Peruvian Adventure

With the main goal of our Peruvian adventure being my hike to Machu Picchu, documented in my previous post, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the other wonderful experiences we shared as a family. We began our adventure at 11,152 feet in Cusco. The city was bustling with the annual Inti Raymi only a few days away. The Inti Raymi, or sun festival, is the Incan celebration of the winter solstice. People were coming to Cusco from all over the world to experience the festival. The Inti Raymi starts in Cusco with the Incan king proclaiming the celebration to be held at the fortress of Saqsaywaman, at 12,142 feet above the city of Cusco. It was a once in a lifetime experience watching locals celebrating their history. Everyone was dressed in the brilliant colors of Peru.

We had several days to explore Cusco and attempt to acclimate to the altitude and lack of oxygen. Coca tea was provided at every opportunity especially breakfast. It is rumored to help with the altitude. I wouldn’t be able to say scientifically if it helped or not, but the three of us escaped any significant altitude issues. I personally felt that significant water intake was equally important. Our lips stayed chapped. My videos of the trip are on YouTube if you search Dennis Thrasher.

We had wonderful days exploring the cathedral, museums, Incan palace, shops and the food, oh the food. All of the restaurants received fresh produce daily from local farmers. The food was truly special in each restaurant we visited. We had our first Cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca steak along with wonderful stews, potatoes and fresh breads. It was an easy walk downhill to the main plaza followed by a difficult uphill walk back due to the lack of oxygen. We would rest by stopping in the local shops to explore. The hotel provided oxygen in our room to ease our tired bodies to sleep.

Following the Inti Raymi, our trip continued into the Sacred Valley for magnificent views of the mostly agricultural region. Mt. Veronica, the area’s highest peak, loomed in the distance at 18,642 feet.

We visited several interesting sites in the Sacred Valley. Along with the magnificent views, we visited a large salt mine and an Incan agriculture experiment station called Moray. The Inca had learned that each tier of their terracing had a slightly different ecosystem. They experimented with what grew best in the different areas. It’s possible they even used this site to genetically modify crops.

We had time to visit a local shop that specialized in naturally dyed alpaca wool products. All the brilliant colors of Peru were made using various natural items and techniques. Needless to say, the locals parted us from some of our money.

We worked our way to the end of the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is a charming village complete with its own set of Incan ruins and stunning mountain views. Ollantaytambo is completely walkable. You can stroll the stone streets and shop, eat or visit a couple sets of ruins.

After a nice day in Ollantaytambo, our family separated the next morning. I left early the next morning to hike KM104 (details in my previous post) while the ladies had a free day to shop and explore to their hearts content. They would leave by train later in the day so we could meet up at our Aguas Calientes hotel. It is important to note that luggage is not allowed on the train. We each packed a backpack with a few clothes and toiletries and left our luggage in hotel storage. One of our tour team members picked up our luggage and returned it to our original Cusco hotel.

The family made their way to the Aguas Calientes hotel later that evening to find me washed and completely collapsed in the bed. They thought I was dead – ye of little faith. Dinner and Pisco Sours were included with our hotel. The Pisco Sours eased the leg pain. The morning would bring our greatest adventure. A full tour of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is one of the new wonders of the world and an UNESCO world heritage site. It is truly a special place that you could explore endlessly. We had most of the day to explore before returning to town for dinner and shopping. Our evening train would return us to our Cusco hotel. We would spend one last night in Cusco before boarding a flight to Puerto Maldonado, the beginning of the Amazon River.

We left our original guide and driver at the Cusco airport. Once we landed at the small airstrip in Puerto Maldonado, we were picked up by hotel staff and taken to the docks. We boarded long, skinny river boats to make our way down the river to our jungle cabana. We would have two and a half days to explore the Amazon Jungle. We were shown our three walled jungle cabana and assigned a naturalist almost immediately. We took a short hike with our naturalists where he explained all of the plants and animals we encountered. We returned for a 5 star dinner complete with beer and wine. The hotel ran on generator power that was turned on and off at specific times. They turned off the power while we were on tours. They would restore the power at meal times and until about midnight.

During our stay, we had a night river cruise to see cayman, a jungle hike, a lake boat ride to see rare giant river otters, a jungle canopy tour and a night jungle hike. We found a tarantula nest during the night hike.

We said our goodbyes as we worked our way back up the river to the airport for our last stop before returning home. We had 24 hours in Lima before we were done.

We were met at the Lima airport by our new guide and driver. Lima was much more cosmopolitan than the rural Cusco. They took us to the last hotel of our stay. We walked to the closest plaza and enjoyed our first ceviche, raw seafood slightly cooked in citrus juice mixed with onions and peppers. The following morning we had a half day tour of Lima before our return home. We explored the cathedral that held Francisco Pizarro’s remains, the catacombs and the famous Love Park before our night flight back to the US.

Peru is not to be left off your bucket list. We found the people warm and inviting. The food rivals anywhere in the world. The views were endless and beautiful. Do yourself a favor and plan this trip now.

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Finally Machu Picchu

Finally Machu Picchu has been my motivation for the last two years while working towards my goal of hiking KM104. Two years ago I completed the 52 hike challenge in preparation for this difficult hike. The challenge helped me rediscover my love of the outdoors and prepare me for off road hiking in difficult terrain. Still, I didn’t feel I was getting enough miles in to be fully ready. Last year, I started walking 12-15 miles a week attempting to build my stamina. There was just one unknown factor I really had to conquer, the lack of oxygen at altitude. There just isn’t anywhere close to Alabama to prepare for high altitude.

I’ve wanted to make this trip my entire life after seeing Machu Picchu in a National Geographic magazine when I was around 10 years old. This trip was to celebrate my 50th birthday and 25th wedding anniversary. Two very special occasions to say the least. Video of this hike is available on YouTube by searching Dennis Thrasher for those interested.

The adventure started very early catching the Peru Rail train from the charming town of Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is a charming place in and of itself. It is beautifully nestled in the Sacred Valley complete with its own Incan ruins. Ollantaytambo is where the road ends. The only way to Machu Picchu is by train or foot. The Peru Rail train follows the gentle curves of the Urubamba River until it reaches kilometer marker 104 (KM104). The train pulled to a stop in the middle of a temperate rain forest. My guide and I jumped off the train into the track’s gravel bed. We were the only two getting off at this stop.

We checked in at the trailhead after crossing the Urubamba River on a rustic suspension bridge. We presented our passports and hiking permit as the number of hikers is limited each day. We proceeded across the base of the mountain to our first set of ruins, Chachabamba.

A “bamba” is a rest stop along the Inca Trail. A place to get food and fresh llama before continuing on your journey. From the ruins of Chachabamba the pain begins. KM104 works it’s way slowly across and up the mountain. Stone stairs and wooden bridges exist where would normally be a steep incline. It is a steady four hour uphill climb where the lack of oxygen is immediately noticeable. All my preparations, including losing 25 pounds, were necessary to complete this climb.

After about two hours of climbing, the first views of Winay Wayna are visible across the valley. This is an adrenaline rush as Winay Wayna is the halfway point and end of the most difficult portion of the trail. I looked back at my progress.

There are still miles to Winay Wayna as we work around the mountain to the base of a waterfall before making the final assent into the ruins.

Once in Winay Wayna, we took a break and explored the site. There are no roads to this site. You can only see it by hiking. Both the ruins and views are spectacular. The grounds are carefully tended by the llama that live here.

Once rested, it was 300 steps to the top of the ruins and back to the trail. The trail was more rolling as we crossed a “draw” between two mountains. We were finally on Machu Picchu mountain. We hiked another couple miles and entered the check out station thus marking us off the trail. It was only a short distance to the famed monkey stairs. A set of fifty near vertical stairs were all that separated us from the Sun Gate at the top of Machu Picchu mountain.

After the monkey stairs and a short additional hike, we crossed over the mountain and through the Sun Gate. All I could think was “finally, Machu Picchu”. It only took forty years.

The remaining two miles were all downhill and the lack of oxygen much less noticeable. We hiked down to the famous photo spot.

We headed to the bus that would take us down the mountain to Aguas Calientes. There I would get clean, rejoin my family and have the national cocktail, a Pisco Sour. Exploring Machu Picchu would have to wait one more night. This Cusquena Roja is for you.

52 Hike Challenge Memoirs 

So what did I learn on my 52 Hike Challenge?  After all, I had a lot of time to think.  Surely something worthwhile came from this effort.  I finished 52 hikes, 178 miles in total, in 10 1/2 months.  I hiked Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Spain.  I must have learned something, and I did indeed.


First, I learned Alabama, my part of the world is as pretty as any other, you are just familiar with it.  You have to leave the car to find the prettiest spots.

Not only did I hike and confirm my love of the outdoors, I also stopped to smell the roses.  I explored the small towns.


I learned you can still be physically and mentally strong at 50 (ok 48).

I learned there are no cellphone signals at the best hikes.  Hike prepared and be safe.

Spider webs across trails mean you are the first one hiking today.  Watch for snakes and bears.  While on the subject, big lizards sound like snakes when you’re alone.

Climbing hills in life sucks, but the top has the best view.  Stay strong my friends, and never quit.

Mental toughness and work ethic will carry you as far as your education.


I would love to have shown you everything but you can’t live broadcast waterfalls, they are always in a hole. You’ll have to visit yourself.


Anytime you catch a break going down, you’ll eventually have to walk back up, just like life.

I don’t hate snakes as much, they are fascinating at a safe distance.

I learned how to offset my pictures so my Facebook profile picture doesn’t mess it up.

I love and miss my family when they’re not with me.


I had 72 degrees temperature variances in hike temperature, plan for it.

Proper equipment makes things easier.

To my daughter, don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do, lift those weights, jump those horses, get off the couch and find your life passion.


Sometimes planes fly into mountains, what legacy are you leaving?


Keep toenails short for downhill walking, just sayin.

Shortcuts always, always end poorly!  Stay on the trail.

Lastly, please keep Gatlinburg in your prayers.  We left town Sunday morning before the fires made it to town.  I’m hearing that our cabin on Sunday was burned down on Monday.  We drove past the fire as we were leaving but I never thought it would make it to town.

Hike 46, 47 & 48 (n/a) – Rickwood Caverns, Fossil Mountain and Vulcan Trail

I took advantage of a three day weekend to rest up before our annual audit starts.  This gave me a little time to explore and camp along the way.  I decided to go to Rickwood Caverns State Park.  I had never been here or even heard of the place.  It is about 30 miles North of Birmingham just off I-65.  The cave here was worth exploring.  The cave was eroded from the ancient sea bed.  Some points of the cavern were actually through coral.  You could see fossils and some shells on the ceiling in some areas.


The cavern trail was closer to 1.5 miles with some significant stair climbing.  Most of the front of the cave was inactive either from time or our current drought conditions.  The last part of the cave was more damp with cave structures still forming.


I was able to squeeze into a tight corner to see a shark tooth fossil on the ceiling.


After the cavern trail, I hiked the 1.5 mile Fossil Mountain trail.  This trail was a loop off the parking area with some rock gardens but no major feature otherwise.  I attempted to find fossils, but really didn’t see anything definitive.  The couple of things I found could have been fossilization or normal weathering.  It was hard to tell.


I quickly set up for the night in time for a great hammock nap.  Sometimes there is nothing better than a hammock.


On Saturday, I decided to get in one more trail on the way home.  The Vulcan trail is located at the base of the Vulcan Statue in Birmingham.  It was more of an urban exercise area than hiking trail.  The first (and last) mile is on a old paved access road with the middle .5 being off road for a total of 3 miles.  Red iron ore is all along the path.  The path does have nice views of downtown Birmingham.


Lastly, how can you come this close and not visit the  Vulcan?  The elevator was broken, no doubt to insufficient funding, making about a 10 story stair climb the only way up.  Again the views were fantastic.  You could even see the old Sloss Furnace from my previous hikes.


I have four hikes left in my challenge which I plan to complete over the Thanksgiving weekend.  I’m working on some special plans to finish up appropriately.  Until then . . .

Hike #44 & 45 (n/a & 34) – Sloss Furnace & Turkey Creek Loop

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This weekend, we headed to Birmingham both to get in a couple of hikes and to see Impractical Jokers live at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center.  The weekend was full of fun and family.  It also had a little language that my daughter shouldn’t have heard.  I am sure that wasn’t my first or likely my last parenting fail.

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After our drive to Birmingham, we started the weekend visiting the Sloss Furnace Trail (Urban Hike).  The Sloss furnace was really the beginning of Birmingham as it is known.  James Withers Sloss found all of the natural elements needed to produce iron in Birmingham, iron ore, coal and limestone.  He worked out a deal with the railroads to connect his plant to the world and the rest is history, really rusty history.  Iron was produced here from 1882-1971.  The Sloss Furnace is a National Landmark and the only blast furnace open for touring.  It happened to also be fully decked out as a haunted house on this occasion.

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After the furnace and checking in to our hotel, we had dinner at Babalu Tacos & Tapas.  The tapas here are more of a fusion than Spanish.  They also happen to be larger than most tapas.  One or two plates will be enough for most here.  We watched Alabama dismantle Tennessee in football while enjoying our small plates and getting ready for the show.

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The morning brought a short drive up to Pinson for the Turkey Creek Loop.  This property is part of the Forever Wild program in Alabama.  Turkey Creek was far better than most Forever Wild properties that I have visited.  There was clearly some investment here.  They had signs, trails and bathrooms (out houses).  Most Forever Wild properties are lacking in facilities.

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You can see the main creek and falls area right off the parking area making this one of the more accessible falls I’ve visited.  The trail starts just to the left of the parking area as you face the mountain.  We made the decision to hike the Thompson Trace Trail and connect with the Narrows Ridge Trail to form a roughly 2.5 mile loop.  The trail is listed as moderate due to a few steep inclines.  The trail really heads from the parking area straight to the top of the ridge.  From this point, it is fairly rolling as it works its way across the ridge for about 1.4 miles.  Once you reach the Narrows Ridge Trail, head right to loop back to the parking area.  The hike was roughly 2.5 miles and 39 flights of stairs according to my phone.  This was my first hike with the foliage starting to turn.  It made for a great morning.

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After failing to find anything original for lunch in Pinson or the surrounding area, we made our final stop for the weekend at Lloyds in Birmingham.  Lloyds is a family favorite serving comfort food.  My family has stopped here to eat literally my entire life.  Give it a try when in town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hike #38 (n/a) – Flagg Mountain Fire Tower


I picked this hike based on location. I’m on my way to Sylacauga for a business trip.  This hike was just West of Sylacauga giving me the perfect opportunity to squeeze in a hike.


This hike was difficult, both to find and hike.  I basically drove around Flagg Mountain looking for the trail head.  I found it after several miles down the worst dirt roads I’ve seen for some time.  I’m not sure which bridge I trusted more,  the “new” bridge in front of me or the “old” bridge to the left.  The old bridge was basically an old WWII temporary bridge.

The trail itself was roughly 5 miles and 118 flights.  Every time I start feeling that my conditioning has improved, a hike like this comes along.  The 118 flight were very difficult in the Alabama heat.

This trail is the Southernmost point of the Pinhoti Trail.  The Pinhoti continues to the Appalachian Trail.  There has been some effort made to extend the AT to this point.  The trail itself was narrow but well blazed.  I followed the blue blazes of the Pinhoti until I reached the white blazes that head to some old cabins and the fire tower itself.  There were a few trees across the trail but also a great deal of evidence that the trail is being kept up.


Unfortunately, the fire tower is currently closed to the public.  I understand that a conservation project is underway.


I feel like this area is a missed opportunity.  This land is protected as a wildlife habitat but would make a nice state park with a little effort.  A few rustic cabins and some road work would reveal the full potential of this special place.  The views were fantastic.  I only wished I could have seen the view from the tower.


Definitely not for couch potatoes, but with some effort great views are for the taking.

Hike 34, 35, 36 & 37 (37,n/a,39,K) – DeSoto Scout, Family Loop, Beaver Pond and Eberhart Trails


We had a very active Fourth of July weekend.  After deciding to stay in a cabin at DeSoto State Park, a place new to us both, we were able to get in several trails and some kayaking along the way.  Only fifteen more trails to go in my 52 hike challenge.


The DeSoto Scout Trail, or at least the small portion that we hiked, starts off the pool parking lot in DeSoto State Park (DSP).  The entire trail is around sixteen miles.  This portion takes you down to the bluffs overlooking a waterfall and the Little River below.  You will also run into a CCC built resting station and overlook.  The river and resulting waterfall was very low due to our current dry conditions.  In fact, this will be a theme for all our hikes this weekend.  These falls are spectacular when the river is full but only a trickle this weekend.  We were told most of the small falls were actually dry at the moment.



We decided on the Family Loop Trail instead of the Lost Falls Trail since the falls were dry.  The Family Loop Trail was pretty uneventful and without views or a notable feature.  I would not put this one on this list again.


After our morning hikes, we spent the afternoon kayaking on the West Fork of the Little River, just above DeSoto Falls.  We paddled several miles up the calm river before returning to our starting point.  We had a blast at the moment only to have the soreness set in that evening.


Sunday brought two more hikes in an adjacent park, The Little River Canyon.  It is list as “one of” the deepest canyons east of the Mississippi.  First up was the Beaver Pond Trail.  This trail was listed as being perfect for those that can’t do the mountainous hikes.  This trail worked into the forest to an observation platform on a beaver pond.  Unfortunately, the lack of water was evident here as well.  There ended up being no pond to see.  We did, on the other hand, run into my third snake of the challenge.  This one was more afraid of us than we were of it.  We walked around the snake so that it wouldn’t be disturbed.


Our last hike this weekend was by far the most challenging.  The Eberhart Trail starts at the top of the canyon and continues to the river.  While relatively short, it was difficult both directions.  Once again, we found the river lacking water flow.  It was beautiful nonetheless.


Some other points of interest for the Ft. Payne area.  First, this was the only starting point in Alabama for the Trail of Tears.  A small, temporary fort was built as a gathering place for indigenous people before heading West.


Ft. Payne was also the home of the country band “Alabama” and their statues are on the main street of town.  Our best meal was at Katy’s Katfish in Rainsville.  It was a catfish house built around a log cabin.  The fish was outstanding.

I think this trip would be best in the Spring or Fall.  Spring would bring higher water levels while fall would have fantastic foliage.

Hike #30 (n/a) – Dismals Canyon


Dismals Canyon, about a hour north of Jasper, was one of my favorite hikes yet.  It is near the town of Phil Campbell, Alabama and continues the same rain forest feel as Natural Bridge.  I can’t imagine why this hike didn’t make the top 50 other than being short and on private property.


The location was nicely developed with a soda counter for lunch and a covered deck for resting.  The hike itself proceeds down about 5 stories into the canyon and continues 1.5 miles though spectacular scenery with a creek crossing or two along the way.

On this hike, do make a reservation one week in advance for the day/night combo.  The canyon is known for what they call “dismalites”, a type of glow worm if you will.  These are only found in a few places in the world.  My understanding is that this larvae lives about six months.  They weave a small silky web around themselves and glow to attract food sources into their webs.  It was explained that the larvae were the main reason for the notably fewer mosquitos in the canyon.  Still, bug spray and a red lens flashlight would be recommended.  On the .5 mile guided night tour, they take you to several darker areas were you can view the glowing larvae.  I was unable to capture this on my camera but borrowed a photo from their website.  We were told that Jessie James used this area as a hide out and was one of the first to write about the Dismalites.


I can only compare the view to looking at the night sky.  It was a very interesting treat.

We had some time to kill between our day hike and night tour.  We explored the nearby Bankhead National Forest and the Houston County Jail.  The jail is the only surviving log jail in Alabama.  It was very small and had convenient urination holes through the logs to the outside.  I guess they didn’t plan on holding many female prisoners back in the day.

Hike #29 (n/a) – Natural Bridge


Natural Bridge is found in the town of the same name just North of Jasper, Alabama.  It is a short 1.0 mile hike to one of Alabama’s neatest geographical features.  In fact, the hike is optional.  The bridge itself is only about 100 yards from the ticketing area.


The natural bridge was made by a plume of iron ore stretching over sandstone beneath the ocean that once covered Alabama.  When the ocean receded, the sandstone washed away leaving the iron ore bridge.


The hike passes the natural bridge and continues on a short loop through an equally impressive canyon.  The high, jagged rocks are also worth the visit.


I’ve never really explored this part of Alabama.  The entire area felt more like a rain forest than is typical of Alabama.  Don’t forget the bug repellent as the shady, moist conditions were perfect for mosquitoes.


For dinner, get off the main roads and go into downtown Jasper.  The old part of town was charming and filled with nice places to eat.  We ate at Warehouse 3 Nineteen.  Everyone enjoyed the meal as well as the warehouse charm.  You don’t want to miss it.

Hike #26 (n/a) – East Alabama March for Babies


This week’s hike is both unusual and special to my family.  The 2016 March for Babies takes place each year in the Opelika Municipal Park and surrounding neighborhoods.  In fact, the walk is in the neighborhood where I grew up making it oddly familiar.  We walked 4 miles in memory of our lost daughter, Olivia and in celebration of our healthy daughter, Megan.


The park was full of music and cheerleaders today as the walkers gathered.  Each family has their own reason to attend each year.  The stories are very touching.


My main reason to blog today is to thank everyone that took the time to donate to our cause.  We love and appreciate you all.  We sold 4,560 candy bars, 1,000 Chic-Fil-A biscuits, 200 tee shirts along with countless donations.  With your generosity, we raised $16,800 for the March of Dimes.  This is a team record.  I also understand that it is a regional record as well.  We are thrilled and can’t thank you enough for your support.  We’ll be back next year!