the trek


American beauty — one photo, one hike, one national park at a time.

American beauty — one photo, one hike, one national park at a time.

Make a plan, gather your gear, jump in your car — and go. It’s that simple. The trails are expecting you. Experiences await. And the countless advances in petroleum-based outdoor equipment — from boots to binoculars — have made it more fun (warm, dry, durable) than ever. It’s time to take a hike! There’s no better time than now. The American Hiking Society has named November 17 as National Take a Hike Day.

Maybe you need a little inspiration?

Earlier this year, New York-based photographer Jay Kolsch — whose lens deftly captures natural beauty — set forth on a weeklong voyage into the great American West with his partner Christine Walsh. It was National Parks Week, and if artful intrigue sparked their trip then petroleum was the fuel that made it possible. It powers the planes, cars and boots that brought them into the parks and is found in the tents, sleeping bags, climbing ropes, backpacks and rainproof gear that sustained them.

Inspired by the parks and empowered by petroleum, Kolsch and Walsh kept going after National Parks Week was officially over. They were just getting started. On day ten of this epic excursion, they took on a 12-hour travel day and headed toward Yellowstone.

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DAY 10

ITINERARY: Nevada to Idaho to Montana to Yellowstone

We were in the car and on the road by nine the morning and pulled into Yellowstone right around nine at night — just as the sun was setting. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leaving Nevada, it was amazing how mostly everything in the state has a casino attached to it — even our hotel. As we crossed over the Idaho state line, it started to snow. Then it got nasty, and we had to take it really slow because the roads were so slick. While it was a pain to drive in, the way the snow was collecting on tree branches made it look like a winter-wonderland snow globe. A river running alongside the road was very high from an earlier snow melt, making the drive that much more nerve-racking. The snow kept the night sky bright, which helped because the roads hadn’t been plowed.

We unloaded into the lodge and got dinner in the hotel restaurant — Bolognese with bison and elk — and planned the next day’s adventure.

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DAY 11

ITINERARY: Venturing into Yellowstone Park

We woke up to see that not only had it snowed all night long — it was still snowing. But it looked magnificent and made us drive even slower than we normally would while taking in the natural beauty that surrounded us. After breakfast, we set out for Mammoth Hot Springs but almost immediately came upon two bison walking in the snow on the shoulder of the road. We rolled down the windows to photograph them — they were so close we could have touched them! That’s a memory we’ll always keep.

An hour north on the main road the weather changed drastically. By the time we arrived at the springs, it was sunny skies with temps in the 50s. The hot springs offer hydrothermic wonders because a volcanic source underground heats water and sends it through a network of fractures and fissures that bring it to the surface. The springs are all different colors, shapes and sizes — and smell like sulfur. This planet is incredible, mysterious and humbling.

We drove back to the hotel and saw tons more wildlife along the way, including lots of bison — some roaming alone and others in larger groups — as well as coyotes, foxes and wolves. Jay was most looking forward to Yellowstone on this trip to see bison for the first time and was thrilled by how many we got to see.

On the way back, we stopped to see the Fountain Paint Pot — pretty much a violently burping puddle of red mud — and the Grand Prismatic Spring. The latter is the park’s largest hot spring. Four bison walked near the path to the springs toward the river. As we walked by them, a bald eagle flew above us and over the river.

The river is Yellowstone’s lifeline.

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DAY 12

ITINERARY: Yellowstone to the Grand Tetons

In the morning, we did what everyone has to do when visiting Yellowstone and checked out America’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful. It was scheduled to go off at 10:29 AM and true to its name, right around then (give or take a couple minutes) Old Faithful did its thing! Check that one off the bucket list. Feeling some post-geyser-giddiness — and delightfully touristy — we walked over to the general store and crushed four pennies into various Yellowstone designs before jumping in the car for the Grand Tetons.

We found a camp spot around 3:30 PM that looked back at the mountains. We were outnumbered by animals. An army of gophers ran around the campsite, popping in and out of their holes, as adorable as possible. But you’ve got to keep an eye on those little guys — they’ll snatch your snacks. As we were finishing lunch, a silver fox strolled right through our campsite. It was a jaw-dropping moment. It was a beautiful animal and didn’t care one bit that we were there. We were on his turf. Moments later, the cutest, most energetic young golden retriever came bounding up to us. Her owner was close behind and told us that Maddie was her name and being such a good girl is her game.

Jay set up a time-lapse in the late afternoon, which was the earliest we were able to set one up on this trip. We had high hopes. As the sun set behind the Grand Tetons and the light faded, temps plummeted dramatically. Worried if we waited any longer it would be too cold to cook outside, we started making dinner. I was bundled in thermal gear, including a high-tech cold-weather coat and sleeping bag. Still, I ate with my gloves on. That’s a first.

The goal was to leave the time-lapse running until at least 11. But unfortunately it wasn’t a great star-filled night for a time-lapse after all. Sometimes it’s the small things. Dinner was rushed. The time-lapse wasn’t great. But we had each other, amazing sleeping bags and the sense of adventure that you feel when you fall asleep with the Grand Tetons outside your window. Still, that was one cold night.

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Day 13

ITINERARY: Grand Tetons to Antelope Island

It was freezing when the alarm went off at 7 AM. — the chairs and tripod we left outside were covered in a thick coating of frost. It felt too cold to get up, so we snoozed for a couple hours and let the sun warm everything up a bit.

We planned to drive back into Grand Teton National Park and go for a run on the path alongside String Lake. We were imagining a refreshing, blue alpine lake. But when we got up into the park, it was still frozen over and the trails were covered by a foot or two of snow. We decided to get out of there and head down to a lower elevation — stat!

We ended up back in Jackson Hole for hot tacos. While smashing deliciousness wrapped in tortillas, we devised a plan to camp on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. That means we had a five-and-a-half-hour drive ahead of us. We made it by sunset, slowly rolling past six peaceful and powerful bison as we pulled into our site. We dropped everything and went for a sunset run. The breeze was so clean and refreshing. The weather was in the high 50s and a really nice change from the Tetons. It also felt a bit more like civilization. The campsites are organized on a loop on the hill overlooking the lakeside beach on the northern side of the island. They’re very nice — each spot has its own covered picnic table and fire pit and is completely level. Some of them were even wheelchair accessible.

Jay affixed the gas lantern over the picnic table, which was a really nice touch. We went all out since it was our last night camping and cooked up a freeze-dried crème brûlée. Who says you can’t be rugged and refined.

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Day 14

ITINERARY: Salt Lake City

Today is the last full day of the trip! We’re as sad about that as we are tired. As majestic as these National Parks are, there’s really no place like home — and nothing as comfortable as your own bed. The one thing we won’t miss are the sand flies. Around these parts, the biting little buggers are called no-see-ums. Here’s how we were introduced to them:

We left the car completely closed overnight, and there was condensation covering every surface. We opened the hatch by our faces to let in the fresh, cool air but were quickly inundated by thousands of the horrible no-see-ums! We rushed to shut the hatch but sealed some of the bugs in with us. It was not fun. It was memorable though. Maybe that’s worth it?

We drove to a well-manicured park nearby that was far enough from the lake to be bug-free. There were lots of families walking, running and biking around. People were fishing in a little pond full of ducks and huge pelicans. It was a quaint scene. Except for us. We looked like we stepped out of a post-apocalyptic movie. What can you do? We did what anyone in their right mind would do at a time like this. We set up our portable kitchen on a picnic bench under a shady awning and fried up an entire package of bacon. Then to further disrupt the suburban sense of normalcy, I washed our dishes in the ladies’ bathroom, which felt like a luxurious commodity. That’s how long we’ve been roughing it!

But we weren’t quite done yet. After lunch, we hiked up to Lake Blanche in the Twin Peaks Wilderness area. The trail was about seven miles round trip and pretty steep in parts. It was hot and sunny, but the streams running down the mountain alongside the trail provided what felt like sporadic air conditioning and filled our water bottles.

As we approached the top of the hike, it was becoming late in the afternoon, so we decided to call it quits and turn around before it got too cold. The lake at the top was frozen, just like in the Grand Tetons. We thought our time would be better spent heading toward the hotel and packing up for the flight the next day. We took our time to enjoy ourselves and reminisce about everything we had experienced over the past couple weeks out here in the National Parks.

Wild flowers lined one side of the trail — a welcome sign that we were nearly back in civilization. I picked a few of them.

I think I’ll keep them forever.

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