I was fresh off the loss of her, hadn’t made it more than 10 hours without a full-body cry and I was probably running from the devastating emptiness of a single-dog house. But, I was there, in Montana. Work sent me there, and I, being an opportunist, added an adventure to the backend of the work. It was a decision I’d made before I lost her, one I kept in the immediate wake of the loss. An escape, I thought, might help with the healing.
Really, I’m a little surprised it took me so long to hurt myself while alone in the wilderness. I am clumsy. I trip often and without reason. Sometimes my ankles roll out from under me, just for fun, as if they have better things to do than keep me upright. I am forever knocking into things, dinging myself lightly on furniture, cabinetry, sun shades and dog paws. I stab myself in the eye with a mascara wand at least once a week, never mind that I’ve been wearing mascara daily for more than 20 years.
I found the trail two years ago, back in 2018 when I first visited Death Valley National Park. It wasn’t a planned hike. I didn’t even know there was a trail there, didn’t even know what it was called. As soon as I saw it though, I knew I was meant to take it.
I’d followed a long, winding, bumpy, gravel and pit-ridden road for 26 miles to get there, to get to the Racetrack. It’s this far-flung and magical place in Death Valley. It’s a place where stones float themselves across the floor of the desert, gouging a path as they go. It’s a place where you can be totally alone in a vast and incredible desert.
I wasn’t 10 minutes into the park when I felt the overwhelming need to remove my bra. It wasn’t the right kind of bra for such an adventure. It was a polite society bra, the kind you wear to the grocery store, to dinner, to work, to anywhere but the wild. It wasn’t a bra I could sweat in, and, given my arrival into the desert, it was time to sweat.
I really, really needed this trip. I needed to get out of town, to put on my pack and walk into the woods. I needed to spend a few hours in the car, music up and windows down. I needed to be alone in the woods, to take myself to dinner, to drink new beers, to catch up with one of my oldest friends. I just needed to go.
Ugh, you guys, Death Valley is so good. It's so good I cried on the way into the park. It was so pretty, so breathtaking, so different and so brilliant that it brought fat, literal tears to my eyes, tears so fucking big they rolled down my cheeks.
This is surprising to me because I've always thought of myself a forest creature, but here I am, spending all my vacation time in the desert, scaring lizards from their sun-soaked perches, guzzling water by the gallon, talking to cactus friends and falling madly, deeply and truly in love with America's deserts.
Shenandoah is, in a way, my home park. I was born in the mountains that it protects and I grew up driving up and down the Skyline Drive, but I think I took it for granted and, as a kid, I was restricted to whatever the adults wanted to do, which mostly wasn’t hiking. Plus, I’m a very different sort of explorer than I was growing up, and so, I’ve promised myself I’ll be better about visiting Shenandoah this year, that I’ll hike more and explore and just do more.
When I first planned this adventure, way back in February, my aim was to see waterfalls. After some brief internet investigating, I decided to follow the advice of Hiking Upward and hike a 6.6 mile loop that started from the Brown’s Gap parking area and included part of the Appalachian Trail, the Jones Run Trail and the Doyles River Trail, which is also listed here as the Browns Gap Hike.
the APPALACHIAN TRAIL
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200 mile public footpath that follows the Appalachian Mountains from Maine all the way to Georgia. Finished in 1937, it was built by private citizens and today is managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a bunch of state agencies and thousands of volunteers. It’s a National Scenic Trail and, along it’s many miles, it winds through a total of nine states.
More than 500 miles of the A.T. goes through Virginia, including 104 miles that cuts through Shenandoah National Park. Secretly, I want to hike all of those miles, but on this particular adventure, I settled for starting my hike with 1.4 miles of the A.T, which I picked up on the other side of the Skyline Drive from the parking lot at Brown’s Gap.
The A.T. is white-blazed and easy to follow and I spent the mile and a half of my hike along the A.T. thinking that yes, this whole hiking thing is a thing I want to do more of and maybe I might even be convinced to carry a bunch of shit on my back across many, many miles just for the chance to go further and deeper into the wild.
the JONES RUN TRAIL
From the A.T., I turned left to head downhill on the blue-blazed Jones Run Trail and, after following Jones Run for a while, I hit the first set of falls after 1.6 miles, followed by the main falls in another tenth of a mile.
I can’t explain the magic of waterfalls. There’s a draw there, obviously, or people wouldn’t trek miles and miles just to catch a glimpse of one.
After the waterfalls, I followed the trail for just over half a mile as it ran alongside and then crossed Jones Run. Shortly after the crossing, I turned left and headed up-hill and away from Jones Run onto blue-blazed Doyles River Trail.
the DOYLES RIVER TRAIL
1. THE GLACIER NATIONAL PARK BEAR.
Y’all, I’m obsessed. At Glacier National Park there is a bear. A black bear who lives in a cottonwood tree. This bear was first observed on March 23rd as it slowly woke up from the deep slumber of hibernation. Knowing that sometimes a bear hibernates in this tree, the incredible folks at Glacier set up a webcam in advance of bear-waking-up season and so now you can watch this bear participate in bear shenanigans 24/7.
For a good part of the day, the bear lazes about, sometimes out of sight inside the den. It hasn’t left the cottonwood tree yet, but it does frequently frolic among the branches of the tree, sometimes even getting in fights with sticks. The bear has also been spotted making worried faces at a visiting bird, licking snow off the edges of their den, yawning, stretching, making den renovations, staring down at the ground which is very far away, and also just being a bear and doing bear things.
I’ve seen a few bears in the wild, in both Alaska and Virginia, and I’ve seen bears in the zoo, but this is a totally different sort of thing. It is a for-real wild bear living its best bear life doing bear things and it’s maybe the best thing the internet has ever given me.
I acquired a cold over the weekend and spent Sunday and Monday on the couch in full recovery mode. It was the first cold I’ve had in a really long time – months, for sure, maybe even more than year. The cold was over pretty quickly and it never reached the most awful level, and I’m going to go ahead and give the credit to the Zicam Fruit Drops I popped at the onset. I take them whenever I travel and whenever I start to feel a tickle in my throat or a sniffle in my nose and I swear they’re a big part of why I’ve been so healthy this winter.
I know I’m late to the party on this, like always, but I watched every single episode of GLOW – which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling – while I was sick, and, you guys, IT’S SO GOOD. I’m just sad I now have to wait for the next season because I NEED IT.
4. DOG WALKS.
One of the things I wanted to be better about this year was taking my fake wolves for walks, and with spring weather here for a few days, me and the pups have taken some delightful walks this week. I think we made it out three times, each time walking for a few miles. They love it, I get my steps in and being out in the sun was a welcome change after feeling so shitty over the weekend.
5. THE HIKE I FINALLY GOT TO GO ON.
I’d ended up there by chance. The original plan had been to fly roundtrip from Phoenix, spending a night or two there before heading north to Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and some of the smaller national monuments in northern Arizona. When rental car prices topped $400, I called foul and starting exploring other options, like flying into Tucson and out of Phoenix, and, amazingly, car rentals from Tucson to Phoenix were less than half of what a roundtrip car from Phoenix would have cost.
So I bought the plane tickets, booked the hotel rooms, the car and redesigned my itinerary to include Tucson and, most importantly, Saguaro National Park, which sandwiches Tucson between the Tucson Mountain District in the west and the Rincon Mountain District in the east.
HISTORY OF SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
In 1933, President Herbert Hoover established Saguaro National Monument, then just a portion of what is today the Rincon Mountain District of the park. Talk of creating a place to preserve the iconic saguaro cactus plants had started in 1920, with members of the University of Arizona’s Natural History Society. When Hoover established the national monument, it didn’t get much notice, but it was a big deal for the people of Arizona who worked hard to protect the saguaros.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred management of Saguaro to the National Park Service later in 1933, and the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Cactus Forest Loop Drive along with additional infrastructure. The national monument open to the public in the 1950s.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy added 16,000 acres to the monument, including what is now the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro. In 1994, Congress combined the two districts and redesignated Saguaro as a National Park with a total of 91,716 acres.
RINCON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT: SAGUARO NP’S EAST SIDE
I visited the east side of Saguaro National Park first, mostly because it was closest to my hotel. I was there just after the park opened at 7 a.m., and immediately jumped on the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, a paved one-way, eight-mile loop that circles the western side of the Rincon Mountain District. The drive includes numerous pull-offs, trailheads for short and long hikes, picnic areas and countless opportunities to get up close and personal with saguaros.
For an easy introduction to the desert, the Desert Ecology Trail highlights some of the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, is paved and just 1/4 mile in length. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail, and it’s also wheelchair accessible.
The park includes around 195 miles of trails, so whether you’re looking for a quick scamper or a wilderness hike, Saguaro has it. Part of the Arizona National Scenic Tail, which runs for 800 miles from the Mexican border to Utah, also cuts through the park.
After I drove the Cactus Forest Loop, I stopped in at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center to pick up a park patch and get some hiking advice. From there, I headed north, to the start of the Douglas Spring Trail and followed it to Bridal Wreath Falls, located about 2.7 miles down the trail. The path was rocky and gained about 1,000 feet in elevation by the time I got to the falls, but it was well worth the effort and provided some absolutely stunning views of Tucson.
TUCSON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT: SAGUARO NP’S WEST SIDE
After my hike I took a taco break, checked in to my hotel & headed to the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. Depending on traffic, the two park districts are about 45 minutes apart. The east side of the park is slightly bigger and the includes a paved road, but the west side felt denser, more populated with visitors and, allegedly has a denser population of saguaros. That said, both sides include many miles of trails, large wilderness areas and an enormous saguaro population.
That first night I stuck to the main road leading into the park and wandered through the Desert Discovery Nature Trail as the sun set. Like the Desert Ecology Trail in the Rincon Mountain District, this is a short, paved loop that’s easily accessible and dog-friendly.
The next morning I headed first to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It’s not part of Saguaro National Park, but it’s right on the border of the park and provides an in-depth education on the Sonoran Desert and the plants and animals that live there. It’s part zoo, part museum and part desert botanical garden and houses 230 animal species and 1,200 plant varieties.
After the museum, I headed back into Saguaro National Park, stopping first at the Red Hills Visitor Center and then heading out to drive the unpaved six miles of the Bajada Scenic Loop. Like the loop drive in the eastern district, the Bajada Scenic Loop includes several scenic overlooks, trailheads and picnic areas.
During the drive, I stopped at almost every opportunity to take in the desert views, including at the Valley View Overlook Trail. The trail is short, steep and rocky and leads through two washes and then up a ridge to a view of the Avra Valley.
I also trekked the easy quarter mile out and back to Signal Hill, where you can easily see dozens of petroglyphs. I saw petroglyphs for the first time in New Mexico last year and seeing these remnants of past civilizations continues to impress and amaze me.
Both sides of the park are really, really incredible. I’m a Virginia girl and seeing the saguaros and the rest of the pricker-covered plants of the desert felt like entering a different world. The forests I walked through at Saguaro National Park are a totally different kind of forest than I’ve ever walked before and I’m so glad I ended up in Tucson and was able to explore this incredible place.
If you’re planning your own adventure to Saguaro National Park:
- drink a lot of water and then after you think you’ve done that, drink a bunch more.
- wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun off your beautiful face.
- get off the road and hike, either on one of the park’s many short trails or on a longer, bumpier, rock-filled and cactus-lined trail.
- stop for tacos and a Sonoran hot dog to keep you fueled for adventure time.
- explore both sides of the park; they’re different and similar and even after thinking about it for a week, I’m still not sure which one is my favorite.
- mind the weather, as summer temperatures can make the park unbearable in the afternoon hours.
Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District is open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset daily and the Rincon Mountain District is open to vehicles from 7 a.m. to sunset daily. You can walk or bike into the park 24 hours a day. Visitors centers are open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas) from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is free with an American the Beautiful pass, or $15 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle and $5 per person entering the park on foot or on a bicycle. To ensure you arrive at your intended park district,
use the addresses listed here
In New Mexico, I visited my two favorite parks on the same day. I started at Valles Caldera, arriving just after the gates opened at 8 a.m., snagged a pass to drive the preserve’s bumpy, pocked road and then let myself go. I danced in the middle of the road, sang at the top of my lungs and howled at the mountains, streams and fields. Then, I went to Bandelier National Monument to put myself back together.
Bandelier is very different from Valles Caldera. It is more established, with screaming children, confused tourists, a snack shop and a large gift store, all contained within the visitors center compound. At Valles Caldera, there’s a ranger station with a few t-shirts and magnets for sale and little else. I relished the solitude I found at Valles Caldera, but I wasn’t without it at Bandelier.
Due to limited parking, summer visits to Bandelier require visitors to ride a shuttle into the park between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., so I, being a sassy asshole, waited until 3 p.m. to enter the park. I stopped first in the visitor center where a very patient and kind volunteer was on the phone trying to explain all the park had to offer to what was a decidedly confused tourist. From there, I set out on the Main Loop Trail, the park’s most popular and accessible trail.
The Main Loop Trail is just 1.2 miles long, well-maintained and partially-paved with a few narrow stairways and ladders along the route that allows visitors the opportunity to climb into cavates, or small human-carved alcoves that once served as homes of the Ancestral Pueblo People who carved the cavates between 1150 and 1600 A.D.
I was there in early October, late in the afternoon, and the trail was somewhat crowded. I waited at the bottom of each ladder for my turn to climb into the cavates, standing there sheepishly while couples and kids climbed the ladders, posed for a kiss or a goofy look. At first, I felt silly taking my own turn in these spaces while groups waited for me to finish my own experience. But I wanted my own turn to climb the ladder, to peer out at the canyon floor and the ruins of the civilization and it occurred to me, as I squatted in one of the cavates that my enjoyment of the place and my right to experience it was not diminished just because I was alone.
While the Main Loop Trail provided an excellent introduction to Bandelier National Monument, the real magic came later, when I started on the half-mile trail to the Alcove House.
For starters, I met a tarantula.
The Alcove House sits 140 above the canyon floor and was once home to around 25 Ancestral Pueblo People. It’s accessible via four wooden ladders and a handful of stone steps.
I climbed up and up and up and again I was surprised at how difficult the effort felt. I’d been in New Mexico for a few days at that point but the elevation – around 7,000 feet above sea level – was still kicking my ass.
Plus, ladders are sort of scary.
At the top, there was one other group loudly exclaiming over the view. I took a group photo of them when they asked and then they headed back down, their chatter disappearing almost as soon as they did, and then I was alone, standing 140 feet up in an alcove that someone used to call home before America was even a thing.
I could see people on the trail below me and I knew I wasn’t really alone, knew that there were surely other guests making their way up the ladders to the Alcove, but for those few minutes, I felt alone in the best sort of way. It’s hard to capture it, that perfect, good sort of alone-ness. It isn’t lonely, not at all. It just feels right, like you’re there, alone, exactly as you should be.
As I left the park and headed back to my Airbnb llama farm in Santa Fe, I decided I hadn’t had enough. I wanted more of Bandelier. So, I woke up early the next morning and trekked back out there, before the sun was even up. I didn’t go back to the main part of the park. Instead, I went to Tsankawi, located about 12 miles before the main entrance right on State Highway 4. There’s a parking lot there and a 1.5-mile loop trail that opens at dawn.
Tsankawi, like the other sites at Bandelier National Monument, was home to Ancestral Pueblo People and was probably inhabited from the 15th century to the late 16th century. The trail there follows an ancient path, one worn by hundreds of years of foot traffic. It winds up to the top of a mesa, past a few cavates and over the ruined remains of hundreds of pieces of pottery.
At Tsankawi, I was completely alone and it seemed astounding to me that in our busy and complex world I could still stand in the middle of a hundreds-year-old footpath carved by the bare and sandaled feet of a people who lived there while Christopher Columbus was sailing around and getting lost. I stopped on the top of the mesa, trying to imagine what the village could have looked like, scouring the ground to look at pottery fragments, trying to imagine the bustle of a long-gone community.
I thought, going out there, that it would feel haunted, but it didn’t, not in a spooky way. It felt alive still, like the ground still remembered what life there was like, like the spirit of the place was still very much alive and present.
Bandelier National Monument is open dawn to dusk and the visitors center is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Backcountry camping and exploring is available with a permit. Admission to Bandelier National Monument is $20 per vehicle and that pass is good for a full seven days. If you’re planning to visit a few National Parks in a year, consider purchasing an annual pass for $80 which will grant you access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, or, if you’re a member of the military, pick up your free annual pass.