Bolivia Southwest Circuit Tour

by Cassie, September 10th, 2011 | No Comments

We went on an amazing four day tour of southwest Bolivia! We traveled through an incredible variety of scenery. We started in Tupiza, which has landscapes similar to the southwest of the US.

El Sillar outside Tupiza

On the second day of the tour, we began entering the salt flats. However, the first salt flat consisted of borax, not salt. The borax was being harvested for export to Chile where they use it for manufacturing porcelein.

Laguna Hedienda, which means lake that smells because of the sulfur

 

Laguna Verde and Volcan Licanabur

Laguna Verde is the beautiful green color due to the minerals in the water. However, the water is toxic, so you cannot drink it. Volcan Lincanbur is one of the highest mountains in Bolivia at 5,890 meters.

Geysers at almost 5,000 meters

These geysers are part of a volcanic system, and the smell of sulfur pervades the air around the geysers. Some of the geysers are pools of bubbling mud, and it is mesmerizing to watch, similar to a lava lamp.

Laguna Colorada with lots of flamingos

Laguna Colorada is a red color due to the algae in the water. The lake is full of flamingos! Normally, you associate flamingos with warm, tropical climates, but these are high altitude flamingos that are adapted to the cold weather. When we drove by Laguna Colorada the next morning, it was partially iced over!

Arbol de Piedra: Tree of Stone

The Arbol de Pierdra is next to a bunch of volcanic rocks. The Arbol de Piedra has eroded so much at the bottom that it is amazing that it is still standing. We got to climb on the other rocks, but it was not allowed to climb on the Arbol de Piedra. :)

Lake with lots of flamingos!

 

High altitude flamingos!

On the third day of the tour, we stopped at a few lakes, and each one of them had lots of flamingos!

On the final day of the tour, we got up early to watch the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni from the Isla Incahuasi. The sunrise was beautiful, and the salt flats seemed like a big white sea.

Sunrise at Isla Incahuasi

Gigantic cactus at Isla Incahuasi

Isla Incahuasi used to be a coral reef in the ancient sea that covered the Salar de Uyuni. Now, it is covered in gigantic cacti. The current largest cactus is 9 meters tall, and it is 900 years old. The previous largest cactus died in 2007, and it was 12 meters tall and over 1200 years old!

Crazy photos on the Salar de Uyuni

With the white of the Salar de Uyuni, you can take crazy photos where the perspective is totally unreal! We had an amazing time our our tour of southwest Bolivia! Check out the rest of the photos!

 

Tupiza

by Cassie, September 10th, 2011 | No Comments

Tupiza is in the far south of Bolivia near the border with Argentina, and the landscape is similar to the southwest of the US. Tupiza also has cacti that are similar to the Saguaro cacti in the Sonora Desert in Arizon and Mexico. Nearby Tupiza is the town of San Vincente, and this where the famous train robbers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were finally cornered and killed by Bolivian soldiers. We spent a couple days in Tupiza arranging our tour of the salt flats, and we hiked through a canyon outside the city. Our hotel had a pool, and in the afternoon, the temperature was perfect for a swim!

 

Train from Oruro to Tupiza

by Cassie, September 10th, 2011 | No Comments

After our third try, we finally made it on the train from Oruro to Tupiza! Last year, the train was shut down by the road blockages from the border conflict between Oruro and Potosi. We also tried to go to Oruro from La Paz the previous Friday, but there was an auto race that shut down the roads. But, we finally made it by bus to Oruro, and we bought our train tickets to Tupiza. However, trains in Bolivia were not as nice as we expected. The train car was supposed to be heated, but there was no climate control at all. We boarded the train in the afternoon, and it was stifling hot in the car. At night, as we crossed the Altiplano, it was freezing cold in the train car. The experience on the Bolivian train made me appreciate Amtrak for all its problems. And, I have been on an Amtrak train when the engine broke down and passed by an Amtrak train crash on my way out of Chicago. When we finally arrived in Tupiza at 4am, we were really ready to get off the train and get warmed up. But, we made it to Tupiza, and it is the farthest south we have ever been!

View from train of Lake Poopos south of Oruro, and there were flamingos in the lake!

We finally arrived in Tupiza at 4am!

Bike Ride down World´s Most Dangerous Road

by Cassie, September 1st, 2011 | No Comments

We had a lot of fun biking down the World´s Most Dangerous Road! The road got its title because about 300 people per year died driving along the road, and as a result, they built a newer road between La Paz and Coroico to prevent road deaths. It would definitely be scary to drive along the road, but it is a lot of fun to ride down the road on the bike. There are sharp curves with steep cliffs on the edge of the road. The scenery is beautiful starting in the snow covered mountains and descending 3,500 meters to end in the jungle. Since the new road has been constructed, there is barely any traffic on the old road, so it was safe to ride down on a bike. In fact, most of the traffic on the road now is tourists riding bikes. We only encountered two vehicles while we were riding down the road. We ended the ride in Coroico, and we spent a day relaxing at a lovely campsite there.

Starting the bike ride in the high mountains

World´s Most Dangerous Road winding its way down the mountains

Our taxi from Yolosa to Coroico broke down right before we got to town. The car made a horrible noise and stopped running, and then, it wouldn´t start again. It wasn´t too big of a deal, and we just hiked the remaining way to Coroico.

Relaxing at our lovely campsite in Coroico with WiFi!

View of the Yungas mountains

Takesi Trek

by Cassie, August 31st, 2011 | No Comments

This time, we went on a different trek that starts in the high mountains and goes down into the tropical Yungas mountains. The trek was a lot of fun, but it was tough. Plus, the weather didn´t cooperate with us very much. We spent the first day hiking through the amazing Palca Canyon with 100 meter high walls. However, the canyon walls were not made of stone, instead they were made of mud. We could see places where huge chunks of mud had fallen down.

Palca Canyon

The next day we went over a pass of 4,670 meters, and the weather turned as we went over the pass. It became very cold and a wind was blowing clouds over the pass. When we got to the pass, we couldn´t see anything after all the hard work of climbing the pass!

Start of Takesi trek

Hiking up to the pass on old Inca trail

At the pass

The next day, the weather cleared up in the morning, but it clouded in later in the morning. For a while, we were hiking in the clouds, but finally, we hiked below the clouds and had views of the mountains again. We spent our third night camped next to a river. We were supposed to cross a suspension bridge, but it had been destroyed. Instead, we had to cross a unstable, makeshift log bridge.

Hiking down the valley on the old Inca Trail

Crossing the river along this makeshift log bridge

The final day, we continued hiking down into the Yungas moutains. Part of the trail had been destroyed by a landslide, so we had to go on a detour. We also were supposed to go on another detour around an unstable concrete bridge, but we missed the detour and crossed the bridge anyway. The bridge was really scary with no guardrails, and the concrete slabs rocked as you walked across them. Below the bridge was a steep mountainside, so it definitely got your heart pumping to get across. But, we made it across safely.

Hiking through the jungle

Yungas mountains

Crossing scary concrete bridge

Then, we had an adventure getting back to La Paz from the end of the trek. We went to the mining town of Chollja, but the next bus didn´t leave until 5am the next morning. The town didn´t have good prospects for a clean hostal to stay the night, so we continued hiking to the nicer town of Yanacachi. We spent the night in Yanacachi in basic, clean accomodations, and we arrived at the place to get the micro back to La Paz at 4:30am. However, the road was blocked due to some workers striking, so it seemed that we might not be able to get back to La Paz from Yanacachi. So, we began hiking down to the main road past the road blockage where we could catch a bus going back to La Paz. As we were hiking, the micro going from Yanacachi to La Paz came by. The driver was planning to try to get through the blockade, so we hopped in for the ride. We arrived at the road blockage, and somehow, the driver convinced the striking workers to let us through. First, the strikers had to look into the micro to make sure we were okay. Apparently, we didn´t look too suspicious because we were let through the road blockage, and we made it back to La Paz!

Back in Bolivia!

by Cassie, August 26th, 2011 | No Comments

We had so much fun last time we were in Bolivia that we decided to come back again this summer! Because of the road blockages due to the border conflict between Oruro and Potosi, we didn´t make it to the salt flats last summer. So, we had a reason to return!

View of La Paz from the airplane

Calle Linares- right outside our hotel

Mt. Illimani

Plaza San Francisco

Last summer, Plaza San Francisco was under construction, and now it is all done. It is really nice now with steps to sit on to munch on the snacks we bought on the plaza. We also played with some kids who came up to us asking what our hand sanitizer was. :)

Feeding the pigeons at Plaza Murillo

Traffic zebras!

Best Hiking and Camping in Iowa

by Cassie, June 24th, 2011 | 4 Comments

We were talking with the Iowa Outdoor Unlimited group about places to hike and camp while backpacking at Yellow River State Forest. While sharing our favorite places with the group, we thought it would be great idea to compile a list of the best places to hike and camp in Iowa to share with others. If you have other places you like to hike or camp in Iowa, add a comment!

Hiking

Prairies

1. Chachaqua Bottoms Greenbelt

Chachaqua Bottoms Greenbelt is part of the Polk County park system. It is northeast of Des Moines past Bondurant on Hwy 65, and it is only about a half hour drive from Des Moines. There is a small campground, and a set of trails by the South Skunk River. My favorite place in the park is a small prairie at the Sand Hill Unit on NE 118th St. One year, I was hiking through the prairie, and the prairie grasses were over 10 feet high. As I walked along the mowed path, I could not see anything but the tall grasses on either side. The experience put me in the shoes of the pioneers that first came to Iowa and all they saw was an endless landscape of prairie.

2. Jacob Krumm Nature Preserve

Krumm is a nature preserve close to I-80 right before you reach Grinnell. There are 5.25 miles of trails with two loops. One loop goes around a reconstructed prairie, and a second loop goes around a dammed lake. The loops are connected with a short trail. The prairie is especially beautiful when the flowers are in bloom.

3. Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge

Neal Smith is the largest reconstruction of tall grass prairie in the US with over 5,000 acres of prairie. The size of the prairie is amazing. It is also a wildlife refuge, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see bison and elk. I was fortunate to see the herd of bison up close right next to the fence by the road. There are five miles of trails. In addition to the Tallgrass Trail by the Prairie Learning Center, I also recommend the Savanna Trail. The Savanna Trail goes through an ancient forest of burr oak trees. Neal Smith is near Prairie City, and it is about 40 minutes from Des Moines.

Bison at Neal Smith

Burr Oak Trees on Savanna Trail

Des Moines Area

1. Brown’s Woods

Brown’s Woods is part of the Polk County park system. It offers two miles of trails. It is the nicest hike in the woods in the Des Moines area.

2. Walnut Woods State Park

Walnut Woods has 2.5 miles of trails. The trails wind along the Raccoon River and through the woods. There is also an area where they feed the birds, and they have a bird blind where you watch the birds as they feed. It is also a great place to have a picnic.

3. Raccoon River Park

Raccoon River Park is part of the West Des Moines park system. It has a 3.2 mile trail that loops the lake and also goes along the Raccoon River.

4. Gray’s Lake Park

Gray’s Lake is part of the Des Moines park system. It has 1.9 mile trail around the lake. Since the trail is all paved, it is not really hiking, but it is a fun walk. It is especially nice to walk around the lake at night with the bridge lit up and the Des Moines skyline as the backdrop. There are also lots of activities going on at the lake, and you can rent paddle boats, canoes, kayaks, and sailboats at the lake. During May through September, they do Full Moon Floats on the lake where you can rent a boat and paddle around the lake under the moonlight.

5. Waterworks Park

You can hike along an “unofficial” trail that follows the river to the left after the footbridge over the Des Moines River. It used to be better marked, but with the recent flooding, it is harder to find your way. But, it is good place to make your own trail and explore the woods along the river. There are also bridle trails that you can hike along. Another option is to hike along the Bill Riley bike trail, and when you get to the railroad bridge, cross the railroad bridge to hike along the mountain bike trails. Also, if you want to feed the horses along the Bill Riley bike trail, brings some carrots. :)

6. Lake Ahquabi State Park

Lake Ahquabi has nice wooded, hilly five mile trail around the lake. Lake Ahquabi is south of Indianola.

Other Hikes

The Hiking Iowa Falcon Guide has a lot of great hikes in it. Hikes I recommend are:

#7 Mines of Spain Recreation Area

This is a neat hike near Dubuque by the Mississippi River.

#22 Lacey-Keosaqua State Park

I grew up near this state park, and it has a lovely hike around the lake. It has lovely stone bridges along the trail that were build by the CCC.

Camping

Central Iowa

All of the these campgrounds (except Pine Lake) are within an hour’s drive of Des Moines.

1. Ledges State Park

When hiking in Ledges, you do not feel like you are in Iowa. The amazing sandstone cliffs are unusual and unique in Iowa. While at Ledges, I recommend putting on your sandals and creek-stomping to see the cliffs up close. The hike to Lost Lake has a great overlook of the Des Moines River.

The campground at Ledges has hike-in campsites, and they are only a short hike from the parking lot. If possible, I recommend camping at the hike-in sites for a more secluded campsite. Ledges is near Boone, and it is about an hour drive from Des Moines.

Sandstone cliffs

Overlook of Des Moines River

2. Pine Lake State Park

Pine Lake has over 10 miles of trails. The campground is next to the upper lake, and there is a trail from the campground that goes to the lower lake and loops around the lake. The pines trees on lower lake loop are 250 years old. There is another trail that goes along the Iowa River. Pine Lake also has cabins that open year round, and it is a great place to rent a cabin during the winter.

Pine Lake is near Eldora, and it is about an hour and a half drive from Des Moines.

Pine Lake Cabin

3. Rock Creek State Park

Rock Creek is near Grinnell, and it is about an hour drive from Des Moines. The state park is at a dammed lake. The campground is huge with 200 campsites. Rock Creek is a great place to camp during the summer because: 1) You are guaranteed to get a campsite without a reservation even on the nicest weekend 2) The area for tents is in a spacious area away from the RVs. The park has lots of trails around the lake. Also, Rock Creek is nearby Jacob Krumm Nature Preserve, so you can also go hiking there.

4. Elk Rock State Park

Elk Rock State Park is on Lake Red Rock near Pella, and it is about an hour drive from Des Moines. There is a separate loop in the campground for tents, so you can be separate from the RVs. The park has 13 miles of trails. Elk Rock also has an equestrian campground, so you’re likely to run into horseback riders on the trails. A side trip from Elk Rock is Cordova Park. Cordova Park has a 106 foot observation tower with great views of the lake and surrounding area. Make sure you have change when you visit Cordova Park because it is 50 cents to go up in the tower, and you must have exact change.

Camping at Lake Red Rock

Cordova Park Tower

5. Pammel Park

Pammel Park is in Madison County near Winterset, and it is about a 50 minute drive from Des Moines. The campground is smaller with only 36 campsites. They also have yurt cabins available to rent. There are only 5 miles of trails at the park, but it has a neat backbone ridge that is similar to the rock formations seen at Backbone State Park. The park is next to the Middle River, and for a little excitement, drive across the Middle River Ford.

Pammel Park Backbone

Driving across Middle River Ford

Eastern Iowa

1. Yellow River State Forest

Yellow River is in the northeast corner of Iowa, so it is a long drive of over four hours to get there from Des Moines. Yellow River is the best place to go backpacking in Iowa. There are over 25 miles of trails, and there are four backcountry campsites. The terrain is hilly, so it is good place to get in shape for a backpacking trip in the mountains.

2. Pikes Peak State Park

Pikes Peaks is also in the northeast corner of Iowa, and it is a long drive of over four hours from Des Moines. Pikes Peak and Yellow River State Forest are right next to each other. Pikes Peak is on the Mississippi River, and it has impressive 500 foot bluffs. There is an amazing view of the Mississippi River from the park. The park has 10 miles of trails. The MacGregor family protected the forest in the park from logging, so the trails go through old growth forest. The park also has some Indian mounds, and Effigy Mounds National Monument is nearby. The nearby town of MacGregor is also neat to walk through with its preserved historic buildings.

3. Backbone State Park

Backbone was Iowa’s first state park, and it is one of the most popular state parks. Backbone is named for its narrow and steep ridge of bedrock carved by a loop of the Maquoketa River. Backbone is a great park for hiking, and it has 21 miles of trails. Since Backbone is a popular park, it is recommended to reserve a campsite before camping. Backbone is a three hour drive from Des Moines.

Looking down at Maquoketa River from Backbone ridge

4. Maquoketa Caves State Park

Maquoketa Caves has hilly and rocky terrain similar to Backbone, and true to its name, there are a series of caves at the park. Most of the caves require spelunking to explore, but the Dancehall Cave is so large that the hiking trail goes through it. There is also a natural rock bridge next to the Dancehall Cave. Right now, the caves are closed to help slow a disease known as white-nose syndrome that is killing bats across the eastern half of the United States. Maquoketa Caves is a 3 1/2 hour drive from Des Moines. Maquoketa Caves is a popular park for camping, and when we went, we didn’t have a reservation and found the campground was full. Luckily, we found a primitive camping area nearby at Joinerville County Park. The campground is in a small area between a road and river, so watch out for people driving by late at night. Maquoketa Caves is especially beautiful in the fall.

Natural Stone Bridge

Campground at Joinerville County Park

Western Iowa

Loess Hills: Preparation Canyon State Park

The Loess Hills are my favorite camping spot in Iowa. It’s the closest you will get to mountains in Iowa. The hills rise dramatically 200 feet above the flat Missouri River Valley. The Loess Hills are a unique geological formation that is only present in one other place in the world, the Yellow River in China. The Loess Hills are formed of a fine, light silt, and the hills have unique stair step terraces that form on the sides of the hills. The Loess Hills are about 2 hours and 45 minutes from Des Moines.

We usually camp at the hike-in campsites at the primitive campground at Preparation Canyon State Park. There is no water available at the trailhead, so make sure to bring enough water or a water purifier to get water from the creek. Preparation Canyon has lots of trails through the hills. In addition to the trails at Preparation Canyon, there is another great hike in Loess Hills State Forest by the Loess Hills Overlook Platform. From the overlook, you can hike along the ridges of the hills (Hike #38 in Hiking Iowa Falcon Guide). Another great hike near Pisgah is the Murray Hill Scenic Overlook.

View from Murray Hill Overlook

The last time we went to Loess Hills, we went to the Loess Hills Wildlife Management Area- Sylvan Runkel State Preserve, which is the location of the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar. We tried to follow the hike #37 in the Hiking Iowa Falcon Guide, but we had trouble finding the trail. Luckily, we ran into a couple who worked for the DNR, and they showed us this amazing unmarked trail that follows a high ridge in the hills. Primitive camping is allowed in the Loess Hills Wildlife Management Area, so we hiked up the ridge and camped on top of the ridge. To get to the “unofficial” trail, follow the directions to the Oak Avenue/178th Street parking area in the Hiking Iowa book. Drive west along 178th Street from the parking area and park at another parking area on the right. Here is a map. From the parking area, start hiking towards the ridge. You’ll hike by a field, and then you should see a faint trail that climbs up the ridge.

Hiking along the ridge at Sylvan Runkel

"Cat step" terraces on the side of the hills

Recommended parks I have not visited:

1. Palisades-Kepler State Park

“The 80 acre park lies along the Cedar River in Linn County with dramatic river bluffs, deep ravines, majestic hardwood trees, wildflowers, and wildlife.”

Six miles of hiking trails.

Located 12 miles from Cedar Rapids.

2. Bellevue State Park

“High bluffs with scenic views of the Mississippi River, 770 acres with timbered walking trails, a butterfly sanctuary, and an enclosed nature center are just some of the features that make this park special.”

1.85 mile trail in the Nelson Unit, and 3.9 miles out and back on trail in the Dyas Unit.

Located 21 miles south of Dubuque.

3. Wildcat Den State Park

“One of the most unusual in Iowa, it combines natural beauty and solitude, preservation of historical structures, trails, and camping.”

4.5 miles of trails along beautiful bluffs and rock outcroppings.

Located 10 miles east of Muscatine and 15 miles west of Davenport.

4. Wilson Island State Park

“The park was first an island sandbar in 1900. Today it encompasses 544 acres of secluded parkland where deer, geese, and eagles are abundant.” Five miles of hiking trails.

Located 11 miles from Missouri Valley and 25 miles from Council Bluffs.

Des Moines Register article on recommended parks:

Page One

Page Two

High Trestle Trail

by Cassie, April 28th, 2011 | No Comments

This weekend is the grand opening of the new High Trestle Trail from Ankeny to Woodward, and we took a sneak peak by riding along the trail last weekend. The trail was an old railway track that was decommissioned. The trail has been in the works for 8 years, and the highlight of the trail is its namesake, the High Trestle Bridge. The bridge is 1/2 mile long and 13 stories high, and it has an amazing view of the Des Moines River!

Here is a cool video by the City of Ankeny of riding along the High Trestle Trail
(the best part is riding across the bridge at 1:28):

Pennies on Train Tracks

by Cassie, March 25th, 2011 | No Comments

Jonathan and I had never put pennies on train tracks, so we decided to go try it out last weekend. We placed several different coins on the train tracks going through Water Works Park in Des Moines. Unfortunately, the trains do not come by very frequently, so we were not able to see the train run over the coins. We returned the next day, and none of the coins were still on the tracks! We looked all over, and then we spotted one of our coins! We managed to find all our coins, and every coin had been run over by the train! It rained the night before, so we think the rain may have knocked the coins off the tracks.

These are the pennies we put on the tracks, and they were completely flattened.

The coin on the left is a nickel, and the coin on the right is a quarter. Both coins were also completely flattened.

We placed a couple other coins at another spot along the tracks just beyond a bridge. These coins were still somewhat recognizable as coins and did not seem to have been hit with as much force as the other coins. We think this may have been because the train slowed down for the bridge, but we’re not sure exactly why these coins turned out differently. The smooth side of the coin was the side that was set face up on the tracks. The other side was rough with some bumps on it.

This is the smooth side of the coins.

This is the rough side of the coins

SavvyGoose.com

by Cassie, February 12th, 2011 | No Comments

Last year, I started working on a start-up, SavvyGoose.com, and we launched the site last week! Each weekday, SavvyGoose gives away an awesome prize and also offers the prize a discount. Check it out, and sign up to win a prize! Unfortunately, according the contest rules, immediate family members are not allowed to enter the sweepstakes. :( But, you can still buy the prize at a discount.