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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Somewhere in California, I rolled out of my tent and discovered a fresh dusting of snow on the ground. It was freezing cold, and even my tough constitution was rattled so much that I just made hot water for tea and ate my breakfast in the car. It was day 2 of a 2-week roadtrip and I was just getting started.
I drove straight through the morning to my first hiking stop at Mono Lake. The Visitor’s Center was closed for the season but a tourist info place in town was open and I picked up a map from the lady working there. She recommended backtracking to the county park before visiting the more popular stops, so I did.
Mono County Park
It was probably a few weeks too early to get much excitement from this little park. Everything was still dead and it was very windy. I strolled down the boardwalk, stopping every few feet to note the historical depths of the lake, which were printed on signs. Modern Mono Lake is recovering from an aggressive water diversion program by the LA Department of Water and Power starting in the 1940’s. The lake’s level dropped significantly, losing half its volume and raising its salinity by double. This rapid change in conditions threatened the fragile ecosystem as well as the local water and air quality. In 1978 the Mono Lake Committee has fought to bring back the health of the lake and restore the volume of the lake to a sustainable level. Today it is well on the way to recovery, and serves as an example of how to balance the needs of the growing urban population with the needs of the surrounding environment.
At the end of the boardwalk I pondered all this as I watched the sun reflect off the white-capped surface of the lake. Tall, alien rock structures called tufa rose from the area surrounding the lake and broke the surface of the lake itself. The only reason we can see these incredible formations is because the water level is so low. Tufa towers form when calcium-rich mineral water from lake bottom springs react with the carbonate in the lake water itself, forming calcium carbonate: limestone. The limestone creates tower-like shapes around the spring, and when the lake level drops, the tufa towers are revealed.
South Tufa and Navy Beach
To get a really cool view of these mineral deposits I headed next to the South Tufa day use area. A short trail dotted with interpretive signs taught me even more about the lake’s unique geology as well as the local bird and plant life. The wind blew frothy foam at the edges of the lake, adding to the layers of interesting textures at the water’s edge. I meandered along the trail as it passed by the tufa and played around a little with taking handstand selfie pictures. These were not easy to do, since my handstand skills were a little lacking. But with some patience and luck I nailed at least one of them, and then continued along my merry way.
As the trail looped back towards the parking lot I saw a sign pointing to Navy Beach. I decided to detour along this connector trail and ended up on a secluded beach with even more interesting geological formations: sand tufa. These extremely delicate structures looked like a stiff gust of wind could blow them into oblivion. But there they stood, far from the edge of the lake, sand castles created by nature. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a treasure, as there was no one else on this little beach.
I had time for one more stop so I drove to the trailhead for Panum Crater. There were two trails here: the Plug Trail and Rim trail. I began on the Plug trail, which was well-marked until it suddenly wasn’t. After several dead-ends in the crumbly lava I backtracked to the rim. I hiked halfway around to a lovely panoramic viewpoint of the lake and took a snack break. A couple came up behind me and decided to go back the way they came, but I wanted to see if the trail went all the way around (it did). There was a steep little climb on the other side but I still got back ahead of them.
To camp, perchance to dream
I had a lot more driving to do so I set a course for Bishop and looked for a suitable campground. It was windy as hell everywhere I went, so I just settled on the Tinnemaha Campground. No one was there. I chose a spot adjacent to a little stream with some trees and a view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. I parked my car on the windward side of the tent to try and act as a bit of a windbreak. On the bright side, the ripping winds dried out my soaking wet tent in about 10 minutes, so I had a cozy shelter to retire to after cooking up dinner.
Tomorrow’s journeys will take me all the way to Santa Ana, with some hiking stops on the way…
This winter has been something else. Planning trips has been challenging due to the snow conditions on the roads and the trails. Plus, I’m still adjusting to my new home and figuring out where to go locally. Today’s trek brought me and a friend to Clear Lake, Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls. Looking through my maps and guidebooks, I patched together a route I thought would go.
We parked at the Ikenick Sno-Park and crossed the highway to the Clear Lake Resort. I knew there was a trail that went all the way around the lake. We decided to head south, along the lake’s western shore, to join up with the McKenzie River trail. There were only a few glimpses of the lake from the trail, which was somewhat disappointing. When we reached the southern outlet of the lake we picked up the new trail, crossed the road and headed towards the waterfalls.
A wooden footbridge crossed the McKenzie River. Snow was piled on top of the bridge to the height of the handrails. We moved carefully across on our snowshoes to the other side. This is where the real adventure began. The tracks all but disappeared and we set off in a dense, dark forest along the river. The snow covered the trail so we were sidehilling on a slippery surface, with drop-offs down to the raging river.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we made it to Carmen Reservoir. The footing was much more gentle and flat here. And on this side of the river the trail was broken out. At least we did the difficult half first. We ambled along the river, stopping to enjoy the tremendous views of the river and falls. Sahalie Falls was particularly memorable. The cold air had transformed the waterfall spray into magical ice formations. Frozen drops of water clung to the needles in the trees. Layers of frozen snow created abstract shapes near the river. It was a movie-set landscape, too good to be true. It was a nice place to stop and have some food. What a pretty sight.
We followed the trail back to Clear Lake. Suddenly, it wasn’t so clear where to go. We had to find the other segment of the trail, the part that went along the eastern shore. Wandering around, we stumbled across a sign and set off on the lake’s edge. This side of the trail was much more scenic than the other side. There were beautiful viewpoints over the lake. Neuron-like shapes were frozen into the lake’s surface. The air was so quiet.
As we wrapped around the north side of the lake, there was again a bit of confusion. Where would we cross the creeks? Were there bridges? Signs? Did we miss something? Would we have to cross on our own?
No, we just had to keep walking for another 5 minutes or so. The trail was right there.
On the final stretch back to the resort we came across two people taking a short jaunt from the cabin. We knew we were close then!
Winter presents its challenges, but not without its rewards. The extra hard work, uncertainty and routefinding enabled us to see a unique landscape covered in snow and ice. And solitude at Clear Lake? Unheard of. I won’t be back this summer, but perhaps I’ll venture out here the next time we’re in a deep freeze.
I started writing this blog and chronicling my hikes over ten years ago. It’s been an incredible journey for me, learning how to explore the mountains safety, maintain an appropriate level of fitness, and decide how best to share (or not share) my experiences with others. Looking back at the last 10 years is rather daunting, so today, I reflect on the last year of hiking adventures and choose some of the highlights to share today.
This year’s totals:
637 miles hiked
117,000′ of elevation gained
5 states visited
1 foreign country visited (Canada)
The year 2016 began at an AirBnB rental outside of Ashland, Oregon, which gave my partner and I a base camp in Southern Oregon to visit some new places. We wandered around the parks in Jacksonville and Ashland but the highlight of this trip was the snowshoe up Brown Mountain. From the top we could see nothing but blue skies and a gorgeous view of Mt. McLoughlin, a snowshoe destination for another day.
View of Mt. McLoughlin
The next big trip took me on assignment for Outdoor Project. We headed up to British Columbia for a long snowshoe slog out to a cabin in the woods. The Journeyman Cabin was, by our standards, pretty plush accommodations. There was a roaring fire keeping the multi-story building warm. All our food was artfully prepared and delicious, and the other cabin-goers were quite friendly. During our visit we enjoyed the views of the Canadian backcountry and sneaked in a few waterfalls and coastal explorations while we were there.
Journeyman Lodge, Callaghan Country
Back at home, I ventured out on lots of short hikes whenever I could squeeze them in: Abiqua Falls, Peavy Arboretum, Spencer’s Butte, Horse Rock Ridge, Dimple Hill, Baskett Slough, Beverly Beach. Hiking to me is like medicine. It keeps me sane, happy, and healthy. Whenever I saw a gap in my schedule, I’d pull out the map and go somewhere new.
The biggest trip of the year was yet to come. My partner and I try to get out on a 2 week vacation once a year, and this year we headed to Hawaii. We split up the two weeks between Maui and Kauai. Although I was anticipating that I’d love Kauai (I was told it was a hiker’s paradise), I truly enjoyed Maui.
On Maui we explored the volcanic national park, waterfalls, beach hikes, dragon’s teeth, blowholes, jungle hikes and city walks. We got engaged on an isolated beach under the palm trees. We ate shave ice, went snorkeling, visited museums, and savored local specialties. It was a magnificent getaway.
Waianapanapa State Park, Maui
Upon our return, we quickly signed on a new house and started packing up for Bend. It was a challenging summer, with getting back from vacation, buying a new house, moving my business, and traveling home before my mom passed away. There wasn’t much time for hiking, but I made time when I could. I was grateful to have planned a multi-day trip before all the chaos began, so I had a little escape in the woods at just the right time.
And it just so happened to be in my new backyard. I met up with my friend Rick for 3 days of peak-bagging: The Wife, The Husband and Little Brother. All three peaks were on the west side of the Three Sisters. It was brutally hot, the mosquitoes were fierce, and the trails were long, but there’s nothing like a long,hard day to set my head straight. We successfully accomplished our goal and reached the top of all three mountains.
Rick heads across the plains towards “The Wife”
At this point, I started racking up a lot of hikes on Pilot Butte, my new local hill. The trail to the top is just under a mile, but if I walk from my house, it turns into about a 4-mile round trip. I counted the first few hikes towards my annual hiking mileage total, but I quickly stopped recording these since they felt more like normal walks than honest-to-goodness hikes.
Dramatic clouds from Pilot Butte.
By now I was really digging life in the desert and dreading the weekly commute back to Corvallis. But, I was excited to be training my last Corvallis-based climbing team for their South Sister ascent in September. On a whim, I decided to join my friend Karl on a nighttime climb to try and catch the meteor showers from the top of South Sister on the evening of August 12th. Well, I hiked through the night to meet him at the summit, and we hiked out the following morning together. I’ve never blasted up that mountain so quickly. When it’s dark, and you’re alone, the only thing to do is walk! The only breaks I took were to watch the incredible sunset from the flatlands above Moraine Lake.
Sunrise over Middle and North Sister
Oh, how different the mountain would be just a month later. When our team climbed it on September 17, we got caught up in nasty weather. Wind pummeled us on the whole ascent up the upper ridge, and it was so cold at the rim we hunkered down in the first windbreak to layer up and get some calories down. We forgoed the actual walk to the summit rockpile because it just wasn’t worth it. There were all sorts of unprepared characters up there who were freezing and all we wanted to do was get down.
South Sister team
But every trip to the mountains brings its own lessons. We learned that being uncomfortable is okay, just uncomfortable. Anyone who showed serious signs of hypothermia, difficulty breathing, etc. we attended to right away. After we hiked back down out of the clouds and wind, the smiles grew back on everyone’s faces and we knew we’d each just gotten a little stronger and more experienced. I was happy to have facilitated that experience for everyone, and helped my team build some respect for the mountains and for each other.
A week later I was back on a plane, this time to New York City. I spent a few days at a work-related event, but I tacked on a few days of free time that I used to explore the city on foot. My favorite walk took me from Brooklyn to Manhattan, through Prospect Park, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and along hundreds of different city blocks.
Hiking the Brooklyn Bridge
Back in Oregon, I used my weekday time off to get out into the Three Sisters Wilderness as often as I could, tagging several peaks in the time I had before the road access would be snowed in.
View of Broken Top
As the snow fell in the high desert and fewer peaks became available, I started looking east. For this year’s Thanksgiving trip we drove east and south to BLM land that wasn’t socked in for the season. Out there we camped in solitude for several days and scrambled up to a few highpoints along the way.
Somewhere in the desert, we roam.
For the past few months I’ve been wrestling with the ethics of sharing information with the masses online and what the impact of such widespread sharing has on our public lands. I haven’t come up with any major conclusions or guidelines, and by no means do I think that this humble website has much impact in the grand scheme of things, but I’m becoming more aware of this ethical dilemma. With more information easily available, that means more places becoming overwhelmed with visitors. But these places also need easy access and proximity to services, which many of my off-the-beaten-path discoveries do not. So what’s the harm in sharing? As I become more cognizant of this potential impact, I’m stopping to think about what details I’m willing to share, and with whom. And I’m listening closely to what other people are saying with respect to the sharing debate.
Firmly rooted in Bend, I decided to take on a leadership role with the Cascades Mountaineers. I put a few trips on the schedule and met some great people at the end of the year. We snowshoed up almost to the top of Lookout Mountain in the Ochocos, a wonderful and long route that leads through pretty, east-side forest. I also took a group out to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which had just gotten hammered with snow before our trip. We explored the Sheep Rock and Painted Hills units, which were all blanketed in snow.
Blue Basin, John Day Fossil Beds
To finish the year and rack up a few more miles than I did last year, I set out on a solo Christmas camping trip and took a group of friends up the elusive Paulina Peak on New Year’s Eve. Solo trips, contrary to popular belief, are not lonely or scary. They’re peaceful, reflective, challenging, and inspiring. I enjoy hiking with a partner or a group, but I also enjoy hiking by myself. These are all totally different experiences, and valuable for different reasons.
Next year, my goals are:
finish the (kind of) top secret hiking project I’ve been working on
Get away from humanity. It’s not that I don’t like you guys, it’s more that it’s nice to get away sometimes. Like, really away.
Adventure. There must be some places to hike and explore nearby.
Dessert. Pie, ice cream, and maybe some dinner foods and even vegetables. But, clearly dessert is the highlight.
Desert. Yes, drop the “s” and you get another essential. In winter, being in the desert is akin to being on the moon. It’s cold, desolate, barren, and almost guaranteed to be free of people. It’s the perfect place for me (and Aaron) to experience solitude on this crazy holiday.
Planning for Thanksgiving is almost as fun and anxiety-inducing as undertaking the trip itself. I dug out some hiking books and pulled out the Oregon Gazeteer to scout some locations. Now that we’re in Bend, we’re three hours closer to the dry side, and that opened up a world of possibilities.
The day finally arrived, and we loaded up the car with supplies. Heading out of town on a late Wednesday afternoon, we quickly angled south and east, driving past Fort Rock, Silver Lake and Winter Rim. A quick stop in Paisley for dinner and our bellies were full for the last stretch of the drive. Our travels took us nearly to Nevada, then we turned off into a maze of gravel roads for 20 miles to our camp.
In the pitch black night sky, we swerved and skidded to avoid literal hordes of jackrabbits who were apparently meeting for a star party. There were SO MANY of them. I was relieved when we pulled off the road and didn’t find any pelts flattened on the car tires. We quickly set up camp under brisk 20-degree evening skies and fell asleep.
A four mile tour
I had acquired some rough hiking information for this area from books and websites. Today’s jaunt would be a 4.5-mile loop with about 1500′ of elevation gain. Pretty mellow by the numbers. But we discovered yet again that theory and practice are often very different beasts.
We began walking up a dirt road in the direction of a spring. When we arrived, we found a spot with slightly more vegetation than the surrounding area, suggesting perhaps there was water nearby. A small, fenced in area prevented us from walking straight towards our destination, so we veered left into a jumble of rock pinnacles, canyons and brush.
Making our way through, over, around and down the rocks took a lot more time than the “as-the-crow-flies” distance would suggest. But it was a fun little scramble. We found caves, interesting rock formations and lots of animal sign. The gray clouds above set a moody tone across the vast desert. We had all day to ramble, and so ramble we did.
The mountain we were ascending was more like a rolling plateau with several highpoints. We walked over one of them without even registering it as a destination since we were so focused on the higher point in our sights. Atop that high point, we sent a SPOT check-in to the family back home and continued towards the next peak ahead.
A barbed wire fence blocked our passage to the actual high point, so we sat on a pile of rocks out of the wind and finally ate lunch.
Coming down was an adventure, too. We aimed for a broad gully between the two peaks. The seemingly straightforward slope was a medley of tangled sage and loose rocks. Slowly we plodded downhill. It was nice to finally reach a dirt road and briskly hike out the rest of the way.
Six miles and 4.5 hours later, we made it back to camp. A couple of hours relaxing in the tent killed the remaining daylight. Then it was time for the real festivities to begin.
I’d learned a lot about preparing a massive holiday dinner on a camp stove in the last seven years. This year I streamlined the menu and the prep, and making an incredible meal was a cinch.
On our plates:
bread and butter
And of course, dessert. We had a delicious apple pie from Newport Market. Our campfire provided warmth and ambiance on that long night, and we marveled at how dark the skies above were. We’ve been to some pretty remote places, but it felt especially dark here. No moon, just some stars through the clouds. With no fire or headlamp, and no light pollution on the horizon, it felt like being in a cave. Pure darkness. And pure silence. No air traffic overhead. That particular combination of darkness and quiet was something I’d never felt before.
Another day, another hike
On our second adventure from camp, we walked back up the road we drove in to try and find a “trailhead” for a second mountain hike. This one started at an alleged road that would lead past a watering hole to a gate. We walked right past the road’s location, as confirmed by checking my GPS app, so we walked cross-country in the general direction of the aforementioned road.
Upon finding the watering hole, we kept climbing uphill until a gate came into view. The “road” was so overgrown it was barely even noticeable, so it didn’t help us walk faster or stay on course. The mountain was visible from camp so the route was very simple. The only obstacle was the barbed wire fence in our way.
Aaron figured out how to open the gate, thankfully, as I alone probably would have just climbed over the rock pillar to pass over it.
On the other side, we just walked uphill, avoiding the occasional boulder and the very frequent animal den. The rabbits were very busy digging holes in this hill.
As we neared the summit, the wind started blasting full force. When I stopped to catch my breath I was nearly knocked to the ground, so I just kept moving. On top, we again sent a SPOT signal and had a little snack as we tried to protect ourselves from the battering wind.
My hike directions mentioned that you could do a ridge walk over several other little highpoints, terminating on a pointy bit a couple miles away. Sounded like a plan to me, so we fought through the wind over the broad, rocky ridge, wondering exactly which of the many highpoints we were aiming for.
Along the way we encountered another fence, but found an easy place to cross it. As we ambled down the ridge, the wind began to die down a bit and the walking almost became enjoyable again. The remoteness of the region was so beautiful. With the exception of the fence and one dirt road, there was hardly a sign of human presence here.
Atop our final highpoint of the day we surveyed the area, trying to identify the valleys, peaks, mesas, and other features we could see from there. And, in the back of my mind, I was quietly scheming the next trip.
We set a bearing to our camp and headed in a straight line, cross country, to our destination. We knew there would be two fence lines in our way, and decided we’d just figure out that bit when we got there.
The first fence crossing had a conveniently placed board that allowed us to push the wire down and cross over. Easy. On we walked, crossing a field filled with golden grass. Aaron spotted a coyote in the distance, the first thing besides a rabbit that wed seen. Keeping right on our compass bearing, we continued over undulating valley hills. In the distance, I saw the fence. As we got closer, I saw a gate. Right. Where. We. Needed. One. It was kind of ridiculous. We passed through the gate and had nothing but time in between us and our camp. It turned out to be a glorious day.
Another restful afternoon in the tent, and then dinner. Chili, if you were wondering. It’s not only delicious, warm and hearty, but pretty easy to make in camp. But the highlight of this evening was ice cream ball soccer. We were a bit too full last night to have ice cream with our pie, so we saved the festivities for tonight. Ice cream ball soccer has been part of the Thanksgiving tradition for the past few years. It’s fun, and a great way to generate some heat on a cold winter camping trip.
The next morning, we packed up the car and had a quick breakfast: banana, ice cream and chocolate almonds (that’s all the food groups, right?) before heading out. We cruised over the gravel roads easily, this time in the daylight and without rabbits everywhere. Back on the highway we continued into Nevada with our destination in sight: Sheldon National Antelope Refuge.
I’d tried to find some information on sights to see in the refuge before we left on our trip. But information besides the basic logistics was hard to come by. The official refuge brochure states:
“Hiking is encouraged throughout the refuge where open terrain provides ample cross-country hiking options. No designated trails are maintained, but game trails may be followed up many drainages and onto plateau tabletops.”
The refuge overview map indicates some places, but there’s no information on how to get there or what there is to do/see there. I found a few newspaper articles mentioning hiking, but again there were no directions or recommended places to go. We would be on our own.
