A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Zürich


View Benelux 2022 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

As I expected Cleo and Ian were completely unarousable in the early morning. After I showered and dressed I nudged them a few times without any response and then gave up until about nine when I couldn't stand sitting in the house any longer. This time I flipped on the TV and badgered them a little more aggressively until they grudgingly got up from bed and had a snack. I felt a little guilty but I knew they'd have time to nap a little later on the train.
large_IMG_9286.JPG

Our first objective was getting ourselves breakfast at the twice-weekly market at Helvetiaplatz, close to the city center. Parking was a bit of a project as the area was busy and I wasn't accustomed to the signage, meaning that a couple of times I thought I had found a place only to discover it wasn't legal. Switzerland utilizes a system in which white lines indicate paid parking, blue lines indicate residential parking, and yellow lines indicate private parking. Parking in blue spaces is permitted for non-residents for an hour using a cardboard clock left on the dashboard, but since one is allowed to use a start time of the upcoming half hour it can be stretched to as much as ninety minutes. The hours where payment in white spaces is required varies widely between locations and cities so it is necessary to examine the fine print on the meters closely or use a parking app where the requirements are clearly explained. We had a lot of difficulty using parking apps because we chose to use an eSIM for mobile service which was convenient but also meant we didn't have a number for calling and texting. As soon as I realized parking wouldn't be simple I let Mei Ling and the kids off at the market and eventually found a spot a few blocks away. Our SUV was very long for a European vehicle but this disadvantage was countermanded by the cameras and sensors that facilitated parking in spots that were just a few inches longer than the car.

Helvetiaplatz had a medium-sized market with a focus on locally-farmed produce as well as vendors of cheese, breads, sausages, and other staples. One thing there wasn't very much of was ready-to-eat food so I had to purchase ingredients like bread, cheese, and fruit individually and construct meals for myself and the kids that we ate seated around a wooden crate. I noticed that fruit seemed to be a particularly prevalent item, from cherries to plums to currants. It was a good reintroduction to European markets even if it didn't have the size and flair of a French or Italian morning extravaganza.
large_IMG_9167a.JPG

We drove back to the center and parked in the Jelmoli garage for the day's main event, the hike from Uetliberg to Felsenegg. Zürich is rather far from the Alps but it does have its own small range of low mountains called the Albis, of which the closest peak to the city is Uetliberg. We would be skipping the renowned Alpine section of Switzerland almost entirely on this itinerary and I didn't want to completely forgo the legendary mountain hikes and views that the country is best known for. The plan was to take the train from the Hauptbahnhof to Uetliberg and walk along the Planetenweg hiking trail to Felsenegg before descending to the suburb of Adliswil by cable car. From Adliswil we would be able to take a train back to the center. Driving the car wouldn't be practical since there was no public road to Uetliberg and the hike would take us to a different point from where we had started.
large_8bf5d460-0d4d-11ed-960f-7b5db15b1c1a.jpg

I'd read a couple of descriptions that suggested buying a special train ticket called the Albis Netzkarte which would cover all legs of the trip. The Hauptbahnhof was a short walk from Jelmoli but first I wanted to visit the nearby Platzspitz, a small park where one can view the confluence of the Limmat and the Sihl rivers. The Limmat originates in the Zürichsee and courses through the medieval center, separating the Altstadt from Niederdorf. It continues northwest from Zürich until it converges with the Aare which in turn drains into the Rhine. The Sihl originates in the Alps and passes through the heart of Zürich to the west of the Altstadt before draining into the Limmat. A long moat called Schanzengraben was dug in medieval times as part of the fortifications of the walled city and connects the Sihl with Zürichsee, rendering the Altstadt an island.
large_82235b60-0dcf-11ed-bc7d-4de882705fc0.jpg

From the pedestrian bridge we could see the muddy waters of the Sihl traveling alongside the clear Limmat before they eventually merged. Platzspitz was a pleasant little park although the confluence of the two small rivers was somewhat underwhelming. A few large fish swam underneath the balcony at the tip of the park, perhaps hoping for a handout. On the way into the train station we passed by the enormous chateau-style Swiss National Museum.
large_78d76a30-0dd2-11ed-a02c-7fb56789b984.JPGlarge_IMG_9174.JPGlarge_IMG_9177.JPG

Inside the train station we were able to buy the Albis tickets, although they were more expensive than I had read. Perhaps I hadn't navigated the selections correctly and bought a more costly ticket. Afterwards we couldn't figure out what line the train to Uetliberg departed from and couldn't find any information desk so we started asking random people and were eventually directed to a track where a red train labeled Uetliberg was waiting. We leapt aboard and settled in, only to be called off by an agent on the platform who examined our tickets and declared that we were not eligible for that train. He sent us to the surface where we had to board a tram to Triemli and subsequently a bus to the summit of Uetliberg. This didn't match up with my research at all and I suppose I'll never know if we were unfairly ordered off the correct train or if there was some alteration in the route from when the information I had read was published. The kids catnapped a little on the tram and occupied the rest of their time with word games and meditation.
large_82c685f0-0ddf-11ed-a465-cd397e084468.JPG

At the summit there was an open area with a hotel at one end and a viewpoint over Zürich and Zürichsee on the other. There was also a lookout tower with seemingly endless flights of stairs leading to an observation tower. We decided that the views we already had were good enough and gave the tower a pass. I saw a brightly-colored curved object in the sky and realized it was a parachute with a rider suspended underneath. I pointed it out to the kids who spotted another and then another. We couldn't see where the paragliders were launching from but clearly it wasn't far as the sky was filled with them. The kids got their first of what would be a great many ice creams at a stand close to the viewpoint and then we located the rather poorly-marked staircase that connected the viewpoint with the Planetenweg hiking trail.
large_IMG_9184.JPGlarge_IMG_9191.JPG

The idea of the trail is that there is a model and a plaque representing the sun at the beginning of the trail and then the nine planets (including Pluto) are spaced along the six kilometer trail from Uetliberg to Buchenegg proportionately to their true distances from the sun. We actually missed the sun and the first four planets because they are clustered close to the Uetliberg train station that we bypassed due to arriving by bus. It was no great loss since I didn't understand the point of the planet theme anyway. The trail was mostly paved and quite easy with occasional views over the lake and some pleasant fields and farmhouses on the other side.
large_IMG_9189.JPGlarge_IMG_9187.JPGlarge_IMG_9202.JPG

As we drew nearer to Felsenegg we came across the launching point for the paragliders and we stopped for a while to watch them spread out their chutes and launch themselves from a precipice into the sky. It was quite nervewracking to see them all expose themselves to the mercy of the winds even though they seemed experienced and confident. I've done tandem hang-gliding before which was a great experience but I'd hate to have to overcome a learning curve where the slightest mistake could mean a gruesome death. Hopefully the kids will find less hazardous hobbies once they get a little older.
large_28d33bb0-0de4-11ed-bee2-dddb9b0d66b6.JPG

After about an hour and a half we arrived at Felsenegg where there was a small restaurant and more views over the lake below. We had a light lunch and the kids spent some time in a small playground behind the restaurant. We had been fortunate to have perfect cool and sunny weather for our long walk in the Albis.
large_IMG_9203.JPGlarge_f6812e60-0dbb-11ed-bebf-5bd27fc15223.JPG

We took the cable car down to Adliswil where with some difficulty we located the train station. As I followed the progress of our train back towards the center on Google Maps I noticed an odd little island in the Limmat just after it took off from the lake. I zoomed in and realized it was a beer garden that I'd missed in my research. The reviews weren't that great but heck, it was a beer garden and I'd thought there wasn't a single one in all of Zürich. We piled out of the train at the closest stop to the Limmat and walked over to Bürkliplatz, a busy square at the base of the old town adjacent to Zürichsee. There were several piers for sightseeing boats and ferries and a cobblestone boat ramp that was a gathering place for ducks and swans.
large_IMG_9212.JPGlarge_IMG_9213.JPG

The beer garden could not have had a more atmospheric location. The pentagonal artificial island of Bauschänzli is a remnant of the fortifications that once protected Zürich from naval attack and retains an imposing military character even though the only occupant has been a restaurant for more than a hundred years. As the online reviews had warned the food was mediocre but it was an interesting and scenic spot to enjoy some refreshments.
large_IMG_9216a.JPGlarge_IMG_9217.JPG

We had only passed through the Altstadt the previous night on our way to Niederdorf so we made sure to explore the old town well before returning to the car. This was a warmer evening and the outdoor tables of the numerous restaurants were packed with diners. To whatever extent I had pictured Zürich before this trip, I had imagined a rather sterile modern city with a lot of watch stores. I was pleasantly surprised by the center's medieval character and high energy.
large_IMG_9220a.JPGlarge_IMG_9222c.jpglarge_IMG_9230b.jpglarge_IMG_9224.JPG

At one of Altstadt's numerous fountains we took advantage of the fact that in Switzerland the water emitted from fountains is mandated to meet the same standards as that coming from a tap. After our first visit to a supermarket we never bought bottled water as long as we were in Switzerland. Back at Jemoli I was surprised by an eye-watering parking bill. I looked up the rates later and saw that after three hours the hourly rate ballooned dramatically and there was apparently no daily maximum. I realized that in Switzerland it would be necessary to research parking more carefully so that I knew exactly what I would be paying in advance. I also learned that many parking garages allow reservations through apps and their own websites at rates far below those that are posted. It probably wouldn't be worth the trouble for short stays but I resolved to investigate those deals in cities like Amsterdam that were renowned for high parking rates.
large_IMG_9234.JPG

The older kids' jetlag hadn't improved at all so we let them sleep in until nine the next morning. Once again we started the day with a market breakfast, this time in the busy residential quarter of Oerlikon. Oerlikon was once a city in its own right before being absorbed by Zürich a century ago. The morning market takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays in a large central square close to the train station. Although it was similar in size and composition to the Helvetiaplatz market there was a little more variety and we were able to put together a more interesting breakfast than we had the previous day.
large_IMG_9241.JPGlarge_IMG_9243.JPG

On the other side of the train station is an unusual site called MFO Park. A disused factory called Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon has been replaced by a lattice of steel girders containing several staircases and platforms and the entire apparatus is covered by a variety of vines that form transparent living walls. The stairs ascend all the way to the roof of the structure where a large wooden deck provides views over the rooftops of Oerlikon. It's a beautiful and interesting edifice but aside from being an event space it doesn't seem to provide much for the local residents. A number of empty beer bottles lying around on the upper platforms suggested it might be a common gathering place for late-night partiers.
large_IMG_9248.JPGlarge_IMG_9254.JPGlarge_IMG_9251a.JPG

Since we'd begun our sightseeing right off the plane we had already worked through my list of unmissable sights in Zürich. Since the clouds had almost completely lifted and the temperature had risen substantially since our arrival it was a perfect time to engage in another famous local activity, swimming in Zürichsee. The only location I was aware of was a lido on the western edge of the lake called Strandbad Mythenquai that was mentioned in my guidebook, but I misread the road signs and ended up in a parking lot further south. When we emerged we found ourselves in a beautiful public park at the edge of the lake with lots of locals sunbathing and picnicking. Many of them were cooking sausages on small portable grills. A short bridge led to a tiny island in the lake which was also filled with sunbathers and swimmers. I didn't realize it at the time but I was actually at a public park called Landiwiese and not at Mythenquai, which had an entry fee and was fenced off from the park. The island is Saffa-Insel, which was built from excavated material as part of an exposition about women's labor in 1958. The kids played on the swings for a while and then I took them over to the island where we jumped into the chilly, clear water of the lake. This was probably the activity they'd enjoyed the most since our arrival and it reminded me that I needed to be sure to schedule fun things for the kids among all the markets and city walks that Mei Ling and I loved.
large_IMG_9263.JPGlarge_IMG_9261.JPG

We moved the car to the Jelmoli garage one final time secure in the knowledge that we'd be back within four hours. Our goal was to complete our exploration of Niederdorf in clear, sunny weather but first we stopped at the flagship store of Confiserie Sprüngli, a luxury confectioner that open its doors in 1859 and now has over a dozen outlets around Switzerland. Sprüngli's main specialty is the macaron and there were thousands of the high-priced cookies arranged in rows and stacks when we visited. Fortunately none of the kids are huge macaron fans these days and we were able to escape the crowds of tourists inside having only bought a few small containers of ice cream.
large_IMG_9265.JPGlarge_IMG_9267.JPG

Niederdorf was much more lively and colorful on a warm and sunny Saturday evening that it had been on our first visit. This time we made sure to investigate all those narrow cobblestone alleys that ascended the hill until we reached the wide thoroughfare that signaled the end of the historic district. The small neighborhood was home to countless hidden courtyards and romantic fountains, one of which was being used as a setting for engagement photos as we passed. As we walked we kept our eye out for a good setting for a surprise birthday dinner for Cleo, who had turned ten that day. She had already had her party a week before we left but since all the kids have birthdays over the summer we have a little tradition of celebrating in the native language of whatever country we happen to be in. We've had Happy Birthday sung in Czech and Icelandic to Ian, and in Chinese to Spenser. This would be the first time we had been out of the United States on Cleo's birthday. It was difficult to find a restaurant at prime time on Saturday evening that could take us but eventually we found what appeared to be the perfect place. It was a Swiss restaurant at the base of a triangular courtyard with a large fountain and lots of outdoor tables and it seemed to have great reviews. The only problem was that that the food turned out to be absolutely terrible with no redeeming features whatsoever. We didn't let that dampen our spirits excessively and I was able to corral our waiter privately to request Cleo's birthday song, which was ultimately executed in German to the accompaniment of a sparkling dessert. The awful food and the jaw-dropping bill that followed were made more than worthwhile by Cleo's delight. It was a great way to celebrate Cleo's milestone and also our triumphant return to continental Europe after four long years. Zürich had proven to be an auspicious beginning for our lengthy road trip.
large_IMG_9271.JPGlarge_IMG_9277.JPG

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:55 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Zürich arrival


View Benelux 2022 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

From 2014 to 2018 our family made substantial progress towards exploring every part of Europe that we would ever want to visit. We had completed six major road trips covering more than two dozen countries as well as shorter explorations of Sicily and France's Loire Valley. In Western Europe our travel map showed respectable distributions of pins in Spain, Italy and southern France but there were some notable bare areas that offered up tempting itineraries. It seemed like we might accomplish our goal of covering the entire continent before Cleo finishes high school in 2030. In 2019 we took our summer trip to China and Japan and then COVID happened. A meticulously crafted planned trip to the Balkan Peninsula had to be postponed and in 2020 we didn't travel at all. We got back on the horse in 2021 but the logistics of European travel amid the fluctuating epidemic were foreboding and we chose to conquer the American Southwest instead. Our sole foray to Europe was a two week peregrination along the Ring Road of Iceland which was a fabulous experience in terms of adventure and natural phenomena but did little to slake our appetite for medieval villages and delicious breakfasts crafted from morning markets. By the summer of 2022 between the apparent weakening of the virus and our accumulated vaccinations we had lost most of our fear of COVID. At the same time restrictions in Europe were being rapidly lifted and even vaccination was being dropped as a requirement to enter most countries. It was the perfect time to resume our attack on the continent. I quickly ruled out the Balkan trip given the heavy toll the epidemic had taken on those countries and the excessive potential for disruption of our plans by another wave of COVID. The two highest priority itineraries I had created in Western Europe were a loop around northern Italy, Corsica, and Sardinia and a round trip between Amsterdam and Lyon. I was favoring the Italy trip as it had been five years since Sicily and just four since Bordeaux but I decided to leave it up to Mei Ling and she chose Amsterdam.

My original itinerary had us beginning in Amsterdam and then bearing south through Belgium, Luxembourg, and Burgundy to Lyon and then dipping into Switzerland for Geneva before heading back north through Alsace and then the German Rheinland, which would have taken about 30 to 32 days. Two factors resulted in some substantial changes. The first was that the success of our 34 day Iberian road trip in 2018 made me comfortable extending the length of the journey to 40 days. The second was that when I opened up Skyscanner I found that there were no direct flights between Miami and Amsterdam. If I wanted to avoid a connection we would have to fly into Frankfurt or Zürich. We've had enough issues with flight delays and near misses over the last few years to know that if there's any way to use direct flights we go for it. Frankfurt was close to the existing itinerary but for various reasons the timing didn't work with some events I wanted to synchronize with. Zürich hadn't been on the original itinerary but ultimately I decided to bulk up the Switzerland leg to eight days from two and threw in Lake Constance and Liechtenstein for good measure. It proved to be a very rewarding decision.

With at least Cleo and Ian being old enough to carry small backpacks we were able to cut back to one large suitcase, two small rollers, and three carry-on backpacks. By the time we'd figured that out I'd already paid online for two checked bags but I was hopeful we'd be able to get a credit for the baggage fee we didn't use. We had carefully weighed the large suitcase to be sure that it didn't exceed the 23 kg limit but somehow on their scale it was a couple pounds over and the desk agent made us remove items if we wanted to avoid an excess weight charge. He also cheerfully advised us that they had a new 8 kg limit for carry-on bags that we would be held to even though it hadn't existed when I bought the ticket. More frenzied redistribution ensued, and fortunately he wasn't watching closely enough to realize that we were removing items from carry-ons before they were weighed and then replacing them after the bags had been tagged. An hour-long delay on the tarmac due to weather validated our decision to only consider direct routes and we all slept for the majority of the red-eye without anxiety about making a connection upon arrival. The five hours I spent asleep was quite a shock to me as I'm normally completely unable to sleep on planes. Perhaps it was the neck pillow that Mei Ling brought for me although they haven't seemed to help in the past. When I awoke we were already over land and an hour later the flight path showed us over Switzerland. From the window I could see a gorgeous landscape with bright grassy clearings divided by dense, winding groves of trees and dotted with small towns. The contrast between the shades of green and the white roads connecting the towns was so vivid that I almost felt that I was looking at an animation. We landed uneventfully and we allowed all the poor souls late for their connections to deplane before we gathered our belongings and made our own departure.
large_IMG_9127.JPGlarge_IMG_9129.JPG

Our rental was a Volvo XC60 SUV which had a decent amount of interior room but less trunk space than we've had on prior European road trips. If we had the usual two large suitcases we wouldn't have been able to fit them but somehow I was able to wedge the large suitcase, the two rollers, and two backpacks into the trunk. Cleo kept her own backpack in the back seat with her and we were good to go. I was too preoccupied to Google the XC60 which would have informed me that it was a mid-size rather than the full-size SUV I had reserved. On the bright side the XC60 had the advantage of a spectacular system of cameras which provided a simulation of an overhead view of the vehicle and surrounding objects as well as automatic braking when there was an imminent danger of collision. This likely prevented several minor dents considering the number of times I had to maneuver and park in extremely tight spaces over the course of the trip, and may also have saved us from much worse outcomes.

Even after the late arrival and the rental car pick-up it was too early to check in at our first Airbnb so we drove to Im Viadukt, a collection of retail businesses located within the arches of a soaring railway viaduct a little north of the city center. By far the largest of these was Markthalle Im Viadukt, an assortment of small gourmet food stores and restaurants selling everything from cheese to pasta to produce. We had a rather conventional meal at the restaurant at the back of the market hall which gave us our first introduction to the exorbitant cost of Swiss dining. Even with the dollar at multi-year highs vs the Swiss franc, entree prices at an average restaurant rivaled those at an upscale New York City eatery.
large_IMG_9134.JPGlarge_IMG_9132.JPGlarge_IMG_5511.JPG

There were no affordable choices for accommodation in the center of Zürich with a parking space so we had chosen an Airbnb in the small suburb of Birmensdorf about a fifteen minute drive from the old town. We found it on a winding street of beautifully-landscaped houses with a rural vibe. Our two bedroom apartment occupied the lower floor of an oddly-shaped two-story house with a street level garage. We had three nights here to recover from jet lag and adapt to the European environment and we gratefully unloaded our bags and washed up before heading to the old town for the afternoon and evening.
large_IMG_9138.JPGlarge_IMG_9162.JPG

Most tourists don't drive in Zürich, or anywhere in Switzerland for that matter, but having our own wheels was a prerequisite for our extensive itinerary in Europe. A couple of adjustments I had to make quickly to my driving were to hit the brake instead of the accelerator if a traffic light turned yellow as I approached, and to keep a close eye on lane markings to be sure I wasn't locking myself into a wrong turn. It was generally a difficult proposition to switch out of a turn lane to go straight ahead, or vice versa, at the last moment. Street parking near the old town, or Altstadt, is generally nonexistent and the parking garages are quite expensive so I did a little research which indicated our best option was a garage called Parking Jelmoli.
large_ef516110-0dab-11ed-a0ca-537ede130b61.jpg

Zürich began its existence as a Roman settlement but there are few remnants of that early ancestor of the city we found ourselves in on a rather cloudy and chilly Thursday evening. When we emerged from the garage we found ourselves in an immaculate clean and rather modern area of the old town with wide cobblestoned streets lined with cafes and boutiques. At the end of Rennweg the famous clock of the Church of St. Peter reminded us that we were in a place that had been largely preserved from medieval and Renaissance times.
large_IMG_9140.JPG

I didn't really have a planned route but I had a list of spots to check out and we decided to start with the closest first. We walked a block east to reach the foot of Lindenhof, a steep hill that was once the site of a Roman fort and is now topped by a gravel-filled public park with oversized chess boards, swings, and the numerous linden trees that gave the hill its name. Of course the main attraction is the spectacular view over the Limmat River, the twin belltowers of Zürich's landmark Grossmünster, and the stately historic buildings lining the Limmatquai on the east bank of the river.
large_IMG_9144.JPGlarge_IMG_9145.JPGlarge_IMG_9146.JPG

We crossed the Limmat on the Rudolf Brun bridge, one of several spans that connect the old town with the Niederdorf area on the east bank. We found the Limmatquai itself to be a rather bland array of boutiques along a wide and busy avenue but pedestrian Niederdorfstrasse one block inland was a delight. Here there were countless restaurants of Swiss and other ethnicities offering copious outdoor seating under wide canopies as well as an assortment of bars and galleries. This had more of a classic European old town feel than the more heavily touristed Altstadt on the west bank. Niederdorf occupies a hill of its own and narrow cobblestoned streets snaked upward inviting exploration. We decided to leave that for another night and instead returned to Limmatquai to take the Polybahn, a short funicular that carries passengers up the hill to a wide terrace with views over the Altstadt that rival the panorama of Niederdorf seen from Lindenhof.
large_IMG_9149.JPGlarge_IMG_5640.JPEGlarge_8a59b760-0cdb-11ed-b91b-593975bb6697.JPGlarge_IMG_5654.JPEG

Having by now worked up an appetite we wandered back downhill to Niederdorfstrasse. There were some tempting ethnic restaurants but I felt that we should have Swiss food on our first night in the country. We stumbled across a crowded place called Swiss Chuchi which seemed touristy but had good reviews and decided to go for it. All the tables were full so they stuffed us into a little waiting room inside the restaurant and appeared to forget about us for a while until I ventured out and gently reminded them of our existence. We were then shown to a rather cramped booth where I had to suck in my stomach to squeeze through the gap between the tables. Chuchi had all the requisite Swiss standards including cheese fondue, raclette, and even fondue Bourguignonne, which my mother used to make for us at home when I was a kid. The raclette was a particularly fun dish for the kids who loved melting the cheese in the little pans and mixing it with the meat and vegetables they had grilled on the surface. For Mei Ling and myself the calorie-heavy meal wasn't an experience we planned on repeating so it was good to have experienced all the classic Swiss mountain village dishes in one go.
large_IMG_9155.JPGlarge_IMG_5660.jpeg

After dinner we braved an intermittent drizzle to explore Niederdorf a little further. One landmark I wanted to visit was Cabaret Voltaire, the nightclub that became the birthplace of the Dada artistic movement just over a century ago. The entry room was atmospherically decorated but empty when we visited. Upstairs there were a fair number of people mostly dressed in black sipping drinks and engaging in animated discussion. There wasn't much that evoked the riotous scenes of creativity depicted in paintings and narratives from the period.
large_IMG_9157.JPG

Our internal clocks still read mid-afternoon so we probably could have kept going but between the rain and our tired feet we decided to call it a night. On our return to the garage I was pleased to discover that our four hour stay hadn't been as expensive as I feared. Once we arrived back at the Airbnb it was impossible to get Cleo and Ian to go to sleep although somehow Spenser nodded off right away. I allowed the older kids to watch TV knowing that it would be a difficult job getting them out of bed in the morning and eventually drifted off myself knowing that we still had a great deal to accomplish in two full days in Zürich.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:43 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip tony family_travel tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

This is the Place: Ogden and Snowbasin


View Salt Lake City 2022 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Selecting a ski resort near Salt Lake City was a real headache. There were several to choose from and they varied substantially in terms of cost, altitude, and suitability for beginning skiers. The most well known resort is Park City, which boasts the largest ski area in the United States and has a reputation for catering to the rich and famous. Once I saw that the price for a child's full day ski lesson was four hundred dollars I quickly eliminated Park City from consideration. I had considered $150 to be quite high at Steamboat two years earlier and the only people I could imagine spending $400 were those who were so wealthy that they didn't even think about line items that were under four figures. Those people probably only skied at resorts with worldwide recognition like Park City or Aspen but bragging rights weren't part of my calculations. I just wanted a good experience for the kids at a price that wouldn't leave me feeling like a sucker.

There was a cluster of smaller ski resorts in the Wasatch Range between Salt Lake City and Park City, and each had some advantages and disadvantages. Brighton had a great deal for families with free lift tickets for kids under ten but the base altitude was 8700 feet and the summit was at 10500. This wasn't as bad as some of the Colorado resorts but I'm extremely risk averse when it comes to the kids and I didn't want to take any chance of them feeling sick and not being able to enjoy their time on the slopes. I'd chosen Steamboat for our first trip specifically because of the base elevation of 6900 but all of the kids had felt ill at one point or another as we traversed higher altitudes on the road to the resort. I was the only one who had gone to the summit at 10000 feet and while I hadn't felt sick, I got winded very quickly trying to make my way down the more difficult slopes. Deer Valley was lower altitude and had the added bonus of prohibiting snowboarders but it was also extremely expensive unless we took a limited option which only provided access to beginner slopes. It might have worked perfectly but it could also have significantly limited the kids progress. I was still weighing the options when I came across a mention of ski resorts near Salt Lake City's northern neighbor, Ogden. There were three choices in the mountains east of Ogden and the most promising seemed to be Snowbasin, the closest one to Salt Lake City. The lessons were particularly reasonably priced compared to the SLC resorts. My only concern was that there seemed to be a relative paucity of beginner slopes at Snowbasin which might mean that Mei Ling and the kids would be skiing the same terrain over and over again. Ultimately I decided that it was more important to focus on technique than variety on the green slopes and we committed to Snowbasin.

It was an hour's drive from Park City to the small, isolated subdivision outside of Ogden where our Airbnb was located. There's no accommodation at the Snowbasin resort so this was the closest option and I think we were lucky to find it. The basement of a good-sized brick house had been converted into an Alpine-style lodge with wood beams, shaggy carpeting, and a gas-powered fireplace. It was the kind of place you might have seen a family base themselves for a ski vacation on a TV sitcom, totally classic. In the morning we admired the view of the snow-covered Northern Wasatch Mountains behind the houses on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac.
large_IMG_3431.jpglarge_c7f53f50-deb8-11ec-8418-55826b75b2ac.JPG

For our first day on the slopes everyone but me was enrolled in lessons. It was a much easier process to get things going that it had been at the Steamboat and Killington mega resorts on our previous ski trips. For the first time we had rented our equipment from the resort and everything fit perfectly based on the information I'd provided online. Hardly anyone else was competing for the attention of the staff and we got everyone connected to their ski instructors and on the slopes quickly. I could probably have benefited from lessons myself but at this point I'm more focused on staying in one piece than skiing faster or on more challenging terrain. I expect within a couple of years the kids will pass me by and I'm perfectly happy with that. Instead I used that first day to familiarize myself with the trails so that hopefully I'd be able to guide my family to the safest routes on the other two days. Snowbasin has a fairly simple layout with a gondola that leads from the base lodge straight up to the top of the mountain. There were no lines at all and I had a relaxing ten minute ride up to the Needles Cirque, a couple hundred feet short of the Needles Peak. From the top of the gondola there were impressive views of the stony cliffs leading up to the peak as well as the snowy panorama of the valley below.
large_IMG_8877.JPGlarge_IMG_8880.JPGlarge_IMG_8882.JPG

I didn't have much difficulty getting accustomed to skiing again. It had only been three months since our last trip and the slopes were in good shape considering how late it was in the season. Over the next few hours I explored pretty much all of the intermediate trails on Snowbasin, taking one short break to stop at the base lodge and check on the kids while they were having lunch. Mei Ling was so focused on her lesson that she didn't want to take a lunch break. The best views on the mountain were from Strawberry Peak at the southernmost edge of the resort. From here I could look west past the town of Ogden and across the Great Salt Lake all the way to the Newfoundland Mountains projecting out of the salt flats. The wind was so strong here I felt that it was trying to knock me off the ridge as I skied down a narrow path to the intermediate slope. I made a mental note that it probably wouldn't be wise to bring the family to this side even if they were ready for the blue trails.
large_IMG_8891.JPGlarge_IMG_8885.JPG

By early afternoon the temperature had climbed well into the seventies and I was just trying to kill time until the lessons were over. As I've mentioned before I'm rather indifferent about skiing and only got back into it so that the kids would learn at a young age. My main goal is to help them get better and avoid getting injured, a task I failed at miserably at Killington a few months previously when I detached my right biceps tendon trying to hold a chairlift that was about to carry Cleo back down the mountain. Fortunately I didn't need to have surgery and pretty much retained full use of my arm but I took it as a warning that skiing is a relatively dangerous sport that can change someone's life in a matter of seconds. I got another reminder of this on my very last day when the snow at the bottom of the mountain had become wet and heavy under the sun's relentless glare. A simple turn on a nearly flat stretch of the trail turned into a cartwheeling wipeout when my rear ski caught in the snow instead of following its partner. The detached skis came to rest several yards away as I slowly inventoried my body parts and found them to be intact. I resolved to be much more judicious with my speed at the bottom of the trails over the next two days.

Once the family was reunited it seemed that everyone was very happy with their lessons and their progress and we decided to proceed with our plan for everyone but Spenser to ski without instruction for the final two days. We treated the kids to dinner at a Japanese hibachi restaurant called Kobe Teppanyaki which was in the outskirts of Ogden not far from our Airbnb. It was a bit of a drop in cuisine from the previous two nights but it was worth it to see the kids' astounded expressions as the chef executed his repertoire of tricks at the grill.
large_4523c8b0-e437-11ec-b6e8-25003fc3382b.JPG

On our second day at Snowbasin all of us except Spenser took the Needles gondola to the top with some trepidation. I was pretty comfortable with the route I had chosen which involved taking the narrow traverses that connected the easier intermediate slopes. Cleo was the strongest of the other three so I let her forge ahead while I hung back with Mei Ling and Ian to steer them away from the outer edge of the traverse. If they had gone over the edge it wouldn't have been like going over a cliff but it was still a fairly steep incline of ungroomed snow. When I looked back down the traverse Cleo was nowhere in sight so I took off after her fairly quickly. I reached the intersection of the traverse and the advanced intermediate slope without having spotted her and tried to figure out which way she had gone. The traverse continued on the other side of the trail but it seemed unlikely she had seen it and gone all the way across without me. Finally I heard her calling and realized she had diverted onto the intermediate slope and was about a hundred yards downhill, way too far for her to clamber back up to where I was. There really was nothing else to do at this point but for the three of us to join her. The problem was that the place where she was now stopped was the beginning of Sweet Revenge, the most difficult intermediate trail I had encountered on the previous day's exploration and the slope I was specifically trying to avoid by taking the traverses. We grouped together at the top and peeked over the lip at an incline which looked even steeper than I remembered. Mei Ling and the kids were terrified but there wasn't really any choice except to go down. I kept everyone together and coached them to make the widest possible serpentine descent with sharp turns to avoid gaining too much downhill speed. For the most part it worked although Ian had some trouble completing his turns and had to wipe himself out to avoid losing control. It was rather painful the first time but the trial by fire was effective and for the rest of the day there wasn't any terrain that could inspire fear in the kids. We even went down Sweet Revenge three or four more times and each time it seemed less steep than the last.
large_IMG_3486.jpglarge_IMG_3575.jpglarge_94c28730-e43c-11ec-a4b6-298b0c2cb1c1.JPG

Ogden doesn't attract many tourists for anything except the great outdoors, but it did have one area that I was interested in exploring. Historic 25th Street is a restored main street at the center of downtown Ogden that captures some of the style that characterized the city when it was an important junction on the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 19th century. We did feel as though we'd entered a time warp, perhaps not so much traveling back to the 19th century but possibly the mid 20th. The street was lined with quirky bars, small restaurants, and a surprising diversity of craft stores and galleries. As we've become accustomed to in Utah an imposing stretch of mountains loomed majestically at the far end of the street. I realized I was probably looking at the very peaks from which I had gazed down upon the city the previous day.
large_IMG_8910.JPGlarge_IMG_8918.JPGlarge_IMG_8917.JPG

After walking up and down the entire length of the street we stopped in one particularly intriguing gallery where an artist was sketching in charcoal. She kindly stopped her work to explain the process to the kids while Mei Ling and I browsed the characteristic Western paintings of landscapes and wildlife. Afterwards we stopped by an interesting restaurant we had noticed earlier with a sidewalk patio. It had filled up considerably since we had first passed by and at first the hostess couldn't seat us. As we stood outside calling the the restaurants on my Ogden list trying to find an open table on Friday evening she took mercy on us and found us a great table with bench seats right up against the bar. It was very fortunate we hadn't walked away because Table 25 was an awesome find both for the quality and diversity of the food as well as the atmosphere. The restaurant was less than a year old, another sign of the revitalization of this fascinating street.
large_IMG_3519.jpglarge_IMG_8919.JPG

On our final day of skiing Mei Ling and the kids were more confident and familiar with the terrain so I worked with them on their technique, particularly on keeping their skis parallel and controlling their speed with turning rather than by snowplowing. Ian seemed to have become temporarily fearless and a couple of times he had spectacular wipeouts blasting downhill after failing to complete his turns. I found this so terrifying that I had to threaten to ground him at the base if he couldn't keep his skiing under control. He managed to straighten things out and for the rest of the day we explored the remaining territory of the resort. We even made it over to Strawberry Peak although the snow wasn't as good quality there as it had been when I went there alone on the first day. We had lunch at the Needles Lodge near the top of the mountain for a change. The view was beautiful but the food choices weren't as good as at the base lodge. By afternoon the temperature was close to eighty degrees and we had had to deposit our ski parkas at the base. We saw some people even skiing bare chested. The snow was rather wet and heavy at the bottom of the mountain and the kids didn't argue when I suggested we call it a day with an hour to go before the lifts closed. We picked up Spenser who had really enjoyed his three days of ski school and made a lot of progress towards joining us on the intermediate slopes. Over the three days my family had really impressed me, especially Mei Ling who had to overcome a fear of heights as well as the usual fear of falling that everyone has when skiing. I was really glad that I had chosen to introduce the kids to this exciting sport even if I personally would rather be spending winter vacations in warm climates.
large_IMG_8904a.jpeglarge_b0471950-e51b-11ec-bb08-5bca009e015c.JPG

Even though we were more experienced three days was still the perfect amount of time to be on the slopes. I think we were all relieved not to have to go back for a fourth day. Instead we piled back into the car and drove back to Salt Lake City where we checked into our next Airbnb, a dated apartment with a walk-through bedroom and cracked porcelain bathroom fixtures. From there we hopped back on the interstate and drove to the eastern edge of the city where small roads snaked off into the canyons among the Wasatch Mountains. Above us in the hills were rows of low-profile homes that were hardly distinguishable from the surrounding landscape in the dusk. We took the turn onto Mill Creek Canyon Road which soon felt as isolated as any mountain road hundreds of miles from the nearest city. As the darkness deepened I started to wonder if the restaurant we were seeking could possibly be located in this forsaken wilderness. Google Maps showed it a few miles ahead but was it possible that I had accidentally entered the wrong information? Perhaps we were actually headed to the Log Haven hiking trail instead of the Log Haven restaurant. We had no cell phone signal and therefore had no choice but to proceed to our destination. Soon enough we were relieved to come across a well-lighted wooden mansion that was clearly the restaurant we were seeking.
large_IMG_8935.JPG

Log Haven is a former private estate built at enormous expense by a local businessman using logs that were shipped in from Oregon and hauled up the canyon by horse-drawn wagons. The property went through several cycles of ownership and underwent its most recent restoration in 1994. It is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in Utah both for the setting and the cuisine. Once I discovered it during my pre-travel research I was sure to reserve a table well in advance. Our final dinner of the trip proved to be a worthy complement to the other extravagant dinners we had had on this short vacation. Large portions of game and local fish were served with creative vegetable sides in the western style we had grown accustomed to over the past few days. Log Haven had an exceptionally beautiful interior with a wood motif that was maintained down to the construction of the dining chairs. Few think of Utah as a marquee dining destination but I was hard pressed to think of any journey where we had eaten so well so consistently.
large_IMG_8937.JPG

Our flight back to Miami didn't depart until mid afternoon which gave us ample time to have a leisurely breakfast and do one last bit of exploration. We headed back to the Wasatch Range and this time we drove up Emigration Canyon to Ruth's Diner, a historic and beloved breakfast spot set amid the snowy foothills. Despite the remote location the large parking lot was rapidly filling with cars, making me thankful we had pushed ourselves into an early departure from the Airbnb. We had a hearty and filling traditional American breakfast to prepare us for the arduous trek back to Miami. As we left we saw that a substantial line of prospective customers had already formed outside.
large_IMG_8939.JPG

I had spotted a viewpoint on Google Maps so we drove along the canyon road a few miles further until it ascended a hill with a couple of hairpin loops. We parked in the lookout and gazed over the reservoir and the furrowed hills beyond. On the opposite side of the road was a dirt path that ascended to the top of the hill. From here we had even better views of the mountains and some small clusters of mansions that nearly blended into the countryside. We gazed around and bid farewell to Salt Lake City for the second time in a year.
large_41e61c50-e6c8-11ec-8ed9-51d59ba4c0db.JPGlarge_IMG_8948.JPG

Our flight home also required a connection but we didn't have the nerve-wracking deviation from the scheduled route that had complicated our outward itinerary. As we flew from the area I craned my neck painfully for one last look behind the wing at the densely populated valley and the vast, surreal lake that gives Salt Lake City its name. I had a strong feeling that this visit wouldn't be our last.
large_IMG_8958.JPG

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:11 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip skiing utah family_travel salt_lake_city friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

This is the Place: Salt Lake City and Park City


View Salt Lake City 2022 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

The kids just get a week off school for Spring Break but somehow we've managed to work some of our most memorable trips into that short interval. Five years ago we took an extra week to tour Sicily and Malta but since then we've managed to stay within the confines of the school vacation to see Buenos Aires, Louisiana, and Belize. Late March is a great time of year to visit Central America and I had anticipated tackling Costa Rica, but the kids had made so much progress on their second ski trip in Vermont over New Year that we decided it would be a better idea to keep building on it. We had Southwest Airlines vouchers from our canceled trip to Belize in 2020 that would expire over the summer which meant flying to either Salt Lake City or Denver. Denver would have been a direct flight but frankly I'd found the city to be as boring as dirt on our first ski trip at the end of 2019. We'd already been to Salt Lake City as well on our huge Southwest road trip the previous summer but I liked the vibe there more and I had a couple of ideas for things to do on a return visit. Salt Lake City also had a profusion of ski slopes within an hour of downtown that catered to every budget and level of proficiency.
large_fe2b8430-d436-11ec-96fe-b3d24bad1545.jpg

There was a huge price difference between departure days for the flights so I decided to cut our trip down to five days. I figured it wouldn't really matter since three days was as much skiing as I could tolerate and I could only think of a day's worth of other activities in Salt Lake City. It felt strange to be sorting through all our ski clothes again so soon after our last trip. Making sure five sets of ski parkas, ski bibs, balaclavas, goggles, gloves, wool socks, warm hoodies, and long underwear are safely packed is not a trivial task. One large suitcase was full before we even turned our attention to the regular clothes and sundries. The only significant annoyance of the flight out was having to make a connection in Houston. Oddly enough, the first time I ever used the in-flight tracking app was the first time we ever deviated significantly from the planned route on a domestic flight. Instead of heading directly across the Gulf of Mexico to Houston we were headed northwest towards St. Louis and the app showed an arrival time an hour and a half past schedule. I kept expecting to see our flight path curving back south and we kept heading in the same wrong direction. Rather than bother the kids who by now were cocooned in charging cables and ear phones I waited for a flight attendant to come by, an event that didn't take place over the next hour. By then the app showed that we were practically over St. Louis, a huge detour from our expected route. I wondered if our plane was destined to disappear over uncharted ocean like that Malaysian Airlines flight. When an attendant finally passed by I flagged her down with barely suppressed anxiety. She seemed a little puzzled by my question and told me that we were going to be arriving late and an announcement had been made at departure. I was sure I hadn't heard anything. A couple of minutes later the captain came on overhead and said that we'd made a detour due to weather and we'd be arriving a almost an hour and a half behind schedule. This would give us less than an hour to make our connection to Salt Lake City which I could see in the app was scheduled to leave on time.

When we finally arrived we hustled off the plane but fortunately we were in Houston's smaller Hobby airport and our next gate was just a hundred yards away. We still had enough time to grab sandwiches before the next flight. On the news I saw that there had been a storm and even tornadoes in Louisiana that afternoon so clearly our detour had been justified. We had actually been lucky to have such a long layover in Houston that we were never in serious danger of missing our connection but it was another reminder that nonstop flights are almost always the best option.
large_IMG_8832.JPG

I hadn't made a dinner reservation for our first night in Salt Lake City, figuring there was a good chance the kids might be sleepy or just beat up from the travel, but everyone seemed in good shape so I made a couple of calls and wound up with a table at Bambara. We picked up our SUV from Alamo and arrived at our Airbnb close to the state capitol uneventfully, quickly dropped off our bags and headed to the restaurant downtown. I generally don't think twice about what I wear to a restaurant in most American cities, especially in Miami, but when I walked into Bambara I felt a little self-conscious about our sloppy travel clothes. The bistro occupied the space of a former bank lobby with a travertine marble floor and a central kitchen that dominated the space. We arrived just half an hour before their closing time so I can't imagine the staff was thrilled to see us but they were very pleasant and didn't betray any sign of annoyance at the sight of the kids. I wasn't surprised when our orders were taken quickly and our food arrived even quicker but we were on the same page regarding getting through the meal with no time to waste. The food was excellent, including creative preparations of regional specialties like elk and salmon. We were thoroughly stuffed after ordering about half the items on the menu and we had an eye-watering bill as a souvenir.
6b61b690-c9a7-11ec-8fac-f9bd680be562.jpgIMG_8837.JPG

In the morning we took an early leave of the Airbnb and drove a short distance to the Oasis Cafe for breakfast. This was an upbeat little restaurant with a bohemian flair that shared its building with a bookstore. The windows extended from the floors almost to the ceiling which made us feel like we were eating in the atrium of a hotel. We ordered the usual suspects for a filling breakfast such as waffles and breakfast burritos and left quite satisfied.
large_IMG_8839.JPG

The fueling up was necessary because we were about to hike to the top of Ensign Peak. This was a trail we'd accidentally discovered on our first visit to SLC over the summer but couldn't attempt because of the triple digit July temperatures. Now that it was March we were dealing with far more comfortable weather for walking. It seemed like an easy hike from what I'd read but I wasn't going to take anything for granted so we packed plenty of water. The trail was steep in a couple of places but it proved to be fairly short and we reached the summit quickly. There were great views of the State Capitol and the short skyline of Mormon office buildings. To the east of the valley were the majestic peaks of the Wasatch Range and to the west were the more modest Oquirrh Mountains. According to local lore when Mormon leader Brigham Young first entered the valley he uttered the words "This is the place", indicating that he believed it was the valley in the Rocky Mountains that their prophet Joseph Smith had instructed him to find. A monument at the summit commemorated the moment in 1847 when Young and eight associates gazed over the empty valley and laid out their visions for a new city. Directly below us were the beautiful mansions of the Ensign Downs neighborhood that we had admired on our last visit. On the way down we noticed a few patches of snow whose heavy contents were perfect for packing. Ian lagged behind with me and was able to surprise his siblings with a snowball in his hand once we were close to the bottom.
large_IMG_3177.jpglarge_33ece830-c9aa-11ec-befb-e38820536011.JPGlarge_IMG_8859.JPGlarge_33974e20-c9aa-11ec-a318-c12a3f5a6df5.JPG

We had seen a good chunk of central Salt Lake City on our first visit but somehow we had missed the majestic City and County Building, an enormous Romanesque edifice constructed from blocks of grey Utah sandstone in the late 19th century. It's a building that might have seemed better suited to one of the larger metropolises of England or Germany and was quite surprising to encounter in one of America's less-heralded cities.
large_05e428a0-e763-11ec-81bb-2d71321c93a5.jpglarge_05700a10-e763-11ec-aa1f-b5842e70e81b.jpg

We had already knocked out most of the things I could find to do in Salt Lake City on our first visit. All that was left on my list was the city's botanical garden, Red Butte Garden. To visit the garden we had to drive all the way past the University of Utah to the eastern border of the city, where expansion was limited by the rising foothills of the Wasatch front. The garden is designed to merge almost seamlessly with the untouched wilderness of the mountains. It was a pleasant place to explore and stretch our legs but the time of year meant that almost nothing was in bloom so it felt more as though we were in a park than a botanical garden.
large_IMG_8868.JPGlarge_IMG_8867.JPGlarge_IMG_8863.JPG

We still had time to kill before our dinner reservation in Park City so we decided to stop off at Woodward Park City to check out the facility and look at their snow tubing runs. The kids had enjoyed snow tubing on their first ski trip in Denver but my research had told me that once spring came the quality of the runs deteriorated due to the melting snow. I hadn't wanted to commit to the activity and then find out that we would be dragging our tubes down the last half of the slope. Woodward also has ski slopes although these are geared more towards freestylers. The boys had fallen asleep when we arrived so Cleo and I went inside on our own. As I had suspected the tubing didn't look that great. Hardly anyone reached the end of their runs and I saw lots of people getting out and dragging their tubes. Even so there were a fair number of people lining up to participate. I figured there would be a chance to do it better wherever we went to ski the following winter. The inside of the huge, warehouse-like facility was partitioned into different areas for skateboarding, trampolining, and bike tricks. We watched kids skateboarding over ramps and flipping into a foam pit for a while, which I found somewhat terrifying even though it clearly wasn't particularly dangerous. I'm not sure how I'd feel if any of my kids decided they wanted to get into those kinds of sports.

Since we'd passed on the tubing we arrived in Park City a full two hours ahead of our dinner reservation and I really wasn't sure what to do. It's an attractive, narrow little town surrounded on either side by steep hills. The town originally came to prominence in the late 19th century after large deposits of silver were discovered, but by the mid 20th century the silver was exhausted and Park City was a ghost town. Just thirty years later a new boom developed in the form of recreational skiing and mountain biking and Park City experienced a rebirth. The residential side of town is filled with modest homes on the hillside that might be typical of any small town in the western United States. There's a sharp demarcation at the beginning of the historically-preserved Main Street where the homes give way completely to a profusion of restaurants, boutiques and galleries that characterizes upscale resort cities from Aspen to Sedona. Despite it being so late in the season, the sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians who looked like they had just returned from the slopes. A few had bright pink sunburns, a consequence of failing to appreciate the power of the spring sun at high altitude.
large_IMG_3339.jpglarge_IMG_8873.JPG

For the next two hours we made our way north on Main Street, sliding into any galleries and shops that looked sufficiently interesting. Much of the artwork in the galleries referenced the town's history with display cases made from antique mining lockers and plenty of silver work. Our favorite establishment was a combination bookstore and gelato cafe that also served up a mean cup of coffee. It was the perfect way to keep up the kids' spirits without messing up their dinner.
large_IMG_8875.JPGlarge_9db373c0-d138-11ec-9ba3-5bab083141ac.JPGlarge_IMG_8872.JPG

Dinner was at Riverhorse on Main, which my research had indicated was the best choice for our single evening in Park City. Not only did the food have a great reputation for quality and creativity, but the entrees included several varieties of local wild meats such as venison, elk, and trout. This would be our second round of elk in two days but as far as we're concerned there's no such thing as an excessive amount of game. For the second night in a row we got carried away with the ordering and we were so preoccupied with making sure that we didn't leave anything too expensive behind that we almost forgot to enjoy the meal.
large_9c6f8210-d138-11ec-916c-7500272072ec.JPG

Once dinner was complete we had a one hour drive via the interstate to Ogden, which would be our home for the next three days as we completed the skiing portion of our vacation.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:52 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip skiing family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (1)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Geldingadalur Volcano & conclusion


View Iceland 2021 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Having been originally settled only a thousand years ago, Iceland does not have a long and complex cultural history compared to continental Europe or Asia. The most fascinating story of Iceland is in the physical birth of the country itself about sixty million years ago when mantle plumes uncovered by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates spewed vast quantities of lava onto the ocean floor. The lava eventually rose to sea level to form a large island and the volcanic activity generated by those same plumes continues to shape the coastline and the interior of Iceland to the present day. Virtually every piece of rock in Iceland is of volcanic origin, mostly various forms of basalt. Not long after Iceland made its appearance at the ocean surface another story began to write itself. This was the story of living things, a green wave that transformed the island from shades of black and grey to patchworks of lichen, carpets of thick moss, valleys of low-lying plants, and even birch forests. Although most of the trees were destroyed by the original Norse colonists the greenery of Iceland remains just as remarkable as its geology. However, the ancient tale that Iceland and Greenland were given their oxymoronic names to confuse pirates is probably an urban legend. Although the origin of the term Iceland is uncertain, the country is most likely to have been named for the glaciers and frozen fjords that the original settlers first came across when they arrived from Norway.

Over two weeks in Iceland we had witnessed countless manifestations of Iceland's diverse and changing geology, from glaciers and canyons to thermal pools and geysers. While many of these places are in rapid evolution from a geologic perspective one can be relatively certain that they won't disappear between one year and the next. On our last day in Iceland we had an opportunity to have an incredible experience that might only occur once in a lifetime, a hike within a few hundred meters of an erupting volcano. The eruption of Geldingadalur, also known as Fagradalsfjall, began in March 2021 after a series of minor earthquakes. It was the first volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula in eight hundred years. Unlike the typical explosive volcanic eruption like the famous ones at Pompeii or Mount St. Helens this was an effusion of lava from a magma dike that had extended to the surface. It wasn't spectacular enough to get much attention on a global scale but it was also perfectly safe to get within a close distance of the main cone and the lava flow. We had seen one of the crowded parking lots from which people were embarking on the hike to the lava when touring the peninsula on our first day in Iceland. My research hadn't given me a very clear picture of what that hike would be like or what exactly we could expect to see at the end, but we had a time slot open on that final afternoon and the weather was good so we decided to head to the beginning of the trail and see what came of it.
large_69666280-8cf0-11ec-96d3-c5abb397b42c.png

From the parking area we could see a line of people snaking up a trail that went up to the top of a tall hill that was almost barren of vegetation. Although we were comfortable in our hoodies I insisted on packing the winter parkas, knowing how quickly the wind and temperature could change. As we set off I decided to intercept a small group of returning hikers to glean more information about what to expect from the journey. One member of the group was practically bouncing with exhilaration. He told us that there would be three hills, each one taller and steeper than the last, and that even if we thought we had achieved an adequate view of the volcano we should keep going because the next overlook would be an order of magnitude better. He kept on repeating that it was a life-changing experience and was so effusive that I eventually had to detach myself politely from his enthusiastic recapitulation. It was a relief to learn that we wouldn't be disappointed in our experience that day as I had read that on some days the lava didn't seem to be flowing at all.

Just as we had been promised we could already see the cone and the lava flow once we reached the top of the first hill. It was an amazing sight and more than I had expected as I would have been satisfied with just a trickle of lava. The wind was much stronger at the top and the temperature had begun dropping as well so I was grateful for my decision to bring the heavy coats. We could see a long walk ahead of us along the ridge to the base of the second hill and there's a good chance we would have turned back here if not for that chance encounter with the exuberant returnee. Given what he had told us we had no choice but to keep going.
large_IMG_8060.JPGlarge_IMG_8045.JPG

The view from the crest of the second hill was similar to the first but a little closer and more intense. I was so focused on watching the bursts and waves of lava flowing over the sides of the cone that I didn't really pay much attention to the third hill until we were almost at its base. This was a much steeper climb than the prior two hills and the trail switched from a straight line to a series of switchbacks. Even with that modification it was very difficult to get purchase on the muddy slope and I had to teach the kids to brace their feet against the rocks that were embedded in the mud. Even so we were constantly slipping and our boots and pants legs became caked in mud. The temperature continued to drop so that the wind chilled us even through the winter coats. The struggle to get to the top of the final hill seemed interminable but eventually we made it and had an absolutely stupendous view of the cone from the shortest distance possible. The sight of the glowing red lava sloshing around and overflowing from the cone was hypnotizing especially with the knowledge that just a splash of that molten rock would be enough to incinerate us. Overhead a helicopter circled precariously through the plume of smoke that emanated from the cone. I had given some thought to this ultra-expensive way of seeing the eruption but learned there was a weeks-long waiting list despite the prodigious cost. At this point I was very glad we'd had no choice but to do things the hard way as the whole experience had been quite rewarding.
large_IMG_8059.JPGlarge_IMG_8051.JPGlarge_IMG_20210821_165941.jpg

Once I was sure we'd absorbed everything we could from watching the cone there was no choice but to return. I wasn't thrilled about retracing the whole trek but at least there would be more downhill than up this time. When we got to the bottom of the third hill we saw that several people had clambered down the side of the ridge and were standing at the edge of the recently solidified lava flow. This was quite far away from the flowing red lava and didn't seem particularly unsafe so we decided to get a closer look as well. This was the lowest section of the ridge and it was easy to get down at this point. The fresh lava was truly remarkable, a substance with a shape and texture I had never experienced before. At the bottom it looked like congealed black mud but was dry and hard to the touch. This seemed to be lava that had flowed underneath an older upper layer which had cracked and fragmented and resembled the mature lava fields we had seen except without a speck of vegetation. I was nervous about climbing on top of the lava, knowing that there was molten rock flowing underneath the benign-appearing upper layer, but it seemed unlikely that it extended all the way to the edge. Others were venturing out much further and I hoped they wouldn't find out the hard way that mother nature can be very unforgiving.
large_IMG_8103.JPGlarge_IMG_8070.JPG

My instinct was to climb back up to the ridge and return to the car the same way we had come. It wasn't very exciting but at least we knew exactly how long it would take for us to get to the car and we did have a dinner reservation in Keflavik although we still had plenty of time. On the other hand Mei Ling wanted to follow the lava trail along the bottom of the ridge. I had some misgivings because I wasn't sure exactly where that route would take us but she was insistent and I gave in. At first this seemed like it had been the right choice because we got a much better look at the river of glowing red lava from the lower level.
large_IMG_8095.JPGlarge_IMG_8099.JPGlarge_IMG_8104.JPG

As we made our way along the base of the ridge some uncomfortable developments began to take place. The route continued to progress downward while the ridge next to us became taller and taller. The ground became more slippery and irregular and a light rain began to fall which worsened the muddiness of the ground and the coldness of the environment. It seemed that continuing to follow the lava might take us further and further away from the car and actually deposit us in a completely different parking area. From there I had no clue how we would eventually make it back to where we needed to be. I looked at the side of the ridge and while it seemed like a daunting climb it appeared doable. People were making their way along the top of the ridge and I ached to be back on a familiar path so we decided to set off up the slope. At first we did fairly well on the grassy area but as the footholds disappeared and the steepness increased parabolically we began to lose our purchase on the ground. I realized that even though the top was temptingly close the climb was only going to get more treacherous and would ultimately put us in serious danger of injury if we continued. Regretfully I made the decision to turn around and descend back to the trail down by the lava. The thought of returning all the way to the spot where we had originally left the ridge was unbearable so there was no choice except to continue onward and hope for the best.
large_IMG_8094.JPG

For the next three quarters of an hour we straggled along the muddy path under the cold rain. I have to give credit to the kids for continuing onward although they frequently slipped and were obviously suffering. We helped them as much as we could and Mei Ling eventually put Spenser on her back. The other two were just way too big to be carried. Finally with an enormous sense of relief I could see that up ahead the trail led to a flat area across from which was the base of the first hill we had climbed. We were going to get back to our car after all. We were all totally muddy, chilled, and exhausted but I knew we had completed a once-in-a-lifetime experience none of us would ever forget. Not only had we seen an erupting volcano but we had done it the hard way with blisters and scrapes to show for it. Even though we technically weren't allowed to take any souvenirs I did pocket three tiny fragments of that fresh spongy jet black lava for the kids as a memento of their enormous accomplishment that day.

Thanks to the long detour and our failed attempt to scale the ridge we had barely enough time to make our dinner reservation. We piled into the car without even changing and raced down the peninsula as fast as I dared. When we arrived at the hotel restaurant it was still raining and I stopped under the hotel canopy so Mei Ling could bundle the kids inside. I parked across the street and realized my muddy hiking pants and boots were completely unacceptable. I changed into jeans and shoes in the rain next to the car, way past caring about what passing drivers might have thought. I needn't have worried as the dreary wet street was devoid of traffic. Mei Ling had already ordered once I finally made it inside. I saw the kids were also way too muddy for an upscale hotel restaurant so I returned to the car and unpacked clean pants and shoes for each of them as well. I shuttled them individually to the restroom and got them changed. It was a process but it was the last time we would be dealing with the consequences of Iceland's unpredictable terrain and capricious weather. Dinner was the typical underwhelming presentation of old standards we had become accustomed to with a tasty sweet reward for the kids at the end.
large_IMG_8106.JPG

Our final night in Iceland was spent in a grungy motel in the colorless town of Keflavik. There was one final formidable obstacle to overcome, one that we had absolutely no control over. Living in Florida I'm used to keeping a watchful eye on the paths of hurricanes during the summer but ironically the one that was presenting a problem for us now wouldn't even have been on my radar at any other time. Hurricane Henri had started out in the mid-Atlantic, nowhere near Florida, but was projected to make a direct impact on Boston right about the time that our plane would be arriving there. It would be the first hurricane to hit Boston in thirty years which left me feeling quite unlucky even though we'd had plenty of good luck so far on the trip. I had no idea if our flight would even take off so I was constantly refreshing the hurricane tracker as well as the airline site to see if we would find ourselves spending an extra day or two in Iceland. When I awoke at dawn to make sure everything was packed and prepared I saw that the hurricane's impact had been pushed back a couple of hours which gave us a much better chance of arriving in the US as scheduled. Our flight from Boston to Miami was another matter entirely but at least we wouldn't have to worry about being stranded in a foreign country with expired COVID tests.

Mei Ling was unperturbed about the probable disruption to our return, perhaps because there was nothing we could do about it anyway. We returned our car smoothly and the agent failed to notice a scraped bumper on her cursory inspection. The kids got a thrill after boarding when the flight attendants recognized them from the volcano hike and got them some special treats for their toughness. Our flight took off as scheduled and upon landing in Boston we learned that the hurricane had made a last minute turn inland which had caused it to fall apart fairly quickly. It seemed the weather was no longer a threat and we had another uncomplicated flight on the domestic leg. It was a final stroke of good fortune in a trip that had seen several potential disasters culminate in miraculous positive outcomes. Being back in Miami was quite disorienting at first because over two weeks in Iceland it had begun to seem like we had always been there and our previous life in Miami had been a dream. Now we were looking at Iceland in the rear view mirror and that experience seemed completely unreal. Had we really walked on a glacier, rafted a turbulent and freezing river, and gazed upon an erupting volcano or had it been some kind of wild virtual reality experience? I couldn't really compare this two week journey to our month-long road trips in continental Europe but it seemed like this might have been our greatest short trip yet. The only one that might have been comparable was our tour of Sicily four years previously. There weren't enough memorable meals to rank them but the outdoor experiences more than made up for the lack of culinary pleasures.

10. Ásbyrgi Canyon
9. Reynisfjara black sand beach
8. Rauðhólar red hills
7. Downtown Reykjavik
6. Rafting on the West Glacial River
5. Fjallsjökull glacier walk
4. Snaefellsnes
3. Eldfell crater hike on Vestmannaeyjar
2. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
1. Geldingalur volcano

I chose these ten out of at least sixty individual outdoor sights and adventures that we had in Iceland, a stunning number for a trip just two weeks long. Even though we managed to circle the entire country I know we missed many amazing places between lack of time, lack of knowledge, and lack of courage. Will we be back? I certainly hope so, but probably not until the kids are all in their teens and ready to tackle the more challenging exploration of the interior. I don't know if we'll ever be up to doing the famous multi-day hikes but I would certainly love to see places like Askja and Þórsmörk. Of course there's so much of the world left to see it's really hard to look that far into the future. I feel that between Iceland and the incredible road trip we took in the American Southwest immediately beforehand our family made enormous progress in terms of our ability to explore and appreciate the natural world along with the cities and restaurants that typically form the backbone of our trips. That opens up an entire new dimension of travel for us both in Europe and in the developing world.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:13 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog fagradalsfjall Comments (0)

(Entries 26 - 30 of 263) « Page 1 2 3 4 5 [6] 7 8 9 10 .. »