Lee’s Ferry

Here at Exploring Off the Beaten Path, our favorite activity is a road trip with no particular destination in mind. Roaming and exploring are the journey. We’ve stumbled upon lots of great places we didn’t know about. This is one of them – Lee’s Ferry, the river gateway to the Grand Canyon.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE: For our readers outside the United states, here’s a miles to kilometer converter. We Yanks don’t do metric very well.

Lee's Ferry

A beautiful downstream view of Lee’s Ferry. The 2,000 foot Vermilion Cliffs tower in the background. These flat, accessible banks are the result of three canyons and two rivers coming together. Marble Canyon, Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon converge in this area. The Colorado joins with the Paria River, which flows out of Marble Canyon from the north. That accident of geology created a river bottom with access to both banks. This is the official geological start of the Grand Canyon – Mile 0. Click on the following link for a bigger and more gorgeous photo.

The Grand Canyon needs no introduction. One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it’s a source of awe and beauty for millions of people every year. The canyon, which can easily be seen from space, is around 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and averages over a mile in depth.

Imbedded in the culture, history and geology of the Grand Canyon is the Colorado River. From its source at La Poudre Lake, 40 miles west of Fort Collins, CO, it flows 1,450 miles to the Gulf of Baja in Mexico. It runs the entire length of the Grand Canyon. Fifteen miles upstream northeast of the Grand Canyon is Glen Canyon, which is also the name of the dam that was built there across the Colorado River from 1956 to 1966. Behind it is Lake Powell, which turns the Colorado River into a 200 mile long reservoir.

There’s no way to cross the Grand Canyon unless you include walking from one rim all the way to the bottom and up to the other rim, a minimum of 20 miles along steep narrow trails. Otherwise, you have to go around it. That geographical fact of life affected anybody who ever moved through the region and continues to this day. No matter which route you take, at some point, you have to cross the Colorado River

Crossing of the Fathers in 1949

From the Utah Historical Society, a photo of the Crossing of the Fathers in 1949. The view is looking downstream, with Lee’s Ferry about 20 miles away. The jeep and observers were with the National Geographic Society. The yellow line shows the actual crossing site. This entire area is now under several hundred feet of water in the Padre Bay region of Lake Powell. The lake formed behind the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam was built between 1956 and 1966. Lake Powell wasn’t considered “filled” until 1980.

If you hike rim to rim, you’ll walk across the 440 foot Black Suspension Bridge. If you go around, you can drive on Highway 89 across the Navajo Bridge. Prior to 1928, you had to float across. For 300 miles both upstream and downstream, there’s only one place where you can do that – Lee’s Ferry.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Prior to the mid-1950’s, there was one other crossing – the Crossing of the Fathers – about 20 miles upstream. It was named after two Franciscan priests who explored the area around the time of the American Revolution. Native Americans used it for centuries and called it the Ute Crossing. Shifting sandbars formed during periods of low water allowing foot traffic and livestock to pick their way across. With steep stony banks, it wasn’t suitable for wagons and commerce. It was also seasonal and weather dependent. The crossing became untenable when the water was high. **

During the centuries that the Ute Crossing was used, the site that would become Lee’s Ferry was just sitting there. The Indians certainly knew about it. They just had no use for it. The water here is deeper and the currents treacherous. You can’t walk across it at any time. You have to float and they never developed that capability. So the future ferry site waited for somebody to come along who recognized its unique potential and found a way to utilize it.

Leer's Ferry in its heyday

The upper crossing site in its heyday around 1910. Note the cable system, which was installed in 1899. The vantage point of this photo is the same as the color photo at the top of the post. Click on the link for a bigger and clearer photo. It’s awesome.

That somebody was a remarkable man named Jacob Hamblin. He was a devout Mormon, one of the original pioneers who migrated to Utah in 1846-47. He was part scout, part explorer and part missionary. Hamblin was Brigham Young’s chief emissary to the Native American tribes and was quite successful. He spoke their languages and the Indians trusted him. When there was trouble or unrest, he got the call. For 30 years – from the late 1840’s to the late 1870’s – Jacob Hamblin roamed the rugged areas of southern Utah and northern Arizona on both sides of the Grand Canyon. He was a key figure in the opening and settlement of those areas. Several of his journeys took him south of the Colorado River into Navajo and Hopi territory. To get there, they used the Ute Crossing.

The Great Mormon Migration is part of the history of the West. Between 1846 and 1870, almost 70,000 Mormons headed to the Salt Lake Valley. The Mormons made no secret of their plans to expand their new home land. They were always looking for land, trade partners, converts and routes to get to them. Jacob Hamblin figured prominently in those efforts. The original migration route came in from Fort Bridger, Wyoming in the north and expansion moved south. A southern corridor was needed to more easily approach the land north and south of the Grand Canyon. The Ute Crossing was only suitable for foot traffic. Additionally, it was a tough 40 mile hike to get there. As a commerce and settlement route, it held little potential. Sooner or later, the Colorado River would have to be dealt with.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: In 1978, the National Park Service established the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail to preserve the route taken by the Mormon migration.**

Historic stone buildings at Lee's Ferry.

Two of the several buildings you’ll see on the walking tour. On the left is the office of Charles Spencer’s American Placer Co. This gold mining venture constructed eight buildings total, including a dining hall and three bunkhouses. One of the bunkhouses is still standing. On the right is Lee’s Ferry fort, built in 1874 to defend against Indian attacks which never happened. Later, it was used as a trading post, school and dining hall. The Echo Cliffs, from which Jacob Hamblin first saw this site, are in the background.

