One of the great things about geocaching and its kin is that it gets you out into places that you would never go to otherwise. We often come across great scenery in our travels. Particularly out west, there’s a Kodak moment around every bend. Every once in a while though, we happen upon a vista which is there and gone in a moment. Clouds, sky, animals, fall colors, mountains, mist, shadows, snow and sunlight often combine to offer a breathtaking view which is gone in a matter of seconds. Our camera has caught a number of them. This is one of our favorites.
This is the Teton Pass overlooking Jackson Hole, WY in mid-September. Altitude 8,631 feet. We were up here making our way along the spine of the ridge and looking for geocaches (of course). For the most part, it was a dreary day, cold and windy. As we returned to the trail head, the clouds parted and out came the sun. The fall colors exploded and the far mountains came into view. We have gone to places a number of times to catch the leaves at their peak and always seem to be a bit early or too late. On this day, we blundered right into the height of the fall colors. Ten minutes later, we were chased down the mountain by snow flurries and an abundance of caution. The restrictive photo size in the blog doesn’t do justice to the view. Click this link for a full sized version.
Just off to the left of the photo is Highway 22. Called the Teton Pass Highway, it runs from Jackson Hole to Victor, ID through the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The road is steep and winding. Unlike most American mountain ranges, the Tetons do not have foothills or some sort of transition region. They jut straight up from the flat lands of the Snake River Valley.
Every July, Hungry Jack’s General Store in Wilson, WY sponsors the Teton Pass Hill Climb from the store to the pass. Each rider throws in 20 bucks and winner takes all. Although only 5 1/2 miles long, it gains a half mile in elevation with an average grade of 6.7% and a max of 14%. We’ll stick to Rails-to-Trails.
The photo was taken near coordinates N43.4973° W110.956°. Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google Map.
In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks. Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation. The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks. Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.
Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”
Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more. They cost money but it goes to the parks. Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa. Many of the parks have several. Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park. Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.
The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way. Throw in some benchmark hunting, track down some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss. Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this. In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches and at least as many benchmarks that will take you just about everywhere in the park. We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.
In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts. They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks. This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.
This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues. One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations. These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date. The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app. Droid has a couple of options. I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.
Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.
There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it. For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org. They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.
So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.
If Devils Tower National Monument looks familiar to you but you can’t quite place it, perhaps you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It was used as a location for the movie. A massive tapered stone column towering over 1,000 feet above the surrounding countryside, Devils Tower can be seen for miles and would be a perfect beacon for alien spaceships. More likely, you’ve seen some of the beautiful scenic photographs taken over the years. Either way it is a sight you will not soon forget.
President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as our first National Monument on September 24, 1906. It is located not far from Sundance, Wyoming in the northeast corner of Wyoming in the Black Hills overlooking the Belle Fourche River Valley. It stands 1267 feet tall with a diameter at the bottom of 1,000 feet and 275 feet at the top. The top is roughly the size and shape of a football field, covered with scrub grass and actually has small resident rodents that call it home. The elevation at the summit is 5,212 feet.
The first documented white visitors to the tower were members of Captain William Raynold’s 1859 Yellowstone Expedition, although it was probably explored years before by mountain men.
The first formal survey of Devils Tower was led by Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge in 1875 and it was this expedition that gave it its Anglo name. Dodge’s Indian interpreter translated the Native American name to Bad God’s Tower which led to Devils Tower. The name has a historical hiccup which exists to this day. The word Devils is the correct name as opposed to Devil’s, which is grammatically proper. According to the National Park Service, the proclamation signed by President Theodore Roosevelt inadvertently dropped the apostrophe in Devil’s. That made the official name Devils and it was never changed.
It has long been considered a sacred site by many of the northern plains Indian tribes. Some of those tribes referred to it as the Bear’s Lodge. One of the legends that surround Devils Tower is that the vertical grooves in the rock were placed there by a giant bear that was chasing some Indian maidens, who climbed the column to safety. There are six major tribes that have both cultural and geographic ties to the area: Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Shoshone. The National Park Service says that there are over 20 tribes that have treated Devils Tower as Holy Ground.
Today the monument attracts about 400,000 tourists each year. They peacefully co-exist with the Native American traditions and rites still observed at Devils Tower. Visitors will see various prayer objects hanging in trees or on the ground and are asked not to disturb them.
In addition to camping, hiking and sightseeing, a major recreational activity at Devils Tower is mountain climbing. Colonel Dodge’s survey report concluded that the summit was “inaccessible to anything without wings.” It was almost another 20 years before two local ranchers – William Rogers and Willard Ripley – became the first to climb it.
They spent weeks pounding wooden pegs into a continuous crack on the southeast face and attaching wooden steps to them. On July 4, 1893 in front of 1,000 spectators, they ascended their makeshift ladder to the top and ran an American flag up a flagpole they had pre-staged there. Mountain climbing at Devils Tower was born. Parts of the ladder used by Rogers and Ripley are still visible today.
The first technical ascent was on June 28, 1937 by Fritz Weissner and Lawrence Coveney. Roughly 5, 000 people climb it each year with only five deaths reported since 1893.
In 1941, a man named George Hopkins parachuted on to the summit. He then had to wait six days to be rescued and was half-dead from exposure and dehydration when they got to him.
For those who are less adventuresome, there are two trails around the base of the tower. The Red Beds Trail is a three mile hike and there is a shorter 1.25 mile Base Trail. These hikes are worth taking as they bring you close to the tower and give you a different perspective of its majesty. They can be a bit strenuous with altitude and some short but steep grades. Be sure to allow sufficient time and take water with you. There’s none on the trails.
There are camp sites available and a visitor’s center but other than that, accommodations and creature comforts are pretty sparse. Parking can be a challenge during the peak season. Be prepared to park along the road or down below and walk a ways.
As with most National Parks and Monuments there are no traditional container geocaches on monument grounds. There is however a virtual geocache called “Devils Tower National Monument II”. There are numerous geocaches in the surrounding area and nearby Black Hills.
There are also three letterboxes in the area, part of a series placed there by a former resident. Letterboxes provide a list of clues and directions to follow to a cache instead of GPS coordinates and are a nice alternative to regular geocaching.
So if you are ever in the Wyoming Black Hills, turn north at Sundance and follow the signs to Devils Tower. You can’t miss it.
People who don’t geocache (referred to as “muggles” by us adventurous types) often don’t see what the big deal is about geocaching. They think you plug in the coordinates and just walk right to the cache. Not so. On its best day, the GPS system will get you within 10 feet of a point. That’s a circle 20 feet in diameter or a square almost 18 feet on a side – 314 square feet total. If you’re fighting thorns and mosquitoes, that’s a lot of ground to cover.
The truth is that when most people start geocaching, they punch in the coordinates, put their head down and follow the arrow. They go through the briars and the brambles to the cache only to find that there’s a path next to it. We were no exception. But soon, you become smarter and more tactical about it. Keep in mind that people who hide caches want them to be found, but they also want them to be challenging. They also have to place the cache and maintain it. The fact that they have to go there too works in our favor. So check out our favorite tactics. They work very well for us.
#10. Read the cache information sheet and logs in detail. This is the research phase of geocaching. Very often, the hider gives you a cryptic clue. Sometimes finders do too or just blurt out a key fact in a log entry. Parse every word and pull out as much information as you can. With the new generation of smart phone apps and GPS devices, if you download the cache, you download some logs too, so that’s real handy. If you’re seeking a long distance cache away from home, recon the area with a topo map, gazetteer or Google Earth. Talk to locals to fill in information gaps. Gather your intel and have a plan. Be sure to have any special equipment you might need, like tweezers (for nano caches) or flashlights.
#9. Try not to head for the cache with any pre-conceived notions of what you’ll find. Some hiders will tell you exactly what it is. Others don’t. If all you know is it’s a micro or a small or a regular, don’t assume it’s a key holder or magnetic or an ammo can because then you search based on that and skip over the real thing. If you can’t find it in the cache info, you need to have a good search plan. Don’t waste time looking for something that’s not there. On the other hand, many hiders will put out a series of caches that are all the same or very similar. Once you figure out the pattern, you can start racking them up.
#8. Plan your route and modify as needed. In general, if the distance on the GPSr is going down, you’re headed in the right direction. It doesn’t mean you’re on the best route. You may be on a trail that loops around a steep, thickly forested hill. You can cut over the hill or you can stay on the trail, which means the GPSr may start to go up again. Don’t become fixated on the GPSr. It’s giving you the shortest distance between two points. It doesn’t read terrain or evaluate routes. You do.
#7. Look for a trail or opening. Like we said earlier, hiders want their caches to be found. I don’t think we’ve ever found a cache just thrown into a thicket. If you find yourself facing a wall of brush or some other obstacle, start looking for a way through or around it. It’s probably close. Everyone ends up breaking brush at some point, but do it as a last resort. Usually, if you fight through brush to get to GZ, you’ll find a trail nearby when you get there.
#6. Have a good search routine. When the GPSr is bouncing around in the single and/or low double digits, you’re close. Do a quick scan of the area. Check the obvious places. Then take your stick and poke around some of the less obvious. Finally, do a detailed search of the area with a search pattern. Look high and low. Move slowly. Keep your eyes moving. Your peripheral vision is better at picking up shapes. A lot of caches are found “out of the corner of my eye.”
There’s no shortage of things to see and do at Yellowstone Park. Between geocaches, benchmarks, passport stamps, Kodak moments and the occasional geodash point, there’s enough to keep us busy for weeks. That’s why we keep going back. This hike on the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is one of the more strenuous undertakings in the park but it’s worth it.
The first white explorer to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was Charles Cook in 1869. The canyon runs for 20 miles southwest to northeast starting at the Lower Yellowstone Falls. Along the way, it averages 4,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet deep. The North Rim Road runs along its edge.
One of the canyon’s most distinctive features is the layers of multi-colored rock that line the walls. This entire chasm was once a geyser basin that was covered with glaciers. The constant battle between Ice Age cold and volcanic heat produced physical and chemical changes in the rock that aren’t seen anywhere else. When the glaciers retreated, catastrophic flooding and erosion occurred, creating the canyon. One of the dominant colors in the rock is yellow, hence the name Yellowstone.
The original route is long gone, replaced by a series of paved switchbacks cut into the slope. When the switchbacks run out, there are 328 metal grate steps bolted into the rock face of the canyon wall. They take you straight down to an overlook at the base of the falls. The modern route doesn’t go as far down as the original, but it’s close.
The hike is about 1/2 mile one way. The elevation at the top is 8,000 feet and in that 1/2 mile, you’ll go down to 7,500 feet. Almost half of that 500 foot vertical drop is in the 328 metal steps mentioned earlier. If you have heart, lung or joint problems or if you have issues with heights and ledges, this probably isn’t the hike for you. If you go, wear decent shoes – no heels, bare feet or flip flops – and make sure you’ve got plenty of water. It will probably take two hours round trip but about halfway up, it seems like forever. The overlooks on top of the canyon rim are crowded but there’s not a lot of people on this trek. It’s a bit off the beaten path and a lot who start turn around. You’ll see fewer and fewer people as you approach the bottom.
There are four virtual geocaches in close proximity to the parking area, several benchmarks and numerous overlooks. You can park and walk to several at a time but will have to drive between jump off points as there are finds on both sides of the canyon. It makes for a good day’s outing. Cell phone coverage here is lousy, so plan on using a GPS instead of a smart phone app. You can try pre-loading the caches into the phone and utilizing its internal GPS but we haven’t had much luck with that. Smart phone GPS is never as good as a dedicated device.
We are closing in on 5,000 caches. Every one is different and you’d be surprised how many you remember. Picking out the 10 best will be difficult. Here’s what we’ve got so far:
#10 – Easy to Overlook, Tucson, AZ
Tonight, we continue our Top 10 geocache countdown. The #9 slot is a find from September 2011 called “Nuke on a Mountain.”
This is our kind of geohunt. North of Sundance, Wyoming is a geocache on Warren Peak called “Nuke on a Mountain”. It’s outside the perimeter of an old NORAD radar site that was powered by a nuclear generator in the early-mid 60’s. You can see the perimeter fencing. The installation is still intact but was shut down years ago and is strictly off limits. Outside the main gate there is a weather beaten information placard that tells the story of the two nuclear generators that were here. One of them now powers McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Getting here is a 30 mile drive on back roads, then a steep hike. If you try for this cache, be sure you read the log notes about route selection. The altitude here is almost 7,000 feet and it gets your attention. Once you’re up here, the scenery is spectacular, including a long range view of Devils Tower. There are a number of other cool geocaches in the immediate vicinity. A couple of them are park’n’grabs but most take some work. Bring water, sun screen and a tank of oxygen.