Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Close Encounters of the Kim and Linda Kind

 After journeying together to Ireland last April, Kim and I realized we made good travel buddies.  So when planning my summer family visit to South Dakota, I asked her if she'd like to tag along.  Kim had never been to many of the states in the midwest, and she'd always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore, so was all for it.  To sweeten the deal, I proposed a detour to Yellowstone National Park on the return trip.

Soldier Monument, Little Bighorn Battlefield

It's a two-day, 1200 mile drive from Portland, Oregon to Rapid City, South Dakota.  Although I've traveled this route annually for the past 35 years, Kim had never been on such a long car trip.  As for myself, I was excited to show my long-time friend the place I'd grown up (and she'd heard all about).

So one sunny day this past late May found us cruising down I-90 in Eastern Montana, destination Rapid City and the Black Hills of South Dakota.  To break up the time spent inside the car, I stopped at a couple places of interest along the way.  One of these places was the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Eastern Montana.

Gravestones indicate where soldiers died

In history class you probably heard about "Custer's last stand."  Well that took place right here at Little Bighorn Battlefield.  This National Monument memorializes the conflict between US soldiers trying to control the Indians and the Indian's last armed efforts to preserve their way of life.  On June 25-26, 1876, 263 soldiers of the US Army's 7th Calvary died fighting thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.  The commanding officer, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, famously perished in this battle.

There were gravestones for the Native warriors also

Coincidentally, the battlefield lies on the Crow Indian Reservation.  For years this area was called "Custer Battlefield."  But the eyes of history have shifted and the powers that be decided it didn't make sense to name a battlefield after the guy who lost.  So in 1991, the monument was renamed "Little Bighorn Battlefield."  Along with a large granite monolith commemorating the US soldiers that fell, there is now an Indian Memorial honoring the Native American warriors that fought and died here.

Loved this sculpture honoring the Native American fighters

I really liked the huge sculpture depicting three warriors on horseback charging off into battle.  It is transparent so one can also take in the surrounding grassy hills and wide-open skies.

National Cemetery honoring those who died in US wars

In addition to the battlefield memorials, we found the place also had a National Cemetery.  Custer National Cemetery provides a final resting place for veterans of the many US wars.

It right before Memorial Day and each grave had a flag

It was interesting to walk among the rows of uniform, bright-white headstones.  Each section of the cemetery was reserved for casualties of a certain war.  There was an area for the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.  There were even older graves from soldiers fighting Indian wars of the frontier.  We visited on the Friday prior to Memorial Day, so each headstone had an American flag placed at its base.

First glimpse of Devils Tower

After spending over an hour touring Little Bighorn Battlefield, it was back in the car for a long drive across the rest of Montana and into Wyoming.  But I had a second stop planned.  Northeastern Wyoming is home to another famous National Monument, one of my personal favorites - Devils Tower.

Looking up the tower

Anyone who lived through the 1970s has probably seen the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Devils Tower is prominently featured.  As a matter of fact, I couldn't stop myself from humming the movie soundtrack's famous five tones as we drove towards the monument.

Close up of the rock formations

Rising 867 feet from summit to base, Devils Tower is a lone igneous formation made up of distinct vertical hexagonal rock columns.  Geologists theorize that the tower was formed by an intrusion of magma into an area of otherwise sedimentary rock.  Over time the surrounding softer rock eroded, leaving this igneous plug standing alone.  The columnar jointing on its sides are unusual, and Devils Tower has the largest and most spectacular example of this fascinating geologic phenomenon.

Local Native American tribes also had stories on how Devils Tower formed.  Several versions feature children being chased by a large bear.  The children pray to the Great Spirit to save them and in response, the Great Spirit made the rock rise into the sky.  Trying to climb the rock, the bear made claw marks in the sides, creating the hexagonal columns seen today.

A thunderstorm foiled our hiking plans

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Devils Tower the first US National Monument.  Although the tower and surrounding forest are now protected, hiking trails abound, including one path that circles the tower, and climbing Devils Tower is allowed.

This viewpoint, down a gravel road, is the best

Kim and I had planned to walk the 1-mile trail around the base of Devils Tower.  However, as we started out on the path, I noticed dark clouds building in the sky.  We hadn't gone but a quarter mile when thunder began to rumble.  Not wanting to get caught in the rain, or struck by lightning, Kim and I decided to turn around and head to the visitor center.  We had had just reached the parking lot when the skies opened up in a furious burst of rain.

Almost looks like a spaceship is coming

So we sought refuge in the gift shop, and in the process met a new alien friend.  Kim took a selfie, posted it on Facebook, and dubbed it "close encounters of the Kim and Linda kind."  (And I liked it so much I stole it for the title of this blog post!)

We found an alien in the gift shop!

With more dark clouds on the horizon, our hiking plans were not gonna happen.  On to Plan B!  From previous visits, I remembered a place down a gravel road that gave visitors nice views of the tower.  So I took Kim on a quick drive.  We both marveled over the big sky panorama here, especially of the ominous storm clouds hovering above Devils Tower.  Kinda looked like those aliens from the 70s were coming back!

On the road again!  Destination, Rapid City.  Next up - taking Kim through some of my favorite places in the Black Hills.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Summer Butterflies

Besides brightly colored wildflowers, the other thing I love about summer hikes is the abundance of butterflies.  These critters love flowers, and when the temps start to rise you'll always see them flitting amongst the blooms.

I already posted a bunch of butterfly pics in my Silver Star Mountain post but had a little collection of images from other various places I've hiked this summer.  I deemed these photos too good not to share, so here's a post solely dedicated to these lovely winged insects.

An orange beauty

In mid-July I hiked the Iron Mountain/Cone Peak loop in the Central Oregon Cascades.  Although this trail is best known for its prolific wildflower bloom, with wildflowers also come butterflies.  And boy did I hit the butterfly jackpot that day!

Posing on the flowers very nicely

By midday the beautiful winged insects were having a heyday, soaring in the sun and feeding on the blooms.  I spotted several varieties, but not knowing my butterfly species at all, I wasn't going to guess what I was photographing.

I think this may be a very colorful moth?

One thing I've learned, butterfly photography is hard.  Those suckers have a sixth sense.  I can sneak up to them and be super-quiet, but the minute I lifted the camera to my eye, they nearly always took off.

Loved this white butterfly

From several miscues, I learned half the battle is being prepared.  Before creeping up on my subject, I'd have my camera out, make sure the exposure and shutter speed were correct, and get my focus ready.  My camera also has a 1.6X crop factor setting, (providing a bit of extra zoom) which I began to take full advantage of.  After lots of practice, my capture rate and photo quality got much better.


One of the butterfly species I do recognize is the lovely yellow and black swallowtail.  Appearing around the official beginning of summer, these beauties can be found everywhere there are flowers.  Something I've recently learned - the swallowtail butterfly is the official state insect of Oregon (I also didn't know there was such a thing as a state insect!)

Butterflies seem to love yellow flowers

Swallowtail photographs are especially difficult to capture.  These buggers seem to know when you're after them, and take off the minute you get your focus locked.  But I've learned if they're after a favorite type of flower (such as the columbine) these butterflies will latch on and ignore everything around them.  That's probably the only reason I was able to get a few good shots of this elusive winged insect.

A very colorful moth (I think?)

The best part about photographing butterflies is they nearly always land on a flower - and who doesn't like both a beautiful butterfly and a colorful flower in the same image?

Another swallowtail - very hard to capture!

Although this post started out strictly about butterflies, I've expanded to include a couple of nice dragonfly photos I really liked.

Blue dragonfly

My neighbor Cheri and I visited a local garden store that sold items for home ponds and waterfalls.  In the numerous displays lived hundreds of dragonflies, and the insects didn't mind photographers in the least.  So here's a couple of my favorite images of these fascinating little helicopters.

A fiery orange dragonfly

Hope you've enjoyed my insect post!  Next up is a recap from a late spring trip to South Dakota and Yellowstone National Park.  Stay tuned - you won't want to miss it!

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Holiday Weekend in Olympic National Park

I'm a self-professed "National Park junkie."  Any opportunity to visit someplace holding this lofty designation, and I'm there!  So last December, when my hubby suggested we camp at Olympic National Park for 4th of July weekend, I immediately got online and made reservations at Kalaloch Campground.

I've visited Olympic NP twice before, once in 2010 and again in 2014.  Our first visit, in September 2010, hubby and I snagged a killer ocean view campsite at Kalaloch Campground.  Situated high on a bluff overlooking the mighty Pacific, it was one of our favorite places we've camped ever.  Sadly, the days when one could drive up on a whim and snare a campsite are long gone.  In 2023, camping at any of the busy NP's requires advance reservations.  Some, like Kalaloch, are so popular you have to get online the minute campground reservations become available - in this case 6 months in advance - to secure a spot.  (And by the way, Kalaloch is pronounced "clay-lock."  Don't even try to use phonics!)

"Tree of Life" Kalaloch Beach

Although at the time, six months seemed like an eternity, the chosen weekend rolled around quickly.  Hubby and I made the 4 1/2 hour drive north into our neighboring state of Washington, destination the Olympic Peninsula.  Although I'd tried for another ocean view campsite, the minute online reservations opened, sites were gobbled up so fast all I could get was one the furthest distance from the beach and adjacent to US 101.  I was a bit disappointed with our site, thick tree cover offering no views and the noise from the highway very noticeable.  But - it was a holiday weekend, and in the end I realized we were lucky to get anyplace to camp at all.

So hubby and I set up the tent and unloaded our gear.  After getting everything shipshape, it was time to stretch our legs with a walk on nearby Kalaloch Beach.  

Wide open spaces - Kalaloch Beach

Although not oceanside, it was great to have the beach within walking distance of our campsite.  Not far from the beach entrance, hubby and I passed by the famous "Tree of Life," an large wind-blown Sitka spruce whose roots had been drastically undermined by a redirected creek flowing underneath.  This poor tree was hanging on by a thread over a large eroded cavern, it's roots totally uncovered.  Someday soon the roots will finally give way and the "Tree of Life" will come crashing down onto the beach.

A popular photo site, the place was swarming with people crawling over the roots, up the trunk, and into the void underneath, trying to get that perfect social media selfie.  After waiting for several minutes, I was lucky enough to snap a few quick images of the tree sans people before it got mobbed again.

We found many intact sand dollars

Beyond the "Tree of Life" the beach became less crowded.  We enjoyed a long walk to the most northerly end, a tall headland and rocky shore blocking further progress.  Hubby found a bunch of intact sand dollars - a rarity on Oregon beaches.  We then walked as far south on the beach as we could go.  Kalaloch Creek was our turn-around point, flowing wide and deep enough to deter us.

Ruby Beach, view from parking lot

Prior trips to Olympic National Park have familiarized me with the area.  From our first visit, I remembered that Ruby Beach wasn't far away.  I recalled that it was a lovely place, complete with tall ocean cliffs and picturesque sea stacks.  Instead of sand, the beach area is covered with thousands of perfectly rounded stones.  Hoping to capture a nice ocean sunset, hubby and I decided to check it out.

Wave action, Ruby Beach

Right from the parking lot, Ruby Beach had an overlook that gave great views of the beach below.  After taking a few photos from that vantage point, hubby and I took a short downhill path that led to the beach itself.

Sunset at Ruby Beach

It was a beautiful evening.  The sky was clear and the ocean at high tide.  Although the tide prevented us from venturing too far towards the sea stacks, I found a good place to set up my tripod while I waited for the sun to drop.

The sun sinks behind a sea stack

There were a lot of people on Ruby Beach also watching the sunset.  I had to keep moving my tripod, as a few clueless folks kept walking in front of my camera.  But I finally found a spot free of people just as the sun began to light up the sky.  There's nothing better than watching the sun set over the ocean!

Lingering sky color, Ruby Beach

The sky continued to glow in beautiful orange hues for several minutes after the sun sank below the horizon.  It was still sporting its bright colors as we walked back to the parking lot.  I couldn't resist snapping a few more images from the overlook before heading back to our campsite.

Trailhead at Cape Flattery

One place in Olympic NP that's long been on my bucket list to visit is Cape Flattery, the most NW point in the lower 48 US states.  It's a long drive from most everywhere, but here at Kalaloch Beach it was a mere 2 hours away.  The second day of our holiday weekend trip I suggested to hubby that we venture over there and check it out.

Loved the oversize chair at the trailhead

Hubby was game to go check out this far-flung destination.  We drove northward and then westward, following a twisty road that paralleled the Salish Sea.  It was a clear, sunny day and the views were spectacular.   

The forest here was beautiful

Cape Flattery is not technically in Olympic NP, but happens to be on the adjacent Makah Indian Reservation.  The tribe requires all visitors purchase a Makah Recreation Pass to park at any trailhead on their reservation.  The small town of Neah Bay is where the Makah reservation begins.  Upon entering town, we stopped at a convenience store to obtain our permit.  Although the pass price was kind of steep ($20!) a helpful store clerk informed me the permit was good for an entire calendar year.

Lots of wooden boardwalks

From Neah Bay, hubby drove another 8 miles to the parking area for Cape Flattery.  A large sign at the trailhead informed visitors it was a 25 minute walk to the observation deck the end of the peninsula.  After a few quick photo ops, hubby and I were off down the trail.


Almost to the first viewpoint

We wandered through a beautiful coastal forest, full of large, unusual trees.  In some places, wooden walkways had been constructed, and we noticed many benches along the trail.  The trail plunged downhill, sometimes rather steeply, and after watching several people slogging by in the opposite direction, I realized we'd have a good climb to look forward to on our return trip.

Sea stacks at Cape Flattery

After about a half mile, I could see the forest thinning and blue sky peeking through the gaps.  Our trail transitioned onto another wooden walkway.  There were quite a few people here, and we had to sometimes step aside to let folks traveling in the opposite direction pass. 

Ocean view at Cape Flattery

The trail branched out in two directions.  Hubby took the right boardwalk and I followed him to an overlook.  Oh the view here was marvelous!  We could see the jagged, rocky coastline and two large sea stacks, with full size trees on top.  The water was a beautiful teal blue.  Beyond the sea stacks I could see the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.  We'd made it!

Seascape at the very tip of Cape Flattery

After soaking in this tremendous sight, and of course lots of photographic documentation, hubby and I retraced our steps back to the trail junction, following the main boardwalk to Cape Flattery's very western end.

The coastline was gorgeous!

There were more views of the ultra-scenic, rugged coastline.  Waves crashed upon the rocks and rushed into the tiny coves in between.  No sandy beaches here, the forest came right to the end of the rocky headlands.

Small island with a lighthouse directly west of Cape Flattery

At land's very end, a large observation deck had been constructed.  The place was packed with people, all scanning the open ocean.  I could see a tiny island a short distance away.  There appeared to be a lighthouse on the island.  However, most everyone standing on the platform wasn't gawking at the scenery, they were looking for whales.  Several people had binoculars and one told my hubby they'd seen a pod of gray whales swimming by the island.  After a few minutes, hubby said he'd spotted a whale spouting - but of course, I couldn't find it.

Interesting sea caves 

I had more fun taking pictures of the unique scenery.  It was so beautiful!  And we'd lucked out with clear, blue skies that made it look even better.  On our way back, we stopped at one final overlook that gave us glimpses into several sea caves.  Hubby also spotted some birds nesting at the mouth of one cave.

Beach area at Neah Bay

After trekking back uphill to the parking lot (which turned out to be not as bad as I'd feared) it was nearing noon, and we were both hungry.  Although I'd packed PB&J sandwiches, I was craving the fish and chips I'd seen advertised at a restaurant we'd passed in Neah Bay.  It didn't take much convincing my hubby to change our plans.  The fish and chips place was right on the water, and we enjoyed the great views while waiting for our food.

First Beach

After spending our morning at Cape Flattery, hubby and I retraced our route back towards Kalaloch Beach.  Passing through the town of Forks, I remembered there were some nice beaches west of here, near the town of La Push, on the Quileute Indian Reservation.  Only 15 miles away, we decided to take the side trip.

One of many brown pelicans flying by

The beaches here are unimaginatively named First Beach, Second Beach and Third Beach.  We passed by Third Beach's parking area first, and found it cram-packed with cars.  Second Beach was just as busy.  We finally found ample parking at First Beach, it's location adjacent to the town of La Push the main reason there was more room.  First Beach wasn't very interesting.  It had a rocky shoreline and only one large seastack.  I did spot a flock of brown pelicans flying by, and managed to get a couple of decent action shots.

Lovely roadside wildflowers

I'd heard Second and Third Beach were extremely scenic, so was disappointed we couldn't find a place to park and visit them.  That's what you get for visiting this area on a holiday weekend, I guess.  The consolation prize was passing a large meadow full of colorful wildflowers on our way back to the campground.

Beginning of the Hoh River Trail

The most popular place in Olympic National Park is the Hoh Rainforest.  One of the largest temperate rainforests in the US, the Hoh is home to enormous trees, plentiful ferns, and a large concentration of mosses.  During our 2010 Olympic trip, hubby and I had done some hiking in the Hoh.  On day three, hubby and I decided to pay this place a return visit.

Lots of ferns and gigantic trees

As with everything nowadays in Olympic National Park, the Hoh draws a large number of visitors.  Since it was a holiday weekend, hubby and I decided to get an early start to ensure we'd get a parking place.  Arriving at the entrance booth by 8 am, there were already four cars ahead of us in line and we had to wait about 10 minutes before the ranger let us through.  Reaching the visitor center, we discovered the undersized parking area was already full.  So hubby followed the lead of several other vehicles that had parked along the road.  It appeared the roadside parking spots were going fast, so we were thankful that we'd risen early.

Hubby admires a huge nurse log

The main hiking trail through this rainforest is the Hoh River Trail.  Following the Hoh River, this path wanders through spectacular old growth forests for 18.5 miles before ending at the Blue Glacier Moraine looking up at Mt. Olympus.  Day hikers can follow this trail as far as desired and it's also very popular with backpackers.  Today's plan was to hike a portion of the Hoh River Trail.

Great-grandpa tree!

Starting out on the Hoh River Trail, it wasn't long before we passed by our first enormous tree.  Due to the area's abundant rainfall, super-sized versions of Sitka Spruce, Red Cedar, Big Leaf Maple and Douglas Fir all thrive here.  Huge patches of ferns covered the forest floor, and moss dripped from tree branches.

Our lunch spot by the Hoh River

When we'd hiked this trail 13 years ago, it had rained and misted the entire time.  The forest was luxuriant with all the vegetation verdantly green.  However, today the weather was unusually hot and dry.  The Pacific NW hadn't had any measurable rain for nearly two months.  I could tell the rainforest was suffering from this lack of moisture.  The trail was dusty, many of the leaves were turning brown, and the forest didn't seem quite as lush as it had on our last visit.  Even the moss looked dry.  It was sad to see this beautiful rainforest looking so parched.

Another enormous cedar tree

While hiking the Hoh we met a large number of backpackers, several heading to place called 5 Mile Island camp.  Hubby and I decided to make this our day's destination.  It seemed to take forever to get to this place, but finally a side trail directed us to a beautiful riverside camping area.  We sat on a log with a nice view of the Hoh River and enjoyed our PB&J sandwiches.  Once lunch was completed, we turned around and retraced our steps for five miles back to the trailhead.  It was a hot day and I was wiped out after completing the entire 10 mile distance.  We decided to make a side trip over to Forks for ice cream.

Our campsite at Kalaloch Campground

But first we had to get out of the park.  Upon returning to the truck, we found the parking lot overflowing and the entrance road lined with cars, some parked in areas that weren't large enough to hold vehicles.  Passing by the entrance booth, I noticed a huge line of cars in the opposite direction that extended far down the road.  The backup went on for several miles.  Due to the lack of parking spaces, apparently the park staff would only let a car into the visitor center area if they saw one leave.  Some of those people looked like they'd been waiting for a long time.  Hubby and I agreed most of those vehicles were probably not going to make it into the park that day.

Sunset over the Pacific at Kalaloch Beach

After getting ice cream from the very busy town of Forks (they were having a 4th of July celebration that day and the place was packed) hubby and I headed back to our campsite.  Although it was over 80 degrees outside, the thick tree canopy surrounding our site kept temperatures downright chilly.  As a matter of fact, I had walk out into the open to warm up!  I made a trip to the beach for sunset that night, and it didn't disappoint.

Foggy morning at Ruby Beach

The fourth and final morning it was time to head home.  After packing up our campsite, hubby and I decided to make one last trip over to Ruby Beach.  It was low tide and we wanted to see what the beach looked like when it wasn't inundated with water.

The fog made for some neat images

The morning was extremely foggy.  At first I was disappointed.  But then I realized that fog makes for some cool photographic effects.

Low tide made this sea stack accessible

I love visiting beaches at low tide.  The largest seastack was now accessible, so we walked out to its base to explore the surrounding tidepools.

There were many colorful seastars

I was pleased to find a large number of colorful seastars stuck to the underside of the big seastack.  

Slimy anemones

There were also hundreds of slimy anemones.  But if I could catch the anemones while still open, they were a lovely shade of greenish-blue.

I loved this bright purple seastar

I even found a seastar that was bright purple!  So pretty!  It was by far my favorite.

Sun rays streaming through the fog

Hubby and I explored Ruby Beach for a couple of hours, peeping into tidepools, dodging waves, (and getting our feet absolutely soaked in the process) and admiring the sun's rays as they began to break through the fog.

Goodbye, Ruby Beach!

Soon it was time to bid Ruby Beach, and Olympic National Park, a fond farewell.  We'd had a great weekend, discovering new places and revisiting old favorites.  Watching the waves crash on the beach and capturing stunning sunsets.  It had been a wonderful and well-needed getaway.  Heading home with wet shoes and a camera full of stunning images, I was thankful for having such an extraordinary National Park just a short drive away.