Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Hiking

Europe Part 2: The Julian Alps

Panorama of Lake Bled from Mala Osojnica.

From the beginning, Slovenia was one of the destinations that drew us to eastern Europe, specifically the Julian Alps in the western corner of the tiny country. Just south of the Austrian border, the Julian Alps are an eastern extension of the famous European mountain range that, while still well-visited, are more off-the-beaten path than the Swiss or Italian Alps.

After our stopover in London, we hopped a British Airways flight to the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana (pronounced “lube-lee-ah-nah“). After sitting on the tarmac in London for awhile, we arrived just in time to pick up our only rental car of the trip, which we had reserved to facilitate a driving loop through the mountains in areas where public transportation was lacking. We were pretty tired and jet-lagged after several full days of travel, so it was probably good that: 1, Slovenians drive on the right and 2, that our first destination was only a 30 minute drive from the airport. As is par for the course with us, the “low tire pressure” indicator on our rental car illuminated less than 10 minutes into our late-night drive through the Slovenian countryside to Lake Bled, where we would be staying for the next three nights. A visual inspection revealed a tire that looked perfectly normal, so we pushed onward. (The light stayed illuminated for all five days that we had the car, but none of the tires were visibly flat so we rolled with it, literally and figuratively.)

With nearly all of the Balkans to choose from, Josip Broz Tito, the president/dictator of the former Yugoslavia (which Slovenia was part of until 1991) chose Lake Bled as the location for his summer villa. It wasn’t hard to see why. Lake Bled was extremely beautiful and scenic, with deep blue water, a tiny island complete with picturesque church right in the middle, and a fairy tale castle perched on a cliff above the lake. The town of Bled, on the east shore of the lake, was quite busy, and overall the vibe reminded us of mountain towns like Aspen or Leavenworth (minus the castle). In what would be a theme of the entire trip, we encountered very few American tourists, but lots of English spoken, given that it serves as the default tongue for Europeans unfamiliar with each others’ languages.

Temperatures were toasty, in the high 80s to mid 90s, and the air was humid (by western US standards at least), so we spent as much time near or in the water as possible. We spent some time on the local swimming beach, and took a boat ride out to the island in the middle of the lake on a traditional wooden pletna rowboat:

A traditional pletna boat whisks visitors across Lake Bled in the shadow of Blejski grad (Bled Castle)
Church and castle, Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled sits at the foot of the Julian Alps and, despite the muggy conditions, we were determined to experience some of the fantastic hiking trails in the area. Our first hike took us on a short loop through the Pokljuka Gorge, a dry slot canyon carved into the ubiquitous limestone of the Julian Alps at the end of the last ice age. Exiting the slot canyon involved traversing a rickety little pathway bolted to the side of a cliff that I could have done without. The scenery was gorgeous though, and we encountered only a few others groups despite the proximity of the trailhead to bustling Bled.

Pokljuka Gorge, Slovenia

About 30 minutes up into the mountains from Lake Bled is the larger Lake Bohinj. We were under the impression that Bohinj was a quieter, less visited lake (one guidebook described it as “sleepy”), but the scene was just as nuts, if not more so, than Lake Bled. Despite some trouble finding parking, we ended up having a lovely swim in Lake Bohinj in the late afternoon. Neither Bled nor Bohinj allow motorized boats, which, despite the crowds, made both of them seem very tranquil and peaceful, in contrast to many similarly-sized lakes here in the US.

Late afternoon light at Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

Later that evening, we rushed (literally) up to a spectacular overlook of Lake Bled from Mala Osojnica just in time for sunset (see photo at top of page). On our final morning in Bled, we drove about 30 minutes up into the mountains to hike Viševnik, a 2000 meter peak with amazing views of Triglav, the highest point in Slovenia. While only a few miles long, the trail shot straight up the side of the mountain, first along the margins of some ski slopes, then up a rocky chute, and then finally across broad grassy slopes with commanding views back toward Bled. We lost a few buckets of sweat, but the views of the sharp peaks hewn from bright white limestone were sublime. Thanks to a good map and well-signed trails, we were able to improvise a loop that took us on a more gradual descent back to the trailhead.

Panorama of the Julian Alps from Viševnik. The summit of Triglav, the highest point in Slovenia, is hidden behind clouds left of center.

