Category Archives: Outdoors

Yellowstone | Two Highlights of Our Day

When this is the first thing you see while waiting in the car at the Yellowstone entrance, you know it’s going to be a good day. We also saw black bears, bison, antelope, coyote, pica, and much more.

The scenery is such a marvel. We walked about 2 miles throughout the Norris Geyser Basin. The brilliant sunshine brought out colors of the algae in the hot waters.

Our most challenging part of the day involved a hike to the rim of the lower falls of the Yellowstone River. It included a 600 ft descent via a trail that switched back and forth more than 10 times. Of course, that meant you had to ascend the same trail. We are in good shape and made it up easily. Others were not looking so good.

Once at the bottom of the trail, we got this view of the rapidly flowing river as it plunged 308 ft to the floor of the canyon. The rainbow was a special treat.

Pine Creek Falls | Montana

A few miles south of Livingston, Montana, is Paradise Valley. East of route 89 is a National Forest recreation area called Pine Creek. From the east-most parking lot is a trail that follows Pine Creek upstream. There is an elevation gain of about 460 ft up to about 6100 ft. The trail is often rocky with some tree roots. The trail is about 2.5 miles total out and back. The 100 ft falls tumbles down the rocks and under a simple foot bridge.

Mother’s Day Hike | Ryerson’s Woods

by Melanie and Jim

After our early morning breakfast, we drove across town to Ryerson’s Woods. It was acquired by Iowa City in 1985. The park has about 50 acres and includes less than a mile of trails. Last time we visited was in mosquito season. We got a short distance into the trees and ran back to the car with several bites each. This time there were no mosquitoes.

We met two men and their dogs who were on the way out. The men were chatty. One dog reminded us of the Good Dog, Carl. The children’s book series about Carl is wonderful. We saw only two other people from afar.

There is a bit of up and down in the park, but the trail is well maintained with mulch under foot. Clean-up of fallen trees needs to be done in a few places, but the path was only blocked in one spot, and we climbed over easily.

As the park name implies, it is a wooded site. The ground vegetation struggles in many places to capture sunlight. Even so, it is lush and dense with green, as well as with wildflowers.

We saw a lot of Jack-in-the-pulpit Arisaema triphyllum plants in many different sizes. Most were about a foot tall. There were a few two feet tall and shaded a red color.

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An Unusual Visitor

by Melanie and Jim

This morning as we readied for an errand, we heard a great commotion rise up behind the house. Crows, screaming bloody murder, shrieked in alarm. I thought there were several, maybe dozens of them, the cries were so loud. But when Jim looked, he saw only two. Two angry crows, screaming at something between and below them.

There are a number of cats that roam the neighborhood. Sometimes we hear squirrels or blue jays yelling at a wandering cat, but usually not crows. Even if there were a cat, the crows were high enough in the tree that a cat wouldn’t threaten them. It seemed unlikely that a cat was the cause. Still they continued cawing and screeching.

A tree blocked our view, so we moved to another window. Jim thought he saw another bird on a branch below them. Cooper’s Hawks occasionally visit our yard. They eat small birds and mammals. Once we watched as a Cooper’s dropped onto a squirrel, latched its talons tightly in, and flew away with it. With that risk, the little birds go silent and scarce when a hawk is around.

Binoculars showed the cause for alarm more clearly. It wasn’t just “another bird.” It was an owl. Since we moved to this house 15 years ago, we’ve been visited by barred owls. They aren’t as frequent as they used to be, but we still open the door to the screened porch in almost any weather to hear them calling to each other.

A shift to yet another window gave an even better view.

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This owl had ear tufts. It was no barred owl. It was a great horned owl! We’ve never heard nor seen one around here before! I’ve read that barred and great horned owls don’t share habitat, and that the horned owls get first dibs. I don’t know what this means for our barred owl friends, or if we’ll get to enjoy their occasional visits again.

Jim was able to get a few pictures of this beautiful bird. Though they are unfocused, you can clearly see the large ear tufts and hooked beak.

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He took this photo from below. It shows the feathering better.

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As I write this several hours later, the owl is still perched in the same place. The crows gave up pestering and screaming long ago, though they’ve made a few more half-hearted attempts to intimidate.

