Out of Michigan: Montezuma’s Castle, Arizona

My wife and I recently went on a trip to Arizona to visit my father in law. We traveled throughout the state to see many attractions including the widely popular Grand Canyon National Park. We also stopped at a few lesser known attractions that were equally as beautiful. The state of Arizona has a lot of natural beauty and includes many National Parks and National Monuments within the state. We ventured over to Montezuma’s Castle National Monument located just a few miles from Camp Verde. It was worth the visit and we learned a lot of historical facts in the process.

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The structure of the castle is nestled in a limestone cliff. Inside it contains several small rooms. When the park first opened up, the National Park Service provided tours up into the castle. Visitors could get access by climbing up a series of ladders to the structure. However, the changing conditions of the desert and the delicate limestone rocks made it hard to keep the tours going, and they stopped allowing access up into the pueblo ruins in 1951. The main ruins within the cliff contains about 40-45 rooms inside. When archeologists originally uncovered the ruins they found many artifacts that allowed deeper insight into how the Sinagua people lived and their culture. Today, it can be viewed from a distance on a 3/4 mile trail looping through the park. Even though you cannot go up into the structure, it is still a sight to behold.

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As you walk along the loop you will get a closer view of the limestone cliff to the left of the castle. Further down near the base of the wall are a few ruins at ground level. The remains of the ruins are still intact, but it is obvious that much of it has been destroyed. It looks like the historic foundations of a basement that was left behind and lost in history. Walking up into these small square structures are still interesting nonetheless. As you make your way back toward the visitors center to complete the loop you will walk along Beaver Creek. We visited in the early Spring so the waters of the creek were cascading and flowing strong.

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As you begin your trip on the loop or you complete it, I would recommend spending some time in the visitors center. It is a smaller visitors center, but it gives you some history and perspective of the Sinagua culture. It allows you to gain an understanding of civilization in the area long before any of it was discovered. In fact the Sinagua people vacated the ruins long before any other inhabitants took control of the land. The visitors center also showcases some of the archeological finds within the ruins. If we had more time, I would have loved to read up on all the information at the visitors center. The National Monument does get quite a few visitors every year, but some of these National Monuments are overshadowed by the grandeur of the Grand Canyon. When in Arizona, try to visit as many of these National Monuments as you can. You will not be disappointed.

 

Alone in Nature

You don’t have to go far to enjoy some of the beautiful elements of nature. Often they can be found at your local parks a few miles away. I have found beautiful creeks, sweeping vistas, discovered wildflowers and some of the best fall foliage. The winter season is no exception. You certainly get a different perspective on the landscape. The one major element that stands out with visiting these parks during the winter is how desolate it can be. Often you are the only one out there and all you hear is the sounds of animals scurrying, birds chirping and the howling of the winds.

Aman Park, Grand Rapids

I spent some time in the local county parks of Kent County to explore and to see how I could capture the winter landscape with my camera. The snow had just fallen and the trees were decorated with white fluffy snow on the branches. It was quite cold and the snow was fairly deep when hiking in certain areas. When out in the winter elements it is essential to wear the proper attire. I found that out the hard way once and cut short a winter excursion. The first park that I stopped at was Aman Park off of M-45. There was hardly anyone out on the trails. I took the trail downward to a bridge that crossed a small creek. It was amazing being in the middle of a snowy oasis. The snow on the trees beyond the bridge looked like I was about to step into another world. While I was hiking through this park, I was alone in nature. It was desolate out in the middle of the forest, but at the same time extremely peaceful.

Townsend Park, Rockford

I also went to Townsend Park on the other side of Kent County on a cold morning. Snow was foretasted once again, but I caught a gimps of sun as it rose amid some cloud cover. The section of the park I went to was closed off and had to hike it in. It is also one of the more beautiful places within this park so it was well worth the hike. A few bridges span over Bear Creek as it winds through the valley proportion of the park. The sun pushing through the clouds made a nice reflection off the water. Once again, I was the only one in the park at that time. There was plenty of fresh snow and the only tracks around were mine or those of animals that had passed through earlier. I am not the biggest winter person, but this time out in the park was really special. I was experiencing the still of the morning. For that moment of tranquility alone, I would recommend a winter hike to anyone.

Sliding Away

Recently Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore reported that the famous Log Slide Overlook trail is closed to the public. Due to heavy snow, strong winds and dune erosion the overlook platform broke off and fell about 100 feet down the large sand dune. The overlook offered a couple different views of the area. First and foremost, you were able to see the Grand Sable Dunes off to the right. Recently shrubs and trees on the dune were creating somewhat of an obstruction to the view. To the left, you could see the cliffs of pictured rocks and Sable Point Lighthouse. It was quite the view from up there.

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The area has quite the history. The logging industry has always been a big part of Michigan, particularly Northern Michigan. Years ago loggers used to slide the logs down the dunes to Lake Superior where they would be hauled out and taken to various mills. Legend from old lumberjack stories has stated that the logs going down the chute created enough friction that the chute would catch fire. While that is just a legend, I am sure the stories from that era were fascinating. The log slide is gone, but the beauty of the Grand Sable Dunes remain.

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The dunes strike a similar beauty to the Sleeping Bear Dunes with large inclines upward from the lake. Trails nearby the overlook and at Sable Falls will take you out to the sweeping hills of the dunes. Once at the edge of the 300 foot dune going down into Lake Superior;  you can take the trip down to the lake, but it is a hard walk back up the dune. It is also about a mile walk along the shoreline to Grand Maris, so plan accordingly. Those who have health issues should not take that hike or attempt to go down the sand dune. Sleeping Bear Dunes have had similar issues with visitors prompting the Coast Guard to make rescues for visitors. This can be a costly visit to your national park if you need to be rescued for this.

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As of now the trail to the overlook is closed up. According to the park officials the dune is not damaged and if the erosion is not substantial, they will build again. This incident is a constant reminder of the forces of nature. Man made structures often cannot hold up when natures elements are in full swing. The Upper Peninsula gets quite a bit of snow, so it is easy to understand that the weight of the snow, high winds that shift the sand can cause a collapse in a wood platform built into the dune. The next time they do build the platform, I am sure they will improve the structure. I do hope they get the platform back up. The scenery from the overlook was amazing.

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The Guardian

As you enter the city of Newago there is a small roadside park that is easy to miss. I drove right past it as I was heading into Newyago, but something had caught my eye. I turned around and headed back to this roadside park. Just beyond the parking lot was a statue of a police officer with two children. It was a memorial to police officers who have not only served in Newagyo, but in the state of Michigan. I thought it was pretty fitting to be right before you enter the city. Police officers are often tasked with guarding and protecting citizens. What struck me is that this is the statue as you enter the city as if it was the guardian of the city.

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It was nice to see several flowers growing in the area and served as a nice foreground element to the statue. What I admired about this statue in particular was that the work of art showcased the softer side of law enforcement. When I was a kid I remember a representative of the police department showing up at schools talking to the classes providing tips about strangers and to come to a police officer if there was a sense of danger. I and many others always got the impression that the police officer was our friend. This was the public relations aspect to policing. The statue with the officer and the kids reminded me of those days growing up. That is what I really appreciated about this particular work of art. It showcased the softer side to police officers, something that has gone astray from how we as citizens view police to the officers themselves in how they view their role in policing.

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Beyond the statue is a trail that leads to a creek. You can hear the rushing waters cascading along some rocks and pieces of wood within the creek. The walk is a nice small walk to take and it quite relaxing. There are small outlets within the trail that will take you closer down to the creek, However, the main trail is what most people will stay on. The trail goes along the creek for about a fourth of a mile. The only issue I had was that I was there in the early part of spring and the leaves of the trees had not bloomed yet. The sun was staring me down as I was hiking the trail making it a little difficult to see at times. As with any hike, you always need to be aware of your surroundings.

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If you are in the Newaygo area, look for the roadside park. If you are taking M-37 North, the park will be on your right. Coming in the south direction look for the park on your left as you leave the city. It is a nice little park away from the city with a nice piece of public art. I am glad the statue caught my eye. Otherwise, I would have missed it and continued onward into the city.

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Otter Play

Going to the zoo has always been a fun place to visit. I loved going to the zoo as a kid and seeing many of the different animals from around the world. As an adult, I still love the zoo. Michigan has several zoos throughout the state and has a variety of animals in each of the zoos. Some zoo’s are larger than others, but nonetheless you always walk away with a better appreciation of wildlife. The John Ball zoo in Grand Rapids is a place that should be on any itinerary when coming to visit the city. I have been to this zoo serveal times and each time, I leave satisfied with my visit.

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One of my favorite places to visit at the zoo is the Otter Exhibit. There is a glass wall where you can see the otters swim around under water. To the left there is a platform where you can view the Otters on the land. If you just want to sit down and relax there are benches that overlook the exhibit. it is not uncommon to see several Otters out and playing with each other. In all the times I have visited the zoo, I cannot recall one time where they were inside and away from the public. They love interacting with other Otters and will often go where the other Otters are. Occasionally you will see one of them swimming around on his own while the others are out sunbathing, but typically they are like pack animals where they stay together and do things together. When they are at play with each other seems to be when they are the most entertaining to watch.

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I do like those moments where one Otter will break from the pack and do its own thing. I have seen Otters enjoying themselves swimming or just finding a quiet place to enjoy the sunshine. When they are still and quiet, they are still entertaining to watch. Otters usually don’t stay in one place for long. I have found this to be different from some of the other animals where you could circle the zoo and come back to an animal and find them laying in the same spot as when you left them. Otters keep moving and will do something different over a period of time. That is where the entertainment value comes in with them. As a photographer, you can get quite a few different types of photographs with the Otters and actually get a sense of their personality.

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John Ball Zoo has benches to watch the animals in various places. If you have the time, I would recommend just sitting down and relaxing. There are food outlets throughout the zoo. You could even grab some food, eat lunch and enjoy watching the animals play. The Otters and Monkeys tend to be the most entertaining of all the animals there. You never know what you will see from one minute to the next. When visiting the zoo, be sure to take some time to visit the Otters. You will not be disappointed.

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A Mackinaw Winter

Mackinaw City is extremely busy during the tourism season from early spring all the way to the mid part of fall. it is the gateway to Mackinac Island which is a major tourism draw for not only residents of Michigan, but people visiting from other states. The city mirrors St. Ignace on the other side of the bridge, but is by far the most popular tourism draw with many restaurants, shopping opportunities, historic parks, and a lighthouse overlooking the Mackinac Bridge. I entered the city expecting to see a similar scene that I had experienced at other seasonal tourist towns where there was little to no life within the town. What I soon realized is that the city brings in a lot more people than I thought during the winter season.

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When I had visited the city during the winter a couple years ago, the Great Lakes were frozen over pretty good. The frozen waters over the Straits of Mackinac provided an opportunity for winter recreation that I had never given a second guess. Snowmobiles were being rented out and several snowmobile tours were being offered. These tours gave a new look to the city from what would be the waterfront. It provided an up close look at the Mackinac Bridge and some of the parks within city limits. A few stores had opened back up for the season selling more winter seasonal items. While most of the restaurants had shut down, there were still several restaurants still opened for business. Hotels were pretty well filled up far beyond what I had expected to see.

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I stopped by the Lighthouse Park where Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse was located. Several people were walking back and forth from the parking lot to the frozen lakeshore area. The park seemed to be a mid point stop throughout the Straits of Mackinac snowmobile tours along the Lower Peninsula. A few people gathered in the park to get a closer view of the lighthouse. They left behind their snowmobiles parked out on the ice of the lake. The ice could be seen extending out way beyond the midpoint of the bridge. As I looked out onto the Mackinac Bridge, there was still quite a bit of traffic crossing the bridge between the two peninsulas. It wasn’t long until they got onto their snowmobiles and started heading toward the docks of the ferries that during the tourism season bring passengers out to Mackinac Island. Before leaving I got a pretty good glance at the Mackinac Point Lighthouse. I too had been accustomed to seeing this lighthouse during the summer season.

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It certainly is interesting to see this city during the winter season. There is certainly more activity at this city than I had expected, and that is a pretty good thing. Often so many cities see a slowdown in the off season and it also slows down the economy for the city. When various tourist cities can flourish in all the seasons, it allows the city to bring in more businesses and keep up the parks that attract many visitors during the normal tourism season. If time allows, I definitely want to get back to this city during the winter and do a little bit more exploring than what I did on this current visit.

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Land of the Frozen Ghosts

The Silver Lake sand dunes stretch out for miles between Silver Lake and Lake Michigan. The state park draws in plenty of visitors in the summer to ride off road vehicles on the dunes, hike hills of the dunes, take a tour ride of the dunes, visit the campground on Silver Lake or just enjoy a day at the beach near Little Sable Point Lighthouse. There is no shortage of activity during the summer months at Silver Lake State Park. During the winter, the area shuts down. The dune tours close up, restaurants and gift shops shut down, and the whole area is like a ghost town. This time of the year is a prime time to see the ghosts of a different kind at the state park.

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The dunes are home to a section of ghost forests. These ghost forests are great to visit during the summer, but also provide an interesting view of the dune landscape during the winter. The best way to access the ghost forest is a small parking lot off North Shore Drive. This small park area is the access to the pedestrian dunes. There are a series of boardwalk stairs taking you up to the dunes where you will have to climb up the dunes for about 25 feet. The challenge to this during a snowy winter is that the snow drifts build up on that side of the dunes once the boardwalk stairs end, making access nearly impossible. If you do run into that issue, don’t fret because there is another way to the dunes. Simply walk down to the end of the parking lot near the ORV section of the dunes. There is a small entryway to the dunes as it crosses over to the ORV part of the dunes. In the winter time, you are not going to have to worry about being in the way of any ORV’s.

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As you access the dunes, head back toward the way you would have started from the boardwalk. Make your way out into the dunes for about a quarter mile and you start to run into the wooden stumps of the ghost forest. The various shaped wooden stumps are all over the dunes and scattered in about a half mile radius. Walking on the dunes is a little easier in the winter than it can be in the summer. The winter temperatures freeze the surface of the sand and it is like walking on concrete. Pay attention to the various patters of snow and sand mixed together as they can create some interesting photo opportunities. While you are out there, it is easy to lose yourself in the environment. There are no sounds of ORV’s in the distance. There are usually no visible signs of other people. You are in the midst of the sights and sounds of the winter winds.

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The ghost forest area is a place that several people don’t really think about when visiting the park in the winter. The lighthouse will always be the more popular attraction. I think that it is only fitting that one should visit the ghost forest during the winter since the whole park seems to be like a giant ghost town. It is a far contrast between winter and summer, but that is what makes it worth coming to in the two seasons. You do get quite a bit of a workout on the dunes and winter hiking can be a challenge, but you will walk away with some pretty unique photographs if you are up to the challenge.

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Winter’s Big Red

Visitors that pour into Holland State Park are rewarded with views of the Holland Harbor Lighthouse. The lighthouse to many has been refereed to as “Big Red”, and it has become a staple of the city of Holland, Michigan. At the state park you can view it from across the channel. The lighthouse rests on the south part of the channel while the State Park lies on the northern part of the channel. The best way to view the lighthouse is to get up close and personal on the south side of the channel, but there are challenges to getting access to the south end of the channel.

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Like several other places within the state, some of the state’s attractions have been limited due to private property and gated communities. This is the issue that one will face when trying to access the south side of the Holland Channel. The area is gated off and you can not gain access inside unless you are renting a cottage or live within this community. I have found that parking near the marina is the best option. During the winter this area is free of cars and you will run into little problems. In the summer due to the fact that it is a marina, parking may be limited or you may be told to not park there. From the marina I have been able to walk into the gated community. It is not blocked off by steel gates (for the time being, as the Van Andel family has had much influence in keeping people out). It is about a mile walk from the marina to the lighthouse itself. Once you get past a large area of open spaces along Lake Macatawa you begin to enter the cottages area spanning along the channel. You will have to go through the cottage area to get to the walkway to the channel and to Big Red.

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The lighthouse is impressive up close. You get a real scale sense of the size of the lighthouse compared to seeing it from the state park. The best vantage points of the lighthouse though come a little farther away. One of my favorite viewing spots of this lighthouse especially during the winter is along the bay in the small dunes area. The snow drifts up on the dunes and creates unique patterns with the sand and snow. It serves as a great foreground element in the photograph. I have also found that the pier extending beyond the lighthouse offers a great vantage point of the lighthouse. The lining of the blue railings lead the eye straight to the lighthouse in the distance. These are two views of the lighthouse that you won’t get across the channel at the state park. On the south side you are offered more of a 3D view of the lighthouse, whereas the state park views often are more one or two dimensional.

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If you are willing to do a little walking to get to the the lighthouse, the view on the other side is worth it. In a perfect world, there would be no privatization of land to get to some of the states most beloved attractions. However, this seems to be the norm more and more every year. As of now, a person can still walk into the gated community to have access of the lighthouse. It is not clear if and when that would change. If you are lucky sometimes when they are doing construction on the houses being built the gate remains open and you can drive right in. However, that is not always going to be the case. Take advantage of the access while you can, and enjoy the great views of the lighthouse.

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St. Joseph on Ice

Two years ago Michigan saw a pretty cold winter. The Great Lakes were freezing over quite well and shelf ice expanded out into the lake nearly to the end of many piers. The year before that, the Great Lakes had almost totally frozen over. The seasonal snowfall reached far above average for both of those years. 2014-2015 was the last winter season where we saw this in Michigan. It has been fairly quiet in the last couple winters, especially for Southern Michigan. There is still that chance we will see these massive freezing events in future winter seasons, but we will have to wait for it.

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In the early part of 2015 I ventured down to St. Joseph to experience the pier and lighthouse frozen over. I spent most of my time at Tiscornia Park on the north side of the channel. From the parking lot I ventured up in the dunes where you could see a sweeping view of the pier and the lighthouses (inner light and outer light). People were climbing up on the catwalk as some of the ice had made it accessible up there. I really liked the distance view. The brown dune grass extending out from the snow drifts in the dunes, the sand and snow mixing together made it a perfect foreground for the pier and lighthouse.

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I made my way out into the shoreline area. The shelf ice was present right at the start of the shoreline. The only issue that presented an immediate danger is that the shelf ice was small and the drop offs were only a few inches as opposed to several feet near the open water further out. The snow covered this up, so it was quite easy to misstep and turn the ankles. I used my tripod as a walking stick and that helped a lot. Being out on the shelf ice was a unique experience because there were several balls of sand and ice all throughout the landscape. It was as if you were on a different planet. I started making my way over to the inner lighthouse. This is where several people started using the catwalk to get past the inner light and out on parts of the pier navigating past narrow passages that could lead one slipping right into the water. I chose not to hit the catwalk. I went out onto the shelf ice again and got some photos of the lighthouse at a safe area. Had I gone further, I would have ventured out into unsafe areas of ice where the water below was shifting that ice around.

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My adventure at St. Joseph was a very good one. I stayed in areas that were safe and was able to capture some good photographs of the lighthouse and pier. Having the opportunity out on the ice gave me a new appreciation for winter at our states Lake Michigan Lighthouses. The change in landscape is so dramatic that it is like experiencing another world during the winter than what is the norm during spring, summer and fall. We most likely won’t see that type of ice for the remainder of this year, but there is always the possibility of next year. The weather patterns tend to go in cycles where it is warm a couple years and then cold for a couple years. If that pattern holds, we may be seeing ice out on the lake in the next few years to come.

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