Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Living on the edge at Taft Point in Yosemite National Park

Sometimes the only way to believe in forever is to see it firsthand.

Looking 3,000 feet down into Yosemite Valley
from Taft Point
I read this quote in a magazine ad on the wild and wonderful charms of  West Virginia, a state I've never visited. It reminded me of  another wild and wonderful sight from my travels.

At the end of the Taft Point Trail in Yosemite National Park is a spot that perfectly fits the quote: You can see forever. In fact, you’ll have heart-thumping views of the Yosemite Valley 3000 feet below while roaming among huge granite boulders overlooking sheer drop-offs.

This 2.2-mile round-trip hike starts from the same trailhead as Sentinel Dome Trail on Glacier Point Road. It meanders in the opposite direction through a thick green forest (shady and cool despite warm afternoon temperatures) and briefly climbs up a granite rock face to the top of Taft Point's cliff.
The hike starts out on a forested path.

From about 8,000 feet elevation you have sweeping vistas of the Valley, ElCapitan, and Yosemite's north rim. But what is most striking is the incredible sense of awe you feel at the vastness stretching out in front of and below you. With a strong wind blowing--and only one small guardrail--you also need a healthy respect for the potential danger of the site.
Only one small guardrail keeps
visitors back from the edge.
Among the features of this hike are the fissures or cracks created by centuries of geologic upheaval--some trapping huge boulders between the rock walls—just waiting for an earthquake to shake them loose.

Boulders have been stuck in
rock fissures for centuries.
Amazingly, our party of three had this entire scene to ourselves. We wandered over the rock  surface, and I tempted the fates a bit bydangling  my feet over the edge (I looked out not down!).  We lingered awhile on elevated rocks just soaking  in the serenity and peacefulness of this immense, isolated spot. Even in a national park visited by four million people annually, it’s possible to feel alone and at one with nature.

Taft Point Trail  isn’t a difficult hike; but if you take children, be sure to keep an eye on them at the top! There’s plenty of room to roam, which is fine as long as they don’t lose their footing or get close to the edge.
Sharp, jagged rocks form sheer cliffs
at Taft Point in Yosemite.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Read more travel stories at Striped Pot
and Austin Adventure Travel




Sunday, September 14, 2014

Atlas V rocket launches at Kennedy Space Center

The U.S. space program is still active, even if we don't hear about it so often these days. If you’re fascinated by space exploration, its challenges and triumphs, and all the innovations that have come about as a result, you might enjoy attending this special opportunity to view a live rocket launch.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex guests can experience the breathtaking sights and sounds of the launch of an Atlas V rocket as it lifts off on Tuesday, September 16, 2014. Visitors may enjoy a front row seat to view the launch from the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the closest possible public viewing area, and from viewing areas at the Visitor Complex. Launch viewing is included in daily admission.

Scheduled to blast off at 5:44 p.m. EST, the rocket will launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station United Launch Alliance is launching an Atlas V rocket carrying a classified CLIO satellite for the U.S. Government.

Rocket launches capture the viewer's imagination.
The last bus taking guests to the Apollo/Saturn V Center for Atlas V launch viewing will depart at 4 p.m. Be sure to check in advance as launch date and time are always subject to change.

Located along the Banana River and only three miles from the launch pad, the Apollo/Saturn V viewing area offers the closest public viewing opportunity in Brevard County. This viewing area will feature live launch countdown commentary. Space for launch viewing at the Apollo/Saturn V Center is limited and available on a first come, first served basis. Launch viewing from select areas at the Visitor Complex also will feature live mission control commentary.

Plan to spend a day of fun and educational activities including interactive exhibits and 3D IMAX space film at the Visitor Complex, which will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sept. 16.  Admission also includes the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Admission tickets ($50 for adults and $40 for children ages 3-11) may be purchased at www.KennedySpaceCenter.com or by calling 877-313-2610.

Information courtesy of Alina Quintana, Bitman Goodman PR


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book holiday flights early

Planning a trip to visit family or friends for the holidays? If you’re flying to your destination, the best advice is to book it now.
Travel volumes have been strong all year, which means higher demand during the holiday season is likely. Expect ticket prices to be higher and seats harder to find.

Plans far ahead for air travel during the holidays.
"During the past several years, the holiday travel period has continued to be a challenging time for travelers, and with industry-wide seat capacity reduction, it will remain a stressful travel experience," said Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating co-author and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.

"December typically has one of the worst industry performance scores of any month, so it’s no surprise that December 2013 was the worst month for the entire year. The best bet for the consumer is to travel as early before the actual holiday or as late as possible afterward, and always leave room for schedule changes," Headley adds.

Airline mergers continue to shrink consumer choices. Unfortunately, larger airlines don’t necessarily result in improved performance, Headley says. Also, add-on fees are increasing and travel is becoming more stressful in general. (Remember the recent confrontations over reclining seats?)

The Atlanta airport is one of the busiest in the U.S. Allow
additional  time during the holidays to check in and find your correct gate.
If you do decide to travel by air, be sure to allow enough time to make connecting flights (I’d recommend no less than an hour, and that’s still risky) because flights could be delayed for weather reasons or schedules could change.

Consider shipping packages ahead of time. Pack light to avoid checking luggage, if possible. No sense putting your belongings at additional risk of getting lost. One year I even got caught in the unfortunate situation where baggage handlers went on strike at Christmas.

Check flight status prior to leaving for the airport, and check-in online the day before travel. Then bring your most cheerful holiday attitude, and try to be considerate of others wherever you’re flying.

Photos from free sources.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Try the drift snorkel experience at Taha'a in the South Pacific

The Taha'a motu from which we did our drift snorkel.
After our cruise ship docked at the South Pacific island of Raiatea, Larry and I boarded a covered motor boat for a 30-minute ride along the west coast of Taha’a, sister island to Raiatea. We arrived at a small sandy beach on an uninhabited motu (small island) and disembarked with just our snorkeling gear to begin our Taha’a Coral Garden Snorkeling excursion.
Taha’a is an idyllic island north of Raiatea, only accessible by boat (shuttles run regularly). It is shaped like a hibiscus flower with four long bays cutting into its rugged south shore.  Taha’a shares a lagoon with Raiatea, but it’s a quieter island with few tourists. A beautiful beach and clear water made it a lovely place to snorkel.
Our guide, Matt, picked a hibiscus flower
to rub inside our snorkel masks to
prevent fogging.

We disembarked from the boat and walked on a path containing sharp coral to the place where we would begin our drift experience. “Drift” is a misnomer, since the strong current moved everyone along rather swiftly. That current and the coral underfoot made for a challenge as we removed shoes and put on fins in the water. It’s this current that will carry us snorkelers back to the beach and boat.
Larry makes his way around coral formations.
Although we’re advised to keep 10 feet of space between each other, the fast current moved us along quite rapidly. The idea is to stay prone with your face in the water for the entire 15-minute ride, but that was easier said than done, especially if you bumped into the person in front or had to dodge a pair of flipping fins.

The lagoon is somewhat shallow with low clearance over much of the coral, so we really had to pay attention to the channels and use our fins and swimming skills to avoid collisions with the hard, sharp coral. Stopping was not an option.

Colorful fish and coral were definitely worth going to see.
Still, we saw many kinds of coral--round, bumpy lumps; tube-like flowers; jagged, irregular shapes; purple, yellow, brown, tan, gray, and white—and a variety of fish close by. Underwater photography was hit-or-miss. After reaching the beach, we set out to do it again. The second run went more smoothly, partly because I didn’t try to take as many photos.
Our reward for a job well done--fresh tropical fruits
Back at the boat, our guide prepared a lovely plate of fresh fruit (bananas, grapefruit, coconut, papaya) that everyone enjoyed. We had free time to snorkel or swim, but most people were content to rest and reflect on the unique drift snorkeling experience just completed.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Raiatea: heavenly island in the South Pacific

Raiatea means “faraway heaven,” and “sky with soft light,” and it’s easy to see why this South Pacific island was reported to be the legendary Captain James Cook’s favorite.  It’s a great place to visit if you want to get away from the beach crowd and explore off the beaten path.
Port of Uturoa with mountains in background
The second largest of Society Islands, after Tahiti, Raiatea is regarded as sacred, the center of Polynesian religion and culture more than 1,000 years ago. Historians say it’s likely that migrations to Hawaii, New Zealand, and other parts of East Polynesia originated from Raiatea. Because of its spiritual nature, marae (sacred rocks with inscriptions) scattered across the South Pacific, each contain a rock from the original marae on Raiatea.

You can visit one of these historical and cultural sites on the southeast coast. Taputauatea marae is a stone structures where priests and sailors offered sacrifices to the gods--and a place where people worked together to solve challenges of navigating South Pacific waters. Many enchanting legends still give the island an atmosphere of mystery.
Huts in Uturoa provide shade for shoppers.
Although Raiatea has a population of more than 12,000, villages are tiny.  Shops and markets line a newly renovated waterfront area in Utoroa, the only town of any size on either Raiatea or its sister island Taha’a. Large cruise ships call here several times a week, which is an economic boon for the small towns.

Even large cruise ships must enter and leave the Raiatea lagoon
through narrow passages like this.
We docked early morning at Uturoa—one of the few South Pacific ports where we did not have to tender. In the distance we saw mighty Mt. Temehani, a revered mountain, thought to be the birthplace of the Polynesian god Oro. This mountain shelters a unique plant, the fragrant Tiare apetahi, a white gardenia-like flower shaped like an open hand with petals that open with a slight crackling sound at dawn. Legend says it’s the sound of a broken heart of a common woman who was not allowed to marry the son of the Tahitian king. The protected emblem of the island, this flower grows nowhere else on earth.
Tropical flowers glorify
the island.
Beautiful waterfalls can be seen in south Raiatea, and you can kayak on Faaroa River, gateway to the ocean and the only navigable river in Polynesia. With an abundance of flora such as wild hibiscus, bamboo groves, chestnut trees, and ginger flowers, the island is utopia for nature and garden lovers.

Raiatea is a paradise for snorkeling
or scuba diving
We learned that the islands of Raiatea and Taha’a are unique because both are enclosed by the same coral reef and may have once been one island. Even though Raiatea doesn’t have beaches, the lagoon is perfect for scuba diving and snorkeling with its coral gardens, caves, and drift diving in the passes. Surfing is also possible at the 10 passes that open from the ocean into the Raiatea-Taha’a Lagoon. Primitive motus (small islands) in the lagoon can be reached by boat, and picnickers or campers, both locals and visitors, often come for the day or weekend.
Camping on motus is a favorite getaway for locals and visitors.
If you’re looking for relaxation, beautiful scenery, or a great place to explore under water, Raiatea might just become your slice of heaven.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Marrakesh--a touch of magical Morocco

As the third largest city in Morocco with nearly 1 million people, Marrakesh is a fantastic travel introduction to the African continent. Sauntering through its many souks and bazaars, taking in the cacophony of drums and dances, and enjoying your first Berber tea is only one part of what this city offers. There is also a wealth of historic mosques andmonuments dotted around the Medina, or Old City, which contrasts with its more urbane Ville Nouvelle and its connecting parks. This provides the ideal opportunity to take in the African experience in all its traditional glory.

Be Prepared

As ever, being prepared is of utmost importance. Sweltering  summer temperatures can reach above 100  degrees in Marrakesh, and the accompanying humidity can make temperatures feel even hotter. Always drink bottled water to rehydrate. Also, be aware you’re visiting a new continent and therefore are more susceptible to particular diseases; always ensure you have the appropriate vaccinations and medical coverage.
Remember to keep a diligent eye on your belongings, and don’t pay a price for goods that you think is too high. Always haggle--don’t be fooled by pleasant smiles and tones from salesmen.

Explore the Medina

Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh, Morocco
The charming Old City has much to offer. The main square, Djemaa El-Fna, is a chaotic bustling arena packed with musicians, snake charmers, story tellers, shops, restaurants and more. Its vibrancy is contagious as you wander around almost aimlessly trying to take in the enthralling atmosphere. Connected to the main square, you’ll find the narrow cobbled alleyways of the souks where you can pretty much find everything at very reasonable prices. As before, always haggle, as once the shopkeepers realize you’re a tourist, the cost hikes up. Occasionally, you’ll have to move to the side as a cargo donkey passes by, but this adds to the unique charm of this commercial environment.

See the Sights

Take the time to visit some of the spectacular sights: The Koutoubia Mosque is right in the immediate vicinity of the Medina and hosts a wonderful towering minaret that illuminates at night. It’ll probably strike you at this stage how sanguine everything appears, including Koutoubia, which explains why the city is nicknamed the “Red City”. As you stroll down these crimson paths, don’t miss the ornate El Bahia Palace with its tranquil gardens. This palace was originally used by noblemen in the 19th century and for only 10 Dirhams (1.20 USD), it’s well worth a visit.

Marrakesh has a stunning variety of gardens and parks that are well worth exploring. Luscious gardens such as the Palmeraie, Majorelle and Menara are oases that add a touch of nature to your travels. 

Article and photo contributed by Susie Jones.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Wrangell-St. Elias: America's largest national park

Mountains loom larges on the way to Wrangell-St. Elias

Covering more than 13 million acres and larger than the country of Switzerland, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska stretches from one of the tallest peaks in North America, Mount St. Elias at 18,008 feet,  to the Pacific Ocean. Yet within this wild and remote landscape, people live off the land just as they have been doing for centuries. Subsistence fishing and hunting are allowed for the hardy folks who live in or near the park.
After a typical--but magical--Alaska cruise, we rented a car and drove for a week to destinations off the beaten path. The challenge of finding and exploring lesser-traveled areas of Alaska led us to this starkly beautiful region. 

If you look for adventure when traveling, this park should be on your bucket list of places to visit. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a designated and managed wilderness area, largest in the U.S. National Park system.

On September 3, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act which established the National Wilderness Preservation System and set aside millions of acres of wildlands for the use and benefit of the American people. Now at the half-century point, it is fitting that the U. S. park system has chosen the theme "50 Years of Wilderness" to celebrate in 2014.

Mountains reflect in the windows of Copper River Princess Lodge
With weather the main consideration, the primary season for visiting Wrangell-St. Elias is early June through mid-September. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve has no entrance stations or gates and never actually closes; however, winter arrives early to interior Alaska and by September 15th, available services and facilities have greatly diminished.

Two roads go into the park, the Nabesna Road and the McCarthy Road. Both roads are maintained by the state of Alaska and are open year-round but may not be maintained regularly during the winter. So driving into remote sections of the park (which is most of it) can be quite risky.
A good place to start your visit is at either the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center on the Richardson Highway in Copper Center, which is open Monday-Friday year-round or Kennecott Mill Town, located at the end of McCarthy Road. 

Getting to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve takes most of a day driving from Anchorage. It's not on the way to anywhere else, so be sure that's where you want to end up. Of course, the scenery along the way is spectacular, so that’s worth the drive itself.

Hikes can lead to flowing waterfalls
When you finally arrive, there are endless opportunities to explore and discover. Start by viewing the park movie in the theater at Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center where you can enjoy the exhibits, stroll the short nature trail to view the Wrangell Mountains, and get oriented with the large 3-D interactive map display. Rangers are also on hand to offer advice and suggestions for outdoor activities.
For spectacular views, drive 55 miles on the Edgerton Highway to the historic town of Chitina. Along the way, stretch your legs on the Liberty Falls Trail and enjoy the park's high peaks. After exploring Chitina, which surprisingly is home to several artists, drive over the bridge to the Copper River. In summer you can watch indigenous people harvesting salmon with fishwheels and dipnets right by the beach.

Bridge over Copper River
If you’re spending several days in the park, consider hiking or kayaking. The Nabesna Road takes you to remote corners of the park with great camping, hiking, and wildlife viewing. The McCarthy Road allows for leisurely explorations of a rural Alaskan town and the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark. An easy hike on the Root Glacier Trail brings you right to a river of ice. Hikes that are more strenuous lead to the mountainside Bonanza and Jumbo Mines. 
Pipelines cross this sparsely populated section of the state

The backcountry of Wrangell-St. Elias offers excellent wilderness experiences, if you’re experienced in these activities. A flight on an air taxi from Glennallen, Chitina, Nabesna, or McCarthy can transport you into the heart of the park—but this is not for novices. The wilderness can be harsh if you don’t know what to expect and how to get along in extremely remote areas. For those less adventurous, a guide/outfitter service can take you safely on glacier hikes, walking tours, float trips, and flightseeing excursions. 

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Eclectic art displayed at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite

The Ahwahnee's outstanding location in Yosemite
Among the must-see icons of YosemiteNational Park, which is known for its unbelievably picturesque landscapes including mountains, waterfalls, and giant trees, is The Ahwahnee Hotel. The original accommodation in the park (after Curry Campsite) was an apt place to attract wealthy potential investors as well as visitors looking for a luxurious experience in a rustic park.

Besides the scenery of Yosemite Valley surrounding this National Historic Landmark, The Ahwahnee also boasts an amazing art collection that complements the architecture of the hotel. Art Deco, North American, Middle Eastern, and arts and crafts influences combine seamlessly within the interior of this grand hotel. Effects can be seen in stenciling, woodwork, light fixtures, china patterns, and wall hangings.

The Ahwahnee displays one of the greatest Persian rug collections in the world. Geometric patterns found in kilims, soumaks, kalamkars and other Middle Eastern rugs blend in seamlessly with the unmistakable design motifs inspired by Native American patterns.

The hotel’s original decorators, Dr. Phyllis Ackerman and Dr. Arthur Upham Pope, were experts in Persian arts and selected a variety of Persian rugs for the hotel’s public spaces since there wasn’t enough time before the grand opening to have Navajo rugs created. The Ahwahnee required fifty-nine rugs in total at opening and they were purchased in New York in 1927, ranging in price from 48.75 to $93.75 for a total of $5659. Today, many of the original rugs (or remnants of fragile pieces) are displayed mounted on the walls in the hotel’s public spaces.

The Great Lounge
A favorite gathering place, the Great Lounge features large fireplaces at either end of its 77-foot length. Ten floor-to-ceiling windows with original hand-stained glass filter light from the outside. Hand-woven North American baskets provide a decorative display, and wrought-iron chandeliers complement the eclectic design. In the Mural room one wall is covered with depictions of flora and fauna in Yosemite while a shiny copper-hooded fireplace brightens up the space.

Intricate stained-glass designs top 10 windows in the Great Lounge.
Throughout the 99 rooms, parlors, and suites of the hotel impressive art surrounds the visitor. Yet, for me, the greatest art is what nature has created outside, and this is not neglected. Trails to walk and chairs to relax with a view of Yosemite Falls and more entice patrons to spend time appreciating the beauty of the location.

Part of the mural wall depicting nature in Yosemite
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Giant sequoias--another incredible attraction in Yosemite

Just the base of this sequoia dwarfs Larry.
Until you stand beside (or inside) a giant sequoia, it’s hard to imagine the enormity of these trees. In terms of sheer volume, they are the largest living things known to humans.
It’s these masterpieces of nature that we’ve come to admire in the Mariposa Grove of GiantSequoias. Located in the southeastern part of Yosemite National Park, the grove contains more than 500 mature trees, some estimated at 3,000 years old, up to 378 feet high, and more than 300 feet in diameter—quite an awesome sight!

We arrive at Mariposa in time to take the first tram tour at 9:30 a.m. ($26.50 for adults). With our earphones and radio sets, we hear commentary while riding in the open air tram and learn that the creation of Yosemite as a national park was instigated after Mariposa Grove was first designated as a protected state reserve.
Branches of Grizzly Giant are larger than many tree trunks
The tram takes visitors past the Fallen Monarch, a massive sequoia with spread out roots, suspected to have fallen centuries ago. The Grizzly Giant of one of the largest (and most gnarly) trees in the grove and is estimated to be 1800 years old. Looking up we see a huge limb that is almost seven feet in diameter—larger than the trunks of many other tree species.

California Tunnel Tree is still alive and growing.
Just beyond the Grizzly Giant is the California Tunnel Tree, cut in 1895 to allow horse-drawn stages to pass through; today visitors can stroll through its mid-section and take photos from inside a tree. You may have seen pictures of cars driving through the famous Wawona Tunnel Tree. Visitors were actually able to drive through it from 1881 when the tunnel was cut until 1969 when the tree collapsed under a heavy snow fall.

Another anomaly is the Faithful Couple, two large trees that have fused together at their bases but remain separated higher up. Faithful Couple is perhaps the largest, although we see the formation several times as we ride, and later walk, through the grove.

Wildflowers decorate the ground beside the trees.
We ride the tram to the Mariposa Grove Museum, a cabin that contains exhibits on the ecology and history of giant sequoias. At that point we leave the tram to walk two miles on the Outer Loop Trail back to the starting place. Beautiful purple and yellow wildflowers fill open spaces surrounding the trees.
Fire damage has given the Clothespin Tree its
unusual shape.
Other notable trees to see include the Bachelor and Three Graces, four trees that share root systems (if one falls, all will) and the Clothespin Tree, which features a natural tunnel wider than a car created by repeated fires. Fire doesn’t destroy sequoias, but you often see a black triangle on the trunk indicating damage. However, as long as the outer bark is okay the tree will survive.

The sequoias’ resistance to fire, disease, insects, and decay has allowed them to endure for many centuries. Thanks to Galen Clark, the naturalist who initially drew attention to and urged protection of these trees, Mariposa Grove was incorporated into Yosemite National Park in 1906. It’s truly one of the most magnificent forests anywhere.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Monday, August 18, 2014

Two tours worth taking in Yosemite National Park

Trees in Cook's Meadow frame mountains in
Yosemite National Park
Flowing waterfalls and abundant hiking trails are big draws for visitors to YosemiteNational Park in  northeastern Mariposa County, California. As one of the most beautiful places in the world, Yosemite has a great variety of opportunities to admire nature at its finest.

During a recent visit, we also participated in a couple of tours that may be under-utilized but which allowed us to enjoy different aspects of what the park has to offer.
Photography Tour

Pink and purple star-shaped
flowers of milkweed decorated
Cook's Meadow.
On our first morning in the park we took a photography tour guided by Christine, a ranger/photographer who absolutely loved being in the park and sharing spectacular views with visitors. Leaving from Ansel Adams Gallery (be sure to peek inside at the beautiful works of art there) near the Visitor Center, we spent an hour and a half walking through Cooks Meadow. Noted as the best place in the park to see wildlife—mostly towards sunset—the meadow was sprouting with a variety of wildflowers and grasses in early July.
Our first look at Upper Yosemite Fall.
Since we had arrived after dark the night before, this meadow walk yielded our first views of famous Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. Christine knew the best places to take pictures, and directed our attention to scenic spots. The Falls were flowing in a steady but thin stream, but because of little snowfall during the winter, Christine estimated that they would be dry within ten days. During our five-day stay, we watched the water level diminish, although it was still flowing somewhat when we left the park.

The free tour follows an established, level path and is suitable for most people. Take water, as the Valley can be hot during the summer.
Glacier Point Stargazing Tour

Half Dome at sunset
In the evening we chose the Glacier Point Stargazing Tour, which left at 7:00 and returned around 11:00 p.m. We rode a bus for the hour-long journey to Glacier Point passing forests of California black oak trees and the slow-moving Merced River (again from lack of snowfall). We saw wind blow remnants of Bridal Veil Fall and viewed Fern Spring Fall, the smallest waterfall in the park at just 18 inches—but it runs year round.
Panoramic views from Glacier Point of
Vernal and Nevada Falls,
which are still flowing well.
Reata, our driver, provided narration of Yosemite's diverse natural and cultural history. She pointed out the original stagecoach road and told how stages going up had to dismantle and move aside so the one going down could pass on the narrow road. We learned about the efforts of Gaylen Clark to have Yosemite named a national park, about fires in 1990 that closed the park for 10 days, and about animals that inhabit the park.

Upon arriving at Glacier Point (after a series of sharp turns and switchbacks) we wandered for 45 minutes admiring views of mountains and waterfalls. As darkness descended, our group gathered at the amphitheater for an hour-long program by Jennifer, a ranger and astronomy expert.
She told stories from mythology on how the constellations were created and used a laser to point our specific stars. Shooting stars streaked across the sky several times, and we saw lights on Half Dome and by Yosemite Falls, possibly from hikers or rock climbers spending the night on the boulders.

As the sky went from dark to black, stars popped out brighter and clearer that I’ve ever seen, and the Milky Way spread across the sky. Without light pollution interfering with the view, we could appreciate how glorious the universe really is—and how infinitesimal we humans are.
Actually, all of Yosemite is a lesson in humility--and respect for nature's enduring landscapes.
Make prior reservations for this tour, which costs about $40.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Take the Discovery Tour at Natural Bridge Caverns in central Texas

Last week, with family visiting from Michigan, we drove to Natural Bridge Caverns near New Braunfels, Texas, about one and a quarter hours from Austin.  The largest public cave in Texas was discovered in the early 1960s when a group of college students asked the landowners if they could explore on the property. It was suspected that a system of caverns existed, but no one had really attempted to find what lay underground.

This post includes a series of pictures taken inside the caverns, showing some of the beautiful formations that have been developed and preserved for future generations. Still owned by members of the original ranching family, the caverns (and surrounding area)provide one of the most popular attractions for visitors to central Texas, especially with the addition of new family-friendly activities in recent years.

We went on the original guided Discovery Tour, which takes visitors along the path taken by the first explorers.  Established paths are easy to navigate these days as you view Sherwood Forest, Castle of the White Giants, and Hall of the Mountain King, a room the size of a football field. During the 75 minute three-quarter-mile tour, we viewed gigantic limestone monuments in beautiful chambers 170 feet underground. Unlike some caves that tend to the cool side, Natural Bridge Caverns (yes, there is a natural stone bridge over the opening—hence the name), the temperature was about mid-70s throughout.

A few years ago the Hidden Passages tour was also opened, giving visitors a choice of tours. It features spectacular glistening formations highlighted in unique ways.  If you’re really adventurous, check out the three-hour “wild cave” tour where you negotiate obstacles through mud or on your tummy and climb up a 25-foot mud-covered slope. 

After the tour, plan to hang around, so your family can enjoy other attractions at the site including a challenging ropes course, four zip lines, a mineral exhibit and panning opportunity, and of course gift shops and food venues. You can also bring your own picnic to enjoy on the grounds.
Tours leave every 40 minutes, sometimes more often in summer. Purchase tickets online or at the caverns.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier