Posts Tagged With: views

Short Hike in Koke’e: Pihea Trail

After an evening of camping in Koke’e State Park, we woke up early, along with the roosters crowing around 5:45AM or so. This was partly due to jet-lag, partly due to excitement of vacation, and partly due to wild crowing roosters! Just so you’re aware, there are wild roosters and chickens all over the island, so if you do happen to have a weird fear of them (Alektorophobia… apparently it’s pretty common), then don’t come to Kauai. Or stay on the manicured resort properties… and even then, you still may see them. Apparently, Hurricane Iniki tore through in 1992, destroying (among many other things) chicken coops. The result was a prolific number of wild roosters and chickens which can be found on all parts of the island. Regardless of our early up and at ’em causation, we packed up our tent and dined on guava rolls, peanut butter, and fruit, before heading up the rode from camp towards the Pu’u O Kila Lookout. As mentioned in a previous post, Pu’u O Kila Lookout is the end of the line on this rode.

There were originally plans to connect the highway here so that a road would circle the entirety of Kauai, but those plans fell through for various reasons and as rumors have it, the locals are happy with that failure. While a road connecting the entire island would be easier for tourists to get around, it would also take away some of the beauty of the Na Pali and Koke’e areas that are more wild, scenic, and less accessible areas of the island.

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The Pihea Overlook trail starts at the Pu’u O Kila Lookout, where a sign reads, “One of the wettest spots on earth”. The picture above (and throughout this post) are a testament to that sign- we had overcast and drizzly weather the whole time we hiked (although there did seem to be some efforts by the sun to try and pierce those clouds, albeit, unsuccessfully). To access the trail, park in the lot by the Pu’u O Kila Lookout. It’s hard to miss, as it’s the very end of the road. As everywhere, use common sense, and don’t leave valuables out in the open in your car while you’re hiking. There is a bathroom there, but you’d be wise to fill up on water before you get here. At the end of the lot there is a ramp leading up to the overlook as well as a sign for Pihea Trail. Walk up the ramp and check out the view (if there is one) and that’s where you will see the sign proclaiming how wet it is here. The elevation is around 4000 feet or so. Before you get up to this “vista” (which is gorgeous when there are clear skies– see below as a reminder of what we saw the day before)…

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View from the previous day.

you will see a sign with the distances to Pihea Overlook (about a mile, but we clocked it closer to 1.5, since we ended up turning around a mile in due to trail condition), Alakai Crossing, and Awaikoi Camp. Alakai Swamp Trail is another great trail that is supposed to be fantastic for birding. Anyway, you will see the sign and directly to the left of it is what appears to be a little trail leading off into the ferns. This is a false trail. You will noticed a little arrow has been etched into the sign (circled in our picture) which points left. Skip this “faux” trail and keep going as the arrow indicates to get to the Pihea Trail.

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Take note of the etched in arrow pointing you the right direction.

The trail runs you across the ridge, up and down, through Ohi’a trees, ferns, Koas, and other native plants. There are also a few boardwalk areas. Generally though, the trail, especially after rain, is super muddy and slippery. Make sure you take your time and even if it’s overcast, enjoy the serenity. When we went, there had been some rain the previous night, which I think exacerbated the slippery and hazardous nature of the trail. I have seen plenty of other pictures showing the trail much drier… so just make sure you are aware of your surroundings. If you do happen to have clear skies for this hike, you will be greeted with a huge number of panoramic views of the valley and not so far off Na Pali coast. There are plenty of boulders to climb up on the sides of the trail in different areas to get a better look, but be aware of your feet- you could easily fall to your demise.

Also be aware of spiders as you hike, especially if you’re hiking early in the morning. I read a few articles about crab spiders which were introduced to the island to try and control a bug problem on crops (it failed) and the result is a large number of small and annoying spiders that will apparently bite you and irritate your skin (no lasting harm). We talked to one local who said the best way to avoid them is to hike with a stick that you can just wave in front of you as you hike. While we were fortunate not to have any run-ins with crab spiders, we did find a gorgeous web that was outlined with water droplets… which we wouldn’t have been able to find if we hadn’t taken our time. About a mile on down the trail (there are small metal mile markers on the right-hand side of the trail as you hike towards the overlook), we realized that conditions were just getting worse and worse. On top of that, we ran into a couple that told us they had fallen three times and getting to the overlook was pretty impossible. So, after hiking a few more minutes, we tucked our tails, called it a win, and turned around.

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Water droplet spider web

On the way back to the trailhead, we ran into maybe 2 other people- one hoping to make it to Alakai Swamp (endemic bird species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world) and another who’s husband had ditched her already because of the deteriorating path. She hiked a few minutes more and then we saw her again as she zipped back up the trail. The hike back to the trailhead may have been a bit slower than the way out because it was mostly uphill and there were several ways to ascend the different rocky areas, but it was great to be outside, the temperature was mild, and the feeling was serene after being cooped up on a plane for the day prior and coming from a summer of work! All in all, we had a very enjoyable hike and would definitely do it again. While it would have been perhaps more rewarding if the weather were calmer and clearer, it was still a nice morning exercise bout.

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The overcast weather gave the trail an eery feel 🙂

Insider Tips: Bring water with you; wear hiking boots (sneakers won’t cut it if there’s any mud or it rained recently); you gain about 250 feet on Pihea Trail (about 100 or so going to the Pihea overlook). It might be helpful to bring a long-sleeved shirt with you if you go early because it was chilly. In addition, to avoid the crowds, go early. We starting hiking around 8AM and stopped to meditate in a big clearing on top of the ridge a little ways down the trail. When we returned to the trailhead, maybe 1.5 hours later, the parking lot (which had one other car in it when we arrived) was full of cars, with people getting ready to hike or check out the overlook. Also, don’t forget to look for wildlife in the parking lot. You might see this little guy:

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Red-crested cardinals have bright red heads and crests. They were introduced to Kauai.

That’s all for now. See you next time for a post on camping in Polihale.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Evening Camping in Koke’e State Park, Kauai (Northwest)

After our exciting and action-packed trip from Sacramento to Kauai was over and our Jeep was secured, our first stop was the grocery store to pick up some supplies. We chose to go by Safeway, as we had read it’s a bit cheaper than some of the other stores. Costco was also nearby, but, since we were planning on camping for most of our time, we didn’t want to buy in bulk (especially cold stuff). Safeway is located at 4454 Nuhou Street, Lihue and it is open 24 hours a day. It was a large Safeway and for those of you who have club member cards on the mainland for Safeway, yes, they will work on Hawaii as well. We looked up the circular online before we traveled to get an idea of what was available and we tried to make a plan, but we were hungry and in the end, our eyes and stomaches won out. For lunch we split a cup of chicken noodle soup, a donut, and vegetable sushi (we’re weird, I know). The sushi was probably my least favorite, but only because it had slight fish flavor presumably from being rolled on a counter of fish (!)– I’m not a seafood person at all (weird, I know) so my nose and tastebuds seem to know when they’re being led astray. Andrew thought the sushi was delicious though and the soup, although tasting somewhat different than the Mainland chicken noodle I’ve had, was still good. The donut was awesome. When you go into the grocery store, make sure you spend some time looking around at the items they have because they are different from what you see elsewhere. For instance, the seafood is vast and numerous and ranges from dried to salted to fresh. Anyway, we picked up some hummus, some carrots, some snap peas, chopped pineapple (because we weren’t sure where our knife was at the moment), peanut butter, jelly, and the creme de la creme, 8-pack of guava dinner rolls made on Kauai. They were bright pink!

We then headed on down the road towards our destination for the night: Koke’e State Park. Koke’e State Park is located north of Waimea Canyon (west side of Kauai) and is about 1-1:30 hour drive from Lihue. It is accessed via the southern route only. Koke’e SP is about 4,345 acres in size, all above 3,200 feet above sea level (maximum around 4,200 feet asl). It contains over 45 miles of hiking trails through forests and along ridges, and boasts some phenomenal views of the island. It has a visitor’s center/museum with history of the area and knowledgeable park rangers willing to give advice and it rents out a few cabins that look pretty nice. In addition, you can camp there!

I’ll post more on camping in Kauai in general later, but for now, it’s important to note that Koke’e is a state park and thus, you can reserve spots online through the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. The price is $18/campsite for non-Hawaiian residents. A campsite may have up to 6 persons for this cost ($3/person over 6 people). You can set-up camp at 1:00PM (“check-out” is noon) and you are not permitted to stay more than 5 nights in a row. In addition, all sites are first-come, first-served (aka undesignated)… but again, you have to have a permit to stay there so it works out. There are other camping spots in this area, but most require some hiking (medium to long in length) in order to get to them. In addition, it’s important to note that this area gets about 70 inches of precipitation a year, so make sure you are camping in areas suitable for the time of year you’re traveling. To be on the safe side, we decided to camp at the general Koke’s State Park spot (no hiking required). You’ll want to make sure you print a copy of your permit before you leave home and bring it with you to Kauai just in case you get asked for one (we weren’t but it’s in the rules, so may as well be safe). You should also book these sites as soon as you know you’ll be around Koke’e. There are 20 spots available and while we booked about 2 weeks in advance (traveling end of August) we noticed that Labor Day weekend was already booked- so just be aware.

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Don’t worry, the drive to Koke’e State Park isn’t boring!

Once we arrived at Koke’e, we noticed a few tents set-up on the meadow next to the museum/visitor center. Since there wasn’t a great deal of information on where to camp once you go there online, we figured we’d just set our tent up there. To get to the camping parking lot, you drive past the left turn-in for the visitor center and take the next left. You’ll see the meadow, parking areas, picnic tables, and a bathroom building. The meadow in general is rather large and has scattered trees (and picnic tables). There weren’t a lot of other tents there, so we just found a spot and set-up shop. We later realized that when you walk up to the bathroom building, there is what looks like a grass path heading back away from the parking lot and building. When we followed that we saw that the permitted camping areas were actually back in that area and a lot more secluded. Each spot, although not numbered, had a picnic table, and a nice little clearing to put your tent. Tent spots were separated by tall ginger bushes. Since we had already set-up, we stayed where we were and still really enjoyed our spot.

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Meadow just after the Koke’e State Park Visitor Center and Museum.

The camping area does not allow fires and any cooking must be done on a stove. Trash cans are available as are bathrooms with toilet paper, sinks with running water (no paper towels/hand dryers or soap) and showers, although I would really avoid the showers if at all possible- they were pretty grungy. I wish I had taken a picture, but I forgot- sorry! Make sure you have a rain fly for your tent because it will rain (off and on) and don’t be frustrated if it starts raining. Wait about 5-10 minutes and it will probably stop and clear up. The temperature dropped down to about the 60s (again we were there at the end of August) and so we were comfy sleeping with sleeping sacks and an unzipped sleeping bag as a blanket. Sleeping sacks, if you don’t know, are just cotton sheet-weight sleeping bag liners… we use them for when we’re camping in warm weather (as a super lightweight sleeping bag), but others use them as a liner in their more heavy-duty sleeping bag. It’s something like this.

After we set-up camp, we continued up the road to check out the Kalalau Look Out and the Pu’u O Kila Look Out. In the morning we were taking a short hike that started from the latter look out, so we figured we’d check it out to make sure we knew where we were going. The Kalalau Look Out has gorgeous views (again remember the mantra, if it’s raining, wait 5-10 minutes, all will reveal itself). Sure enough, we were lucky to catch the beautiful view of the Northern Na Pali Coast:

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View of Na Pali Coast in Northern Kauai

Na Pali is the most infamous part of the island for hikers, kayakers, and people seeking to view the rugged untouched, almost unaccessible wild of Northern Kauai. There is a trail called the Kalalau Trail that runs from the last accessible road beach on the Northern coast, out towards Western Kauai. It’s a grueling, physically demanding trek that requires an overnight at Kalalau Beach, 11 miles in (everything online says that a hiker in a good condition will take the full day to hike there). Note: In order to camp there (and in order to go beyond the 2 mile mark, or Hanakapai’ai Beach, you will need a permit and they typically go months in advance. Permits (60 available per day) are again booked through the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and cost $20/person for non-residents (5 nights max). If you are thinking of hiking the trail, check out the Kalalau Trail Website– it has an immense amount of information, including a map and permit information.

In addition to viewing Na Pali from Koke’e State Park or hiking Kalalau Trail, other hard core folks kayak in (about 17miles) from Ha’ena Beach (where Kalalau Trail begins) to Milolii Beach (20 permits available per day, 3 night maximum, $20/person) to Polihale Beach (60 permits available per day, 5 night maximum, $18/campsite up to 6). Again, all of these permits are for undesignated sites and are available through the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Website (print your permits before you arrive). The kayak trip enables you to see the entire Na Pali Coast. The final option for those with less physical beastliness is to take a catamaran or sailboat around the coast for the day. Trips go from the South and the North, although the Northern Route will allow you to see more.

But I digress, I fear I’ve gone horribly off-post with that chat about Na Pali, but it really is awesome. Anyway, the picture above of Na Pali from Kalalau Look Out looks generally towards the Kalalau Beach. Many of the ridges of Koke’e State Park have hunting roads (unpaved) that are used by hunters on the weekends. There are some sources that say visitors can obtain permits to drive out on these routes (on weekends and holidays only) but we didn’t dig into that too much… I would contact Koke’e State Park directly. If you continue on up the road, you’ll eventually run into Pu’u O Kila Look Out which is the end of the line for the road. The overlook again gives you an idea of the beauty of Na Pali and from here a few great hikes jump off, including a “short” ~2-2.5 mile roundtrip to Pihea Overlook and the turn to Alakai Swamp. More on that later since we did that the following morning. For dinner, we dined on guava rolls, pineapple, and hummus and snap peas… and then we promptly fell asleep at 7:30PM (to be fair, 10:30PM body time). A long (this was our travel day) and wonderous first partial day on Kauai.

See you next time!

Categories: Camping, Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon and Chasing the Northern Lights

One place we had read quite a bit about before heading to Iceland is the infamous Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon. Located on the southeastern coast of Iceland (the edge of Vatnajokull National Park), this glacial lagoon is the gateway between a gigantic glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, and the Atlantic Ocean. All day (and night!), chunks of glacier ranging from tiny baseball-sized pieces up to car and even house-sized chunks of ice break off of the head of Breiðamerkurjökull and make their way through Jokulsarlon and on out to the Atlantic Ocean. Some of these ice chunks are carried out to the deep Ocean, while others just wash up on beach (right across the road from Jokulsarlon). Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon is known as a large tourist location because of its gorgeous lighting, peaceful surroundings, and varied textures and patterns. If you’re driving from Reykjavik, here are the directions:


When we arrived at Jokulsarlon, there were quite a few tourists hanging around taking photos…so we grabbed our gear, made our way over, and just started snapping photos. The day was absolutely gorgeous… freezing but blue skies and a bright sun. The reflections of rays of sunlight on the ice chunks was indescribable.

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Jokulsarlon Lagoon

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Glacial Chunks

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Ice chunks of all shapes and sizes

 

We spent perhaps 2 hours taking photos. We captured the sunset right over the nearby hill with the lagoon in front. There were a multitude of photographers lined up with their tripods, not even paying attention to the sunset… clearly they come here often. They had their cameras set to take photos every few seconds for maximum effect. Honestly, I hope I never get to a point where I take something like Jokulsarlon for granted… to the point where my camera is just snapping photos. It was just too gorgeous and I probably wouldn’t even have moved if Andrew hadn’t suggested warming up a bit before coming back out.

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Jokulsarlon is just gorgeous

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A sea otter enjoying the water

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Great textures

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Mesmerizing, isn’t it?

 

We bought some hot chocolate in the little stand that was jus closing for the day. We sat in our car and warmed up a bit before we decided that we would try to move a bit down the road to look for another spot where we could set up shop and hopefully catch the Northern Lights. At this point in the trip, we had seen them a handful of times, but we hadn’t spent a solid night sitting out in nature and darkness watching… so we pulled down the road a few hundred feet. There were pull offs every so often and we selected one and pulled in. The parking area backed up against a hill and we hoped on the other side, we would see the lagoon. We ran up and scouted it out and to our happy surprise, you could actually hike down the other side of the hill to a small stone beach right on the shores of the glacial lagoon. A perfect little nook where no one else was yet set-up. Away from the main parking area of the lagoon, away from the cars, away from the talking… just the glacier, the lagoon, the sky, the mountains, and us. Perfect.

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A beautiful sunset

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Jokulsarlon at sunset

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View from our little beach

 

We grabbed a little disposable grill that we picked up in one of the towns we drove through, along with our little cooking bowls, some ramen, some bread, some cheese, some beer and Brennavin, our sleeping bags, our tripods, and our cameras. We bundled up a bit more with gloves and hats and sweatshirts and then made our way up, over the hill, and back down the other side to our secluded mini beach. Over the next hour, we laid a sleeping bag out to sit on and used the other as a blanket. We set up our tripods and cameras and adjusted the settings. We cooked ramen and grilled cheese on a tiny grill, and we reveled in how perfect the night was…

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Andrew setting up camp

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This is my dream

 

A little while later, we noticed something in a faded green color that started to dance across the sky. There they were; the Northern Lights. So unique and completely mesmerizing. They were perfectly imperfect. We snapped 100s of photos of the Northern Lights, the glowing red of Bardarbunga, the volcano erupting at that time in Iceland, and the stars. So many stars. Living in DC, we don’t get a lot of chances to watch the stars. Sure, we still see some here and there, but it’s nothing like being out in the middle of nowhere. We took as many pictures as we could and just soaked up the sights and sounds. It was absolutely beautiful and the perfect night.

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The Northern lights, Bardarbunga (red glow of an active volcano), and the stars

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So many stars

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Dancing lights across the sky

 

When we eventually grew too cold to stay on our little beach, we packed up and head back up to our car, where we unloaded, crawled into our sleeping bags, and immediately fell asleep. What a perfect day! If you have the time, make sure you get out to Jokulsarlon. It is definitely worth the drive. There is no cost to “enter” and take pictures. They do run boat tours if you are interested in going out into the middle of the lagoon, but honestly it’s not necessary. There are a ton of vantage points to take pictures from or to just sit back and relax. I highly recommend that you venture beyond the main parking lot. Hike on up one of the hills and down the other side; you will be all alone and so happy that you did it!

The view from our secluded beach

The view from our secluded beach

Categories: Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Homer, AK

Well, we awoke on the Homer Spit on the beach. Awesome. What’s more awesome? Eagles on the beach. Super awesome! We saw a juvenile that we took a bunch of pictures of right on the edge of the water, before one of the kind beach photographers with us let us know that there were some adult eagles down the beach. So, we slowly made our way down the beach where we saw THREE adult bald eagles. So awesome!! We took A LOT of pictures and spent almost two hours on the beach. Here are a few pics:

 

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After our picture fest, we got ready to go and headed into breakfast at the Sourdough Express– a restaurant that we had read about in an article discussing delicious sourdough pancakes. It is also well known for its efforts to locally source most to all of its ingredients (including meats from sustainable local sources). Pretty awesome! We ate a delicious meal (including reindeer sausage! Sorry, Vixen) and then decided to check out the rest of the sites around Homer. By the way, I’ll note here that I’m not sure Reindeer sausage is for everyone… it has a very particular flavor (and is smoky). Reminds me of venison. Anyway, I digress.

 

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We headed up into the mountains to check out the skyline drive that promised to provide us with some beautiful views of Homer, the Spit and the Mountains. We made our way up through the obviously wealthy area of Homer and took a short jaunt over to another Russian Orthodox Church first [All Saints of America; information below]. This time, there were people there (the last Russian Orthodox church we were on our own). Here, we met a woman (Sharon) who told us that we were welcome to go in and look around and that the Father would be down to show us around. True to their word, a few minutes later he did come down and chatted with us for a bit about the church. He and his wife travel from another town every so often to have church services here… pretty cool. It’s a small little church with gorgeous decoration.

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From the church, we headed next to the Carl E. Wynn Nature Center just up the road. The visitor center was closed at the time we arrived, so we just grabbed a trail map and headed out for a walk. We didn’t see any Moose to our dismay, but the trails were well-maintained, the views were great, and then area in general is a great little spot. I highly recommend it if you find yourself in the area!

 

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After the nature center stop, we moved on and drove along Skyline drive, stopping here and there for a picture stop because of the sweeping views of Homer and the mountains and volcanoes. We made our way across and back down to the visitor center where we parked and let my mom go in and gather her beloved brochures. Andrew and I also hopped out and said we were going for a short walk. The truth was, we had researched and called a bakery in Homer called, “Two Sisters Bakery” while we were in Seward to order a Birthday Cake for my parents (Today’s the big day. Yep, both of them). We made our way down to the bakery and were immediately happy with our decision. The inside is a cool little wooden bakery and restaurant with a huge display of baked goods and food for people to try out. Andrew ordered a cinnamon roll and we paid for/picked up the cake (chocolate cake, caramel filling, cream cheese frosting). They had decorated it beautifully—especially considering how small of a cake it was… with a blue Happy Birthday and a row of fresh flowers. The cake was so delicious. Highly recommend if you are in the area and want a bite to eat or want to order a cake.

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After cake and sandwiches in the RV, we tried to make our way to Homer Meadery only to discover that the Meadery shutdown and is no longer functioning. So, we headed off to the Homer Brewing Company, a large brown building seemingly in the middle of nowhere. My dad, Andrew and I went in and order a few tasters of beer—basically small 4oz. glasses, $2/glass. They had EIGHT beers on tap—very impressive! The inside of the brewery was pretty cool- one side had the brewery itself with all the equipment on display to see. The other side of the brewery was the “taproom” of sorts. They had a few tables and some merchandise and a small bar. After we tried out our samplers, we decided on a beer that we all liked and had him fill up our Seward Brewery Growler [don’t forget to visit our tip for microbrewery drinking while traveling- purchase a growler at the first brewery and just refill as you go]. We also picked up a pint glass to add to our collection (We opted for the Abbey Ale to fill our growler).

 

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After the brewery, we headed uphill to the Bear Creek Winery (following the Homer Fermentation Trail). There are only 11 wineries in Alaska and 1 of them happens to be in Homer. Interestingly enough, they do not grow grapes here. Instead the source them and make the wine here… they had quite a few wines available to try. The idea here is that you pay $___ for 6-8 samples of wine (you choose which wines you want). They have pure fruit wines, chardonnays, zins, ports, and even one ice wine, although sadly, they did not have the ice wine when we were there. My dad and I each made our list of wine and the ladies working the wine brought out halibut spread on crackers and cheese for palette clearing. The wines were awesome! The fruit wines blew me away—they had a Pomegranate wine made with Pom and Grape and it was phenomenal! They even had a mead that we made sure to try (and bought a bottle of for the road). It was a great top and the folks are super nice!

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Back in Homer “downtown” we stopped by a few gift shops and also “The Cool Juicy Bus”, an old school bus that was turned into a smoothie café. The girl working at the bus was really friendly and had a huge menu of smoothie mixes and fruits as well as add-ins such as flax and hemp and proteins, as well as soy/almond/coconut and other non-dairy/dairy milks. We chatted with her a bit and learned that originally, her mother and father owned the bus and drove around and up to Alaska (noting that her mother was a bit of a gypsy). She decided to set-up the smoothie and bus and the rest is history. Two other people came up while we were waiting. Both Homer-ites and both knew the woman who owned the bus… and they chatted with us. Everyone is so nice here!

 

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My mom had heard from the Visitor Center that there was a really cool authentic Russian Café about 40 minutes out of Homer. So, she called and asked about availability and then we were off. We made our way to the town of Nikolaevsk. The “town” wasn’t really much to see- a small run-down area with a few small buildings and houses. The Russian Café [Samovar Cafe] was located near the end of one of the roads. A small building with a wide-open parking lot; no other cars. We parked and slowly made our way to the front door. It’s really hard to adequately describe what awaited us on the inside of the building. Today, as I type this over a week after that experience, I’m still not 100% convinced that it actually happened and/or was real. The café has a small outdoor area that is covered from the rain. The inside is a small room that is jam-packed with just about every Russian trinket you can think of from teas and traditional spoons to nesting doll sets. In front of us was a small bar “area” with 6 stools and behind the bar was Nina. Nina the Russian; dressed to the nines in traditional Russian clothing. She greeted us with a great big smile and welcome. What followed I can’t be sure… there was some VERY quick speaking with a heavy accent and discussing the options of meals, food, and “experiences”. This culminated with the four of us sitting at the bar for the “Russian Experience”. We were not allowed to speak to Nina while she was “cooking” and we were not allowed to ask questions. She gave us booklets and pamphlets of information on her, on Russian, and on the café.

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We were to receive several courses each coming just as quickly as the next. We started with borscht- a traditional soup that was very similar to vegetable soup (heavy on the tomato) with a small squirt of sour cream. With this, each couple also received a plate with a slice of Rye bread and a traditional Russian Pierogi. The Russian pirogi is more of a potato bread- a soft roll stuffed with a mashed potato substance. Both breads are served cold but were very delicious when dipped in the borscht. The perogi may have been my favorite part of the meal J.

 

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Next, the four of us received a mixed combination platter- essentially a sampler. It had sausage on it, sauerkraut with craisins, small meatball dumplings (looked like your more western-style perogi), and pickles. For dessert we were each served a cup of tea and a tall dish with cream puffs, whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and a cherry. After dinner, Nina dressed us in traditional Russian garb and took pictures of us by a giant nesting doll. Then, just like that, we were thanked and ushered out the door.

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The experience was cool. It really was… and it was unlike anything we’ve ever done. Was it authentic Russian? I’m not sure because I’ve never been to Russia, but my sense is “no”. Here’s why: the sausage she served us was microwaved and cut off of a giant plastic-packaged sausage. The dessert simply looked like cream puffs from Costco with Hershey’s syrup and Ready-whip. I wouldn’t classify those things as “Traditional Russian” but perhaps I just don’t know Russia.

The food was delicious, don’t get me wrong and as I said, the experience was fun and unique. The café was lauded online by various travel and news companies including National Geographic and folks on Trip Advisor loved it. To me, though, it seemed to much like a push to get money and take advantage of the customers. There were signs everywhere when you walked in—taking 4 photos cost money, taking more cost more; to sit at the bar instead of outside under the awning cost money, the plate that we split four ways was about $25 (to me it was not worth that amount). The bread was something like $2/slice. Microwaved sausage just makes me really sad. The kraut, the borscht, the perogi, and the tea were my highlights of the meal. While it was fun dressing up—it wasn’t necessary. It just seemed really staged. In the end for four people, we spent well over $100 for 4 cups of tea, 4 cups of borscht, 2 slices of bread, 2 perogis, 3 desserts, and a plate with 1 cup of kraut, 4 slices of pickle, some meatball dumplings, and a couple slices of sausage.

Additionally, on the phone, Nina had told us that we better bring “green paper” (aka cash) with us. She insisted on it, despite the fact that the front door said she accepted both Visa and MasterCard. Now, I totally understand businesses (especially tiny ones like the one she had) not wanting to pay the fees to charge credit cards, but it just seemed weird because we were even given the option of using a credit card (and realistically, we probably would have ended up spending more).

So all of that being said, would I do it again? Probably not. Am I glad we did it? Sure. Why not? I’m all about new experiences and branching out… I’m just not sure I’d rate it as highly on the “must do” in/near Homer, AK as the others.

After dinner, we piled back into the camper wondering what just happened. We made our way back to the Homer Spit and our campground via a bumpy gravel road, complete with beautiful views and another friendly eagle. Then we hit the hay.

 

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Not a bad way for parents to spend their Birthday, eh?

 

Homer Resources:

  1. Campground: Homer Spit Campground Information (showers: $1- unlimited time)
  2. The Fresh Sourdough Express: Website; Trip Advisor Reviews; Facebook Reviews
  3. Skyline Drive: Information (the drive is located between East and West Hill Drives)
  4. All Saints of America Russian Orthodox Church: Church Website (located off of Skyline Drive) 
  5. Carl E. Wynn Nature Center: Website Information; Trip Advisor Reviews
  6. Two Sisters Bakery: Website
  7. Homer Brewing Company: Website
  8. Bear Creek Winery and Lodging: Website
  9. The Juicy Bus: Website Information
  10. Samovar [Russian Café] in Nikolaevsk, Alaska: Nina’s Main Website; Webpage on Russian Cafe “Samovar”

 
Google Map Showing Our Path and Stops for the Day (excluding the Russian Cafe):

Google Map Showing Route from Visitor Center in downtown Homer to Russian Cafe [Samovar] and return to Homer Spit Campground *Note- these directions use the gravel road. To take main roads, take Sterling Highway 1 out of town (north) and then in Anchor Point, make a right on North Fork. This will be the SECOND right turn for North Fork Road that you see when leaving Homer. The first North Fork Road is the gravel Road. Once you turn on North Fork, follow the road all the way to Nikolaevsk. You’ll see a painted sign on a building reading “Cafe”. You can turn left at this building [follow the arrow] and it will take you down and around to the Samovar Cafe.:

Categories: Alaska, Hikes, Microbrews, Restaurants | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Marathon Mountain and Other Seward Things (then Russian River Campground)

After a night of soup and grilled cheese in the camper (and de-thawing and warming up from our boat trip), Andrew and I packed up our day packs with cameras, layers, and snacks for a morning hike. We woke up at 4AM, got dressed, grabbed our gear and headed out. Our destination: Mount Marathon (or at least part of it). We had plans to do some other things in Seward today, but we really wanted to hike at least part of the famed Mount Marathon.

Let me step back. Mount Marathon is located pretty much in downtown Seward. Its apex is 3,022 feet above sea level. As the story goes (and like so many things), some guys were in a bar in Seward talking about how it would be impossible to get to the top of the mountain and back down in an hour. One guy claimed it wasn’t impossible and so, Mount Marathon was born. While he did not make the 60 minute time limit, he did create a tradition in Seward that still lives on today. Every year on the 4th of July, people from all over the world come to Seward to run a slippery, rocky, dangerous, and ridiculously unsafe route straight up Mount Marathon and back down. Every year, a whole handful of runners are injured. One year, a runner was event lost (and as a result, certain safety rules were added). Still, these crazy thrill-seekers come out and make their way up and down… for the glory and the pride, regardless of the probability of broken bones. Interestingly enough, there is a hospital located at the start of the racing route (coincidence, I think not). The race itself is about 3.1 miles from start to finish with average uphill speeds of 2mph and average downhill speeds of 12mph. Here’s a picture of the top of the mountain from somewhere along the trail that we took- see the line that goes basically straight up and down? That’s the up-route. The down route is that curved line that coming in from the right.

 

Runners Trail (3.1 miles)

Runners Trail (3.1 miles)

While hiking this straight up and down route seems tantalizing, we put aside our dare-devil tendencies and instead set our eyes on the Jeep Trail— an old rock road that goes up to the town’s water supply. From there, you can jump on the Sheffield Waterfall trail that supposedly has a more gradual incline around the mountain, past the Sheffield Waterfall, into the Marathon Bowl, and up the spine of Mount Marathon to its peak. As I mentioned earlier, we had other things planned for the day, including a drive to another campground out of Seward and towards Homer. For this reason, our goal was to make it to the tree line if possible before we needed to turn around. Here. Here’s the map at the trailhead (I added the yellow arrows to show the general route we would have taken to go all the way up).

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As mentioned in a previous post, we were camping in the state campground directly on the water (close to the harbor) because of our boat trip and its early departure. From this point, the Jeep Trail Head of Mount Marathon is a little less than 1 mile walk a little towards downtown Seward. You simply leave the state campground and walk to the main straight and make a left. You walk down to Jefferson Street and make a right. You walk straight down Jefferson until you hit the trail head (about 3 blocks). Not too shabby. At the trail head you will find a sign and simple map posted that shows a variety of trails going up and around Mount Marathon (posted above). Tip- we took a picture of the map with our cell phones so we’d have a reference just in caseI’ll note here that a lot of the references I found online prior to this trip stated that the trail was really hard to follow. It was definitely questionable in some areas on which way you were supposed to go, but generally speaking you could find your way. We did end up using the map once or twice.

After taking the obligatory “before hiking” photo, we started up the Jeep Trail. Think baseball, softball, and basketball-sized rocks covering a 45 degree-angled trail. That’s basically what we were hiking up. It was rough and tiring but because of the steepness of the trail, we made more ground at a faster clip than what we had anticipated. As you climb further up the mountain, the rocks yield to a more typical tree needle and dirt path, still on a fairly hefty incline. You get a chance to see just how enormous the trees really are and there are a few places were stumps of fallen trees remain and those stumps are at least 7 feet tall. We got some great pictures through the forest. We were also hiking completely alone; it was awesome.

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We continued on and much to our surprise, we reached the tree line in less time than we thought, so we could continue on the trail that wound around the mountain. Ah relief at last we thought, but to no avail. The trail continues its grueling up-hill path (admittedly with a few reprieves here and there). In a few places I was even crawling up because of how slippery and steep the trail became at points— which is crazy considering the trail we were on is the easy trail in comparison with the running route. At one point we did hike off the trail a bit and up a small hill to a clearing in the trees where we had a beautiful view of the water, mountains, and our campground. We really lucked out with the weather on this day.

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We continued on, approaching our time turn-around deadline, being passed by one other person who was hiking with his dog and just booking it. It was quite obvious that he hikes this mountain fairly often, telling us the shortest way to the top and what not. We continued on and started climbing another steep portion towards the Marathon Bowl (after both a snow and two minor stream crossings) until we could again see Seward below us. From here, we were shocked to see that we also had full service on our cell phones. We checked in with my parents who were around the camper and actually pulled out their binoculars and could see us waving way up on the mountain. After a brief chat with them, we also called Andrew’s parents to check in and say hello. We were able to FaceTime with them— on a mountain. How crazy is that?! I know I know, who makes a cell phone call while on a hike, but admit it- if you’re going to check in with your parents and say hello, that’s a pretty sweet place to do it- especially since we could show them the scenery.

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After the call, we decided to head back down the mountain. We didn’t make it to the waterfall, but we did make it much further than we had planned. We will definitely do this hike again sometime so we can get to the peak. We made it back down in one piece and walked back down to the harbor to grab some breakfast from a local restaurant called, “The Bakery”. We dined on breakfast burritos with eggs, cheese, pico de gallo, and reindeer bacon (at least we think it was—definitely wasn’t regular bacon). After breakfast, we stopped by the Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center (on the harbor) and then we headed back to the RV, packed up shop and headed into downtown Seward. My parents dropped Andrew and I a few blocks from the Sea Life Center where we strolled down the main street, looking at giant murals and paintings on the walls of the buildings in town. We also made an obligatory awesome coffee stop at Resurrection Coffee Company, an old church that had been turned into a coffee shop. We ordered our coffees and browsed around the awesome insides- covered with arts and crafts created by local artists. We purchased a small carved twisty piece of birch wood that has a tag stating it was handmade in Seward, AK. I think it will make a most excellent Christmas Tree Ornament.

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One of many murals in downtown Seward.

One of many murals in downtown Seward.

After coffee, we walked down to the Seward Sea Life Center and paid our general admission dues so that we could go in and see the sights and exhibits (we did not opt to do any behind the scenes tours). The Sea Life Center is actually pretty cool- it consists of two floors with the lower floor boasting a large gift shop and the upstairs boasting exhibits, hands on exhibits, and of course, the Sea Life! They have areas and tanks with sea birds (including puffins!), stellar sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters. You can watch from inside or you can walk outside and look at the animals. While it’s super cool to see the animals up close, you can’t help but feel really bad for them considering how small and cramped their quarters are… on our boat tour, we saw these magnificent creatures in all their glory- free to move and go wherever they want at any time. Here, a giant mammoth stellar sea lion is stuck in a tank that only allows him to swim in a circle. Pretty sad when you think about it.

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The displays at the center included information on how the different species of animals are doing since the latest oil spill, hands on games that teach about over-fishing, and videos and signs about the importance of our oceans and protecting them. The day we were there, they also had some kids coloring and other activities going on as well as a raffle contest. My mom entered and one a bag with some Sea Life Center items.

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After our trip around the Sea Life Center, we walked the pretty much 1-block distance to the Seward Brewery, where we purchased a glass growler and had it filled with Rockfish Red beer. Since we were in a hurry to get on our way to a glacier and then on to our campground for the night, we didn’t stay and have samplers or food—but the place looked really cool and you can look through a large glass window when you walk in the door to see their brewing set-up. We will definitely be coming back here next time!

On our way out of town, we stopped by the Smoke Shack to pick up lunch—an old railroad car converted into a BBQ restaurant. We went in and ordered food to go and we were welcome to sit down and they brought us water while we waited- great hospitality and delicious food! We ended up with pulled pork sandwiches (mine was a bit different- made with jalapenos and maple syrup, yes please). They also had a selection of about 6 different sauces from orange-jalapeno (not as spicy as you think!) to a vinegar sweet and sour to chipotle ranch. Everything was delicious and the sandwiches were huge! We also got an appetizer of Cajun brie- basically think melted brie, tomatoes, jalapenos, and onion with some chipotle seasoning and served up with crostini. Perfecto!!! Definitely check this place out!

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From Seward, we drove a bit up the road to Exit Glacier; still a portion of the Kenai Fjords National Park. Here you can take a trail that goes right up next to the glacier. At one point you could touch the glacier and even walk on it, but it has receded and become unstable, so now you can just walk up next to it (still pretty awesome). Additionally, you can backpack up past the glacier to the Harding Ice Field where all of the Kenai Fjords Glaciers stem from. You can camp up their and do further exploration and hiking (put it on the list for next time).

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After Exit Glacier, we finished our drive to Russian River Campground, about ½ the way to Homer (located on the opposite side of the Kenai Peninsula from Seward). We set up shop and made dinner. A wonderfully awesome day!

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Resources and Tips for the Traveler:

  1. Take a picture of the trail map before starting a hike (especially with Mount Marathon—some off-shoots of the trail that aren’t clearly marked)
  2. Take snacks on your hike—you may not be hungry when you start hiking, but you will be (string cheese is light and delicious)
  3. Seward Sea Life Center– Probably not necessary if you did the boat tour into Kenai Fjords NP and saw a lot of wildlife, but it is still interesting to see the animals up close and to check out the exhibits and demos (Cost: $20; discount for military and AAA)
  4. Smoke Shack (Trip advisor link; no website)- great lunch stop on the way out of town (Address: 411 Port Avenue, Seward).
  5. Marathon Campground on the Water (for RVs) (Cost: $15/night or $30 with hook-ups; they do check to make sure you registered; Check out the Seward City campground website for more information: http://www.cityofseward.us/index.aspx?NID=864)
  6. Kenai Fjords NP Visitor Center (Seward Address: 1212 4th Avenue, Seward)
  7. Bakery on the Harbor (Trip advisor link; no website)- great for breakfast and coffee before the boat! (Address: 1210 4th Avenue, Seward)
  8. Seward Brewery (We paid $25.68 for a Glass Growler filled with beer; Address: 139 4th Avenue, Seward ); Buy a growler and have it filled; then you can stop at other breweries along the way and just refill the growler!
  9. Exit Glacier (Cost: None Address: Turn onto Exit Glacier Road at Milepost 3 of the Seward Highway. Continue 8.4 miles and you will end up in the parking lot ); Cool hike! After you walk up to the glacier, take the trail that goes out to the glacier view point—it’s a great vantage point of the riverbed and the entire glacier and definitely worth it! Also, if you have more time, you can hike up to the Harding Icefield where this glacier (and many others) originate. You can also camp up there! We will be doing that next time!

*Note- be sure to say hi to the guy in the Exit Glacier Visitor Center! He’s a character and super-friendly!

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Day#1: Seward

After our successful stop at Safeway to stock up on goods, we headed down the highway towards Seward. We read and followed a Milepost along the way. The Milepost in a giant magazine that provides information based on the mile markers you are passing—it includes campgrounds, rest stops, scenic views, things to do and see, warnings about bear/moose areas, etc.

For lunch, we simply pulled into a turn off on the side of the road. It was located right on Turnagain Arm, a sort of inlet of water. Surrounded by water and giant snow capped mountains on one side and rock cliffs on the other side, it was a pretty cool place for a lunch break! All together, our lunch consisted of chicken, salads and a sandwich. Yum!

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We continued on and stopped off at Bird Point; a scenic area where you can walk on a really nice boardwalk up and towards the water. There were great look out spots and some of those giant magnifying lens things (great description right?! Think giant metal binoculars…) so you could take a closer look at the water and surrounding area. We were on the look out for Beluga Whales, the only all-white whale that is sometimes found in Turnagain Arm because it feeds on two types of fish that live there. Bird Point also had statues of the Beluga Whales embedded in the cement at the end of the parking lot. They were designed in a way to replicate what you would see when spotting them in the water swimming. Pretty genius if you ask me. We didn’t see any Belugas, but we did take an excellent walk, get an excellent panoramic view of Turnagain Arm (waterbody) and we saw a lot of birds, including a carefullys spotted bald eagle by my dad.

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After bird point, we continued on our southward travels making stops along the way to snap pictures of the snow-capped mountains and beautiful inlet. We also stopped at one point on the highway where a spring exits the cliffs on the side of the road through a long cylindrical pipe. We filled up our water bottles and cups and enjoyed a nice cup of ice-cold water.

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A short distance later on Seward Highway found us taking photos of a large Moose just hanging out on the side of the Highway. First Moose sighting of the trip! Our last stop on our way into Seward was at the Bear Creek Weir. We drove down a small gravel road and rounded a corner — passing a small Weird on the left. We almost missed it completely… and almost skipped it when we turned around, but we pulled over just in time to check it out anyway… because why not? We got out of the RV and headed over to the little bridge. Looking over the side, I stated, “no fish.” Then I amended it “oh there’s a fish” which then became “there are fish everywhere”. The salmon were there en mass and they blended in that it took a few moments to see how many there were!  On the other side of the bridge, we were able to see the fish trying to jump and swim upstream We also walked over to the small Weir building there were there were two people working. They said “hi” but didn’t offer much more than that— we saw the capture a few salmon with a net and place them in another area in the building- not sure what they were doing with those fish, but it was still interesting to see. It was a great little stop!

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After our Salmon stop, we continued on our drive to Seward, stopping at many of the pull offs because it was just
gorgeous. There is no way to adequately put into words what it is like to be driving down a highway with cliffs on one side and a giant body of water surrounded by snow-capped mountains on the other. It is genuinely indescribable. I’m including some photos below but even they don’t do it justice. Do yourself a favor and go there yourself so you can experience it!

 

 

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We arrived in Seward and pulled down into a waterside campground. We parked looking out at the water and snow-capped mountains. The sun was still shining (doesn’t get dark until about 11PM in early June). My mom disappeared to go see where we needed to meet the next morning and when she returned, Andrew and I were pretty much ready to collapse from the long day (our flight left DC at 6AM). She returned with a French Dip Sandwich and Fries from the small Bakery by the harbor where we were to meet with our boat crew the next morning. After eating sandwiches and figuring out our wake up call time, we headed to bed. All the shades were drawn on the RV and eye masks were used to help block out the bright sunlight.

 

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All in all day#1 of the trip was a HUGE success; beautiful vistas, wildlife, good eats, big mountains, waterfront campgrounds, and cozy towns.

 

Wildlife List:

Moose
Eagle

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