Category Archives: Hiking

Trip reports!

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.

Camping

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.

Ramblin’

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.

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…

Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve

April 4, 2017.

Photos on Google.

The line to get into the park.

After a quick jaunt up Saddleback Butte, I headed west to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. The closer I got, the prettier the drive became. The fields on either side of me were colored a brilliant orange from all the poppy blooms. People were parked on the sides of the road trampling through the meadows to take photos. When I arrived at the park entrance, it felt like I was heading into a rock concert. I sat in traffic for several minutes before reaching the entrance booth to pay my park fee. And this was at 10 am on a random Tuesday morning.

The park wasn’t very big, but I stopped into the visitor’s center to get a suggested route for the best wildflower viewing areas. The volunteer highlighted a 5-ish mile loop that went up to a highpoint and back down again. That would do.

The park was crawling with visitors, but once I got a ways up the trail it didn’t feel too packed. The flower blooms were unreal. California poppies were, of course, everywhere. But among the technicolor orange, other flowers put on a show: owl’s clover, goldfields, lacy phacelia and many more.

As I walked the trails, I also noticed some wildlife. There were lizards and meadowlarks. There were signs warning about rattlesnakes in the fields, but none of them came out to see me.

As I finished up the loop, I found a trail that had hardly any people on it, so I took lots of photos and worked on my handstand selfies. The flowers were prettier, so here are some more flower shots:

This park is a lovely place to visit in peak season, but be prepared to arrive early and anticipate crowds. I’m glad that this area is protected, because the meadows outside the park were crawling with people who were not interested in staying off the vegetation. At least the park corrals visitors onto well-established trails, leaving the flowers to grow vigorously everywhere else.

But now it was lunchtime, and time to move on to the next stop…

Saddleback Butte

April 4, 2017.

Photos on Google.

I pulled in to the campground the night before so I’d have an easy place to stay. The wind was blowing HARD and I was grateful for the wooden sun-shades, which doubled as wind protection throughout the night. The campground was plunked in the middle of nowhere, in a strange grid of long, straight roads with little development nearby. Somewhere, maybe, there are plans to develop this area.

The camp host stopped by as I was making dinner and asked me about my plans. I said I wanted to hike up the butte in the morning before taking off, when was check-out time? That made her chuckle a bit. It’s a steep hike up there, she said (or something like that), implying that there was no way I’d be finished before whatever checkout was. Maybe 10 am? 11?

Excellent, I thought, I had to prove someone wrong.

Saddleback Butte arises from a broad stretch of flat plain. Its saddleback shape is unmistakable; it makes a nice landmark for navigtaion. I had an excellent view of the butte from my campsite. I watched the setting sun cast Joshua tree-shaped shadows on the sand, then dreamed of an early start for a morning hike. The trail is about 2 miles one way, with 1000 vertical feet of climbing.

I started up the trail at 6:45 am. I had places to go and flowers to see. No time to dilly dally. The first mile of trail was almost flat. No, really. The surface was made of fine sand. Dense mats of flowering vegetation grew on both sides of the trail. Joshua trees and some scraggly shrubs popped up from the sand at irregular intervals. The sun was behind the butte so the entire trail was cast in shadow. Once the trail started climbing, though, I quickly warmed up.

Wildflowers of note included: yellow, white, and purple. Yeah, I know my flower ID is pretty bad, especially when I’m traveling in a foreign place. There were primroses, wild rhubarb, and lots of yellow flowers. There are so many varieties of yellow aster-shaped flowers that I’m not even going to try to figure out which species was blooming there.

The last half-mile was the most interesting. The trail got steeper and more rugged. Different types of flowers that didn’t grow just a few hundred feet below poked out from between the rocks. Atop the saddle, I could then see across to the other side of the butte. There was the sun, blinding and hot. A steady breeze and occasional patches of shade helped me stay comfortable as I scrambled up the last section. I made it to the summit in just under an hour.

The panoramic views from atop the rocky summit were beautiful. I sat and basked in the sun for a while, enjoying the peace and quiet. On the way back down, I took off my shoes and finished it up barefoot in the sand. It was quite lovely until the butte’s shadow receded and the sand became very hot. Time to toughen up these feet!

Vasquez Rocks

April 3, 2017.

Photos on Google.

Today I’d make just one more stop before driving to camp. I had to get across LA, so I hardened myself for several hours of sitting in freeway traffic. I was glad to finally see the signs for Vasquez Rocks.

At 2 pm, I felt the heat of the afternoon sun wearing me down. With no map to guide me, I wandered in the general direction of the rocks (the visitor’s center is closed on Mondays). I was surprised to see a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail! As I walked along, I started to hear voices (no, not like that) and hear cars. Apparently there were multiple parking areas and places to access the rocks. Families were walking in every direction, scrambling up the slabby rocks and wandering along the dusty trails.

There did not appear to be many official hiking paths, but cross-country travel was allowed anywhere. Well-worn use trails criss-crossed over the landscape like a giant web. On the one hand, it was fun to walk wherever I wanted. On the other hand, it was ugly to see the trampled vegetation everywhere. I scrambled up to a shady gully where I could relax, out of sight, in a shady area. I ate my lunch there and did some people-watching.

I found a path leading across a short ridgeline and followed it. Walking up and down, following the contour of the rocks, I looked for lizards, flowers, bugs and lichens. There was much to see. As always, the number of people nearby was inversely related to the distance from the parking area. I enjoyed the solitude.

The fun part was finding a route back down from my perch. A little rock-hopping and downclimbing later and I was back at the level of the parking lot. There was still some driving to do today so I couldn’t dally long.

This was a nice little park where I could have had spent more time. It would have been nice to be able to go into the visitor’s center and learn more about the geology and human history of the rocks. According to the signs, this area has provided the backdrop for several movies.

Another time… now onward to Saddleback Butte.

Laguna Beach and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

April 3, 2017.

Photos on Google

After five days of intense movement workshops in Santa Ana, it was time to head home. Head home via the scenic route, that is. I planned for 6 days to get back, so I had the freedom to explore more natural places in Southern California. My first stop, based on a local recommendation, was Laguna Beach.

When I arrived, it felt familiar: cool, windy, gray clouds overhead. Ah, yes, just like the Oregon coast. This was not the sunny California paradise I was expecting. Wearing shorts, sandals and a light long-sleeved shirt, I felt woefully underdressed. I pressed on, walking the beach to look for dead stuff, and testing out my new camera. I soon realized that I’d rather spend my time elsewhere, so after about a half hour of exploring, I walked into town to get coffee and hit the road.

On the drive back to the highway, I took a detour into Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. This place was located in a lush canyon that I noticed on the way to the coast. I stopped into the visitor’s center for a suggested route and the ranger pointed me to a 5 mile loop that climbed up to a ridgeline and circled back down to the center. Perfect.

Within the first 10 minutes, I stopped to photograph and admire at least 20 different types of flowers. The park was in bloom. The diversity of colors, sizes and shapes of flowers was breathtaking. So was the hike up the hill. This trail was no joke. Once it started climbing, it kept climbing. The trail was hard-packed dirt that was eroded in the middle, likely from mountain bikes. To try and mitigate this impact, the park staff seemed to think that filling the center channels with smooth rock was a good idea. So it felt kind of like walking up a waterslide covered in ball-bearings. In other words, an adventure. My mind was distracted by the pretty flowers and distant views, so I kept trudging along.

Although the park was adjacent to a major roadway, there were sections that felt utterly remote. What a special place for locals and visitors to go and get away from the densely populated areas all around it.

This was only the beginning. I’d make one more hiking stop today and then pull in to camp for the night. Where to next?

Santiago Oaks Regional Park

March 31, 2017

Photos on Google

Another day in California, another impeccably beautiful, sunny morning. With my phone having some sort of hardware issues that caused it to constantly turn itself on and off, I was driving with the aid of some hand-written directions in my journal to get to this park. When I arrived, I was dismayed to see a “PARK FULL” sign at the gate. At 10 am. On a Friday. This wasn’t an option, I had no backup plan!

I talked to the booth attendant, and he said I could park in the 10-minute staff lot and see if someone cleared out in the next 10 minutes. “Is this normal?” I asked. Apparently there was a large school group and some other event taking place, plus the normal amount of hikers, runners, equestrians and mountain bike riders. I slouched back in my car seat, waiting patiently for someone to exit the park.

After 10 minutes or so I walked back to the booth and the attendant waved me in. Yay! I’d get my nature time this morning.

I was handed a map with some trails highlighted on it. Presumably those trails had the best wildflower blooms today, so that’s where I headed. With a couple of hours to kill I picked a short loop to walk and set out on my way.

The trails were packed dirt and gravel, very well-traveled and baked in the hot sun. They cut through a heavily vegetated environment, with shade trees, grasses, shrubs, wildflowers, and blooming yucca plants. I’m not sure how to classify the yucca, nor am I sure how to pronounce it (YUCK-a or YOU-ka?). But the plants, with their alien-looking leaves and tall, flowering stalks, reminded me that I wasn’t in Oregon anymore.

Several people were out recreating today. One man warned me to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. I kept both eyes out, to be sure, but I was disappointed to find not one single snake in the park. They must have been way out in the meadows.

The park was lovely in so many other ways. There were canyons, ridgelines, vistas, flat trails, steep trails, creek crossings, shady spots and sunny spots. Cactus grew alongside flowering shrubs and huge shade trees. I enjoyed the variety of landscapes and plants there. As I circled back towards the entrance, I was greeted by shrieks and screams from the various school groups. At least I knew I was heading in the right direction. In the parking lot, I paused to take a photo of a fun sign and then proceeded to make myself lunch.

As I sat in the car, munching on a sandwich and dreaming about picking those oranges, I wondered where my travels would take me next…

Upper Newport Bay Wildlife Preserve

March 30, 2017.

Photos on Google

After just one day at the Free Movement Festival, I was ready for some nature time. I took some time off in the morning and headed for a county park.

The Upper Newport Bay Wildlife Preserve was just what my body needed. I had irritated my left knee in one of the workshops and wanted to take a casual stroll to get things loosened up. Dirt paths led through this oasis of nature, squeezed in between busy streets, dense neighborhoods and all manner of urban development. I enjoyed the strong sunshine warming my skin. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Some reminded me of food crops: radishes and mustard greens, while others looked like sunflowers.

Animals were everywhere. Butterflies dipped in and out of the flower fields. Bunnies hopped across the trail in search of shade. Squirrels played in the meadows. Lizards sunned themselves on the boulders. Land snails left tell-tale trails of slime across the dirt path. It was the total opposite of being in the city.

The park had several sitting areas with large boulders and a view of the bay. I sat and wrote in my journal, soaking up the sunshine, feeling the cool breeze coming off the water, and watched various people pass by on the trail. After a long, cold and snowy winter in Bend, I was thrilled to be basking in sunny Southern California. There I was surrounded by yellow blooms, smelling the salty air and walking around comfortably in a tank top. It was the medicine I needed to snap out of the winter doldrums.

My first experience with Orange County Parks was a positive one. The park was clean, well-signed, well-maintained, and obviously well-loved by the locals. I was ready to dive back into city life for day two of the festival.

Alabama Hills and Whitney Portal

March 28, 2017.

Photos on Google.


I rolled out of my tent to a splendid view of the Sierra behind me. The wind had died down enough for me to get a fire going, eat breakfast and plan out my day. I had 270 miles of driving to do in order to get to my destination, and there were a few stops I’d planned along the way.

Whitney Portal Arch

In the weeks before my roadtrip, I borrowed a couple of California hiking books from the local library. While most of the epic hikes were located high in the Sierra, there were a few interesting, short hikes that were low enough for me to access this time of year. One of these was a 1 mile scramble to Whitney Portal Arch.

I’d put a post-it note with rough directions to the trail head in my map book and took a photo of the route with my phone. Between these two pieces of beta I was able to find the unmarked parking area and set off in the right direction. Just a short walk along a trail brought me to a view of the arch, then I ambled cross-country to get over to it.

The nearby hills cast long shadows over the desert so I stayed bundled up in my down jacket as I trekked through the desert sand, avoiding snagging my pants legs on the cactus. I hiked up to the arch and then all around it, looking for the perfect perspective. In my mind, I had envisioned the arch framing Mt. Whitney inside from just the right angle. It was, after all, called Whitney Portal. But without ropes or a step ladder there was just no way for me to capture the image in my head. Nonetheless, it was beautiful and quiet. I enjoyed the morning sunshine and then picked my way back across the desert.

Alabama Hills

I backtracked away from the mountains and pulled into the maze of roads surrounding the Alabama Hills. This place was surely no secret. Cars and RVs were everywhere. Miraculously I ended up at another unmarked parking lot that would be the start of my second hike: the Arch Loop Trail.

The trail wound up, down, over and through undulating sandy and rocky terrain. Wildflowers were just beginning to come in, and carpets of tiny flowers turned the ground yellow. The Arch Trail connected with another unmarked trail that I followed to a parking lot. Another trail branched off in another direction, and on and on. This would be an incredible playground to explore with many more days to hang out here. I didn’t have that luxury, so I retreated back to the loop. There were lots of people scrambling around the biggest arch. I took a quick look and finished up the hike.

Fossil Falls

Back on 395, there was one more quick and easy stop: Fossil Falls. I drove down a gravel road that took me to a parking area with a picnic table and pit toilet. I would have sat and eaten my lunch here but the winds had picked up again and it was brutal just being outside.

Fossil Falls

I took the short walk to the overlook above the dry waterfall. It looked familiar. Blocky basalt columns and water-worn potholes sprung out of the desert cinder, seemingly from nowhere. I noticed some pretty, delicate flowers struggling to stay upright in the wind. I took one photo and when I reached for my phone again, it had turned itself off. Weird. I powered it on, waited, and it started to reboot again. This cycle continued several times before I got frustrated and sat down out of the wind. I relaxed in the sunshine, phone tucked away in my bag, annoyed that I couldn’t document this place. Before I left, my phone came on temporarily and I hastily took a few pictures before it died. Time to hit the road again, and there was no way to find directions to any other parks…

Without a phone, I thought. What do I lose? My camera. My navigation system. My address book and phone numbers. My email, text and social media. My calendar. I couldn’t just buy a new one. It was under warranty, and they’d ship a new one to me…at my home address. But I’d be on the road for nearly two weeks. So that meant I needed to think on my feet. Fortunately I had all my hiking information in my journal and on paper maps. When I could get my phone to work I scribbled down any addresses I needed and drew maps of driving directions to get from place to place.

The one thing I couldn’t live without: a camera. I bought one at Best Buy the next day, so that I could continue to document my travel in photos. Lucky for you, I’ve got lots more pictures to share along with my ranting and carrying on.