Hiking into the Grand Canyon on Bright Angel Trail

With a day and half at the Grand Canyon we decided we had enough time to hike part of the way down into the canyon. We decided to take the most heavily traveled trail, the Bright Angel Trail. The entire trail descends 4,500 ft in 7.8 miles and leads hikers to the Colorado river. It is not advised to attempt to reach the river and hike back on the same day, so we walked for a few hours (2.5 miles) then turned around.

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View of Bright Angel Trail from above

Optimistically we began our descent. The trail zig zags down with beautiful views of the vast canyon the entire way. After a mile and a half, you’ll run into the first of four stops along the trail with restrooms (and water in the summer months). The bathrooms were nicer than I expected. While it was essentially a hole in the ground covered by a toilet, I didn’t need to fervently hold my breathe because of the smell. One downside is there wasn’t anywhere to wash hands in the winter so you might want to bring some hand sanitizer.

 

We decided to walk another 30 minutes before turning back, wanting to get back before dark. Unlike most hikes, the second half was the hard part. As inexperienced hikers, traveling back up the canyon was definitely difficult for us but there was never a steep climb and the trail is well maintained. Surprisingly the ascent looked completely different than the way down. Though our legs were angry and our breath was short we had no regrets in the 2.5 miles we trekked down.

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If you are planning to hike down into the Grand Canyon here are some things to note: Bring lots of water and salty foods. We thought we had plenty of water but found ourselves rationing it on the way back up. Also take plenty of breaks, something we probably should have done more of. The elevation at the Grand Canyon is 7,000 ft above sea level so it was very easy to be short of breath. Lastly, DO NOT attempt to hike to the river and back in one day. There are many warning signs posted but park officials have to assist over 600 hikers a year plus an additional 150 helicopter rescues.

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Hiking into the Grand Canyon was definitely a highlight of our visit. We hope to come back someday to do the entire trail and camp at the bottom!

Visiting Mammoth Cave: Domes and Dripstones Tour

Last April, while visiting family in Louisville, we decided to take a day trip to Mammoth National Park. Located in central Kentucky, Mammoth National Park was officially established in 1941 and is home to the longest cave system in the world. On the surface, Mammoth National Park extends around 80 square miles but the underground cave systems extend a least 405 miles! Exploration and surveying continues today, with new passages discovered each year!

There are tour options of various intensities, but we chose the 2 hour Domes and Dripstones Tour. With over 100 people on the tour, we rode buses to what appeared to be just a door at the bottom of a sinkhole but it was really a man-made entrance to the cave. At the mouth of the opening, you can feel the cool air from within the caves, which stays around 54 degrees Fahrenheit year round.

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Heading into the cave, we descended around 280 steps winding through small openings, over deep crevices and under large domes. The descent was both exhilarating and at times a little terrifying. Water dripped down on our heads throughout the climb but once we got 250 feet underground, everything was completely dry. We stopped to rest for a few minutes on benches while he ranger taught us more about the cave system. At one point she turned off every source of light humans had put into the cave. Immersed in complete darkness, there was no source of natural light in the cave at all.

We continued our trek through wide caverns and narrow pathways admiring the variety of dripstone formations along the way. Our tour concluded with a visit to the “Frozen Niagara”, a large formation of dripstones resembling a waterfall frozen in its tracks. After hiking through the caves for 2 hours we only explored 0.18% of the discovered passageways throughout the cave system!

Once back at the visitor center, we had to walk over soapy mats to clean off the bottoms of our shoes. This is to try to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease detrimental to bats. The fungus first appeared in the United States in the winter of 2007 and an estimated 5.7-6.7 million bats have died in country since. We talked to the park ranger about it and she told us that these efforts are to try to contain the fungal disease and they are hoping the bats will develop an immunity.

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Overall, the cave tour was definitely worth the $15 price tag. Before you head to your tour, be sure to walk through the visitor center for small exhibits and an informational video! You’ll learn about the discoveries made in Mammoth Cave throughout history. Our quick day trip was well worth the trek but we wish we had more time to explore all the things Mammoth National Park had to offer!

Going Off the Trail in the Florida Everglades!

Back in December, I took a quick weekend trip to visit my mom in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Thanks to weather delays causing me to reschedule my flight twice and fly out of a different airport (sometimes I have the worst luck when it comes to flying!), it was an even shorter trip than anticipated, but we still had time for an awesome day visiting the Everglades National Park!

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The highlight of our time at the Everglades was the “Wild Walk in the Wilderness” Hike at Shark Valley! We arrived at the visitor’s center in the morning dressed as instructed when we made our reservations earlier in the week: long sleeve shirt, long pants and old sneakers that could get wet and muddy. We met the park ranger that was leading our hike, Anthony, and discovered that Mom and I were the only ones who signed up for the hike. This turned out great because we were able to ask lots of questions and go at our own pace.

We set off on our hike from the visitor’s center beginning on the paved bike path and after walking not even a hundred yards, we found ourselves just a few feet away from 4 or 5 baby alligators sunbathing in the water just off the road! I was nervous that the mother alligator would come charging at us if we got too close but Anthony assured us we were fine because in this part of the park they are used to people (as long as we stayed a few feet away!).

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We kept walking a little further down the path and then the real hike began, time to go “off-roading!” With that, we followed the ranger right into the ankle deep water of the marsh, walking along the trails that alligators had cut through the saw grass.

It felt like walking through a swamp, with the water getting up to our knees at times! But, technically, it’s not a swamp, the Everglades are actually considered a river. This is because the water is slowly flowing (not stagnant like a swamp) which is where they got the nickname “River of Grass.”

While we were hiking, we stopped frequently so that Anthony could point out different things (and for water and photo breaks!). We learned the difference between sawgrass which will cut you if you rub it the wrong way (the reason for long sleeves and long pants!) and the other less harmful grasses. We saw some other plants, like the duck potato plant with its pretty white and yellow flowers, and some wildlife – herons, a turtle, and a lot of snails.

Towards the end of the hike, we arrived at one of the many tree islands we could see amongst the marsh. These little islands, also called hardwood hammocks, are elevated higher than the surrounding area, which allows trees to take root and can support animal and plant species that need dry land or shelter from the wet, open marsh.  They are usually so dense that you can’t walk through them, but this one had a path cut across it, maintained by the park, that was just big enough for the 3 of us to walk across before hiking back to the visitor’s center.

I would highly recommend this hike! It was the coolest way I can imagine to see the Everglades – you can’t get much closer than stomping through the actual alligator trails in mud and water up to your knees!

If you’re interested in this hike, here are the details: The hike is called the “Wild Walk in the Wilderness” and it leaves from the Shark Valley Visitor Center at the Everglades National Park. The schedule varies by season but during the winter (the dry season), this hike is only offered one weekend a month. It is free (so we couldn’t believe there weren’t more people on our hike!) but you need to make a reservation within the week before the hike.