Postcards from Apgar Village Lodge

At $100 per night, these rustic cabins inside Glacier National are a bargain. Located at the southern tip of Lake McDonald, Apgar Village Lodge is a great place to stay a few nights while exploring the west side of the park. 

The highlight of my stay was waking up around dawn each morning, getting a free cup of coffee at the lodge office, and watching the sun rise over Lake McDonald. 

The reflections of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake would change as morning became afternoon. 

In the evening, the brilliant reflections faded to dark. With little light pollution, the stars and moon lit up the night sky. 

Here are a few photos I took while staying at the lodge. 

The entrance to our cabin.

Our room had a view of a river that ran near the lake.

The room didn’t have a TV or wifi. To me, that was one of the perks.

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Hiking the Avalanche Lake Trail

Since I visited Glacier National Park in May, many of trails were still closed because of snow and ice. 

However, I was able to hike one of the most popular trails in the park: the Avalanche Lake Trail. 

The 4.6-mile (roundtrip) trail cuts through thick woods, with moderate climbs in elevation. The highlight is the lake, which is rimmed with steep cliffs on three sides. 

The melting snow in late spring/early summer creates several waterfalls, which send water cascading down the cliffs.  

It’s a must-see for any visitor to the park.  

 

Why I bought bear spray, and maybe you shouldn’t 

If you google “things you need to know before visiting Glacier National Park,” the first link that appears includes a reminder that you’re in grizzly bear country.  

Entering the park, the signs are everywhere: “Bear Country: All Wildlife Is Dangerous Do Not Approach Or Feed.” 

My wife and I were on the fence about buying bear spray, but talked ourselves into it after overhearing a conversation a forest ranger had with a local convenience store owner. 

Store owner: Busy lately? 

Ranger: Actually, yes. We’ve had quite a few bear sightings. I always tell people to carry bear spray. You pay for life insurance, and this is a form of insurance. 

Store owner: I’ve been hiking this area for 30 years and always carry it with me.     

So, we bought a can. I shopped around a bit and found one for $45, which seemed like a bargain given the prices of “higher-end” options. It came with a holster that I could fasten to my jeans, making the can, in theory, easily accessible at a moment’s notice. 

Signs all around Glacier National Park warn visitors that they are entering bear country.


 

A pun-laden manual that came with the spray — “Bear Safety Tips: Bear in Mind the Information — recommended testing it before hiking. 

“Test fire downward,” the manual states. “Outside pointed safely away. Contents may travel and/or linger longer than expected. Using a quick half-second burst will increase safety and confidence with this product.” 

A footnote in the manual explained that exposing your eyes to the spray could cause “irreversible damage.” 

Given that the odds of me accidentally spraying into the wind and subsequently blinding myself were much greater than getting attacked by an actual bear, I skipped the practice test. 

Instead, in an empty parking lot, I practiced pulling the can from the holster and firing at an imaginary beast until I got comfortable with the maneuver. 

I did some shopping around, but ultimately settled on this bear spray.

And so, spray can in tow, we went into the wilderness. We didn’t encounter any bears on that hike … or any other in the park. That’s the norm, of course, as sighting are rare and attacks even rarer.

I know it’s a “form of insurance,” as the ranger put it, but I couldn’t help but think I had wasted my money. If a bear charges you in the wild, the spray might not even help. The bear spray manual clearly states that more than once.

(“Although nothing is 100 percent guaranteed effective,” the manual says, “here are some tips that might prove to be useful in an encounter.)

Here’s a tip that might prove useful when considering whether to buy bear spray: if you’re not comfortable practicing because you’re afraid you might shoot yourself in the face, take your chances in bear country without it.    

The glory of Glacier National Park

Hiking through the wilderness wonderland that is Glacier National Park, I couldn’t help but think of the conservationists who had the foresight to preserve these lands. 

After President Teddy Roosevelt helped establish national parks in the Dakotas, Oregon, Colorado and California in the 1900s, an explorer named George Bird Grinnell pushed the federal government to add Glacier to the list. 

In 1910, Roosevelt’s successor, President William Howard Taft, signed a bill that did just that, making Glacier the country’s 10th national park. That action preserved over a million acres of forest, lakes, rivers and glaciers that visitors still enjoy today.

I didn’t come face-to-face with any glaciers; the roads and trails that led to them were still closed because of a late spring snowfall. 

But I did see a moose taking an afternoon dip in a lake; mountain goats holding up traffic as they scurried about a rural road; and, thousands of feet above me, streams of water racing down cliffs glistening in the sunlight. 

There are several lookout points along Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile route that spans the width of the park between the west and east entrances.

For the most part, I didn’t have a cellphone signal in these areas. My instant gratification consisted of new discoveries around each corner, whether it was bugs splatting onto my windshield, or a snow-capped mountain stretching into the sky. 

That was part of the thrill: Seeing unspoiled nature and animals in their environment, as Roosevelt and Grinnell would have witnessed it over a century ago.

Glacier National Park was established in 1910.

The park is home to more than 700 miles of hiking trails.

When I visited the park earlier this month, many of the roads were still closed because of snow and ice.

Glacier National Park has many options for lodging, from campsites to high-end hotels.

A man fishes in a river near the St. Mary Falls trail.


The park has more than 200 waterfalls.

Postcards from Boulder 

I recently visited Boulder, Colo., and now I understand why people are flocking there in droves. The scenery is amazing, and the food scene – for the size of the town – is great.

Boulder is located around 30 miles southeast of Denver.

People from all over the world come to Boulder to hike the trails surrounding the city.

Patches of snow can still be seen in early March near a lake outside Boulder.

Postcards from Custer State Park 

Buffalo graze at Custer State Park. The park is home to more than 1,300 buffalo.

The donkeys in the park often approach vehicles passing through Wildlife Loop Road. They seem to expect handouts, so have a snack ready if you roll down your window.

Before the arrival of European settlers, millions of buffalo migrated through the Great Plains. They were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1890s. Today, there are more than 200,000 in North America.

The ‘crown jewel’ of Custer State Park

One of the first places I was told to visit after moving to Rapid City was Sylvan Lake.

It took a few months, but I finally made it there over the weekend. This majestic body of water, located high in the Black Hills and about 45 miles southwest of Rapid City, is considered the “crown jewel” of Custer State Park.

It’s easy to see why: I had planned on jogging the one-mile loop trail that takes you around the lake, but instead walked at a leisurely pace to admire the tall rock formations that sit at the edge of the water.

A word of wisdom to first-time visitors: Bring a hat or wear sunscreen. The lake sits at an elevation of 6,145 feet and the sun is intense, even in the cooler months of the year.

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A devil of a hike

“How much farther do we have to go?” a young boy asked, as he passed me with his family while I descended from Little Devils Tower, elevation 6,908 feet.

“Is it like 35 feet?”

“Thirty-five plus a couple of zeros,” I responded.

His dad chucked, but the kid didn’t get my joke. “You still have a ways to go,” I told him.

Perhaps it was the elevation. Perhaps my lungs are still recovering from five years in Beijing, which at times felt like living in a smoking lounge. Perhaps I’m just out of shape.

The Black Hills, in southwestern South Dakota, is full of beautiful rock formations.

The trail to Little Devils Towers is around 3 miles out and back.

People come from all over the world to rock climb in the Black Hills.

Whatever the reason, I had to stop several times to catch my breath along the winding and rocky path to the summit of Little Devils Tower, one of the highest peaks in the Black Hills. The occasional breaks allowed me to take in the magnificent giant rock formations, which jut into the sky from the mountaintop.

The name of the place, Little Devils Tower, is misleading because there’s really nothing little about it. At nearly 7,000 feet, it’s one of the highest points in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

On a clear day, it is said you can see more than 100 miles out onto the horizon from the highest peaks in the Black Hills.

Little Devils Tower is located in Custer State State Park.

The skies were mostly clear when I visited. From the summit, you can see the spot where the hilly terrain ends and the high plains begin.

The last leg of the journey to the top is the most difficult. The dirt trail gives way to rocks and boulders, and I had to pause a few times to figure out the best way to climb over them safely. A series of blue markers posted on tree trunks and rocks help you stay on the path, but it’s easy to get sidetracked if you’re not paying attention.

A view from the summit, elevation nearly 7,000 feet.

From the trailhead, I was able to reach the summit within a couple of hours. It’s an easy hike to finish in an afternoon, unless, of course, you’ve got a kid in tow who asks “Are we there yet?” every 35 feet.

Behold Bohol’s otherworldly Chocolate Hills

One of the more unique landscapes in the Philippines can be found in Bohol province, home of the Chocolate Hills.

The hills, which range in height from 40 to 120 meters, jut out of the ground like camel humps. Scientists say they were formed by the “uplifting of ancient coral-reef deposits, followed by erosion and weathering,” according to Lonely Planet.

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This phenomenon can only be found in two or three other places in the world (one of those places being the island of Java, in Indonesia). Continue reading

Postcards from Tagaytay

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Coconut trees along a highway outside Manila.

A group of police officers on an early morning run in a small town near Manila.

A group of police officers on an early morning run in a small town near Manila.

A brand-new Catholic Church. Around 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic.

A brand-new Catholic church. Around 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic.

The inside of a church under construction near Tagaytay.

The inside of a church under construction near Tagaytay.

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Tagaytay is located about 65 km south of Manila. Because of its high altitude, temperatures are mild, and many people from Manila come to Tagaytay to escape the heat and humidity.

The area around Taal Volcano is regarded as one of the most attractive spots in the Philippines.

The scenery around Taal Volcano in Tagaytay is stunning, and is regarded as one of the most attractive locations in the Philippines.