Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The amazing story (science and legend) of Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland

The first time Larry and I visited Giant’s Causeway the weather was cold and damp, so we tried again a few years later when on a cruise around the United Kingdom. As expected, the coast of  Northern Ireland was still chilly, but sunshine made our second visit more pleasant and we were able to explore more of this unique landmark.

Giant’s Causeway, named a UNESCO site in 1986, was created from lava flows 65 million years ago. Lava flowed into the valley, but as the liquid basalt layers cooled, spectacular columns were formed. Looking at the mostly hexagonal columns (some have five, seven, or eight sides) of different heights and sizes, with perfectly even sides, it’s difficult to imagine that they were formed only by natural processes.

In fact, there are several Irish legends to explain the formation of these columns. In one story the Irish giant Finn MacCool was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Fionn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. 

Another legend, possibly influenced by identical basalt columns (part of the same ancient lava flow) across the sea in Scotland, says that Fionn's wife, Oonagh, disguised Fionn as a baby and tucked him in a cradle. When Benandonner saw the size of the 'baby', he assumed that its father, Fionn, must be an enormous giant. He fled back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn would be unable to chase him down.  

Looking at the columns from a distance it occurred to me that the landscape resembled a giant jigsaw puzzle. Always curious to see details of such natural wonders, I climbed to the top of one section, scaling each column as I came to it. Later Larry and I posed for a photo on another section and then wandered along several trails to get a greater grasp of the geology of the area.

There is a series of color-coded trails that will take you to see different formations with names like Organ Pipes, the Camel, Giant’s Granny, and Giant’s Boot. After walking the blue and green trails, we hiked the longer and more difficult Red Trail back to the Visitor’s Center (a shuttle is also available). 

That trail goes high above the Causeway and Atlantic Ocean for spectacular views of the scenic landscape. Extended views included lush green farm land and pastures with grazing sheep. As we looked back down over the area where the basalt columns are located, we could barely see the throngs of people we knew were meandering there.  

The basalt field extends 60 miles to the west and along the coast of Northern Ireland, but the most remarkable section of columns is found at Giant’s Causeway. Located in county Antrim, Giant’s Causeway covers about four miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline. You can reach it by car in about three hours from Dublin or an hour and a half from Belfast.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Zion National Park has trails for everyone

Stroll through Zion on several easy walks.
Arriving at Zion National Park on a September afternoon, my husband Larry and I were awed by the distinct redness of sheer cliffs that frame the valleys of Zion.  Anxious to start exploring in Utah’s first national park (established in 1919) we immediately set out to see the Emerald Pools, since the trailhead was near our accommodations at the Zion Lodge. We quickly learned that the beauty of Zion is enhanced by its accessibility. 

Throughout these magnificent landscapes visitors can find a mix of trails to suit every ability level, from paved, wheel-chair accessible strolls to challenging rock climbs for skilled adventurers. The following guide starts with easy paths and ends with the breathtaking hike to Angel’s Landing.

Pa'rus Tral is doable for all abilities and offers some of the most spectacular sights.
Pa’rus: Allow at least an hour for an early morning or evening stroll. The path provides great views of soaring canyon walls and Zion’s famous sandstone formations, Count of Patriarchs (try to get all three peaks in one photo) and Great White Throne. Named for Old Testament figures Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the cliffs that form the Patriarchs are among the most recognizable landmarks.

You don’t have to walk the entire two miles. Stop at the Visitors Center to rest and learn about history and geology of the park, Then take the shuttle to explore more of the canyon. Pa’rus is the only trail in the park that is wheelchair accessible and also open to bicycles and pets.

Emerald Pools is a great family hike.
Emerald Pools: The Lower Pool trail is only 0.6 miles one way, so it’s a comfortable walk, and you can continue on to the Middle Pool. During our most recent visit in 2019, the Upper Pool was closed because a rock slide had obliterated the path.  Trickling waterfalls, especially after a rain, emerald-green water, and wildflowers in spring and summer attract visitors to this family-friendly trail. But, as always, the incredible rock formations that distinguish Zion are the main attraction.

Riverside Walk is also doable for most guests.
Riverside Walk: In a park filled with deep canyons and soaring cliffs, this level paved path is understandably one of the most popular. Starting from the Temple of Sinawava the two-mile round trip meanders along the Virgin River to the bottom of a narrow canyon. Along the way, look up to admire 2,000-foot tall rock walls and Zion’s hanging gardens. Moisture from numerous springs allows swampy plants to grow right out of the sandstone.

Try The Narrows if you love adventure.
The Narrows: At the end of Riverside Trail, you might be tempted, as I was, to wade through the river for a taste of Zion Narrows. The trail sloshes through water into a slot canyon less than 30 feet wide in places and flanked by towering sandstone palisades. A sand bar here and there gave me respite from the current and strenuous activity of wading in thigh deep water. Smooth canyon walls covered in vertical striations of brown, tan, and beige dwarfed me but drew me further into The Narrows, but eventually I returned to my starting point.
The Narrows is a hike through the Virgin
River in Zion National Park.

If you want to try river hiking bring sturdy shoes and walking sticks because the rocks and boulders are slippery, and it’s easy to lose your balance.  You can rent special river-hiking boots and walking sticks from outfitters in Springdale and experience a downstream half-day trip. At places the sheer canyon walls are so narrow that sunlight rarely penetrates--lending a mysterious feel to the adventure.

West Rim Trail to Angel’s Landing: If you want to try a challenging hike in Zion, this is it. Characterized by 21 closely-spaced switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles, the trail leads upwards to spectacular views of Zion Canyon below.  Start early in the morning, and allow about five hours, more if you want time to soak in the magnificent views—and allow time to rest a bit before starting back down.
A more challenging trail to Angel's Landing features many switchbacks.

Take the shuttle to The Grotto where you’ll pick up the trail. Elevation here is 4300 feet, and you’ll gain almost 1500 feet climbing rugged slopes on the five-mile round-trip journey.  The approach to Angel’s Landing, a sheer-walled monolith 1500 feet above the North Fork of the Virgin River, follows a steep, narrow ridge.  During this last half mile, footing is tenuous, but chains aid your ascent on narrow precipices. Despite numerous warning signs the climb is reasonably safe in good weather if you have sufficient leg and upper body strength—and no fear of heights. 
Hang on if you climb to the summit.

Even if you opt out of the summit approach you’ll still enjoy amazing views along the four-mile round-trip. Although the trail is graded, it provides a good workout as you climb uphill through a cool canyon, navigate the switchbacks, and reach Scout Lookout, the turn-around point. The hike provides a bounty of breathtaking views--sheer red walls, myriad geologic patterns carved in rock, caves formed by overhanging ledges, and a cool river flowing through the canyon bottom. 

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, March 19, 2020

What makes the Narrows hike in Zion different?

The Riverside Walk in Zion National Park

Several years ago, when Larry and I visited ZionNational Park--along with other parks in southern Utah—we skipped the Narrows Hike. This hike takes you through the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, a gorge with walls 1,000 feet tall and some of the most spectacular scenery in America.

The tricky part is that hikers must walk though the Virgin River that runs through the canyon. There is no “trail.” You wade upstream through a river that can be waist high, depending on season, and is only 20 to 30 feet wide in places.

During our first visit we were totally unprepared for an adventure like that. Although I waded until the first bend in the river on our first visit, a longer hike (4-6 hours) to discover the reason it is called the Narrows was not in the cards.  
Deb and Beverly starting the Narrows hike
So that hike was on our bucket list when we returned to Zion last September. This time, however, our friend Deb had joined us for part of our trip, and having her along allowed me to hike in places that Larry chose not to go.

The first thing we needed to do was rent special shoes and socks and a walking stick in Springdale (the closest town to Zion). High canyon walls and water create cooler conditions than anywhere else in Zion. The shoes and neoprene socks keep your feet from getting too cold in the 60-degree water, and the walking sticks provided are quite tall and sturdy—unlike our usual hiking poles. When rented together, the footwear package is about $25 from Zion Adventure Company.

Early the next morning we took the park shuttle (personal cars are not allowed to drive on roads within the park) to Temple ofSinawava. From there we walked one mile on the paved Riverside Walk, which followed the Virgin River. When the trail ends, the wet hike begins.

Climbing over beautiful rock formations
There isn’t just one specific destination. You can walk as long as you want and then return the same way you came. Many hikers plan to reach Orderville Canyon, a tributary creek on a detour to the right about two hours upstream from the end of the paved trail. For others the goal is “Wall Street,” the narrowest section of the slot canyon. Permits are required for longer hikes.

Since we did this adventure in mid-September, water levels were somewhat lower and the current was not as fast as it might have been in early spring when snow starts melting. Still, the noticeable current made walking moderately difficult with knee-deep crossings on slick, large, and uneven rocks that covered the river bottom.  Water up to our booties was the highest we experienced!

Taking a break
Now picture this: Two ladies wearing several layers of clothing for warmth, hats, sunglasses, cameras, and backpacks that we hoped to keep dry. Very soon we were slipping, sliding, and schlepping through river water in this amazing canyon. Well, I was the cautious one, as Deb (much younger than me!) stepped her way a little more quickly through the challenging conditions.

Our hike took about five hours—about two miles and two hours in and the same for the return--with plentiful stops for pictures (a must!), snacks, and a peanut butter sandwich lunch at our half-way point. Although Larry started the journey, he soon decided to return to Temple ofSinawava to wait for Deb and me as we continued.

We walked among amazing views like this.
Along the way we were surrounded by soaring, multi-colored sandstone walls. Waterfalls streamed down the canyon sides, while trees and foliage grew in seemingly impossible places. Slick, algae-covered rocks made the going slow at times, so we watched the current carefully and chose routes to avoid the most rapid sections. Crossing from side to side was necessary, as walking a straight line in the moving water was not practical. The further we went, the more beautiful was the contrast between turquoise water and a variety of red, white, and  black striations embedded in the canyon walls.
Water was deeper in some sections--couldn't stay dry!
No description of the Narrows hike would be complete without a warning to check the weather before starting because there’s great potential for flash floods which can occur even when not expected. Much of the area surrounding the Narrows is bare rock that does not absorb water, so runoff is funneled rapidly into the Narrows making the water level rise rapidly within minutes. Rain that had been in the forecast prior to our scheduled day for hiking dissipated by that morning, so we felt it was okay to proceed, and we had a beautiful day to enjoy the sights.

Appreciating nature's handiwork
If you’re adventurous, have reasonably good balance, and don’t mind being wet for several hours (even the best hikers sometimes take a tumble into the water), the Narrows is a striking and awesome hike. You can make it as short or long as you want, keeping in mind that the views are more breathtaking the farther you go. Happy hiking!

Photos by Beverly Burmeier and Deb Delaney

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Pacific Ocean snorkeling from Fiji

If you love snorkeling, as Larry and I do, we’ve got some beautiful pictures for you. During our recent cruise across the Pacific Ocean towards Australia, we stopped at several islands where snorkeling was our activity of choice.

Overall, there’s no better place to see beautiful coral and fish than islands of the South Pacific. While not all the islands have wonderful white sand beaches, many have lagoons protected by massive coral reefs. This makes for ideal snorkeling conditions (or diving, if you’re certified).

One port where we had a snorkeling excursion was Lautoka, Fiji.  Lautoka is the second largest city of Fiji and is located in the west of the island of Viti Levu. Known as the Sugar City because of its sugar cane farms and mills, Lautoka also offered equally notable snorkeling featuring a variety of coral species as well as fish. It provided our first set of outstanding underwater photos on this trip (more destinations to be described later).

One afternoon we took a speed boat ride to Beachcomber Island, so we were able to get there in half the time of a catamaran. The large passenger boat sped through translucent waters, while we enjoyed views of mountains and seaside villas of Viti Levu. On arrival at the island, those who wanted to snorkel boarded another boat for a short ride to a coral reef. Others could stay on Beachcomber Island to swim, snorkel, or just relax.

We gathered our gear (equipment provided if needed, but we bring our own) and were off to the reef. There we were rewarded with bountiful views of beautiful fish—tiny blue fish darting around, tiger fish with black stripes, schools of small black fish, larger iridescent fish sashaying their way through the water, and gorgeous rainbow-colored fish (wish I knew all the real names!). 

For us the task was to photograph these ocean creatures quickly with our underwater cameras before they sped out of sight or disappeared into deep water on the other side of the reef. Of course, we took time to simply float and observe these spunky marine creatures, sometimes following a sparkling fish that caught our eye. In addition, there was ample coral to admire.

I hope you enjoy this sample of photos that Larry and I took during that excursion.