South Sister after dark

September 11-12, 2015.

Photo album on Google+

Ever since I’d read the first trip report of someone hiking to the top of South Sister in time to catch the sunrise, I’d had this trip on my to-do list. The thought of having the scenic advantages of being camped on top without having to lug all my overnight gear up there was very tempting. And so, at 11 pm on a Friday night, I set off on my quest.

It was 55 degrees out and the air was still. My headlamp afforded me a good 20 feet or so of visibility before fading into an inky abyss. I knew the trail well, and even under the darkness of night it was rather obvious. So many people hike this mountain every year, there’s a freeway packed into the earth. Well, at least on this part of the hike.

I was told to hike slowly to modulate my temperature and avoid sweating. But I don’t think I traveled any slower than normal. I was in a tee-shirt and light pants, and was sweating like crazy because of my gaiters.

In an hour I reached treeline, the first view of South Sister. I could barely make out a shape on the horizon that was slightly darker than the night sky. That was my mountain.

I wandered ahead, crossed the plateau, briefly distracted by two pairs of reflective patches that looked like eyes. Deer, maybe, or sasquatch. Whatever they were, they weren’t moving, so I kept on walking. It’s amazing the stories you can dream up when you’re alone in the dark for hours on end.

I began climbing again, this time on the shattered, gray rocks that lead up to the Lewis Glacier. This is where the trail became braided. I anticipated this, and kept looking for the cairns reinforced with tall, ghostly tree limbs. This worked great until I reached the end of the cairns. I knew there was a small rock outcrop to the left that I needed to skirt around, so I cheated to the right a bit…too far.


As I continued climbing, I knew I’d gotten off track but I figured I would stumble back onto the route soon enough. Instead, I kept walking up and up an increasingly steep slope that forced me up on a ridge with steep drop-offs in every direction. At the top of this feature, I stopped to assess where I was.

The lack of visibility put me at a huge disadvantage, but I had a map, compass and the GPS track that was running on my phone. After poking around a bit and using the tools I had to approximate where I was, I caught a very faint reflection of what I knew was the lake at the foot of Lewis Glacier. Bingo.

I scrambled back down the narrow ridge to the lake. Back on track, I sent a check-in SPOT message and took an extended snack break.

The wind began to pick up. I was way ahead of schedule so I packed on some layers and started walking, hoping that the extra clothes would force me to slow down. One foot in front of the other, I marched ahead on that final push to the crater rim. From the top, it was an easy traverse over to the rock pile marking the summit.

It was only 3:45 am and darker than ever.

I put on my big down jacket, hat, gloves and rain pants. I crawled into my light bivy sack that isn’t much more than a reinforced emergency blanket, and hunkered down until sunrise. I wished I would have brought a foam pad for comfort and warmth. I closed my eyes, but only got a few minutes of sleep here and there. The wind was blowing just hard enough to be annoying but not freezing.


At last, the giant headlamp in the sky began to shine. It was just after 6 am. I’d never paid attention to how much a production the sunrise really is. Chilly and bored from having sat around for hours at 10,000′ I was amped up to keep walking. I poked around a bit, looking for good angles to look at the scenery without being too exposed to the wind. A half an hour later, I gave in and packed up to go.

I walked counter-clockwise around the summit rim, taking lots of pictures the whole way around. It’s a beautiful route that few people bother to take. There were only a few spots that were a little sketchier than walking on the climb route, and easily navigable if you’re paying attention. From the other side of the crater, there were changing views of Middle and North Sister, and you could see down the rugged north side of South Sister. Looking back at the summit area, I saw one person emerge from an orange tent and walk out to enjoy the same views I was having.

I slowly progressed along the rim, savoring the changing colors of sunrise. In one spot, what appeared to be rock was actually scree-covered ice, so I took a nice little tumble and whacked my knee. I chose a route on higher ground and got back to my circumnavigation.

As I wrapped up my circular route I saw another person sitting at the edge of the crater and prepared myself for the onslaught of humanity I was about to encounter.

Going down

On my way down I had to explain to several groups that, no, I didn’t camp up there and yes, I hiked alone. There was the usual parade of archetypes trudging up the mountain. I’m always fascinated with the broad cross-section of people that make the pilgrimage up Oregon’s third highest peak. Matching shirt and fitness tights babe, REI-from-head-to-toe guy, bouncy youth group with tired leader in the back, grizzled old dudes, boyfriend carrying the backpack for girlfriend couple, these are all frequent fliers up here. But I was surprised to encounter a new character: guy hiking with a duffel bag in his hand. If I’d have seen him in any other context I’d be tempted to report him as suspicious.

But none of that bothered me much. I was thrilled to be on my way down as the temperatures climbed up. Predicted to be in the 90’s that day; no thanks. I enjoyed seeing the scenery that I’d missed in the night. First, the fire red cinder bursting with color in the early sunlight. The dirty glacier and associated lake, plus the hill I’d inadvertently ascended on my night hike. Then, the dusty gray expanse snaking down to the broad plateau. The sky was hazy from nearby wildfires, so views of the surrounding peaks were obscured. Along the plateau, plants began to re-emerge. Tiny groundcover plants, prepared for the coming winter, lay flat against the earth, while rugged trees stood twisted and stubborn, anchored in for any kind of weather.

It was, and always is, a stunningly beautiful landscape. It’s a no-brainer why this area sees so much visitation.

I got back to the parking lot 2.5 hours after starting my descent. The parking lot was positively overflowing with cars. I wonder when this area will get a permit system. Seems like only a matter of time. I couldn’t believe how many people were starting their hike well after sunrise. It would be interesting to see what percent of hikers actually make it to their destination.

Another adventure in the books, another hike checked off the to-do list. Strangely, no matter how many I cross off the list, it doesn’t seem to get any shorter… I’ll be heading back to this mountain at the end of September with a group of (mostly) first-timers. It will be so much fun to experience the mountain through fresh eyes; I am thrilled to accompany each of them on this trip.

As for my next solo adventure, well, I’ve got some ideas.

Crater Lake: Wallowas edition

May 4, 2015.

Photo album on Google plus

This was the last big stop on our spring roadtrip. We had no plan, except Aaron had never visited the Wallowas and he wanted to check it out. Although most of Oregon had a low snow year, the Wallowas seemed to still be buried in snow. Wanting to learn more about current conditions and access, we stopped into the Pine Field Office near Halfway in the southern part of the forest. This was the least heavily visited part of the much beloved Wallowas. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the rangers but we figured we’d give them a chance.

Much to my delight, there were two women working the desk: one young lady who first greeted us and seemed new to the job, and an older woman hiding in the back. The older woman emerged when she heard our long list of questions and she was incredibly helpful in answering them. She sounded like she was out on the roads and trails frequently (a rarity among rangers I’ve met at the ranger stations) and had decades of knowledge accumulated from working and living in the mountains. When we said we wanted to climb up to see some views, she pointed us to the East Eagle trailhead. After describing the best driving route, she explained that the Little Kettle Creek trail would lead us up a bunch of switchbacks to an amazing view of the mountains. We could stop and turn around at any point, but we surely couldn’t take the trail all the way to Crater Lake due to the snow.

Challenge accepted, ranger.

When we arrived at the trailhead, Aaron got packed up for a 6-mile hike. In my head, I’d already decided that we were going to press on through the snow to find the lake. I hadn’t shared that little tidbit of information yet.

As I packed up for a 12-mile snow adventure, I broke the news to him. I rarely see Aaron put on a grumpy face, but I sure was treated to one today. I said, “well, we’ll see how far we feel like going,” knowing that I was hell-bent on making it to the lake.

Off we went, up a steep, dirt track that seemed to lead to nowhere. “What the…?” Already we were bushwhacking and confused. After some mucking around, we found the actual start of the trail and began hiking up.

The trail climbed, and climbed, and climbed up a series of steep switchbacks. We huffed and puffed for breath and quickly warmed up. As we ascended, we began to get views of the beautiful mountaintops. I knew it would be worth it. I still don’t think Aaron was convinced. He charged up ahead, I could barely keep up. My lungs were straining, my legs not cooperating. I felt totally off today.

As we silently walked through the forest, we were startled by a pair of equally startled elk. We saw their huge backsides as they bounded out of view. I don’t think either of us had come so close to elk in the forest. I thought maybe that would help win Aaron over.

Eventually we left the bare ground behind and began to cross larger and larger patches of snow. Aaron was at least prepared with his Yaktrax; mine were buried in the car somewhere. I slipped and slid right behind him as we continued up the snow. All signs of the trail disappeared, and we switched to navigation by geographic features and the map. At the bottom of a basin, it was not entirely clear which way to go, and where exactly we would find the lake. So we took a gamble and committed to climbing up a wide snow ramp to a nice viewpoint.

From there, we peered down on what looked like a body of water. We both said: is that the lake? Are we done? But we both thought: that’s definitely not the lake. Tired from all our snow slogging, we regrouped and made a plan. According to the book, the lake should have been about a quarter mile past the ponds. We could do that. We kept going.

It was the longest quarter mile in history, but we emerged from the trees to gaze upon a large, snow-covered lake. A ring of bright blue snow melt encircled the lake. It was stunning. I dropped my pack to explore, take pictures, and soak in the experience. It was worth every step.

As we turned to retrace our snowy footprints back to the trail, we relaxed a bit and settled into a comfortable pace. Crossing the rocky plateau, we stopped in our tracks when we heard rockfall. I scanned the cliffs above us and saw…goats! There was a herd of mountain goats tooling around on the rocks. We watched them for a bit, wishing we had binoculars. So far it was one of our best animal sighting days!

Walking downhill was a dream. We could really enjoy the scenery around us. We hadn’t seen a human all day. Hiking in solitude, in one of the most picturesque places in Oregon, turned out to be an incredible last chapter in a memorable trip. I am so grateful to have a partner who is always up for a crazy adventure, who is adaptable, willing to walk forever in the woods, and willing to drive long distances just to find our own quiet piece of the world.

Twin Falls, Idaho and Bruneau Dunes

May 2- May 3, 2015.

As we said good bye to Utah, it was clear that we were on the tail end of the trip. Our route was looping us back towards home in the central Willamette Valley. We made a couple of short pit stops in the Twin Falls area along the gorgeous Snake River.

twin falls mapWhen I’m a passenger for long periods of time, I like to pore over the maps and guidebooks I’ve brought along so I can learn more about the area I’m driving through. On our way to Twin Falls, I noticed a curious symbol in the Gazeteer. Quietly tucked away, alongside the symbols for Information Center, campground, and boat launch was something that looked like a spaceship-car hybrid.

Soon, I would find out exactly what that symbol was all about.

Perrine Bridge

Our first real stop was the iconic Perrine Bridge, where BASE jumpers from all over the world come to take a leap. It’s one of the only places where it’s legal to do so without a permit. Just upstream from the bridge, the daredevil Evel Knievel tried to jump across the river in his “skycycle.” While he didn’t make the jump, he survived the crash with just a broken nose to show for it. And now, his unbelievable attempt is recorded forever in the Idaho Gazeteer with a spaceship-car hybrid marking the location of his jump. I thought, if I was a map-maker, what might I try to sneak into a map…?

The bridge itself was beautiful. We walked to a viewpoint of the bridge, then stopped inside the Visitor’s Center, a modern building with big windows and interpretive signs about the area. There was a little gift shop as well as a wall full of pamphlets outlining nearby attractions. Lucky for us, there was also a little cart full of free ice cream cups from the folks at Coldstone Creamery. It was some sort of promotional thing, a delicious, delicious, promotional thing. Even without the ice cream, this would have been a worthwhile stop.

Caldron Linn

There is one type of map symbol that always grabs my attention: Unique Natural Feature. This symbol looks like a fan with four blades (see above map) and it corresponds to a key in the front of the book that gives a name and a short description of the feature. One feature that I wanted to see on our drive through Twin Falls was called Caldron Linn. Or Cauldron Linn, depending on what you’re reading. It took some sleuthing to find driving directions to this place. Even the fact sheet at the Visitor’s Center said “inquire locally for directions.” It seemed weird that this place was right outside a major city and its whereabouts were sketchy. I really wanted to go there, and really hoped it wouldn’t be another Pillars of Rome situation.

We found the place without much trouble, although we definitely should not have driven down the last section of steep, scary dirt road. We arrived unscathed and tumbled out of the car to see what this was all about.

The description was something like “a raging fury of churning water that cast early explorers to their deaths as they attempted foolishly to travel downriver.” That’s absolutely not a quote but that’s what I was picturing in my mind as we walked towards the river. Funny, we couldn’t even hear any rushing water.

The river was eerily low, which made for a mediocre waterfall but gave us an interesting look at the rocks that are usually covered by water. The bleached white rock looked like a jumble of dinosaur bones piled up on shore. Water pooled in cavities that were bored down into the rock by a more vigorous flow in times past. Lizards sunned on the rock and birds chattered away in the sagebrush. While I was sad that I didn’t get to see the river in its most dramatic state, I still enjoyed the diversion and adventure off the main road.

Shoshone Falls

I should not have expected anything different on our next waterfall stop. But, Shoshone Falls was nicknamed the Niagara of the West, so it had a bit more credibility than our little Cauldron. We stopped at the falls around lunch time, eager to get out of the car and have a nice little picnic. During our visit to this oversold attraction, the water levels were pretty low, and so it was a pretty disappointing stop. The falls were pretty, but they didn’t earn their nickname and certainly didn’t need to command the crowds that were swirling around us. We got our obligatory couples photo and ducked out of there.

The nearby park was also overrun with visitors but we found a spot on the grass where we could lay out our picnic spread and stretch our legs a bit. Today felt like a lot of driving. It was nice to just hang out and not feel like we had to get somewhere fast. We wanted to experience the last stop of the day after dark, so we were in no rush to get there.

Bruneau Dunes

By the time we rolled in to Bruneau Dunes, nearly all the campsites were taken. There were just a handful left in the Equestrian Camp just outside the main park, so we took it. Like Great Basin National Park, Bruneau Dunes boasted of its spectacular night sky program. They even had an observatory with a huge telescope that was open to the public on the weekends. So, we set up camp, made dinner and waited for the sun to go down.

When we finally made it over to the observatory, there were a bunch of people milling around. We got there late. It was dark, we didn’t know what was going on, and it took us a while to figure out how to pay. We dutifully stood in line to wait for our turn to look through the telescopes that were set up outside. Then, we waited in the longest line, the one at the big telescope, just to see a fuzzy cluster of stars half a zillion miles away. Yawn.

What I really wanted to do was hike the dunes under a starlit sky. So we grabbed our backpacks out of the car and set off on what we hoped was the trail we wanted, angling for the dunes.

When I planned this in my head, I imagined it would be like our night hike in Death Valley. But as I am noticing now, my images of reality don’t always match actual reality.

The Bruneau Dunes are an interesting phenomenon. They sit in the center of a semicircular basin, with winds blowing pretty evenly from all sides so they don’t move very much. At the foot of the 400-foot high dunes is a pair of lakes that formed only a few decades ago, after the water table rose due to changes in irrigation practices nearby. At the edge of the lakes, as one might guess, was a tangle of shrubs, grasses, trees, and other water-loving vegetation. That made finding our way to and from the dunes extra challenging.

Once we broke free of the plant life, we began hiking straight up the steep side of one of the big dunes. Right foot forward, slide back, left foot, slide… and on and on. At one point the dune ridge got so steep we had to crawl and monkey walk sideways just to keep going. It was exhausting work. In daylight, perhaps, we could have found a better route. But, we did the best we could.

Clouds covered large patches of sky for most of the night. Occasionally the moonlight would break through a gap in the clouds.

After we walked the entire length of the ridge, we happily ran down the side of the dune and headed for the lake. That was the best part. The worst part was trying to navigate a braided mess of user trails leading every which way through the thick, lakeside vegetation. Eventually we stumbled out on the other side of the water and made our way to a road that led back to the car. Mission accomplished.

In the morning we took a quick drive through of the park to see what it looked like in daylight. It was very pretty, and the dunes were scarred with mobs of tourists hauling their children and sand-boards up the hills. Glad we did the park by night.

Next up: Eastern Oregon. The grand parks tour was coming, sadly, to a close.

Silver Island Mountains

April 30 – May 1, 2015.

Our last stops in Utah were west of Salt Lake City. When researching possible trip destinations, I noticed that a nice route would take us by the Bonneville Salt Flats, famous for the land speed records set there. Also, as I would later learn, infamous for bogging down the Donner-Reed party in their race against the oncoming winter storms as they headed for California. Just nearby were the Silver Island Mountains, a place I’d never heard of before. But on the map it appeared to be an interesting place to explore.

According to, it was. So I copied some notes about a few climbing routes and off we went.

Bonneville Salt Flats

We arrived at the salt flats after a long day of driving. A work crew was setting up a huge tent for some event that was happening the next day (we never found out what it was). But the Wikipedia page mentioned that the Bonneville Salt Flats hosted several races, movie shoots and other events year-round. We parked past the tent-raising and walked out onto the salt. It felt good to stand up after being driven around all day long. Shallow pools of water collected in some parts of the salt flats, which seemed unusual. We carefully walked around on the hard and surprisingly uneven ground, looking for interesting salt formations. We’d been spoiled by the intricate salt statues in Death Valley a few years ago, so this place seemed pretty ho-hum in comparison.

A night under the stars

It was getting to be dinner time and we needed to find a place to camp so we headed to the scenic byway encircling the Silver Island Mountains. It was all BLM land; we just needed to find a nice spot to pitch a tent.

And that we did. We found someone’s old fire ring just a little ways off the main road and decided to stop there for the night. We had an elegant meal of roasted asparagus and Dinty Moore Beef Stew. A camping classic. The dramatic sunset over the mountains behind us made it worth all the day’s driving. Although we could see the traffic buzzing by on highway 80 far off in the distance, it felt as if we were sitting in a remote getaway.

Volcano Peak

The next morning, we awoke to a spectacular sunrise and then headed off to our first destination: Volcano Peak. We did our best to follow the description of the drive to the recommended route, stopping a few yards short due to rough road conditions. The climb was straightforward: follow a gully to a ridge, stay to the left, and then head straight up from there. It took us less than 45 minutes from car to summit. The mountain was made up of interesting rocks with streaks of colorful minerals. We poked around for a few minutes until I stopped in my tracks.


I yelled over to Aaron. Two bighorn sheep were standing on a ledge just below me. The mother sheep’s eyes locked with mine as her tiny baby bounced around her feet. The baby was adorable; the mother terrifying. We watched them as they held their ground on the ledge, and then they decided to retreat to a safer place elsewhere on the mountain. They remained visible from our summit perch, so we spent the next half hour watching them do their sheep thing.

It was so quiet up there. Never had 45 minutes of work felt so rewarding. But, we had one more peak to go, so eventually we took our parting shots and tromped back to the car.

Rishel Peak

Next in line was Rishel Peak. We could see it clearly from Volcano Peak, but it was less clear where the Summitpost author wanted us to start this next route. We made our best guess, parked the car adjacent to a rough dirt road, and started walking. All we had to do was get close enough, pick a good line, and head up the mountain. Out here, routefinding was easy. You could see the entire lay of the land from nearly every point on the land. There were no silly trees in the way.

There was evidence of human activity along the way. Old, rusty bits of metal, broken glass, and other items lay on the desert floor, cast away decades ago. But we didn’t see any other humans out here. There were plenty of lizards to keep our attention. They were fast, scurrying away quickly when we got anywhere near them.

This route was much more of a gradual climb. We wandered across a flat, brushy plain, then snaked up a broad ridge punctuated with rocky outcrops. Eventually we popped up on the main summit ridge and followed it until we couldn’t go up anymore. Views were killer, just like on top of Volcano. In our poking around we found some old telegraph wire and wondered what the stories this peak held. The clouds seemed to be thickening and turning grayer, so we descended with the intention to move a bit more quickly. They never turned into storm clouds, but it was better to be safe than sorry.

The scenic byway

The Silver Island Mountains Scenic Byway is a 54-mile loop of rough dirt road that loops around the Silver Island Mountain range. Aaron wanted to drive the whole loop, so we loaded up some podcasts and hit the road.

The scenery was stunning, of course. Each section of the drive had a slightly different perspective of the area. We got great views of Pilot Peak, just across the border in Nevada. We also eyeballed all the other mountains in the range we didn’t get to climb: Graham, Tetzlaff, Cobb, Jenkins, and others. Next time we head to Salt Lake…

The road just went on and on. Along the way we passed a couple of road signs indicating that we were crossing the Hastings Cutoff on the California Trail. This was where the Donner Party took a tragically long short-cut that ended up getting them stuck in winter storms in the Sierra. We marveled at just how harsh the life of the pioneers must have been, munched on some chocolate covered almonds and turned up the AC.

That night we headed for the border. We drove through the little casino town of Wendover, NV and started north for Idaho, with the intention of camping somewhere on BLM land. Somehow we got talking about hot tubs and buffets and decided to book a room in the next casino border town. There was only one room left on this Friday night and we grabbed it. We gorged ourselves on crab legs and other buffet goodies, and got one hell of a night’s sleep on an actual bed, the first we’d laid on in weeks.

Capitol Reef National Park

April 28-29, 2015.

View the photos from this part of the trip here.

I’d never heard of Capitol Reef National Park until partway through our road trip. Spending hours riding passenger in a car, I had plenty of time to leaf through all the pages of my Zion + Bryce guidebook. The authors sneaked in a few other parks, including Capitol Reef. And a sweet little 15 mile canyon hike caught my eye. It was…kind of on our way back…so we took a detour to explore this off-the-beaten path destination.

We explored dramatic canyons, lounged under ancient cottonwood trees, ate freshly baked cinnamon rolls and rumbled down endless gravel roads. As soon as we left, I wanted to go back again.

Lower Muley Twist Canyon

15 miles | 1500′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr

The drive to this hike was just about as interesting as the hike itself. In order to into the National Park, we had to cross the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-ish mile long buckle in the Earth’s crust that made travel close to impossible for early settlers and native people. One of the only passageways follows the Burr Trail, established in the late 1870’s to move cattle from the grazing grounds to the market. Today it is still a primitive gravel road that includes an impressive series of tight switchbacks that makes you cling to the edge of your seat. It is impassable in wet weather, so we checked at the Visitor’s Center before attempting this difficult drive.

Our hike began on the broad, hot desert floor. We followed cairns across scrubland and slickrock to the canyon entrance. As we dropped into the canyon, Aaron’s eagle eyes noticed an arrowhead laying on the sand. We admired it and left it behind for someone else to discover, as I’m sure others before us had done.

The canyon itself was mostly pretty wide. To our left, massive rock walls rose seemingly straight up for hundreds of feet. To our right, the canyon floor gradually rose up to piles of rubble and boulders in the distance. All throughout the canyon, there were colorful wildflowers, shady cottonwood trees, and rocks of all shapes and sizes. Butterflies swirled around randomly, songbirds flitted from tree to tree and lizards scampered into hiding as we passed by. It was an idyllic scene, so pretty and quiet and alive.

This canyon felt impossibly big. And there was barely a sound to be heard. Hiking for hours, just the two of us, in this expansive place, made me feel very alive. To get a sense of what it was like, click the photosphere link in the gray box below.

The steep canyon walls alternated from vertical to overhanging. Some of the overhangs were so great that it felt as if we were walking inside a cave. Shade came over us, dropping the air temperature considerably. The ground was damp, with occasional streamlets of running water. These provided conveniently spaced rest breaks to get away from the ever intensifying sun.

As we were nearing the end of the canyon we encountered two other hikers heading in the opposite direction, the only people we’d see on the trail all day. Then, the canyon took a quick turn and the walls closed in on either side of us. We’d reached the alleged Narrows. After seeing so many photos of Utah’s slot canyons, it didn’t feel particularly dramatic. The rest of the walk so far, though, had been well worth the drive out here.

We exited the canyon and climbed back up to the dry, desert wash from which we started. Except we were still 5 miles from the car. It was the hottest part of the day, and there was one shade tree along the entire stretch back. We drank up all our water as we hoofed it back to the car. Capitol Reef had already knocked our socks off, what could we possibly do next?

Camping in the Oyster Beds

We drove into the only campground in the park late in the afternoon, and all the spots were already taken. Not being familiar with the area, we then drove around somewhat aimlessly to try and find a road on public land outside the park to set up camp for the night.

We were tired, and kept hitting dead ends. Finally we pulled into a desolate looking stretch of land along a side road, just on the other side of a hill from the main byway. It would do.

Aaron got to setting up a minimal camp while I prepared a home-dehydrated meal for a quick dinner. As the food was soaking I wandered around our new accommodations. It was an unusual-looking place, very gray and covered in lots of little rocks. I picked up some of these “rocks,” and on closer examination found quite a number of oyster fossils. I remembered seeing oyster shells on a geology pamphlet we’d picked up earlier and I guess we’d stumbled into that particular formation. It was cool to think we were camping in an ancient sea bed. I rambled around the campsite, picking up rocks and treasures until daylight faded, and it was time to head into the tent.

Gifford Farmhouse

We earned an easy day after our long trek in Lower Muley Twist so we decided to do a tourist day. First we grabbed an open campsite at the Fruita Campground, then drove to the Gifford House to check out their wares. The gift shop was full of trinkets and treats. We bought a peach pie, a cinnamon roll, and some coffee to share for breakfast on the patio. Aaron was excited to read through the history of the settlers that shared his same last name.

Next we walked around the Visitor’s Center, wrote some postcards and listened to the geology talk at the Visitor’s Center. We also picked up a scenic drive brochure for $2 that I could narrate as we drove through the main road leading into the canyon.

Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge

All that sitting around had to be countered by some walking. Our first jaunt was a couple miles in the Grand Wash. We hiked to the narrows and back, admiring many wildflowers, interesting rocks, and tall canyon walls.

Next we hiked Capitol Gorge to the Tanks trail. Along the way, we saw the Pioneer Register. High on the canyon walls, travelers from decades long past had painstakingly carved their names into the rock. I wondered why the names were so high up on the wall. Perhaps there had been lots of erosion since the names were carved? Aaron thought the pioneers had made the carvings while sitting atop their horses or wagons. As we continued walking it was hard not to think about the challenges that trekking across this terrain brought to early visitors. We had it easy.

A short side trail led up to the “Tanks,” a series of depressions in the rock that hold water. Unfortunately, all the tanks we found were dry, so we didn’t get the cool pictures that we’d seen elsewhere. Our consolation prize was a great overview of the canyon from our high perch.

Hickman Natural Bridge

After our flip-flopper hikes we drove back to Gifford House. It was even hotter now, and we knew they had ice cream. We took our ice cream to the lush, green field across the road that was shaded by massive cottonwood trees. There, we sat on the grass and enjoyed our cold treats. We waited out the heat of the day relaxing and reading and dreaming of simpler times.

Later that evening we sneaked in one more hike to Hickman Natural Bridge. I decided to go barefoot for this one. For 50 cents I grabbed an interpretive brochure at the trail head. As we walked up the trail, we stopped at each numbered post as I read the appropriate factoid from the brochure. We learned about the native Fremont people, geological events, and the flora and fauna. As I mindfully stepped across the alternating sand, rock, and gravel, I took plenty of time to look around and appreciate the very special place we had decided to visit. The landscape around us was ripe with history. Enormous rock formations broke up the horizon in all directions. We’d just scratched the surface and it was already time to leave.

Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Arches sure do have better PR than Capitol Reef, but this quirky little park is no less spectacular than any of those. It will soon be time to return to this part of the country to pick up where we left off.

Kodachrome Basin and Grosvenor Arch

April 26-27, 2015.

View the photos from this part of the trip here.

From Bryce Canyon, we headed for Kodachrome Basin State Park. It earned its name from a 1948 National Geographic Expedition to the park. They were thrilled to be able to present the spectacular colors of the park on brand new Kodachrome film, or something like that. Had these journalists visited, say, any other wild place in Utah they would have realized that this park was not exceptionally colorful.

Grosvenor Arch

On the way, we made a quick detour to Grosvenor Arch. It’s not really on the way to anything, but it seemed like a worthwhile diversion. After much driving down gravel roads we pulled into the small parking area and took a short walk to the base of the arch. This arch, also named by the National Geographic Expedition, stands over 150 feet high and stretches 92 feet from one side to the other. Its double arch formation is unique, even among Utah’s extensive arch collection. A quick 10 minute leg stretch here, then it was off to find a campsite. We didn’t want to pay to camp at the state park, of course, so we found a little dirt pull off and camped among the sage. The wind attempted to blow us off the face of the earth but we persevered, and even had enough energy to make chili dogs before retreating to the shelter of the tent.

Kodachrome Basin

There was at least a half day of adventure waiting for us at the park. We began on the Panorama trail, a 6-mile loop that passed by several named formations and would serve as a good introduction to the park. Nearly the whole loop was exposed to the sun. Although it was cool for our 8 am start, I knew it would turn hot fast.

Signs in the visitor’s center and throughout the park educated us about the geology and wildlife here. We were mindful not to step on the cryptobiotic soil due to reading the “don’t bust the crust!” signage. These special soils, essential to the desert ecosystem, are sculpted and held in place by tiny microorganisms like cyanobacteria. The organisms can help the soil retain moisture and resist erosion. But they are terribly fragile, so stepping off trail was a big no-no.

Staying on the trail, we observed several rock spires, colored in browns, yellows and reds. We saw cactus, wildflowers, and hardy desert shrubs. The trail mostly passed through wide plains dotted with vegetation, but in a few areas we squeezed between rock walls and negotiated sharp turns that avoided trees, seasonal streams and rock features.

A couple of spots were remarkable, but the loop as a whole was pretty ho-hum. Cool cave, which wasn’t really a cave at all, was an interesting rock feature with tall walls. The floor was hardened mud, and it looked like at any moment the walls could come sliding down.

Indian Cave, also not a cave, and not even on the map, was the second feature of note. Its walls were scarred with what looked like numerous deep hand prints. It must soften considerably when there’s any rain so that people can create hand-shaped scars in the rock. At least that’s my best guess. Although there was a sign for ”Indian Cave,” and yes, the quotation marks were even on the sign, it was not indicated on the map. Curious.

After that, we took a half-mile jaunt on the Nature Trail. Short but sweet, this trail was packed with informational signage that went into detail about the native plants and human history. It was a pleasant hike and I enjoyed the educational aspect as well. But now it was hot, we were hungry, and it was time to eat.

I dug into the cooler and built a nice plate of tuna salad and we purchased some cold drinks from the General Store. We finished up with an ice cream bar and then made one more stop: Chimney Rock. This was another ho-hum stop, but the surrounding scenery was quite, well, scenic. Cotton ball clouds floated across the bright blue sky.

It was only a brief stop. We said farewell to the park, since there was some driving to do to get to our next spot: Capitol Reef.

Bryce Canyon National Park

April 24-26, 2015.

View the photo album from Bryce here.

We rolled into Bryce Canyon well after dark, with no camping reservations and a low level of patience. We found what was likely the very last open site in the whole park at Sunset Campground. We quickly set up the tent, crawled inside and immediately began hibernating.

Tourist-eye view

In the morning we made a hearty camp breakfast, bundled up and prepared for a day on the road. Most people visit Bryce by car. In a half a day, you can drive the length of the canyon, pop out at each of the viewpoints, take a few selfies and be back in town well before dinner time. We thought we’d take the drive to get an overview of what was available, then do some hiking.

The drive was lovely. We drove out to Rainbow Point at the south end of the park and worked our way back. Each stop provided a different view of the park. We saw hoodoos, natural bridges, and colorful, banded rocks. On this day the clouds were gray and threatening. We stood in a few brief snow squalls. This was much different than Zion.

We did hike the Bristlecone Loop early in the day but it was unremarkable. The trail was boring, not very scenic, and short. Any other hike in the park would have been a better choice than that one.

Hat Shop

4 miles | 1436′ ele gain | 3 hours

The first time we really set out for a hike was the walk to the Hat Shop. The trail descended from the canyon rim at Bryce Point, following several switchbacks down towards the river. We passed by a trail crew on their lunch break. Tools were scattered all over the side of the trail. It looked like terribly difficult work in the heat of the afternoon. We trotted happily by.

About 2 miles down, we began to see our destination. The Hat Shop earned its name from the series of orange hoodoos topped with dark gray rocks. They looked like they were each wearing a little hat. As we walked down the trail, more capped hoodoos came into view.

We found a large, twisted tree just off the side of the trail that served as a snack spot and provided a little shelter. After spending all morning around cars and tourists, it was nice to get out into what felt more like wilderness.

The downside of canyon hikes is that the tough part comes on the way back. We walked back uphill into the crowds of people taking photos to post on Instagram, and headed back to camp.

Figure 8 Loop

6.5 miles | 2035′ ele. gain | 4.5 hours

In the morning, we drove to Sunset Point for a bit of a longer hike. The Figure-8 Loop, as it was known, included the Queen’s Garden, Navajo Loop and Peekaboo Loop trails. We began descending under a layer of thick clouds. The trail drew us down into narrow-walled canyons where a surprising number of tall pine trees grew. In some sections of trail, the rock seemed to enclose us completely; in other areas, the rock opened up to expose panoramic views of the park.

Along the way, we passed some dramatically named features: Thor’s Hammer, Wall of Windows, the Cathedral, Queen Victoria, the Sentinel. Many other interesting features had yet to receive any compelling name. We appreciated them equally. I thought this frozen mudslide was one of the cooler things we saw along the path. But just like children, I’d imagine, it was hard to pick a favorite.

The eastern half of the Peekaboo Loop was relatively quiet. It was the furthest away from the parking area and passed by no named features on the map. It had clearly been visited, however, by tours on horseback. The stench of horse poop filled the air. It covered the trail, too, and made the whole deal feel quite unpleasant. I’m one of the few that thinks horses and hikers aren’t compatible trail users.

As we joined back up with the Queens Garden trail, we came back upon larger groups of tourists. Hmm…which was better, the mobs of clueless people on the trail or the disgusting horse manure? Hard to choose…

It was no matter, since the trail passed by such amazing scenery it was easy to ignore the masses. We walked past gnarled trees, painted hills, vast views, and curious hoodoos. Even the half-mile walk back to the car on the rim trail was enjoyable.

After the hike, we still had half the day ahead. We chose to head to the General Store, which had showers and laundry available. We took advantage of both. While waiting for our laundry to dry, we wrote postcards, played Quirkle and made plans for the remainder of our trip. It was actually a very nice way to spend the afternoon. We would be on the road for nearly three weeks, and this was our first of only 2 showers on the trip!

Fairyland Loop

8 miles | 2309′ ele. gain | 5.5  hours

Who could pass up a trip through something named Fairyland Canyon? Apparently, a lot of people. We saved the best for last on our final hike in Bryce Canyon.

We began the loop from Fairyland Point, which is located at the end of a spur road that had no shuttle service. Already it felt more isolated than the other viewpoints in the canyon. Just like the other hikes, it began by climbing downhill. We’d gotten pretty used to the view by this point: orange and tan rock walls, hoodoos and other geologic features. There were bristlecone pine, Ponderosa pine, manzanita, and a few colorful wildflowers. But what made this hike special was the neverending diversity of sights to see along the way. Around every corner, a new surprise awaited us. It was difficult to travel at a steady pace because I stopped to take a photo every few minutes. The landscape was never short of stunning.

As we rounded a corner into Campbell Canyon, the trail took a number of sharp switchbacks as it negotiated its way up, down, around and through the jagged edges of the canyon. At the top of each rise, I felt very small amidst the hills, mountains and spires. I was inspired to create not one, but two photospheres at two locations along the trail. Take a look:

We stopped at the Tower Bridge viewpoint for a quick lunch, working hard to keep our sandwiches away from the circling chipmunks. From there, the ascent began past the China Wall and back up to the canyon rim for the 2.5 mile walk back to the car. On the way we passed another “Hike the Hoodoos” checkpoint, where we stopped to take an exuberant picture.

Actually it was more like 20 pictures, until Aaron got the timing right. Needless to say, my splits were feeling easier by the time he nailed the shot!

Driving back to camp, we saw a few pronghorn on the side of the road. While these were pretty common out in the desert, it was a rare sighting for us valley residents. We stopped and watched them for a few minutes before taking off.

Next stop: Grosvenor Arch and Kodachrome Basin State Park. Time to hit the road again…

North Guardian Angel

April 23, 2015.

East Ridge | 7.5 miles | 750′ ele. gain | 7.5 hrs. | Photos

We met up with Rick at a coffee shop before sunrise, and caravaned up to the Wildcat trail head in the central part of Zion National Park. With less publicity and several road closures planned for the day, we anticipated more of a wilderness experience on the trails.

Aaron, Rick and I hiked down the Wildcat Canyon Trail and turned on the junction towards Northgate Peaks. At trail’s end, the two Northgate Peaks stood like stone lions guarding the gate of some VIP’s mansion. We bushwhacked down the overgrown blocks of dark lava rock to the sandy valley floor. Heading directly towards our obvious target, we picked our way through scraggly shrubs and the occasional pine tree as quickly as we could. Once we reached the impressive sandstone slabs of North Guardian Angel, Aaron turned back to hike up East Northgate Peak while Rick and I harnessed up for our climb.

The first bit was a fun, third class scramble up the horizontally scarred slab to the long, flat landing zone above. My approach shoes felt incredibly sticky on this rock. We weren’t in Oregon anymore…

Once we hit the plateau, we roped in and I led up the first pitch of actual climbing. The hardest moves (as always) were right off the ground—within the first 30 feet or so—and so it took a little mental magic to push myself through on lead. Since I rarely ever climb rock anymore, my brain gets a little rusty on exposed, unprotected climbing, even when it’s technically easy.

Once past the tough spot I breezed up to a good anchor point and brought Rick up. There may not have been anywhere to place nuts and cams on this climb, but there were plenty of Ponderosa pines along the way. Each pitch ended at one such tree, and was almost always shared with a massive throng of red ants. That kept the pace moving. We consulted a photocopy from one of Rick’s climbing books that had a play-by-play route description to keep us on track, but mostly the pitches ran out whenever there was a convenient tree to sling.

We ended up climbing 4 or 5 roped pitches, then carried the rope up the final ascent. The climbing was really enjoyable and never that challenging, but the exposure made us pay attention. It felt nicer to be roped up, even though belaying up my partner was exhausting (since he was cruising along so fast).

Near the summit block, we had some options. We decided to go left and traverse around the “face” of the ridge, since it looked pretty vertical. The traverse was pretty easy, minus one airy step that Rick assured me was no big deal. After that, it was a straightforward scramble up some loose but not exposed sections of rock.

On the summit, the views were incredible. Pale, slickrock mountains jutted up from the forested scrubland all around it. Voices echoed out from the Subway, a popular canyoneering route nearby. We hung out and ate snacks for the first time today, admiring the colorful mountains and valleys in all directions.

Seriously, 360° views:

On the way down, we walked to the edge of the summit block wall and set our first rappel. This saved us some time and hassle negotiating the exposed section we passed through on our way up. By combining downclimbing with rappelling we comfortably descended the ridge back to the plateau. One last slickrock scramble brought us to the base of the mountain, where we packed up our gear and headed out.

It was now pretty warm and we were both ready to be done. We aimed for the gap between the Northgate Peaks and I scrambled back up the lava to the trail while Rick stayed low in the valley. After much yelling, waving of hands, and wandering back and forth on the trail, we met up once again and retreated towards the trail head together.

At our final trail junction before the parking lot, we came across a group of young women with overnight packs on, who were paused for a break. Rick asked if they were headed to the Subway, to which they basically replied: “whatchutalkinabout?” They clearly had no idea what the (most popular route in the universe) Subway was, where they were or where they were going. We marched away from the confused ladies, remarking on the utter lack of preparation the average visitor seems to have in the National Parks.

We then continued marching along the (wrong) trail for another mile, wondering why we hadn’t reached the car yet.

It then occurred to us that we’d mistakenly taken the connector trail to the Hop Valley trail head and had overshot our destination. After a brief moment to reflect on the irony of the situation I pulled out the map and noticed that we could bushwhack up the cliffy rock band to our right once we reached the general area of the parking lot, instead of hoofing it all the way back to the aforementioned junction. Conveniently, there was a break in the vertical wall right where we needed it and we clambered up the rocks to the field just south of the lot.

Meanwhile, Aaron had gotten concerned that it was taking us so long to return, and had decided to hike back up the trail to look for us. Fortunately he ran into a couple who had passed us on the wrong trail and based on their conversation, he figured out what happened. We eventually reunited and all was well. Just a hiccup in the adventure.

This would be our last foray into Zion National Park. I enjoyed the solitude, the outstanding views, easy climbing, and unique perspective of the park. I left Zion with a positive vibe and I was ready for the next stage in our road trip.

Route information

Doing more research? Here’s a very bare bones route description on Summit Post. And another from Mountain Project. Bring a rope, material to build belay anchors and a handful of slings; leave the nuts and cams at home.

Hiking in Zion National Park

April 21-22, 2015.

View the photo album from Zion here.

We went to Zion for one reason: to climb North Guardian Angel with my friend Rick. But we had a couple days to kill before the climb, so we took on all the popular hiking trails in just a few short days.

After a quick evening stay at the Watchman Campground, we packed up and left early to grab a campsite at South Campground. Camping was kind of a nightmare here; by the time we rolled in, almost everything was full. The ranger at our entry point mentioned that sites tend to open up in the early morning when people leave, and we’d have a good chance at snagging one if we vultured around the campground around 8 am. That proved to be a good strategy, so once we found a site we were able to get out and go hiking.

Observation Point

8 miles | 2100′ ele. gain

The hike up to the best viewpoint in the park started out in the most annoying way possible. The trail is paved for most of the way, and apparently it was being maintained by some sort of trail Zamboni. This loud machine was grinding up the trail not too far behind us, traveling at roughly our pace. We just couldn’t get away from it.

Eventually the pavement became more and more broken up and the Zamboni came to a rest, leaving us to ascend in blessed silence as we approached Echo Canyon.

We continued into the canyon, then climbed right back out of it and into the sun. We hiked up and up, noting the unfamiliar desert vegetation as we climbed. Paintbrush sprung from the canyon walls, yucca and cactus threatened to poke us with their spiny leaves, and desert primrose cowered in the heat. We admired not only the tiny plant life but also the huge vistas and big walls. It was impossible to capture the immensity of it all on our cameras. It had to be experienced to be understood.

At the top, there were small groups and couples taking selfies and searching for shade. Chipmunks darted between our feet and dared to crawl into our backpacks, looking for food. The views were truly awe-inspiring. It was easy to hang out here for a long lunch.

On our way back down, we took two side trips: Weeping Rock, and…

Hidden Canyon

0.8 miles | 250′ ele. gain

After finishing most of the descent, we reached a junction that sent us hurtling back uphill towards Hidden Canyon. This trail was interesting, with several sections of narrow slickrock traversing (with chains) and steps cut right into the stone. People were totally freaking out at the chained section, which meant it was super fun to walk across. The official trail ended at the mouth of the canyon, but the hike description urged us to walk further. There was just one or two sections of moderate scrambling to get over short walls of rock, then the rest was easy wandering between the canyon walls.

We walked as far as a small rock arch, less than a mile up the canyon, and decided to turn around. It was here that I decided to go barefoot. It always feels so nice to stretch out the feet after hiking all day in trail shoes.

Weeping Rock

0.5 miles | 100′ ele. gain

We made one final detour before we returned to the shuttle. I had to put my shoes back on because this section was paved and the dark asphalt was burning hot. This stretch of trail was packed with tourists. That’s what you get for doing a quarter-mile long hike.

The main attraction of this short spur is Weeping Rock, the site of the park’s famed “hanging gardens.” My brain conjured up an image much more spectacular than what lay ahead of us, so I found it to be a huge disappointment. We’d seen so much cool stuff today anyways; it was time to go back.

Angels Landing

5.4 miles | 1490′ ele. gain

The next morning we got up early so we could catch the first shuttle. All I’d read about Angels Landing was that it was the park’s marquee hiking attraction. Zillions of people would be aiming for this trail today, so the only way I’d go up there was if we could get a head start on the mob.

We began this hike, thankfully, in the shade. It’s a steep climb right off the bat. Soon we reached the famed “Walter’s Wiggles,” a section of hairpin switchbacks cut right into the rock. They were brilliantly engineered to allow anyone with enough leg and lung power to hike up to the base of Angels Landing. Then, the fun began.

At Scout Lookout, or chicken-out point, or whatever it is, people generally decide whether to proceed or not. Beyond this point is the notorious narrow trail section that has chains to hold on to. We were set on reaching the summit, and my goal was to proceed without using the chains at all.

It was a beautiful walk with the early morning sun enhancing the red, orange and yellow hues on the rock. The trail was way more mellow than I was anticipating, and it never felt particularly scary or dangerous. Of course, if I were on this trail when it was loaded with people, I would definitely be concerned about the ability of the masses to safely negotiate others on this route. I was happy we were up here essentially alone.

Before long we found ourselves on the upper trail. We passed one pair of visitors taking photos under a tree and walked out onto the end of the point for our summit snack break. We had the place to ourselves for quite a while, then an older Canadian gentleman joined us. It was a great perch to look down the canyon and feel the spaciousness of it all. But, not wanting to encounter the crowds, we packed up and headed out before most people had even stepped out of their RV’s.

On the way down we passed many more people, all with the same question: “how much further?”

My favorite sight was the guy with the Coors Light t-shirt on. Or was it Budweiser? Either way, a man outside his comfort zone.

While the trail was a bit disappointing, the scenery was not. I was glad to stop and take photos while people were passing on their way up. I was in awe of the size of the throng of tourists shuffling up the trail. We set our sights on the Grotto picnic area, where we’d take a break, re-pack, and hit the trail again. It wasn’t even 10 am yet. We had the whole day ahead.

Emerald Pools Loop

3 miles | 500′ ele. gain

It was time for a chill barefoot hike. The Emerald Pools Loop looked like the perfect opportunity. My feet felt alive on the cool, soft sand. We walked slowly and quietly along the river, encountering a handful of groups along the trail. Once we got closer to the pools, the energy level heightened. We heard an enormous group of screaming children somewhere ahead. People of all ages, shapes and sizes made their way to the scenic pools. Water in the desert is always a main attraction. While there was ample, clear signage to stay out of the pools, several people disregarded the signs. There was even a woman smoking at the upper pool. Aah, the joys of visiting National Parks.

Continuing along our hike we came to the Lower Emerald Pool, which I thought was the prettiest and most underrated of them all. Delicate wildflowers and ferns clung to the moist rock walls and sand around the pools. We could hear frogs calling from somewhere nearby. The air was cool and refreshing, the views out into the canyon beautiful.

We continued on to the Lodge, where we stopped for a rest and some ice cream. Then it was a pleasant stroll through lush green foliage back to the Grotto, where we picked up the shuttle for a ride back to camp.

The Watchman

2.7 miles| 450′ ele. gain

Afternoons in Zion are crazy hot, even in April, so we sprawled out under the cottonwood tree in our campsite and spent a few hours recovering. After dinner, we packed back up for an evening hike up the Watchman Trail. This convenient trail head was located just outside our campground so we rolled out of camp and started up the trail.

The best part of this hike was the profusion of wildflowers growing along the trail. I wished I had a flower guide with me to help identify these flowers. Later I discovered that we saw beavertail cactus, Eaton’s penstemon, Utah daisy and Thomson’s peteria, among other things. It felt like I was walking through a landscape painting.

We stopped at the lookout point for sunset, where I got a phone call from my buddy, Rick. Weather was coming in, he said, and we were pushing the climb ahead a day. That meant tomorrow. We hiked out of there, rolled back into camp by headlamp, and started re-packing for the morning.

Great Basin National Park

April 18-20, 2015.

View the photo album from this leg of the trip.

Spring arrived, so was time for another big adventure. The decision on where to go was made easy when I was invited to climb a pair of peaks in Zion National Park in late April. In order to make the most of my travel time, I crafted a road trip that would last nearly 3 weeks and take us through 4 states. Fortunately, my partner was up for it and the two of us set out from the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon to explore some new territory.

Getting there

After spending a night in Northern Nevada, we got up early to make our way to Great Basin National Park. Driving down highway 50, or the “Loneliest Road in America,” we took a lunch, car maintenance and tourist break in the town of Eureka. I wandered into the Eureka museum, which chronicled the rise and fall of a mining boom-town. There were rooms full of old printing machines, newspapers, kitchen items, and relics of old stores, homes and businesses. There was little information to accompany all these items so it was kind of like walking into a crowded antiques store. Nonetheless, it provided a nice diversion and the woman working there was very helpful in providing information about the town and the area.

As we approached the park from the west, Wheeler Peak came into view. That would be our target for our first and most challenging hike of the trip.

We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center to ask about current conditions and one of the rangers suggested an alternative route, involving climbing a couloir, that might be easier and more straightforward given the time of year. I thanked him for the suggestion and we settled into camp at Upper Lehman Creek.

Wheeler Peak

16 miles | 5300′ ele. gain | 12 hours

In the summer, Wheeler Peak is a challenging but accessible high peak. The trailhead starts at 10,000 feet so there’s less than 3,000′ of vertical climbing to get there. A nice path leads 4.3 miles one way to the summit.

But now the road to the trailhead was gated due to snow. We’d have to start our hike from the Upper Lehman Creek campground at 7,750′. That nearly doubled the mileage and elevation gain. No worries, we were ready for this.

Living at sea level doesn’t quite prepare you for being at elevation for any period of time so we woke up early in the morning feeling short of breath just walking around camp. We packed up and hit the trail before 6:30 am, with only one group signed in ahead of us.

We walked along the steadily rising trail through stands of cactus, aspen, sage and juniper. About an hour into our trek we looked across a meadow to get our first view of Wheeler Peak. The bump we’d been staring at from our campsite was not, in fact, our mountain but some insignificant neighbor. The view was stunning. We’d see the mountain several times from many more angles through the course of the day.

After crossing the creek, we began to encounter patchy snow. Two hours into the hike we reached the Wheeler Peak Campground. Picnic tables and grills stuck out of the tops of snowdrifts. We followed the road, as the ranger had suggested, about a mile up the road to find the Wheeler Peak trail. Signs at the trailhead  warned us of the challenges that lay ahead and suggested some easier alternatives.

We followed the trail to a junction to Stella Lake. From here, according to the ranger, we’d find a couloir that would take us straight to the ridge below the summit. It would be easier than trying to find the main trail under snow. Besides, it sounded like more of an adventure.

The couloir was an obvious ribbon of snow to the left of the lake. We circled around the southwest side of the lake and then headed cross-country over the hard-packed snow to the base of the couloir. I was surprised to see so many trees here, clinging to life at over 10,000′.

The snow texture provided enough grip in most places to allow us to climb up without any gear. Yaktrax would have been helpful in some of the icier spots, but I found that if I moved quickly and stepped firmly enough it was possible to get past the worst of it without slipping. Poles were essential.

Once we reached the ridge we were both a little disheartened to look ahead and see how much further we still had to go. The combination of being at a high elevation and climbing was knocking the wind and energy right out of us. We took a few extended snack and water breaks to keep moving forward.

Along the ridge, the views were stunning. There were snow-capped mountain ranges in every direction. Wind farms were visible in the valley bottom. The sheer rock face of Jeff Davis Peak became more dramatic with each step forward. And the weather was so pleasant! Sunshine, dry skies, and moderate temperatures helped us keep taking steps forward.

Once on the summit, we really took a rest. It was time for lunch and some backpack-free exploration. There was a summit register placed inside a mailbox that someone left in a windbreak. We watched flocks of small birds swooping above the snow in search of food. And we celebrated the success of our efforts: a panoramic view that very few park visitors have seen, especially off season. Click the link below to get an idea.

Of course we were only halfway done and it was already 2:30 pm so we needed to start moving down. Aided by gravity we quickly ambled down the ridge and were back atop the couloir in no time at all. Going down was much faster and much more fun than going up. By the time we reached the snow above the lake the sun had softened it up considerably, so it was an agonizing slog to get back to the trail.

Knees wobbly from the cumulative effort of the day, it felt good to be on packed, dry ground and we made good time back to camp, arriving in time for a reasonable dinner. While I cooked many elaborate meals on this trip I had very little energy on this night. We settled for hotdogs and beans, a classic camp meal.

Lehman Caves

Before leaving for our trip I booked a Lehman Cave tour for 1 pm for the next day. I knew we’d be beat after our climb and could use an opportunity to sleep in. We did just that, had a delicious campfire brunch, and packed up our camp. We arrived at the Visitor Center just before the tour and layered up for our descent into the cold, damp cave.

Unlike many of the caves in the Northwest, which are nearly all lava tubes, Lehman Cave is made of limestone. Our tour guide took us into several rooms of the cave. In the first room, she discussed how crazy it must have been for the first visitors to this space. She turned off all the lights. It was completely dark. Then she proceeded to tell us about experiments that demonstrate how quickly people go insane when they’re held in complete darkness. I could believe it.

Each room had interesting features, including some that were apparently pretty rare to find. There were the usual stalactites and stalagmites, plus several that had welded together into columns. There was cave popcorn and soda straws. What was most impressive to me was how many intricate features there were in every room. The cave was well-lit so we could appreciate the formations in the cave. Early visitors must have had a harder time appreciating it by candlelight.

After the cave tour we ran to the small cafe attached to the Visitor’s Center to satisfy my milkshake craving, then hit the road. We had to book it to Zion National Park.