Winter Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain Park

Blue skies, fresh snow: what better Christmas present could you ask for?

On Christmas day, my husband, my dad, and I went snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a gorgeous sunny day, mild in temperature, with no wind—unusual in winter in the high mountains.

We parked at the Sprague Lake parking lot, which was fairly busy for a winter day—but then again, it was a holiday with perfect weather and lots of snow.

We three tramped past the lake and through the forest for a distance. So many of the pines were brown from pine beetles, but still it was beautiful: sun shining on snow crystals, the kodachrome-blue sky, the chatter of squirrels.

The snow squealed and crunched under our snowshoes. “Guess we won’t be sneaking up on any wildlife,” I joked.

Our outing was magical, and we stopped to admire a lovely view of Hallet’s Peak. Then we returned to the lake, where you could walk over ice to cross to the other side. A lot of families were out—many of them from out of town. (Wearing tennis shoes in snow drifts is always a giveaway.) Some kids were sledding on a hill.

One young man without a coat—he looked like he was from India—was fascinated by my snowshoes and poles. “Are those skis?” he asked. I shook my head: “No, these are snowshoes.” I’m not sure if he understood, but he smiled as he watched us crunch away on them.

Rocky Mountain Park in winter

Our National Treasures

Meeting people from other parts of the country and world reminded me of what a treasure our national parks are. They’ve all been set aside as natural or historic preserves with little or no development allowed. They’re some of our country’s greatest natural wonders. They let people experience the magnificence of the outdoors in ways they otherwise might never have.

Although most visitors come during summer, Rocky Mountain Park is open year round—even for snow camping.

My father, who lives in Estes Park, Colo., hikes and snowshoes in Rocky Mountain Park year round.

There’s something special about visiting a national park in the off-season—like it’s a secret nobody else knows about. Normally there are few visitors, so you might get the place all to yourself.

Of course, quite a few people—many of them wearing Santa hats—were out on Christmas day. But it was a secret I’m glad to share.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Rocky Mountain National Park has 355 miles of hiking trails ranging from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs.

Protect the national parks you visit by following the Leave No Trace principles.

Originally published on December 27, 2010

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Christmas Market Dazzles in Wiesbaden, Germany

I grew up with a lot of German Christmas traditions, and for years I’ve thought going to a Christmas market in Germany, would be fun way to kick off the season. My hunch was right: Germany knows how to celebrate Christmas in an Old World way.

Wiesbaden’s Old Town Square fills with people enjoying the annual Christmas Market. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Wiesbaden, just a half-hour train ride from Frankfurt, hosts the lovely Sternschnuppen Market (sternschnuppe translates as “shooting star”). I was enthralled at its beauty, which combines traditional seasonal décor with contemporary lily-shaped light sculptures above the marketplace. (The lily, or fleur-de-lis, is on the town’s motif.) The whole affair—wooden huts where vendors sell foods and handcrafts—is held in the old town’s historic square, in the shadow of the church, or Marktkirche.

Tree ornaments are just some of the goods for sale at the Christmas Market. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At the annual market, locals and tourists alike gather to hear live music—one night I caught a quartet of alphorns (you just don’t hear that every day in the States!)—to shop, to mingle, and to toast the season with glühwein (hot, mulled wine sold in specially designed mugs that you either keep as a souvenir or return for your deposit).

Tempting Christmas cookies sold at the Sternschnuppen Market, Wiesbaden. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flavors of Christmas

I quickly discovered that German Christmas Markets and glühwein go hand in hand. When the temperatures drop, nothing warms you more than a mug of steaming red or white glühwein held between your mittens while you sip and chat with friends while admiring the Christmas lights.

And who can resist the aromas of cooking? There are plenty of traditional market foods as well, including bratwurst and other sausages of various kinds and sizes, and potato pancakes (kartoffelpuffer) served with applesauce.

The Germans are passionate about sausages. Giant grills cooked all types of bratwurst, including the long, half-meter brats (cut in half to fit them on a bun. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I tasted these yummy, crisp-fried treats with Wiesbaden’s mayor, who happened to be at the Puffer Christ’l stand at the same time as I was. Owner Christl Glöckner joined us and brought some white glühwein for us to share.

Through my handy translator and guide Yvonne Skala, of Wiesbaden Marketing, the newly elected mayor told me one of the things that makes the city’s Christmas Market so special is that the organizers select vendors who sell handmade or German-made crafts.” No “Made in China” stickers here.

Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) Sven Gerich and Christl Glöckner, owner of Puffer Christ’l potato pancake food truck, toast to the Wiesbaden Christmas Market with some glühwein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Indeed, as I browsed the huts, I found traditional ornaments, carvings, candles, nutcrackers, knitted gloves and hats, handmade lace, wooden toys, local cheeses and game, and more. For amusement, there’s a colorful, Baroque-style carousel for kids of all ages to ride.

Presiding over all the festivities is the high-spired, Marktkirche church, built in the mid-1800s.

As a special treat, Yvonne took me to the daily weekday 5:45 organ music inside this Protestant church. We sat in one of the pews and gazed at the star-painted ceilings and neo-Gothic arches while the organist pulled out all the stops on the pipe organ. Compared to the revelries outside, it’s a welcome, contemplative timeout for some reflection on the quieter side of Christmas. Visitors are welcome to stay for the following Advent church service, but we continued out into the marketplace.

Wooden incense smokers ©Laurel Kallenbach

Shelter and Relaxation

I stayed in posh digs in Wiesbaden: the Hotel Nassauer Hof, a historic hotel that has hosted the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, the Dalai Lama, and Vladimir Putin. Among the hotel’s many attributes was a location just a five-minute walk from the Christmas Market.

Another plus was that the Nassauer Hof has its own thermal spring, which feeds into the hotel pool. The result is naturally warmed mineral water, slightly salty, which buoys you up. Floating in heated water was the perfect antidote to several hours at the chilly outdoor market.

Another way to warm up during the Wiesbaden winter is in the saunas, steam rooms, and mineral baths at the Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme. This spa is built on the ruins of the ancient Roman baths, and the current baths were built in 1913, and restored for the centenary. I’ll blog more about this later, but it’s a truly unique place to visit and “take the waters.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(Originally posted on December 21, 2103)

Read more about Germany’s Christmas markets:

The stage at the center of the market often has live performances, such as the four alphorn players I listened to. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Wild Dolphins Ahoy in California’s Channel Islands!

I’ve seen dolphins in the wild for the first time in my life! On an Island Packers catamaran trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park, I experienced the long-awaited pleasure of seeing a pod of common dolphins leap through the waves toward the boat. Over and over, they crested and dove beside us.

These are spotted dolphins, not the same type as the common dolphins I saw. Photo: Oceanic Society

I was standing at the boat’s prow, keeping watch for them, reveling in the sunshine and ocean spray—and hoping that my dolphin jinx would be broken during my stay in the town of Ventura, Calif.

You see, I’ve been to islands, coastal areas and oceans all over the world, and yet I have never spotted a dolphin in the wild. From the waters of British Columbia to Belize; from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean; from Alaska to Florida; from the Galápagos to Singapore to Fiji. No dolphins.

I’ve stayed at beach resorts where the staff tells me, “There are usually dozens of dolphins just off-shore.” But when I was present, the marine mammals were noticeably absent.

For years, I’ve sung “I-I-I-I am calling you. Oh, can’t you hear me?” from every ship, dingy, beach, and cliff overlook, to no avail. (The lyrics are from the Jevetta Steele song in the movie, Bagdad Café.)

Yes, I literally sing to dolphins, and at last they answered.

The Magic of the Sea

Bounding and zipping through the Pacific, these Santa Barbara Channel dolphins played with our boat for about 10 minutes. I hung over the rail to see their silvery backs streak through the water and watch them leap out of the waves. They seemed to be racing our boat, zipping beside, in front of and under us. Sometimes they were no more than 10 feet from my outstretched hand!

I didn’t run to get my camera—that would have required that I take my eyes off the dolphins for too long. Instead, I laughed and cried in wonderment. I don’t really need a photo, because I’ll never forget this moment, this place.

The National Park Service says that groups of dolphins often come to a boat and ride the bow wave for long distances. Why? Simply for fun—or maybe to allow them to conserve energy. No one really knows, but I like to think they were saying hello to me, and inviting me to play.

A Gift for the Dolphins

You can “adopt” Sunflower for a $40 donation to the Oceanic Society.

In honor of the dolphins, I’m suggesting a gift idea: “Adopt” a dolphin in the name of someone you love (including yourself). Several nonprofit organizations such as the Oceanic Society and the World Wildlife Fund offer such a program. For a donation, you receive a photo of the dolphin you’ve adopted—plus the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped support research and protection of these sea mammals.

P.S. One of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is set on the Channel Islands during the mid-1800s. I feel like fiction and life have come full-circle.

Laurel Kallenbach, dolphin watcher

What’s been your most significant wildlife siting? Or, what species do you dream of witnessing in the wild? A rare bird? A mountain lion? Howler monkey? Tropical fish? Leave a comment below if you wish.

For more on California’s Channel Islands, read: “Sea Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park”

(Originally posted: November 12, 2010)

Sea Kayaking in California’s Enchanting Channel Islands National Park

Inspiration Point, Anacapa Photo:  Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands captured my imagination when I read Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Award-winning book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, about a Chumash girl who lived there alone after her tribe was forcibly relocated to the mainland in the mid-1800s.

Now for the first time, I’ve gotten to visit one of the Channel Islands, celebrating its 34th anniversary as a National Park this year.

Island Packers’ boats take visitors to the Channel Islands.

The Channel Islands can be reached from the marina at Ventura (or from the city of Oxnard) by boarding an Island Packers catamaran.

I went to the island of Santa Cruz, which was a 9:00 to 5:00 day trip that runs year-round. (I was there in mid-October.) It takes an hour to reach the two landings: Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoners Harbor (you can depart at either).

Things to Do on Santa Cruz

  • Hiking: There are 16 hikes of varying lengths and difficulty on the 24-mile long island (partly owned by the Nature Conservancy)
  • Swimming: Beach access is at Scorpion Anchorage, Smuggler’s Cove, Prisoners Harbor
  • Snorkeling and diving
  • Sea kayaking: You must bring your own kayak, rent one, or go with an outfitter
  • Camping: There’s a campground near Scorpion Anchorage)
  • Birdwatching: The endemic Island Scrub Jay lives nowhere else on the planet

Kayaking Around the Shores of Santa Cruz Island

The tour guides with Channel Islands Outfitters show you how to paddle in the Pacific.

I chose to spend the day at Santa Cruz on the water by taking a guided sea kayak excursion with Channel Islands Outfitters. They provided individual top-seater kayaks, a wetsuit (sleeveless for ease of paddling), life vest, dry bags for clothes, and experienced guides who spend a lot of time in the park.

(The National Park Service does not allow any tour operators to serve food, so you have to bring along your own food and water. Drinks and snacks are available for purchase on the Island Packers boat.)

My group’s guides, Clay and Matt, asked the boat to drop us off at a lovely area a little west of Prisoners Harbor off Nature Conservancy land. They instructed us on safety, gave us paddling tips, and helped us suit up. Then off we went, paddling among the jagged shoreline and kelp forests around Santa Cruz.

Sea urchins and starfish Photo: Channel Islands National Park

The ocean was calm, and it wasn’t hard to approach the rock cliffs for up-close views of rocks crusted with starfish, barnacles, and limpets. Cliff pointed out the bright-orange garibaldi, California’s state fish. I never got a close look, but its color shone brilliantly from the water.

In some places, the kelp forests were so thick that I felt like I was paddling through sand. My paddle blades kept getting caught in the wavy strands of brown kelp or tangled amid the kelp’s air bladders. When that happened, we were told to slide the paddle gently upwards rather than trying to rip it away from the sea plants.

Adventures with Sea Lions

Shy harbor seals poked their heads above water to check out our kayak group, but if we got very close or make direct eye contact, they slid their round heads beneath the surface and disappeared in an instant.

Harbor seals Photo: Channel Islands National Park

The curious California sea lions were more bold. At one point when I was paddling a short distance from the others, I heard a sea lion blowing air as it surfaced right behind me. I was a little scared, but it didn’t come too close—and then it dove. A moment later, I heard the sea lion blow again, this time on the opposite side of my kayak. I said “hello there!” before it dove again. Our little game of tag when on for a few minutes, then the sea lion moved on to more interesting things—such as catching delicious fish!

Our group stopped at a rocky beach for lunch. It was a cloudy day with several rain showers while we were paddling, so when we got on land I was pretty chilly. (And a little seasick from paddling through some choppier waves. Who knew?) Fortunately, on land Clay and Matt unpacked our dry clothes, so our picnic was fairly comfortable and enjoyable.

On the beach at Santa Cruz island

Far too soon, it was time to leave this quiet adventure of paddling placidly amid the ocean wilds. It felt great to be propelling myself through the water, smelling the salt air, and watching the waves and the sky and the pelicans.

As someone who lives in a land-locked state, I just never tire of the miracle of the sea.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

What are the best kayaking spots you’ve visited? Leave a comment below.

First published, November, 2010

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments: