Author Archives: Jennifer G

A Return to The Channels

Three years ago I failed… I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

If you are anything like me, you plan your hiking trips to the last detail. You know where the trailhead is, you know the length, the terrain, etc. This relieves a lot of stress and anxiety when starting out on the hike. I did 99% of this last time I took my kids to The Channels of Virginia. I still ended up failing because I couldn’t find the sign that would lead us to the actual channels. We looked around but I was full of fear. I hadn’t lead my kids on a hike quite like that. We had done short hikes. Easy hikes. One really long, dumb, flat hike. This was different. We were all by ourselves in the middle of no where. There was the large fire tower looming above me and it made me a bit dizzy to look up at it. And I didn’t see the sign. We had a wonderful lunch on the top of the mountain and returned and I always felt so frustrated that we hiked all that way and missed it.

My daughter is getting ready to leave for college in three weeks. I try not to think about it too hard because I will cry. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very happy for her. I’m excited for her. But I will miss my girl. Badly. Especially when movies come out that we’d see together. Anyway… before I get too teary-eyed writing this… She plans on studying geology in college. I always told her we needed to get back to The Channels because they are a cool rock thing here in Virginia. She was a bit annoyed at having to complete the hike again. But we planned our weekend and tackled it this past Saturday.

The Trail

The trail to The Channels isn’t hard, per se. It is steep in part but not bad. I guess I find it pretty easy because I don’t have to step up to hike it. You can generally walk it but the incline can be hard at times. It will get your heart pumping. It is, however, only 3 miles. We were laughing because it felt like we made it there pretty quickly (compared to last time). It took us just about 1.5 hrs to hike there. If you’re an avid hiker you can do it in less time. While there aren’t a lot of views from the trail during the summer, it is still beautiful. If you don’t talk, you have complete peace and quiet. There were wildflowers blooming all around us. And, lots of bugs. The flies were quite annoying (no wind). I’d say wear a hat in the summer – it seemed to help me.

Once you reach the top, you’ll see the fire tower and walk past it. You should, then, see the sign. It seemed so easy this time. I don’t know how we missed it last time. There is a trail prior to the fire tower and that takes you to a flat portion of the mountain. I think I was just distracted by it. We took a couple of “three years later” photos and continued down the path to The Channels. They didn’t disappoint. They were so very cool. It was a good 10 degrees cooler in there and it was fun to walk around. You really can’t get lost as they do end from all directions. You can shimmy between rocks, climb over them, or just stand in awe of the formations. We spent a good amount of time exploring.

As we exited, there was a large black cloud above us. I ran over to the other portion of the mountain top for a few photos and we headed back to the car. Obviously, the trip back was really fast. We were sweaty. Hungry. And satisfied. I was so happy we were able to do this hike. I think she was really “wowed” by The Channels. My son did his 14 year old thing but she was really impressed and that made me happy. I can see myself hiking this trail again. I really enjoy it. I would like to plan it when the rhododendrons are blooming – they line the trail and the trail down to The Channels. I bet it would be beautiful!

You can find the trailhead at the intersection of Hayters Gap Road and Raven Ridge Road in Jefferson, VA. There is parking for quite a few cars. You’ll climb about 1200 ft in elevation and the round trip hike is around 6.2 miles (depending on how much you explore).

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Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a really cool place. Normally, I research locations pretty well before going just so I know what to expect. Well, I was looking at the map since I was staying the night in that area of Maryland and just picked it. My original plan was to go to Calvert Cliffs but I have been there a couple of times already and wanted somewhere new.

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My first introduction to the refuge was stopping along the road to photograph a heron. It was in a farm trench and I thought it would make a cool photo. I managed to take a couple of pictures and then was swarmed by these fly/bee-like bugs. They weren’t bees but had a yellow-ish wing and flew like flies. Everywhere. In my face. In my hair. On my car. The kind of swarm where you start flailing around and trying to get into the car and then wonder if anyone saw you acting like a completely fool. If you’ve ever visited the Great Dismal Swamp (or other similar spot) you’ll understand. Needless to say, my photos of the heron weren’t great.

When I drove up to the visitor center, I was worried that they’d swarm again as I got out of the car. I put on a hat, just in case, and braced myself. Thankfully, there was no swarm and I was free to saunter to the doors. They wonderful ladies inside informed me that the park is a driving park. There are some trails but mostly you drive through and there are pull-offs. I also hadn’t realized it was $3 to enter. I had no cash (BRING CASH!). I am able to send it in later or pay the next time I go. I felt bad. I never want to get in somewhere without paying.

On my way back to the car, I noticed a small pond with tons of dragonflies. I grabbed my camera and was able to capture some new-to-me dragonflies. I saw them landing in the tree branches which I thought was kind of funny. It was a hot and sunny day so I guess they, too, wanted some shade. There were a couple of butterflies floating around as well.

Dragonfly at the Refuge
Swallowtail

I then started on my drive. My first stop was at a boardwalk area over the marsh/pond. From there, you could see a long ways. The ospreys and red-winged black birds were very loud. I spotted an egret fishing as well as some other duck or goose. I couldn’t get a good look at it but it wasn’t a type I had seen previously. From there, I kept driving. I stopped at almost every pull-off. I spotted 5-6 different herons – all flying by and never landing for a decent photo. And, again, dragonflies were everywhere. I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker that didn’t care about me. I basically walked right up to it and took photos from down below. I love watching them bang their heads against the trees.

Egret Fishing
Woodpecker hard at work

I could hear thunder in the sky and knew a storm was approaching. I maybe should have hurried up a little but I just loved being there. It wasn’t busy at all. For most of the time I was there, I was alone. The only exception being the boardwalk area. I could get out of my car and just listen. The sounds of nature filled the air. It was refreshing. At one point, the drive took me past an osprey’s nest. The babies were in there but down pretty far in the nest so I couldn’t spot them. The mama (I presume) was there keeping watch. The ospreys were numerous. I lost count at how many I spotted. I saw a smaller, black bird, trying to scare one off. The two flew around and, of course, the osprey just landed back to where it started.

Can you spot the wing of the baby?
Ospreys fighting over this tree

The store was drawing closer. I waited to try and get photos of the lightning but couldn’t quite time it right. The bolts were too far between strikes for me to try and guess. I finally saw a heron ready for a photo but when I started to put my window down the car was swarmed by small bugs. I quickly raised it back up but not before 12-15 had entered my car. At first I thought they were mosquitoes and I was a bit worried they’d attack me. They weren’t. Since there were no other cars around, I parked and proceeded to kill just about every one of those little buggers.

Storm Clouds

I wish I could have had more time. If you visit, be sure to take a long lens as you may not be close to the birds in the water. I had my 18-200mm but my 500mm would have been better.

On my way out of the refuge I did stop at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Site. Many people probably don’t realize that the Underground Railroad relied heavily on swamp and marsh areas. When you experience the bugs at these places it is hard to believe they were able to get through undetected. The Site has a museum with artifacts, videos, and more. I say it is a must-see for everyone.

Muir Woods National Monument

If you hike, you know about John Muir. And if for some strange reason you don’t, research him now. He was basically the “father” of the National Park System and pushed for Yosemite. He was also involved with creating other parks such as Sequoia, Mt. Ranier, and Grand Canyon. His name is everywhere in northern California.

My daughter and I were excited to stand next to some Redwoods and decided to go to Muir Woods National Monument. This is a small-ish park just outside of San Francisco. If you’re headed to that area of California everyone will tell you to visit. And by everyone, I mean everyone. And everyone visiting WILL visit and the park will be crowded. They have instituted a parking reservation system to limit how many people can be there on any given day. There are ferries you can take as well (they also require a reservation) and then a shuttle bus to the park. Even with these reservations, it still gets crowded but not overwhelmingly so.

It really was a wonderful place. The trees tower over you making you feel very small. The moss and ferns make you feel like you’re in a different world full of fairies and tiny, little, cute things. The main trail is basically a big loop. You can make it shorter by crossing over one of many bridges but don’t do that. Instead, go left (most people will stay straight). You’ll get to a portion of the trail that goes up higher. Go there. It isn’t a hard hike. But not a lot of people were on it. We often had it to ourselves and it was wonderful. We heard an owl hooting but could not spot it. I like to think it was one of the rare Spotted Owls (it was most likely a Barred Owl but one can dream). Unfortunately, there was a tour group made up of teens. They proceeded to yell, scream (yes, scream – who knows why) and were very loud. They pierced our experience. They wouldn’t move on the narrow path and walked two-by-two making us get off the trail and onto vegetation. I don’t know why you’d go to Muir Woods and act that way but then they aren’t my kids.

Standing in a Redwood
So much beauty along the trail

Off of the main trail, there are other trails you can take that lead outside of the official park. I bet these are wonderful but we had other places to go so we didn’t venture down them. One day, maybe. As we turned to go back out of the park, there was a family stomping around an area that said, “Endangered vegetation. Please do not go off path and do not walk on vegetation.” They were having a blast doing it. They were in the water, flipping rocks, and disturbing everything. I couldn’t help it. I yelled at them to stop. I told them they were off trail and it was wrong. They just laughed. It bothered me so much. I probably embarrassed my daughter but she’ll live. It was a deliberate act.

I wish I had taken more like this but from farther back to show just how amazing they look.

I was sad to have to leave. We were there right around noon so my photos aren’t great. The light was bad and I didn’t want to use my tripod to get any longer exposures. If I would ever return, I would go first thing in the morning. Maybe even hike in to get the very first light. I bet it would be beautiful.

Yosemite National Park

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Before heading to San Francisco for spring break, my daughter and I discussed going to Yosemite. It would be a four hour drive to/from the park and it seemed like a lot. My daughter wouldn’t be able to drive the rental car so it would be all me. We originally decided not to go. However, her father kept badgering us and asking why in the world would we go all the way to California and not go.

So we decided, yes, we’d go. It was the best decision. We woke up pretty early and were out of the AirBnB by 5:50 am. We stopped along the way for gas and coffee. The scenery was beautiful during the entire trip. Once we started driving up the mountains I knew we were close. I was excited.

If you haven’t been to the park, heed the warnings. GO EARLY! We were there by 9:45 am within the grounds of the park. The problem was there was view after view of mountains, El Capitan, Half Dome, etc. We would stop for photos along the way. We crossed over a magnificent waterfall and I had to stop and try to get a good photo (fail). Finally, I said, “No more stopping!” because I knew we’d never get to hiking. (Note: I stopped two more times). I have to say that at the moment I saw the view of El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls together, I teared up. There was something powerful and overwhelming about that view. I tried to explain how I was feeling to my daughter and she felt the same way.

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Finally, we got into the valley. We wanted to make our way to the visitor center to see about hiking to Mirror Lake and maybe elsewhere. By 10:30 am-ish the parking lots were 90% full. Thankfully, we had a small rental and squeezed in a small area. We walked over towards the visitor center and our first stop was in the Ansel Adams Gallery. As a photographer, I had to go inside. There is no doubt he is one of the greatest artists to have lived. I saw one of his photos and was overcome with emotion. The worker here was so knowledgeable that he actually saved us a trip to the formal visitors center. Bonus!

We walked through the gift shop, got some tshirts, and headed back to the car. We drove towards Mirror Lake and, again, found a place to park. I don’t know how others missed the spot but I am glad they did. We started our hike. Did you know that way back in the day they used to drain Mirror Lake and put up a dance floor/area? We all agreed that letting it go natural is the best option. Obviously, the hike was amazing. It is an easy, short walk to the “lake”.

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The worker at Ansel Adams let us know that it is filling with less and less water and slowly growing back to a meadow. I was really looking forward to getting some reflection photos and was a little worried I wouldn’t. Finally, we arrived and my fears were unfounded.

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We walked across the meadow area and got closer to the stream that flows through the area. I could have stayed there all day. The granite rocks exploding up around us made me feel small and tiny. I couldn’t stop looking at them. My daughter really wanted to go look at the rocks along the stream but that meant wading through the water to get there. We took off our shoes and took a deep breath. That water was cold. There were boys on the other side of the stream and they were determined to get across it. It wasn’t too deep and some just took off running. Another group walked across. Their yells and hollering were quite funny. One yelled, “I can’t feel my legs!!!” They all made it though. I took in the scene of my daughter bent over examining the rocks. She wants to major in geology so this was special for her.

Eventually, we turned and walked back. As we drove out of the park, we stopped next to El Capitan. I don’t know if you’ve seen Free Solo yet (I have not – stressful!) but seeing it up close makes it even more amazing that he climbed it and did so quickly. It really blew my mind and I think that I am ready to see the movie now.

As we drove out of the park, I was sad. I love my Shenandoahs. I love the Rockies. But somehow Yosemite implanted itself in my heart and all I can think about is returning and spending years there exploring every inch of the place. The drive back didn’t feel like forever. We were high on beauty. After reviewing my photos I feel like I couldn’t capture the emotion of Yosemite. I guess this is one reason Ansel was so successful. You FEEL his photos and I didn’t do that. But I hope you enjoy them regardless.

Click to see the rest of my photos.

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