Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Posts tagged “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!


Looking back at Spring

A backpacker looks out an at orange sunset sky while standing on a rocky mesa covered in wildflowers

Spring is my favorite season here in central Washington. Our winters, while short and relatively mild in terms of snowfall and temperatures, can be quite dreary. Temperature inversions, freezing fog, and bad air quality are a staple of our weather forecasts from November to February. Summers can be brutally hot: the third digit on my home weather station spends quite a bit of time illuminated from June through August. While conditions in the Cascades are more tolerable, here in the arid sagebrush-steppe of the Yakima Valley, shade trees are found only along rivers and in watered urban backyards.

Spring holds the perfect balance: the days get progressively longer, conditions are perfect for outdoor exploring, and, as an added bonus, foothills of the Cascades come alive with wildflowers (one of my favorite photographic subjects the past few years.) Fall has its merits as well, but the with the onset of winter occupying the back of ones mind, the urge to get outside before the snow starts falling can feel almost stressful compared to the relaxed bliss of spring.

Here are some of my favorite photos from this past spring, from March’s vernal equinox up through June’s summer solstice:

A cluster of pink wildflowers with sun shining through the petals
A cluster of grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) backlit by the sun, Cowiche Canyon Preserve, Yakima, WA
Cluster of bright yellow sunflower-like flowers on a grassy slope
Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) plants cover a dry slope near Chelan, WA
A rocky ridge with forest on both sides. The forest on the right has been burned by a wildfire, while the trees on the left remain green.
A rocky ridge in the William O. Douglas Wilderness separates burned from unburned forest. The 2021 Schneider Springs Fire was ignited by lightning on the ridge in the upper right, and proceeded to burn 107,000 acres in the Cascade foothills west of Yakima.
Slender green stalks bearing tiny white flowers grow out of gray and black burned soil, with charcoal logs and an orange sunset sky in the background
Foothill death camas (Toxicoscordion paniculatum) plants emerge from ashy soil in an area burned by the Schneider Springs fire in 2021.
A backpacker looks out an at orange sunset sky while standing on a rocky mesa covered in wildflowers
A top-notch sunset from a wildflower-strewn plateau in the William O. Douglas Wilderness west of Yakima.
A clump of pine trees appear silhouetted against an orange sunset sky.
Scorched ponderosa pine trees silhouetted against an orange sunset sky.
City lights are seen reflected in a lake, while the light of a campfire illuminates trees along the shore.
Night on the shores of Lake Chelan, WA
A sea of yellow canola flowers fills the landscape beneath a partly cloudy sky
Blooming canola fields near Wilbur, WA
A trio of pale blue flowers nearly blend in against a partly cloudy sky
A trio of blue flax (Linum lewisii) flowers nearly blend in against a partly cloudy sky, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, WA
Cluster of cream white, purple, and yellow wildflowers
Thompsons paintbrush (Castilleja thompsonii) and Gairdner’s penstemon (Penstemon gairdneri) on Manastash Ridge, WA
Cluster of bright pink wildflowers at the base of a scraggly woody plant
A cluster of bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) flowers beneath a gnarled sagebrush stem, Cowiche Mountain, WA

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!