Jacob Hamblin got his first view of the ferry site in 1858 on a mission to the Hopi nation south of the river. He saw it from the top of the Echo Cliffs 1,000 feet above the site on the trail to the Ute Crossing. Its potential was immediately obvious to him. This was the north-south link they had been looking for. He visited several more times in the next few years, including at least one aborted crossing attempt. Finally, in October 1864, he crossed the river with men, horses and equipment on a raft, then turned around and came back. It became known as the Mormon Crossing. The site was a reality, but not ready for prime time just yet. There was work to do.

The ferry site needed a lot of development. The river banks had to be graded and stabilized to allow traffic to roll on and roll off the ferries. Roads were needed on both sides for wagons to access the site along with solid boats big enough to carry them across. Ferry boat operators had to be trained. Wharfs had to be built. The Colorado River was relentless and unpredictable. For the entire operational life of the ferry, boats capsized, material was lost and people drowned. There were times when the ferry was closed for weeks. That work would have to wait, though. The year after Hamblin’s first crossing, a brutal Indian war broke out pitting Mormons against the Navajo and Utes.

Trail to the upper crossing site

The trail to the upper crossing site on the walking tour. Total distance one way is about .8 miles. This is the same trail used by crossers to get to/from the boat ramp and is quite rugged in several places. The buildings in the above photo are behind you right here and the wreck of the Spencer is to your right. If you’re feeling adventurous, the Spencer Trail, which takes you to the top of Echo Cliffs, veers off to the left just ahead. It’s steep and treacherous and not maintained by the NPS.

From 1865 to 1872, hostilities with the Indians turned the Mormon settlements inside out. Over 150 skirmishes and battles were recorded. Dozens of Mormons were killed. The northern Arizona frontier was abandoned and the isolated ferry site became too dangerous. Activity at the ferry during those years was intermittent and unorganized. The Mormon Church laid claim to the crossing site. They knew it could open up northern Arizona to settlers, trade and exploration in both directions. When it was safe to do so, it needed a full-time ferry master to live on site and get it running. In 1872, the man who would put the Lee in Lee’s Ferry reluctantly took charge of the operation – John Doyle Lee.

Lee was a study in contrasts. He was fanatical in his Mormon faith but was excommunicated from the church. He had 19 wives over the course of his life. He was still married to five of them when he took the ferry posting. Two of them came to the ferry with him. He first saw the site in 1870 with Brigham Young and said he would never live or bring a family there. He was friends with some of the key people of his time, including Brigham Young, Jacob Hamblin and river runner John Wesley Powell. With manpower from the church, he built/carved approach routes (called dugways) on both sides of the river. One of them – Lee’s Backbone – was so narrow, steep and treacherous that it was as dangerous as the river crossing.

Wagons on Lee's Backbone

Wagons on Lee’s Backbone circa 1910. This treacherous dugway was the only way in or out of the upper crossing site and was one of the main reasons why the lower site was established in 1899.

He was also a fugitive from justice. The federal government charged him with murder for his part in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre and had been pursuing him ever since. The Utah Territory was a good place to hide, but when the army started closing in on him, Brigham Young suggested he reconsider the ferry site posting. Lee took it and extended his freedom by a few more years. During that time, he developed it into a major transportation hub. Even though the site was called Mormon Crossing, he dubbed it Lee’s Ferry. The name stuck.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: The name Lee’s Ferry stuck but the man named Lee didn’t. He was arrested in 1875 while visiting family in Panguitch, UT, tried and executed by firing squad in 1877. His name lives on though. His 19 wives bore him 56 children, who in turn prolifically continued the bloodline. To this day, many prominent people in Utah are direct descendants of John Doyle, including U.S. Senator Mike Lee.**

A photo of Charles Spencer’s mining operation. Water was piped from the river and a steam boiler forced it out like a water cannon to carve away at the surrounding cliffs. There was gold in those hills but it was so fine that it went right through the sifter. It was a mammoth undertaking to get set up here, but it didn’t last long. After two solid years of failure, the operation folded.

The operation continued and grew after Lee’s death. His wife Emma ran the operation until 1879. Lee’s Ferry got its own post office, a trading post and a stone blockhouse for defense against possible Indian attacks. For 54 years – from 1873 to 1927 – a succession of operators and variety of boats transported settlers, missionaries, miners, outlaws, traders and Indians across the river at Lee’s Ferry. Improvements were made constantly, including an alternate crossing just downstream from today’s NPS boat ramp. It was shorter and more easily accessible, avoiding Lee’s Backbone. At first, the ferry boats were rowed. Later, cables were strung and anchored on both sides for pulling the boats across with the current doing most of the work. During its service life the ferry went from Indian raids to transporting tourists in them there newfangled automobiles. During that time, a wide variety of characters and scoundrels passed through Lee’s Ferry. Then, in 1889, gold was discovered in the Colorado Basin. Lee’s Ferry became a vital and busy link on the road to riches.

**HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: The ferry ride wasn’t free. This was a money making operation for the Mormon church. John Doyle Lee’s first ferry customer was on April 22, 1873 – two wagons and 33 horses. He charged three dollars per wagon and 75 cents per horse. People and luggage were free. It took two days. When the ferry was busy and the river cooperated, operations went around the clock. Fares were often negotiated and depended on a variety of factors. The amount of material, number of people, river state, boat type and more all figured into the final cost. Most ferry crossings were paid, at least in part, in goods and services. This helped the ferry operators subsist in this isolated, spartan environment. There wasn’t much cash involved. In 1886, the crossing took in $354 for the whole year. $118 went to the church. **

The “Charles H. Spencer” was brought here to haul coal from upstream to the mining operation. It was a good sized boat measuring 70 feet long and 21 feet abeam. The paddlewheel was 12 feet wide and added 15 feet to the total length. The crew of 5 was a pickup team from willing landlubbers working the mine site. When the operation went bust, Spencer walked away leaving everything, including the boat. As the years went by, it was stripped for wood, battered by floods, rotted and eventually settled to the river bottom in about three feet of water. It’s on the walking tour.

Gold brings out dreamers and promoters. One of them was Charles H. Spencer. Spencer was not a carnival barker looking for a quick buck. He was a talented guy who loved challenges, hard work and the outdoors. In 1910, he formed the American Placer Co. and staked a claim right on the ferry site. The plan was to erode the soft sandstone cliffs with high pressure water and sift through the sludge for gold dust. It was a mammoth undertaking with enormous engineering and logistical challenges. To make a long story short, he got everything up and running, but never got any gold. By 1913, it was all over and he walked away, abandoning all equipment and structures. You can still see some of it as part of the walking tour.

One of the more interesting tales from Lee’s Ferry is the shipwreck located here. Spencer’s operation needed coal to run the boilers – and lots of it. The nearest coal was 30 miles upstream at Warm Creek Canyon. Mule teams going back and forth cross country on the Spencer Trail weren’t enough, so Spencer brought in a paddlewheel steamboat. Built in San Francisco, it was disassembled, brought overland to Lee’s Ferry and re-assembled on the river at Warm Creek Canyon. He named it [drum roll] the “Charles H. Spencer”. The plan was to have it push an empty barge upriver and push it back full of coal. This type of paddleboat was designed and built for use on the placid rivers of the San Francisco delta. It turned out to be woefully inadequate to buck the upstream current of the Colorado. The number of round trips it made is not known but was certainly in the single digits.

**HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Charles H. Spencer died in 1968 at age of 96. He was a living history book on Lee’s Ferry and provided input to early works and records of the site.**

The underwater remains of the Charles H. Spencer

The wreck site of the “Charles H. Spencer”.

Lee’s Ferry started its final act in 1927. The Navajo Bridge was built to cross the Colorado River across Glen Canyon six miles downstream from the ferry site. Lee’s Ferry was used to transport men, equipment and materials during the construction. Its last run on June 7, 1927 was a disaster. With the bridge nearing completion, three men were crossing on the ferry with some bridge materials. The water was high and swift. It upended the boat and snapped the guide cable. The three men, their material and the ferry boat were lost. Lee’s Ferry was never used again. The construction company instead utilized an 800 mile drive through Needles, CA to end up on the other side of the bridge 834 feet away.

An annotated Google Earth overhead shot of Lee's Ferry

An annotated Google Earth overhead shot of Lee’s Ferry. Click on the following link for a much larger view. The GPS coordinates of the boat ramp are N36.8653 W111.5867. Click on those coordinates for an interactive Google map.

Today, Lee’s Ferry is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. The ferry site and the Lonely Dell Ranch are National Historic Sites. It’s easy to get to, but not too crowded. If you’re a fan of fishing, rafting, history, exploring, hiking or photography, there is something here for you. If you’re a treasure hunter like us, there are several geocaches at the ferry site and a couple of benchmarks along the river. They are both found in abundance throughout the Glen Canyon area along with a few dozen NPS Passport Stamps. We’ve explored both sides of the Colorado in northern Arizona. Lee’s Ferry was our favorite place. It’s a real hidden gem tucked away in the towering cliffs on the banks of the Colorado and Paria Rivers and definitely off the beaten path.

You might also want to check out our post on Pipe Spring National Monument. It’s about 90 miles away on the road to Zion NP and shares a lot of history with Lee’s Ferry.

Hope you learned something. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

The Old Meeker Ranch

We’ve geocached in 40 states. The only areas we haven’t explored are New England and the Pacific Northwest. But out of all that, our favorite geocaching destination is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills have it all – scenery, open spaces, mines, ghost towns, trails and more places to explore than you can do in one trip. And there are geocaches everywhere. You could geocache and explore there for the rest of your life and never get bored. They have everything from drive ups to day long quests. One of those quests took us to an abandoned homestead nestled deep in the hills. Locals call it the Old Meeker Ranch.

First look on the road in

First look

You can drive to within a mile on a forest service road with a locked gate. Then you walk in. This is the first view you get when you come over the rise. The pictures simply don’t do it justice. It is a breathtaking scene.

Natasha with the cache

Natasha with the ammo can find. The geocache was called “The Old Meeker Ranch”, GC1CTMH. Unbeknownst to us, the owner had deactivated it the day we found it. It might still be there, but we’ve got the last entry in the cache log.

The 278 acre ranch area was homesteaded in 1882 by Frank Meeker, who was a rider for the Pony Express in his younger days. He named his spread Willow Creek and that is still the name of the year round stream that flows through the middle of it.

