Welcome! (You are not logged in)

Justin Paul's Posts
Justin has posted 4 reports and 17 photos.

Existing reports and photos: (Mouseover any camera icon for sample images. Click on any camera icon for all images)

Alabama Visit: 2016-4
2016-05-13 - On Wednesday, we were heading into Alabama to get some waterfalls in another state. We drove towards Chattanooga and took I-59 south through Georgia and into Alabama. We first headed to Gadsden to see Noccalula Falls. The impressive 90-foot waterfall is right in town. The city has a park here, complete with petting zoo and mini-golf. But we were only here to see the waterfall, so rather than paying to enter the park, we just walked over to see the waterfall. We would have had to wait for it to open as well. A statue near the rim was of a Cherokee woman, Noccalula for whom the falls is named, jumping over the edge. According to legend, she killed herself rather than marry a man she didn’t love. We got some pictures here and walked over to the footbridge over the river above the falls. Then we headed north to Little River Canyon National Preserve. We entered on AL-176 at Eberhart Point and followed the rim drive north. We first stopped at the overlook for Grace’s High Falls. From across the Bear Creek Gorge, we could see the waterfall tumbling off the cliff. Although it’s a seasonal waterfall, when it's flowing, it’s the highest in the state of Alabama at 133 feet and today it was flowing well. As we were getting ready to leave, a turkey vulture flew right by us and I was able to get a picture before he flew off. We continued on and stopped at a couple of the overlooks. First we stopped at the Wolf Creek Overlook for views on the west end of the Wolf Creek gorge. Then we stopped on the other side at Canyon View. Next, we stopped at Lynn Overlook with more great views of the Little River Canyon. And then finally, we stopped at the Little River Falls Overlook. Although the waterfall was a ways upstream, the viewpoint was pretty good. We stopped one more time at the parking area for Little River Falls and went down for some pictures of the waterfall close up. This impressive river-wide waterfall is split into two streams and it was really flowing today. After a few pictures, we continued north to DeSoto Falls. I got a tip from a friend, so instead of going to the main viewing area, we parked along the road and followed a trail to the base. The trail started past some huge cliffs and then led down to the river. There were some beautiful azaleas blooming. It was just a short ways along the river to the base of this beautiful 100-foot waterfall. Our friends who had visited recently had gone swimming, but it was way too cold today. We had a snack and I climbed around on the rocks to get pictures from different angles. There were some beautiful irises blooming near the waterfall. Along the way back, we passed some people rock climbing on the cliffs. Back at the car, we continued a short ways to the the regular viewing area. It was a view of the top, including the A. A. Miller Dam and some cascades above the main drop. We followed the path to the overlook and had to stretch to get an unobstructed view of the main waterfall. From here, we headed into the main part of DeSoto State Park and parked at the Talmadge Butler Boardwalk trailhead. We followed this boardwalk to the first of several small waterfalls in the park. Azalea Cascade was just a small slide between some big boulders. We got on the blue-blazed Lost Falls Trail and hiked about a mile to the next waterfall. Lost Falls is a small waterfall and the first of several on Laurel Creek. Although it's not big, it's pretty as it falls over the rock ledges. We crossed the creek above the waterfall and followed the orange-blazed Laurel Falls Trail to this waterfall. We could have just as easily seen it coming in from the Lost Falls Trail. This small waterfall had a lot of moss and algae growing on the rocks over which it fell. We finished up the loop and took the boardwalk back to the parking area. We crossed the street here and headed down to Indian Falls. A footbridge led over the falls, so we had to climb down to get a good view. This 20-foot waterfall was very scenic, the last one on Laurel Creek before it flows into West Fork Little River. From here, we got on the DeSoto Scout Trail and followed the river downstream a bit, then took the violet Wildflower Trail to Lodge Falls. The top of the waterfall had a small, but scenic drop. It seemed like there was more to it downstream. I tried climbing down all the way to the river, but there was really nothing else to see. So we headed back to the car and drove further into the park for one more waterfall. We parked at the trailhead for Gilliam Loop Trail and followed this trail for a half-mile or so. Then we turned on DST Exit 1 and followed this down to DeSoto Scout Trail. It was relatively level at first, but got extremely steep before reaching river level. We got on DeSoto Scout Trail and followed West Fork Little River downstream. Almost immediately, looking across the river, we could see what looked like a waterfall on the other side. But there was no way to get across the river in such high water for a closer look. Following the trail, we soon came to Poison Ivy Falls. This tall waterfall flows over a high cliff, forming a rockhouse behind the falls. I’m not sure how the waterfall got its name and I didn’t want to find out. After a few pictures, we continued on and took DST Exit 2 to head back. Along the way, we heard something and got off trail to find a small 10-foot waterfall on an unnamed tributary. We called it Rhododendron Falls, because it was so covered in rhododendron that it was hard to get a picture. We then finished our hike up and headed back to the car. Driving back to Cleveland, we stopped in town for dinner at Five Point Square before heading back to the hotel.