After a few days in Bled, we made the drive across the Julian Alps to the Soča River Valley via Vršič Pass. The gnarly road over the pass was built by Russian POWs during World War I to supply Austro–Hungarian troops on the front lines just over the pass. The road is narrow and steep, with 50 hairpin curves. We made a number of stops en route to admire the jagged peaks of the Alps and to let the engine (on the way up) and the brakes (on the way down) cool down a bit! On the downhill side of the pass, the road follows the beautiful Soča River Valley. As serene as the turquoise green river is today, this valley was home to some of the most intense fighting of WWI. Hundreds of thousands of Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers lost their lives in this valley and the surrounding mountains.

Cows and mountain peaks along the Vršič Pass Road, Slovenia

A few miles down the valley was the town of Bovec, our base for the next few nights. Bovec is known for being the adventure sports capital of Slovenia, with all manner of activities from rock climbing to canyoneering to whitewater rafting to zip lining to God knows what else. We did not partake (though our travel insurance policy did cover such activities!) in anything more adventurous than hiking however. Still somewhat jet-lagged and tired from our climb of Viševnik, we were fortunate that the prime hiking trail here was the relatively level Soča River Trail, a 20 km-long path that extends from the headwaters of the Soča all the way to Bovec. We hiked some of the more spectacular sections, including the portions along the Great and Small Soča River Gorges, where the river has carved a narrow slot into the limestone.

Stone bridge over the Soča River near Bovec, Slovenia

Just a little downstream from Bovec is the village of Kobarid, which figures prominently in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a novel based on his experiences as an ambulance driver on the Soča River front during WWI. (The area was part of Italy at the time; Kobarid is known as “Caporetto” in Italian.) Kobarid had a great little museum detailing the story of the WWI in the Soča River Valley. On a hill above town is an imposing mausoleum memorializing the thousands of Italian soldiers who died in the area over the course of the war.

Names of Italian casualties from World War I carved into serpentine, Italian Charnel House, Kobarid, Slovenia

After five exciting days in the Julian Alps, it was time to head back to Ljubljana and return our rental car. En route, we detoured to a small outdoor museum on the border with Italy where you can walk through the remains of WWI trenches, bunkers, and tunnels on a high ridge overlooking the Soča River Valley. It was truly mind-boggling to imagine a massive war being fought in such rugged terrain, especially after seeing photos of the snowpack that accumulates in the winter.

Restored trench from World War I on the grounds of the Kolovrat Outdoor Museum near Tolmin, Slovenia

Next up: a journey though three European capitals: Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Sarajevo!


Throwback Thursday: Glacier Peak

A tall mountain peak is just visible above clouds, with green meadows and forests belows.
A tall mountain peak is just visible above clouds, with green meadows and forests belows.

Glacier Peak…the top of it at least. This was about the most we saw of it on our three-day trip. 

While we wait for the snows to melt once again, time for another flashback to 2020. I realize that phrase likely strikes fear in the hearts of most, so feel free to pretend these photos are from some other year. While it was a rough year in many ways, the wilderness was just as spectacular as ever!

For a while last summer, our goal was to camp in the shadow of every active Cascade Range stratovolcano in Washington and Oregon. We ended up getting to 8/10, but late season plans for Mt. Baker and Mt. Jefferson ended up being derailed by fires, weather, or both. In total we camped 28 nights and hiked/backpacked over 250 miles in our COVID-safe exploration of the Cascades last summer. To minimize contact with others (and to save money), we eschewed developed campgrounds in favor of dispersed camping. Aside from backpacking permits, we paid for accommodations just once the entire summer, at a five-site Forest Service “campground” on the north side of Mt. Hood that we ended up having all to ourselves for the night.

One of our most memorable excursions was a quick two-night backpacking trip to the Glacier Peak and Henry Jackson Wilderness areas in north-central Washington.

Sunrise light illuminates rocks in an alpine lake basin.

Early morning light at a campsite along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Henry Jackson Wilderness Area of central Washington

Of all the active volcanoes in the Cascade Range, Glacier Peak is by far the most difficult to glimpse up close. Tucked away in the north Cascades, reaching the vicinity of the Glacier Peak edifice requires a hike of at least 10-12 miles, making a backpacking trip really the only way to truly experience the mountain. For us, it was a ~35 mile, 3-day, 2-night trip beginning from the valley of the Little Wenatchee River. While were able to get quite close to the mountain, this was (amazingly) the only trip of the summer where the weather didn’t really cooperate with our desire to see the mountain in whose shadow we were camping. We got a handful of summit glimpses through breaks in the clouds, but Glacier Peak was obscured for the majority of our trip.

The summit of a glacier clad peak is visible through a break in the clouds

Tantalizing glimpses of Glacier Peak through the low clouds. 

A tall mountain peak is just visible above clouds, with green meadows and forests belows.

A fleeting view of the glacier-clad (not surprisingly) summit of Glacier Peak. 

A variety of wildflowers on a ridge looking down into the valley of the Little Wenatchee River.

Looking down the Little Wenatchee River valley with some late season paintbrush providing a splash of color. 

A hiker stands atop a ridge looking out onto grassy meadows and mountains

The view from Kodak Peak in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Glacier peak is behind those clouds somewhere! 

A marmot sits on a rock above a slope of rocks and wildflowers

A marmot enjoys the view from Kodak Peak.

Despite the lack of peak views, the rugged, high altitude terrain was stunning and while we were a little too late for peak wildflower season, there were still lots of blooms covering the slopes:

A trio of yellow flowers with brown spots against a blue sky

Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington

The most memorable elements of the trip came on Day 3. After a COLD morning and a close brush with hypothermia, we decided (based largely on consulting with other hikers) to take a slightly longer, but less steep, route back to the car. Our ascent two days earlier had been short, steep, and rocky, and we weren’t thrilled about the idea of descending the same trail with heavy packs. Plus an alternate trail back to the car would result in a loop and who doesn’t love a good loop? According to maps and other hikers, our descent would be about 8-9 miles, instead of the six miles we had come up. Despite the modest mileage, it ended up being quite the slog. I’ve done enough hiking and backpacking that I normally feel pretty confident estimating mileage, and that descent sure felt like a LOT more than 9 miles. The trail was in decent shape, save for crossing a series of avalanche chutes choked with head high brush. Someone had kindly taken a machete to some, but not others. By the time we got back to the car, I was spent to put it mildly. I honestly can’t ever remember being so totally wiped out after a hike in my life.

Thankfully there was a bag of Chex mix waiting for me at the car. A few moments after diving in, I realized that the container it had been in was filled with mice droppings…and we soon noticed that the rest of the car was as well. Yum! 


Backpacking the Olympic Coast

Clouds and mist surround several large rocky islands sitting in a calm bay

A hole in a rock along the coastline is filled with large green anemones, while waves crash in the background.

A tidepool filled with giant green anemones (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) along the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park.

Living in the desert of central Washington, it can be easy to forget that we live in a state with over 3,000 miles of coastline. While the high volcanic peaks of the Cascades are visible from our backyard (and thus remind us of their presence daily), the damp shores of the Pacific remain out of sight and out of mind most of the time.

Our most recent summer trip took us all the way to Washington’s western edge for a short backpacking trip along the coast in Olympic National Park. Coastal backpacking comes with a few unique challenges. For starters, predicting the weather along the coast is notoriously difficult, in part due to the relative lack of surface weather observations over the eastern Pacific and Gulf of Alaska, where most of our storm systems approach from. This fact ended up rearing its head on the final night of our trip.

Perhaps even more importantly, safe coastal backpacking requires that you know how to read a tide chart. The Washington coast experiences a fairly large tidal range, up to 10-12 feet during certain parts of the month. That’s enough to make vast sandy beaches completely disappear. A successful trip requires acute awareness of the timing and magnitude of the twice-daily high and low tides. The coast features many headlands (rocky outcroppings that jut out into the sea, often without any sort of “beach” whatsoever) that can only be traversed when the tide is below a certain level. Getting the timing wrong can (at best) result in having to sit on the beach for hours waiting for the tide to go out or (at worst) getting trapped in a dangerous situation as the tide rises and cuts off your escape route.

As this would be our first coastal backpacking trip, we obtained a permit for a fairly short and straightforward route beginning at Rialto Beach, heading north past the famous Hole-in-the-Wall, and eventually camping for two nights on the beach near the Chilean Memorial, the site of a shipwreck that killed 18 sailors all the way back in 1920. The terrain along this section of the coast was quite variable, ranging from long stretches of soft, sandy beach, to the slightly more annoying cobble and pebble beaches, to large boulder fields and headlands that were somewhat difficult to navigate with a heavy backpack:

A hiker with a large backpack navigates a pile of boulders along a coastline.

Picking our way along the rocky Olympic coast en route to our campsite at Chilean Memorial.

Alternating bands of dark and light colored rock stretch to the horizon along the coastline.

Tilted layers of sediment have been planed off by wave action near Hole-in-the-Wall, Olympic National Park, Washington.

Small plants grow along a rocky coastline

Cape Johnson, Olympic National Park, Washington. With not much beach to speak of, this is a great example of a spot where being aware of the tide situation is essential! 

After a little more than four miles of hiking, we arrived at the small, unnamed cove home to the Chilean Memorial and found a campsite just above the high-tide line among large pieces of driftwood. This sheltered cove made for a relatively quiet and peaceful camp, as the myriad rocks and sea stacks just offshore caught the brunt of the surf, limiting the amount of wave action reaching the beach. We enjoyed watching the landscape of the cove change over the next few days as the mist and tides repeatedly swallowed up and revealed the sea stacks and small rocky islands. We quickly discovered that the largest sea stack (pictured below) was connected to the mainland via a rocky isthmus at low tide, and ended up hiking out to it one evening to look back on our campsite.

Clouds and mist surround several large rocky islands sitting in a calm bay

View out into the Pacific Ocean at sunset from our campsite on the Chilean Memorial beach in Olympic National Park, Washington

Orange and purple light is reflected in the calm waters of the ocean surface at sunset.

Looking back toward the Chilean Memorial beach and Cape Johnson from the base of the large sea stack in the previous photo.

While we had our fair share of clouds and mist, it did clear up enough on one evening to reveal the night sky. The moon was just past full, so the Milky Way was only barely visible, but it was still fun to see the southern stars rise and set over the Pacific:

The Milky Way is just barely visible in the sky over the coastline

A faint hint of the Milky Way reveals itself despite the light cast by the rising moon (just behind the trees at left). 

Two people sit on a log illuminated by the glow of a campfire.

Enjoying a driftwood campfire on the beach.

Our trip came just a few days after the full moon, meaning that the low tides were some of the lowest of the month. These so-called “negative tides” are the best for exploring tide pools along the coast, as they reveal a greater variety of sea squishies:

Two large bright green anemones on a rock

Two giant green anemones in a tidepool in Olympic National Park, Washington.

A variety of marine life in a small rocky pool of water.

A crowded tidepool containing multi-colored aggregating anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima) in Olympic National Park, Washington

A hole in a rock along the coastline is filled with large green anemones, while waves crash in the background.

A tidepool filled with giant green anemones along the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park.

In addition to the living tidepool organisms, we also observed large quantities of dead jellyfish (at least three different species) washed up on the beaches, including several massive (~2 foot wide) lion’s mane jellies:

The gelatinous remains of a red and orange jellyfish sit on the beach next to rocks and seaweed

A deceased (?) lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) washed up on the beach in Olympic National Park, one of many, many such jellies we found on our trip.

For our third and final night, the original plan was to hike most of the way back to the car and camp along Rialto Beach near Hole-in-the-Wall. Prior to departure, the weather forecast for this night had called for a fairly robust storm coming in off the Pacific. With an ailing tent that has become somewhat more, shall we say, permeable than one would desire, we briefly debated whether to just call it quits to avoid the chance of getting soaked. Surprisingly, we were able to get enough cell service on the beach to check an updated weather forecast, which showed a drastically reduced chance of rain and little precipitation expected. Consequently, we decided to stick with the original plan and set up camp in the trees at the north end of Rialto Beach. Our decision to stay was quickly validated as we observed a number of whales spouting and breaching throughout the afternoon just offshore.

A camper sits next to a tent under a tarp, scanning the skies with binoculars.

Our final campsite along Rialto Beach. From this vantage point, we saw a number of whales (likely humpbacks) spouting and breaching off-shore throughout the afternoon and evening. 

12 hours later, at 3 AM, when I was emerging from the tent for the third time to re-secure our tarp and shelter in the face of driving rain, wind, and large, deafening waves crashing up against the bluff just a few feet from our tent, I wasn’t so sure. A great example of the fickle coastal weather I suppose, and a good character building experience as Calvin’s dad would say.

While intense, the storm was brief, and by morning the skies were clearing, making for a pleasant stroll down Rialto Beach back to the car. All in all, the trip was a refreshing change of scenery from our predominantly mountain-based adventures the rest of the summer!

White puffy clouds dot the sky over a long sandy beach

Benign clouds greeted us in the wake of the storm for our short hike out to the car on the final morning.