The front door and barn

The front door and the barn. The barn is relatively new, built by the last owners in the 1950’s.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE – The Pony Express carried mail to/from St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento,CA. Letters cost $10 an ounce. The 120 riders covered the 1,900 mi (3,100 km) route in 10 days. Most of the riders were teenagers, some as young as 14. They rode legs of 75-100 miles, going at breakneck speed day and night. Switching horses at way stations that were about 10 miles apart, the riders kept to the timetable despite weather, terrain, outlaws, hostile Indians and numbing fatigue. Although successful, the Pony Express was only in operation from April 1860 to October 1861. It was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph. We don’t know what Frank Meeker did in the 21 years between the Pony Express and the Willow Creek homestead, but he must have been one tough hombre.**

These are original buildings from the late 1880’s. Although preserved and open to the public, the ranch has been bedeviled by vandalism in recent years. So far, it’s been broken windows and torn exterior clapboard, which have been fixed by workers. In fact, the day we were there, a BLM crew came out to inspect the place and do any needed repairs.

The ranch changed hands numerous times, ending up with the Davis family in 1952. They built the new barn and worked the spread until 1974. After they left, the ranch spent 30 years in limbo and disrepair before becoming part of the Black Hills National Forest in 2004.

The dilapidated kitchen

We’re explorers. Locked doors and “No Entry” signs drive us nuts. One of the great things about the ranch is that you can go inside the buildings, including the house. When the last family moved on, they left behind a treasure trove of artifacts – cans, jars, newspapers and more – on shelves and in closets. These aren’t props put there by someone. They’re the real deal. Use caution, of course. The upper floors aren’t safe. Watch out for weak spots in the structures and be alert for an occasional rattlesnake. Also keep in mind that this is wild country with black bears and mountain lions. If you have pets or small children, keep them close.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over in 2004 and scheduled the property for demolition in 2006. A grass roots effort led by local artist Jon Crane and the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust saved the ranch. They also raised funds for preservation work, an effort that is ongoing as we write this. A dedicated corps of volunteers working alongside the BLM and spearheaded by Historicorps keeps the ranch in a state of “arrested decay” for the public to visit.

Going out the way we came in

Looking at the way back. If you’re a photographer, this place should be on your bucket list. Here are some great photos taken on the Old Meeker Ranch.

For your GPS. N43.8042º W109.5554º. These coordinates will put you right at the center of the ranch. Click on them for a Google map.

The Old Meeker Ranch is a unique historical treasure. It is one of the few ranch homesteads in the country that is maintained, open to the public and freely accessible. Concerned citizens, historians, artists, archaeologists, businesses, trusts and government agencies work hard to keep it that way. Please enjoy it responsibly and safely.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

The Hotel del Coronado

Opened in 1888 on the shores of San Diego Bay in Coronado, California the Hotel Del Coronado is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world and America’s grandest Victorian seaside resort. It was built by Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story after they purchased all of Coronado for $110,000 in 1885.

Built on 33 acres, it was the largest hotel in the world upon completion.  It was also the largest building in the world outside of New York City to have electric lighting.  Thomas Edison supervised the installation of the electrical system.

The front of the Hotel Del

My son in front of the Del a couple of years ago. There was a geocache right behind him. It’s gone now, but there’s plenty more where that came from. The large turret on the left is the roof of the main dining room – the Crown Room.

You have to see The Del to really appreciate it.  Pictures don’t reveal the true scope, size, setting or architecture of this national treasure. When you go through the doors, whether it’s to stay or just have lunch, it’s like walking back in time. It’s especially enchanting during the holidays. They spare no effort to bedeck the entire place in the spirit of the season. When we lived in San Diego, we went to the Del for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, depending on who was around.

Movies have been filmed here. It has been featured in books and been home to writers.  L. Frank Baum did much of his writing here and used The Del as a model for his Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.  He also designed the chandeliers that still light the main dining room – the Crown Room.

The list of stars and VIP’s who have visited here reads like a Who’s Who of the last century. One of The Del’s favorite stories is about the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1920, who later became King Edward VIII.  He abdicated his throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, who lived in Coronado.  They met at the Del.

There’s also a resident ghost – Kate Morgan –  who died here under mysterious circumstances in 1892 and frequents the old section of the hotel.

The interior courtyard of the Del.

The interior courtyard of the Hotel Del. It’s more than a place to stay. It’s a destination. There’s world class shopping here, dining in several restaurants and live music. Enjoy the surf and the sun. Stroll on the beach. You don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the Del. You do, however, have to be prepared to pony up some serious money for your excursion here.

Much has changed in Coronado since The Del opened. The city has grown up around it. A cracker box fixer-upper in town runs about $1,000,000. The US Navy has a substantial presence here with the Naval Amphibious Base and North Island Naval Air Station. The Naval Special Warfare Center where the Navy SEALs are trained is practically next door. In fact, some of their rough water boat training takes place on the rocks of the jetty right in front of The Del.  The SEALs routinely run along the beach, much to my daughter’s delight the last time we were there.

If you come to southern California, don’t miss The Del.

Hooyah … Boris and Natasha

One of My Best Days as a Dad

My first wife and I had kids late.  I was 40 when our son was born, so we were raising teenagers in our 50’s.  By then, we were divorced but I lived right around the corner and spent a lot of time with the kids.  Every summer from 2004 to 2010, Ben (call sign Bravo Lima) and I would take an extended trip somewhere adventurous.  Our playgrounds were South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, California and my native Pennsylvania. We hiked, biked, rafted and four-wheeled  in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg, San Diego, the Black Hills and the Little Bighorn.   We also geocached.  On many days, we simply picked out some historical or back country caches and went for them.

Our equipment was primitive by today’s standards. For the first couple of years, we used Magellan Sportrak Map GPS devices, with their serial cables that loaded one geocache at a time.  Many times, we stuck our arms out the car window while we were moving to get a decent signal.  Ben became a good geocacher with a sharp eye.  The find in this picture was one of his better ones during a very successful day of Montana geocachingyears ago.

A geocache in Montana

Bravo Lima bags the “Sow Your Wild Oats” geocache.

This is Bravo Lima at the “Sow Your Wild Oats” cache northwest of West Yellowstone, MT.  It wasn’t a particularly difficult cache but the scenery was spectacular.  So here’s this piece of rusty John Deere equipment sitting in the middle of nowhere.  There must have been a farm here.  Located  on the shores of Hebgen Lake, the ground was flat and there were old barbed wire fences weaving through the thick, new-growth woods.  Ben took the lead on the way in and nailed it like a pro while this proud Dad just followed along.   After a day of this, we went back to our room at the Old Faithful Lodge for dinner and a geyser show.   It was a good day.  Next morning, we were back at it.

Cheers … Boris and Ben

Our Greatest Father/Son Conquest

In celebration of Father’s Day, I bring you this story out of the geocaching archives of June 2006.

Old Faithful

Ben at Old Faithful. We did Yellowstone right.

After the smoke cleared from my divorce in 2002, I lived about 1/2 mile down the road from my former spouse and two kids, who were then 9 (Ben) and 13 (Kari).  Despite the fact that The Ex and I didn’t agree on a whole lot, we buried the hatchet when it came to the kids.   I spent a lot of time with them.  Every summer from 2003 to 2010, Ben and I went on a road trip somewhere for a couple of weeks.  Then in 2005, we discovered geocaching and we were hooked.

In June of 2006, we headed off to Yellowstone. We did it right, staying at the Old Faithful Lodge.  Afterwards we went up to Bozeman, Montana to do some back country geocaching.  It was all day trips.  We both love to go out and get dirty and nasty – as long as we can clean up in our air conditioned hotel room when we’re done.  After 20 years in the Marines, I’ll never spend another night in the field.  But anyway, on with the story…

In one of our searches, we came up with a geocache called the Trolls Cache.  It was halfway between Bozeman and Livingston way back in the Gallatin National Forest.  On the day we went after it, it hadn’t been found in two years.

We headed for it in early afternoon.  It seemed like we drove forever on a series of dirt roads that got progressively worse and worse.  Our Magellan SporTrak Map GPS finally got us to a point that had ground zero about 300 yards to our right  – across a stream and up a steep mountain. Off we went.  We walked and walked and walked. Most of it was uphill.  The area had been lumbered out years before, so there was thick new growth and lots of ankle-breaking flotsam and jetsam on the ground.  It was hot, slow going.  Like idiots, we didn’t take any water because we figured it would be a short jaunt.  We also found out later that this is prime grizzly habitat and we had nothing for bear defense.

Making the Find

I was still surveying the top of the hill on our second attempt when Ben made a beeline for this geo-beacon. I hustled over with the camera and recorded the find.

At some point I turned around and realized that I couldn’t see the car anymore and the sun was below the ridgeline.  Shadows were getting deep and dark fast.  We were about 50 yards away from Ground Zero when I told him we had to back off.  It wasn’t safe.  So we made our way back down the mountain thinking now we know why no one has found it in two years.  We drove out of the forest after dark.

Back at the hotel, we were bummed out.  We decided to take another shot at it.  We fired up Google Earth and got out the Delorme Montana Gazetteer.  We found what looked like an old road, maybe a lumber trail, that led up to the cache.  It would be a walk along the ridgeline instead of going up the mountain.  The next day, we were off in early morning with a map, GatorAde, lunch and bear spray.

The rental car company would have had a cow if they had seen the roads, rocks and stream crossings we negotiated with their AWD Murano.  But we found the trail and parked about 1/2 mile from the cache.  Twenty minutes later, we were on top of the mountain and Ben made the find in short order.  It was an ammo box in great condition.

After high fives and some trash talking, we celebrated by sitting on a stump, drinking GatorAde, eating lunch and soaking up the gorgeous and rugged panorama that was present at Ground Zero.

GZ at Trolls Cache

Ben opens the prize at Ground Zero.

This was the toughest geocache he and I have ever gotten. We learned some hard lessons on this one.  For me, the biggest one was I’m not a Marine anymore.  I don’t have to get hurt or killed to find a cache.  Ben, who was 13 at the time, was tough and had his game face on the whole time.  I asked him how many of his buddies had found an ammo box in the Montana wilderness lately.  He got a confidence builder and a crash course in real world decision making which he never forgot.

He’s all grown up now, married and in graduate school while working. We talk often and still enjoy re-living the quest for the Trolls Cache.

Happy Father’s Day to me … Boris

How to Speak Geocache

All activities have a jargon that goes with them and geocaching is no exception.  Here is a list of common acronyms and abbreviations that will help you decipher log entries and make your own easier to write in the cold and rain.  ( :-D)

Geocache ledge

This shows GZ for the only geocache I’ve ever backed down from – the Hole in the Wall cache in Wyoming. This ledge was the only way out to it. A slip meant a 60 foot fall onto a field of broken up boulders. I almost went for it but there was no room for error. I gave it up. Probably a good idea. I look at this picture now and hear Dr. Phil – “What were you thinkin’?”

#10. TNLN – Took Nothing Left Nothing.  Used to sign a log.

#9.  DNF – Did Not Find.  Used to sign a log.

#8.  TFTC – Thanks For The Cache.  Used to sign a log.

#7.  SL – Signed Log.  Used to (all together now)…….???

#6.  TOTT – Tools of the trade. For getting caches out of tight places. Tweezers, light, pocketknife, etc.

#5.  PNG – Park And Grab.  A quick, easy cache or so they say.

#4.  GZ – Ground Zero.  The actual location of the cache.

#3.  GPSr – Global Positioning System receiver.

#2.  FTF – First To Find. The Holy Grail of geocaching. Get to a new cache first.

#1.  FUBAR – Fouled Up Beyond All Repair.  Or you can use your own f word.

Write on…Boris and Natasha

Featured

Welcome to our blog…

**NOTE TO READERS: Here’s a few items to guide you on our blog.**

My most recent posts are on the sidebar. One of the challenges of running a blog is how to quickly show or access older posts. I’ve done it the MENU function. There’s a menu bar on top. The titles are self-explanatory. Each one has a drop down list of related topics, which are also self-explanatory. You can surf the entire blog by mousing over the titles. How cool is that? We have a lot more stuff to add.

Also on the bar, you’ll see a link called “The Teacher Files”. It also has a drop down menu with links to topics related to my teaching career. I taught for 15 years after 20 years in the Marines. Teaching was one of my true passions in life. I started out with a separate blog, but when I found out how to create menus, I brought it all over here. It’s good stuff – too good to leave laying around in boxes. I’ll add things as fast as I can get them in HTML/CSS format.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Hi and welcome to our newly updated blog. Designed as a companion to our website – Exploring Off the Beaten Path. We use it for shorter pages than we typically put on the site plus any other material we find interesting.

We affectionately refer to each other as Boris and Natasha (usually with “dahlink” at the end) – retirees, snowbirds, explorers, geocachers, munzee and benchmark hunters, history lovers, sometime photographers, freelance writers and lifelong learners who can show up almost anywhere.

KidsRN in action

Natasha is relentless in her quest for geocaches. Here, she gives it her all in the Black Hills. Mt. Rushmore is in the upper left hand corner.

Our vision for More Exploring Off The Beaten Path is a family friendly blog that promotes interest in outdoor activities, curiosity about the world around us and lifelong learning. One of our main vehicles for that is geocaching and related activities, plus all that goes with them.

You would be hard-pressed to find another activity which is more fun, positive, educational and family friendly than geocaching and its siblings. My 88 year old mother has been out with us. Our grandkids (now 8 and 6) went out with us in their strollers. They really love hunting munzees and can both handle a smart phone like you wouldn’t believe. Some of the best times I ever had as a Dad were with my youngest son hunting down geocaches in the wilds of Montana and Wyoming. When I was teaching school, I used it in my math classes to teach all kinds of things.

One thing you can be sure of – the pages of this blog and our website will show you things and take you places you would have never known about otherwise.  Our adventures have taken us to ghost towns, caves, mountain tops, waterfalls and more out of the way places than we can recall. We’ve operated in all kinds of terrain and weather and dodged a few critters along the way. It’s been a hoot.  We’ve geocached in 38 states and have a plan in place to finish all 50 by the end of 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 (or thereabouts).

You never know what you might find here. We love forts, battlefields, ghost towns,old cemeteries, abandoned mines, one of a kind diners, cheeseburgers, skin-on French fries, anything to do with National Parks and anything else that’s off the beaten path. The tougher, longer, higher, creepier or more calorie-laden it is, the better we like it. We’ll mix things up to keep it interesting.

 

KidsRN at Mt. Rushmore cache site.

Mission accomplished safe and sound. No humans were injured in the production of this blog.

This is an open blog for families, adventurers, explorers, educators, vagabonds and anybody else who might share our passions.  There’s no arm chair traveling here and we don’t cut and paste Wikipedia.  We’ve been to all the places and/or done all the things we blog about. The writing is mine. So are most of the pictures.

We hope you find something interesting here. Feedback – good or bad – is always welcome. All comments are moderated and public, so please keep it civil.

See you in the blogosphere. …Boris and Natasha

Our Greatest Father/Son Conquest

After the smoke cleared from my divorce in 2002, I lived about 1/2 mile down the road from my former spouse and two kids, who were then 9 (Ben) and 13 (Karen).  Despite the fact that The Ex and I didn’t agree on a whole lot, we buried the hatchet when it came to the kids.   I spent a lot of time with them.  Every summer from 2003 to 2010, Ben and I went on a road trip somewhere for a couple of weeks.  In 2005, we discovered geocaching and we were hooked.

