Mt. Elden

April 6, 2018.

Photo album

We had a tasty breakfast at Indian Gardens Cafe in Oak Creek Canyon before driving to the Flagstaff Ranger Station. At the ranger station, we chatted a bit about conditions and picked up our permits to climb Humphrey’s Peak. They’ve got the mountain a little more locked down in the winter due to snow conditions. It was free, they made sure we had the appropriate information and we went on our way.

Mt. Elden stands prominently behind the ranger station. Its south and east sides are made out of impressive slabs of rock. A trail zigzags steeply up the east flank in the forest. But we weren’t interested in that.

My research had pointed me towards an off-trail excursion on the rocks. I had a rough description of the route and so we headed that way. The hike began on a nice dirt trail, with cactus and scrubby brush all around. Alligator juniper provided some shade and made it difficult to find the start of our route.

After some back and forth, we found a way up on to the big rocks and started up. The jumble of large boulders was somewhat difficult to navigate. There were giant chasms beneath some of the boulders. Spiny cactus grew in between the smaller crevasses, meaning we had to watch each hand and foot placement carefully. After some creative routefinding we made it to a huge, continuous section of slabs that we’d follow almost all the way to the summit.

Aaron was a bit sketched out by the scrambling we’d done so far. We stopped to take a break and catch our breath on a ledge. The city of Flagstaff sprawled across the landscape below us. A cool breeze swept across the rock as the sun beamed down on our faces. It was at once cool and hot. Once the adrenaline had settled down, the real fun began.

Above us, over a thousand vertical feet of rock scrambling stretched off into the distance. We hiked up and up and up, our calves screaming the whole way. Along the route we came across two other hikers who said they’d never seen anyone up here. It was a brilliant route, hidden in plain sight. They quickly passed us and we were again alone on the mountain.

As we climbed higher, the winds really started to pick up. We negotiated our way up the rock, weaving between occasional stalks of agave and clusters of little cacti. I admired the cracks, eroded pits and other features on the rock surface. It was wild, rugged and quiet. A perfect place to take a hike.

The slabs ended abruptly in a stand of trees and grasses. It took a little more thought to find a beaten path through the upper portion of the mountain. Powerlines, cables and other development associated with the summit lookout tower provided obstacles for us to avoid on our way. This wasn’t the prettiest part of the hike, so we tried to make our way through as quickly as possible.

At the summit we could barely hear each other talking, it was so windy. We took a summit selfie and then barreled down the trail to get to some shelter. Taking the lookout trail back would save us from having to downclimb the slabs, not a fun proposition.

On our way down we passed LOTS of people heading up. We refueled once and then high-tailed it back to the car. It was a great hike with lots of outstanding views, and I was glad to have poked around a bit to find this particular pathway that avoided the dog route to the summit.

There was plenty of time left in the day to run some errands in town, take a quick tour of Walnut Canyon and do the Flagstaff Art Walk. Well after sunset we drove east to find camping near tomorrow’s destinations.

Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona hikes

April 3 – 5, 2018.

Photo album

After a delightfully quiet night of camping near Williams, Arizona, we headed east towards Flagstaff for a quick resupply. Then it was south to Oak Creek Canyon.

We’d been warned. A friend who went to school in Northern Arizona told us that it would be crowded, even mid-week. She was right. We pulled into Manzanita Campground mid-morning, hoping to secure a campsite before playing for the day. Fortunately, someone had just left and there was one spot open. We took it.

Oak Creek Canyon

I’d heard that the West Fork hike was really popular, but I had it on the back burner as a possibility since it was supposed to be super cool. But our drive to camp took us right past the massive, yet still overflowing, parking lot. And that stifled any idea about heading to that trailhead. Instead we ventured into a little-known wash that I’d read about in a hiking book. There was no official trailhead and no official trail. We parked off the side of the road at a pullout and fumbled our way until we found what we were looking for. There were many surprises to come…

The wash was broad and brushy. We scrambled along the boulders, admiring the tall, sandstone walls on either side of us. Before long we started to notice bolts in the cliffs. Climbing. The sandstone looked pretty fragile, and we found a few holes where bolts had pulled out of the walls. Not somewhere I’d climb, but I guess it’s a sweet little place to get outside if you live in the area. Certainly not a destination.

We continued on, following the wash as it turned right, left, and right again. Around each corner the character changed. The vegetation, the rocks, the shapes, the smells, the textures… it was like many different hikes packed into one. We stopped for a snack break on a rock ledge above the canyon bottom. Above us, trees clung to the cliff edges, vying for soil and sunlight.

A short while later we heard voices up ahead. When we caught up to them, it was a couple of guys from Pennsylvania who had reached an impasse. The wash came to a sudden dead end at a short rock wall. The rock was smooth, with no good hand holds, and you couldn’t see what it was like on the other side. They decided to turn around. We decided to get creative.

To our right, the boulders led up to a steep hillside that looked scramble-able. It was totally fine. At the top of the scramble, we found a “beach” where the fragile sandstone had eroded away to form a bench of soft, yellow sand. Incredible! We crossed the beach, dropped back down and discovered pools of water behind the rock wall.

We shouted down to the two men that we were okay and continued on our private canyon hike.

The next couple miles revealed more treasures: a slot canyon, pools of ice, walls hundreds of feet high and a beaver marsh. And the best part was that we had it all to ourselves.

The beaver marsh was truly impenetrable so we made that our turn-around spot. The whole walk back we could hardly believe what a special place we had found. And I was happy that the crowds were content being in a crowd. This was perfection.

Wilson Mountain

We camped like sardines at Manzanita Campground and quickly broke down our things the next morning. Next up: Wilson Mountain.

I was glad we pulled up early to the small parking area near Midgely Bridge. Our book called this a 6-mile hike, but the map seemed to tell another story. Oh well, how bad could it be, I wondered. We were about to find out.

We struck out in a forest of manzanita, pinyon pine, yucca, cactus and agave. What a cool environment! I was so enamored with the desert. All these spiny plants and interesting flowers. Wait…that’s a toilet paper rose. Damn. There was so much TP littering this trail it was really kind of crazy. And a pile of human poop right next to the trail! I was flabbergasted. I tried to refocus my attention on the massive, dried up agave stalks and postcard views of the Sedona Red Rocks.

We walked up and up and up. The trail was steep but well switchbacked. There were lots of great views along the way and hardly a soul out there.

At a trail juction at the First Bench of Wilson Mountain we sought shade under an alligator juniper tree. Another couple was there, looking at their map and getting ready for the final bit of uphill to the top.

That last stretch had a bit of an open range feel to it. There were sparse juniper trees, low cactus and the occasional agave. Then we walked into a fairly recently burned forest. The next junction gave us two options: Sedona Overlook or Canyon Overlook.

We chose Sedona. The trail went up and then down again to a nice viewpoint. Cool, but no summit. We backtracked to the junction and headed toward Canyon Overlook. My guess was that it would head to the summit or thereabouts, which was right in front of us. Instead, it meandered further and further away, with no end in sight. We were already behind schedule because the hike was closer to 9 miles instead of the 6 we had planned for. And I wanted my summit. So we decided to split up: Aaron would find the viewpoint and I’d tag the summit.

I raced back up the trail and scrambled over and around the fallen trees en route to the highpoint. I learned why there was no trail there; it was made of crumbly rock. Not a great place to send the masses. I took in the views and then bombed downhill to the junction where I agreed to meet Aaron.

In the time it took me to eat an apple and take a little rest, Aaron came into sight. He never made it to the viewpoint. It just kept going…

Our return trip was slow, hot and taxing. Aaron had worn some lightweight shoes for this hike, which turned out to be totally insufficient. He was hurting. The desert sun didn’t help. At least we knew there was an AirBnB waiting for us at the end of today!

Secret Canyon

Our lovely AirBnB host showed us several options for hiking the next day. “How to avoid these insane crowds?” we asked. He offered a variety of suggestions, and we chose Secret Canyon. “The 4×4 road keeps more people away,” he said, “but you should be able to get there in your Subaru.”

It was a grueling and stressful mile and a half down the aforementioned 4×4 road where we decided to call it quits. Aaron found a place to park on the side of the road and we hoofed it the rest of the way to the trailhead. There it was surprisingly shaded. Madrone trees and tall shrubs protected us from the already boiling hot desert sun.

Soon, however, the trail emerged from the shade and gave us our picture-perfect views. Towering red rock sculptures rose up on all sides. The trail hovered above the canyon bottom and eventually took us down into the forest.

Yes, the forest. So much for another epic canyon hike. At least there was shade, and no people. We walked and walked. And walked. It wasn’t terribly exciting in there. Everything was bone dry. The leaves were mostly brown, there was hardly a flower around, and the vegetation blocked our rocky views. This is not what we came here for.

We each came to a similar conclusion several miles in. Do we have to do this? So, we turned around and made good time getting back to those pretty views. We had to decide what to do next. There were several hiking options and plenty of time, but we instead decided to call it a day. We’d spent the last few days hitting it hard and it would be nice to have some down time.

Sedona was a mob scene of people and traffic and oblivion. It is not a place I would choose to visit again. I was longing for the quiet of the ponderosa pine forest. I was needing some natural beauty without humans.

Arizona Hot Springs

April 2, 2018.

Photo album

We left Valley of Fire and headed to Arizona Hot Springs. I knew it was a popular hike, but I counted on today being a Monday for keeping the crowds down. We arrived just before 9 am and parked in the large lot right off the highway. It was a strange place to start a hike.

Signs at the trailhead warned about excessive heat. In fact, the trail is closed several months of the summer due to unsafe heat conditions. I’d never heard of such a thing. Sure, it was only April but I could already feel the desert sun beating down on me.

The trail went under the highway and came to a signed junction. It wasn’t terribly clear which trail was “our” trail but we walked in the general direction and followed the most well-worn path. It was wide open desert dotted with sage. Occasionally, prickly pear cactus brightened up the place with its brightly colored flowers.

As the path dipped down into a wash, tall rock walls cast shadows in our path. It was delightful to walk in the shade. Suddenly, flowers appeared everywhere. Turned out the plants appreciated some sun protection, too.

The character of the wash changed from wide to narrow, rocky to sandy. We wove through the canyon, wondering what would be around every corner.

There were people. Interesting groups of people. Mostly families, who apparently were hiking out after spending the night. We tried to guess how close we were to the hot springs based on how tired they looked. We were much further away than we’d guessed!

Eventually we heard voices. Lots of them. Mostly children. And then, a hot splash into a steaming stream of water. We’d arrived at the hot springs.

It was nothing like I’d pictured. Nothing like any hot springs I’d ever been to. A trickle of extremely hot water poured down the canyon wall, creating pools in a narrow, twisting slot. The pools were kept in place by stacks of white sandbags. The water temperature became much more bearable as we walked from the upper pools to the lower pools. But all of them were crowded with kids and their parents. And it smelled bad.

We politely pushed our way past the families, hoping to find a cooler and quieter pool. The canyon abruptly ended at a steep drop-off, where a ladder bolted to the rock allowed further passage. We decided to stop for a bit here and have a snack. A group of twenty-somethings sat in the lowest pool. Another pair of travelers, with their dog, were getting ready to leave. It was’t terribly busy but it still felt like a zoo. And taking a dog to a slot canyon with hot pools seemed like a really unsanitary thing to do. We were not impressed. I even forgot to take any photos, so you’ll have to create the scene in your mind.

After snack time, we climbed down the ladder and out of the narrow canyon. From there we saw lots of people heading up from the Colorado River. So THAT’s how so many people got here. Not by hiking through the brutally hot desert, but by floating down the river and walking up a few hundred feet. That also explained why hardly anyone had a backpack.

Instead of hiking back the way we came, we decided to make a loop by finding the White Rock Canyon Trail.

But first, did I mention we were at the COLORADO RIVER?! Holy cow was it beautiful! We scrambled up a little outcrop to get a better view. It was packed with kayaks, raft and other river craft, but it was easy to look past all the humans and soak in the immense natural beauty in front of us.

After some confusing routefinding, we scrambled down to a little sandy beach with no one in sight. We stripped down to our swimsuits (which we’d brought for the hot springs) and took a dip in the crazy cold river. Aaron got right in but I was too chicken to get all the way submerged. But our blissful peace was quickly interrupted when a large group arrived at a rock above the beach, playing music on a bluetooth speaker. Cool.

Now we were really introduced to a cast of characters. A dizzying array of people started descending on the area from all directions. It was time to go. We navigated past some confusing signage and a network of social trails in order to get to the White Rock Canyon.

Once in the canyon, it was easy to make our way back. It was an enjoyable walk, too, with plenty of shade breaks. Once we burst out of the canyon we just had to cross that open desert one last time.

We returned to the car around 1 pm. It was 92°. My original plan had a late afternoon hike scheduled after a rest break, but we both decided the heat had taken it right out of us. Instead we chose to make some headway on our drive that afternoon. We stopped partway for an ice coffee and then aimed to find a place to camp in the Kaibab National Forest.

Forest camping

Best decision ever.

By late afternoon, we found our spot: a flat, dry space surrounded by a sparse Ponderosa pine forest. It felt an awful lot like being at home. The air was cool: a refreshing break from the hot hike we just completed. The ground was littered with trash from previous campers: aluminum cans, bottle caps and other miscellaneous garbage. I grabbed a trash bag and cleaned it up, then set up camp. Aaron busied himself by clearing away all the dry pine needles from around the fire pit. We gathered downed wood, relaxed and made dinner. We ate by the campfire and watched the sun set.

Compared to last night’s camping situation, this was a dream come true.

Valley of Fire State Park

April 1, 2018.

Photo album

We rolled into Valley of Fire State Park around 9 am. Immediately we were sitting in line, waiting to pay the entry fee to get into the park. To be fair, it was Easter weekend, which is apparently one of the most popular weekends in the park. Our first objective was grabbing a campsite and dropping our stuff so we could go out hiking for the day without wondering where we’d spend the night.

We drove through Arch Rock Campground and secured a site. Then we drove up White Domes Road to check out several short hikes. A quick stop at the Visitor’s Center was less helpful than I’d imagined. There was no map to buy (they were out!) and the ranger seemed pretty uninterested in making hike recommendations. I took a bunch of pictures of the posted hiking map and we went on our way.

Mouse’s Tank

First stop: Mouse’s Tank. There was a raging party going on across the street at a picnic area, with tons of people, radio blaring, kids yelling… We were glad to hit the trail and disappear around a corner back into quiet.

The hike was lovely, following a gentle wash. There were pictographs on the vertical rock walls along the trail. At the end, we reached Mouse’s Tank, a pool of water that allegedly kept a Paiute nicknamed “Mouse” alive while he was hiding from the law. There wasn’t a great viewpoint of the tank itself. We even scrambled up the rock above it to see if we could get a better look. Nope.

This short walk was a good way to get acclimated to the desert weather and get up close to the red rock walls.

Rainbow Vista

Next up: Rainbow Vista. This was another short hike that led to a canyon overlook. There were lots of pretty cacti and rocks, but what I most enjoyed was seeing the chuckwallas!

I’d been itching to see a chuckwalla in the wild ever since our trip to Death Valley several years ago. Aaron spotted the first one. It was sunning itself on a rock. Then, he found another one on the same rock formation. And another. They had staked out this rock as a cozy chuckwalla condo. There was even a sentry sitting at the very top! We watched these cool creatures for a while before continuing along the route.

The rock here was all different colors: red, yellow, white. At the end, there was a pretty viewpoint. And if we’d had the time maybe we would have scrambled down into the canyon to explore. But there was one other trail head on my agenda.

White Domes Loop and beyond

By the time we made it to the White Domes trail head it was about lunchtime. It was pushing 90 degrees and I was feeling pretty low energy. We made up a lunch and found some shade to sit and eat. There were people milling around everywhere. But I had a plan.

The White Domes Loop, a popular, mile-long hike, connected to a trail that the ranger recommended: Prospect Trail. We walked the east side of the loop, past an old movie set and into a slot canyon. Then we kept our eyes peeled for a sign. When we found it, we were delighted at what it said: 5.5 miles to main road, not maintained or marked. PERFECT.

We wandered down a wash, through another mini-slot and then into the open. The trail on the map looked like it followed the canyon, so we tried to stay roughly on route. But it was so tempting to explore.

So we did.

It was very hot, and shade was at a premium, so we didn’t make it too far back there. But we had enough time to do some hiking in the wash, up on the slickrock and into some nooks and crannies. We saw one other couple hiding out in the shade, but that’s pretty much it. The views were incredible. There were so many rock colors; colors I’d never seen before. No people, no noise, just the rocks and lizards and big blue skies.

On our way back we saw some flagging and decided to follow it to the White Domes Loop. This route was far more tedious than the route we had chosen but we stuck with it anyways. Once on the trail we walked quickly from one shady spot to the next, admiring the various types and colors of rock along the way. It sure was a stunning location and no wonder this trail was so popular.

Camp disappointment

On our way back to camp we stopped back in the visitor’s center, which had run out of cold drinks (of course) so we just wandered around in the A/C until our body temperatures dropped back to normal. Before calling it a night we made two more stops: Petrified Log and Elephant Rock. Neither were that spectacular, or maybe that was the heat stroke talking. We passed by a mother who was encouraging her two sons to climb on Elephant Rock so she could take a picture. And to my utter amazement, one of the boys pointed to the sign that said “please do not climb on rock” and said he wasn’t comfortable doing that. BRAVO, KID!

Back at camp, we got ourselves all set up and prepared to cook dinner. In the meantime, a band of kids kept running back and forth through our campsite to climb on the rocks behind us. And their parents were doing the same. For the rest of the night we got to listen to one of the obnoxious dads howling like a wolf, followed by the chorus of kids howling back from all over the camping area. Father of the year. It would have been an absolutely beautiful place to camp if not for that one group of inconsiderate people. The rest of the camp was pretty quiet.

I was determined not to camp in a developed site anytime soon after that experience. There’s always one person who ruins it for everyone else…

 

Entering Nevada: mining and aliens

March 30-31, 2018.

Photo album

I was itching to get on a road trip. When the day finally came, I felt like a racehorse at the gate. We packed up the car and started driving towards Nevada. That stretch of highway between Bend and Burns is usually pretty monochromatic and boring. But today there was a surprise. Bald eagles, maybe thirty or more, just hanging out in a field near the road. They were perched on the irrigation equipment, soaring around, sitting in the grass. It was really strange. Then, a herd of pronghorn. The wildlife sightings kept me engaged as we headed out of town.

Day one was strictly driving. We got to Winemucca around dinner time and found a city park where we could assemble some dinner food and stretch our legs. One last burst of driving took us to Mill Creek Campground, where I’d planned on staying the night. But a sign at the gate said the campground was closed due to wildfire damage. Someone was camped in an RV near the gate. So we decided to drive further back on the gravel road to find our own space. There we camped under a full moon and lots of stars.

Day two was mostly driving, but we took a few planned and un-planned stops to break up the drive. First up…

Stokes Castle

The tiny town of Austin, Nevada lies on the “Loneliest Highway” and bills itself as a worthy stop with “plenty to see and do.” I had my doubts, but I did want to get out and see what Stokes Castle was all about.

We drove up a short gravel road to the top of the hill and there it stood: a stone structure standing three stories high. It was just a shell of a building, the interior was empty and the balconies had been torn down years ago. A chain link fence protected the structure from vandals (it was obviously put up too late.) It did sit on a pretty little perch and it felt good to be standing outside in the sun, but we didn’t linger very long. Just the remnants of some wealthy miner’s project that his family only used for a couple months before moving out of town.

From there we went into Austin and drove through slowly to see what might be worth checking out. There were some nice bathrooms for visitors, but otherwise it felt like a ghost town. Some old storefronts remained. No businesses appeared to be open. We read the interpretive signs near the bathrooms and headed out to the next destination. I’m not sure why Austin is marketing itself when there is absolutely nothing happening there.

Tonopah Mining Park

We stopped in Tonopah for gas and searched for a park where we could relax and eat some lunch. I noticed signs for Tonopah Mining Park on our way into town, and a quick Google search got us there.

We sat at the lone picnic table and munched on some food while some other visitors handed us their walking map as they were heading out. Surveying the map it looked like there would be a lot to see here, so we went inside the museum. Inside there were bits and pieces of Nevada’s fascinating mining history. We saw old pieces of equipment, black and white photos and lots of samples of minerals and rocks.

That was cool but we were dying to get outside. This was a hiking trip, after all. For a $5 entry fee per person, we got to explore the park grounds on our own, using the map as our guide. We gladly paid our fee and stepped out into the warm Nevada air. We explored several of trails, which led us past the preserved mine-related structures. We saw huge cracks in the ground from where miners hand-drilled out the precious ore. HAND-DRILLED. Huge cracks. Unbelievable. There were structures used to help move the rock out of the ground to the surface. An old bank safe. Tunnels. Houses for workers. It was a fun place to wander around. All the dangerous stuff was fenced off, so all you had to do was stay on the trail. Plenty of interpretive signs explained what the various features were used for. It was a very unique and worthy stop!

The remainder of the drive would take us along the Extraterrestrial Highway, also known as the most overblown destination in Nevada after Austin. It is located near Area 51, apparently, so it’s earned a bit of a reputation. A few businesses have capitalized on this but neither (IMHO) are really worth visiting. We found this out the hard way, and grumpily piled back into the car for more driving.

Camping

I was excited to get to camp, that is, until we arrived at my planned camping location. It was full. No, there was one spot left but it was wedged in between two RV’s on the shore of a very windy lake. This would not do. We got back into the car and hit the road. I furiously scrambled to find a backup destination.

We pulled off the main highway on a back road that looked like it was headed for the wilderness. It was, but just a few miles up the road it appeared to be washed out. We looked over the edge of the wash and decided it looked like a pretty sweet place to camp. After shuttling all our stuff down and setting up camp I discovered a dirt path that circumvented the wash and re-connected to a perfectly drive-able road on the other side. Whoops. Oh well, it made for a pleasant place to take an evening walk.

The next morning, we celebrated Easter by eating some colored, hard-boiled eggs and packing up to drive to Valley of Fire State Park…

Kentucky Falls

September 30, 2015.

6 mi. | 800′ ele. gain | 3:15 hr.

The drive to the trailhead for this hike was probably the most adventurous part…

To find this remote series of waterfalls, it was necessary to negotiate a network of poorly marked (or unmarked) logging roads. It was an exercise in following directions precisely! I was by myself, had no cell service and was miles from any civilization, so you can imagine my relief when I pulled into the parking area. Sigh, I made it.

The Kentucky Falls trail was a thin ribbon of brown dirt enclosed by a lush, coastal forest. There was greenery everywhere: trees climbing towards the sky, lichen dangling from every available branch, mosses and ferns blanketing the ground and shrubs squeezing through the soil in search of sunlight. It was a magical, fairyland forest.

Quiet, too. Not surprisingly, there were no other cars out here today. I was truly alone in the woods. A feeling I enjoy but don’t get to experience too often.

The river was absolutely beautiful. Moss-covered boulders lay strewn throughout the water. Newts, slugs, snails and bugs crawled about the forest. This was a place full of life and color.

In just under an hour of walking, I arrived at the epic viewpoint with two lovely waterfalls pouring down steep, rocky cliffs. I wasn’t alone here; there was a massive colony of millipede-looking bugs on nearly every surface they could cover.

At first I just saw a few. Okay, no big deal. But then, hundreds. Thousands. Squirming, writhing, being bugs. It is so bizarre to me how a few of a thing can be cool and interesting but thousands of the same thing is horrifying and disgusting. Besides bunnies, maybe. Thousands of bunnies in a big bunny pile? Probably still cute.

I stood there for a while, angling for all the perspectives I could get of the two waterfalls, while avoiding the throbbing masses of millipedes.

But I didn’t just come here for an hour of hiking. I decided to press on a bit further. I continued on the North Fork trail past the waterfalls and into an even lusher, richer world. The path felt a bit more rugged and closed in here. In places, huge fallen tree stumps were covered in moss, creating tall green walls on the side of the trail. I pushed through curtains of dangling lichen as if I was entering a mystical temple.

And then, mushrooms. So many mushrooms! The diversity in this short stretch of trail was astonishing. Oh, Oregon coast range, you never disappoint.

But the final gem had yet to be discovered. I walked a bit further and caught a glimpse of the river through the thick trees. I continued until I found an easy way to get down to the river. And there I found paradise.

The flowing water had carved bowls, pools, potholes and cliffs into the bedrock beneath the river. It was unreal. I wandered around, walking from rock to rock, observing all the shapes and patterns carved into the rock. The gentle flow of the water created a lovely background of white noise. No one else was around. I felt like I’d stumbled into a private sanctuary. True bliss. I scouted out a resting spot and there I sat, taking it all in, savoring this time and place, alone in the river.

Nature is powerful. This was a particularly moving place for me. I was tempted to never share pictures, never write about it, never draw attention to it. But alas, here I am. Years later I still distinctly remember being here. There is something to be said about the feeling of discovering your own special place. Nothing in the book or Internet write-up mentioned the magic of this spot. Perhaps that was a good thing.

My only hope is that people who come here leave with the same sense of wonder and joy that I did. That they refrain from carving their names into trees, stacking rocks, leaving trash, building fires or any other thing that people seemingly like to do. Just let it be, so someone else can be captivated by its un-scarred beauty.

Hiking while female

“Where’s your husband?”

I was taken aback. I don’t remember the year, or the exact hike I was doing, or many of the details of this encounter. But I do remember being asked this question by a total stranger while out hiking by myself. Maybe she thought it was an innocuous question. But I felt angry.

“I’m not married. I’m hiking alone.”

She reacted to my answer with as much shock as I reacted to her question. Alone! A young girl like you. Gasp!

I’ve had countless interactions like this since that day. Some are more obvious than others. Most are pretty subtle. But the message is the same: it’s not safe or appropriate for YOU to be out here by yourself. Your delicate, innocent, unskilled, incompetent, lady-self.

Undermining me, subtly

Do you know the look? The look that says:

  • I don’t think you can keep up with me.
  • You don’t belong out here.
  • Do you even know what you’re getting into?

I get this look often. I only really see it when I’m out by myself. And I think I notice it less and less, mostly because I try to quickly hike past people when I’m out on my own, itching to get back into my solo groove instead of stopping and engaging with judgmental people. Sometimes the look progresses to a conversation, but it usually does not. It is very easy to establish that I know my shit once a conversation is started.

Whenever I walk away from such an encounter, my brain starts racing a mile a minute. Would they have treated me this way if I was a man? If I was older? If I looked tougher? If I had dressed differently? If I had a rifle slung across my back? Just what was it about me that made me look like I shouldn’t be here?

I know now that the way people treat others is more a reflection of how they feel about themselves than it is about the other person. But I’m still curious…just why people feel that a woman traveling alone in the woods is such an inconceivable notion?

Going it alone

That was it: alone. Solo hiking was the problem, not being female. Or was it? I very much doubt that solo male hikers get interrogated about why they’re hiking alone. Or lectured about how dangerous it is. I remember chatting with a lady at a bar in Eastern Oregon about the solo trip I was on, and how I was planning on camping that evening nearby. “Well that’s just stupid. What about the wolves? Do you have a gun? How will you protect yourself? You can’t camp alone.” She was furious with me. I bet if I had been linking arms with a cowboy on the next barstool that conversation would never had happened. If only I’d had a protector.

Wolves. In Eastern Oregon. Okay, lady…

There are certainly reasonable fears to ponder before venturing out alone. A twisted ankle 10 miles away from civilization can be much trickier to manage by yourself. But living in crippling fear of predators that don’t exist in an area and even if they did, aren’t interested in hunting you, are no reason to re-think your solo trip. But talking about irrational fears is a whole other topic for a different day!

Woman, or human?

When I started hiking back in 2005, I had a few friends who indulged me in my pursuit of outdoor adventures. But mostly I headed off by myself. I wasn’t making a statement or breaking barriers or being bold. I literally had no one to go with. If I didn’t hike alone, I wouldn’t hike at all. Out of necessity, I became pretty confident getting out hiking and camping by myself.

With the help of the Internet and local hiking organizations I eventually made my way onto some group hikes and learned from more experienced mentors. They were predominantly male, but a few women showed up now and again. Mostly, though, I preferred hiking alone. I could walk at my own pace, see what I wanted to see, set my own agenda. It was liberating and enjoyable. I liked the feeling of self-sufficiency. I felt like I learned new things with every trip. Group hikes could be fun but I found myself much less engaged in hiking when I was out with a group.

Flash forward to today. The Internet is millions of times bigger than it was before and, it would seem, there’s a website for everything. There are lots of women writing about hiking and sharing their experiences online. And yet, the articles about women and hiking feel very trite and superficial. I connect with almost none of them. I don’t need to read about how to manage my period while hiking (spoiler: it’s really not that difficult). Or about how to protect myself (carry pepper spray! always hike with a dog! stay SUPER close to home… bla… bla… bla). Quite honestly, I don’t know why hiking tips for women need to be any different than hiking tips for men. I feel like a human on the trail, until someone creates some awkward interaction with me that reminds me of my female-ness.

It’s not brave

On the other hand, there are stories, sagas, of women who are called out for being brave and exceptional. For going outside and doing things they love to do. This is not bravery. This is simply choosing to exist as you want to be despite the world that doesn’t understand you. I would hope that this is what everyone strives to do (whether or not they achieve it). I have no interest in being called brave. Walking outside is one of the simplest and most natural things a person could do. A person of any age, gender, size, color, background, ability, anything.

Hiking while female is normal. Safe. Enjoyable. Exciting. Calming. Physical. Natural.

It’s not brave.

But hearing that narrative over and over does something to your psyche. It can create some serious self-limiting inner monologue. “Should I be out here? Am I capable of what I think I am?”

Moving forward

None of this has stopped me from hiking. But that subsurface self-doubt has held me back in more technical pursuits, like climbing and mountaineering. I have almost always been the follower and not the leader. This year it changes.

In my travels I have met many competent, adventurous and strong women who are motivated to get out there and do their thing. I have missed many opportunities to go with them. Learn from them. Take the lead. Achieve my potential. While I am proud of the few chances I have taken I know that I’ve got more in me. A lot more.

This year I’m feeling way more confident in my abilities for a number of reasons. One: I am choosing to surround myself with other outdoor women. Two: I am taking classes to refresh my technical skills. And three: I am training hard, not only physically but mentally. As it turns out, those mental barriers are harder to break than the physical ones and the mental barriers are way more paralyzing.

So, what’s your experience of hiking while female? I do not claim to have the only female narrative. I know it’s different for each of us. But I haven’t quite heard my perspective told yet. It’s taken me a long time to put this out there. I hope that if anything these musings will cause you to take a moment and reflect on your own outdoor pursuits, acknowledge the real and perceived barriers  in your way and allow you to make peace with the choices you make when you do what you love.

Feather Falls

March 9, 2018.

Feather Falls Loop | 8 mi | 1870′ ele. gain | 3:15 hr.

I found Feather Falls in a Northern California hiking book. I had to drive to Sacramento for a weekend event, so I decided to tack on an extra day and do some hiking. The book rated Feather Falls as a “3” difficult level but “10” for scenery. Sounded like a plan to me. The description noted, however, that the trail was once a loop but now an out-and-back route due to some trail damage. The out-and-back would be 9 miles, but since it was pretty flat and easy going I figured I could tackle it in under 4 hours.

I camped for the night at the trail head camping area, a free, walk-in tent site in the forest. It was very convenient to roll out of my tent in the morning and walk right up to the trail. I had forgotten to pack any hiking pants so I put on my sweats, hugged my thermos of tea and started up the trail. There was no indication of any closure up ahead so I was excited to be able to do a loop hike.

The path was wide, well-worn and well-graded. There was a disappointing number of plastic water bottles tossed on the side of the trail. I can’t believe people are still actually buying those things.

I sipped my tea as I wandered up the trail, enjoying all the unusual plants of the northern California forest. Everything looked similar to Oregon’s flora but just different enough to make me feel like I was on a movie set. There were fir-like trees, madrone-like shrubberies and ferns that were just a little off.  The occasional mushroom, flower, or newt splashed color on the otherwise brown and drab landscape.

About a half hour up the trail I reached a pretty waterfall on Frey Creek. The water tumbled down beautiful granite slabs, with lush green moss growing on either side.

Not 15 minutes later I approached a viewpoint of Bald Rock Dome, a mini-Half-Dome right across the valley. This striking granite rock face apparently has some “old-school” climbing routes on it, but today was not about climbing for me. I admired it, wiped the drool from my mouth and continued on.

Signs along the trail kept me both entertained and informed. One warned of poison oak, which apparently grew everywhere (but I didn’t see any).

I reached a new-ish looking trail sign that pointed towards the falls and headed in that direction. The trail looked like it was paved long ago but was now pretty eroded and worn away. Shooting star grew along the trail. More views opened up. The anticipation was building.

Suddenly I could hear the water’s roar. I sped up, following the eroded trail to a wooden viewing platform with a front-row seat at the falls. Feather Falls, according to the signs, was the 6th largest waterfall in the contiguous U.S. and the 4th highest in California. It has a bit of an identity crisis, as the trailhead sign marks it at 640′ tall and the Internet calls it 410′ tall. Besides, a quick search of “tallest waterfalls in California” shows that it doesn’t even rank in the top ten. Despite the number, it was an impressive waterfall. I enjoyed a good 20 minutes here, looking at the panoramic views and appreciating the solitude.

I returned to the “falls” sign and headed towards the other half of the loop. Again, there was no indication that the trail was impassable so I went that way knowing that I might have to backtrack if I encountered a sketchy section.

The sun finally peeked through the clouds. The warmth felt good on my skin. I negotiated a few washed out sections of trail but otherwise the other side of the loop was totally passable. It did have a different character: it was steeper, narrower and more rugged. I’m sure most visitors simply did the out-and-back. But doing the loop at least shaved off a mile, so I was back to the car in just over three hours. Plenty of time to make it to Sacramento and take a nap before I had to be presentable.

Feather Falls lived up to its expectations, well, except for the height. The trail was lovely. The waterfall was mesmerizing. And the early morning solitude was well-worth the early wake up.

Lava Beds for Thanksgiving

November 22-26, 2017.

View all the photos from this trip here.

With forecasts for unseasonably warm and wet weather all across the west, we decided to head south to a not-terribly-well-known National Monument for our Thanksgiving weekend escape this year.

The drive down to Lava Beds is just a few hours from Bend. We arrived after dark and pulled into the campground there. There were two loops; one was nearly full and the other was (inexplicably) empty. So we chose the best site on the empty loop.

The next morning we drove to the visitor’s center to pick up our free cave permit and gather information about entering the caves. I’d been here once, a long time ago, but my caving experience was rather limited. We spoke with the rangers for awhile and left satisfied that we had all the information we needed to have a fun time in the caves.

Cave Loop

On the first day of Thanksgiving weekend, we decided to hit all the open caves on the cave loop (with the exception of Catacombs). The park brochure provided basic information about each cave, including its length and a difficulty rating. They were similar to ski run ratings: green dot for easy, blue square for moderate, black diamond for challenging. We started with a black diamond cave because it was the first one on the loop! Thunderbolt Cave. After donning our helmets and headlamps we took our last breath of above-ground air and descended a metal staircase into the darkness.

There were a few differences between walking on earth and walking underneath it. First, it was quiet. SO quiet. Second, it was disorienting. When I could only see just a little ways in front of me it was difficult to retain any sense of direction or distance. Third, it felt spooky. Okay, I think I’m pretty resilient and have dealt with quite a lot of lousy adventure situations in my life. But this felt different. Monsters lived in caves, right? And did we turn down this passageway or that passageway? Shit!

Without a map or visibility beyond a few yards, navigation was difficult. I felt that little knot in my throat at one point wondering how we were going to get back out again. Great, we got lost in our first cave. But we soon remembered a landmark and soon saw that refreshing beam of sunlight coming down from the outside. Phew! We’d have to be a little more careful in the other caves. This was a wake-up call right from the outset. Nice job, Lava Beds, on not dumbing down the caves with lights and navigation arrows. I’ll take this more seriously now.

Next, Golden Dome. This one was recommended by the ranger. As we walked deeper and deeper into the cave, I’d exclaim: I found the golden dome! There was a hydrophobic bacteria on the cave ceiling that looked like gold flakes when it was coated with beads of water. It was amazing! But then I’d walk into the next room and say, no here it is! There was so much of it! As the trip wore on we’d discover this bacteria living in most of the caves. Why this one was singled out as the golden dome I’m not so sure. Other caves also had spectacular displays of this coloration.

Then, Hopkins Chocolate. There were some low sections that required stooping and creative crawling so that we didn’t tear up our pants. In this one rare instance, I wished I would have been wearing an old pair of jeans.

On to the Blue Grotto and lots more crawling. We popped up through a few skylights and ended up wandering into Labyrinth Cave somehow. The only way we knew was that We’d found a metal staircase leading up into the light, plus a trail register in a PVC pipe with the cave name listed. Knowing that Labyrinth Cave was closed we decided to hightail it out of there. We wandered up through an unmarked cave opening and walked cross-country back to the car, being careful not to fall into any unmarked skylights!

Next up: Ovis, Paradise Alley, Sunshine. We were racking up caves left and right.

At Natural Bridge we got to do a little surface walking. Then it was back underground at Indian Well Cave. I was feeling a bit of cave fatigue.

Finally, Mushpot Cave. This was the only developed cave on the cave loop, which was made obvious by the sounds of screaming children that got louder and louder as we approached. Lucky for us, they were finishing up their cave activity and we got to have it to ourselves. It felt so plush and luxurious after being in the undeveloped caves all day.

Last cave of the day: Valentine Cave. I was so ready to be done. I would have appreciated this more in the beginning of the day. We could mostly walk upright in the spacious chambers. The main passageway looked like a subway tunnel. But I wanted to be back at camp, building a fire and making dinner.

That night we feasted on roast turkey and our favorite sides: gravy, squash puree, green beans, etc. Plus a marionberry pie and freshly made ice cream. Oh I’m drooling just thinking about it.

Big Nasty Trail and Hidden Valley

The next morning we rolled out of the tent with full bellies and headed out for a full day of exploration. We stopped into the visitor’s center again, this time to purchase a book of maps for the caves. After our first experienced of feeling disoriented I knew I’d be happier with a map.

But first, hiking. I was itching for a real hike and the Big Nasty Trail was high on my list. How big and nasty could it be?

We began walking under chilly, overcast skies. A short, paved trail led to a viewpoint of Mammoth Crater. This looked exactly as it sounded. A steep-sided crater with lava rock walls lay before us, so big that it was hard to get it all into one photo. From there we sauntered out on the Big Nasty Trail, named for the conditions of the nearby lava flow. The trail itself, however, was lovely. Pebbles and sand made of pumice lay underfoot. This soft surface felt nice after scrambling over lava blocks in the caves the day before. The landscape was very open and beautiful. While it looked very similar to the high desert near our home in Bend, there was a surprising amount of lichen and moss covering the vegetation. Mountain mahogany grew alongside the more familiar Ponderosa pine and juniper trees.

We returned from the loop and hopped on the Hidden Valley trail just across the street. It led a quarter mile out to a viewpoint of the Hidden Valley. This depression in the landscape was filled with Ponderosa pines all lined up as if planted in rows. It would make for a fun scramble down on another day. We had some caving to do.

Heppe Cave

Onward ho! To Heppe Cave. A short trail led to this short cave with towering ceilings. There was a little pool of dirty water at the bottom. In fact the hike out there and the nearby Heppe Chimney were more interesting than the cave itself. Or maybe I just felt a little grumpy about the cave because I slipped on the wet rocks several times there. I did not wear the best shoes for rock-hopping.

Merrill Cave

A picnic table outside the entrance to Merrill Cave was a great place to sit and have lunch. As we ate, a few families exited the cave, got in their cars and left. Ours was the only one remaining, so that meant it was time to explore the cave! We’d been extraordinarily lucky in our adventures so far. There were a few people out and about but we almost never crossed paths with anyone inside of a cave. We passed a few folks entering as we were leaving and vice versa, but otherwise the caves were our own personal hideaways. We felt like explorers for nearly the entire trip.

Like Heppe cave, Merrill Cave had a history of harboring perennial ice. But today, without much ice these caves were far less interesting than they must have been in the past. Good thing we didn’t bring our ice skates. Metal stairways and catwalks led to a gated viewpoint of where the ice used to be. How, so…anticlimactic.

Balcony and Boulevard Caves

It was finally time to pull out the map book! Our last stop was the trailhead for Balcony and Boulevard Caves. These were both listed as “moderately challenging” in our cave guide. We first wandered into Balcony Cave. There was no indicator at the entrance which one this was, but there was a feature that resembled a balcony right near the cave opening. So that was our best guess.

We walked under a heart-shaped skylight and explored the various tunnels and nooks, trying to locate ourselves on the cave map. While I felt pretty comfortable with my navigation skills, I felt like a total newbie in deciphering the cave maps.

We wandered back up, enjoyed the insane clouds for a moment, and then descended into Boulevard Cave. The map looked SO SIMPLE. Any idiot should have been able to figure it out. But I was struggling to match up what I saw in front of me with what was drawn on the map. To test our map skills further, we decided to try one more thing…

Sharks Mouth

On the same page as Balcony and Boulevard, we noticed Shark’s Mouth Cave. With a name like that, how could we possibly go back to camp without looking for that first? There was no developed entrance but based on the information in the book it should have been well within our reach.

