Conquering Sand Mountains at Warren Dunes State Park

Last summer on my Indiana trip I  had fun challenging myself on the three dunes challenge at Indiana Dunes State Park, so when I was invited by some high school friends to go to Michigan for a beach day at Warren Dunes State Park, I had an idea that more dune climbing would be in my future.

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I had checked out the park on a Friday as a sort of mini reunion with two high school friends and their kids, and I had so much fun that I enticed my family to make the trek back to Michigan on Sunday.

As I pulled into the parking lot on a Friday, it was clear that this was not going to be an ordinary beach day.  The sky was overcast, the lake had waves so big it looked liked the ocean, and there was a no swimming flag posted.  Oh yeah, and I was wearing a jacket in July.

After a round of hellos and how long has it beens, we redirected our efforts to find a place to hike. A short drive had us at a trail head.  We set off on the packed dirt trail not sure where we would be heading.     

Before long, we reached a turn off that was covered with sand.  As we approached, it rose before us  like a small mountain.  Standing at the base, I watched as people bear crawled up to the top then disappeared over the crest.  This daunting dune looked like it was at an angle of at least 60 degrees.

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My friend’s daughter wanted to climb so we followed.  I kicked off my flip flops and started the grueling trip up.  After about fifteen steps I knew that this was going to be a lot harder than it looked.  For every step forward, I slid back two in the loose sand.  The further I climbed, the more my heart was pounding.  Slowly we ascended the dune taking lots of breaks along the way.  

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Finally we rose above the treetops and  crested the top of the dune to be rewarded with spectacular views of cascading dunes leading the way to Lake Michigan. We all plopped down into the sand to rest before snapping victory photos.

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The return trip was so much easier and a whole lot more fun.  It felt like I was running down the dune as gravity pull me closer to the base.  As I leaned back and let my feet slide through the sand, I was reminded of hiking down the snow covered face of the Skyline Trail on Mt. Rainier.  

I had so much fun hiking this dune that I convinced my family to return on Sunday for another climb.  

Unlike my Friday adventure which was overcast and cool, Sunday was a perfectly sunny day.  

After the nominal entrance fee, we headed straight to the trail head.  I had warned my family that this dune was really steep, and the pictures I had taken really did it no justice.  

We ascended the giant dune again.  This time I chose to wear my running shoes which kept my ankles and feet from hurting, but it did nothing to help my pace.  Like a turtle, I made my way up the dune for the second time in three days, slow and steady.  Even my brother acknowledged that it was a difficult climb.  Finally I crested the top where everyone else was waiting.  

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Instead of turning around and descending back towards the car, we opted to go all the way to the lake.  The hike towards the lake was a nice mixture up gentle ups and downs culminating in that skiing experience I had felt on Friday.  

As we approached the beach, the picture before me had me wondering if I was in the same place.  The empty parking lot was now full of cars, RVs, tents, and people.  Beach umbrellas dotted the sand and hundreds of people splashed, kayaked, and swam in Lake Michigan.  

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We rested near the water for awhile before deciding that it was lunch time.  There were no concessions where we were, and we neglected to bring anything but water with us, so we headed back to the car.  The hike back was mostly flat with only one gentle ascent.  We followed what looked like a path into the trees which ended up being the return loop to where our car was parked.  The trail blazes are few and far between, but it did not make it that difficult to return to where we started since we knew the general direction of where the car was parked.

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Warren Dunes State Park has so much to offer from hiking to the dunes to kayaking Lake Michigan, to soaking up the Michigan sun.  For the nominal entrance fee, we had a blast.  Next time, we will come prepared with a cooler and set up at the beach after the dunes hike.  Watch out Indiana Dunes State Park, I think I have a new favorite for my beaching needs while visiting home.  

 

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Wandering Around Washington Oaks Garden State Park

Smooth sandy beaches are the usual picture conjured in one’s mind when thinking of Florida.  Craggy rocks usually draw images of California not Florida.  However, on the way to St. Augustine, there is a little hidden gem called Washington Oaks Garden State Park.  Nestled along the Matanzas River, this park is split in two by the main road.  On the river side is a beautifully maintained set of gardens with towering live oaks, lily ponds, and a rose garden.  It’s the perfect place for a picnic or just a stroll to stretch your legs after hours of driving.  The ancient looking oaks are dripping in Spanish moss and summon memories of what Old Florida must have looked like.

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Crossing the street takes you to the Atlantic beach side.  Here you will not find just any ordinary beach.  Instead, the beach is lined with coquina rocks that make for fun climbing and exploring.  I was reminded of a miniature version of the Mohegan Bluffs.   Waves crash over them unexpectedly, but the slippery rocks form tide pools at low tide where shells are sometimes lurking along with crabs and other sea life.  On the day we visited, most of the holes were empty, but it was still fun to scramble over the rocks looking for shells.  Pay the five dollars to visit, you won’t regret it.

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Turkey Run: Trails and Truths

A visit to my hometown last summer had me doing a lot of reflecting on my childhood.  Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again,” and nothing seemed more true than my most recent trip to Turkey Run State Park.  Now of course, Turkey Run isn’t my home, but it is one of those vivid and rosy memories I have from my childhood.

I distinctly remember one particular trip when I was in about third grade.  I can see my 9-year-old self in neon pink spandex shorts and a ti dye shirt with a duck on the front.  How did my mom let me leave the house like that?

On that trip everything had a newness about it.  The two hour drive seemed to take about twenty minutes.  The shops were full of trinkets I was dying to buy.  The steep trails were mountains to conquer.

Fast forward twenty five years.  That shining memory has lost a little of its gleam.

As I drove the two hours from Lowell to Turkey Run, my eye picked up on the subtle changes.  Barns that once stood out brilliant red against the corn rows were now peeling and sun bleached.  The waving rows of corn now have giant alien windmills dotted among them.  The canoe outfitters that once were the signal we had arrived now had crumbling signs and rusty gates with Keep Out slapped on the front.

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Maybe it’s just that I’m becoming more cynical, but the decaying barns, decrepit roads, and abandoned stores make me feel like something is broken.  The shininess of my childhood memories were being tarnished by the reality I saw before me.

The one constant in all of this though were the hiking trails.  It’s the one reason I still wish to return.

After paying my seven dollar entrance fee, I pointed the car towards the nature center without even thinking.  Parked,  I grabbed my small backpack filled with water,  a granola bar,  and a few extra band-aids and headed for the suspension bridge,  the apex of all the good trails.

I had decided I wanted to hit all the highlights which had me hiking a little more than five miles.  I started my hike on trail three, a moderate one.  I knew the trails that I wanted to hit would have me hiking through creeks, so I was prepared with my Teva sandals.  A short jaunt took me to Wedge Rock which, as children, my cousins and I called Wedgie Rock.  From there it was into the Punch Bowl. 

At the Punch Bowl I had the horror of seeing a painted turtle tumble over the waterfall and bounce off the ravine floor with a sickening thud.  Thankfully that shell did its job, and the stunned turtle quickly recovered. I watched for awhile making sure that he was okay before moving on with my hike.

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From the Punch Bowl it was up through the top half of Rocky Hollow before climbing down  the slippery ladders into the Ice Box  which, living up to its name,  was noticeably cooler than the air at the top of the ladders.

As I descended the ladders, I was reminded of hiking this trail with my family and remembered my mom obsessively worrying about each of our abilities to get down those ladders without mass casualties.  Hiking alone,  I remembered her cautionary tales and firmly planted each foot before moving on.

Next, I wound my way to Boulder Canyon where some rock scrambling was involved.  My approach had me coming down into the canyon. I picked my way over slick boulders with shaky legs.  Reaching the bottom,  I took a break and enjoyed the solitude I was finding on this hike.

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Five miles passed rather quickly, and before I knew it, I was back on the suspension bridge, eyes gazing down at Sugar Creek, as I crossed back to where I had started.

Hiking the trails brought back some of that childhood magic that I have always associated with Turkey Run.  Being among the oak trees and limestone cliffs helped shine up those memories that had tarnished as I drove to the park.  And while there is some truth that one can never go home again,  it’s nice to know that even though things change, nature has a way of remaining the way it was once remembered.

Sun, Sand, and Lake Michigan

When I was a little girl, my mom and aunt took me, my brother, and my cousins to the Dunes as an occasional summer treat.  I remember the long walk from the car which seemed to be parked miles away from the lake.  I remember juice boxes, cheese and crackers, and grapes filling the cooler.  I remember the sand burning my feet.  I remember the deep blue of the lake that was as vast as the ocean.

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25 years later I arrive at the Dunes this time sans cooler or crew.  It’s just me.  I stop at the visitor’s center for a map, and a sign proclaiming the Three Dune Challenge captures my eye.  Yes, that sounds like something I might like to do.

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I drive to the trail head, slap some sunscreen on my face, sling my backpack on, and take my first steps towards the mile and a half loop that boasts runners and hikers alike will take two steps forward and one step back through the sand.

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The trail starts off even and shaded, but quickly turns to the first incline.  From this point on, the trail is covered in soft, loose sand.  I head up the first dune to it’s peak, and I’m rewarded with my first view of Lake Michigan from the top of Mt. Jackson’s 176 foot elevation.  It’s a blue sapphire glittering in the morning sun.  The smokestacks of the steel mills are hidden by the trees.  A breeze ruffles the hair on my neck that has pulled loose from my pony tail.  It is so quiet, and peaceful so I sit for a moment on a fallen branch and enjoy the all encompassing silence.

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Then I point my shoes towards dune number two.   The trail quickly descends reminding me of hiking down Mt. Rainier’s snow covered mountain last summer.   My sandals sliding down the soft sand the same way my boots slid through the crunchy snow.  Before long the trail evened out again before quickly angling back up.  This dune is steeper, the sand slips under my sandals as I try to find purchase in the footsteps of those who have traveled before me.  I feel every heartbeat as I ascend.  And then I’m there at the top of Mt. Holden, now 184 above Lake Michigan.

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Once more I continue on the trail knowing that Mt. Tom is the highest dune in this area.  I anticipate more sandy inclines, but this time I am greeted with 105 stairs that will help me to the top of Mt. Tom.  Reaching the top, I am now 192 feet above Lake Michigan, and I can see much more of the Indiana shoreline including the smokestacks disturbing the otherwise pristine view.

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Then it’s down another 105 stairs before being deposited onto the path that dumps me in the campground.  After Sunday’s half marathon this “challenge” didn’t seems so daunting, and the walk back to the car was much shorter than the one’s I remember during my youth.

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Leaving the park I return to the visitor’s center to claim my sticker proving I completed the Three Dune Challenge, and file away new memories next to the ones of my childhood.

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Mt. Rainier’s Skyline Trail

We laced up our boots, strapped on our crampons, and decided to tackle the snow-covered trails after spending the night in the Paradise Inn.  The plan was to hike the Skyline Trail up to Panorama Point, but right away we knew those plans would be changing due to the amount of snow still covering the trails.

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Panorama Point was our intended destination. I guess we will have to go again if we want to see it.

 Instead, we decided we would hike the Skyline Trail as far as we thought it was safe (or until we got tired) then turn around and return to the Visitor Center to meet up with Geoff’s parents.  The trail started off with a steep snowbank we needed to scale proving that this trail was serious.  After climbing the bank, we were rewarded with a paved path that had melted out for about a quarter of a mile.

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With fresh legs, we hit the trail leaving the Paradise Inn behind us.

 Soon enough we were at a bridge crossing over a waterfall.  The NPS did a fine job of marking the trail so that we would stay on solid ground and not make the mistake of walking over a snow bridge.  While these snow bridges were absolutely gorgeous, they were super dangerous.  Accidentally wandering could cause a fall to the creek bed below especially since the temperatures the day before had reached 80 degrees making the snow less solid.  I really wasn’t looking forward to starting off my first true vacation day by ending up plummeting to the bottom of a waterfall, so we kept our eyes peeled for any signs of running water under the snow.

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Watch your step!

 After crossing the bridge we spotted our first wildlife–a hoary marmot.  Basically they look like a groundhog, but stand on their hind legs to survey the landscape in much the same way as a meerkat.  Our marmot friend was peacefully checking out the thawing meadows and newly sprouted glacier and avalanche lillies around him.  We decided to get a little closer for some better photo opps.  As soon as we got about 25 feet from this little creature, his stench smacked us in the face.  I can’t even begin to describe his stink other than it was something way worse than wet dog.

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One of our first wildlife viewings of the trip.

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Hoary marmot fight wrestling match!

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The avalanche lilies were just beginning to bloom everywhere.

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More meadow flowers beginning to show their colors.

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Glacier lilies popping up through the snow melted meadows.

As we continued up what we thought was the trail (we followed the bootprints of a hiker who had passed us) we began to spot hoary marmots everywhere.  They were scurrying down the side of the mountain, resting in the sun, and wrestling in snow drifts.

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Where’s the trail?

We stopped to watch them for a little while, and so I could catch my breath after the steep incline.  I love hiking, but snow always makes it so much more challenging.  As I broke a path in the snow with each step, I was reminded of hiking down the Grand Canyon.  The snow was much deeper on this trail making the hike that much more strenuous.

We hiked until we meet the hiker who had passed us earlier, and he informed us that we probably should not venture much farther than the ridge we were approaching.  He said that beyond that point there were many snow bridges, and the trail was hard to follow.  We continued to the top of the ridge that offered a nice view of a very tall waterfall.

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Follow that guy! He looks like he knows where he is going.

Geoff decided he wanted to take some pictures, so we went down into the little valley and set up the camera on an exposed boulder pile.  There we ate a few granola bars, sipped some water, and held a mini photo shoot.  As we played with the camera, we heard this weird, high-pitched squeal.  At first I thought there were some little kids hiking near us.  Then Geoff realized that it was the noise of the hoary marmots.  We looked up the mountain slope in front of us and sure enough there were about five or six of them playing in snow.

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I never get tired of seeing waterfalls. This was the third one in two days.

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I love the remote feature on the camera.

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Winter wonderland in summer

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Photo shoot over, we decided to turn around and head back to meet Geoff’s parents.  Hiking down the mountain was the most fun I’ve ever had.  I literally was able to run down the mountain without falling!  The snow was in such a state that it slid just enough with each step to keep me balanced.  The only thing that might have been more fun than running down that mountain would have been going down it on a sled.

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Downhill run

Before long, we were back at the trailhead.  As we approached the parking lot, we were passed by a group of mountaineers that were heading to the summit.  They were discussing their plans as they passed us, and I felt a pang of jealousy.  I would really love to climb an entire mountain one day.  It seems like such an accomplishment.  One that would have to save itself for another trip.

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To the summit!

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Break time

Big Island Volcanoes and the Kilauea Iki Trail

Visiting Hawaii was one trip that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to check off my bucket list, but as luck would have it, one of my cousins decided to move to Oahu and choose this lovely island as the place she would be married.  So in 2012, my husband, my parents, and my extended family made the eight hour flight across the Pacific Ocean.  And while I thoroughly enjoyed my time on Oahu, the best part of my Hawaiian adventure was a day trip to the Big Island to pay a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  

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I can’t drive past a sign without a photo op. This is outside the eastern entrance to the park.

My mom and I decided to plan the day out and surprise my dad.  We booked the first flight out on Hawaiian Airlines, and as we flew to our destination, the sun began its rise for the day.  One short hour later, we were getting our rental car and hitting Ken’s House of Pancakes for a little sustenance to start our day.

From Ken’s it was off to Rainbow Falls, a short car trip.  Here I hoped to see the light display the falls were named after, but it turned out to be a cloudy morning, and we were not lucky enough to see the rainbows promised on most early mornings.  All the same, the falls were lovely.  The lemon hibiscus that lined the paths were too much for me to ignore, and I had to pick one to shove behind my ear Hawaiian style.  After a quick photo shoot at the falls, we were on to our real destination, the volcanoes.

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Rainbow Falls lacking the rainbows.

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Me and my hibiscus

 

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Ready for a day of adventure on the Big Island

 

Hawaii is synonymous with volcanoes, and Kilauea has been continuously erupting for thirty years.  While it’s difficult to see the red-hot lava unless you are on a helicopter tour, we were able to see the steam vents in full force on our day trip.  Our arrival began with a stop at the visitor center where we were offered the best views of the steam plumes.

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Our first view of Pele at work.

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Unfortunately, this is the only lava I saw on our trip.

From there it was off to explore some lava tubes before stumbling upon an overlook of a giant crater of what was once a lava lake.  As we peered down to the crater floor, we saw people that looked to be the size of ants creeping along the caldera floor.  How did they get down there we all asked each other.  And slightly to our right we saw the trailhead, the Kilauea Iki Trail to be exact.

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Thurston Lava Tubes…lava used to run in rivers through this tunnel.

 “Hey, that looks like a fun, easy hike,” were the famous last words we heard before heading onto the four-mile-loop.  My mom had broken her foot earlier in the trip and was in a boot.  She was determined to get some hiking in, and the trail looked mostly flat, so we decided to tackle the four miles.

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View from the Kilauea Iki Trailhead.

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More views of the caldera we will hike down into.

We began the easy part, the downward descent.  The trail rolled through the rainforest slowly bringing us lower and lower to the crater floor.  Along the way we were enveloped by the lush green ferns and trees that I can’t even begin to pronounce.  Everything is vivid shades of green.  It’s hard to imagine that red-hot lava once shared the space below my feet.

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Fauna along our hike.

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Flora along our hike.

Emerging from the rainforest we felt like we had just landed on the moon, albeit a black one.  Shades of black, red, and brown razor sharp rocks replaced the lush verdant foliage.  And while these lava rocks looked like they weighed tons, the didn’t.  Upon picking up a rather large one, I was surprised to see how light it was.  Each of these remains were filled with numerous air holes causing them to weigh considerably less than what you might think.

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Inside the caldera with a view of cooled lava floes.

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A piece of surprisingly light lava rock

As we traversed the floor of what used to be a lava lake, I saw puffs of steam off to the left.  Rising through the cracks in the floor are steam vents reminding me that this is still a very active volcano.  While it would be pretty awesome to see hot lava, I was hoping that Pele wasn’t going to choose today to reemerge from the flowing lava underneath our feet.

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Walking along the floor

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Making our way out of the caldera

 

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Life in the strangest places

The temperature at the bottom of the crater was considerably hotter than at the top.  My taste buds were dry and craving a gulp of water, but we didn’t bring any with us.  So we ascended those 400 feet we had so easily traipsed down an hour earlier quite dehydrated.  This time all of our minds were on water so the ascent was quicker than I thought it would be, though somewhat challenging.  Along the way it was so easy to watch the landscape change from desolate to lush within the matter of steps.  Orchids and Fiddlehead Ferns dotted the trailside helping me forget my thirst.

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Wild orchid on the return trip up the side of the crater

 

Then we were emerging from the crater with our car in view.  Four miles down into an old lava lake was definitely something that was bucket list worthy, but none of us could think of that at the moment,  all we wanted was water.  As I gulped from the container in the car, I had a vague sense of deja vu to backpacking in the Grand Canyon.  Didn’t we once do a hike before without enough water?  I guess we never learn.

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Four miles completed and not too worse for the wear

 What I did learn was that I must make a trip back to Hawaii to the Big Island.  One long day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was not nearly enough time.  There were so many more trails to explore, the coast to view, and Mauna Kea to drive up.  Yes, I think another trip to the islands sounds perfect.

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I can’t wait to go back!