Hiking Chamechaude

 

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Hundreds of trails weave through the mountains surrounding Grenoble, several only accessible through villages nearby. But planning a weekday getaway hike can be a challenge without a car, as most of the buses out to these trailheads only run on the weekends outside of the summer holiday and winter ski months. There is one trail, though, that takes you up and away from civilization to the highest peak in the Chartreuse mountain range: the hike up to Chamechaude that starts in Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse.

At 9 miles, hiking Chamechaude is a pretty straightforward day hike for the intermediate or experienced hiker, though the uphill may take you a bit longer if you haven’t hiked in a while and the top might be challenging if steep slopes and sheer edges make you nervous. We took our time and the whole hike took us around 7 hours. We didn’t need any special equipment; just food, a few liters of water, and sunblock. We also picked up a map at the Grenoble Tourism Office (Office de Tourisme Grenoble-Alpes Métropole).

We wake before dawn to catch an early #62 bus to Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, and in minutes we have left the city for behind. The bus trundles along on a neatly paved two-lane road and we watch as dawn spills across the swelling hills and forests. Near the end of our ride, we see a steep cliff jut from the landscape to the left. This is Chamechaude, what we’ll be climbing today.

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The bus drops us off in the center of town, less than half a mile from the trailhead. The morning chill has yet to dissipate, so we zip our jackets and start hiking to warm up. The path immediately slants upward, and with few exceptions, will continue uphill for the next several hours.

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The first part of this uphill hike is through thickly wooded forests, and wayfinding is made difficult by the profusion of trails sliced through the forest, a combination of hiking and ski trails marked with heiroglyphic patterns of colors. We imprint on our trail’s symbol of a red and white flag and follow it, learning on the way that an ‘x’ in these colors means don’t go this way, it’s not the same trail. I’d wager in the winter these ‘x’ symbols also mean “Do no enter. Downhill only.”

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An hour into the hike, the forest thins and we break into a broad meadow at the foot of Chamechaude’s steep side. Chamechaude is on this side is a sheer cliff of a massif, a deformation in the Earth’s crust that might be made if someone dropped a cosmic sized bowling ball onto the ground. Climbing it from here is not a hike but an actual climb, and we’re not equipped for that.

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Instead, we follow the trail to the left and around the back of Chamechaude, once again into forest, across small streams and through handmade livestock gates maintained by those who still graze their flocks here. There are even signs asking that we not disturb the cows and sheep.

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Finally, we find ourselves on the other side of Chamechaude, a steep but climbable slope cut with a narrow switchbacked trail. Three hours after we began our uphill hike, we begin to hike uphill in earnest, planting one foot in front of another, plodding up and scrambling over small piles of limestone rock. I pick one up to examine it and find traces of fossilized clam and snail shells. This area is a protected park, so I put them back.

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While in distance summiting Chamechaude should be only a mile, it takes us more than an hour to climb. We’re exposed here, above the treeline, and are thankful for extra sunblock as the noontime sun glares down on us. But we rest only at the top, heaving and sweating. Was the climb worth it?

You decide:

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A view from the cliff’s edge down toward the meadow.

 

 

 

Downhill, while precarious, slips by faster than the uphill and we are back at the foot of the mountain in forty minutes. We take the long way back, savoring the cooling shade of the evergreens and brilliant colors on the deciduous trees in the forest. It’s 5 pm and the day is done by the time we again reach the town center of Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, and we’re just in time for sunset on the bus ride back to Grenoble.

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Lahemaa National Park

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The view when we got off at the Loksa Tee bus stop.

We don’t have a car in Tallinn, but we managed to use the local bus system to get to Lahemaa National Park for a five-hour hike through boreal forest and bog. It was gorgeous (see below), filled with fantastic wildlife and tons of edible blueberries that yes, you’re allowed to collect. It seems like Estonians view the land through a practical lens, and the mantra of “don’t take more than you need and it’s fine” is the rule here. That being said, DON’T eat anything unless you can positively identify it.

If you’re looking to do the same hike, use Google Maps to find public transit directions to the stop “Loksa Tee” pictured below. The hike will start just east of the bus stop:

Now, motivation for you to go:

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Wood planks form a narrow trail through the wetter, boggier parts of the hike.
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A European Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) perches on purple heather (Calluna) – we last saw this in New Zealand, where it was invasive.
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The little mushroom that could #1.
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The little mushroom that could #2.
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A dense bed of lichens (light yellow) grow on the forest floor here in Lahemaa.
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What I suspect are cowberries, but I wasn’t sure so I didn’t eat any of them.
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An interesting leather-like foliose lichens grows among moss on the forest floor.
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Be yourself, tree. Be yourself.
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Putative chanterelles. We encountered a few women in the park collecting ‘gribui’, or mushrooms, mostly of the chanterelle variety.
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A resting point along the path. You can supposedly take this trail all the way to the sea, but that’s several days of hiking.
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A patch of mushrooms among the moss and decaying pine needles.
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An Alder Moth caterpllar (Acronicta alni) munches on summer’s bounty.
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Fresh wild blueberries hide among the foliage. They’re delicious.
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A salticid in a patch of grass.
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Pine trees grow at the edge of a bog pool. The water here takes on a dark brown hue due to tannins seeping out of the dead plant material beneath. The same thing happens in your tea.
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A lone tree grows on an island in the bog.
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Fruticose lichens growing on the forest floor.
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A polypore fruiting body grows from a fallen tree.
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The color of moss.
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The caterpillar of an Emperor Moth (Saturnia) hangs out between planks along the trail.
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Lengthening shadows in the forest.

And just for you, here’s a panoramic shot – click through to enlarge:

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Made possible by Google Photos.

Taipei Natural Parks

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A translucent white mushroom grows from a mossy branch, surrounded by small black earth tongues (Geoglossaceae).

One unexpected part of Taiwan has been its natural beauty, for beyond Taipei lie vast parks that make up around ten percent of the island’s landmass. From thick jungles to sweeping shorelines, Taiwan’s natural beauty is both unexpected and unexpectedly easy to reach, thanks to the extensive public transit system. Though we did not stray far beyond Taipei, we managed to visit two different parks in our time there. Here’s our experience at each:

Yehliu Geopark

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People crowd the paved walkways in Yehliu Geopark.

People. So many people. This park is easy to get to by bus from Taipei and gets incredibly packed, so show up early or on a day most people have work. There isn’t much hiking to do around here, but the guided walk out to the peninsula takes you past fantastical stone formations in the shape of candles, mushrooms, and human heads. The top of the hill has a lovely view of the park and the surrounding sea, but take care in the path you choose: some paths down lead to barricaded areas, and the less trod are incredibly slippery and overgrown.

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“The Octopus” stone formation, besides some “candle” stone formations. All of the formations are formed naturally by erosion, without the touch of human hands.
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A life ring at the park. This area is prone to rogue waves during monsoon season.
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People wandering among the rock formations.
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DON’T BE THIS GUY: human touch speeds the eroding process and does damage.
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Smalls succulent plants grow in a dirt-filled hole on one of the rock formations.
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Waves breaky on the rocky shoreline at the end of the peninsula.
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A poorly-kept, slippery path to nowhere.
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A dew-dropped ladybug.
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People stand on a bridge over rock formations in the park.

Mt. Qixing

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The slippery, stair-filled path up to the peak of Mt. Qixing.

Also accessible by bus from Taipei, this is where you go for a real hike. Mt. Qixing Park has dozens of trails that would take days to hike, and the tropical weather of Taiwan nurtures thick forests full of insects, lizards, and small rodents. Most hiking trails here are stone and involve an insane amount of stairs, so bring walking sticks and watch your step in the slippery rain. The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring Bath is open to the public and is a great place to soak after a hike, but has limited hours (see below) and is closed on the last Monday of each month. The foot bath in front of it is always open, though, so you can always soak your feet alongside a dozen other weary hikers.

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A mysterious round structure hides in the foliage.
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A tree lizard, possibly from the genus Japalura.
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A dew-jeweled caterpillar (probably of Lemyra) makes its away across the edge of a bench.
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A stream flows between an ocean of grasses and shrubs.
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A small, decorated land snail (I’m guessing Aegista mackensii) inches by.
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The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring working hours. Guess what day we were here! (It was the last Monday of the month. Sad times).
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We soak our feet with other hikers.
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A waterfall at the end of our hike.
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An ant-mimic jumping spider (Salticidae, probably a female of Myrmarachne sp.).

Hiking without a goal

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Sometimes a hike doesn’t work out. For us, a successful hike is one where either we reach our goal or we enjoy it so much along the way that the destination wasn’t too important. Our go at the Kaipawa Trig Track was neither of these things.

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We’d be driving for a few hours now, bored and stiff. The weather was mildly gloomy, occasionally drizzling. At the top of a hill were parked several cars, a clear indication of a trailhead. Ponchos and boots on we wandered around the picnic area looking for the path in. We found it and up we went on a nominally steep but miserably slippery grade. The drizzle had wet down the whole trail and many sections were now just exposed, slick rock. This is normally a good indication that the hike will be tough, but we don’t mind increased difficulty.

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If the path were dry, I’d imagine this to be a fair trail with some mild climbs. As it was, we were growing increasingly wet, tired, and I’d threatened to fall several times. We’ve faced worse conditions and tougher climbs, but without a clear goal or reason for going, the hike became a slog. Because we need an end-point, we decided to go to the first Trig. Incidentally, you might be wondering what a trig is. We did too. It’s a marker used in geographical and geological surveys of an area. A trigonometric marker. We never quite made it to this one.

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There were several hill climbs along the way, and the scenery was beautiful to be sure, but conditions were just bad enough that without the need to get somewhere, we decided to turn back. The thought of putting more sliding slopes between us and the car was not palatable, and by this point in our journey the ponchos we bought in Cusco were starting to let in water and smell kind of funny.

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In the end we got what we wanted, sort of. We’d seen a part of the New Zealand wilderness and stretched our legs. We felt somehow unfulfilled at the end of it though. We didn’t reach our goal, and mist and cloud made the trail seem much more constricted than it otherwise would have been, all the vistas obscured by fog.

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Looking back on the photographs we took, the hike seems much more interesting than we experienced it. Ours was a hood-blinded, sweaty trek. From the pictures we took though, the nature around us was abundant and vibrant. New Zealand’s tramping site lists this track as going through “regenerating forest”. A regenerating forest is one where something took out a large portion of the older trees, and saplings quickly established themselves.  No information was provided on whether this forest is under human assisted regeneration or natural regeneration after a fire.

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A Kauri tree stands tall, a canopy unto itself.

Either way, the verdant green of the forest shows it’s doing very well. The rain also gave me an opportunity to see one of my favorite sights in nature : wet moss.

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Well, to feel really. Wet moss under the fingertips is a lovely texture, and really only available in rainy forests. Done appreciating the small things along the way, we headed back to the car. On the way there I almost fell a few times, but to my credit, my balance has increased tremendously over the course of our travels. For someone with better balance than I, the final downhill before the parking lot would make for an amazing slide. Safely back at the car, we were very ready to dry off and get on the road.

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The windswept trees saw us off to our next destination.

 

Puketi Forest

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Take a turn off the main road and keep going. Eventually you hit gravel, and even farther, dirt. At the end of a dirt road is where many of the North Island’s treasures are hidden. Without too many tourists or locals, they’re great places to see the nature of New Zealand and explore in peace and quiet. Like the fantastic Waipu Caves, the Puketi forest sits at the end of a dirt road, and while it’s listed in some of the travel guides, we found it to be entirely quiet even at the peak of tourist season. Unlike the rest of the North Island, the northern peninsula seems to have less sightseers, few enough that many great attractions are rarely visited.

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The Puketi forest is one of several Kauri tree forests left in New Zealand. Shorter than Redwoods but much thicker, Kauri trees are a symbol of pride on the island, considered the kings of the forest by the Maori. In person they are striking, their trunk overwhelming, their branches blooming into a canopy of what would be normal sized trees some thirty meters in the sky.

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The Puketi forest is not the best place in the Northland to see the largest of these trees, but it is the best we found for seeing them in their natural environment. While the Parks department does a great job of framing their particularly treasured trees, in Puketi you see them mostly unimpeded by railings, and without the crowd that the greats attract. Another surprising nicety at Puketi – the trail has signs naming the various flora

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The nature walk also does its best to educate the public of the problems that faced the Kauri trees. Besides being highly desired for their famously straight and durable lumber, the trees produce a wound-covering rubber. Initially rubber harvesters took it from fossilized deposits in the northland, but turned to bleeding live trees when the old supplies ran down. The cuts and gouges left the trees open to disease and as a result many died.

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A Kauri tree covering damage with gum-like sap.

The modern-day villain for these trees is Kauri dieback disease. Spread by mammals, particularly humans and wild boar, the disease causes a laundry list of symptoms leading inevitably to tree death. There is no known cure, and the trees don’t show any natural resistance. Once a single tree has been infected it’s only a matter of time before any nearby trees succumb. The spores can live for a long time without being in a Kauri and it takes only a microscopic amount to spread the disease to a new area. To protect the trees New Zealand authorities have made sure to set up elevated walkways at all popular Kauri sites, introduced public awareness campaigns for cleaning gear, and have even closed sites when the threat of infection became too great.

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The nature walks at Puketi are a great way to learn about the flora of New Zealand, to appreciate the history of, and threats to, the greatest of the islands trees. Their future is uncertain, an unfortunate reality for these proud giants. Despite this shadow, the forest is peaceful and full of life. It is vitally green, full of the sounds and smells of nature, with beauty great and small on all sides.

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A view of the sun-stopping canopy
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The Kauri tree, conspicuous even in the dense forest flora
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A cross-section of a dead tree
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Kauri bark sloughing off to shed moss and parasites
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Tiny, floor covering moss