Croatia (other) Visit: 2016-9
2017-01-06 - Monday morning, we woke up and went to Bobis along the Riva Promenade for some pastries for breakfast. The storm the night before had cleared out and it was just beautiful along the riva. I was surprised to see all the beautiful palm trees along here. After eating, we swung by a bank ATM to withdraw kuna and then headed to Diocletian's Palace. As one of the top tourist attractions in Split, it was quite crowded. Vendors were set up all along the pedestrian streets in the palace, but it was too crowded to really browse. So we bought tickets to explore the basement areas. We first walked around the western wing. This ancient palace was really beautiful and it was just amazing to be walking around such an old structure. Despite its age, the palace was in remarkably good shape and the supporting columns and structures were beautiful. A number of old artifacts were laying about in the basement area, including old bowls, stone plaques, and sarcophagi. A few 3500-year old sphinxes were found in this area, which the emperor had procured from Egypt. Unfortunately, most were beheaded as later Christians considered them idols. In a couple spots of the basement, parts of the palace had collapsed, but fortunately, restoration work is in progress. We also found a bust of Diocletian himself, though I don't think that dated from his era. After exploring this side for a while, we headed over to the east wing that had similar features but not as many rooms were open. Here, we saw a couple of people dressed as Roman soldiers and followed them outside to where they had a short performance with the emperor himself coming out to address the crowd. Out here in the courtyard was an intact sphinx from Egypt, one of the only that wasn't beheaded. At one part of the courtyard, beautiful flowers were growing up the walls. Exploring further around the palace, we headed through the vestibule and came across a jewelry shop where a lady was making glass jewelry. It was interesting watching her work with the glass and I bought Sandy a pendant before we left. Next, we headed to the cathedral to see some of the other sights. Our first stop was the treasury that had a number of beautiful artifacts on display, but no photography was permitted. The relics of Saint Domnius as well as beautiful chalices and and ornate crosses, paintings, and old manuscripts. Next, we walked though the cathedral which was truly beautiful, inside and out. There were several altars that were so elaborate. This is one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the world still in its original structure. From here, we headed up the bell tower. Initially, we climbed up some very narrow and steep stone stairs up about half way and then climbed up metal stairs to the top. It was crowded, but at each point we stopped, the views just kept getting better and better. First, we ascended to the level of nearby rooftops, then a higher above the roofs and finally to the top with great 360-degree views of Split and the surrounding mountains. We could see all the buildings with their orange roofs, Marjan hill in the distance and the gorgeous coastline. A storm was brewing and it was fantastic watching the clouds roll in from here. Looking down, I could see the open ceiling of the vestibule we had walked down earlier. Heading back down the stairs, we descended into the crypt, which was the former mausoleum of Emperor Diocletian. Finally, we swung by the Temple of Jupiter that had been converted into a baptistery dedicated to St. John. The ceiling inside the temple was really ornate and beautiful. As we left the temple, it started raining lightly and we were getting hungry so we got lunch nearby. Seafood is very popular along the Dalmatian coast, but I'm not a big fan. Fortunately, there’s a strong Italian influence so I was always able to find something I liked. After a late lunch, we swung by the office for Portal Tours to pay for our tours for the week and get our vouchers. Then we started walking towards Marjan Hill. There were a lot of stairs and uphill through the old Veli Varoš district to Vidilica cafe. The overlooks here provided great views of Split and the harbor down below, but this is only part of the way up the hill. Trails and roads lead up the hill and it was a very pleasant hike. Along the way, we saw lots of enormous aloe plants. We also passed by the Church of St. Nicholas. It was a small church and the door was locked so we couldn't go inside, but I put my camera through a hole to get a picture of the interior. Continuing on, the trail came out at the site of a former zoo and then led up to the top of Marjan Hill where the Croatian flag was flying. From up here, we had a great view of Split from above, but the view west towards the sunset was blocked. So after a few pictures, we headed back down and had dinner and cocktails along the Riva. The harbor was beautiful at night. After dinner, we headed to bed as we had a long day planned for tomorrow. Tuesday morning, we woke up early and grabbed some pastries from Bobis before heading to the bus stop for our tour to Plitvice Lakes. It’s a long drive – 3 to 4 hours – so we had to start early. Our tour guide was Mario and our driver was Tiho. We absolutely loved them – our favorite guides of the week. During the long drive, Mario kept us entertained by teaching us about Croatian history and culture and a few words in Croatian (though he wouldn’t teach us any bad words!). Right away, we passed by the fortress of Klis, which is where Mereen in Game of Thrones is filmed. As we headed deeper into hinterland, Mario pointed out how the trees and plantlife were stunted due to high winds coming off the sea. We made a quick stop for snacks at a gas station near Maslenica where we could see the Velebit Mountains. We would pass through this mountain shortly. After our stop, we drove through Sveti Rok Tunnel, passing through the Velebit Mountains. This was the longest tunnel in Croatia at nearly 6 km. Through the tunnel, we left the Dalmatia region and entered Lika. On this side of the mountain, protected from the strong winds by the