We spent the week between Christmas and New Years in the Smoky Mountains. It’s my second visit to the area so I’ve started to learn a lot more about this interesting and beautiful area. Like the Ozarks, the Smokies change dramatically with the seasons. I’ve only seen the Smokies in winter, so I am sure it would be interesting to see another season when the deciduous trees aren’t bare. Many people may not think of winter as a time to hike, but it’s actually one of my favorite times to be out. The cold doesn’t bother me and it’s usually very quiet and peaceful!
The weather was fairly nasty the first day, but as a photographer I love bad weather because it often makes for more interesting scenes.
The namesake “smoke” formed from the misty clouds that often drape the mountainsides.
The Smokies have an interesting range of forest types. The lowest elevations are a mix of Pine, Hemlock, and various hardwoods. The middle elevations are mostly hardwood and the highest elevations contain Spruce, Fir, and Birch, a forest type similar to what is found up in New England.
I took Emma on a long and challenging hike, almost 10 miles with some very significant elevation gain. It was a beautiful trail and Emma is quite the hiker.
Here we are at a beautiful overlook.
I love this photo hiking back in the later afternoon. It looks almost heavenly, which is often how I feel when hiking through the forest!
The girls soaking up some winter sun on a beautiful afternoon while hiking a short trail to a cabin.
The girls love to play around streams. Fortunately streams are not in short supply here!
One day I hiked a trail up to the top of a mountain. The first couple miles of the trail were along this cascading stream.
I enjoyed a nice lunch at this spot.
Sometimes I am reminded that Missouri, while not a national mecca for scenery and tourism, is actually quite a playground for those who appreciate nature. This past weekend was one of those experiences. We took a mini trip to a new state park called Echo Bluff, which is adjacent to the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. ONSR is a national park that many people do not realize is a national park in Missouri. The main attraction here is paddling opportunities on the Current River and it’s primary tributary, the Jacks Fork. But there are ample hiking opportunities within the park and other nearby state and federally owned lands as well. It’s an incredibly beautiful area.
What Missouri may lack in beaches and alpine mountain ranges, it makes up for with it’s springs, streams, and smaller scale scenic areas. Being an avid kayaker, I think Missouri is a fine place to call home considering I could spend a lifetime exploring waterways without ever leaving the state. The density and quality of our waterways is truly exceptional.
So back to my weekend trip. We started out by visiting Alley Spring Mill, one of those iconic Missouri landmarks that I have always wanted to visit.
A really great stream swiftly flowing through the park at Alley Mill.
The same stream… this would be such a great streak to kayak, though I am not sure if one is allow to put in at the mill.
Before we hiked the trail up to the actual mill, the girls enjoyed rolling down the hill to stretch their legs after the 3 1/2 hour drive!
Although I was hoping to get some kind of “postcard” shot of the mill, like so many others have done… the positioning was such that the afternoon sunlight reflects off the side in a really awful way. The only thing I can figure would be that it would need to be photographed either very early or very late in the day. Or when it’s overcast. Nevertheless, it’s a neat spot!
The trail loops around the pool that is impounded by the mill. The spring water makes for some beautiful blue water that is really set off by the colors of the fall foliage.
The actual spring – I am not sure how deep this is, but I would imagine at least a few hundred feet. It reminds me of the spring at Roaring River, which scuba divers have never found the end.
The girls had fun tossing leaves and sticks into this stream and watching them quickly float away.
Emma and Eily tried their hand at fishing in this really pretty stream near our cabin. This is a tributary of the Current River called Sinking Creek. I was really wishing I would have had my kayak! Small streams like this are my favorite to float.
Sinking Creek was so clear and blue that I had to tone down the photos because they looked manipulated. I enjoyed walked along this stream – and since it was 80 degrees it was nice wading as well!
We went on a hike to a feature called “Cave Spring”. I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, but figured it would be some kind of cave with a spring in it. The trail there climbed up several high ridges and passed through some beautifully colored forest. Supposedly it’s an Oak/Pine/Hickory forest but what I saw was mostly Oak, Pine, Dogwood, and Maple. The dogwoods and maples really added to the color!
After a few miles the trail descended down a ridge to the bottom of a bluff along the Current River. The trail lead up to the opening of this cave… seriously how rad is that?! Emma loves caves so this was right up her alley. As it turns out, I had floated past this spot in my kayak once before but it was a crowded summer weekend and amidst all the drunk rednecks and cigarette smoke, I didn’t realize the awesomeness of this spot.
The afternoon sun was just barely shining back into the cave, providing some really awesome natural lighting effects! I am not sure how deep this water is, but it’s pretty deep! With a kayak, one can easily paddle from the river into the cave and back around the corner where it opens up into a dark, larger room with a giant pool where the water comes up from the ground. Using a flashlight, we could see a lot of fish hanging out in the pool, but couldn’t see the bottom.
This part of the trail was nice. Some very large Shortleaf Pine that smelled nice and some colorful oaks. A little ways down the trail we came upon a great overlook on the top of a tall bluff above the river.
Just some more fall colors as we made our way back down the ridge.
Although it’s nice to take a long journey to other places, sometimes it’s nice to stay close to home and appreciate the things we have right here in the Ozarks!
I haven’t blogged or posted any photography in what seems like forever! Life has been exceptionally busy the last few months, but mostly in a good way! Last Sunday I was able to set aside a few hours and drag my kayak down to the creek for a quiet solo trip down to Stones Corner. When I planned it I was really envisioning a cool fall day in the 60s with bright fall foliage but it seems summer just isn’t ready to go away just yet. Which was fine, it made the logistics of the trip much easier!
Fall is without a doubt my favorite season to be out on the water, or on a trail, or just out in general. I don’t often get to kayak in the fall so when I do I really enjoy it.
My usual put-in spot. The water is still pretty low even though it has rained recently.
This is one of the more scenic stretches of the river. Tall bluffs with a dense canopy over the creek. It’s right before the takeout point so it’s always a nice way to finish!
Just an ordinary spot along the river, but still pretty nonetheless!
Here is a photo I took the other night as some storms were slowly creeping their way towards the farm. Often times when storms are coming it’s cloudy, but in this case the sky was completely clear so it provided an interesting opportunity to photograph lightning with a starry sky. After hiking out into the field, I also discovered that the fireflies were out, so that added another component of interest!
Stars, lightning, and fireflies – the trifecta of natural light in the night!
For a long time I’ve been wanting to take Emma on a mountain climb. So this year I decided to stop thinking about it and just do it, and we invited my dad and Steph’s dad to go with us. I wanted something fairly difficult, with a good view, but not any severe exposure along the trail. Missouri has a near endless supply of scenic hiking, but the nature of the terrain means there aren’t a lot of isolated high points (it’s mostly ridges and deep valleys), plus dense tree cover limits the large views. So I thought the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma might be a good idea.
While I wouldn’t generally describe Oklahoma as a hikers paradise, there are some pretty neat areas worth checking out in the Sooner State. Back in college I did an internship in Oklahoma City so I spent most of my weekends exploring the remote corners of the state, finding a few pretty neat places in the process. One of my favorites is the Wichita Mountains, a small chain of granite peaks that stretch maybe 75 miles, roughly from Lawton to Altus in the far SW corner of the state. Though the tallest are only around 2,500′, their prominence over the surrounding plains yields some amazing views.
For Emma’s first “mountain climb” I selected Elk Mountain. There are several peaks in the Wichitas higher than this one, but this is one of the few with a trail leading to the summit – as such it’s said to be one of the most popular trails in the state, as well as attracting a lot of hikers from Dallas. We did an 8 mile route starting at Treasure Lake, crossing the Charons Garden boulder field and then taking the Elk Mountain trail to the summit. For the less adventurous it is possible to park at the start of the Elk Mountain trail and cut 6 miles off the trip but I wanted this to be an epic journey, something that would challenge us and see what Emma was capable of. When we first set out in the morning, it was dreary and misting, with most of the mountain shrouded in clouds.
The first part of the trail was very difficult to follow because of the number of informal side trails. At one point we ended up at this beautiful pool near a waterfall. If you look closely in this photo you can see the waterfall behind the leaves towards the left of the photo.
The waterfall was back in a narrow canyon and virtually impossible to reach without swimming or using ropes. Here is a view from a distance.
Much of the trail followed this stream, which eventually lead into a narrow canyon filled with house sized boulders.
Many of the boulders forms rooms underneath. Emma and I could have spent a full day just exploring all the rooms and passageways under the boulders. I think this was her favorite part of the trail.
Emma and I perched up on top of this rock and had a snack where the light was shining down through an opening above. What a cool spot for a break!
Up above the boulder field stands these two gigantic boulders, appropriately named “Apple” and “Pear”.
Once on the north side of the mountain, our destination came into view! It still seemed really far away even though we were getting pretty close at this point!
At last we reach the summit! I made Emma a sign to hold so that it would be official.
My favorite part of a mountain hike is enjoying lunch with a view from the top!
Some people had a camp setup on the side. The tent illustrates the size of some of these pieces of rock. I would have enjoyed exploring around the top of the mountain more but it was getting late so we had to start heading back down.
After enjoying the summit for awhile, we decided the head back down. Not surprisingly we were making much better time going down!
The stretch of trail through the boulder field was pretty difficult. There wasn’t a defined trail so it was mostly rock hopping and climbing over and around the large boulders. It was hard, and we got a few bumps and scrapes but Emma agreed afterwards that it was fun.
Emma liked finding interesting ways to cross the stream, eventually just walking through it. “Mommy wouldn’t let me do this!” she proudly proclaimed.
A few different types of cacti were pretty common along the trail, especially these prickly pear.
This small waterfall was really cool and it reminded me a lot of Coyote Gulch, where Ian and I backpacked in Utah. To get through this spot we had to climb over the waterfall and pass along the ledge on the right side of the photo.
With the Bears season winding it’s way down, I decided to catch a game. We had excellent seats on row 2, perhaps the silver lining to the steady decline of the program that has been underway since the departure of coach Martin. Given the sad state of affairs at my alma mater (at least with regards to mens basketball), I decided it would be appropriate to remember some memorable games and look towards the future! The kind of games I long for, where an evenly matched top tier rival comes to down, or when the season is on the line making a case for the elusive NCAA tourney, or bragging rights as the top team in the conference. The kind of must-attend game that draws alumnus and fans from across the state and country.
I don’t have photos from some of my earliest memorable bears games, like my first game ( a thrilling 3pt buzzer beater during the season when the men advanced to the sweet 16). Or the game when Jackie Stiles eclipsed the NCAA scoring record. Or the terrible game when rival SIU stole a last second victory and jeered the crowed as they left the court. This is by no means a comprehensive list of memorable games, but just a few I have photos from. Hopefully my memory is correct on the details…
Back in the SMS days…after overcoming a 23pt deficit to defeat the Salukis, the Bears went on to play in the championship round of the conference tournament. Unfortunately they got slaughtered by Creighton.
After getting snubbed by the NCAA selection committee, the Bears hosted the first few rounds of the NIT. I managed to somehow get an amazing low level seat, which were very hard to come by in the old Hammons Student Center.
We followed the lady bears to an NCAA tournament appearance at Purdue.
A white-out game, the last home game of the season vs Creighton. It was thought that a win would seal our bid for an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament, but once again we were overlooked while the team we beat was invited anyways.
Again hosting the NIT, it was fun to watch Stanford come to town and get beat down by the Bears.
Opening night at JQH Arena. Complete with a defeat of the ‘hogs’ from the U of Arkansas.
And who can forget this one. A record setting crowd with a close win over Wichita State to claim sole possession of first place in the Valley. Again, no NCAA tournament invitation.
While in Tennessee last month, I got to do a little hiking on my old friend the Appalachian Trail. I say “old friend” as if I have a lot of experience with the trail, but I have actually only hiked it once before and that was 10 years ago. But the section I did was a significant section… the northern terminus of the trail up to the top of Katahdin, the highest point in Maine. I thought this sign was cool because it actually showed the distance to the one other point I had been on the trail.
We hiked about a mile and half of the AT but it was extremely cold and windy so we went back to the car. Steph also joined us but I think she was taking the photo. Emma didn’t realize the significance of this trail over other trails we had hiked but she enjoyed it nonetheless. I am not sure why I was fully decked out with backpacking gear. I guess I was pretending to hike back to Maine
So here is a much younger me eating a Kit-Kat atop Katahdin the point referenced in the first photo, which to this day remains among my all-time favorite hikes. Also the only one where it was considerably more difficult to get down than it was to get up.
This is the view Ian and I enjoyed while eating lunch on the summit, looking back at the “Knife Edge” trail. Katahdin is much more exposed and craggy than most mountains typically found in the east. And though it’s not as tall as some of the peaks of the Smokies (none of which exceed the tree line), this mountain extends well above the tree line by maybe 2,000′. So there are expansive views to be had during a lot of the hike.
Maybe the next time I’m up there Emma will be with me and she too can take a photo at the opposite end of the Appalachian Trail!
Some of my favorite days for hiking are the sunny, warmish days we occasionally have during the winter. Although there isn’t typically a lot of color, I find the bare, neutral tone forest very relaxing. Plus it’s very quiet, other than maybe the sound of the breeze.
One of our favorite places to hike nearby is Roaring River. We’ve been there a thousand times but I always enjoy it, especially now that the girls are old enough that I don’t have to carry them up that incredibly steep hill on the Devils Kitchen trail. Here are a few photos from the day…
We started our afternoon with a picnic along the river. A few people were trout fishing in the clear blue water.
I had Steph take this photo of me. Bridget and Andy gave me this super cool shirt which I felt like was appropriate to wear on this hike.
This has been a favorite spot of mine for as long as I can remember. It’s fun to climb around with my girls on the same rocks and explore the same caves and passageways as I did when I was their age.
Inside the “kitchen”, the girls were able to squeeze through several passages that I couldn’t fit through.
We finished the day by feeding the trout and hiking up to the top of the Deer Leap trail. And then hitting up DQ on the way home. What a great Saturday!
A few years ago I saw on the news where a bicycle tour was finishing in Joplin. It was a Biking Across Kansas tour, which to me sounded awesome. I tried for several years to find someone “enthusiastic” enough to participate in such an event but had little, actually no success. Until 2 years ago when I mentioned it to my cousin’s husband, who quickly jumped on board with the idea even though he didn’t own a road bike.
So we planned for 2016 and he spent last year getting a bike and doing some practice rides. As of this past weekend we are both registered for BAK 2016!
BAK is a week long tour crossing the sunflower state from Colorado to Missouri. The route varies each year, generally between 450-550 miles, stopping in small towns along the way, but always traveling west to east to take advantage of the prevailing winds and the fact that the elevation in western Kansas is a few thousand feet higher than the east. They transport your gear for you and most people camp or sleep on cots in school gymnasiums along the way. While Kansas has a reputation of being exceedingly flat, it is actually quite hilly in many places.
I realize this sounds tortuous to most people but I am genuinely excited about it. If you think it sounds like fun too you can register here! Biking Across Kansas
One of my goals for our trip to the Smokies was to find some time and climb a mountain. It’s been several years since I have had the satisfaction of summiting a noteworthy peak, so I was feeling long overdue for such a thing. After researching various options and weighing numerous factors such as proximity to where we were staying, length of hike, views and sights along the trail, I finally decided on Mt. Leconte. There are many different ways to reach the summit of this peak, but I chose the Alum Cave trail (which does not actually feature any caves).
The trail was long (almost 13 miles round trip) and steep, with a total of 3,400′ of elevation gain.
This sign was a little misleading because Mt. Leconte has 4 peaks along it’s summit, and the one I was headed to was a full mile beyond the point where this mileage was taken from.
The first mile or so of the Alum Cave trail climbed uphill along a small stream. I am a sucker for clear blue pools of water in streams so I walked around this spot for entirely too long trying to find it’s best angle. As usual, when I later started sorting my photos, the best one was the first one.
This was a neat point where the trail crossed the stream and climbed a set of stairs that went up through a steep cave like feature at the base of the mountain. This spot vaguely reminded me of the place I hiked this past summer in the Ozarks.
After about 2.5 miles I reached Alum Cave – which is not a cave, but still a cool spot. It’s a very tall overhang, or alcove and in other times of the year is probably swarming with hikers. On New Years Day it was just me and this other couple. It was one of those rare times when I deliberately framed a stranger in my shot because it gives some sense of scale to the scene.
The trail follows along the side of Peregrine Peak, though it doesn’t quite cross the summit. Still, there were some really beautiful views from the trail, especially with most of the foliage down for the winter.
Most of the trail beyond Alum Cave looked a lot like this, with occasional views and some places with narrow ledges and steep drop offs.
Here was a beautiful view looking down in the vicinity of Newfound Gap, which the day before had seemed really high. Now looking down on that area, it didn’t look very high anymore. The view into North Carolina looked like the “smoky” mountains I always pictured in my mind.
Once on the summit of Leconte, there really weren’t many views to be had. It was covered with a dense forest of Frasier Fir trees. Though I was looking forward to some expansive vistas, the smell and beauty of a Fir forest is quite splendid. I actually think Fir trees smell the best of any conifer. If you don’t believe me, next time you are int he mountains, pick a few needles and crush them between your fingers. It is the best smell you will ever find. But first make sure you learn to distinguish between a Fir and a Spruce. And if you are doing this experiment out west, be aware that a Douglas Fir is not actually a Fir.
Here is “High Point”, one of four peaks along the summit of Leconte, and as you may guess, it’s the highest point of the mountain. But aside from the pile of rocks, it was not a particularly interesting spot.
Another half a mile or so past High Point is where the trail started getting super awesome. This narrow walkway leads out to Myrtle Point, which offered the most incredibly view I had seen in my entire visit to the Smokies. It was about 300′ lower than High Point but was truly spectacular. Plus the trail getting out to the point followed this narrow ridge with fairly steep drop offs on BOTH sides. My favorite.
Looking from Myrtle Point, I could see the clouds below as well as the other higher parts of the Smokies, and even some distant ridges and peaks further west in to Tennessee. The point offered views similar to this in nearly every direction and it really was impossible to capture it with a photo so I didn’t even try. I just sat on a rock, at lunch, and soaked it all in.
After leaving Myrtle Point, I followed a sign pointing to “Cliff Tops”, which lead as you might guess to the tops of some really tall cliffs. The views from here were equally as inspiring as Myrtle Point though without the cool sky path to get out there.
I aways try and take photos of dangerous or precarious parts of trails so I can scare my mom. So here is a place where the trail consisted of a narrow rock ledge with a cable to hold on to. It really wasn’t that scary, though if there had been ice and no handhold, it would have been.
In the higher parts of the mountain I enjoyed the Yellow Birch, a tree species I don’t often see.
Back down closer to the parking lot there were several huge trees, including this Hemlock. Again, a case where I was glad to have these people in front of me to add some perspective to the shot.
So all things considered, it was a successful hike and got me ready for my next adventure, whatever it may be!