Brown Mountain Snowshoe

January 2, 2016.

Summit Sno-Park > PCT > cross-country to Brown Mountain summit and back

7.5 miles | 2400′ ele. gain | 6:45 hrs. | Photo album

We spent new year’s just outside of Ashland, with so many new possibilities in Southern Oregon right outside our back door. After much deliberation I settled on Brown Mountain, a peak just across the road from Mt. McLoughlin, and one I’d had my eyes on since hiking a nearby piece of the PCT in 2010.

Our journey began at the Summit Sno-Park, where two other people were just getting their snowshoes on as we pulled in. They set off in the direction of Mt. McLoughlin, and soon we set off in the opposite direction: searching for the road crossing.

According to the summer map, the PCT led south from the parking lot to cross highway 140 and continued south towards the flanks of Brown Mountain. We followed a marked winter trail beneath power lines for a ways, then wandered around a bit with the aid of a map Aaron saved on his phone to find where to cross the road.

The snowplow had basically created a 5 foot tall snow cliff on the side of the road so we chipped away at the sidewall a bit with our trekking poles to make a safe descent. At the same time, we saw the two other snowshoers finding their own way across the road. Guess they realized they went the wrong way out of the lot.

We discovered that our plans were similar. As we paused to take out the map and get our bearings, they set off into the forest.

Since we’re usually the ones putting fresh tracks in the snow, it was a nice change of pace to settle into someone else’s snowshoe tracks and scoot along behind them. We took our time, snapping photos, layering on sunscreen and adjusting layers. It was below freezing in the shade, and the air felt bitterly cold.


As we crossed the lava flow, Aaron noticed a plume of steam rising from the snow ahead of us. What we found was one of several steam vents on the mountain. The snow melted in curious shapes around an open hole in the ground. It was a reminder that we were traveling in volcano country.

Eventually the forest opened up and the bright sun beamed down, warming our cold faces. The trail went in and out of the trees, and eventually our fellow snowshoers’ tracks left the PCT and headed cross-country in the direction of Brown Mountain. We dutifully followed the footprints in the snow.

The pair in front was a guy and a girl. Both had ice axes strapped to their packs. The guy looked like this wasn’t his first rodeo; his partner, on the other hand, came across as a newbie. He cruised ahead, occasionally stopping to look back, leaving her in the dust. Eventually her energy seemed to flag as she was stopping frequently and slowing her pace way down. We passed her, asked how she was doing, and she responded, “It’s going…” with a grin on her face.

As we climbed higher and higher, the landscape became steeper and more open. We had lovely views of the route ahead of us. There was now more sunshine than shade, and the views became prettier with each step. Fewer trees meant more wind, however, so we found a sheltered spot to stop and have lunch before making the final big push up the slope. The girl slogged by as we rested, and while I’m sure she was tired she seemed to be in good spirits. She appreciated walking in tracks. Her partner was taking long strides, and I was taking short and easy steps. Short steps helped me conserve energy and made life a bit easier for those walking behind me.


After refueling, we continued up the mountain. Suddenly, we caught up to the other group as they were headed down. They’d decided to call it a day. I thanked them for breaking so much of the trail and set off into fresh snow. As much as I enjoyed the ease of walking in someone else’s footprints, I lamented the loss of the sense of adventure I feel when walking into untracked terrain. Now I had my chance; with most of the routefinding done for me, I had the opportunity to do my favorite part of the climb on a clean slate of sparkling, white snow. I could hardly contain myself. I checked back frequently to be sure Aaron wasn’t too far behind; I didn’t want to let my excitement drag me away from my partner.


The slope got steeper and I paused to remember the snowshoeing fatality I’d read about just yesterday. While I was pretty sure I was not crossing avalanche terrain, the possibility messed with my head a little bit as I carefully trudged up the steepest sections of the mountain. In some places the snow just slid out from under me as my snowshoes struggled to gain traction. I was glad to have my poles to help climb over the worst of the obstacles, and breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the softly undulating summit plateau.


At the false summit, we could see a couple of other points on the horizon that looked higher than our present location, so we summoned up the willpower necessary to keep going. We skirted around a couple of steam vents and followed some mystery ski tracks into a stand of trees that brought us out to a high point on the other side. Just beyond another tree stand, I saw another point that was probably a few feet higher than where I was. But, I knew Aaron was tired. When he crested the last hill, I announced, “we’re here!” And, pointing to what was most likely the true summit, said with certainty, “That doesn’t look higher than this point, right?” We called it good, sent our SPOT message home, and quickly took off back down the mountain.

The descent always takes so much less time than the ascent. We made it through the worst bit pretty quickly, then it was smooth sailing down the wide open snowfields on the way back to the trail. We talked a bit about how snowshoe trips are analogous to life. Yes, the top of the mountain looks impossibly far away when you first set out, but if you set lots of intermediate goals and just keep taking one step at a time, you ultimately get there. The key is to make a plan and then stick with the plan, even if it feels really tough or it takes longer than you thought it would.

If more people figured that out, I’d be unemployed.


As we mused about these life lessons, the miles passed by. Soon we were back at the PCT and could hear traffic on the road. Going down the sloped snow wall on the south side of the road was easy, but going up the sheer snow face on the north side was tough. We chipped some foot holds into the sidewall and Aaron gave me a boost from behind to climb on top of the snow. He had to work a bit harder to make a nicer stepping platform for himself to get on top, too.

As we walked back on the winter trail that led to the parking lot, we passed a handful of people out sledding down the tiny hill behind the parking lot. Seemed like a long ways from anywhere to sled down a really boring hill. But, to each his own. At least they were outside having fun, just like we were. It was a nice end to another spectacular day in the mountains. I hope this sets the tone for an adventure-filled 2016.

Hart Mountain Thanksgiving

November 26-29, 2015.

Photos on Google Photos (no captions) or Picasa (captions).

Since 2009, Thanksgiving weekend was an excuse to bail out of social engagements for a few days and retreat into the forest. For six years, I hosted this personal retreat at a cabin in the Willamette National Forest. But this year I decided to do things a little differently. Looking for solitude, we pushed eastward and headed toward the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge.

The long road

We broke up the drive and camped at Marster Springs Campground outside of Paisley. The road was very snowy and it was a miracle that we could actually drive to the campground in the car. We set up camp in the dark, ate a quick meal and turned in for the night.

We woke up and looked at the frozen thermometer: it was a few degrees below zero. The air was frigid, and we only began to feel human again once the sun crested over the nearby peaks.

On we drove, taking a quick stop at the Warner Wetlands to use the restroom and practice some handstands. You go a little loopy sitting in a car that long. Then began the long and winding ascent up to the Hart Mountain plateau, until we eventually crested the top of it and chose a campsite.

Happy Thanksgiving


It felt like such a treat to set up camp in the middle of the day. The sun felt warm, we could see without the aid of a headlamp, and we had lots of space to spread out. We dug out some paths in the snow, set up the tent and kitchen area, changed clothes, and greeted our chukar neighbors. Then, we scoped out the hot springs and took a little walk around the camp area before it was time to make dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner is a spectacle, whether I’m in the city or the backcountry. I had 2 pots, a skillet, a camp stove and a fire pit. It was time to get to work. I strategically warmed up our feast, which included:

  • turkey (white and dark meat)
  • gravy
  • mashed potatoes
  • mashed carrots and parsnips
  • bread stuffing
  • meat stuffing
  • bread and butter
  • cranberry sauce (jellied and whole berry)
  • green beans


I’d like to say we savored each bite, but it was so damn cold outside we wolfed it down and ran over to the hot springs. We even left most of the dishes for the morning.

The hot springs was magical. We sat and soaked, watching the nearly full moon rise over the stone walls of our little enclosure. The water temperature was perfect. The worst part was getting back out. Emerging from a hot pool, water dripping down your skin, entering the -20 degree air was an experience I hope never to repeat again. We toweled off and jogged back to our campsite, where we dove into the tent and settled in for a cold night.

Warner Peak


We slept in, waiting for rays of sun to reach our camp. While making breakfast I encountered some fun new barriers: all of our food was frozen solid. Eggs crystallized as they came out of the shell (if they hadn’t frozen through already). I had a tough time keeping my pancake batter fluid. These were serious problems that I was kind of glad to have. I enjoy the challenges of making camp life tolerable in below freezing temps.

We got off to a late start for our big hike. At 10:30, we finally stepped out of camp ready for an adventure. The last time I’d hiked Warner Peak was on a hot and mosquito-infested day in July several years ago. The challenges then were much different than the difficulties we faced today.

Instead of following the bushwhack suggested in the Sullivan guide, we walked up Barnhardi road two miles to Barnhardi basin. From there we followed a path to the cabin and had a snack. The air was cold, but the bright sun warmed our skin and contributed to a pretty comfortable hiking temperature. The snow on the ground was light and fluffy, but it was already starting to make walking a bit difficult, especially where it formed deep drifts.

From the cabin we made our way up a thickly vegetated gully towards the ridge. This was slow going. It was walking uphill, through the snow, with loads of roots, branches and other traps buried out of sight. Eventually we crossed the stream and wandered up the other side of the gully, ridge in our view. On paper, the mileage looked really short and do-able. On the ground, however, it felt as if we were moving at a snail’s pace. The late start made us feel even more like slackers. The sun had already crested and we had miles of uphill travel to go. At one point, Aaron asked me to set a turn-around time. I had summit fever, so I estimated a time that would get us back to the road before dark. “3 pm,” I said, ” and that’s conservative.” The last part was to make sure that Aaron would agree and not spend too much time overthinking the math.

As we trudged along the ridge, each little up and down was like torture. A slight breeze began to blow, ominously foreboding a very cold night ahead. We reached the last false summit and caught a glimpse of our prize: a concrete building with some sort of antennae on top, like Mt. Defiance or Marys Peak. Aaron put his foot down here, convinced it was still too far. I glanced at the time: 2:15. “We’ll be there in 30 minutes at the latest. We can do this.”

As is often the case, that last hill looked way bigger than it actually was and we were on top in less than 15 minutes. We ducked behind the concrete building to get out of the wind, bundled up and got the heck out of there. Now, it was a race against the sun.

Much of the hike back was in the shade, and it was savagely cold. The hand warmers I’d opened up at breakfast time were beginning to lose their heat. We trucked downhill as fast as we could. It took a little over an hour to hike the 3 miles back to the cabin and another hour or so to get back to camp. It’s amazing how much ground you can cover when you’re going downhill and scrambling to generate heat.

By far, the highlight of the day was the incredible sunset we saw as we walked down the snowy road to camp. I stopped dead in my tracks to look up and take it all in. The pictures don’t even come close to capturing the beauty of that sunset. It was a fleeting, top ten moment, that made the late start totally worthwhile.

A couple short hikes

In the morning I came up with the best camp breakfast ever: cast-iron scrambled eggs and meat stuffing over a hot campfire. After breakfast, we were fired up to break camp and start making our way back towards civilization. As we were packing up, we both took off our down jackets and looked at each other as if to say “ugh, it’s really warming up out here!” The temperature: 18 degrees. How quickly one adapts to life below freezing.

We drove out to the visitor’s center to use the heated bathroom. A curious coyote came out to say hello, and then we went on our way. Partway down the road, we stopped to hike a 0.5 mile interpretive trail on the edge of the rim. The sunshine was brilliant and the air was so still. It’s amazing that such quiet places still exist in the world.

Further down the road we pulled off to hike DeGarmo Canyon, which was listed in a hiking brochure we picked up at the refuge. The road was unmarked and split into a few other roads, leading to some confusion and false starts. We eventually hiked to the mouth of what we thought was the right canyon. But there were no signs of a trail. We were thwarted by snow-covered slabs and thick trees choking off any reasonable path up the canyon, so we turned right back around. But our time wasn’t wasted; we watched a massive golden eagle fly gracefully along the dramatic rock formations in front of us. We again marveled at the open space and quiet, then jogged back to the car. Did I mention it was cold?

Hole-in-the-Ground


After a wholly disappointing stay at the Summer Lake Hot Springs, we started the long trek home. On the way, we stopped to stretch the legs at Hole-in-the-Ground, a volcanic crater somewhat near Fort Rock. Aaron read his book in the car while I bounded down the steep, snow-covered trail to the bottom of the big hole. I followed a couple of sets of human tracks, and then deer tracks, and then no tracks to the large, flat basin in the center of the hole. The sun illuminated the landscape, making the snow sparkle. It was a worthy stop, much unlike the less dramatic Big Hole (skip it).

And alas, our weekend of adventures came to a close. The one thing I really wanted was solitude, and we found it. As cities continue to grow and spill into our natural spaces it gets harder and harder to get away. But for now, there are many special places left in Eastern Oregon that only the most determined traveler will make the effort to visit. Especially when temperatures drop into the minus double digits.

And snow it begins: Iron Mountain

November 3, 2015.

7.8 miles | 1900′ ele. gain | 2.5 hours

Tombstone Prairie > Cone Peak Meadows > Iron Mtn Trail > Santiam Wagon Road

Google Photo Album

I can’t believe this is my first trip report for Iron Mountain. Located conveniently on Highway 20, with easy access to an incredible wildflower display in spring and summer, Iron Mountain is by far the most popular stop for hikers traveling through the South Santiam River Corridor. Even Portlanders have heard of Iron Mountain. Coming from Corvallis, this is a pretty standard hike for me, and I’ve been on these trails several times since moving here.

But today would be an unusual visit to Iron Mountain. The flowers have long since disappeared, and the large parking area at the trailhead sat completely empty. It was a dreary November Tuesday with hardly any visibility and a lousy weather forecast. Most fair-weather hikers have hung up their boots for the year and have settled in to wait for spring.

This was precisely my best opportunity to pounce on a popular trail, and today I would not be disappointed.

The first half a mile of trail descended to a small meadow just below the noisy highway. The slick mud made for an attention-getting start to the hike. After crossing a small creek on a bridge, the trail led up to the highway for the first of two road crossings (the most dangerous parts of the hike). Then, the trail switchbacked through the forest to rock outcrops and meadows below Cone Peak.

This was the part I’d been looking forward to. Much of the forest floor and tree branches had a light coating of snow from recent snowfall, and it looked like more would be dropping down today. As I proceeded up to the awesome vistas on the south flank of the mountain, I spun around to appreciate not endless views of the rugged landscape, but instead a snow-frosted wonderland enclosed by a dense fog. It was incredibly quiet; the road noise had faded away. Tiny snow flakes drifted down from the sky. Winter had arrived.

I plucked myself out of the mesmerized state I found myself in and continued traipsing along the trail. Some parts were quite narrow and eroded, prime locations for some trail work next year. As the trail left the meadow it dropped back into the woods. Now on the northwest side of Iron Mountain, I could feel the winds blowing from the west and sending snowflakes right into my cold face. I pulled my sleeves down tighter over my hands and kept charging down the trail.

Once at the junction with Iron Mountain trail, I set off on the last climb of the day, gaining over 500′ of elevation to reach the wooden platform on the summit. Walking uphill is a very efficient way to stay warm, so I appreciated the opportunity to keep going without having to add another layer. Icicles formed on the exposed rock beneath the summit. Visibility dropped significantly, and as I continued up I began to get really excited about dreaming up some winter adventures. Surely there would be snow this year.

At the top, an inch or two of solid snow covered the platform and all the interpretive signs. I ducked behind a stubby tree to sit and eat my lunch out of the wind. It was incredible to feel the cold air on my face after an endless summer of warm weather hiking.

On the way down, it was all business as I moved quickly to stay warm and get back to the car. The weather was continuing to deteriorate and I’d seen this all before, anyways. The best was behind me, so now it was time for some cardio conditioning.

I crossed the road once more and reached the junction with the Santiam Wagon Road, which read 1.0 mile to Tombstone Pass. I looked at my watch and started jogging down the trail. I had a lasagna to make tonight. Arriving at the car 9 minutes later, I decided the sign was inaccurate.

According to William Sullivan’s guide, that last stretch of trail is only 0.6 miles, which seems much more likely considering my pace and time. (Don’t trust those FS signs!)

The mountains are saying it’s winter! I’m ready for it. Time to dust off the traction devices, break out the big puffy coats, hats and gloves. I’m so much in love with hiking in Oregon.

Cannon Mountain

July 16, 2015.

7.8 miles | 2300′ ele. gain | 4.5 hours

Lonesome Lake Trail > Dodge Cutoff > Hi-Cannon> Kinsman Ridge> Pemi Trail

Photo album

This summer, I returned to the place it all began: New Hampshire. It’s where the hiking bug first bit, and changed the course of my life forever. I had one day to hang out with my brother and he wanted to go hiking. For our adventure, he chose a loop of trails that would take us on a tour of Cannon Mountain.

This was great for a couple of reasons. One: it was a loop, not a boring out-and-back. Two: HE did the planning! All I had to do was show up and start walking. I was ecstatic.

We started from the Lafayette Campground, lucky to find a parking spot. It was a weekday, and the place was crawling with hikers, campers, and who knows what else. I had forgotten how jam-packed with people it was over there. Undeterred, we crossed the creek beside my favorite “No picnics” sign and set out towards Lonesome Lake.

The trail climbed over exposed roots and rocks as it headed for the lake. It was just as I’d remembered. When I moved to the west coast, eager to climb higher mountains and find more rugged trails, I was disappointed. All I found were well-graded, well-signed, manicured trails with more switchbacks than roots. I couldn’t believe it. Over time, I learned to seek out more challenging trails, but I still longed for the days of fighting my way up the grueling east coast hiking paths.

At the lake, we scanned the signage to find the steepest route up to Cannon Mountain. The Dodge Cutoff brought us to Hi-Cannon, a no-nonsense type of trail that wasted no time gaining elevation. We stopped frequently to catch our breath and praised the tree cover for blocking out the hot, summer sun. Along the way we crossed an old, wooden ladder bolted into the side of the mountain. We also stepped out to an unmarked viewpoint located atop a rocky precipice that dropped seemingly all the way down to the highway.

Back on the main trail we began to hear voices and see tourists who didn’t look like they’d hiked all the way up here; we had made it to the top of the tram. We wandered up to the viewpoint tower and were surprised by a cold breeze. Views seen, we then went back down and over to the base of the tram stop. There, we sat at a bench overlooking the ski track and ate our lunch. A fascinating mix of humanity buzzed and swirled about at the top, all packed up for their “hiking” adventures. I doubt many of them strayed much more than a tenth of a mile from the tram.

We had other plans. From our lunch perch we headed east on the Kinsman Ridge trail to descend the rocky slabs back into the forest. From the slabs, we were treated to beautiful views of the Franconia Ridge, a place I’d hiked so many times before. But, it had been a decade or so since I’d tramped across those mountain tops. It was nice to see them again.

We followed the blue blazes back to treeline and kept descending. The trail was steep, rooty, rocky, and sometimes wet. It was quite an adventure, especially considering we were hiking on a popular trail in a state park! A family of four was headed up as we were nearly down. Not sure how much further they made it; from the sounds of their conversation, I think they believed they were almost done.

When we reached the valley floor, the Kinsman Ridge trail dropped us onto the Pemi Trail. This family-friendly footpath led us along a relatively flat strip of land paralleling the highway all the way back to the car. Along the way we passed by another lake and walked beneath the cliffy east side of Cannon Mountain. This used to be the site of the “Old Man in the Mountain,”  a chunk of rock that resembled a man’s face in profile. Much to the state of New Hampshire’s dismay, this iconic rock formation sloughed off the face of the mountain in 2003. A memorial and interpretive area remain, ensuring that future visitors of the state learn about the history of their precious stone face.

I enjoyed the opportunity not only to get back into the White Mountains but also to share this experience with my brother. He had recently gotten into hiking and was going through many of the firsts that I remember as I was blundering through the learning curve many years ago. If we do one of these hikes together each time I visit, it will only take 47 more years to complete the list of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers!

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.

Routefinding

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.

Sunrise

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.

Lavapalooza 2015

August 5-10, 2015.

Black Crater | Lava River Trail | Belknap and Little Belknap Crater | Scott Mountain to Hand Lake | Obsidian Trail to Collier Glacier Viewpoint | Millican Crater

I planned this summertime getaway for the Mazamas as a way to get people further afield from their usual hiking spots. And, as an excuse to skip town for several days and get lots of miles in on and off the trails. The Central Oregon Cascades is such a magical place to me, and I was happy to share it with some adventurous hikers on this car-camping trip.

View all the photos in the Lavapalooza album.

Black Crater

Black Crater Trail to summit and back | 7.8 miles | 2500′ ele. gain

I met up with a few folks at the Scott Lake Campground the night before our first hike. It served as a lovely base camp to explore the nearby trails. We watched the sun set over Scott Lake, then headed off to bed. In the morning, with fog rising off the lake surface, we were treated to yet another scenic view as we packed up for the day’s hike.

Our trip began with a trip up one of my favorite trails to the beautiful summit of Black Crater. Today I was joined by Lauren, Karl and Amy. We enjoyed the shady hike up through the trees on this warm, summer day. The trail climbed up and up the dry, dusty trail until breaking into the open near the top. As we ascended the pebbly lava we were amazed by the grand views of the Sisters beyond the gnarled and twisted trees. We snaked along the trail until reaching the blocky summit, then scrambled up to sit on top.

The views from the top were spectacular; it’s one of the most expansive viewpoints in the Central Oregon Cascades. We were in no rush to get back, so we lingered up there for a while as we ate our lunch. On our return hike, we passed a surprising number of people on their way up for a Thursday afternoon.

Lava River Trail

On the drive back to the campground, Amy and I stopped off at McKenzie Pass to peer across the mountain viewfinder and stroll along the paved, half-mile Lava River Trail. This trail was dotted with interpretive signs that described the natural history, human history and geologic story of the lava field. From this vantage point we could clearly see Black Crater (where we had just been) as well as Little Belknap and Belknap Craters, our two destinations on the next day’s hike.

Belknap and Little Belknap Crater

PCT  > side trails to Little Belknap and Belknap Craters | 8 miles | 1650′ ele. gain

Amy left our group to head back to civilization and we were joined by Anna, so our group was back to four again. We began this hike from the PCT trailhead not far from McKenzie Pass. It was another bright, hot and sunny day so we prepared for the onslaught of the summer sun. This stretch of trail went straight through a huge lava field with few opportunities to duck into the shade. Once we passed the few small, tree islands, we were out on the lava for good.

A couple of thru-hikers heading the other direction were well-prepared for the summer sun; they hiked with very reflective, silver umbrellas.

Our first destination was Little Belknap Crater. There was an official signpost directing us to a spur that lead to its summit. Along the trail were a handful of small caves. After exploring the caves and the summit, we returned briefly to the PCT and continue towards the bigger of the two Belknaps.

Although described as a faint user trail in the Sullivan Guide, the route leading to the top of Belknap was very obvious and easy to follow. The mountain looked daunting from the sandy plateau beneath it, but before long we were cresting the summit ridge and sitting in the breeze on the top of the crater. From there we could easily see Mt. Washington and several other highpoints in the area.

The hike out went much faster than the hike in, and we encountered many more colorful characters on our return trip. At the trailhead, we ran into two thru-hikers from down under who were out of water and were clearly in desperate need for snacks. We were happy to share our food and water with them since we were heading back to camp. They chatted and devoured our simple offerings and we went on our way. There was another delightful evening at camp with freshly made ice cream, a hearty dinner and good conversation as we headed into the weekend.

Scott Mountain to Hand Lake

Benson Lake Trail > Scott Mtn Trail > Scotty Way Trail > Hand Lake Trail > lava crossing > back to Hand Lake Trail | 10 miles | 1300′ ele. gain

A few other hikers joined our group for this trek, bringing our total up to 7. I was really excited to show off this hike, since I’d done it a year ago and I knew how much interesting variety there was to see.

We began right from the trailhead at our campground and began walking towards Benson Lake, our first landmark. At the lake’s edge, we stopped to take photos of the gorgeous blue water filling the lake. In such a dry year, it was extraordinary to see such a picture-perfect view of deep blue water.

Next, we headed to Tenas Lakes and took a short side trip to the banks of the first lake. There were people camping right on the lake shore (poor form), so we looked around a little and then kept walking. Our next stop was Scott Mountain. This would be the highpoint of the hike. We followed the trail as it climbed in a spiral, through forest, meadow and lava, to the partially wooded summit. There were a fair number of groups there and several more would arrive as we ate our lunch. It felt a bit too zoo-like to me. So I was glad to head out into the less frequently traveled portion of the hike.

From Scott Mountain we headed east along the Scotty Way trail, taking us towards Hand Lake. This crossed a large burn. Charred tree trunks and fireweed provided the backdrop for much of this hike. The elevation gain was negligible, so we casually walked along and enjoyed the scenery.

As we turned towards Hand Lake we began to approach the edge of the lava flow. We looked carefully for the entrance to the old wagon road, which was very clearly marked with a huge cairn. So much for adventure.

On the other side of the lava, we walked towards the lake. And kept walking, and walking…the lake was completely dried up! In its place was a basin full of dry, caked mud. It was a very different scene the last time I was here, when it was shallow but swimmable, and a nice reprieve from the hot afternoon sun.

With just a mile and a half to go to camp, we continued on at a comfortable pace. I looked forward to another big dinner and an even bigger hike day on deck.

Obsidian Trail to Collier Glacier Viewpoint

Obsidian Trail > PCT > > Viewpoint Spur > Scott Trail | 17.3 miles | 1300′ ele. gain

It’s days like this one that I really appreciate having a strong team.

It all began with securing permits for the Obsidian Trail. I’d never hiked this stretch of trail before, because there are permits required, and I usually don’t bother with that sort of business. But, this was a special trip, planned well in advance, so I picked up some permits and was happy to cover some new ground.

Our group was back to five people on this cloudy Sunday morning. We started up the Obsidian Trail, weaving our way across the undulating lava field. Pockets of forest provided some shelter and blocked us in from the epic views we’d enjoyed on the first half of the trip.

It was still quite beautiful, with obsidian shards glistening alongside the trail and the occasional foreboding view of the clouds through the trees. We romped across meadows, lava rocks and dry forest. We noted a random memorial embedded into a stone and Obsidian Falls along the trail. We then turned onto the PCT and took a lunch break at a clearing soon after. It was there that we faced a big decision.

Option 1: Stick to the original plan. Turn left in a quarter mile and complete the 12-mile Obsidian Loop, or

Option 2: Continue on the PCT to Opie Dildock Pass and return via the Scott Lake trail, adding another 4-ish miles. I don’t remember if that was my idea or Karl’s idea, or both.

I smiled as the group agreed to take Option 2, so we loaded our packs back up and hunkered down for the long haul.

This next section was by far my favorite stretch of hiking in the entire weekend. The landscape was indescribably alien and beautiful. The looming clouds gave the environment a mysterious air as we walked through the volcanic landscape. Streams trickled through the grass and lava rocks. Views of the massive lava walls and bleach-white trees clinging to the rock surrounded us. The trail crossed a stark and barren landscape as it led towards the pass.

Eventually we got a peek at Middle Sister to our right. A dusty spur trail led even closer; we decided to take it. Trudging up another hill covered in loose rock, we reached its highpoint above Collier Glacier and stood in stunned silence. The glacial meltwater at the foot of the ice looked like a pool of chocolate fondue. The mountain rose up dramatically from the mounds of lava rock near the glacier. We celebrated our victory with a few squares of chocolate bars, but we knew we still had a lot of walking to do.

On the other side of the pass, we walked through yet another picturesque meadow before reaching the junction with the Scott Trail.  Most of the hikers were driving back home tonight, so we cranked out the miles as quickly as we could. We reached the parking lot around 5:30, where we changed into comfy shoes and the group parted ways. Karl and I drove into Sisters to have someone else cook us dinner before retiring to camp.

Millican Crater

PCT > N Matthieu Lake Trail >  Scott Pass Trail > Trout Creek Tie Trail > Millican Crater Trail > off-trail to summit and back | 8 miles | 1500′ ele. gain

The last hike on the planned agenda was an easy 6-mile jaunt to Matthieu Lakes. I chose this hike in order to give people an easy day before driving back home. But, I had no takers on this hike so I was free to make my own plans. I was curious about this hike but not too inspired by 6 flat miles. I noticed a bump on the map named Millican Crater that looked accessible from the nearby trail system. The weather looked good, so it was a go.

I got started around 8:30 and zipped up the PCT to try and beat the heat. I passed a few thru-hikers on the trail, the only trail that gets much use around here. I was in a hurry to get out into the wilderness.

The lakes were small and drab, and under a gray sky looked even less impressive. I was glad these wouldn’t be the highlight of the trip. Beyond the lakes, the trail climbed up to a pass, which was streaked with red rock and dotted with yellow flowers. A light breeze completed the experience and gave me some encouragement to travel on to parts unknown.

The Tie Trail led down several switchbacks through the forest to a lower plateau and the Millican Crater Trail. This trail, unfortunately, traverses underneath the crater and not up to it. So I walked along the trail as far as it seemed necessary and scouted a route up the side of the hill. The hillside began as a mellow slope, as do many volcanic craters in this area, but it quickly became steeper and looser as I climbed. It was also choked with dense manzanita in some parts, that made uphill progress get rather challenging. Despite the obstacles, I headed up into the blazing sun to a false summit. From there it was a short stretch to the top of the hill, which was marked with a rocky cairn. I couldn’t find a register or anything but it was clear that I was not the first to step atop this summit.

It felt so nice to be out in the wild for real. No people, no sounds, no distraction. I could have stayed up there forever.

And so ended the first group camping trip that I organized. Minus a few speed bumps and issues, I’d say it was pretty much a success. I met some wonderful people, had lots of fun on the trails and in camp, and ventured out to some new places. Now, where to go next year?

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 Summitpost.com, 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.

SHEEP!

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.