mountains, the land was all forested. Amazing what a difference the side of the mountain makes. We continued for another hour or so, finally arriving at Plitvice Lakes National Park around 11 at entrance 2. After Mario got our tickets, we entered the park and took a short boat ride across Lake Kozjak to begin our hike around the Upper Lakes. Boardwalks wrap around the many lakes here, each separated by the most beautiful waterfalls. The park was very crowded, despite being shoulder season, so walking around on the boardwalks was slow going. We passed by a few smaller, presumably unnamed waterfalls, and soon arrived at the first named waterfall Veliki Prštavac, at 28 m high. This is the second highest waterfall in the park. It was a real beauty, but was flowing strongly and produced a lot of mist. Continuing on, we then made it to Mali Prštavac, a similar waterfall at 18 m. Next, we came to Galovački Buk. Although not particularly high, I thought this was the most beautiful waterfall in the park. A dozen or more streams of water tumbled down from one lake to the next into the most beautiful turquoise pool of water. This was such a beautiful scene and truly captured the stunning beauty of Plitvice Lakes. Heading further up along the lakes, we saw many more small, unnamed waterfalls. Arriving at essentially the top, we made a short restroom stop and waited a short time for the shuttle bus. It was a bit chaotic getting on the bus - Mario advised me to use my tripod to whack other tourist and ensure our group go on the bus. The shuttle took us all the way down to the past the upper lakes and parked at the lower lakes. From here, we followed gravel road down to lake level. Another trail, mostly composed of boardwalks led past the lower lakes. We first passed Milanovački Slap waterfall, which drained into a most beautiful lake. The water here is so clear and green. A number of fish, European Chub I believe, could be seen in the water. Continuing on, we passed more small cascades and the beautiful turquoise water before heading to the big waterfall. Veliki Slap is the highest waterfall in the park at 78 m. Of course it was very crowded, but we climbed on some rocks to get some good pictures of this massive waterfall. Then we started heading back towards entrance 1 where Tiho would pick us up. Heading back up the gorge, we passed a couple more overlooks of Veliki Slap from a distance. Although the lighting was poor, it was a great view of this waterfall and really put perspective on its massive size. We could see not only the main drop that we could see from the base, but also additional cascades and drops downstream. Back at the bus, we went a short ways to lunch at Vila Velebita. It was a late lunch by around 4 when we arrived and we were all very hungry. But the food was really delicious and nice to have something more traditionally Croatian. After lunch, we started making the long drive back to Split. On the way, Mario opened the bar so we could purchase beer or wine on the ride back. I had a Velebitsko Temno. Mario claimed it was the best beer in Europe, but having been in Munich for Oktoberfest, I was a bit skeptical. But after tasting it, I agreed – it was great. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can get it back home. Mario gave us some more information about Croatia’s history on the ride home and we made one more stop for a sunset view over Krka River. As we approached Split, Mario handed us a note that Tiho was a good singer and we should ask him to sing us a song. Tiho sang O Sole Mio for us as we drove through Split back to the bus stop. It had been a long day so we headed back to the hotel after our tour and went to bed. Wednesday morning we slept in a bit and then had breakfast out on the Riva. Around 10, we headed to the South Gate of Diocletian’s Palace to get picked up for our canyoneering adventure. Our shuttle took us over to the small town of Zadvarje and we had about a 20 minute break to use the restrooms and grab a snack. Then we headed to the tour office for a safety briefing and to get our gear – wet suits for the cold water, a PFD, and a helmet. Once we were all geared up, they drove us to the start of our adventure. It was quite warm in the wet suits, so the cold water was a bit of a relief. We hike down into the gorge and soon starting canyoneering down Cetina River. The water was chilly but wearing a wet suit kept us warm enough. Almost immediately we had to jump into a deep pool and then rock hop and wade further down. There were several spots to jump into the water as well as a couple water slides to enjoy. In slow-moving sections of the river, we just floated downstream. About half way down the river, we stopped for a break on some big rocks and then got out of the water and headed into a narrow tunnel. This river was used extensively for hydroelectric power generation and the there was evidence all around. In fact, the tiny village of Zadvarje had power before Split thanks to the river's power. We used this tunnel to get around Gubavica, a large waterfall on Cetina River. Back at the river, we headed upstream a bit to the base of Gubavica. There was a big rock here to climb up and jump into the deep pool at the base of the falls. After a few jumps here, we continued downstream. There were a few more rock hop and swimming sections and then we came to another spot where we had to climb a ridge to get around. There were ropes to assist with the steep climb up and then back down, reminding me of some of the more difficult waterfall hikes back home. Soon we came back to a rather flat section of the river near the end of our adventure. We floated downstream a bit and passed a tall waterfall. It comes from the overflow of the dam, so it’s not a real waterfall, but was really pretty nonetheless. At this point, we got out of the water and followed a trail to once last wade across the river and then up to the road where the shuttles were waiting to bring us back. We changed clothes and then headed back to Zadvarje and then were shuttled back to Split. We took showers and then headed to dinner in the evening. We stopped by a grocery store to pick up some wine and had drinks down by the Riva. Thursday morning, we woke up early again and ate breakfast down at the Riva. After breakfast, we headed to the bus stop for our tour of Krka National Park and Ŝibenik. Our tour guide today was Ernest and our driver was George. Leaving Split, we first stopped at Trogir to pick up some additional folks. This is Ernest’s home and he had lots to tell us about this little town. We continued on away from the coast and into Krka National Park. We first stopped at Skradinski Buk, Krka’s largest and most well-known waterfall. This is the last waterfall on Krka River before it flows into the Adriatic Sea. Our quick stop for a sunset view two days earlier was just a short ways downstream from this waterfall. We started off near the top and made a clockwise loop on the trail around the waterfall. The Church of St. Nicholas was near the start. Skradinski Buk has a number of cascading sections, each one quite beautiful. I don't there's anywhere to see the entire thing. Although there were several old mills and other buildings around the falls, I didn’t they distracted much from the scene. We slowly worked our way down after viewing each of the cascades and drops. At the bottom, we crossed the footbridge over the river to the base at the pool below the falls. Unlike Plitvice Lakes, swimming is permitted, and I had to take the opportunity to take a dip. The water was quite cold and the current was surprisingly strong. It was hard to stop for a picture without getting swept downstream. I didn’t stay in long as it was too chilly, however. After drying off, we started heading back up the other side. It was more natural on this side with none of the mills or old buildings here. We saw beautiful travertine cliffs as we were heading up. There was another really scenic waterfall along the way on a small tributary of Krka River. Soon we got to probably the best view spot of Skradinski Buk – perched up on a cliff, the waterfall, footbridge, and old buildings made a beautiful scene. And yet, even here, we could only see a portion of the entire waterfall. Continuing on, the boardwalk trails looped around past scenic little ponds and small drops, but nothing else too big. There was one area with a huge number of wildflowers blooming. Finishing up the loop, we made a quick stop at the old mill. We then headed back to the bus to continue exploring the park. Driving north, we made a quick stop to view the Visovak Island, containing a 14th monastery. The island is not completely natural – the monks added rocks over the years to increase the size of the island. The views here of the island, monastery, and Krka river were great. After a couple pictures, we continued on to Roški Slap. Here we had a traditional buffet lunch with bread, cheese, olives, and meat. We even had some local sherry and wine. After lunch we took some time to explore. First, we hiked the rather steep Niz Ploču trail up to a great overlook of the Krka River. Although steep and rocky, I stopped a couple times to enjoy the view and check out the chimney bellflower blooming along the trail. In the distance, the river flowed between two mountains that almost looked like a wall that had been broken by the river. Heading back down, we swung by the boat dock to see Roški Slap waterfall. The view wasn’t ideal from here; I think the only way to get a good view of this waterfall would be from a boat. We swung by the gift shop and picked up a couple little bottles of sherry to take home. Then we got back in the bus and left the park en route to the historic town of Ŝibenik. We stopped near the docks and followed Ernest toward the town square and the Cathedral of St. James, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ernest provided some history of this beautiful church, pointing out some of the beautiful architectural features. The building was unfortunately damaged in the war, but was being restored. We then took a quick walk through the inside of the cathedral to see the beautiful altar and interior. Outside, I got a picture of many of the stone heads on the side of the building. Then we headed up to the Medieval Garden of St. Lawrence Monastery. It's a very small garden, but quite scenic right in the old town of Ŝibenik. Firethorn and other pretty flowers were blooming in the garden and a small cafe provided a spot to get a drink and relax. After a few minutes, we headed back to the bus to head back to Split. It was a lovely drive along the coast between Ŝibenik and Split as we made out way back. Friday was an early morning as we had a long day heading to Dubrovnik. Our tour guide today was Igor and our driver was Ivan. After everyone was boarded on the bus, we headed south. We made a bathroom and snack break at the highest gas station in Croatia where we could see the towering Biokovo Mountains, the second highest mountain range in Croatia. From here, we continued south to our first stop in the small town of Ston. A defensive stone wall was built around the town that looked like a miniature version of China’s Great Wall. In town, Igor pointed out a couple places to stop. First we hit up a bakery to pick up some pastries and meat pies to eat. Then we swung by the wine store to get some Croatian wine to bring home before exploring the small town. Walking south out of the walls, we could see the salt pans. We didn't really have enough time to walk through so just got some pictures from the street. Down one street, we could see the Church of St. Blaise. Originally built in around 1340, the church has been repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes, most recently in 1996. And like many times in the preceding centuries, the church was being restored. We walked around the town a bit more along the walls and spotted some amazing cactus growing up along the city walls. But then it was time, so we headed back to the bus and continue towards Dubrovnik. Continuing on, we passed through a small section of Bosnia-Herzegovina and then back into Croatia. The drive along the coast here was absolutely beautiful and soon we were headed into Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is always crowded and a couple cruise ships were in port, so it was even more crowded than usual, despite being shoulder season. We got dropped off at the bus stop near an interesting fountain with statues of Pan and Nymph. Starting our exploration of the city, Igor took us around the old town of the city for about an hour. He provided some fascinating history of the city and pointed out several landmarks throughout the city, including the the stairs where Cersei Lannister did her Walk of Atonement in Game of Thrones. Dubrovnik is the setting for Kings Landing and we recognized many spots from the show. He also showed us many of the beautiful churches located in the city. The Dubrovnik Cathedral was one of the most beautiful. When Igor was finished, we had some free time to explore the city and headed up to the famous city walls. Starting out in the eastern end of the walls near the harbor, we headed up and walked around the walls in the counterclockwise direction. Up here, we had amazing views of the city. The walls span the perimeter of the city and we spent about an hour and a half walking around. There were several old cannons up here, indicating the defensive nature of these walls. The bright orange roofs of the buildings of Dubrovnik made a spectacular sight from the walls. About halfway through, we stopped at Minčeta Tower. Climbing up to the top was the highest point on the walls and provided the best views. Continuing on, we could see Lovrijenac Fort, which is detached from the old town. Standing tall on a cliff high above the sea, this old fortress was stunningly beautiful. The last section of the walls was along the coast and we could see the rocky water far below. At one point high above the rugged rocky coast, we watched some people jump into the ocean from the cliffs. When we finished the walls, we headed back to the old town. We visited the Church of St. Ignatius with the most beautiful interior. The ceiling above the altar was painted with a heavenly scene and reminded me of the Sistine Chapel. Then we continued through town to Lovrijenac Fort, just outside the old town. There were many stairs to climb up but the views of the Old Town were great from here. It really put into perspective the scope of the city walls we had walked earlier. After some pictures, it was getting to be about time so we headed back, passing the West Harbor of Dubrovnik. Returning to the bus, we made the long drive home but Igor told us some stories and history of Croatia to pass the time. Saturday was our last full day in Croatia and today we were doing a boat tour of the many islands off the coast of Split. We boarded the speedboat at 830 with our guide Martko. We first stopped at Čiovo island near Trogir to pick up some other visitors and then made the rather long boat ride to the island of Biševo to see the Blue Cave. The Blue Cave is illuminated from around 11 to 12 so we had to go here first to see the cave under optimal lighting conditions. The boat was cruising at about 25 MPH so it got a little chilly with the wind. In about 2 hours, we made it to Biševo and had a quick break. The views here of Vis in the distance were really nice. We then boarded a smaller boat to head to the cave. The Blue Cave has a very small entrance and so larger boats can’t get in. Even in the small boat, we had to duck down when entering. Inside the cave, sunlight penetrated the water outside the cave and illuminated the cave in a beautiful blue light. It was amazing to see and hard to believe that it’s natural lighting. After a quick run through the cave, we returned to the dock and re-boarded our tour boat. Martko took us over to the fishing village of Komiža on the island of Vis. We had about an hour here, so we walked around the town, first visiting Komuna, the fishing museum. They had some interesting exhibits but the highlight was the view from the top. Then we stopped by Gusarica beach and relaxed for a bit to enjoy the view of the bay. Back at the boat, we continued around Vis and made a quick stop at Stiniva beach, rated as the best in Europe. Tucked back away in cove protected by cliffs, it's no wonder it was rated highly. Our next stop was at the Green Cave on the island of Ravnik. This cave is much larger than Blue Cave and bigger boats were able to get in. A small hole in the roof of the cave allowed sunlight to get in, creating an interesting green spot in the water. A few people were in the water swimming, but with multiple boats in here, swimming didn't seem safe. As we were leaving the cave, we saw some people on top of the cave, jumping into the water. It was getting into the afternoon and we were getting hungry so our next stop was the small island Budikovac, with a population of one. A rather eccentric gentleman lives here year round with his donkeys and some other livestock. We had lunch here and then took some time to swim and snorkel in the beautiful water. The water was very cold, but so crystal clear and I spotted a few fish while snorkeling. It was too cold to stay in long. Our last stop was the city of Hvar on the island of the same name. We first walked past the Church of St. Stephen and then made the hike up to the fortress. Along the way, we passed an old church; I never figured out a name for this one. At the fortress, we first headed down into the prison. There were several small cells, including a torture chamber. Then we went up to the top of the fortress for amazing views overlooking Hvar and the harbor. After a few pictures, we headed back into town just walked around the beautiful old city for a bit. Passing the Benedictine Monastery, there was a statue of a monk praying outside. When it was time, we got back on the boat and headed back to Split. There was some type of regatta going on and we passed a number of sailboats as we headed back to Split. For our last dinner in Split, we ate at Fife. It was buffet style, but the food was really good. After that, we had one more drink along the Riva to enjoy sunset and then headed back to the room to pack. Sunday was long day in many airports, but we made it home without any incidents.

Florida Visit: 2016-12
2017-01-31 - Over the holidays, Sandy and I headed to sunny south Florida for a week in the Everglades. We left RDU around 630 on Christmas and flew to Miami. We arrived around 9 and stayed for the first night at an Extended Stay America next to the airport, not the greatest hotel, but good enough for just the evening. Monday morning, we checked out and headed west along US-41, the Tamiami Trail. Along the way, I was just amazed at the wildlife we saw in the canal running parallel to the highway – alligators, herons, kingfishers and our first anhinga sighting. In about 20 miles, we turned into Shark Valley in Everglades National Park. This is a really popular area of the park so we arrived a little early – around 830 to ensure a parking space and bike availability. After getting our stuff together, we began bicycling the tram trail. The loop is about 15 miles total, so a little long to hike in the Florida sun, but just right for bicycling. But even on bicycles, the going was slow and certainly not because of rough terrain. The trail was paved and as flat as could be, but we stopped so many times to see wildlife. We saw lots of alligators, including some babies. Besides being small, they are easily recognizable by their yellow stripes. And where there are babies, the mom is nearby keeping an eye on them. Alligators are one of the only reptile species where the mother watches over her young. We also saw a large number of wading birds, including great blue herons, green herons, snowy egrets, tricolored herons and more. In the dry season, the wildlife congregates around the remaining pools of water and makes watching them great. At one such wet spot, there were a number of white ibises pecking around in the shallow water for prey. At the half-way point on the tram trail, we parked our bikes and made a stop at the observation tower. Near the restrooms, I spotted a huge banana spider or golden orb weaver. A tram had stopped so the observation tower was a bit crowded, but the views from up here were great. It’s no wonder why the Everglades is referred to as a “river of grass”. Once we got some pictures, we headed back down and started to finish up the loop. Along the way back, we spotted many more birds and alligators. There were a few juvenile white ibises, who have brown instead of white feathers. At another stop, we saw a number of wood storks. A local guy who had stopped here said it was unusual to see so many storks at once. Near the end, one alligator had his mouth wide open showing his teeth right along the trail. Finishing up the loop, we returned the bicycles and then walked the short Bobcat Boardwalk trail. Then we left Shark Valley and continued heading west on Tamiami Trail. Our next stop was the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve. The boardwalk in front of the visitor center was a great spot to see more alligators basking in the sun. At the far end of the boardwalk, a beautiful female anhinga was perched. The Oasis center marks the southern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail, a more than 1000-mile trail running through the state. While we couldn’t hike it all, I wanted to hike a few miles on it while we were here. We didn’t go far though as it got really overgrown and there were lots of bugs out. We did see a few pretty butterflies though, bugs I don't mind. The white peacock butterfly was really beautiful. And the Gulf Fritillaries have a bright orange color. Next, we headed to the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center for Big Cypress. Here, we joined Ranger Lisa for a short talk about mangroves and manatees. Then we drove the Turner River-Wagon Wheel loop scenic drive and again saw many birds and gators along the canals. The Turner River runs along the canal and there were lots of birds, including gallinules and egrets. Back on Tamiami Trail, we continued west to Everglades City and checked into our hotel – Ivey House. We had dinner at Triad Seafood Market. I had gator bites and Sandy had stone crab and we enjoyed our dinner outside and enjoyed the sunset views. Then we retired for the evening, getting in one last shower at Ivey House. Tuesday morning, we woke up and had a great breakfast at Ivey House before checking out. It was just a short drive to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. Here we met with Dave and the others in our camping group. After getting our stuff safely in dry bags and packing the kayaks, we paddled out across Chokoloskee Bay. Due to low tide, it was very mucky getting into the kayak. Once across the bay, we started paddling out towards the Gulf of Mexico through Indian Key Pass. This is also the route used by the tourist boats from Everglades City, so we had to stay to the side. Dolphins like chasing the motor boats - kayaks are too slow for them - but we did see some chasing the boats. Since the tide was coming in, paddling through Indian Key Pass was difficult. We stopped for lunch on a shell mound and then made the last strenuous bit to get out to the Gulf of Mexico. In the distance was One Tree Island. Formerly connected to one of the Sand Key islands nearby, a hurricane had washed out the land between and now the island was so small, only a single tree grew here. Getting out of the channel, it was a little easier and we paddled another mile or so to Picnic Key, our home for the next two nights. Once on shore, we set up our tent on the beach a good ways back from the high tide line. While we were swimming in the warm Gulf waters, Dave made a delicious dinner of stone crab, fried grouper, and salad. I’m not a big fan of seafood, but it was very good. Normally when camping, I eat Raman noodles or Beefaroni, so having real food was great. After dinner, we relaxed on the beach and watched the sunset. At about this time, the wind and waves calmed down and the bugs got pretty bad – lots of mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Seeking shelter in our tent, we waited an hour or so and the bugs died down a bit and we went for a short walk. It had been a long day and so we went to bed early. Wednesday, we woke up around sunrise and the bugs were back. Sandy and I stayed in our tent for a while and watched the raccoons out on the beach. All food was safely stored in the kayaks, so the raccoons headed into the surf to look for crabs for breakfast. Since there’s no freshwater on the island, they would drink dew off leaves. As the sun rose in the sky, the bugs died down and Dave made a great breakfast of eggs and bacon. After eating, we started our paddling tour of the Ten Thousand Islands. We first headed northwest to Round Key. It was low tide so a sandbar was sticking out where a number of pelicans and gulls were resting. After a short break, our next destination was Camp Lulu Key, where we would eat lunch. Surprisingly, there was a building here. Apparently, someone came out with a boat and built a house here. The park service let him squat for a while before finally kicking him out. The house was all boarded up, but the porch made a nice spot for lunch. The beach was really pretty here, with one side facing the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the other looking deep into the Ten Thousand Islands. After lunch, we continued our paddling. Dave led us through a mangrove tunnel, hoping to find some roseate spoonbills, but no luck. We spotted a manatee from a distance but too far for a picture. We then continued back to Picnic Key. While swimming off our beach, I saw a fish apparently jump really high in the air. We had seen lots of jumping fish – mullets, I believe – but they only jumped a foot or two in the air. This one must have been six to eight feet. Just as he crashed back to the water, a dolphin popped out and ate him. The fish hadn’t jumped that high – I think the dolphin knocked him out of the water. For dinner, Dave made jambalaya with sausage and shrimp. Since the bugs were pretty bad the night before, we gathered some driftwood to make a bonfire, which helped quite a bit. We enjoyed one last sunset from Picnic Key and stayed close to the bonfire to keep the bugs away. Once they died down, we went for another evening walk on the beach. With a new moon and no light pollution, the views of the stars were fantastic. Then we headed to bed. With the fire built below the high tide line, the waves washed all trace away. Thursday morning, we woke up again before sunrise. The views were beautiful, but the bugs were back. Dave made another great breakfast of French toast and cinnamon buns and then we broke down camp. At low tide, the water was too far out to easily get in our boats. So we waited and enjoyed the beach for an hour or so. As the tide came in, we started paddling back. Dave took us a different way back and we spotted some dolphins and pelicans on the way. We stopped at an island near the beginning of Indian Key Pass for lunch. It would be a lot easier going back in as we would be going with the tide instead of against it. And sure enough, we were back to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in no time. We unpacked the kayaks and helped Dave load everything in his van and then said good-bye to our new friends. Sandy and I headed back towards Miami on US-41 and then went south to Homestead, checking in to the Hampton Inn. A shower felt so great after camping and swimming in salt water the past two nights. Friday, we had planned to go snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Due to unfavorable weather, the trip was cancelled so, we instead went back to Everglades, entering at the main entrance just west of Homestead. We first stopped at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, where a ranger suggested we head to Royal Palm. Arriving here, all the cars were covered in tarps. Apparently, the resident black vultures attack cars and try to remove windshield wipers and weather stripping. There were no bungee cords left, but we were able to wrap the rental car with a tarp and close it in the car doors. Once the car was secure, we started hiking the Anhinga Trail – a short boardwalk with lots of wildlife. Anhingas, the trail’s namesake, are very interesting birds with a long pointed beak used to spear prey. We spotted one anhinga with an impaled fish on his beak. Now that he had caught his prey, he needed to get it off so he could eat it. Near here was a beautiful strangler fig right along the trail. Further along we spotted a number of alligators as well as cormorants, herons, and vultures. The open views of the Taylor Slough were just beautiful. After finishing the short boardwalk, we then hiked the Gumbo Limbo Trail. Although both trail are right next to each other, they each explore a different landscape. While the Anhinga Trail lead through an open swampy area, the Gumbo Limbo Trail was through a dense hardwood hammock. There were several of the distinctive red-orange trees for which the trail is named. Once we finished the trail, we headed back to the main road and continued towards Flamingo. Our next stop was the Pinelands, another short interpretive trail that led through an “island” of pine forest. We heard lots of birds in here, but the forest was too dense for a good view. We also spotted some Bahama Senna blooming right along the trail. Then we continued to Pay-Hay-Okee Overlook with great views of the River of Grass. Pay-hay-okee is a Seminole word for "grassy waters" and we had a nice view of the Shark River Slough from the elevated observation tower. On the short walk back, we passed through a cypress swamp. It's just amazing how different ecosystems lie so close together. By this time, it was getting later in the day and we were hungry so we continued to Flamingo and had lunch at Buttonwood Café. It was damaged in a hurricane and there wasn’t a lot of seating, so we were seated with a German couple for lunch. After lunch, we hiked the Guy Bradley Trail along Florida Bay to the campground. Near the entrance to the campground was an impressive nest with two ospreys. And a number of black vultures were drying their wings. After some pictures, we made our way back and departed the Everglades. We had dinner in Homestead at Sake Sushi and Thai and then got packed for a flight home in the morning.

