We’ve been talking about Slovenia for the past week here on Gadling. It’s got everything you’d expect from a European country: beautiful architecture, medieval churches and castles, world-class museums, a distinct cuisine … but every European country can boast these things. What really sets Slovenia apart?
The countryside. The Julian Alps take up a large part of the country and are full of incredible trails for all levels of hiking ability. You can stroll around Alpine lakes or slog up sheer mountains, have a picnic by an emerald stream or explore remote valleys. Add to this the fact that Slovenia is considerably cheaper than other Alpine countries and you have a hiker’s dream.
The best place to see Slovenia’s nature is Triglav National Park. Slovenia’s only national park takes its name from the country’s highest mountain. Triglav is 9396 feet (2864 meters) tall and offers a challenging climb. Sadly, I went too early in the season to make it up there. It was still snow bound and dangerous without proper equipment.
Instead, I picked an easier but scenic hike to Savica Waterfall. Part of one of the many streams that feeds Lake Bohinj, the largest lake in the park, the waterfall cascades down a steep cliff some 256 feet (78 meters), making it the tallest in the country.
%Slideshow-636%Setting out on a typically rainy day (Ljubljana gets twice the annual rainfall of London), I passed the tranquil Lake Bohinj, a serene alpine lake with fine views of the mountains. Several little chalets and B&Bs sit around its shores, making it a convenient place to base yourself. It’s much less touristy than Lake Bled and has the advantage of actually being located inside Triglav National Park. Lodging can also be found in the many villages scattered throughout the park.
Getting on the trail, I worked my way through a dense forest. The trail, like most in the country, was clearly marked. It was also nearly abandoned. Granted it was raining, but this was one of the most popular hikes in the country and it was already on the cusp of the high tourist season. Except for central Ljubljana and Lake Bled, Slovenia is surprisingly undervisited, yet another advantage to this lovely country.
While the rain hardly let up for the entire day, in one way I was grateful for it. Low clouds rolled over the mountaintops, making for a constantly changing scene. At times all but the verdant slopes would be hidden from view, and then the clouds would suddenly lift and the snowcapped peaks would glint in a brief patch of sunlight. Clouds lingered in the steeply cut valleys, rising like curtains between the forested ridges.
The trail crisscrossed an Alpine stream that was a bright, stunning shade of green. Passing by a few farms set amid fields full of yellow wildflowers, the trail began to ascend. After a rough mile or two it ended at a vista point overlooking the waterfall.
When I first got there, the clouds were hanging low and the water looked like it was spouting from the sky itself. Then the clouds broke up and I could see where the waterfall was cutting through the top of a cliff high above. Savica waterfall is set in a narrow cleft in the side of a mountain, and looking out you have a good vantage point to see several other mountains.
As I headed back the clouds finally broke up for good. The sky cleared and I got to see the Julian Alps in all their glory. I only wished I had more time in Slovenia to explore more of them.
Standing 20,320 feet in height, Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America and one of the most challenging climbs in the entire world. While it doesn’t rival the big Himalayan peaks in terms of altitude, it more than makes up for it with a number of technical climbing challenges and notoriously fickle weather that can even be bad during the peak climbing season of May and June.
Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of McKinley, which is generally referred to by its native Koyukon name of Denali in mountaineering circles. On June 7, 1913, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, Hudson Stuck and Robert Tatum became the first men to stand on the summit of this imposing peak. A century later the route to the top remains nearly as elusive as it was when they first made the journey.
To celebrate this impressive milestone, the National Park Service released the following video that not only commemorates the accomplishment of the first ascent but also attempts to answer the age old question of why we climb. It is an inspiring and thought provoking short film, to say the least.
I have lost count of how many times I have been here. I started coming to Coopers Rock State Forest in Morgantown, West Virginia, when my family first moved to the town, which was seven years ago. The 12,000-some acres of beautiful hiking trails begin just a couple exits down the highway from my parents’ house. No matter which trail I plan on hiking, I always start off by taking in the view at The Overlook – imagery that simply never gets old. The hills of the Appalachian Mountains fall sharply into the tumultuous Cheat River at the bottom of the country crevice that The Overlook overlooks. Boulders stand in all postures throughout the grounds below and behind me, looking as if they’d been dropped into their place from the sky. The haze of the horizon distracts me in scenic areas like this one. No matter what type of landscape unfolds around me, I return to that indigo blur at the back of the frame every few minutes as if to contextualize that which is before me. I do this at The Overlook of Cooper’s Rock. I do this every time.
%Gallery-190472%I wonder about the man who was the park’s namesake, the fugitive who hid out near this very overlook to escape the police more than 150 years ago. He happened to be a cooper by trade and he continued honing his skill and doing business with the communities surrounding Coopers Rock while hiding out for many years. The story is legend in these parts and it’s said that no one knew the cooper’s name, but if I had to guess, he hid out in this forest somewhere between the years of 1836-1847, since he purportedly survived by trading his handcrafted barrels for food at the worksites of the five furnaces that were on the grounds at the time. The biggest and most famous of those furnaces was the Henry Clay Iron Furnace, which employed around 200 people and, although completed in 1836, stopped operation shortly after in 1847. No one knows where exactly the cooper lived, but legend has it that he lived near The Overlook and many speculate that he lived in the cave right below The Overlook.
But there are countless caves and cracks and crannies throughout this park. That’s part of the reason I keep coming back – I discover something new each time.
The mountain air is fresh and reliably rejuvenating. I swallow it in a hurry with a thirst that can only come from living in a populous concrete city. My 6-year-old niece is with me, as well as my husband and my two dogs. As for my niece, this is her first time ever hiking. She says she wants to climb rocks and so I let her. I carefully explain some of the basic free climbing principles to her and instruct her to apply the focus she’s learned from practicing yoga with me toward this new activity. She does so masterfully, making me smile with pride as I stand beneath her, watching her every flinch and waiting for what I perceive to be the inevitable fall. She never falls. Instead, upon conquering each boulder, she requests a go at a bigger boulder and we move on in a perpetual search of “bigger.”
I return the following day and take the dogs through a portion of the park I’ve never explored on the opposite side of Highway 68. We meander along a stream on the Glade Run Trail until it leads us to a pond wherein one of my dogs spends the next 30 minutes swimming, furiously and fastidiously retrieving flung sticks time and time again.
When I make it back to the car on this second day, on this numberless departure, I am struck with the recognition that it’s a special thing to so deeply treasure a place so close to home, to not be lost in its familiarity but rather stricken continually by its treasures hiding and awaiting my discovery, to always seek and find its newness. I’m grateful for this and promise myself to try to remember this lesson for all places, though not all places were created equal.
The solstice may be a few weeks off yet, but let’s not kid ourselves: summer has begun. A favorite warm weather pastime the world over is dining al fresco. I first discovered the joys of the picnic, in particular, when I was 10, and my family spent the summer traveling Europe in a borrowed Westphalia camper van.
From the Swiss Alps to the Yorkshire Dales, we practiced the art of picnicking and the menu was always a regional variation on bread/cured meat/cheese/chocolate (this is also what fueled my obsession with those foods).
Now that I’m an adult (at least, in theory), I still find picnics to be the ultimate form of outdoor indulgence. This summer, whether your travels take you overseas or only as far as your backyard, plan on making a habit of putting together a portable meal. Eating outdoors is a fun, easy, relaxing way to enjoy the season, especially if you follow these food-safety tips:
Make your menu tempting at room temperature. Fried chicken may be a Southern picnic staple, but it’s also a case of food poisoning waiting to happen if it’s not consumed within two hours of preparation (click here for the USDA’s microbiological explanation). Also, two words: soggy coating. Instead, serve sandwiches and grain-, pasta-, or roasted vegetable-based salads.
Keep it cool. Line an ice chest with ice packs, and then stash perishables, or if you’re hiking, fill and freeze the bladder from a hydropack. If something needs to be served at “room temperature,” use the ambient air temp to gauge when you should remove it from the cooler. Got some great cheese and it’s 100 degrees out? Five or ten minutes will do the trick.
Good hygiene begins at home, but don’t forget to pack some anti-bacterial gel for pre- and post-meal cleanup.
Keep it compact, green and clean. A bottle of wine is the ideal companion for a picnic, but broken glass definitely doesn’t make for a good garnish. Use a neoprene wine bag to keep your bottle chilled and protected (if temps are soaring; even red wine needs a cool-down). Use designed-for-outdoor-use stackable cups. For plates and cutlery, forgo the paper-waste and invest in either outdoor dining dishware or biodegradable bamboo products, which are widely available. If you have access to a compost bin (or some chickens), save all non-meat and dairy food scraps in a Tupperware. Leave your picnic spot cleaner than you found it.
Keep food fresh and pest-free by covering it with a lid, clean dishtowel or mesh dome (you can frequently find vintage versions of the latter at flea markets and antique shops).
When it comes to giant California redwoods, size matters. Or at least that was my premise when I committed to a long detour that would take me through the state and national Redwood parks of Northern California in early May. A friend had suggested that I could visit Muir Woods, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, to get my redwoods fix, but when I read that the biggest redwoods were up near the Oregon border, suddenly the moderately huge redwoods of Muir Woods simply wouldn’t do.
The desire to see the world’s biggest trees led me into a knee-deep thicket of ferns alongside the Smith River in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, my first stop on an early May redwood road trip with my wife and two little boys. I was looking for a tree called the Del Norte Titan, one of the world’s largest (by cubic feed of wood) at 74 feet in circumference, or the equivalent of 108 cans of coke, and a grove called the Grove of Titans, but I had just a vague set of instructions pulled off the Internet.
I had written in my notebook, “Grove of Titans – across from Stout Grove @ Smith River end of Mill Creek.” We had hiked through the Stout Grove trail and had veered off onto the Hiouchi Trail, but it seemed to peter out into a thicket of ferns. We could see the Smith River and we were at the creek but did we need to cross the river? And if so, where were the summer footbridges noted on the map (rocks?) that would enable us to get across?
Park officials and the handful of redwoods geeks who know the location of the Grove of Titans won’t divulge where it is, for fear that hordes of tourists would seek it out and ultimately damage the trees. After a few minutes of pointless bushwhacking and staring, mystified, at the photo of the trail map I had taken on my camera, I realized that I wasn’t going to find the Grove of Titans, at least not on this day.
We trekked back to the Stout Grove trail, passing wave after wave of colossal redwoods -mighty, seemingly indestructible trees that were as tall as a 30-story building and so thick that sumo wrestlers could stand next to them and appear svelte – and I lost interest in searching for the biggest trees. On a Thursday morning in May, we had the place almost all to ourselves, and the appeal of the place was in the silence and the way the giant, timeless redwoods made us feel small, almost insignificant. If you spend too much time obsessing over size, you run the risk of missing the forest for the trees.
Coastal redwoods grow only in a narrow, damp corridor, 40 miles wide and 450 miles long, in Northern California that stretches just over the border into Oregon. The trees once covered more than 2 million acres of Northern California but today, only about 4 percent of the trees remain, and the survivors are around thanks to the intervention of some committed naturalists who founded the Save the Redwoods League nearly a century ago.
After leaving Stout Grove, we drove west on Howland Hill Road, a narrow, shady path dominated by gigantic trees that loom ominously over the humble, potholed little passageway. As my wife drove, I read a fascinating piece in Orion Magazine about how Steve Sillett, a professor of redwood forest ecology at Humboldt State University, and his friend, Michael Taylor, discovered the Grove of Titans on May 11, 1998. (Particularly stout redwoods are referred to as “titans.”) The fact that they found the grove only after seven hours of intense bushwhacking that left them bloodied and nearly insane made me glad that I didn’t invest too much time in looking for them myself, but it also made me intensely curious about the beasts that lurk in the nether regions of the park, hidden from the public.
We were once again awestruck by the magnificent redwoods on the Cathedral Trees – Big Tree Loop at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, just south of Jedediah Smith. And by the time we took the steep drive up Bald Hills Drive to see Lady Bird Johnson Grove in the adjacent Redwood National Park, I had given up all hope of finding Hyperion, supposedly the world’s tallest tree at 379 feet and located somewhere in the untrammeled interior of the park.
If you consult Yahoo Answers, some yahoo has listed what he claims are the GPS coordinates of Hyperion, as though one could simply pull the car right up to the damn thing. Another so-called “Geography expert” claims, “The tree is well marked for tourists that go there.” If you believe that, check out, Mario Vaden’s roundup about Hyperion – which states that the “rare few” who have found this tree “all have one thing in common: some bleeding.”
The Lady Bird Johnson Grove, dedicated to President Lyndon Johnson’s wife, a redwood lover, by then Governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon in 1969, is a perfect introduction to the giant redwoods for those who are short on time. We arrived late in the afternoon and the trees were partially enshrouded in a dense fog that only added to the surreal beauty of the place.
It was perfectly quiet, with not another soul around, and we nearly broke our necks marveling at all the majestic trees. Weather changes quickly in these parts, and by the time we’d completed the 1.4-mile loop, rays of sunshine bathed clusters of the hulking trees in a golden light. As we walked to the parking lot, I whistled the Woody Guthrie tune that had been in my head all day.
From California to the New York Island From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters This land was made for you and me
After a restful night in Arcata, an inviting little town with a distinctive central plaza, we were back on the Redwood Trail, heading south to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. I worried that hitting four parks might be redwood overkill, but as we set out on the first trail of our second day, the Greig French Bell Trail, I felt like I still hadn’t had my fill of redwoods. Each park has a different feel and the trails are all unique.
The Founders Grove Trail, our second stop of the day, is reason enough to visit Humboldt. Midway through the short, 1.3 mile loop, we stumbled across the Fallen Giants area, which is littered with titanic fallen trees, none bigger than the Dyerville Giant, once considered the world’s tallest tree at somewhere between 362-370 feet, or just taller than Niagara Falls.
The Dyerville Giant was hit by another tree, causing it to topple over on March 24, 1991. No one witnessed it crashing to the ground, but a neighbor who heard the sound from a mile away said it sounded like a train wreck. Walking alongside it, one can barely believe its immensity. It feels like it’s as long an aircraft carrier, and even on its side, it stands nearly 8 feet tall. The walk past the magnificent Fallen Giants felt like a stroll through hallowed ground; oddly enough it is somehow easier to digest the grandeur of these trees dead than alive, in the same way you can’t appreciate a great work of art until the artist is gone.
Somewhere in this vicinity, according to the trail’s interpretive guide, lives the world’s oldest redwood at over 2,200 years old. (The world’s oldest known tree, the Patriarch Tree, in the White Mountains of Eastern California is believed to be between 5,062-3 years old.) We were sharing our Friday morning with a living thing that was older than Jesus Christ and the fact that this grove of trees will hopefully still be around in another 2,000 years, speaks to the humble place we occupy, alive for just a brief spell in the scheme of the universe.
The 30-mile Avenue of the Giants is unquestionably scenic, but I preferred our four-mile detour onto Mattole Road, a narrow, bumpy road dominated by towering redwoods that led us to two more splendid hikes in the Rockefeller Grove and (not-so-cleverly-named) Big Tree areas. On a hike in the Big Tree area, I stopped to record the stats on a sign in front of the appropriately named Giant Tree. Height: 363 feet, circumference: 53.2 feet, average crown spread: 62 feet.
The Giant Tree seems thicker than the cast of a Sir-Mix-A-Lot video when you take the time to walk around it, but when you consider that the Del Norte Titan, for example, has a circumference of 74 feet, it’s clear that the big, easy-to-find trees in the parks are small potatoes compared to what’s lurking deep and hidden, far off the trails. (And the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park, though shorter at 275 feet, is even stouter at 78.5 feet circumference.) I’m still torn over whether I want to return to find the world’s biggest trees or if I want to keep them alive in my imagination, as mysterious, unapproachable giants that deserve to be left alone.
Great Short Hikes in the Redwood Parks
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Stout Grove- .6 miles
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Big Tree Loop- 3.2 miles
Redwood National Park
Lady Bird Johnson Grove- 1.4 miles
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Big Tree Area- .6 miles
Rockefeller Loop- .7 miles
Founders Grove- 1.3 miles
IF YOU GO: I flew into and out of San Francisco, which is about 6 hours south of Arcata, the town we used as our base to explore the parks. If you are going to visit one park, I recommend Jedediah Smith or Humboldt, which I think are the two most scenic to explore, either on foot or on scenic roads like Howland Hill Road in Jedediah and Mattole in Humboldt.