Skunked in the Organ Mountains

February 29, 2024.

9.7 mi. | 2650′ ele. gain | 6 hrs.

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In the spirit of Hike366, I knew I couldn’t miss hiking on leap day. It only comes around every four years, and even though I’d already done a hike on February 29 for my project, I was excited to get another one.

I scoured the map and reached out to a friend in the area to get some ideas for what I could do, without any technical gear and starting from a campsite. I settled on Nordspitz, which is a local name for one of the many blobs on the main ridgeline in the Organ Mountains. I’d been in the area once before and remember drooling over all the spires, faces and canyons in this impressive range. I packed for a full day.

When I left the parking lot, the mountains were so socked in with clouds I couldn’t see any terrain features in front of me. I hoped that the weather would clear in a few hours, so I put my head down and headed up the trail. The desert vegetation, glistening in the recent moisture, formed a beautiful backdrop for my hike. Cows grazed between the towering sotol and yucca.

Once I reached the saddle near Baylor Peak, it was quite windy and still very much still cloaked with clouds. I added my wind layer, scouted the start of my route and left the trail, walking uphill. Moving slowly, I picked my way through the cactus, thorny shrubs and loose rock. I paused at a large and beautiful colony of hedgehog cactus growing straight out of a bouldery face. There were so many different types of cactus, present in such large numbers, that the inclement weather didn’t even bother me. I was in cactus heaven.

There were a few rocky bumps along the ridge I had to decide whether to go left, right or over the top. I stuck to the ridge as best as I could, but there was one huge rock feature I could not get around. I stopped abruptly at the base of a large, wet slab that disappeared into the misty beyond. To either side of me, steep gullies dropped down into cactus- studded lowlands. I took a few tentative steps on to the slippery rock and decided I would go no further unless the weather cleared. The wind blowing ferociously, tugging at my precious heat, forced me to find shelter as I waited out the weather and made some plans.

I looked at the sky and saw dark, dense clouds that were nowhere close to blowing off. I had to admit defeat.

Cold, annoyed, frustrated and with wet feet, I began descending the ridge. It did not take long to get disoriented in this terrain in these conditions. Generally, ridgewalks are quite straightforward because you follow the highest points to your destination. But this ridge had enough obstacles and side arms that I found myself walking entirely in the wrong direction. I triple checked my mapping app, used my compass to confirm that I was indeed facing *toward* the mountain I was trying to descend, then found a place to get off my feet for several minutes. I needed a snack, some water and rest since I had been nearly in constant motion all day.

But I was in no good place to stop. And, I really wanted to start moving in the correct direction before sitting down. I fumbled back up to a spot I could turn around, then checked my direction of travel on my phone. Yes, that looked much better. I plopped down, put on every layer in my pack, pulled out a foil packet containing yesterday’s pizza and rested until my brain returned to normal.

When I continued moving, I forced myself to go slowly and look at my phone often. The visibility was so bad, I had almost no context clues to keep me oriented. I prefer using landmarks to help stay on route, but that wasn’t possible today. Once I got down low enough, I could see the trail and I let myself relax a little. But, it still took some effort to figure out how to get there without getting stabbed by a lechugilla or becoming entangled in a bush.

Back at the saddle, I took another rest break. At least the return hike was brainless from here. The weather remained cool and windy, although eventually I emerged from beneath the clouds. Just as the van came into view, I turned back and finally got to see the peaks that were hiding all day. They were gorgeous, yet menacing. Even from this angle I thought, “that looks like an intimidating route.” I felt completely justified in bailing. I’d never attempt it without knowing the route ahead of time and/or having excellent visibility. Dry rock would be a must, also.

I know that turning back is not a failure, but I recognize that it is still really difficult to make that call, even after decades of doing this. I like telling these stories as a reminder that things don’t always go as planned and that’s okay. Knowing when to alter the plan or abandon the plan are important skills for any hiker. I still had a really great hike and I am now armed with more ground-truthed information for next time!

Black Mesa

February 23, 2024.

9.2 mi. | 775′ ele.gain | 4:15 hr.

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We took a very specific detour on our loop around New Mexico to hit the highpoint of Oklahoma. I’m not a serious highpointer; in nearly twenty years of hiking, I’ve gotten six state highpoints. Those are: Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Mt. Washington (New Hampshire), Mt. Hood (Oregon), Humphrey’s Peak (Arizona), Guadalupe Peak (Texas), and now Black Mesa (Oklahoma). On this cross-country road trip, I thought it would be fun to find the highpoints in the midwest and in states that don’t have the same kinds of dramatic scenery that characterize the west.

As soon as I stepped onto the trail, I was smitten. Just like the places I visited in northern New Mexico, the landscape here brought me right back to Central Oregon. Rolling, grassy meadows. Volcanic buttes. Occasional junipers. Aah, it felt like home. The trail was very well built, with pergolas placed every half mile or so for people to get out of the sun. I was glad to be here in February, because summers must be brutally hot. Clearly, many people hike this trail because it’s a state highpoint. I usually don’t go out of my way to do popular hikes, but this felt like a silly one to pass up. I’m so glad I did.

There were little lomatiums that were so close to flowering, as well as some cute hedgehog cactus near the summit. I bet if I’d just waited another month, the landscape would have been even more spectacular. But as I’ve learned on this road trip, you just have to grab opportunities as they come. The trail gently followed the subtle ups and downs in the lowlands to the base of the mesa, then it rocketed straight up the side. Once above the cliffs and gullies, the trail flattened out again for the last mile or so. The tall obelisk marking the summit was visible for quite a ways away. I pushed through the wind, marker in sight, for many minutes until I was suddenly right on top of it.

My favorite part about reaching the top was seeing snow-capped peaks, clearly much higher, in the background. I assume these were just over the border in Colorado and New Mexico. I’d never felt so NOT on a highpoint while on a highpoint before. I took a left at the marker to walk to the edge of the mesa. There, on the edge of a basalt outcrop, I sat down to paint. I felt like I was on top of Sutton Mountain, one of my favorite places to wander back in Oregon.

I nearly had the whole place to myself. On the way up, I saw no one. Within a couple miles of the parking lot, I ran into two groups of two. I had a nice chat with one pair as they began their hike who asked if I was the one who signed in from Oregon. Yes, I said, and while they reported hailing from South Dakota, they had spent some time in Chemult, Oregon, of all places. It’s a small world.

Which highpoint is next? I’ll be traveling to Arkansas for the eclipse, so maybe there? Missouri? Then of course there are the really flat states like Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa that are parking lots in the middle of fields! The actual challenge of reaching the top doesn’t matter too much to me anymore, because I’ve learned that the journey is almost always better than the goal itself. I’ve had so many meaningful experiences and discoveries on a way to a thing. A list just helps me narrow down all the things I want to do, and a list often takes me to places I wouldn’t have chosen to visit otherwise. Without the list, I wouldn’t have known how incredible this corner of Oklahoma is.

One quick detour of note: on our drive back to New Mexico, we pulled off at a roadside attraction pinned on Google. It had no signage, but the Internet said that it’s a replica of a Brontosaurus femur. Was it worth the stop? I’m not sure. But, if it had truly been something spectacular, I would have hated to think, “should we have taken that 10 minute detour?”

Little Arsenic Springs

February 18, 2024.

3.8 mi. | 890′ ele. gain | 3:30 hr.

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On a recommendation from a friend, we took a small detour to the Wild Rivers Recreation Area. It was President’s Day weekend, so I was a little concerned that we’d have trouble avoiding crowds. And this place didn’t feel too far off the beaten path.

But when we arrived, we pulled into a campground with a beautiful view over a river gorge and there was only one other party there. We chose sites on different sides of the campground, and besides a friendly wave in passing, didn’t see or hear each other the whole night.

The next morning, we moved to the Little Arsenic Springs Campground to have direct access to the hiking trail. It was partly cloudy when we began our hike, but the clouds quickly moved in. The trail alternated from being snowy to being clear, and while we brought traction devices, we never needed to use them. At the low point of the trail, we came across a developed backcountry campsite that must be for rafters. There was a pit toilet and covered picnic area! We used the facilities, then found rocks to sit on near the river. I worked on a painting and Aaron drew in his sketchbook. It was very peaceful.

From there, we followed the trail as it meandered along the river, up to a plateau, then back to the top of the canyon. The entire time, I felt like I was back in Central Oregon. The curvy river, bound by lava rock. The ponderosa pine and juniper trees. The sagebrush fields. The familiar palette of ochres, blue-green, rusty browns. The views of snow-dusted mountains. Only the frequent cactus piles snapped me back to place. This is New Mexico.

On the last stretch of trail up to the top, I stopped to read all the little interpretive signs. I just really love a nature trail! I think about the time and effort put in to thinking about where to place the signs, which facts to highlight and how best to craft the text on the sign. It sounds like a challenging but fun job.

Once we reached the parking lot at the top, we followed one last trail to get back to camp. A thin layer of snow covered the ground here. The mountainsides all around us were also covered in snow. The views were breathtaking. This is a place I’d happily come back to.

Acoma-Zuni Trail

February 9, 2024.

8.7 miles | 225′ ele. gain| 5:15 hr.

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I was skeptical about making a stop at El Malpais National Monument, since I’ve had my fair share of hiking in volcanic terrain. How fun would this place be? I’m in Arizona, I want to see something new.

Lava landscape

After spending half a day on the Acoma-Zuni trail, I changed my mind completely. The trail follows an ancient path used by native people to traverse the lava flow from village to village. It’s marked mostly with rock cairns placed on top of the lava. Rock on rock can be deceptively challenging to follow, so it was a bit like going on an Easter egg hunt. But that’s what made it so much fun! I enjoyed scanning the terrain for the next trail marker, moving slowly so as not to get lost or disoriented on the difficult terrain.

In addition to the uneven rock and cracks in the lava, I also had to negotiate slippery snow patches and spiky catches. It was a real obstacle course! The sunshine helped cut through the bitterly cold air and breezes. It was quiet and peaceful as I crossed the flow from one side to the other.

Just before reaching my exit trailhead, where Aaron would pick me up, I took a small detour. A tiny hump called Encerrito was too close to skip. I scrambled up the side of the butte and, to my surprise, found a summit register on top. After signing in and having a snack, I found a nice place from which to do a watercolor painting of a beautiful mountain view. The whole area was so serene and idyllic, I could have stayed there forever. But, my ankles were glad to be done. The constant walking across tilted rocks became very tiring by the end of the hike!

And then…dogs

But the clouds had rolled in and now the air was bone-chilling cold. I finished the painting and hiked back down to the trailhead. On my way, I encountered three off-leash dogs barking and barreling down the trail right at me. I had no time to react. One of the dogs tried to bite me, leaving slobber all over my pant leg. I was furious, and all the owner had to say to me was “I didn’t think anyone would be on this trail.”

No apology. He could have stopped at saying “I didn’t think.” If you have three uncontrolled and aggressive dogs, you damn well better have them leashed or don’t take them out on a trail. It snapped me out of the joyous mood I was in and made me angry for the rest of the day. I don’t know how some dog owners can be so clueless when it comes to understanding that other people exist in the world and choose not to acknowledge how their dogs’ behavior impacts other people. I’ve had enough negative dog encounters that I know this was not a rare incident. One of many reasons I try really hard to go hiking where other people aren’t. I don’t trust them to be able to handle their dogs.

To the responsible dog owners, thank you. To the people who take the time to train their dogs, thank you. To the folks who leave their aggressive dogs at home when they go hiking, thank you. To the people who keep their dogs leashed when required, thank you. I always notice and appreciate when people take pro-social steps when going out with their dogs. Since I’m allergic to dogs, it’s also important to me that “friendly” dogs do not approach me. If you’re a dog lover, please keep this in mind: not everyone wants to or can interact with your dog. And I really don’t want to have to explain this to every person I meet on the trail.

Unfortunately, we only had one day in this park, so we had to move on. I’m glad I got to see what I did, and I’d be curious to return and check out some of the other hikes, caves and highpoints.

Pyramid Rock

February 7, 2024.

6 mi. | 1170′ ele. gain | 3:15 hr

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We pulled into Red Rock Park, New Mexico to camp the evening before. For those of you who are counting, this is our second park named Red Rock of this trip. (The first was back in California.) The drive in was breathtakingly beautiful. After checking in to our dire little spot for the night, we walked to the trailhead to catch a glimpse of the rock formations up close. They were pinstriped red, yellow, orange, with swaths of green vegetation below. I went to sleep dreaming of red rocks.

I awoke to nothing less than a winter wonderland. Overhead, the gray clouds sprinkled down snow on a white landscape. The forecast called for snow and wind all day, so I dressed for a winter hike, packed some hot ramen and planned to just hike as far as I could, my heart not set on reaching a destination. I had the route mapped to Pyramid Rock just in case the trails were good enough, but I’d be happy with just getting out for a lovely walk.

The footprints on the trail came to an end pretty close to the trailhead; it was clear I’d be the only one out and about today. The trail was pretty well marked. I traversed mud, gravel, slickrock and chunky rock surfaces. Some places were covered in snow, others were just wet. The steeper sections of slickrock had steps chopped into them, which I found immensely valuable today. I moved slowly and intentionally to avoid slipping and falling. Some of the sloped sections lay right above deep washes. I did not need to go for a ride today.

While the trails appeared deadly slippery, I found that I had excellent traction 99% of the time. I only slipped when I was moving too fast or not paying attention. After doing that a few times, I never lost traction again.

Cairns were placed along the trail to mark the way. There were signs, too. And for the most part the trail was well-marked. I tried to train my eyes to the cairns, which were sometimes difficult to see amidst the snow. Despite the trail markings, my map and my familiarity with trail finding, I lost the route a few times and wandered off track. The terrain was quite complex and the trail did not always follow the intuitive path. Upon realizing my errors, I made it back to the trail and scanned for cairns more closely. Undeterred by these short misadventures, I kept moving forward and eventually had Pyramid Rock in my sights.

I got a glorious sun break as I headed up the last stretch to the summit. I found a wind-sheltered spot behind a rock to set my pad down and enjoy a warm lunch. The sun remained bright for my entire rest break, so enjoyed panoramic views of the incredible landscape.

Based on the conditions and the fact that I would rather follow my steps back than break a new trail, I decided to return the way I came instead of making a loop. It was the right call. At some point during the hike down, the storm settled in for good and my sun went away. The wind blew consistently and the snow fell in earnest. I moved as quickly as I could without being reckless. I was grateful that my boots performed so well on the wet snow and rock. The downhill sections that I dreaded turned out to be not too bad and I made it back to the trailhead with no slips or stumbles.

I’m a firm believer that most weather can be endured with the right gear, attitude and preparation. Today was one of those days. And, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might be. In fact, I found most of the hike quite enjoyable and remarkably beautiful. It was also very quiet, since most people do not share my approach to hiking in the snow! While I didn’t set any speed records, that wasn’t the point. I loved every moment of being out in red rock country during a winter storm, even those frustrating moments of getting sucked off route. It’s good when the universe reminds me that despite my experience, I always have something to learn, and that I should always be paying attention.

Petrified Forest National Park

February 3-5, 2024.

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Overlooking the north side of the park

We began our tour of this remote park at the north entrance, off old Rte. 66. Petrified Forest National Park had been on my radar on a previous trip to Northern Arizona, but it was just too far off our route to add the stop. This time, I made sure to prioritize it.

I spoke with a ranger about some of the places I wanted to visit and they offered me three printed packets with route descriptions for three “off the beaten path” routes. I’d never seen anything like that at a national park! I was encouraged to explore off trail, so I gladly leapt at the chance. I noticed “Onyx Bridge” on my map and read a little bit about it online. It was one of the three routes in my pile of packets, so we decided to drive to the Painted Desert Inn to begin this hike.

Onyx Bridge

It was super windy, so we layered up. I packed ramen and tea. We walked down the switchbacks from the parking lot into a maze of painted hills below. Then, we alternated following the social trail when it was visible to following the National Park Service directions (complete with photos!) from checkpoint to checkpoint. I thought it was a fun game, like a scavenger hunt.

We arrived at a wide wash that had some water from recent rains. The ranger warned that it may not be passable. As we approached it more closely, we were able to pick a route that avoided the small stream and shiny mud, and soon we were on the other side.

Water in the desert

The social trail now a loose memory, we roughly skirted the hills to our left in search of the canyon that we’d take to find the Onyx Bridge. This landmark earned its name because it is a blackened piece of petrified wood that used to span a small depression, resembling a bridge, before it broke into pieces. I thought it would still be cool to see.

We scrambled up a small canyon and topped out at the view of Onyx Bridge. Turns out, it was worth the walk. On the way there we stopped to admire other pieces of petrified wood dotting the badlands. And on our route back we saw even more. Not satisfied with a simple out-and-back, we chose a more creative way to return to the wash crossing. There, we enjoyed views of the incredible painted hills and stumbled into slices of mica (?) that glinted in the sunlight.

Onyx Bridge

Pro tip for visiting the Petrified Forest: there is no campground in the park. But, just outside the south entrance there’s a rock shop called Crystal Forest Museum and Gifts. They have free dry camping: no toilets, water or amenities besides a place to park and a picnic table. But the price is right!

Blue Mesa

The next day, we drove into the park as soon as the gate opened at 8 am. We parked near the visitor center to use the bathroom, then went back to the van to make breakfast. It’s like our own portable cafe! As we were getting ready to go, a group of travelers popped by to ask questions about our van. They were on a long road trip from Ohio and loved talking vans with Aaron. We swapped van tours, then went on our way. Not before exchanging contact information and receiving an invite to stay with them if we happen to pass through Cleveland (and they happen to be home!)

We drove to the trailhead for the old Blue Forest trail and I began hiking according to the handout I’d gotten from the ranger. Aaron stayed at the van to fix our water filter. I wanted to paint, so I found a nice spot near the top of the hills that had a view and a nice example of a petrified log. It was lovely to spend so much time immersed in that environment, surrounded by colors and sparkles and textures. I continued along the route, following a well-worn path on the tops of the painted hills. This was the first place I was allowed (and encouraged) to walk on these features. What a unique experience.

It’s not just blue at Blue Mesa

After descending the trail on the backside, I joined the crowds on the other side and hiked up to the road, where Aaron waited for me in a pull-out.

Off the beaten path

While there are only a handful of developed trails in the park, off-trail hiking is allowed here. I spent my final day in the park wandering among the hills and through the washes without any particular destination in mind. Since my hikes are typically dictated by where Aaron can park and work for the day, I’ve gotten pretty flexible about planning where to go. It’s quite freeing to let the landscape dictate the route, deciding in the moment whether to go left or right, up or down, based on what’s in front of me. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

It looked so easy…

I found another spot to paint and struggled through another landscape. It’s fascinating how the geography that looks like it’s actually painted in watercolor is the most difficult (for me) to paint in watercolor. Maybe someday, I’ll figure it out.

Nonetheless, I had a quiet, restorative hike.

Mt. Ajo

January 24, 2024.

9.3 mi. | 2750′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.

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I woke up before sunrise to drive to the Mt. Ajo trailhead in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It was cool and overcast, which is great weather for southern Arizona hiking! As soon as I geared up and hit the trail, I found myself in a cactus paradise. Since it had rained a ton lately, I kept my eyes peeled for wildflowers. Within the first mile, I found two ocotillo plants in bloom. Their bright red flowers exploded from the gangly, green branches twisting into the sky.

Still feeling sick, I plodded uphill slowly, taking many short breaks. I committed at the start of the hike to take a longer sit-down break on the hour every hour, no matter how I was feeling, plus any additional stops I wanted. This strategy allowed ample recovery time so that I could keep hiking all day. I was the tortoise, not the hare.

I could hear water running in the canyons; an unusual sound. The trail crossed a few seasonal creeks as it climbed to its end. An unofficial route continues up to the summit of Mt. Ajo. For much of its length, the trail was well marked and brushed out, a rarity for summit scrambles! But I think Mt. Ajo is a relatively common destination and it’s located in a National Monument.

Every aspect of the route offered something new to look at and lots of reasons to stop and catch my breath. The low clouds kept the summit shrouded in mystery for most of the hike. I huffed and puffed up the steep gully leading to the final traverse, taking a few steps at a time before resting. This cold was really kicking my ass.

On the long, high traverse, I spied a few flowers: a mustard and a few paintbrush. The rocky ridge went in and out of view as the clouds shifted. When surveillance aircraft were not flying nearby, it was spectacularly quiet. Here, just a few miles from the US-Mexico border, you’re constantly reminded of how dangerous migrants are. There is lots of official signage telling you to report any suspicious activity. When I overhear conversations among tourists in the area, there’s a lot of fear, anxiety and blame. It’s unsettling, to say the least. I feel heartened when driving through local towns where there are resources for migrants and yard signs reminding folks of the basic humanity that all of us share. Hearing helicopters and sonic booms while hiking in the mountains reminds me that the U.S. sure does have a lot of money to spend, but not necessarily on the things that will reduce fear and help people thrive.

As all these thoughts swirl in my head, I reach the summit, completely immersed in water vapor. I was glad that I made myself stop for a snack break just a half mile before. It was not a pretty spot since there were antennas and equipment everywhere. I tagged the top and immediately started my descent.

Once I went down enough to get out of the coldest, wettest air, I sat down and pulled out my thermos of ramen. At that moment I was really glad I took a real lunch on my hike. So satisfying and energizing!

The rest of the day, I walked in peace. I relished every shrub, rock, trickle of water, cactus, fleeting cloud and flash of feathers. I was glad I dragged myself out of bed to be in nature, despite how bad I felt. As always, and especially as I get wiser, I give myself the option of turning around at any point. The summit is a nice treat, but it’s not a requirement. I know that every minute I spend outside is valuable no matter what I “accomplish” while I’m out there. It took me many years to come to this realization, but I think this attitude will help me continue to seek joy and solace outdoors no matter what my physical state happens to be.

As I returned to the trail and began the loop down, I ran into one other hiker. It was an older woman, wearing a big sun hat, with an InReach mini on her pack and a huge smile on her face. We shared a few lines of conversation and went on our respective ways. Her stoke filled me right up and I rode that wave of happiness all the way down to the parking lot. Damn right I’m going to be that older person one day.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw

January 6, 2024.

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Our friends in the Tucson area recommended visiting Whitewater Draw to see the sandhill cranes during their migration. It looked like an easy place to add to our route, plus there is free camping at the trailhead.

We pulled into Whitewater Draw well after dark and grabbed the last open campsite (there are only 5). As we were getting ready for bed, I noticed a strange sound. I cracked open the window and the van was overtaken by the sound of thousands of sandhill cranes calling at once.

I set an alarm for a pre-dawn wake up time. In the morning, we bundled up in several warm layers and I filled two mugs with hot coffee. As soon as we stepped out of the van, I noticed swirls of cranes flying overhead. Several other bird-watchers were already out on the trail, cameras and binoculars in hand. We slowly meandered out to the edge of a pond, amazed at the sheer quantity of avian life. Sandhill cranes are gigantic birds, so it’s exciting to only see a few of them. My brain did not know what to do with the large volume of birds in front of me.

I tugged my hat down over my ears. It was bitterly cold outside. But the pink sunrise, silhouettes of birds in flight, swaths of cartoonish birds in the lake and a warm beverage in my hand was just what I needed this morning.

As sunrise led into proper morning, more and more birds abandoned the icy ponds in search of a meal. The ducks swimming about the water’s edge seemed to relax a bit as their monstrous cousins gave them more space to spread out.

Before we set out on this trip, Aaron frequently commented on how he was excited to travel long-term so that we’d have more opportunities to see fleeting natural phenomena. This experience was what we were hoping for as we planned our travels. Taking suggestions from locals, checking newspapers and flyers in coffee shops, scanning social media coming out of the places we visit…these are all ways to get keyed in to unique experiences that you can’t just do anywhere at anytime.

Crane facts

And now, some interesting information about sandhill cranes!

  • The oldest known sandhill crane skeleton dates back to 2.5 million years!
  • Sandhill cranes can get up to 4 feet tall and weigh 12 pounds.
  • Sandhill cranes are known for their courtship dances and will mate for life.
  • They eat anything from seeds and roots to frogs, snails and small birds. They will also feast on crops like corn when available.
  • Some other places to catch sandhill cranes on their migration route are along the Platte River (Nebraska), Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico) and Goose Pond FWA (Indiana).

It’s one thing to read about these facts in a book or on the internet, and it’s another to see cranes with your own eyes. If you get a chance to visit sandhill cranes while they’re on their journey, you’ll fall in love with these incredible creatures.

Brown Canyon to Ramsay Canyon

January 4, 2024.

12.4 mi | 2000′ ele. gain | 5:10 hr.

Snow-kissed view

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We stayed with friends in Sierra Vista for a couple days, and they recommended hiking right from their backyard into the mountains. I couldn’t resist. With a hand-drawn map in my pocket, I walked along the neighborhood streets, admiring all the southwest architecture and noticing…a blimp? I sent a pic to my friend Sarah, who’s obsessed with all things aviation. She quickly fired back an article written from the perspective of a local who first learned about the blimp on a field trip in kindergarten. (It’s a great article, you should definitely read it). I scanned the article as the cold air froze my face and my heart sunk yet again; more surveillance. I guess that’s the tradeoff people need to learn to live with in a border town. I hate it.

Blimp.

Soon, I reached a backdoor entrance to Brown Canyon Ranch. The open desert scrub gave way to a mixed coniferous forest, which provided a nice wind buffer. By this point, I had already seen plenty of people out enjoying the trails. Mostly older folks, all on foot except for one cyclist. Despite it being mid-week and with weather coming in, everyone seemed to be having a great time!

The novelty of snow crunching underfoot on a trip to Arizona made me smile. Back in Bend, my friends were lamenting how they hadn’t been able to get their skis out yet. Everything seemed topsy-turvy. I climbed the trail into the Miller Canyon Wilderness, enjoying the water trickling in the canyon. According to my offline map, the trail should intersect with another one that traverses across to Ramsay Canyon. I planned to take the connector trail, come down through Ramsay Canyon and walk the road back to Brown canyon and to my friends’ house. They did not know I had this grand plan, of course, but how could I resist the lure of a loop over an out-and-back hike?

I tried to stay on the main trail in the canyon, despite several offshoots going off in every direction. After passing the Pomona Mine junction, I stayed left, presumably on the main trail. The snow got a little deeper, and I found myself sharing the trail only with deer prints. When I checked my map, it appeared I was off trail, but I could see water bars and other engineered features, so I kept going. Eventually my track joined the one on the map; maybe the trail was re-routed and the apps were not updated.

Agave in the snow

It was so peaceful along this stretch of the hike. Snow fell, sometimes in delicate sprinkles and sometimes in a hurry. I caught glimpses of the higher peaks through gaps in the trees. I kept moving because I had all my layers on and it was still chilly, but so many times I wanted to stop and soak in all the magic that was happening.

When I arrived at the Hamburg trail, which led down into Ramsay Canyon, I saw a flurry of human tracks. I followed them down into another gorgeous canyon lined with many different trees I didn’t bother to identify. While looking for a place to paint, I stumbled across a signed viewpoint and headed that way. I found a beautiful spot to sit. It had a clear, unobstructed view upcanyon. And the full force of the weather was upon me. I knew as soon as I sat down, the clock was ticking.

I made it about 20 minutes before my fingers were so cold I could barely hold the brush. DONE! I said, and quickly packed up my things. I held on to my open sketchbook as I hiked, hoping the paint would dry before I got down to the Nature Conservancy building.

When I arrived, I ducked inside to use the bathroom, which was lovely and warm. I chatted with a friendly volunteer and wandered through the small gift shop before continuing my walk. I still had to hike out of the canyon and get back into the neighborhoods!

As I passed through the parking area and down the road, I heard a flurry of squawks and saw some movement. Turkeys! So many turkeys, hanging out in a small greenspace. Walking up the road. Making a commotion. There were a couple groups of at least 20 each. As I kept wandering down the road, they wobbled up toward me. After the turkeys, then there were deer. First one, then another, then many more. The longer I walked, the more wildlife I saw, and all of it was located out of the boundary of the Nature Conservancy site. I had dreaded this road walk when I planned this hike, but it turned out to be one of my favorite parts! The sun had come back out, I was warm and comfortable, there was so much to look at.

Turkeys!

The last major turn took me down a dirt road to Brown Canyon Ranch. I found a trail that roughly paralleled the road and walked on that. The wind was blowing fiercely by the time I made it to the ranch, so I went inside to get a break. The ranch had been preserved with furniture, books and interpretive exhibits inside. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t just walked 10 miles.

I braced myself for going back out into the wind and took a detour along a nature trail and pond. There, I saw a red tailed hawk, roadrunner and a single ring-necked duck floating on a small pond. The rest of the hike involved walking back along the side streets in Sierra Vista. What an excellent way to spend a day!

Atascosa Lookout and Peak

December 31, 2023.

7.7 mi. | 2455′ ele. gain | 5:15 hr.

Sunrise

Photo album

One more hike on the last day of the year. We parked overnight at the trailhead, where we watched another stunning sunset. And that put me in position to get a dawn start on this hike. We had plans for an early dinner with a friend outside of Tucson, so I wanted to have plenty of time.

The trail to the lookout is fairly well maintained and easy to follow. I appreciated the cool temperatures the early morning brought, even if that meant I had to rally before dark. I seemed to chase the same two deer up the trail as I hiked, although I couldn’t be sure. I was certain of how beautiful it was, with sotol, agave and prickly pear dotting the desert landscape. Gorgeous golden hills extended in all directions and each turn of the trail brought a new perspective to the mountain I was on.

Atascosa Lookout

At the small lookout site, only a foundation remained. I sat on its edge and ate a snack as I contemplated my next move. I had about a mile of bushwhacking to the true summit and my head swirled with the numerous reports I read of the route the night before. It would be tricky getting off the backside. Follow the cairned route. No, don’t follow the cairned route. It’s easy. It’s hard. Yeah, that’s what good the internet provides. I knew I’d just have to figure it out on my own.

I was not a huge fan of how the descent looked off the summit. Below my feet were what appeared to be loose aggregations of boulders held together by prickles and spines. I carefully descended right of center to avoid the worst bits and then veered back toward the ridge proper. Once I got back on track, I still had to figure out my way through or over the maze of boulders between the lookout and the summit. Occasionally, I stumbled across a cairn, but no two cairns were visible at the same time so they were pretty useless. I kept my eyes looking ahead at the destination and tried to avoid the worst of the vegetation and drop-offs.

Atascosa Peak

It was slow but not too awful. Only a few moves required my full attention. I noticed specific kinds of debris along the way: a torn backpack, a shoe, a can of snuff, an empty tuna packet. Flotsam from migrants or smugglers traveling between the US and Mexico. As I’ve come to spend time along the border, the politics, tensions and humanity of this invisible line is very apparent. I paused to think about the difficulty of traversing a landscape like this when your life depends upon it, versus being out on a fun little day hike. I only had to walk on this ridge for a mile, what about those who need to travel tens or hundreds of miles? In the heat, with no water sources and with every plant trying to tear the flesh from your bones? It’s incredible that anyone makes it through.

December phlox!

At the summit, I enjoyed the serene landscape and plotted my return. I tried to follow the cairns back, which I almost did. When I lost them for good, I stood and looked around for any sign of the route. I didn’t find it, but I did notice three furry tails sticking into the air like periscopes: coatis! It was my first wild sighting. When I worked in a zoo right out of college, I took care of a couple coatis. Otherwise, I likely wouldn’t have known of their existence.

The coati was too busy rooting around for food to show its face.

I was so glad to have let the cairns pull me off course for this chance sighting. Once they shuffled off, I fought my way back on the ridge and found the cairns again. I followed them until they petered out again. At that point I ended up in a thicket of catclaw acacia just below the lookout. It tore at every piece of clothing and square inch of exposed skin as I moved along the shortest path through it. Then, at the base of the previously intimidating, crumbly step that I avoided on my way down, I realized it actually wasn’t that bad. I scurried straight up the rock and landed right on top of the concrete lookout base. It’s amazing how something can look completely different from an alternate perspective.

Not too far down the trail, I ran into my first people of the day. Then a couple more. I raced down the path so that we’d have plenty of time to make it to my friend’s house for dinner. I couldn’t help but stop at all the interesting little cacti and towering dead agave plants. It still feels like such a foreign landscape, everything so curious and inviting!