In June of 2006, we headed off to Yellowstone. We did it right, staying at the Old Faithful Lodge.  Afterwards we went up to Bozeman, Montana to do some back country geocaching.  It was all day trips.  We both love to go out and get dirty and nasty – as long as we can clean up in our air conditioned hotel room when we’re done.  After 20 years in the Marines, I’ll never spend another night in the field.  But anyway, on with the story…

Old Faithful

Ben at Old Faithful. We did Yellowstone right.

In one of our searches, we came up with a geocache called the Trolls Cache.  It was halfway between Bozeman and Livingston way back in the Gallatin National Forest.  On the day we went after it, it hadn’t been found in two years.

We headed for it in early afternoon.  It seemed like we drove forever on a series of dirt roads that got progressively worse and worse.  Our Magellan SporTrak Map GPS finally got us to a point that had ground zero about 300 yards to our right  – across a stream and up a steep mountain. Off we went.  We walked and walked and walked. Most of it was uphill.  The area had been lumbered out years before, so there was thick new growth and lots of ankle-breaking flotsam and jetsam on the ground.  It was hot, slow going.  Like idiots, we didn’t take any water because we figured it would be a short jaunt.  We also found out later that this is prime grizzly habitat and we had nothing for bear defense.

At some point I turned around and realized that I couldn’t see the car anymore and the sun was below the ridgeline.  Shadows were getting deep and dark fast.  We were about 50 yards away from Ground Zero when I told him we had to back off.  It wasn’t safe.  So we made our way back down the mountain thinking now we know why no one has found it in two years.  We drove out of the forest after dark.

Making the Find

I was still surveying the top of the hill on our second attempt when Ben made a beeline for this geo-beacon. The camera just happened to be at the right place at the right time to record the find.

Back at the hotel, we were bummed out.  We decided to take another shot at it.  We fired up Google Earth and got out the Delorme Montana Gazetteer.  We found what looked like an old road, maybe a lumber trail, that led up to the cache.  It would be a walk along the ridgeline instead of going up the mountain.  The next day, we were off in early morning with a map, GatorAde, lunch and bear spray.

GZ at Trolls Cache

Ben opens the prize at Ground Zero.

The rental car company would have had a cow if they had seen the roads, rocks and stream crossings we negotiated with their AWD Murano.  But we found the trail and parked about 1/2 mile from the cache.  Twenty minutes later, we were on top of the mountain and Ben made the find in short order.  It was an ammo box in great condition.

After high fives and some trash talking, we celebrated by sitting on a stump, drinking GatorAde, eating lunch and soaking up the gorgeous and rugged panorama that was present at Ground Zero.

View from GZ

The view from Ground Zero. We took it in while eating lunch. The haze in the background is smoke from a distant forest fire.

This was the toughest geocache he and I have ever gotten. We learned some hard lessons on this one.  For me, the biggest one was I’m not a Marine anymore.  I don’t have to get hurt or killed to find a cache.  Ben, who was 13 at the time, was tough and had his game face on the whole time.  I asked him how many of his buddies had found an ammo box in the Montana wilderness lately.  He got a confidence builder and a crash course in real world decision making which he never forgot. 

Six years later, the kid is grown up and off to college,  but we still laugh and shake our heads over the Trolls Cache.

Cheers …. Boris and Ben (Natasha wasn’t around yet)

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #4

Hi again,

I started this series last year and got about halfway through it before getting side tracked. 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

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 distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #4 cache fell into several of these but made the list because of the totally unexpected – and essentially unknown – events that happened here. From July 2012, the Civil War Entrenchments geocache.

June, 1863. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia is on the move, heading north into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Union Army is in Virginia, licking its wounds after the beating it took at Chancellorsville the month before. Lee’s army is riding high, full of confidence and taking the fight to the North, who seem unable to stop him. The coming Battle of Gettysburg isn’t on anybody’s radar yet. Lee wants to plunder the countryside, maybe capture a major city and force the Union into peace negotiations. At least, that’s the plan.

There was plenty to plunder in Pennsylvania including crops, horses, livestock, textiles, shoe factories, iron forges, warehouses and railroads. It was all undefended. There was no Union Army presence in the state, which was wide open to invasion.

Map of the battle area

A map of the battle area in the weeks leading up to Gettysburg. Most of the labels are self-explanatory. Letter B is the Snake Spring Gap and the location of the geocache. Letter C is Everett, where a cavalry skirmish occurred the week before Gettysburg. Letter D is McConnellsburg which was looted by Lee’s invasion force, along with Chambersburg. Total road distance from A-G is 155 miles.

A particularly lucrative target sat in the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania – the railroad yards at Altoona, home of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the world famous Horseshoe Curve. The railroad was a major transportation link for the Union war effort and a target rich environment if there ever was one. Everything needed to fight a war could be found in the warehouses and marshalling yards of Altoona. Lee wanted to send a large raiding party to sack the town and wreck the train system, but first, he had to find a way over the steep, heavily wooded Allegheny Mountains. Initial reports had them undefended. In early June, he sent cavalry units under General John Imboden to recon a route.

Governor Andrew Curtin realized the gravity of the problem and also realized they would have to deal with it themselves. On June 13, 1863, telegrams went out to state and county leaders advising them of the situation and asking them to undertake emergency actions to deal with it. Colonel Jacob Higgins, a Union officer home on medical leave, was asked to lead the defenses in the mountains. He agreed and quickly went to work. The call went out for volunteers to build and man defensive positions against an impending Confederate invasion. Almost overnight, 1,500 men answered the call. They came from towns like Saxton, Roaring Spring and Morrison’s Cove. No records were kept. We have no idea who they were, what they did or where they went afterward. But we do know that for a few days in June 1863, they were on the front lines of the Civil War.

Trenchline

The trenchline at Snake Spring Gap. It is remarkably well preserved and can be followed for several hundred yards. At the end, it curves down slope to engage an enemy attack from the flank and prevent an end run. The terrain is very much like what it was in 1863. Steep, broken up and heavily wooded, it would have been almost impossible to mount an effective large-scale ground attack through it. The same thing can be found on the other side of the road, although it is much more overgrown and harder to follow.

The defenders’ biggest problem was time, which was as great an enemy as Lee’s Army. Higgins’ plan was to fortify four gaps where roads crossed over the mountains. These defiles were narrow, steep and heavily wooded. A few men could hold off many. One of those gaps was the Snake Spring Gap. Here, 500 men toiled non-stop for days to dig a formidable trenchline that extended for several hundred yards on both sides of the gap. Cannon were mounted in strong points next to the road. Attacking these positions would have been a daunting challenge. While the volunteers worked furiously on the defenses, militia cavalry went down the mountain to scout and delay the approaching rebel forces.

Meanwhile, Lee’s cavalry was pushing out in all directions for almost 100 miles. To the east, they were on the banks of the Susquehanna River and threatening the state capital at Harrisburg. To the west, they looted Chambersburg and McConnellsburg, then started towards Bedford and Altoona. In Everett (then called Bloody Run), they skirmished with militia cavalry, which showed up quite unexpectedly. When the rebel horse soldiers returned to McConnellsburg for more loot, they were run out of town by another militia cavalry unit. Confederate scouts got close enough to the barricades to report back that the gaps were heavily defended. These unforeseen developments were trouble for Lee’s plans. He wanted what was in Altoona, but the soft vulnerable target of several days ago was gone. Defenses had appeared seemingly overnight and Union cavalry was suddenly active in his area. Now headquartered in Chambersburg, Lee mulled his options.

View of the gap

An attackers view of the Snake Spring Gap. A strongpoint is visible ahead, effectively covering the entire narrow avenue of approach. From here, attackers would have probably been looking down the barrel of a six pounder loaded with double canister. The trenchline continues on both sides of the road for several hundred yards. At the top of the rise on the right, there are the remnants of another strongpoint anchoring that side and bracketing the road. The geocache is along that overgrown trenchline. The state historical marker is visible at the strongpoint.

The Union finalized his plans for him. On June 29 Lee’s scouts reported that the Union Army was in Frederick, MD moving north. He dropped the Altoona plan and turned southeast to meet the new threat. The rest, as they say, is history. On July 1, 1863, the two armies ran into each other at Gettysburg.

When the Battle of Gettysburg started, the mountain defenses were abandoned and everybody went home. There are many places in these Pennsylvania hills where you can find remnants of them, but the trenchline at Snake Spring Gap is the best preserved and most easily accessible.

Historical marker

One hundred years later on June 29, 1963, a state historical marker was placed here as a small bit of recognition for the unknown militia men who performed a brave and arduous task at a critical time.

As I have noted before, Pennsylvania is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. I’m a bit of a Civil War buff and grew up less than 50 miles away in Somerset County. I had never heard of any of this until I found this geocache online and decided to check it out. It is certainly off the beaten path. This important episode affected the course of the war but has been lost to history. The only reminders are some fading trenches, a state marker and a geocache, which comes in at #4.

If you ever want to check out the place, here is the geolocation:
N 40° 06.052 W 078° 23.345 . You can click on the coordinates to bring up a map.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Balanced Rock Geocache – Big Bend NP

Another adventure in Big Bend. In the northwest quadrant of the park, not far from the Panther Junction Visitor Center, lie the Grapevine Hills. Here you will see rock formations unlike any others in the park. This is igneous rock formed by cooling lava. The word igneous comes from the Latin word for fire – ignis. When solid material cools it shrinks, tearing itself apart. The result is a valley full of huge boulders that have been exposed to erosion and weathering for millions of years. Now it is a barren landscape with fantastic rock formations that look almost impossible to create.

The Grapevine Trail

This is the view looking back down the Grapevine Hills Trail from Balanced Rock.

The most famous of these is “Balanced Rock”. Located in a saddle about a mile and a half from the trailhead, it is exactly what it says – a huge boulder precariously perched between two others. In addition to a hike through the valley, some basic bouldering is required at the end. This area got its name from grapevines that used to grow here on the valley floor. The entire Big Bend area was once much more livable than it is now, with good grass, clean water, trees and crops. Overgrazing by sheep and cattle killed the grasslands and all the trees were cut down for firewood and construction. I guess they call that progress.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock and Ground Zero for the cache. Now all we have to do is get a picture with one of us in the window.

This is a back country desert hike, not recommended in the summer. Take water, sun screen and a hat. We hiked out in the early morning and, once again, had the place to ourselves. In the picture, Natasha is getting us credit for the virtual cache located here.

Balanced Rock Geocache

Natasha at Ground Zero getting us credit for the cache.

Photography is a challenge at Big Bend. It’s all bright light and dark shadows. I’m not much with filters and all that but I’m pretty good with Picasa and Photoshop. Both came in handy on this trip.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha