Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its centennial

Magnificent colors of the Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019. So this is the perfect time to visit this widely visited national park.  Its jaw-dropping views draw in more than six million visitors annually, and these will be highlighted with diverse historical, cultural, and natural public events throughout the year.
The Colorado River cuts through the canyon.
Grand Canyon is a favorite destination for families, adventure enthusiasts, and travelers from all over the world. On the popular South Rim, there are many shuttle stops that allow visitors to see and marvel at the deep and rugged canyon and ribbon of Colorado River at the bottom. (I’ve taken an amazing 10-day journey braving the river’s rapids and camping along the river).

Hikers may try reaching the bottom at Phantom Ranch, a nine-mile trek down. However long that takes, be prepared for the trip back up to take triple the amount of time. Or ride a mule down, which is quite an unusual experience.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times for such striking views.
For an especially scenic splurge, consider taking a helicopter flight over the canyon. You’ll see an awe-inspiring perspective of this geological wonder. Take advantage of park ranger talks and guided walks that are available most days and in various locations. Experience the wonders of night skies during summertime star parties, or rise early to watch sunrise paint a golden portrait on the canyon walls. Sunrise and sunset are especially great times to observe how changing light illuminates the canyon’s walls, revealing changing contours, colors, and depths of this incredible wonder.

View of Grand Canyon from a helicopter.
The North Rim offers different views and is only open during summer months as its elevation results in colder temperatures and snow for many months of the year.
On the Western side is a Skywalk that allows visitors to stand above the canyon on a glass viewing platform, and they can take a zip line across the canyon for a bird’s eye view. Additionally, in 2019 the centennial celebration will bring special events, festivities, demonstrations, special exhibits, and travel deals including the Grand Canyon Centennial Star Party in June.  So be sure to check online or with your travel agent and book early if there are specific events you don’t want to miss.
The North Rim is extremely rugged and has higher elevation.
Shadows are long in the afternoon.
On February 26, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that officially created Grand Canyon National Park, the country’s 17th. With this act the famous landscape and archaeological artifacts left behind by Native American tribes will be protected and preserved for generations.

Called one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon is a mile deep, 277 miles long, and up to 18 miles wide. Few places on earth are as majestic and awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon. If you haven't been there, this is a great year to go. Or go again, if you have.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Getting outdoors in Austin, Texas

One of many features in
Zilker Botanical Garden
Zilker Park.  2100 Barton Springs Road. Spreading over 360 metropolitan acres, Zilker is truly a park for all seasons and all ages. A prime attraction is Barton Springs Pool, a spring-fed swimming hole where constant 68-degree water attracts locals for daily dips year-round.  Across the street is Zilker Botanical Garden, 22 acres of plant lover’s delight—a showplace for native foliage, roses, ponds, formal and Oriental gardens, and 100-year-old dinosaur tracks.

Stevie Ray Vaughan overlooks
Lady Bird Lake in Austin.
Adjacent to the park is Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail—ten miles of downtown trails around the lake.  It’s a verdant oasis and social hub for casual walkers and cyclists as well as a popular training ground for serious runners. 

On the south side, you’ll see the famous statue of deceased blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who still inspires countless wannabe musicians.  Thousands of professional and amateur kite-flyers enjoy competitions every spring; other attractions include summer outdoor theatrical performances and musical events, mile-long pedestrian holiday Trail of Lights and spectacular Christmas tree, and collegiate rowing competitions on Town Lake.

Outdoor sculptures at Umlauf
Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.  605 Robert E. Lee Rd. Adjacent to Zilker Park is an exquisite sanctuary for anyone who loves beautiful art and peaceful landscaping.  More than 130 pieces by Charles Umlauf, world-renowned sculptor and former UT professor, are displayed in natural outdoor settings and indoors.  Wander leisurely on paths in this almost-secret wooded urban area while admiring figures of children, animals, and religious figures cast in bronze, stone, terra cotta, and exotic woods.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  4801 La Crosse Ave. Springtime bursts with gorgeous wildflower displays along roadsides of Texas, thanks to persistent efforts of Lady Bird Johnson.

A variety of wildflowers bloom at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin 
The Wildflower Center (now under the auspices of University of Texas) honors her dedication to highway beautification by promoting research and growth of native plants and providing a scenic viewpoint for visitors.  Linger on serene limestone porches or stroll paths that meander around gardens, waterfalls, and open fields of flowers.

Spectacular bat flight in Austin
Congress Avenue Bridge Bats. 10 blocks south of the Capitol Building.  Only in Austin would flying bats become a bonafide tourist attraction. From late March through early October thousands of people gather nightly on and around the Congress Avenue Bridge to watch a black cloud of 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats stream out from under the bridge at dusk. 

When the bridge was constructed over Town Lake in 1980, no one imagined that bats would consider crevices under the bridge to be a perfect roosting place, but the bridge now shelters the largest urban bat colony in North America. Once thought to be a nuisance, the bats soon gained honorary status as people realized that they eat up to 30,000 pounds of insects on their nightly flights.

Mount Bonnell is a favorite scenic spot
for both locals and visitors.
Mount Bonnell.  Viewing the skyline of Austin from Mount Bonnell is like seeing the city with a wide-angle lens.  After climbing 99 steps to one of the highest spots in the city, you can look over the Pennybacker Bridge, commonly called Austin 360 Bridge, and see landmarks like the University of Texas tower and the Capitol, a panorama of luxury mansions on Lake Austin, and gorgeous vistas in one of the most romantic spots in town.  The summit, at 785 feet, is a picturesque setting popular for picnics and sunset watching. 

Laguna Gloria.  Visit renowned Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th Street, and enjoy art as well as beautifully landscaped grounds and an historic villa on Lake Austin.  Stroll this iconic lakeside destination, which is often the site of outdoor sculptures and displays.
The historic mansion at Laguna Gloria
Numerous hiking trails are scattered throughout Austin in parks and other venues. Since central Texas is known for its hills and rivers, you can find more outdoor fun within an hour's drive from the city.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Friday, March 8, 2019

Embracing the desert of Namibia

We leave Windhoek, Namibia and fly south toward Sosessuvlei to see the red sand dunes.  The landscape is desolate; metal roofs on scattered buildings glisten like diamonds in the sun. Cars below are few and far between as a dirt road snakes its way along the narrow paved two-lane road.
View out the window of our small transport plane.
The topography takes on a reddish tint, a hint of what is to come. After nearly an hour in the air, the terrain becomes more rugged and mountainous, although it is still dry and dreary. Then there is the desert—waves of unspoiled champagne-colored sand covering the ground and drifting over even the mountains below.

I marvel at jaw-dropping views of this spectacular landscape. Eventually I notice the long, gravel landing strip which fades into the vast emptiness as the plane's wheels touch down.
Getting to various camps requires transport via small plane.
The Namib Desert is a land of magnificent dunes to the west and rugged, mountains of the Namib escarpment to the north and east, with grassy plains filing the space between.

There is a simple beauty in the starkness of the desert.
We land and head in a safari vehicle for the private 90,000 acre Kulala Wilderness Reserve. Massive gold-orange dunes, shaped by wind into this unbelievably beautiful starkness, rise a thousand feet from the floor of the world’s oldest desert.
Stairs leading to our rooftop "hideaway."
We find our accommodations among 11 stylish thatched villas or kulalas (meaning “to sleep” in local Oshiwambo language). There is a large outdoor deck, indoor and outdoor showers, a private plunge pool and a rooftop “skybed” for romantic stargazing (We try this out later!)

We scan the landscape from our rooftop perch.
In the afternoon we set out to explore the Kulala Wilderness Reserve. Everything living here has adapted to the harsh, dry climate. Challenges include finding water, conserving energy (many are nocturnal), and finding food (hunt early morning or late evening). Trees have tiny leaves because of water scarcity or thorns as protection from grazing animals.
Spring bok can go a year without
water--desert adaptation.
On our first safari of this journey we see antelopes, Oryx, and spring bock (which can survive 365 days without water). Rocks are everywhere on the ground, leftover from wave action on a prehistoric ocean bed. Basalt and limestone are now prevalent in the dry river beds.

An ostrich egg left to nature.
Our guide points out “fairy circles” and explains that the origin of these rock formations on the ground is not really known. We find an ostrich egg that had been laid in the open on bushman’s grass. Most likely it will never hatch.
Our dining experiences were superb.
After driving for awhile, we stop for snacks and wine before heading back to camp and a sumptuous dinner.
Even better, we are treated to native singing, dancing, clapping, and foot tapping by the energetic staff. Their happy voices lift us all, till we forget what a long day it has been—and the early morning wake-up call we will have in order to see sunrise on the magnificent sand dunes of Sossusvlei.
Staff was very friendly, helpful, and accommodating--a real asset for remote camps.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier