Kings Canyon: Hiking in Grant Grove

So as I mentioned in my Scenic Drive Through Kings Canyon post, the park is split into two sections, with a big stretch of national forest dividing them. Grant Grove is the considerably smaller of the two, and also the more easily accessible and more frequented. But don’t let its smaller size fool you; some of the coolest sights in the parks can be found here, like forests full of majestic sequoias, the largest trees in the world.

Here is a list of what I consider to be the best things to see and do in Grant Grove:

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General Grant Tree Trail, 1 mile loop

“One of the world’s largest living trees. President Coolidge proclaimed it the Nation’s Christmas tree in 1926. Visit the historic Gamlin Cabin and the Fallen Monarch along this 1/3 mile (.5 km) paved trail. North and west of the Kings Canyon Visitor Center.” (NPS website)

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If you are looking for the most iconic or most popular sight in the park, this is it. This trail is unbelievably crowded, complete with giant tour buses and all, but the General Grant Tree itself does not disappoint. It is GIGANTIC, and beyond impressive to see. And incredibly difficult to photograph. There is no good way to capture the enormousness of these trees on camera… you just have to see it. It’s an easy loop, with lots of spur trail options to add on to your hike if you feel like doing more exploring. Despite the crowds, it’s definitely worth a stop.

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North Grove Loop, 1.5 mile loop

“This lightly traveled, 1 1/2 mile trail provides an opportunity for a close look at the big trees. Enjoy a quiet walk past meadows and creeks, through mixed conifer and sequoia forest. The trailhead is at the Grant Tree parking area.” (NPS website)

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The North Grove Loop starts in the same parking lot as the General Grant Tree Loop, so if you have an extra hour or so and want to see more trees, this is a good choice. It is much more secluded than the General Grant Loop and is a great place for a quiet walk through the forest. The views aren’t that spectacular though, so I wouldn’t go out of your way to do this one. This hike is perfect though if you have spare time and want to seek some peace and quiet. Maybe some woodland meditation or yoga?

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Buena Vista Peak, 2 miles round trip

“The 2 mile round-trip hike up this granite peak begins just south of the Kings Canyon Overlook on the Generals Highway, 6 miles southeast of Grant Grove. From the top of Buena Vista Peak, a 360-degree view looks out over the majestic sequoias in Redwood Canyon, Buck Rock Fire Tower, and beyond to a splendid panorama of the high Sierra.” (NPS website)

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Ok, this was easily the best hike in the Grant Grove area. I love hikes that pack a lot of bang for your buck, and this was definitely one of those hikes. Only 2-miles round trip, but look at those views!!! Pro tip: skip the King Canyon Overlook and just do this hike instead. The views are 100 million times better.

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And all of these hikes can be done in half a day, leaving plenty of time for other adventuring!

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For a full list of hikes in the Grant Grove area, visit the Kings Canyon official website!


 

 

Touring Lehman Cave!

If you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard of Lehman Cave. Nor did you know there were any caves in Great Basin National Park. Or have even the slightest idea what is in Great Basin at all. It has somehow stayed under the radar, which is surprising after discovering how seriously cool this park is. It has so many distinct features that are unexpected to be found all in the same park, let alone in the middle of nowhere in Nevada.

Lehman Cave is one of these features. The only way to see the cave is by booking a tour, so here is what you need to know:

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Behind the visitor center, where the cave tour begins

Cave tour options (from the NPS website):

Lodge Room Tour

Lodge Room Tours are approximately 60 minutes long. The Lodge Room Tour travels 0.4 miles, and is ideal for families with young children. The Lodge Room Tour highlights the Gothic Palace, Music Room, and Lodge Room sections of Lehman Caves. Tours to the Lodge Room are limited to 20 visitors. White Nose Syndrome screening is mandatory.

Grand Palace Tour

Grand Palace Tours are approximately 90 minutes long. The Grand Palace Tour travels 0.6 miles, and children must be at least 5 years old to join the Grand Palace Tour (except on tours November through February). This tour visits the Gothic Palace, the Music Room, the Lodge Room, Inscription Room, and the Grand Palace sections of Lehman Caves, including a chance to view the famous “Parachute Shield” formation. Tour is limited to 20 visitors. White Nose Syndrome screening is mandatory.

 

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The natural entrance to the cave

All of the following photos were taken on the Grand Palace Tour. Cause in my opinion, if you’re gonna tour the cave, you may as well go all in and see as much of the cave as possible! It’s only a couple bucks more than the Lodge Room tour, and covers almost twice as much of the cave. Worth it.

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General Cave Tour Tips:

  • There are some stairs and narrow passageways, so visitors should be in somewhat decent shape.
  • It can get pretty cold (in the neighborhood of 50°) inside caves, so dress in layers!
  • The ground can also get wet and slippery, so wear shoes with tread.
  • They won’t allow you on the tour if you’re wearing clothes that you have worn inside any caves or mines at any point in time, so if you do frequent caves, wear something different this time to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome.
  • Leave all bags, food, and drinks in the car, but be sure to bring your camera!

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Cave Tour Schedule*:

Fall Tour Schedule: September 5 to October 31, 2017
Grand Palace Tour (90 minutes, ages 5 & up)
9:00am & 1:00pm
Lodge Room Tour (60 minutes, all ages)
11:00am & 3:00pm
Winter Tour Schedule: November 1, 2017 through March 8, 2018
Grand Palace Tour (Open to all ages during winter schedule only)
1:00pm Monday – Friday
9:00am & 1:00pm Saturdays and Sundays
There are no tours available on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years Day.Spring Tour Schedule: March 9, 2018 – May 24, 2018
Grand Palace Tour (90 minutes, ages 5 & up)
9:00am & 1:00pm
Lodge Room Tour (60 minutes, all ages)
11:00am & 3:00pmSummer Tour Schedule: May 25, 2018 – September 3, 2018
Grand Palace Tour (90 minutes, ages 5 & up)
9:00am | 11:00am | 1:00pm | 2:00pm | 3:00pm
Lodge Room Tour (60 minutes, all ages)
8:30am | 10:30am | 12:30pm | 2:30pm | 4:00pm

 

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According to the park website, tickets can either be purchased in person at the visitor center on the day of your tour, or in advance online. But here on The Whiskey Wanderer, I’m going to say the only way to get tickets is to make a reservation online. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I saw get turned away at the visitor center, being told that the tours were not only sold out for that day, but also for the following two weeks.

The tours WILL SELL OUT (each tour is limited to only 20 people), so if you want to be sure you get to go on a tour, plan ahead and make a reservation.

Click here to book a tour.

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Ticket Prices:

Lodge Room Tour
(60 Minutes)
Grand Palace Tour
(90 Minutes)
Adults
(16 & older)
$8.00 $10.00
Youth
(5-15 years old)
$4.00 $5.00
Infants & Toddlers Free N/A
Golden Age/Senior Pass
(cardholder only)
$4.00 $5.00
Golden Access Pass
(cardholder only)
50% off 50% off

 

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Early visitors to the cave would write their names on the ceiling in soot

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Seriously though, this is one of the must-see sights in Great Basin National Park, and for good reason. This cave is super cool, and no visit to the park is complete without seeing it. Great Basin has four features that make it a ridiculously cool park, and this is one of them (the others are coming in other posts… stay tuned!). It’s definitely worth the time and money.

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For more information on Lehman Cave and Great Basin National Park, visit the official website.


 

A Scenic Drive Through Kings Canyon

I’m ashamed to admit that this was my first visit to Kings Canyon. I’ve lived in southern CA for 30 years (aka my whole life), just a few short hours from this extremely underrated national park. I mean, it doesn’t even get it’s own website or merch, being lumped together with Sequoia National Park.

Ok, in fairness, the two parks are literally right next to each other. If you think of the protected land as a giant “U”, Kings Canyon is the tip of each side of the “U” and Sequoia is the rounded bottom half, with the space in the middle being filled with national forest lands. It’s sorta a weird setup, so you can see why they all often get treated as one.

Anyways, to get from one half of Kings Canyon to the other you have to pass through Sequoia National Forest via a long, winding mountain road that takes an hour or so. Bummer for those prone to carsickness (like me, bleh), but awesome for the views along the way! There are several overlooks worth stopping at, and even an amazing waterfall right next to the road!

So here are my photos from the drive between Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, the two halves of Kings Canyon. These stops aren’t listed on the park maps or website, since they aren’t technically in the park, so just keep your eyes peeled as you drive!

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Leaving Grant Grove

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Grizzly Falls, basically right next to the road

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Sunset back at Grant Grove again

The national forest is full of awesome things to see and do and is easy to overlook when jumping around between the national parks. We didn’t even think to spend a day or so just in the national forest part, and I really regret that. But at least we were able to check out some of its awesome scenic viewpoints! And now I have a reason to go back someday.

Badlands National Park: Tips and Packing List

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Called “Mako Sica” (“land bad”) by the Lakota, and “les mauvaises terres à traverser” (“bad lands to travel across”) by early French trappers, Badlands National Park has long been known to be a harsh and inhospitable environment. The parks 244,000 acres of land contain sharply eroded buttes, colorful spires and pinnacles, deep gorges, and sprawling prairies. Harsh winds ravage the land, and thunderstorms, lightning, and tornadoes pose a constant threat. There are few trees in the park, and average temperatures in the summer can reach near 100°F, and drop as low as 30°F in the winter. If you are looking to find one of the most desolate and unforgiving landscapes in America, this is it.

However with that ruggedness comes exceptional beauty, and visitors get to experience the same untamed wilderness that early explorers encountered. But thanks to the National Park Service, we can see it safely. And with a little planning and preparation, your visit to Badlands can be smooth and easy! I have prepared this guide to help you in your endeavors. From useful tips, sample itineraries, to a packing list, here is everything you need to know before heading to Badlands National Park!

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KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

  • There are really fun tourist things located outside of the park at both entrances that should be included in any Badlands itinerary. Be sure to check out Wall Drug and Ranch Store.
  • In 2-3 days, you can see pretty much everything in the entire developed section of the park. Keep reading for a sample itinerary!
  • The weather varies a lot month to month (and even hour by hour!). Here is a chart to help you choose what month to plan your visit:

Badlands Weather Averages

Month Temperatures (F°)

Highs/Lows

Precipitation (inches)
January 34 11 0.29
February 40 16 0.48
March 48 24 0.90
April 62 36 1.83
May 72 46 2.75
June 83 56 3.12
July 92 62 1.94
August 91 61 1.45
September 81 51 1.23
October 68 39 0.90
November 50 26 0.41
December 39 17 0.30

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STAY SAFE:

  • Be respectful of wildlife. After all, the wildlife is indeed wild, making them unpredictable. Admire them from a distance, especially bison.
  • Watch out for rattlesnakes. These guys seek shade during the hot day and will hide in places like under boardwalks and stairs, and within tall grass. Do not stick your hand (or any other body part) in places you can’t see (like crevices, overhangs, in holes, under plants, etc). At night they seek warmth on paved roads, so carry a light and watch your step. Keep your ears open for their warning rattle, and if you encounter one, back away slowly.
  • Wear closed-toed shoes (hiking boots are best). This will help protect your feet from cactus spines, accidental steps on rattlesnakes or spiders, and will help prevent you from slipping when walking on the rugged, unstable terrain.
  • Stay hydrated. This will help prevent heat exhaustion.
  • Use plenty of sunblock. There really aren’t any trees or shade in this park, and that sun is brutal.
  • Start your hikes early in the day to avoid the risk of heat exhaustion. Here is my blog post on preventing and dealing with heat exhaustion.
  • Don’t rely on your cellphones for anything. Reception is pretty awful in the park. Use park maps, bring a portable GPS system, and above all else, STAY ON THE TRAILS!!
  • Be prepared for sudden and extreme changes in the weather. The day could start hot and sunny, but quickly turn into wind or thunderstorms. Even tornadoes are a possibility. Check daily weather forecasts, dress in layers, and carry a rain poncho. If you hear lightning, seek shelter and avoid trees, high places, and dry washes that can quickly fill with water.

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SAMPLE ITINERARY:

Here’s how we did Badlands. Was it the best possible itinerary? Kinda yes, kinda no. But it did allow us to see everything we wanted to see. Our itinerary included two nights in the park, one full day, and two half days.

Day 1:

-Arrive in the late afternoon.

-Stop at the Visitor Center to obtain information and souvenirs.

-Check in to Cedar Pass Campground and set up tent. Click here for information on camping and lodging options in Badlands.

-Hike: Window Trail, 0.25 miles/0.4 km (round trip)
Easy. This short trail leads to a natural window in the Badlands Wall with a view of an intricately eroded canyon. Please stay on the trail (NPS website).


Day 2:

-Hike: Cliff Shelf, 0.5 miles/0.8 km (round trip)
Moderate. This loop trail follows boardwalks and climbs stairs through a juniperforest perched along the Badlands Wall. A small pond occasionally exists in the area and draws wildlife, such as deer or bighorn sheep. Climbs approximately 200 feet in elevation. Please stay on the trail (NPS website).

-Hike: Notch Trail, 1.5 miles/2.4 km (round trip) – My favorite hike!!
Moderate to strenuous. After meandering through a canyon, this trail climbs a log ladder and follows a ledge to “the Notch” for a dramatic view of the White River Valley. Trail begins at the south end of the Door and Window parking area. Watch for drop-offs. Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. Treacherous during or after heavy rains (NPS website).

-Hike: Door Trail, 0.75 miles/1.2 km (round trip)
Easy. An accessible ¼ mile boardwalk leads through a break in the Badlands Wall known as “the Door” and to a view of the Badlands. From there, the maintained trail ends. Travel beyond this point is at your own risk. Watch for drop-offs (NPS website).

-Lunch Break.

-Hike: Castle Trail, 10 miles/16 km (round trip)
Moderate. The longest trail in the park begins at the Door and Window parking area and travels five miles one way to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Relatively level, the path passes along some badlands formations (NPS website).

*This was our itinerary fail. You should never start your longest hike of the day in the middle of the afternoon, especially in hot weather. I ended up getting heat exhaustion and we were unable to finish the trail. My friend and I had to take the Saddle Pass Trail to get me back to the road faster. That trail doesn’t need to be on any itinerary, unless you are looking for a way to cut the Castle Trail short*

-Return to Visitor Center to cool off with a popsicle from the general store.


Day 3:

-Tear down camp.

-Hike: Fossil Exhibit Trail, 0.25 miles/0.4 km (round trip)
Easy. Fully accessible boardwalk trail features fossil replicas and exhibits of now extinct creatures that once roamed the area (NPS website).

-Stop at every viewpoint on the scenic drive on our way out of the park.


The only trail we didn’t have time to add in was the Medicine Root Loop, which is a moderate 4 miles round trip. An additional half day in the park would’ve allowed plenty of time for this trail. Two full days and one half day would be a perfect amount of time for everything. Three days is the most I would recommend staying in Badlands. If you only have one day to spend there, cut the Castle Trail/Saddle Pass from the itinerary, and don’t add in Medicine Root Loop.

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PACKING LIST:

  • Propane Stove. There are no open fires permitted in Badlands due to extreme fire danger, so propane stoves are a must when cooking. Wind shields, like on this one by Coleman, are VERY useful in this park. This is the stove I use, and it’s awesome. It has two burners, each with their own temperature controls, and it can fit two pans at the same time, which is great for cooking for groups like I do.

Coleman Classic Propane Stove

 

  • First Aid Kit. You never know what can happen out there, and this park has more than its fair share of things that can take you down. So it’s always good to be prepared! This kit has 275 useful, hospital grade medical supplies to get you through any situation. And it’s nice and compact, measuring only 12″w x 8.5″w x 4″d. For this particular park, having a snake bite kit on hand couldn’t hurt either.

    Thrive Brand First Aid Kit

 

  • Bandannas. If you read my post on surviving heat exhaustion, you already know that bandannas are a useful tool to help cool you off if you start overheating. Wide brimmed hats are also great to help keep the sun off of your face and shoulders. Gotta be prepared for that hot weather!

    Levi

     

    Quicksilver

 

  • Electrolyte Powder. When the temperatures get this high, you need a little extra boost to help keep you hydrated. This electrolyte powder can easily be mixed into your water, so it’s great to have on hand for when you are feeling a little drained or weak.

    Gatorade

 

  • Dome Tents. It gets crazy windy in Badlands, so a dome tent is more stable than a huge walled-tent with standard poles. The straight sides of those tents basically act like sails and catch the wind, whereas the wind blows right over the dome tents. Our big tent ended up collapsing from the wind, and worrying about it happening again lead to very sleepless nights.

    Coleman Sundome 4 Person Tent

  • Hydration Daypacks. Another easy way to make sure you keep drinking water? Have it strapped on your back with a convenient drinking hose right next to your face. When it comes to backpacks, I always turn to Osprey. These are some great options:
  • Osprey Syncro 3 Hydration Pack

     

    Osprey Packs Raptor 14 Hydration Pack

     

    Osprey Packs Women’s Verve 3 Hydration Pack

     

  • Portable GPS System. As mentioned earlier, cellphone reception sucks in Badlands (as it does in most national parks), so you can’t rely on it as your navigation system. If you follow park maps and stay on designated roads and trails, you probably won’t need any sort of additional navigation. The signs are pretty easy to follow. But if you enter the backcountry, you’ll definitely want a portable GPS system as a backup plan should things go wrong. Hell, they are always handy to have as a backup plan, even just to keep in your car for emergencies. This one is powered with AA batteries and lasts up to 20hrs. And it’s waterproof too.

    Garmin eTrex 10 Worldwide Handheld GPS Navigator

 

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USEFUL INFO (OBTAINED FROM NPS WEBSITE):

Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entrance fees are collected year round. The park is in the Mountain Time Zone.

Visitor Center

Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Hours of Operation – Mountain Time Zone
8am – 4pm (Winter Hours)
8am – 5pm (April & May)
7am – 7pm (Summer Hours)
8am – 5pm (early September to late October)

CLOSED on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day

Phone

(605) 433-5361

Location

Cedar Pass “Badlands Loop Road” Hwy 240

Nearby Facilities

Cedar Pass Lodge, Badlands Inn and Campground, operated by Forever Resorts, an authorized concessioner of the National Park Service, is only open during the summer season. The Lodge offers rental cabins, a gift shop, and full-service restaurant.
Call (877) 386-4383 for reservations.


Entrance Fees

Private Vehicle: $20 – Valid for 7 days

Motorcycle: $10 – Valid for 7 days

Individual (hike, bicycle, etc…): $10 per person 16 and older – Valid for 7 days

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For additional information, visit the Badlands National Park website.


 

Camping in The Badlands

Camping in Badlands National Park is quite an experience. And I mean that in good and bad ways.

We stayed in Cedar Pass Campground, the main campground of Badlands. On the upside, there was tons of space. Plenty of room to sprawl out due to the fact that there is seriously nothing surrounding each camp site. Literally nothing. No trees, no shrubs… just open, flat land all around you.

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Obviously the lack of shade sucks, especially in a park known for it’s scorching temperatures. Luckily each campsite comes equipped with a shade awning over each picnic table.

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A downside to all that flat nothingness? Some of the worst wind I have ever experienced. The wind was blowing so hard, none of us could get any sleep. It beat against the tent with incredible force, and the noise, combined with a fear that the tent would collapse on us, lead to a couple sleepless nights.

Turns out our fear of the tent collapsing wasn’t totally invalid. It DID collapse…but it happened while we were out hiking.

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Cedar Pass is located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and has 96 sites available, each with access to flush toilets and running water. The campground is also filled with these little guys. So watch your step after dark!

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It’s also important to note that there are no open fires permitted in Badlands due to extreme fire danger, only propane or charcoal.

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The best part about this campground though? The amazing skies. The sunsets looked like the sky was on fire, and late in the evening after dark, we were treated to some epic electrical storms (aka thunder and lightning, but no rain). I wish I possessed the photography skills to have been able to capture it on film, but alas, I do not.

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Rates for Cedar Pass Campground (at time of publishing) start at $22 per night for double occupancy, plus $4 per additional person. Sites with electrical hook-ups start at $37 per night. Reservation for Cedar Pass Campground can be made online through Cedar Pass Lodge.

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Cedar Pass full on the dates you want to go? Don’t worry, there is additional camping available at Sage Creek Campground on a first come, first served basis. This campground is more primitive, with pit toilets and covered picnic tables, but no running water. However it is free to camp here, and the campground almost never fills up. Plus I hear bison often wander freely through the campground, and that sounds pretty cool.

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Camping not really your thing? No worries, there are now cabins also available in Badlands at the Cedar Pass Lodge that include:

  • 32″ Flat Screen TV with Satellite Reception
  • Energy Star – Mini Refrigerator and Freezer
  • Energy Star – Microwave
  • Coffee Maker
  • Hair Dryer
  • Bamboo Towels & Upgraded Bedding
  • Ceiling Fan and Lakota Lamp
  • Air Conditioning and Heat ultra quiet for your comfort

Rates start at $176 for double occupancy, and reservations can be made online through the Cedar Pass Lodge website.

The lodge also has a restaurant and store available onsite where you can stock up on souvenirs, ice, grocery items, handmade gifts, and more. For more information on the restaurant, visit the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant website.

For additional information on camping in Badlands, visit the Badlands National Park webiste.

Any tips or info to add about camping in Badlands? Share it in the comments!

Hiking in The Badlands

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For being such an awesomely cool national park, Badlands actually doesn’t have a ton of hiking options. With three full days in the park you could easily hike every trail, as well as cruise the scenic drive. However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend hiking all of them…

Pressed for time? My top pick is to do the Door Trail, the Notch Trail, and the Window Trail. All three of those trails are close to each other, short, and offer really sweet views for minimum effort. And the Notch Trail is the undisputed best trail in the park. Period.

The trails are located along a spur road off of Badlands Loop Road (the main road through the park) just east of the visitor center on the right hand side of the road. The first trail you encounter is the Notch Trail, and I would recommend starting with that one anyways since it is the longest and requires the most effort.

THE NOTCH TRAIL, 1.5 miles round trip, moderate-strenuous

“After meandering through a canyon, this trail climbs a log ladder and follows a ledge to “the Notch” for a dramatic view of the White River Valley. Trail begins at the south end of the Door and Window parking area. Watch for drop-offs. Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. Treacherous during or after heavy rains”. (From NPS)

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This bad boy was smack in the middle of the trail. Luckily his rattling tail announced his presence before we saw him. Rattlesnakes are common in this park…keep your eyes and ears open for them!

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The reason why I (as well as many others) view this as the best trail in the park is because of this really cool ladder you have to climb towards the end of the hike. Hikes that involve a little something extra are my favorite! Plus they yield some badass photos…

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And the views aren’t half bad either.

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The Window Trail is up next, though we actually did this one the night before when we had a little extra time after arriving and setting up camp.

THE WINDOW TRAIL, 0.25 miles round trip, easy

“This short trail leads to a natural window in the Badlands Wall with a view of an intricately eroded canyon. Please stay on the trail”. (From NPS)

As we were pulling into the parking lot, we saw one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. The sky was turning a bright hot pink. So pretty!

This trail is super fast and easy. And the views are definitely worth it. The lighting wasn’t all that great when we did this trail, so my photos don’t do it justice.

And then last of all, the Door Trail.

THE DOOR TRAIL, 0.75 miles round trip, easy

“An accessible ¼ mile boardwalk leads through a break in the Badlands Wall known as “the Door” and to a view of the Badlands. From there, the maintained trail ends. Travel beyond this point is at your own risk. Watch for drop-offs”. (From NPS)

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A nice, simple boardwalk trail with ah-mazing views. This is the type of scenery the Badlands is so well known for…if you can only do one trail during your visit, choose this one. The trail technically ends at the “door” at the end of the boardwalk, but you can continue forward at your own risk. Just be careful- take plenty of water and don’t get lost.

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After these three smaller hikes, we attempted the Castle Trail, aka the longest trail in the park. At 10 miles round trip, this trail is no joke. So why we decided to start it later in the day during the hottest hours is beyond me.

THE CASTLE TRAIL, 10 miles round trip, moderate

“The longest trail in the park begins at the Door and Window parking area and travels five miles one way to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Relatively level, the path passes along some badlands formations”. (From NPS)

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This trail is graded moderate only due to its length and sun exposure. The trail itself is mostly flat and would actually be very pleasant if it weren’t for that damn sun. There is literally zero shade on this trail. And with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, it gets pretty brutal.

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I am sad to report we didn’t finish this hike. I was taken by heat exhaustion and we had to cut it short. About midway through the Castle Trail, it connects with the Saddle Pass trail which is a strenuous 0.25 mile hike straight to the road. One of my friends helped me down that trail and found a place to keep me cool while the rest of the group back tracked on the Castle trail to retrieve our car. Super suck. Blog post on dealing with heat exhaustion coming soon.

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While the Castle trail definitely offered some pretty views, I would say overall it isn’t worth the time or effort. If you have an extra day to dedicate to it, then I say for it, but seriously, start it first thing in the morning and bring more water than you think you’ll need.

As for our unintentional trek on the Saddle Pass trail, I can say the descriptions aren’t lying when they say it’s steep and strenuous. We hiked it going down, from the summit to the road, but I sure as hell wouldn’t recommend hiking it from the road and up. You can reach the same views from the easier (albeit longer) Castle trail.

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My tips for hiking in the Badlands:

-Water water water water water water water. If you’re thirsty, you’re already becoming dehydrated. And dehydration leads to heat exhaustion, which leads to heat stroke.

-Bring plenty of sunblock and a hat of some kind to keep the sun off your face. Sunglasses are awesome to have too.

-Start the long hikes early in the day to beat the peak temperatures of the afternoon.

-Wear shoes with good tread if doing the Notch or exploring beyond the paved trails.

-If you start feeling dizzy, nauseous, faint, or have a headache, stop hiking. Get out of the sun, drink fluids, and try to lower your body temperature. Shirts or bandannas soaked in water to use as a cold compress on your head and neck work awesome. Finishing a hike isn’t worth risking your safety; know the signs and know when to turn back.

-Watch out for rattlesnakes.

For additional information on the hiking options in Badlands, check out the Badlands National Park website.


Have you done any hiking in the Badlands? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments!

A Test of Endurance: Backpacking to Sykes Hot Springs

“I need to figure out someplace to go this month over a long weekend. Any ideas?” I should know better by now than to ask my sister questions like this. Of course she has ideas. And they usually involve water. That girl is obsessed with waterfalls and natural hot springs. She suggested we try backpacking to Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur. Lucky for us, we live close enough to one of the most beautiful parts of California that driving to Big Sur for just a weekend is totally feasible.

Now we are by no means experienced backpackers. But the trip seemed easy enough: 7 hour drive, camp the night, spend the next day hiking 10 miles to Sykes Campground, check out the hot springs, sleep, get an early start and hike the 10 miles back to the car. The grand plan was to get back to LA by 9 so we could go to the Tam o’Shanter to see one of our favorite bands, Waking Kate, play.

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We ended up leaving LA a little later than planned, but that was ok. Our only real objective for the day was to get to Big Sur and find a place to stay the night. And I am pleased to report the drive went off without a hitch, and we arrived in Big Sur by the late evening, maybe around 9pm? It was cold, but not too bad (we took this trip in late April). However, the weather reports for the weekend were looking bleak.

The morning proved the weather reports true: it was officially raining. It started out as just a drizzle, but by the time we finished packing, we were in a downpour. We somehow managed to get everything all squared away though, and after a quick stop at Big Sur Station to acquire a fire permit (required if you want to use a stove or start a fire of any kind while in the backcountry. Read fire restrictions here) and directions to the trailhead (located at the far end of the Big Sur Station parking lot. Overnight parking permits available at kiosks in the parking lot), we were ready to go!

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Luckily the rain let up just as we were starting our trek along the Pine Ridge Trail.The weather was decent, the sights were beautiful, and our spirits were high. That didn’t last though. It wasn’t long before the rain started again. And it didn’t stop.

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Within an hour we were soaked from head to toe, even though we were wearing rain gear. A rain jacket only repels so much water; eventually it couldn’t keep up with the amount of rain being dumped upon us.

Now this trail…I don’t know how we didn’t notice in any of our trip research that the Pine Ridge Trail is graded as strenuous. For a more experienced backpacker, or at least someone in really good shape, the trail probably wouldn’t be too hard. Sure there was a lot of elevation gains and losses, but there were also plenty of mostly level areas to help break it up. But we are not experienced backpackers. So the struggle was very real. And it was even worse in the rain. It took us around 8 hours to get to the campground. On the bright side, it finally stopped raining though.

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As you descend into Sykes Campground, you encounter a river- the majority of the campground is across the river. If you go up river a bit (to the right of the trail), that is where the river is the most shallow and easiest to cross. There is usually a rope set up to help hikers cross the river. The river is pretty swift moving, so be careful when crossing (it was also freezing cold). During times of heavy rains, the river is actually too dangerous to cross, so use your best judgment and maybe reschedule your trip if the weather has been too gnarly.

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We didn’t notice the rope crossing until after we forded the river on our own at a much deeper area. Live and learn.

Once you get across the river, the campground is a little farther up river (keep going to the right). Shortly you will see all the campsites lining the river. By the time we got there we were soaked, tired, freezing, starving, and every other miserable adjective you can think of. The temperature dropped to around 50 degrees, and we knew we had to get warm, fast. The fear of getting hypothermia was starting to become very real. Literally everything in our packs was completely soaked. EVERYTHING. At this point, we had no idea how to get dry or how to warm ourselves. I don’t think I have ever felt so completely helpless. we tried building a fire, but all the wood and twigs were too wet to light. It was time to break out the emergency blankets (thank you Mom and Dad for putting one in my Christmas stocking every year!).

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One of my favorite parts about the outdoors community is the sense of camaraderie. We are all out there for the same reason: a love of the outdoors and the thrill of adventure. A couple of backpackers just arriving to the campground saw our situation and realized we were in a bad way. They had extra dry clothes in their packs, and offered to let us borrow some for the night. One of the men even took a jacket off his back to lend us. If it weren’t for the kindness of these complete strangers, I honestly don’t know what we would’ve done. Essentially, they saved us.

So we made it through the night! The whole situation left us fiercely behind schedule, but we didn’t go through all that suffering to not see the hot springs. So we threw our original plans to the wind and went to find the hot springs before starting the hike back.

The hot springs are around a mile down river from the campground, on the opposite side of the river. But don’t use the same river crossing. Eventually the other side of the river becomes impassable. Stay on the same side as the campground until that side becomes impassable, and then cross to the other side. From there, you can follow a trail through additional campsites until you reach the hot springs. There is quite a bit of boulder scrambling involved, so you’ll definitely want to wear decent shoes. We kept wondering how we would know when we got there, but the hot springs are pretty hard to miss. The air starts smelling like sulfur as you get close, and the pools definitely look like little pools.

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And they are AMAZING! Nice and warm, but not too hot. There are three different pools: the first one you encounter is the smallest, and fits maybe two people. Keep hiking a little and then you come across the other two. If you look down towards the river, you will find the biggest pool, fitting around six people. If you look up, you will find the medium sized pool, fitting around four people. That is the one we used. Since we hiked to Sykes on a Friday, and reached the hot springs early Saturday morning, the pools were nice and empty and we had it mostly to ourselves. However, the hot springs get crazy busy during the weekend, so plan accordingly. I guess some people like to enjoy the springs in the nude, but I sure wouldn’t. There was all kinds of debris and junk in the water, and all the rocks in the pools were really slimy. I was glad to have a bathing suit and water shoes.

The rest of the trip went pretty smoothly, and I don’t have much to report. The weather was beautiful, and the clothes we were wearing dried quickly. The hike was so much more enjoyable! Or at least it would’ve been, if we weren’t still suffering from the mishaps of the day before and weren’t in a race against the sun, trying to finish the hike before nightfall.

We ended up hiking maybe the last 1/4 mile in the dark, and practically collapsed from exhaustion when we reached the car. The biggest downside to being so far behind schedule? We still had to drive home that night, after spending all day hiking. And since both of my travel companions have poor eyesight (especially at night), I had to drive the entire way home without any help or breaks. Yikes. We didn’t get home till after 4am. I guess having everything go smoothly would’ve made the trip more pleasant, but our adventure makes a far better story!

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Find additional information about Sykes Campground and the Pine Ridge Trail here.

Where to Stay in Bryce Canyon?

The good news about finding a place to stay in Bryce Canyon is that there are a lot of lodging options and availability. The bad news is that Bryce Canyon is a really popular park, so if you go during peak season, good luck finding any openings.

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There is a lodge on site, but since we didn’t stay there, I don’t know how early you should make your reservations. However, if the campgrounds are any indication, I would recommend booking your room as early as possible. For rates and reservations, check out their website. There are two restaurants at the lodge, one that looks pretty upscale (aka pricey), and a more casual pizzeria (that has free wifi, yay!). We decided to eat at Valhalla Pizzeria and Coffee Shop on our first night in Bryce Canyon. After a day of traveling and struggling to find a campsite (more on that in a minute) the last thing we wanted to do was cook. And with how cold it was outside, a piping hot calzone really was simply perfection…

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In addition to the lodge, there is also a lovely visitor center and a general store. The general store carries any supplies you might need during your stay, but even more importantly, this is where you will find the shower facilities that serve both campgrounds. Tokens for the showers can be purchased in the general store.

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The Visitor Center

Now Bryce Canyon has two different campgrounds, North Campground and Sunset Campground. Both are rather large, with over 80 tent and RV camping sites available in each campground. Unfortunately, most of these sites are first come, first served. Which during peak season = a nightmare. Upon our arrival, there was a frenzy of cars desperately searching through both campgrounds trying to find any open spaces. It felt like going shopping on Black Friday, when shoppers are going crazy trying to get all the good deals before anyone else can. It was pure madness. Definitely one of those situations where you just want to take the first site you find and don’t try to hold out for a better one. We drove all through North Campground… completely full. Then we tried Sunset Campground. I kid you not, we literally grabbed the last site available. It was technically reserved for RVs only, but the campground host was super cool and let us use it anyways. By the early afternoon on a weekday, both campgrounds were full. So get there early, and don’t hesitate too long making decisions. Take whatever you can find before someone else does.
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During one of our days in Bryce Canyon we decided we wanted hot dogs for lunch (we had leftovers, having opted to eat at the restaurant. And we don’t waste food). However it was crazy super windy and cold! Trying to light the stove was a real struggle. But we were determined!

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Human windshields!!

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After we finally had hot dog success, it was decided that it was entirely too cold to stay outdoors (hey, we are Californians!) so we had a car picnic! I love my friends for our never ending ability to roll with the punches.

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Case in point #2: we forgot cooking supplies, and used skewers to prepare baked potatoes.

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Case in point #3: We also didn’t remember tongs for cooking, so we wrapped tin foil around a pair of pliers. And voila!

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Oh yeah… we also hate doing dishes. So we made plates out of foil as well.

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No trip is complete without sampling the local beer! I tried Uinta Brewing Co’s Hoodoo beer, because, well, we were in Bryce Canyon! I kinda had to.

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And then a few random pictures from our camping adventures…

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For information on the campgrounds in Bryce Canyon, click here!

Hiking in Capitol Reef: Moderate and Strenuous Trails!

Obviously the main goals of hiking are to see beautiful sites, be out in nature, and get away from civilization for a bit. But sometimes it is also fun to push your body to the limit and really get your heart pumping. And that is where the moderate and strenuous trails come into play! Most of the trails in Capitol Reef National Park fall under these two categories, so you definitely have plenty to choose from. Because these hikes are more physically demanding, we were only able to fit 3 of them into our stay at the park: Fremont River, Hickman Bridge, and Rim Overlook.

And so, Fremont River: 2 miles roundtrip, 480 ft elevation gain (according to the trail guide on the park website. The sign at the trailhead says differently though. Not sure which is correct).

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The trail begins in the Fruita Campground, so we made this our first hike in the park. It starts off very pleasantly, with a flat stroll through the orchards. Shady and peaceful.

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But then the trail begins to climb upward out of the canyon, as it leads you to panoramic views.

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The uphill part doesn’t last for very long though, and the views are well worth the effort!

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On our second day we did the trail to Hickman Bridge, just under 2 miles roundtrip, and approximately 400 ft elevation gain. Quite a few of the hikes start out from this same trailhead, so make sure to keep following the signs for Hickman Bridge, otherwise you will end up on a trail much longer than planned.

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Just like pretty much every single hike in the park, this trail was bright and sunny, with very little shade. So once again, remember your water!!

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The bridge!

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Seriously though, just look at these views… the lighting was absolutely magical, and this was probably my favorite viewpoint in the whole park. Hickman Bridge definitely gets my vote for the best trail in Capitol Reef.

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And then on our last full day, we did Rim Overlook, almost 6 miles roundtrip, 1110 ft elevation gain. Starts at the same trailhead as Hickman Bridge.

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If after reading the length and elevation change of this trail you are thinking it sounds awful, you are correct! This hike was brutal. It is steep and in direct sunlight the entire time.

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I’m going to keep drilling this point home, cause it is super important: bring plenty of water!! And sunblock. And a hat. And sunglasses. This is a rather unforgiving trail. Despite my best efforts, I could feel the early stages of heat exhaustion setting in before we even reached the summit. So hike smart, and be prepared.

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But we made it!!

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And the views did not disappoint.

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Canyons, orchards, and the Waterpocket Fold…this view offered all the best sights in Capitol Reef all in the same panoramic scene. But at a steep price: this hike is hard, and should not be attempted unless you are in good shape.

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I gotta say though, for as challenging as this hike was, I am really glad we did it. Those views were incredible.

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After getting back down to the bottom, we stopped to photograph the huge cliff we had just summit-ed. Knowing we were just on top of that thing? Yeah, it was a pretty awesome feeling.

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These are just a few of the many hikes you can choose from though, so for a complete listing of the moderate and strenuous trails in Capitol Reef, click here. Happy hiking y’all!

Hiking in Capitol Reef: Easy Trails!

I absolutely adore short, easy hiking trails. I feel like they offer more bang for your buck, as you can pack a ton of them into one day and see a bunch of diverse scenery. Definitely a good way to go if you don’t have much time to spend in the park! These trails are great if you are a less experienced hiker, pressed for time, or just want something quick to do to fill up some time after finishing a longer hike. There are 4 easy hikes listed on the park trail guide, and of those, we did 3: Sunset Point, Goosenecks, and Capitol Gorge.

Up first: Sunset Point. Just under a mile roundtrip, and less than 50 feet elevation gain.

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This trail offered beautiful panoramic views, and as the name suggests, was a lovely place to watch the sunset.

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Up next: Goosenecks. This trail starts in the same parking lot as Sunset Point, is 0.2 miles roundtrip, and also has less than 50 feet elevation gain.

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The canyon views are incredible!! If you do no other trails in the park, at least do these two. They are ridiculously short and easy, and lead to amazing views. Not bad for less than 1 mile combined total distance for the two trails.

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And finally: Capitol Gorge. About 2 miles roundtrip, 80 feet elevation gain. Capitol Gorge leads to some petroglyphs, historic inscriptions left behind by pioneers, and water “tanks.” This trail is a bit of a trek to get to, as you have to drive through the gorge to get to the trail head (as discussed in my post on the petroglyphs). Use caution before proceeding through the gorge! Flash floods are dangerous and can be deadly.

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The hike leads through Capitol Gorge, and offers about zero shade. The majority of the trail is completely flat, and getting to the petroglyphs and Pioneer Register is totally easy (besides being in direct sunlight the entire time). In addition, just walking through the gorge is pretty cool.

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This is my sister desperately trying to cling to whatever shade we could find. It was seriously hot…be sure to bring tons of water with you!

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The entire 80 foot elevation gain for this hike happens when you head to the water “tanks.” As you hike through the gorge, a ways down you will see a sign on the left side pointing to a spur trail that leads to the tanks. You definitely need to be in reasonably good shape to do this part of the trail.

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At this point in the journey, the trail becomes more like bouldering/climbing than hiking.

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The water tanks! Basically just holes in the rock that collect rainwater for the animals to drink.

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It took us a bit of climbing around and exploring to actually find the tanks once we got up there, but they were pretty cool to see and had some frogs and stuff.

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Even though these hikes are easy, they all lead to really awesome destinations. You can see gorges, petroglyphs, pioneer history, geological formations, canyons, and panoramic views all in less than half a day, with very minimal effort. Sweet.