So we began at the Virgin Valley Campground, the only campground that was maintained for year-long use. The campground was nice, but really windy. On our way in we’d noticed a beautiful canyon and were curious if we could check it out. A road behind the campground led uphill towards a purported viewpoint. We drove up the road until we felt like stopping, then walked about 2 miles to an overlook above the canyon.
It was jaw-dropping for a number of reasons. Glorious views, check. Dizzying heights, check. No guard-rail or signage to prevent you from free-falling to your death, check. Just nature in all her raw beauty. And we’d just kind of stumbled across it. There’s real value in adventure, something that is lost with astonishingly easy access to information.
That’s one thing that drew me here: the surprising lack of information. No trails, no hike descriptions, no step-by-step maps. As our parks and wild places become enticing destinations for more and more visitors, they appeal to me less and less. I don’t want to share the trail with 500 other people just to see a view I’ve seen posted all over the Internet thousands of times before. It’s just not that much fun anymore. When you venture off into places unknown, there’s greater potential for more memorable experiences. You run the risk of encountering duds, making wrong turns, and problem-solving obstacles, but isn’t that the whole point of exploring?
Now, our appetites whet for more we retreated down the road to find our way to the mouth of the canyon. Before heading in we warmed up some soup for lunch. The sun was reaching its afternoon peak and we’d appreciate that for our exploratory walk into the depths of the canyon.
We started up a game trail that led up into the jumbles of rocks beneath the canyon’s steep but crumbly cliff walls. Not good for rock climbing. Besides, every crack, hole, crevasse, and depression looked like an animal condo. I’d never seen so many middens, dens, and piles of animal scat in one place before. We hoped to see some critters in there, but they were safely tucked away for the duration of our hike.
Aaron led the way, and as the game trail petered out we hopped across talus fields, scrambled down to the water and tramped along the dry, cracked mud at the edge of the stream. We hiked to a sunny patch in the canyon, where we plopped down on a boulder and lay out like a couple of lizards, absorbing heat before continuing on.
We had planned to turn around there, but Aaron was wondering what was around the next corner…
That’s a dangerous road to travel in a twisty canyon. There’s always another corner. But it was so hard to turn back. Eventually we did, picking a different route and making new discoveries along the way. It was one of the highlights of the whole trip.
Last camp, and a surprise
Since the roads were clear, we decided to drive west through the refuge on one of the auxiliary roads to scope out a few more camping options. We drove through expansive sagebrush hills, looking hopefully for a herd of antelope, but to no avail. We saw about 8 deer near the Virgin Valley Camp, and that was it.
When we got out of the car to explore, we were met with bitter winds and cold that sunk right into our bones. It became more and more difficult to leave our cozy, mobile cocoon.
As the sun was threatening to go down, we pulled into the Catnip Reservoir Camp. A few haphazard fire rings sat near the lake. There was a pit toilet, but no other amenities. We chose our favorite site and began assembling our camp. The wind was constantly reminding us that we humans are not built for this. My frozen fingers set up the tent as quickly as they could while Aaron worked at getting a fire started. In my makeshift kitchen I squatted by the camp stove with wind pouring up my backside through the gap between my sweatpants and my five upper layers. So that’s why Patagonia sells onesies, I thought. I used the rest of our turkey gravy in our pork stir-fry, which was a warm and welcome addition to the meal.
We grabbed a chocolate bar and retreated to the tent soon after dinner to warm up. The wind would continue to blow all night.
And then, it began to snow. Icy pellets of snow pounded into the tent fly for half the night. I didn’t know what to expect the next morning, or how awful the roads would be. We still had many, many miles of unknown gravel road to get back to Oregon.
We waited for a break in the weather before bursting out of the tent. We moved efficiently to get a fire going, make breakfast and tear down camp. The snow relented enough so that we were only battling the cold and the wind. Only. I admit I was a little grumpy this morning, as I fought with cold hands, a finicky stove, and snow-covered everything.
After getting some cocoa and eggs in my belly I felt a little more human and rallied to pack up the tent and load up the car. The roads were totally driveable, and the whole scene covered with a blanket of fresh snow was nothing short of magical.
My photos do nothing to paint the picture. Thick clouds and filtered sun made everything on camera seem much darker and flatter than they looked in person. Score another point for actually being there instead of living through pictures. You really need to be in a place to truly experience that place. Even if I had a pro photographer documenting this trip, the pictures do little to communicate the wholeness of the experience.
Choose your own adventure
This year I’m signing off with a plea. Go out. Just go. Explore. Find a new special place. Be there, in the moment. Prepare to be astounded. Prepare to be frustrated. Prepare to learn a lot: about yourself, about your travel buddies, about your world.
But here’s the key: prepare. Here are some tips to planning and carrying out your next adventure in the wild unknown:
Do your research. Find out what you can about an area. Buy or borrow guidebooks. Pore over local maps. See what you can locate online. Find recent trip reports, if possible. Or at least look for trip reports around the same time of year you anticipate going on your adventure. A trip to Sheldon in July is going to require different planning than a trip in December.
Anticipate and plan for problems. If you’re heading into the desert, bring more than enough water and an extra can of gas. Have the tools and knowledge to take care of possible car problems on the road. There’s no cell service and no amenities for many, many miles.
Have a plan, and be flexible. Communicate your plan to at least one responsible person back home. Let them know where you’ll be and when. Let them know when you’ll be back in town, and when to sound the alarm if they don’t hear from you. Have a backup plan, or two, in case what you want to do just doesn’t work out. Make sure they know your backup plans, too!
Carry a communication device. I’ve used the SPOT messenger for several years. And while I’ve never had to call for a rescue yet, I know that I’ve got that option if the you-know-what hits the fan. By far the most important feature is that I can check in with my contacts back home to let them know that all is well. They get an email with my GPS location and an “OK” message.
Keep a positive attitude. You know all those epic photos from National Geographic and pro adventure athletes? There’s a lot of pain and suffering behind each one of them. Adventuring off the grid and into the unknown can have its ups and downs. It isn’t a totally blissful experience from start to finish. Stay positive, be ready to be challenged, and face each one with a smile. It’s all part of the experience. You’ll be tired, cold, hot, achy, and irritated. But you’ll also be joyful, curious, exhilarated, and awestruck. And these are the feelings that keep us coming back and pushing the envelope.
Weather window + free day on the calendar = adventure time. Today I decided I wanted to see some snow-capped lava. Since the Old McKenzie Highway was still driveable, I set out for the Scott Trailhead in an attempt to reach Yapoah Crater.
Just getting to the trail head was an adventure. Black ice covered the road west of Dee Wright Observatory, and the road to the trailhead looked more like a swamp than a road. I got out of the car and poked through the water with my hiking poles to see if my little car could make it. Luckily, the water looked much deeper than it actually was, in most spots.
I got to the trail head, crossed the highway, and set off along the very mucky Scott Trail. Parts of the trail were so waterlogged it felt like I was walking up a streambed. And the last thing I needed was soaking wet feet in the first tenth of a mile of a 12 mile hike. I carefully skirted around the worst bits, trying not to crush too much vegetation in my efforts to keep dry feet.
I fell into that comfortable solo hiking rhythm, following a serpentine train of thoughts in my head. As the terrain kept buzzing by, I had that sneaky suspicion that I was off track. How could that be, I thought, since I literally just had to stay on the same trail for miles until I had to make some decisions?
I came up to a trail sign, and that’s when I knew I’d missed a junction. I was headed towards the Obsidian Trail. Ah, crap, turning around always feels bad. How could I have made such a stupid navigational error?
I arrived back at the junction where I should have gone left instead of right and knew exactly why I had missed it.
I had been walking to the right of the creek, and simply kept walking on that side. The Scott trail crosses the creek right here and goes off to the left. There was no sign and you can barely make out a trail over there. Welcome to the joys of shoulder season hiking!
No worries, now that I was on track I could get back to being lost in my head. It was so pretty and quiet. There were lovely little footprints in the snow. Oh hi there bunny rabbit, where were you running off too? And you, little squirrel-y critter…what was your story? And you…. mister…..
Goddammit. Broken out of my reverie once again. The bear tracks continued straight up the trail, and they looked fresh. I broke into a loud song: “HEY BEAR!! HEY THERE BEAR!!! WHERE’S THE BEAR?!!!” I accompanied my melody by clacking my poles together and trying to be as loud as possible. When the tracks retreated downhill, into the forest, I kept up my noisemaking for a little while longer and then settled down.
Ok, now it was time to get down to business, I’d hoped. The trail broke out of the thick trees at a switchback and I got a brief view over the forested hills and snow-covered slopes nearby. Then, the trail returned to the woods where I finally was able to settle into a pace and put some miles behind me.
I’d hiked this trail a couple of times before. Most recently, I’d used it as a return route from a hike up the Obsidian Trail to the Collier Glacier Viewpoint. And several years ago, I’d hiked up to Four-in-One-Cone. But both times it was in summer. The snow cover gave this place a distinctly different feel. It was like hiking on a brand new trail.
Eventually the trail traversed past a crumbly lava wall. This was the part I was looking forward to. The contrast of the sparkly snow on the dark lava rock was quite beautiful. And soon I’d enjoy views towards North Sister.
But here, the walking began to get much more difficult. The snow in the trees was crunchier and much less deep. Out in the open, the snow drifted much higher. A thin crusty film overlaid light, fluffy powder below. Each step I’d lift up my foot as if I was marching, crunch through the top layer of snow all the way to the bottom, then repeat. It was exhausting.
As I slowly proceeded up the trail I could see that the conditions were only going to continue to get more difficult. I had a few more miles to go to Yapoah Crater. I could also see that clouds were moving in, and the weather wasn’t going to hold up forever. With each step I weighed my options, and decided to go for my backup plan: Four-in-One-Cone.
There was a spur trail on the map that led up to the summit. Once I got the peak in eyesight, I decided to just pick my way up there. Way off in the distance I saw something that looked like a signpost, but there was no point trying to stay on trail. Breaking a path up the perfectly smooth and untouched snow slope made me happy.
The snow up there was more wind-blown, so I sought out the thinnest spots where my boots could get some purchase on the cinder. I couldn’t believe I didn’t bring my snowshoes with me today. Stupid. I’d have been halfway between here and Yapoah Crater if I’d have planned better. Oh well, this was a pretty awesome consolation prize.
Once I hit the ridge, a blast of wind hit me and I quickly put on my rainshell before pushing on towards the summit. I walked up to a seriously twisted tree near the top and memories of my last climb up here came flooding back. Now it was a totally different scene: a pristine winter landscape, with an incredible halo above North and Middle Sister.
The view was surreal. And it was so quiet. I hunkered down out of the wind to eat the soup I’d packed for lunch. I took some time to just sit and be there. From my perch I looked out across a vast lava landscape, the one that inspired my Lavapalooza trip last summer. How different it looked back then.
This is the Three Sisters Wilderness. The one that screams of overcrowding and ill-prepared tourism. This is the place that can feel like a complete zoo on a nice, summer weekend. This is that same place, but a different place. On a Wednesday. In October. With not a soul for miles.
You do have to work a little harder to find solitude. You have to be flexible with your schedule. You have to choose the right trail, or choose to go off it. But in about 90% of this wilderness you’d be challenged to find another person sharing space with you. And to me, that little extra effort is 100% worth it. To be here, alone, with the wind and the snow and the bear tracks, is an experience that cannot be found on a hike up South Sister in August.
I killed a decent amount of time up there before deciding to pack up and go. It was a bit sketchy on the way down. I searched for the deepest snow I could to plunge my heels in and feel some security. No Yaktrax today either, so DUMB! Before long I was back at the deep postholes I’d left on the way up, and I dutifully followed them back to the trail.
On the walk out, under the blazing sun, everything was melting. The snow piled up on lava rock was more shiny than sparkly now, and by the time I made it to the woods, snow was pouring down off the tree tops. I put my hood up and moved as quickly as I could. But I got nailed with a couple of massive snow bombs: one right on the top of my head, and one on my forearm. They scared the crap out of me!
But the forest was still beautiful. It got me in the mood for winter. For snowshoeing and climbing and hot cocoa. For long, cold nights huddled around a campfire. For big skies full of stars.
After the hike I stopped by the Dee Wright Observatory at McKenzie Pass. There were several groups of retirees on sightseeing trips, waddling around in the snow. I walked up the stairs to the viewing deck and took in a panoramic view of all of it. All those snow-covered volcanoes. Picking out the ones I hadn’t yet climbed to the top of. Someday, Jefferson. Someday…
Living in Bend has opened up many doors for recreation. Now, Crater Lake is only a 2 hour drive from home. So we sneaked in this last chance opportunity to visit several of the park’s attractions before the north entrance and rim roads are closed up for the winter. Here are the highlights.
11 miles | 1600′ ele. gain | 5:45 | PCT > Union Peak Trail
So many Southern Oregon peaks have been on the edges of my radar, but I haven’t made too much of an effort to get down there. The way Sullivan describes the Union Peak hike in his book makes it sound like one to skip. So I knew we would find some peace and quiet here.
The long approach on the mostly flat PCT would have gone by more quickly if there weren’t so many cool trees to stop and look at. Many of the trees, maybe hemlocks (?), had multiple trunks and interesting features. We had to climb, play, and photograph before moving along.
It was still fall but there was snow up in the hills already. The slog on the PCT was mostly snow-free but once we reached the Union Peak trail we started crunching through the white stuff more often than not. Eventually we popped out in a meadow with a view towards the rocky pinnacle of Union Peak. Finally, we could see what we were in for.
After a snack break, we continued along. As Aaron scouted a nice viewpoint, I had to re-find the trail in an indistinct section. Before long we were starting the switchbacks that climbed up this steep hillside. While the trail sign warned us of “the steepest trail in Southern Oregon!” we enjoyed the nicely graded pathway that clung to the rocky wall.
All along we basked in the bright sun and had endless views of the countryside. In the last 15 feet of the climb, the trail was completely obliterated so we carefully picked our way up in the simplest way possible. The exposure was enough to remind us to really pay attention. The snow on top of the rock made it just slippery enough to feel like an adventure.
From the top, perfect views. Peace. Quiet. The kind unheard of in a National Park. We felt incredibly lucky to be there.
The hike down was just as mindful as the way up, making sure not to slip on the snow-covered rocks. And when we got back to the car, well, we still had some exploring to do!
We were in the southwest corner of the park, so next we hit up the Godfrey Glen Trail. This hike sounded much more interesting than it actually was, and if you’re pressed for time, I’d recommend skipping it altogether. To be fair, it does get close-ish to some cool ash structures, but the viewpoints aren’t great. So you feel like you’re next to something really cool and you can’t quite get a good look. Shocked that this is listed as a wheelchair-accessible trail. You’d better have off-road tires on your wheelchair and a buddy if you want to take this one on. Or maybe there’s a community of badass wheelchair users that I’m just not aware of.
0.8 miles | 150′ ele. gain
On to the next viewpoint hike. This one was fun. And also, comically, rated as wheelchair-accessible. I’d be terrified on some of those slopes. Gosh, maybe I’m just a big weenie? I dunno. This hike climbs up from the parking area to several beautiful views of Crater Lake. Since this one is on the main drag, you will be sharing the trail with lots of characters. Prepare.
You can see the Phantom Ship from this viewpoint, which is pretty amazing. From this viewpoint, it’s hard to imagine that the tallest spire stretches up 200 feet! It looks so tiny.
Phantom Ship Overlook
We kept puttering along, checking out all the viewpoints to find a good spot to watch the sunset. While Aaron was busy capturing the majestic golds, yellows and pinks as the sun dropped behind the lake, I was taking this SWEET photo of our adventure-mobile.
0.8 miles | 10′ ele. gain
Now this is the hike to do to see the ash spires. We went early in the morning, so none of my photos do this hike any justice. You’ll just have to go see for yourself. The easy trail edges right along the top of the canyon, where you can see the impressive towers coming up on both sides. It also gave us an excellent vantage point of Mt. Scott, which we’d take on next.
Mt. Scott is the highest point in Crater Lake National Park, it offers a view of the entire lake, the trailhead is right on the main drive, and it’s less than a 5 mile roundtrip. So as you can imagine, you’ll be sharing this trail with some people.
Actually, most people walk up the trail 20 yards or so, take a picture, and then get back to the car before their lattes get cold. So it’s actually not as bad as you’d expect it to be.
It was a chilly but sunny morning that we headed up to Mt. Scott. The trail was beautiful, crossing a pumice plain and some pockets of forest before making the ascent to the lookout tower. The twisted whitebark pine stood as evidence to the extreme weather conditions the native plants and animals must survive here. The trees were simply gorgeous.
Near the top the forest thinned dramatically and we were exposed to all the wind. The final stretch crossed a ridgetop leading right to a fire tower. There, some hikers were discussing some of the must-see places in the Cascades. We skirted by the conversation, found a quiet spot out of the wind and enjoyed snack time with views of the lake.
I didn’t get to all the points of interest I wanted to see on this trip, but we bought an annual pass to encourage more visits over the next year. There are still a few highpoints in the park I’d like to climb, and the west rim was closed for road repairs. While many online reviews list Crater Lake National Park as a half day trip at the most, I’m excited to spend more time on the ground adventuring around this beautiful landscape.
Another beautiful day on Maui, another beautiful hike.
There aren’t a ton of hiking trails on Maui, so it was important to get an early start. That we did on this lovely Thursday morning. We arrived at the parking lot early enough, after getting turned around on a few confusing roads and getting stuck in school traffic.
There were just a handful of cars in the lot when we parked. The trail began as a concrete road just behind a cattle gate and immediately launched up a steep hill. That got us warmed up right away. Shortly we passed into the forest. The trail became wide, muddy, and overrun with roots. We were covered, thankfully, by a broad canopy of leaves that shielded us from the hot sun. The trail climbed and climbed up to the ridge, with occasional views extending out across the nearby valleys and peaks. We were lucky to catch some incredible glimpses of the fluted ridgelines to the south.
A few sections of trail clung to a narrow band of earth that was guarded by very thick shrubs on either side. These plants were clearly well-adapted to the challenges of living in this climate. The trail became more and more mucky and slippery as we ascended. The sky, which had been cooperating thus far, began to surround us with clouds. We pushed our way up hill, working hard to breathe in the thick, moist air. As we approached the summit, the visibility was very poor. At the top, all we saw was a picnic table, a couple other people, and a thick bank of clouds.
The spiders making webs on the ridgetop plants became the highlight of the summit area.
We hung around a bit, in case the clouds miraculously parted, but we became more impatient as we waited. More and more people filed up the trail to rest at the summit. And we decided to head back down.
Suddenly it felt more muddy than before, and we were glad to have our hiking poles with us. It was absolutely incredible to see the massive amounts of people on their way up the trail. One group after another marched along, having loud conversations and slipping and sliding their way through the mud. No wonder this trail looked like a disaster. Near the bottom, there appeared to be a large school group doing some sort of project. I was sure glad to be done with it.
The one park in Maui to avoid
After the hike, we visited quite possibly the worst and most poorly managed park I’d ever been to, ‘Iao Valley State Park. Fortheloveofgod, skip this park if you ever go to Maui. There’s no real hiking, the few trails are run down, it’s insanely crowded, the bathrooms have been out of order forever, and they charge you $5 for parking even if there’s NOWHERE to park and you have to drive like a vulture waiting for a car to leave. Google the photos online and save your sanity by visiting this park virtually.
Followed by a real gem
Lucky for us, we made an excellent choice for our next stop, Ho’okipa State Park. This beachside recreation area had grassy, shaded sitting areas, a beautiful beach, several food carts to choose from, and a series of incredible tidepools. Oh, and plenty of free parking!
We got some lunch from one of the food carts and lounged in the shade as we listened to the soothing sounds of the ocean. We wandered through the tidepools, where we discovered some really cool intertidal sea creatures, and curious sea turtles bobbing around in the water.
Today was one of the slower-paced days of our visit (after the hike was over!) as we were saving up our energy for a snorkeling adventure tomorrow.