Our Top 10 Geocaches – #1

Well this is it.  After 3,000 geocaches in 40 states over the last six years, we have winnowed it down to the Top 10 – and this is Numero Uno.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook geocache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain geocache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands geocache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls geocache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments geocache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Springs geocache, Guttenberg, IA

#2 – Rays Hill Tunnel geocache, Breezewood, PA

#1

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #1 cache had them all- and then some. From September 2008 – the OTO Ranch cache near Gardiner, Montana.

In the fall of 2008, we were newly married and newly retired. For our fall road trip, we went back to Yellowstone. A year earlier, I had proposed to Natasha at Old Faithful. So back we went, staying at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge near the northern entrance to the park. Just outside the gate is the town of Gardiner, Montana. A search of geocaching(dot)com led us to this cache. It hadn’t been found for almost a year. Usually that’s a red flag, but we went for it. It turned out to be our crown jewel.

OTO Ranch corral

First view of the ranch – the old corral area. If it looks familiar, it should. It’s the background photo for our blog. The restored part is down in the trees on the upper right. The geocache is down by the barn. The ranch sits at about 6,000 feet elevation in the Gallatin National Forest. The round trip hike is around five miles. The mountains in the background are the Absaroka Range, one of the wildest areas in America.

The 3,200 acre OTO ranch was founded in 1898 by Dick and Nora Randall. Dick had been a stagecoach driver in Yellowstone Park for 10 years but realized the potential of outfitting back country trips for wealthy city folk and foreign aristocrats, all of whom were coming to Yellowstone anyway. It soon became a full-fledged “dude” ranch, the first one in Montana. Wealthy city folk began to send their children to work on the ranch for the summer. It wasn’t long before the Randalls had more business than they could accommodate and they began expanding.

The construction was solid and rustic. From 1912 to 1934, guests including Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed hiking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, wrangling, great food and cowboy music in the beauty of the surrounding Absaroka Range. The Randalls retired in 1934. The operation was taken over by a former client who had no idea how to run a ranch. That, combined with the Great Depression and gathering war clouds, forced it to close in 1939, never to re-open.

The OTO Ranch lodge

The main lodge building. Built in 1921 and abandoned for 50 years, it is as sturdy as ever.

The ranch lay in disrepair for over 50 years. The Forest Service bought the land in 1991 and volunteers began restoring it, an effort which continues to this day. It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

The entire ranch is open to all who make their way there. No cars – walk, horseback, mountain bikes only. There is some serious exploring to be done once you get here. We could have spent all day poking around but we started late and had to get back. Still, we spent over an hour looking around. We found, among other things, a concrete bunker with heavy wooden blast doors built into a hillside near the lodge. We figured it was a bear-proof ice house for food storage in the days before refrigerators.

If you do go exploring, keep in mind that this is real back country. There are bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes and big rattlesnakes. If you are tromping through the tall grass (and you’ll have to if you want the cache) make sure you have your stick to check the area around you. If you stay overnight or just go have lunch there, be Bear Aware.

Natasha at OTO Ranch

The always lovely Natasha exploring the ranch.

This was the ultimate geocache. Grizzly bear and rattlesnake warning signs at the trailhead, a moderate hike at high altitude, a killer climb for the first half mile, picture post card mountain scenery, a unique history, lots of buildings to explore and a geocache waiting patiently to be found. So even though we found it over five years ago, it remains our #1.

The GPS coordinates for the center of the ranch are N45.147426, W110.784125. You can click on the coordinates for a Google map. BTW, the cache is still there and still active. It’s had less than 30 visits since we logged it.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #2

Hi again,

We started this series last year and have been working through it slowly but surely. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments Cache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Spring Cache , Guttenberg, IA

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #2 cache made the list because of the unique geocaching environment it is located in – an abandoned highway tunnel on an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From July, 2011 – the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache.