Montana Visit: -

North Carolina Visit: 2016-2
2016-03-03 - Saturday, I headed to Pilot Mountain State Park for a nice late-winter hike. It was the first time this year I had the opportunity to hike outside of the Raleigh area. We met in the Chapel Hill area at 8 and carpooled out to Pilot Mountain, parking at the Corridor Trailhead parking along Pinnacle Hotel Road. We arrived a little after 930. Once everyone used the restrooms and got their stuff together, we started off on the trail around 10. Hiking across Pinnacle Hotel Road, we started on the red-blazed Mountain Trail. At the first intersection, we turned left to hike around the mountain. This was my first time hiking Pilot Mountain in the winter, though it didn’t feel much like winter. The temperatures were in the 60s and it was unseasonably warm. But the lack of leaves made for lovely winter views. It had also been a while since I had hiked at Pilot Mountain. The last time I was here, several years ago, the Mountain Trail was different. Back then, it led from the Corridor Trailhead parking to Ledge Springs Trail. Now, the Mountain Trail wrapped further around the mountain, intersecting with Grindstone Trail, a half-mile or so below the split with Ledge Springs Trail. Additionally, another part of the loop leads from the Visitor Center at the end of Grindstone Trail back around to the Corridor Trailhead parking lot. Hiking up the flank on Mountain Trail, we could see the distinctive monadnock peak high above. There were also great views of the surrounding countryside. In about 2 miles, we came to the rocky portion of the trail, below the cliffs of Ledge Springs Trail. In the past, the Mountain Trail had terminated near here, but not it went another mile or so to end at Grindstone Trail. When we made it to the end, we turned right on Grindstone Trail to head up to the summit. Most people in the group continued on Grindstone Trail, but John and I took the more scenic Ledge Springs Trail. Hiking below the massive cliffs and climbing over large rocks and stairs, I think this is the best trail in the park. We saw a handful of rock climbers scaling the rocky cliffs and soon made it to Jomeokee Trail at the saddle between the Big and Little Pinnacle. We turned right on Jomeokee Trail and once over to the Big Pinnacle, we found a nice rock outcrop to sit and eat lunch. Across the saddle, we could see the Little Pinnacle Overlook with people enjoying the view. After lunch, we made a quick loop around the Big Pinnacle. There are great views of the surrounding Piedmont landscape. The massive cliffs that make up the Big Pinnacle are quite impressive close up. From a distance, you don’t get a good idea of how big they are. We could see, but not hear, a raptor roosting high above. I also found a really cool tree growing out of the side of the cliffs. Once we finished the loop, we started heading back. We made a quick stop at Little Pinnacle Overlook for great views of the Big Pinnacle and the Sauratown Mountains in the background. Then we headed to the summit parking lot to take the Grindstone Trail back down. I stopped for one more picture from an overlook, then we started hiking down. We followed Grindstone Trail all the way back down to the visitor center, briefly got on the Grassy Ridge Trail and then picked up the Mountain Trail back to our cars. Total distance was about 10.5 miles. The weather had been so nice, it was great to feel like spring was finally on its way.

Tennessee Visit: -
No reports or photos on:

Balearic Islands
British Columbia
Costa Rica (mainland)
District of Columbia
Dry Tortugas
Georgia, State
Ireland, Republic of
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
Northern Ireland
Rhode Island
Society Islands
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia