Category Archives: Hiking

Trip reports!

Lava Beds for Thanksgiving

November 22-26, 2017.

View all the photos from this trip here.

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

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

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

Cave Loop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Nasty Trail and Hidden Valley

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

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

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

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

Heppe Cave

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

Merrill Cave

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

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

Balcony and Boulevard Caves

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

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

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

Sharks Mouth

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

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

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

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

Catacombs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skull Cave, Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave

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

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

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

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

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.

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…