RaysHillGeocache

This is the eastern portal of the tunnel. The gold arrow points to the cache location. After you bike through the tunnel, it’s up and over. Footing can be treacherous. The small dot of light in the center of the blackness is the other end. Don’t let that fool you. The center 2/3 of the tunnel is pitch black and requires a strong bike light to negotiate safely. You’ll also experience a 20 degree temperature drop, which is welcome on a hot July day. At 3,532 feet, it was the shortest of the seven tunnels on the turnpike. It’s also the only portal to not have ventilation fans above the opening. All of these tunnels were dark and dingy, with cement lining and recessed lighting. Headlights were required even during the day. Believe it or not, 18 wheelers used to rumble through this tunnel in both directions. Before it was abandoned in 1968, my family had driven through it many times. The tunnel is part of an unofficial bike trail on a 13 mile stretch of weather-beaten asphalt called the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When people think of my native Pennsylvania, they usually think Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – urban areas. In fact, most of Pennsylvania is heavily wooded and mountainous. The Allegheny Mountains run northeast to southwest through the center half of the state. Part of these mountains run through Somerset and Westmoreland counties and are called the Laurel Highlands. This is the area where I grew up and it looks much as it did 250 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see. From the earliest days of exploration to modern times, the Alleghenies have challenged those who tried to tame them with roads, canals and tracks.

RaysHill1885

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel in 1885 with the geocache location shown. The original turnpike followed the right-of-way for the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. Over the course of 10 years, a lot of work was done on the railroad, including nine tunnels, and a lot of money was spent but the project was never completed. The line and its tunnels spent over 40 years in legal and financial limbo until the whole right-of-way was bought by the Turnpike Commission in 1937. Construction started in 1938 using the railroad bed and seven of the nine tunnels. The man at the center of the photo with his foot on the railroad tie is Andrew Carnegie, the principal financial backer of the doomed venture.

A year before Pearl Harbor, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened a four lane concrete toll road through these mountains that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed limited access superhighway in the United States. Construction started in October 1938. The first 160 mile section from Carlisle to Irwin opened for business on October 1, 1940. Construction and expansion have been ongoing ever since. The original design envisioned speeds of up to 100 mph. The road was designed to maximize straightaways while minimizing curves and hills. This is where the tunnels came in, but that design parameter didn’t last long.

RaysHill1940

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel on September 30, 1940 – the day before the opening. The future geocache location is marked. The turnpike was a victim of its own success. In its first year of operation, two million cars traveled on it. The road was four lanes but the tunnels were two lanes and very narrow and dark. Within 10 years, traffic jams at the tunnels became a regular occurrence. By the late 1950’s, the flow of traffic was significantly inhibited and the Turnpike Commission embarked on an aggressive program to remedy the tunnel jams. Between 1964 and 1968, three of the tunnels were abandoned. Four others had second parallel tubes drilled. In fact, an entire 13 mile section of the roadway around Breezewood, PA was abandoned and reconstructed on a new right-of-way. This took the Rays Hill Tunnel and the nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel out of action. The entire abandoned section, along with its two tunnels, became the Pike2Bike Trail in 2001. The third abandoned tunnel, Laurel Hill, is 50 miles to the west. It has been off limits since it was taken out of service in 1964.

So here we are on a hot July day looking for tunnel geocaches compliments of Andrew Carnegie and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although little has become of the Pike2Bike, the route is a popular and fairly easy 26 mile ride round trip. The road can get a bit nasty at points so a helmet is a must. Likewise, you’ll need a strong bike light to go through the tunnels. Actually, two is better. Mount a flamethrower on the handlebars. That will light the way ahead. Also wear a headlamp, so you see what you are looking at as you look around you. Tunnel biking can be challenging. There are pools of water everywhere, some torn up pavement and the occasional rock or branch in the way. There are about a dozen geocaches along the 13 mile route. Each tunnel has a virtual munzee. If you go to the eastern end, you’ll pass the parking apron of the old Cove Valley Travel Plaza. It was also bypassed and abandoned but everything was torn down. You can still see the foundations of the old Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. It has a geocache nicely tucked away in it.