Out came the map and compass and we walked slowly in the direction where we believed one of the entrances would be. One led into an 8 foot tall chamber, so we figured it would be easy enough to find.

While it was not “easy,” we eventually found an entrance to the cave and ducked inside. It was a valuable activity to practice using the map inside the cave. I started feeling a little more confidence with this skill. We noticed the shark’s teeth formations and crawled into the shark’s mouth.

Success! Yay! Emerging from the cave just before sunset, we decided to call it a day and drove back to camp.

Catacombs

Armed with the map book and the knowledge of how to use it, we felt ready to test our skills in the Catacombs.

According to the rangers, people can spend upwards of FOUR HOURS exploring the network of tunnels inside the Catacombs cave system. That’s a lot of time underground! Looking at the map, I guessed we’d be able to see about half of it without needing to squeeze into a 2 foot tall slot. That’s not for me.

And so, we packed a small bag with the essentials for a jaunt through the Catacombs.

As we walked through the cave we referred back to the map frequently, identifying marked points of interest and learning how to interpret the markings in the book. This cave had multiple levels, which were not always easy to figure out on the map. We climbed up and scrambled down, took lefts and rights, investigated small cul-de-sacs and squirmed through tight passages. I used all the crawling techniques I knew and invented a few more. It felt like a real adventure! But the really small spaces didn’t appeal to me, and we turned back right where I thought we would. No matter, we spent nearly two hours in the cave and got to see a bunch of cool places.

I had no idea “wilderness” like this existed in the National Parks System, and I was thrilled that this existed as a public resource without handrails, paved floors or a bunch of red tape to get inside. At the entrance of each developed cave there was a standard sign with a bunch of warnings that no one ever reads, and then you’re on your own. Awesome.

First thing I had to do after getting outside of the cave was water a tree!

Skull Cave, Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave

There were three more caves to tick off the list and all could be reached from the campground on a 5-ish mile hike. We drove back to camp, ate lunch and then set off on foot to tackle the final caves. It was a nice walk on trails through the sunny, high desert landscape to the parking lot of Skull Cave. This easy, short cave was reached via a long stairway down into complete darkness. This was another one of those “there used to be ice here!” caves which was not terribly exciting to explore. Since it was marked easy in the book there were also a number of other visitors here.

Next we walked up to the access trail for Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave. The walk, again, was the highlight of this visit. We saw a pika on the rocks and enjoyed the sunny skies above us. Symbol Bridge had some (shockingly) non-vandalized cave painting remaining from Native Americans who’d lived here eons ago. But the juniper tree growing right over the entrance was probably my favorite feature. At Big Painted Cave, very little Native American markings remained today but it used to be a spiritual place for the former inhabitants.

The walk back was a treat. A nice way to cap off a weekend of new adventures. Halfway back to the camp, we stumbled upon a couple of deer on our path. Aaron spotted them first and we both stopped to watch them amble through. Delightful.

I would go back to Lava Beds National Monument in a heartbeat. There’s more to explore. Labyrinth Cave, Hercules Leg, Sentinel, Lava Brook and Juniper Cave were all closed for hibernating bats. Fern Cave, accessible only by tour group in the summer time, was also closed. Plus there was a ton of land we didn’t even come close to exploring. And in a cold snap, the ice sculptures that form inside the cave would be worth the visit. I was glad to have had the chance to get to this special place in 2017 and hope it remains protected, and wild, for decades to come.

Paulina Peak winter hike

November 18, 2017.

12 mi. | 2400′ ele. gain | 7 hrs.

The last time I hiked to the top of Paulina Peak in the winter I remember one thing: snowmobiles. It was late December, and snowmobile season was in full swing. We heard them, we saw them, and worst of all, we smelled them. It was awful. Ruined an almost perfect day.

So this year I put my thinking cap on. How early could I plan a trip up Paulina where there would be good snow for hiking but not enough snow to get the sleds out? Mid-November. I hoped. And then I put it on the schedule for the Cascades Mountaineers.

Eight people put their faith in my planning skills, so I REALLY hoped I had timed it right. We all met up in Bend and carpooled out to the trailhead on a cold and sunny November morning.

By 9:45 am we were all ready to start walking. There was a light coating of snow at the trailhead so we started with snowshoes strapped to our pack. It would take a couple miles of walking before we decided to strap them on our feet. We trekked into the viewpoint of Paulina Falls and took a nice rest break. Food, water, pictures. It wasn’t too long before we put our packs back on and started the climb up towards the peak.

I’ve been on this trail many times and each time the most difficult section is finding the summer trail from the road. There are blue diamonds on some trees that lure you into the woods, but then they seemingly disappear. I always end up walking on the road and off the trail for a while. So after a little bit of fussing around, that’s what we did.

Once the trail started climbing steeply uphill, the group separated a bit. The fastest hikers sped ahead and the slower hikers filtered towards the back. I prefer to lead from the back so I accompanied the latter group. It was such a lovely day and I was just so happy to be out there. It felt like we were the only group on the mountain.

After much trudging in the woods we eventually broke out to our first good viewpoint looking towards Paulina Peak’s cliff faces. It was beautiful. But we still had some ground to cover, so we didn’t dally long.

As we approached the upper trail sections we were careful to follow the blue diamonds. I have been led astray many times up here by following my gut instead of looking for the trail. In just a couple spots we stopped to assess our route. We mostly stayed on track.

That final push to the top couldn’t come soon enough. We burst out of the trees to a summit sign and an epic view over Paulina Lake. All the snowy volcanoes stood out on the distant horizon under deep blue skies. It was perfect timing, after all!

At the top we all got comfortable and dug into our food supplies. One of the hikers brought out his “instant fire” and we had a little warming station to stand around as we ate.

On the way down there was lots of chatter. The hard work was mostly done. We could now relax and enjoy the walk. Heading down the mountain through a gallery of rime-coated trees was just as magical today as it was the first time I wandered up here in 2006. As the sun began to set in the distance, we completed the final riverside walk to the parking lot. It was a glorious day. I was grateful to be able to share this experience with others and hopefully inspire them to plan their own winter adventures.