Author Archives: Jess B

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.


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.

Diablo Peak

October 28, 2017.

Photos here

In my quest to tick off the summits in Barbara Bond’s “75 Scrambles in Oregon” book, I organized a Cascades Mountaineers outing to Diablo Peak.

In May.

A sudden case of norovirus (tip: never, ever, get norovirus) knocked me on my butt the night before the hike, so I had to cancel it. Undeterred, I decided to reschedule, but it would have to wait for cooler fall weather.

And so our team of seven set out from Bend at 7:30 am for the 2-hour drive to the middle of nowhere. Following the excellent directions from Bond’s book we arrived to a particular dirt road on BLM land that would serve as our trailhead.

It was a sunny day that could only get warmer. I was thrilled to be starting the hike in short sleeves in what was practically November. Our cheery crew had a delightful 2-mile walk across the “sand dunes” to the base of the first hill. We picked our way up the hill, dropped down to an old jeep road and carried on hiking up a wash.

The desert was warm, dry, and quiet. There was hardly a sign of human activity, save for the occasional bootprint. Most of the tracks and droppings were left by animals. We used the GPS waypoints and route description to navigate towards the summit (which we couldn’t see yet).

The sun was absolutely roasting. This was not the best day to try out my new pair of black hiking pants. I was sweating like crazy. But the scenery was magnificent and the companionship was quite lovely, so the sweat I’d just have to deal with.

Across the wash, up some rolling sagebrush slopes and to a lunch spot. We were getting pretty hungry. The group paused to sit on some rocks, wolf down some food and chat about the weather. Such a nice day, have I mentioned that yet?

We picked our way up to what appeared to be the top of the rim and then, finally, we could see our peak. Across a broad, flat plain there was a little bump: Diablo Peak.

The route description mentioned scrambling up the “south ridge,” but that ridge turned out to be a fairly broad hillside. Not very ridgy. Pretty, though. The Diablo Rim was impressive, with deep grooves carved out of its east-facing side. The desert lay sprawled out in front of us, in all directions. We could see the massive Winter Rim, Summer Lake, Hart Mountain and lots of brown, featureless landscape in between. The scale was hard to wrap my head around. Fortunately, all we had to do now was gaze out at the vista, soak up the sunlight and eat Mystery Oreos. It was turning out to be a pretty killer day.

On the way back, I handed over the reins to a couple of team members so they could practice their navigation skills. They did a pretty good job of keeping us on track. At points of confusion a few people shared ideas until they came up with a plan. I really enjoy having team members who want to be part of the process, not just show up and follow the leader.

The afternoon sun really highlighted the texture on the old dunes. We stopped several times to admire the changing shadows, bumps, lines and ridges on the ground beneath our feet.

After the hike we took a 30-minute detour to Summer Lake Hot Springs for a soak. It was pretty packed, but we all squeezed into the main pool and even sneaked over to the outdoor pools once the crowds began to head out. What a fantastic way to end a day of hiking.

We said goodbye to four team members and three of us stayed behind to enjoy some camping and Sunday shenanigans. I checked Diablo off my list, but I’d do it again. It’s remoteness and quiet appeal to my need for solitude while hiking. I’d be curious to go back up in the spring to see the desert in bloom.

Steens Mountain high country rambling

July 21-23, 2017.

Google photo album

I’ve had the Steens Mountain on my mind since the first time I stepped foot into the region. Literally, one foot. I had just undergone ACL reconstruction surgery 3 weeks prior to my first visit. Needless to say, I couldn’t walk very far. So I spent my days wistfully looking up the mountain and dreaming of the day I could stand on its summit. Since then I’d taken a few trips to the area, but always in winter. During those winter trips, snow blocked entry to most of the vast mountain wilderness, leaving me to explore only the low canyons and streams.

We drove from Bend to Frenchglen on a Friday afternoon. From Frenchglen we started up the south side of the Steens Loop Road, hoping to score a campite at South Steens campground. Luckily it was hardly even half-full, so we were able to get a shady site near a dry creekbed.

Big Indian Gorge

After a satisfying camp breakfast we headed for the Big Indian Gorge trailhead, located at the east edge of the campground. We walked through what Sullivan called a “juniper woodland” for nearly 2 miles. It felt, however, like an open, African plain. The sun drilled deep down into my soul as we trudged along in search of this canyon. Eventually, the trail entered a small, shady grove near Big Indian Creek. The water was low and easy to cross in Crocs.

Several miles later, after walking through dry brush in the blazing sun, I decided I just wasn’t feeling it. Apart from the stunning Mariposa lilies, there was nothing special about this hike. It wasn’t what I wanted out of the Steens. We could have been anywhere. There was no perspective, no feeling of being up high. We took a rest break and re-fueled for the walk back. It was time for plan B.

The scenic drive

Back at the car, we hit the road and drove up the narrow, winding switchbacks towards the summit parking area. Along the way, we stopped at a few roadside pull-outs that began to make me feel like we were at the Steens. These epic viewpoints provided a broader overview of this special landscape. We could clearly see the large, U-shaped glacial valleys that were carved by ice millions of years ago. It was dramatic.

Wildhorse Lake

Around 3:30, we set off from the summit parking area to Wildhorse Lake. This short, steep trail followed a zigzag of switchbacks down a hillside to a pretty lake basin. The hills were painted with a surprising variety of wildflowers: buckwheat, paintbrush, thistle, penstemon, clover and many more I couldn’t identify.

We took our time ambling down the trail, trying to capture photos of all the delicate alpine flowers. As we approached the lake, we noticed patches of monkeyflower, which likes to grow in moist ground. Then, tall stands of false hellebore with another surprise: it was flowering! I’d never seen this distinctive plant in flower before.

Once we reached the lake, we found a small, sandy beach. The water was cold, but it felt so good to jump in and wash off the grime and sweat. We killed some time here just enjoying the gentle breeze, pretty flowers and sunshine glistening off the lake. Up next we’d have a grueling bushwhack up the south side of the mountain.

Our route took us along the bubbling creek streaming out of the snowfield that was still clinging to the upper mountain. We began by pushing through thick vegetation, which quickly diminished as we climbed higher. Scrambling up the slippery rocks and scree we made our way to the base of the summit. The cliffs looked impenetrable from a distance but we found an easy way to get all the way up. We stood below the radio towers at the top and looked over the rim to the desert below. A quick and easy 0.4 mile road walk brought us back to the car.


I didn’t want to leave this alpine paradise. On our way to the summit we’d scouted a few possible camp locations and so we drove back to our first choice. With a few gear shuttles from the car we set up a sweet campsite on a flat, gravel patch that was surrounded by boulders, meadows and snow. The sunset was spectacular. We ate chicken and veggies cooked on the camp stove, played ice cream soccer, and sunk into the tent for a well-deserved night of rest.


We packed up camp and headed off on some cross-country rambles. Our travels covered less than 4 miles, but I felt like we were transported to another universe. Walking across high alpine meadows, crossing snow-melt streams and scrambling over gravelly lava rock, we were explorers. Our journey consisted of arriving at one jaw-dropping viewpoint after another. Along the way, we found new wildflowers that I hadn’t seen at Wildhorse Lake: alpine marsh-marigold, Oregon campion, orange hawkweed and so many more.

The Steens just screams for exploration. There are only a handful of trails that span this massive wilderness landscape. It would take many, many trips to even begin to see what this mountain has to offer. With 7 huge gorges, several high alpine ridgelines and numerous smaller canyons and gorges, you could wander around here for a lifetime and still not know it all. While I am grateful that we did some backcountry hiking on this trip, I am now hungry to get deeper into the mountain’s secret spaces.

On the drive down, we stopped anywhere that looked interesting: two more viewpoints (that were much prettier than the summit itself), a couple of campgrounds and random pullouts overlooking impossibly beautiful wildflower meadows. The whole trip was a delight for all the senses, from the fresh mountain air to the colorful blooms, cold snow melt and textured rock. After ten years in Oregon I am still finding surprises tucked in every corner of the state.

Monkey Face, West Face Direct – Monkey off my Back

June 22, 2017.

Photo album here.

In almost ten years of climbing at Smith Rock, I’d never gotten on Monkey Face. One of the most recognizable features at Smith, Monkey Face is a 350 foot tall spire with multiple climbing routes leading to its summit.  Today, my climbing partner Keen and I decided to go for it.

We hiked up and over Misery Ridge to get to the base of the west face. From here we’d follow West Face Direct (5.8), a 2-pitch trad route that followed a few crack systems to reach a large ledge. I geared up for the first lead.

Still brushing off the cobwebs after several years of climbing little to no trad, I struggled to get past the first 20 feet or so, wriggling up an awkward chimney. Eventually I figured it out and got up to some easier climbing. But since I’d loaded up the crack with several pieces of gear, I had heinous rope drag that prevented me from climbing further. I set a piece and downclimbed back to the top of the hard section to clean a few pieces and help the rope move freely. Then I climbed back up and finished the pitch.

From my nice belay ledge, I belayed my partner up, traded gear, and he set out on the second lead. I watched him climb across a sloping ramp with lots of huecos to a crack/dihedral that disappeared out of sight. Once he finished, I followed the second pitch up to Bohn Street, where we’d sort out gear for the famous bolt ladder.


Keen had done tons of aid climbing but I had done effectively zero. So I watched a few videos on aid technique and he talked me through the first few clips. Then, I was on my way. I learned that aid climbing was all about getting into a routine and moving methodically. This was easy aid: I had no pieces to place, I just had to clip bolts. The only difficulty was in the bolts that were reachy for me, and also getting over the lip into the cave. There was a lot of yanking on gear, which I am not used to doing, and it was actually much more strenuous than I’d imagined. It was an awesome learning experience and it was fun to problem-solve and get up in the cave.

Once we were both securely in the cave we sorted gear again. Keen needed some quickdraws for the final 5.9 pitch to the summit. Everything else went in the backpack, which I would carry up with me.

The exit of the cave is called Panic Point, and for good reason. You’ve got to step out of the cozy cave onto the face of the rock, with nothing but air below your feet. There are good handholds and foot placements, so most climbers are capable of doing this route. While it is technically moderate, it is mentally challenging. Here, the wind blows, you’re fatigued, excited, and totally exposed. Hikers watch in awe from the trails all around you. And, I had a backpack constantly trying to pull me off the wall into the void.

Lucky for me, my partner led the route so I was on toprope. I fought my way up the last pitch and was delighted to reach the belay station. I scrambled up to the summit, took the pack off, and enjoyed the endless views from on top. One of the ladies on the trail nearby yelled “woooo!” and threw up her arms in excitement, as if to say “nice job, you made it!” That was cool. 🙂

But the climb wasn’t over yet. We still had to get down. At the rappel station, we carefully tied our two ropes together and I set up the first rappel. After the first section, the rock became overhanging, leaving me dangling a couple hundred feet off the ground. The wind pushed me in a gentle spiral and I took in the 360-degree views all around me. What a fun ride down! I landed as another pair of climbers was heading up the Pioneer Route, then my partner descended to the ground.

We walked around to the base of the route and sorted gear in the shade. While most of our climb was in the shadow of the towering rocks, our hike out would almost entirely be in the sun. On a hot day like today, the sun can drain the energy right out of you.

We took the long way back along the river. The Crooked River flowed by swiftly. The vegetation on either side of the river looked impossibly lush and green. We stopped a few times to look back at the Monkey and watch the other party make their way up towards the top. Along the hike, we saw several different varieties of wildflowers and shrubs. Several people were out hiking today, which was crazy considering the high temperature and the fact that it was a weekday. Smith Rock is popular almost any day, any time, no matter what the conditions are.

I was happy to have completed a climb on Monkey Face, finally… The route was varied, enjoyable, and just challenging enough. It required a wide range of skills: traditional, sport, aid, and multipitch climbing all rolled into one experience.

Kelso Dunes

April 6, 2017.

3 mi. | 650′ ele. gain | 2 hrs.

I arrived at the Kelso Dunes Parking area at 5:30 pm with the intention of enjoying sunset from the expansive dune field. The dunes lie within the Mojave National Preserve in southern California. Miraculously, these dunes are not open to off-road vehicles, creating a little haven for hikers who want to explore the sand on foot.

Having done a few night hikes on sand dunes before, I looked forward to the cooler weather, diminished crowds and sense of solitude that an evening hike would bring. There were a few other parties out on the dunes but most were wrapping up their day.

I put my shoes in my backpack and set off on the trail heading towards the dunes. Gray clouds cast a moody glow over the massive piles of sand. On either side of me, gorgeous flowers bloomed in purple and yellow. “Look what we can do!” they seemed to shout. I was in no rush, so enjoyed each little splash of color that caught my eye.

Once I reached the open sand, footprints went every which way. There was no marked trail here, just an open invitation to explore the dunes. I plodded up the steep and slippery sand, feeling the ground move under my feet with each step. As I climbed higher the views got better and better. The setting sun began to cast brilliant colors across the landscape. “Look what I can do!” the sun said.

All along the way I kept noticing these weird tracks in the sand. What made them? A snake? I couldn’t really tell. Something was working harder than me to cross this desolate landscape.

I reached a ridge leading to the highest dune and walked methodically towards the summit. There was a group of people taking videos and goofing around up there. Fortunately for me they were packing up just as I was arriving.

Sitting atop the dunes, I was stunned at what I saw. Mountain ranges in every direction. The sun setting underneath a blanket of clouds. It was like sitting in the middle of a painting, hearing onlookers say, “ugh, that is so not real.”

And then a visitor arrived. It was the same critter that made the tracks I’d seen earlier. A beetle! And it was heading straight for me. Luckily, it was just as hard for the beetle to move quickly on the sand as it was for me, so he approached slowly. I picked up and moved so as not to be in his path. He shifted trajectory. What the?? This beetle had it out for me. I stood up and walked around a little, noticing all the shadows, all the features, all the beauty that was laid out in front of me. Incredible.

Before the sun had the chance to set, I headed downhill. My goal was to get back to the car before dark. No problem, as getting down the sand dune was far easier than getting up!

I turned to look back at the bright sun dropping behind the biggest dune. And up ahead, primrose flowers began to open. What a sight. At dusk, I reached the trailhead and brushed the sand off my feet. A spectacular end to an adventurous day.

Owl Canyon

April 4-5, 2017

Photos on Google

Driving down a washboard gravel road in the black of night, I hoped that I’d find the Owl Canyon Campground soon. It felt like it took me forever. Outside the bustling (read: not-so-bustling) community of Boron, California, my driving progress screeched to a halt. I sat in traffic for over two hours due to a pretty gnarly car accident up ahead. With no alternate driving route and no way to get information with a brick of a cell phone, I embraced the standstill and used my sitting time to catch up on things. I wrote in my journal, read road maps, and even made a batch of car guacamole. Once past the accident it was a race against the sun to make it all the way to Owl Canyon. In Barstow, I pulled off the road to make a mental note of all the turns I thought I’d have to take. I had a few things jotted on post-it notes in my California road atlas. And that was it. Fortunately there were a few brown signs pointing me in the right direction.

I tumbled out of the car, made a very late dinner, and went right to sleep.

The next morning I woke up, but I felt like I was dreaming. I found myself in a surreal landscape. I was inside a desert canyon. Soft, pastel stripes colored the rock walls all around me. A handful of cars and RV’s dotted the mostly empty campground. The air was still and quiet. Holy crap, this place was amazing.

I ate a nice camp breakfast and then walked around the campground in my sweatpants, drinking coffee. I was surprised to see not one but THREE playgrounds located in the campground: one on each loop. This place was amazing! If I lived nearby I’d be here all the time!

Eventually I decided to get changed and pack up for a short hike. The Owl Canyon Trail sign said 2 miles, so I started walking.

With each twist and turn of the canyon came new colors, textures, flowers, and features. It was like squishing 20 different hikes into one. There were parts with sandy bottoms, rocky bottoms, narrow slots, wide washes, tall walls, short walls, caves, you name it. In some places the canyon opened up into a very wide amphitheater and then closed up again. The canyon started out like this:

Some places were strikingly orange.

Others were impossibly green.

I even got to enjoy this canyon all by myself. Well, I did have to share with numerous jets blasting overhead. Hiking near a military base has its downsides, I suppose.

In places the canyon erupted with wildflower blooms. This lacy phacelia was particularly striking, and I recognized it from the Antelope Valley reserve.

Occasionally I had a run-in with one of the natives. This guy had clearly had a run-in with something before we met…

The canyon eventually opened up into a broad valley with paths going every which way. I guess that was the 2-mile mark. Although ATVs were not allowed here, this place had been torn up by plenty of dirt bikes. It was disgusting. I was pretty angry seeing it all. After I’d just walked through that pristine paradise, it felt out of place to be somewhere with so much visible human impact. How do we cultivate respect for wild places in our society? There are plenty of places set aside that you can rip around on a bike. Why here? I turned back to face the canyon and spend my time admiring the natural beauty of the rocks, plants and sky. I could just sit and take it all in, since I was in no rush to get to my next stop. So I did. Just sat, and breathed.

On the way back, I kept my eyes peeled for lizards and plants that I’d missed on the way in. It’s funny how different a place can look when you’re seeing it from the other direction. I felt like I took a million pictures; everything was photo-worthy! What a treasure.

Arthur Ripley Desert Woodland

April 4, 2017.

Photos on Google.

After the hike through the Poppy Reserve, I headed west to the Arthur Ripley Desert Woodland. I only knew this park existed because I noticed it on the map as I was plotting my route to the poppy fields. It was billed online as an “impressive stand of native Joshuas and junipers.” Sounded pretty cool to me.

I drove to where the park appeared to be on the map (no phone, no navigation, no Internet, remember?) but there wasn’t a parking area or clear signage. There appeared to be a place on the side of the road where people were parked adjacent to the park. And after driving past it twice I figured this must be the way to get in.

I was grateful to find a couple picnic tables under a sun shade where I could eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of the sun. It was hot. There was one other couple sitting there, deep in conversation about some office gossip. They kept lowering their voices as if I had any idea who they were talking about. I guess they weren’t on vacation, or they don’t know how to vacation.

After lunch I walked along the self-guided nature trail. It was an impressive stand of Joshua Trees. They weren’t densely packed like an old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, but there were a lot of trees nonetheless. I would have preferred a nice, thick canopy to block the sun but I took what I could get.

Among the Joshua trees there were cactus, sagebrush, juniper and other desert natives. Not too much was flowering, in stark contrast to the poppy reserve. The juniper here was clearly different from the juniper that I was used to seeing all over Central Oregon. The California juniper are shorter and more scraggly looking than the familiar Western juniper. According to my informational brochure, trees can be either male or female: male trees bear the cones and female trees bear the berries. But there’s one catch: they can flip sexes during their lifetime!

Other fun facts from the brochure: Joshua trees create clones of themselves by growing rhizomes under the ground. New sprouts poke through the soil from the laterally running rhizomes. Joshua trees can also grow from seeds. And since they grow more like palm trees than juniper trees, they don’t form tree rings with each passing year. Therefore, it is very difficult to determine the age of a Joshua Tree.

This cute little park made a nice rest stop. But now it was time to carry on to the next oddball park on the list…