Dubuque | Mines of Spain | River Museum

by Melanie and Jim

October included our 35th wedding anniversary. To celebrate, we drove 90 minutes to the city of Dubuque, Iowa, on the Mississippi River. There we visited the Mines of Spain recreation area and National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. We enjoyed dinner that evening and an overnight stay at our favorite B&B in town.

The City of Dubuque

Dubuque, a city of about 58,000 residents and five colleges, sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, in the northeast part of Iowa. It’s one of the oldest permanent settlements of Europeans west of the great river, and the oldest one in Iowa itself. The original settlement dates from the 1780s, as a prime location with trapping and hunting, fishing, and logging. In addition, the area had long been a site for lead mining by the Mesquakie tribe, and later by white settlers. The city was chartered in 1837. You can see the evidence of its age in local architecture. Almost 5,000 properties are documented for historical and architectural significance. These include churches, former boarding houses, grand mansions, and shipyards.

One shop in particular, the Iowa Iron Works, started as an iron foundry and machine shop in 1852. The site was responsible for building about 500 boats on the shore of the river. One of them was the Sprague, the largest paddle wheel steamboat on the river at 318 feet in 1901. The company reorganized in 1904 into the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works. Many boats built by the company were for the government during World Wars I and II.

Mines of Spain

The history of this region goes back a long time. Early Native American cultures dating back 8,000 years left evidence of mounds, villages, rock shelters, and campsites on the landscape. The Mesquakie traded furs with French voyagers and worked the lead mines in the bluffs along the river before the Revolutionary War.

The first European to settle here was Julien Dubuque about 1785. He received a land grant from the Governor of Spain in 1796 giving him permission to work the land and mine for lead in an area named “Mines of Spain.” Dubuque married the daughter of the local Mesquakie Indian Chief. Dubuque died 24 March 1810. The Mesquakie buried him with honors at the site of the present monument on a bluff overlooking the region.

The Mines of Spain park is now a favorite recreation spot for locals and visitors, alike. It features bluff-side trails, as is common with river parks in the Midwest. With both of us recovering from knee problems, we weren’t incredibly ambitious with our hiking. However, we did enjoy two different trails with a total distance of about three miles. Views of the river, seen from different overlooks on the trails, still include barges and riverboats, much as they did 150 years ago.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

The Mississippi River has a rich and colorful history. It touched the lives of many as it flowed from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Owned by the Dubuque County Historical Society, the museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum features the culture and history of America’s rivers. There are over a dozen aquariums featuring river wildlife and animals found at the Gulf of Mexico. You can see giant blue and channel catfish, sturgeon, ducks, frogs, turtles, rays, octopus, river otters. Other exhibits include steam boilers, boats building hardware, and a woodworking shop. Children seemed excited to look through the clear tank walls and even had opportunities to touch some of the animals. We found it all very interesting.

We headed back home the next day and stopped at a favorite nearby park. Palisades -Kepler State Park hugs the Cedar River. Bluff-side trails give opportunities for more challenging hiking, with lots of roots and rocks and ups and downs. We didn’t take photos this time. However, three years ago we did and shared them in this post.

Walk Before the Morning Rain

by Melanie and Jim

We left the house in a hurry this morning after checking radar. Showers were headed our way, and we wanted to stretch our legs without getting too wet. As I write this, the radar shows it is raining here now. However, the sidewalk is not even damp. I guess that is one more example of why you shouldn’t believe everything you see online.

When we walk, our attention is usually quite mixed. Sometimes we chew over world problems, sometimes personal ones. The “personal” ones often have to do with our children. Parenting adults is hard! They have a whole range of issues we’ve otherwise moved past. We also enjoy the noises outside. Humming crickets and locusts, peeping frogs, and various bird songs capture our notice. Today we heard catbirds, bluejays and cardinals, chickadees, and a flicker or two, among others. We watch for daddy longlegs, small snakes, and the occasional chipmunk crossing the pavement. And we enjoy the wildflowers.

A few weeks ago, there were dozens of wildflower species blooming along trails, railroad tracks, and streets. Now there are fewer, but those left are some of my favorites. Though the Queen Anne’s Lace has faded, goldenrod is coming on with bright yellow brushes. Jewelweeds still display their brilliant orange drops. Cattails stand proud and tall, and the few thistles allowed to grow wild are bursting with their lavender-colored blooms.

Before we left this morning I insisted we bring a camera, something we rarely do. Jim captured the shots below.

Ledges State Park | Ups and Downs

by Jim and Melanie

A sea covered the midwest region of North America about 300 million years ago, eventually forming a deep layer of sandstone in what is now central Iowa. Several past glacial eras carved out diverse landforms across the state. Between 12,000-14,000 years ago, a lobe of ice pushed south from the northern plains and stopped near present day Des Moines. Melting and runoff carved out steep canyons in the sandstone bedrock below, forming what is today Ledges State Park. It is one of Iowa’s favorite parks offering hikes with elevation changes of 150 feet in several places. This topographic map illustrates the rugged terrain. Many people think of Iowa as flat farmland. Most of Iowa isn’t flat.

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USGS | The National Map

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Matthiessen State Park

by Melanie and Jim

Last Friday we had time, opportunity, and weather for a perfect morning in Matthiessen State Park. Matthiessen is located in north central Illinois, very close to I-80. On Thursday evening we’d been in Sycamore, IL for my presentation to a quilt guild. On Friday we needed to head southward to my sister’s home. Matthiessen was right on the way.

The skies were bright and dry with early fall crispness. Clouds of dust arose on both sides of the highways, stirred up by farmers harvesting corn and beans. As we approached the park, there was little evidence of it besides a stand of trees in the distance. Like so many midwestern parks, instead of rising above the surrounding landscape, Matthiessen’s best features are below, hidden from view until you are deep within.

At the north end of the park are the dells trails around and through a water-eroded sandstone canyon. Reaching the upper trail requires descending a broad, stable stairway about five or six flights long, which some would find difficult. Once that far, the upper trail is a well-maintained loop and relatively easy for most hikers.

There also are stairways into the canyon for those who are more adventurous. Depending on water levels, the lower trails can be off limits. For us, they were open, though deep mud prevented us from exploring all the crevices we wanted.

 

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In the pictures below, you can get a sense for the lower trail within the canyon. On the concrete stairway stands an older woman who generously gave me a mom hug. I had explained to her that I’d visited Matthiessen as a child, and that my mom had led those trips. That day also was my mom’s birthday, which made a poignant reminder for me. That’s me in the bright pink shirt.

 

Below the staircase the canyon walls rose on both sides. A path allowed access both upstream and downstream of the stairs. Across from the stairs was a small stream, the seasonal remains of the eroding waterway.

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

 

In the bowl, water has worn away caverns on the undersides of the walls. Kids enjoy exploring the small caves.

 

Jim created a panorama of the canyon bowl. He is standing below the roof line of one of the caverns.

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

 

And here is his video in the bowl.

After we ascended the concrete stairway, Jim and I disagreed about the correct direction to take. Should we cross the bridge spanning the canyon, or go up farther to the trail from which we’d come? The quickest way to answer the question was to head up to the trail map at the top. We both climbed more stairs, up another five flights to check. And as it turns out, Jim was right! We wanted to cross the bridge below.

A little farther along, we descended into the canyon again. This area was less used and it had more natural impediments. At one point we picked our way along a foot-wide ledge, avoiding tumbling into the bottom 12 feet below. Here we continued upward, climbing up through a series of stone ledges. After another section of stream bed hiking, we exited the bottom and returned to the upper trail.

Matthiessen is a great park for families. With picnic areas above, a recreated French fort, easy to moderate trails, and fascinating geology, there’s something to please everyone. The park will always be on our list to return to.

Hiking from Sunrise on Mt. Rainier

by Melanie and Jim

Earlier this month we visited our son in Washington. (See posts here and here. Please, wear your helmet. Really.) People who live there enjoy outdoor adventures all year long. The mild weather, ocean and other waterways, and the Cascade Mountain range provide lots of opportunities to get out.

We were out a lot, too. One of our primary goals was to hike at Mt. Rainier National Park.
mtn across meadow

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