RaysHillMap

This is a schematic of the western end of the Pike2Bike. The Sideling Hill Tunnel is five miles east of the Rays Hill Tunnel. There are a couple of trail heads and a service road called Oregon Road that allow access to the pike. Here’s a link with their description and location. The trail is safe from predators, both four legged and two legged, and is patrolled sporadically by state, county and local law enforcement. Families and groups of all ages and abilities bike on it, including the tunnels.

The nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel was the longest tunnel on the turnpike at almost 7,000 feet. You can’t see the other end because there’s a slight rise and fall built into the roadway. You’ll be biking in pitch black darkness for almost a mile. While not officially open to the public, the inner workings of the tunnels are accessible to the adventurous. Steps, passageways, ventilators, control rooms and other assorted man-made features are waiting for the curious. It’s a great introduction to the world of “urban exploration” or URBEX, which we dabble in occasionally. Take your light and wear your helmet. Slow and easy does it, both inside the tunnel and out.

There’s no water or facilities on the trail. Summers here are hot and muggy, so plan accordingly. In the fall, the colors are spectacular. A local bike shop does tours of the pike and the tunnels. Check out Grouseland Tours. There’s quite a bit of information about all this on the Internet. A couple of Google searches should get you what you need. The GPS coordinates of the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache are N40.02072 W78.19852. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

Regardless of how or when you go, we think you’ll find this a unique off the beaten path experience. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #3

Hi again,

We started this series last year and have been working through it slowly but surely. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments Cache, Snake Springs, PA

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #3 cache fell into several of these but made the list because of the totally unexpected level of difficulty and sense of satisfaction we got when we bagged it. From August 2008 – the Big Spring cache in Guttenberg, Iowa.

In August of 2008, Natasha and I were newly married and newly retired. We spent several days roaming around eastern Iowa at the Field of Dreams and the riverfront city of Dubuque. Then we headed north along the Mississippi River, ending up in Guttenberg, Iowa. Population – around 1900.

Guttenberg is nestled between the west bank of the Mississippi and the limestone cliffs that mark the beginning of the Great Plains. Settled by German immigrants in the 1840’s and 50’s, this small town retains much of its old world charm. Brick and stone buildings abound along tree-lined streets and a levee keeps the river at bay. We toured the town by geocaching. They were everywhere. We had lunch at a bistro overlooking Lock and Dam #10. Then we turned our attention to the Big Spring geocache.

The cache was rated 4.5 out of 5 stars for both terrain and difficulty. That kind of rating is usually found deep in the mountains or some other inhospitable place. But Iowa? We figured no way. You could drive to within 1/4 mile of the hide. How hard could it be?

Route to Big Spring cache

Here’s your 4.5 stars. Ground Zero is around the bend to the right at the top of the waterfall. The only way to get there is to climb up the falls. There are no hidden paths, no shortcuts, no geo-trails. The plant cover on either side hides steep limestone walls that are completely un-navigable. So it was up and over. But the best was yet to come.

The source of this waterfall is an artesian well that pours out of the limestone. It is pure, clear water that has flowed since the first living creatures showed up here. It used to be the town’s water source until they outgrew it.

Ground Zero at Big Spring cache

Now comes the fun part. Somewhere up in that cavern where the spring flows out is our prize. After much slipping and sliding, we found it – an ammo can chained to a steel rod driven into the ground. The can was underwater. The concrete cistern on the left was part of the old waterworks for the town.

We signed the log and put it back. Thoroughly soaked and covered with mud from head to toe, we made our way back down the falls, using gravity to our advantage where possible. Back at the picnic pavilion where we started, we changed clothes and cleaned up the best we could. Then it was back home to St. Paul.

Between the two of us, we have almost 6,000 geocaches in 40 states. To this day, the Big Spring cache is the only double 4.5 star hide we’ve done. For that reason, it’s #3 on the hit parade.

I took the photos with a waterproof Kodak disposable camera that I used for canoeing and boating. Since we were going to be around the Big Muddy, I threw it in at the last minute. Good thing. The high speed DSLR wouldn’t have liked it.

The GPS location of the Big Spring cache is N42.809° W91.11142°. You can click on the hyperlinked coordinates for a Google map.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha