle of the city. Crossing the foot bridges over the river let us see up close the waters roaringly cascade over several volcanic rock ledges. There is enough energy in these falls that the city at the turn of the century decided it was a source for generating electrical power.

On the north side of the river, in the Kendall Yards neighborhood, we visited a new market that would be the envy of any city. Open for only two weeks, My Fresh Basket has a wonderfully designed, lofty interior housing the various departments over its generous floor space. One of the grocery employees was busy polishing each mini watermelon. The store was obviously a source of pride among employees. There appears to be considerable redevelopment in this part of town that used to lay idle for a time after a history as a nexus for rail yards.

My Fresh Basket

Fruit aisle, My Fresh Basket

Auntie’s Bookstore is an independent bookseller with a large stock of books, both new and used. In feel, it lies somewhere between Seattle’s venerable, multi-storied and rambling Elliott Bay Bookstore (the original Pioneer Square store) or Powell’s City of Books (in Portland) and a typical, characterless Barnes & Noble. It was fun to roam through the store. I can only hope it won’t be forced to close its doors in the face of the Amazon onslaught. I did my bit by buying a few books.

Auntie’s Bookstore

A local arts-loving developer saw fit to purchase the old Clemmer Theater and convert it to the Bing Crosby Theater, presumably in tribute to Crosby who both grew up in Spokane and performed at the Clemmer.

Bing Crosby Theater

We finally hopped in our car to visit the engaging Manito Park and its beautiful gardens. Flower lovers and photographers will have much to admire within its 90 acres: conservatory, European Renaissance-style garden, perennial, rose, dahlia, butterfly and Japanese gardens. The park is surrounded by historic homes along lovely tree-lined avenues.

Dwarf Shasta daisy, Manito Park

Duncan Gardens, Manito Garden

If you’re a sports fan, and especially if you follow college basketball, you’d know that Gonzaga University, in Spokane, consistently does well in men’s NCAA basketball. In fact, last year, it reached the Final Four. Gonzaga, you ask? It’s not in the Big East, not even in the Pac-12, but in the West Coast Conference. The success of the team, a David among Goliaths, could be a metaphor for the town it represents, a little town making its mark, full of potential, and ready to take aim with a slingshot.

 

Even Mounting Problems Won’t Take Anything Away from Glacier National Park


“It doesn’t get any better than this.”

So beamed the driver to a passenger on the park shuttle to Logan Pass. “I love this job,” he added, admitting he’d been doing it for many years and still amazed by the mountainous spectacles he sees day in and day out. You can imagine the effect they have on first-timers, like me, wowing us with mouth-dropping views spread over a million acres.

It wasn’t too long ago that visitors to Glacier National Park were able to see many more glaciers than today (150 recorded in 1850), which surely heightened the dramatic impact. But, global warming has been taking its toll here as elsewhere, to the point where the vestiges of 26 remaining glaciers will disappear by 2030, a mere thirteen years from now. Just before our arrival, temperatures had been in the 90s for two straight weeks.

Even with this unfortunate circumstance, the park will continue to draw ever more visitors, easily 3 million last year, with more expected this year. And why the popularity?

There are unparalleled vistas for sure. For me, it’s the dramatic shapes of these mountains, like Mount Grinnell or Mount Clements, standing solo, with knife-edged ridges or pyramidal shapes, thrusting up thousands of feet. The most popular way to see many of them is along the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, 50 miles of thoroughfare into the heart of the park. Its narrow width at precipitous heights and switchback course demand that you drive slowly and attentively. Many drivers are intimidated by fear of heights or congestion. For those who aren’t, chances are high that they won’t find a parking space at the most popular stops, like Avalanche Creek and Logan Pass. Visitors may choose instead to take the free park shuttles that deliver them to various stops along the road or, better yet, to take the famous Red Buses (not free), vintage buses originally introduced in the 1930s and since restored (and updated) by the Ford Motor Company.

I was too late to reserve any red bus tour, so we took the shuttle on the first day. We waited in line at the Apgar Visitor Center for 1.5 hours, a real test of patience when I wanted to maximize my park experience.

When we got to Logan Pass, the triple continental divide and highest point (6646ft/2025m) reachable by car in the park, the fields were covered in wildflowers, especially glacier lilies, and a mountain goat, marmot and ground squirrel made brief appearances.

Mount Clements and alpine scenery at Logan Pass

Mountain goat in a field of glacier lilies, Logan Pass

Ground squirrel, Logan Pass

The following day, I did drive on the Sun Road to get from West Glacier to East Glacier. Not a problem, though I had to keep my eyes fixed on the road. Fortunately, there were many pullovers for gawking at one breathtaking vista after another, the contrast between towering peaks and glacier-carved valleys, waterfalls tumbling over jagged rock, wildflowers in abundance.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

Haystack Creek Falls

The most beautiful sight, in my opinion, is the one from Many Glacier Hotel that looks out over Swiftcurrent Lake at Mount Grinnell and its neighbors. It would be grand to have this view out the window of one of the hotel rooms, but the privilege would cost you a pretty penny, in the neighborhood of $220 to $460 per night, depending on type of room, less for rooms with no lake view.

Mount Grinell overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake behind Many Glacier Hotel

Spectacular in its own way is Highway 49 that originates from East Glacier Park northward. It too is a two-lane winding road that joins Highway 89 along the eastern edge of Glacier.

Lower Two Medicine Lake from Hwy 49

National parks are more popular than ever, Glacier included, but they are challenged to handle the growing attendance and to fix their crumbling infrastructure. I had to maneuver carefully over and around lots of potholes on the road to Many Glacier. Parking lots are routinely filled to capacity. I had to pass up several along the Sun Road nor could I park at the St. Mary Visitor Center. The free shuttle system is scrambling to handle the expanding number of riders. Some of the more popular trails are abundant with hikers. These are the unfortunate realities nowadays.

Despite a list of mounting problems, I highly recommend a visit to Glacier National Park, but during the summer months, be sure to reserve your room (and red bus tours) well in advance and be prepared for a human onslaught.