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.

Kodachrome Basin and Grosvenor Arch

April 26-27, 2015.

View the photos from this part of the trip here.

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

Grosvenor Arch


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

Kodachrome Basin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park

April 24-26, 2015.

View the photo album from Bryce here.

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

Tourist-eye view

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

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

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

Hat Shop

4 miles | 1436′ ele gain | 3 hours

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

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

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

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

Figure 8 Loop

6.5 miles | 2035′ ele. gain | 4.5 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairyland Loop

8 miles | 2309′ ele. gain | 5.5  hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Guardian Angel

April 23, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously, 360° views:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Route information

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

Hiking in Zion National Park

April 21-22, 2015.

View the photo album from Zion here.

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

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

Observation Point

8 miles | 2100′ ele. gain

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden Canyon

0.8 miles | 250′ ele. gain

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


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

Weeping Rock

0.5 miles | 100′ ele. gain

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

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

Angels Landing

5.4 miles | 1490′ ele. gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emerald Pools Loop

3 miles | 500′ ele. gain

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

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

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

The Watchman

2.7 miles| 450′ ele. gain

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

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

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

Great Basin National Park

April 18-20, 2015.

View the photo album from this leg of the trip.


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

Getting there

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

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

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

Wheeler Peak

16 miles | 5300′ ele. gain | 12 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lehman Caves

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

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

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

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

Coffin and Bachelor Mountains

February 28, 2015.

Coffin and Bachelor Mtn Trails | 9.4 miles | 2225′ ele. gain

Photos from the trip on Google+

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It’s been a strange winter. The weather has been drier and milder than the past several winters here, and snowfall has been much below average. Instead of lament the lack of snow, we decided to take advantage of the early season access to summer trailheads. Today, we set our sights on Bachelor and Coffin Mountains.

Our hike began at the Coffin Mountain trailhead. There was a light dusting of snow there, at an elevation of 4750′. We left the snowshoes in the car and began hiking up the trail.

Coffin Mountain is a short, steep affair, and begins climbing immediately. This is one of the biggest bang-for-your-buck hikes I’ve found in Oregon, though. There are views of expansive meadows and the surrounding Cascades right from the start. In spring, the meadows blossom with fragrant beargrass. Today, we walked through last year’s beargrass stalks, which were coated in a layer of ice. It was a very unique landscape.

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In just a mile and a half, we reached the summit. A Forest Service lookout building sat there, adjacent to a helicopter landing pad. Both were blanketed with gleaming, white snow. The lookout is staffed in summertime, but was abandoned when we arrived today. It was a good place for a snack and some photo ops. Mt. Jefferson was bathed in sunlight and was practically right in our faces. Mt. Bachelor stood out like a tall person in a movie theater, just big enough to be noticeable but not take too much away from the view.

We glided back down to the trailhead and began the 1.2 mile roadwalk to the Bachelor Mountain trailhead. I’d never hiked up to Bachelor, so this would be a fun new adventure. The road walk was quick and offered up several views back to the steep cliffs on the east side of Coffn Mountain.

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The trail up to Bachelor mountain was a bit more snowy and forested. It provided a charm all of its own. We enjoyed the occasional break in the forest canopy that let some of the bright sunshine hit our faces. It sure was a beautiful weather day.

In just a few places, the snowbanks deepened and the trail became a little obscured, but navigation was pretty straightforward. The view from the top of Bachelor mountain was even better than that from the summit of Coffin. We sat here and had an extended lunch break while exploring the best place to take panoramic photos. We could see the Three Sisters, Mt Hood, and the faint tops of other snow-capped Cascades from our magnificent perch.

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Wandering back to the parking area, we soaked up the remaining afternoon sunlight and had entertaining conversations. The hard work was over, and it was time to just put one foot after the other all the way back to the car.

I was glad to have the chance to experience both mountains in spring-like conditions. The meadows are certainly gorgeous in peak wildflower bloom, but they had a very different kind of beauty covered in ice and snow. I’d recommend visiting this place any time the trail head is accessible, whether it’s spring, summer, fall, or as we experienced this year, even winter.

Sixth annual woodsy Thanksgiving retreat

November 26-29, 2014.

Gold Lake Sno-Park > Gold Lake Shelter > Maiden Peak Cabin > Maiden Peak summit

Photos from the trip on Google+

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The night hike

Six years ago, I stumbled upon this gem of a trip, and I have been returning every year on Thanksgiving weekend. I rarely hike the same hike twice, but this journey has been something really meaningful to me. I was excited to come out with Aaron for his second trip to the Maiden Peak cabin.

The day before Thanksgiving, we left the deserted parking lot around 10:30 pm and walked up a dark and slushy Gold Lake Road to the three-sided shelter. At the time I looked at the tiny accumulation of snow and sincerely thought it was a terribly low snow year; but as I re-read the last 3 trip reports, I noticed that I said the same thing from 2011-2013. So I guess the snow levels were indicative of a normal snow season.

At the shelter, we made a fire and set up our sleeping bags for the night. It wasn’t all that cold, so we slept comfortably until sunrise the next morning.

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It was dreary, cool and rainy the next morning. We were in no hurry to pack up and move out. Raindrops drizzled down from the shelter’s roof.

On to the cabin

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Decked out in rain gear, we left the shelter for the three mile uphill walk to the cabin. The trail was mostly bare ground, with occasional patches of snow, all the way up to the PCT. That hill climb to the trail junction was brutal with a 50 pound pack on. But I knew the value of the weight on my back, so I trudged ahead.

As we approached the cabin, the snow finally began to fill in the trail. But we made it all the way without needing the snowshoes tied to our packs. At the cabin, Aaron split firewood and I got our gear organized.

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After a long afternoon of reading, solving word puzzles, and counting down the minutes, we decided it was time to celebrate Thanksgiving. I used the one cooking pot I had to heat up all the menu items we had. We feasted, as usual, on roasted turkey and all the fixins. I washed it all down with a can of beer. And just as we finished our meal, we saw a couple of headlamps marching towards the cabin.

The visitors

The door creaked open and a dog poked its nose inside. Oh, great, I thought, that’s the worst possible addition to the cabin. My dog allergies would ensure a miserable remainder of the trip. Then another dog entered, followed by their two human companions. I went from happy to grumpy in the course of 5 seconds.

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I scrambled to make some space for the newcomers and plopped back down in front of the fire. Aaron, a stickler for tradition and lover of dessert, excitedly asked if we could make ice cream. We did that, and served it up with a couple of slices of pie. Then, we went off to bed.

Summit or bust

The weather was awful all night, damp and rainy. The same was predicted for today. Initially I thought maybe we’d save our summit trip for the nighttime and catch the sunrise the next day. But the thought of being holed up in a cabin with two dogs all day was discouraging. We had to do our Maiden Peak hike today, despite the weather. I hoped that the rain would turn to snow as we hiked up.

We left the cabin during a little break in the weather, dutifully following blue diamonds up the Maiden Loop Trail. Shortly we reached the junction with Maiden Peak trail. Although this junction gives me trouble every year, Aaron was quick to find the first couple of diamonds and we were on our way.

The trail from this point marched pretty much uphill to the summit. I’ve never been able to follow the trail all the way to the top. Each year I find a new variation on the same theme. Anyways, going up is the easy part. Just keep walking til you can’t go up anymore.

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As the trees began to thin and dwindle in size, we lost our buffer from the wind. We stopped to layer up before the final push. My route, arguably more interesting than the actual trail, leads up to a pile of rocks, then follows a softly undulating ridge to the false summit and then the true summit. Here we passed small trees exposed to all sorts of weather. Each needle and branch was covered in layers of wind-sculpted ice. The frozen arboretum provided spruced up the otherwise gray, drab and windy surroundings.

We spent just enough time up there to scarf down our leftover turkey sandwiches before retreating along our  tracks, back into the forest. With zero visibility, there wasn’t much for us to see up there anyways.

The weather had warmed a bit since we’d left the cabin in the morning. It rained on us during the last quarter of a mile to the cabin. We were happy to be able to dry off by the warm fire once we got inside.

Waking up to winter

The next morning I sat up hacking and coughing and gasping for air. My dog allergies had caught up to me. I bundled up and stepped outside to catch my breath. But the scenery quickly took it away. Overnight, several inches of snow had fallen. The vista before me was more like the picture perfect winter postcard of years past.

I couldn’t have gotten out of there too soon. There’s nothing like hauling a heavy pack around when you’re wheezing and trying to breathe. The less time I spent in the cabin, the better. So we ate breakfast, assembled all our things, and hit the trail.

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The new snow made the walking a little more strenuous, but the added beauty more than made up for the extra effort. Aaron and I enjoyed the crisp, dry, and cold air as we plowed through fluffy snow and admired the spectacular place we were in. I quickly forgot about the breathing; I figured the slowness of my pace was due to the frequent stops to photograph nature and do silly things. We had some great conversations about nature and life and risk, inspired by all that surrounded us.

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Even the road into Gold Lake looked pristine with its fresh coat of snow. Numerous animal tracks zigzagged across the road, leaving fleeting evidence of last night’s activities. Being in the forest made me appreciate the opportunity to be out in the woods, even if it didn’t completely go the way I’d planned.

Will we return next year? I haven’t decided. It was miserable to be around the dogs. To be fair, they looked miserable too. I felt bad for them. At least I made the choice to be there, they didn’t. Maybe it’s time for me to look for a new adventure and begin a new chapter in my Thanksgiving hiking tradition. Who knows, I have a year to figure it out.

Five years of Thanksgiving Maidens: 201320122011 | 2010 | 2009

Fuji Mountain

November 2, 2014.

Fuji Mountain Trail from Rd. > summit and back

12.2 miles | 2100′ ele. gain | 4.5 hours | Photos

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I found an opportunity to get out for a solo adventure so I grabbed it. Daylight Savings Time even gave me an extra hour of sleep so I could take off even earlier than I normally would. Early starts make me happy.

When I pulled off highway 58 onto the road that would lead me to the trailhead, I drove straight out of fall and right into winter. The ground was coated in a thin layer of snow that must have recently fallen. The air was justifiably cold, and the sun was hidden behind a thick layer of gray clouds.

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The Fuji Mountain trail took off uphill from the get-go. It was an excellent way to help raise my body temperature on this chilly day. The forest felt exceptionally quiet, minus the crunching and sliding noises coming from my feet. Even the birds were still asleep; they must have missed the memo about the time shift.

I walked through one picturesque scene after the next. Tree limbs bowed under the weight of new snow. There were no human footprints anywhere, as expected. I’d have this amazing day all to myself. As the trail began a long, arcing traverse of the mountain on its way to the summit, the sun began to poke through the cloak of clouds. New light reflected off the snow. The trees became shorter, the trail rockier, and I knew I had to be close.

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Atop Fuji Mountain, there was a gallery of rime sculpture. Knobby ice jutted out from every surface of every tree, shrub and rock. It was suddenly breezy, as the exposed area did not have as much tree cover as the forested trail. I layered up and hunkered down for a quick lunch.

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The clouds hiding Diamond Peak split for a brief moment, then engulfed the craggy summit once again. Then, they settled in for good. I waited several more minutes to see if the weather would change for the better, but it was clear that the best part of the day was now behind me. I packed up and headed down.

Soon after I saw two men walking up the trail in my direction. I was surprised to see them, and they were surprised to have seen my tracks! They were hiking in from the upper trailhead about a mile away, and were planning to hang out on top for a while. Sounded like a cold and disappointing plan. It was novel to see so many footprints in the snow, but they quickly disappeared and I was back to retracing my own tracks back to the car.

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The air temperature was rising, sending pellets of melting snow down the back of my jacket. What was once a lovely winter wonderland was becoming a sloppy, muddy mess. The forest turned from white to brown the closer I got to the road. But the melting snow revealed a variety of plants, fungi and lichen that I didn’t notice just a few hours before. It’s amazing how much the character of a trail can change in the course of a day.

All day I’d passed junctions with other trails marked for winter travel with blue diamonds and signs. This area will  make a delightful snowshoe getaway in just a few weeks. While I’ve had lots of experience snowshoeing a couple of miles away, this is all new territory for me. I know now  that Fuji Mountain and the surrounding areas have lots more adventures in store.