Category Archives: Southwest sampler

Mt. Elden

April 6, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona hikes

April 3 – 5, 2018.

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

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

Oak Creek Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilson Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secret Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Hot Springs

April 2, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forest camping

Best decision ever.

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

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

Valley of Fire State Park

April 1, 2018.

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

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

Mouse’s Tank

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

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

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

Rainbow Vista

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

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

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

White Domes Loop and beyond

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

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

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

So we did.

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

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

Camp disappointment

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

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

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

 

Entering Nevada: mining and aliens

March 30-31, 2018.

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

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

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

Stokes Castle

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

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

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

Tonopah Mining Park

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

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

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

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

Camping

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

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

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