Hiking Santa Cruz Island

March 26-27, 2019.

Photos from Channel Islands National Park.

We arrived early at the dock, excited for our foray to Santa Cruz Island. We decided to camp for a night on the island in order to have more time to explore and not feel rushed by a ferry schedule.

The boat ride to the island was the first part of our adventure. Along the way, we stopped to watch wildlife: sea lions, whales and dolphins. The dolphins seemed to enjoy swimming and playing in the wake of the boat. Everyone staggered to the railings to watch the scene unfold in the water. It was more exciting than I thought it would be. There were so many dolphins, so close to the boat!

Upon our arrival, we lamented the amount of time it took for them to unload our gear. We stood around, watching time tick away, as every last item was unpacked from the boat. It was nearly lunch time.

We decided to hike into camp and set up our tent, then eat lunch, before starting our hike for the day. The initial plan was to do the long hike on day 1 and a shorter hike on day 2, but after some thought we flipped our plan around.

Smuggler’s Cove

With full bellies, we began the 8-mile out and back hike to Smuggler’s Cove. The route follows a dirt road all the way across the island and ends at a small beach on the other side. As we walked, I admired the delightful flowers and grassy meadows that lined our path. We hiked at a comfortable pace in the heat of the day. I felt as if I was walking through a postcard because all the colors were so bright and clear. The road wasn’t nearly as charming as a trail would be, but the scenery was mesmerizing enough to take my mind off the road.

Along the way we passed many hikers on their way back to the ferry. We were passed by one couple rushing along, hoping to make it to the beach before they had to catch their boat. A few minutes later, they passed us again headed the other way. “We ran out of time,” the lady said. I was immediately glad that we’d decided to spend the night on the island. We casually finished the walk to the beach, where we spotted our first island fox.

A descendant of the mainland gray fox, the island fox is a species unique to the Channel Islands. In fact, six of the eight islands have resident fox populations, which are all distinct from each other. We first spotted a fox sniffing around a picnic table, looking for scraps. It was lethargic, moving slowly and without a care in the world that we were nearby. I admit I was a bit disappointed on seeing this animal. It had clearly become acclimated to humans and didn’t behave in a fox-like manner.

LeeAnn and I found a spot on the sandy beach to lay out our towels and sit down for a snack. Before getting too settled I suggested taking a dip in the ocean. We had to, it was right there! We stripped down to our underwear and ran into the ice cold water. It took my breath away. I fought the waves for a few minutes and reveled in the fact that just a few days ago I was complaining about the cold and wet spring we were having in Bend and now I was making the choice to freeze my butt off in the California sun.

Back on the beach we dried off and watched another fox rooting for bugs among the rocks behind us. After a relaxing rest we packed up and sauntered back along the dirt road to our camp.

As the sun began to set, the wind picked up and we retreated to the shelter of our tent for a long sleep.

Montanon Peak

The following morning we got up early to eat breakfast, pack up and stashed our gear near the dock. We planned on a ten-mile day to the highest point within the National Park boundary on Santa Cruz island.

Our hike began under partly cloudy skies. Tall plants closely lined the singletrack trail we followed through Scorpion Canyon, the thick dew soaking our pants and shoes. But the pretty wildflowers and colorful rock distracted us from the slight discomfort. Besides, I was really excited to climb a mountain today, my first since I injured my hip nearly 2 months prior.

Our route took us up the canyon, past some old oil extraction machinery and up a rutted, old road. We ascended to a saddle where the official trail dropped down the other side, heading towards Prisoners Harbor and the Nature Conservancy land. At that location we turned straight up the ridge on a well-defined use trail to the summit. Along the way we were treated to a lush alpine rock garden. Succulents, unusual wildflowers and native shrubs spread out as far as the eye could see. And that wasn’t too far; the clouds had steadily rolled in as we made our way towards the summit.

We arrived at the radio tower and looked at the ridge ahead. “Is that bump higher?” I asked. I couldn’t tell for certain, but I hadn’t come all that way to stop a few feet short of the summit, so we kept on walking. At the next bump, we sat down for a snack and some summit victory photos.

After a long rest we started hiking back. Out of nowhere, it started pouring rain. We dashed beneath the solar panel array at the radio tower and put on our raincoats. But it was all for naught; the rain cleared just a few minutes later and the humid air felt stifling. We wrestled with layers for the rest of the day as rain intermittently spattered down from the sky.

We saw no one on our way up the mountain, but suddenly we passed several groups headed in the opposite direction. The day hikers had arrived.

My hip was sore those last few miles. I was a little thrilled when we were finally done. We had some time before the boat arrived so we hunkered down near our pile of overnight gear and dozed in and out of sleep.

The ferry ride back was just as thrilling as the ride in. Again, a huge pod of dolphins surrounded the boat. We stopped for quite a while to watch whale spouts far off in the distance; I didn’t move from my seat. Whale watching is not my favorite thing to do. But the dolphins— those were exciting.

All in all, I had a lovely visit to Santa Cruz island. I was amazed by the diversity of plant life across the island. From coastline to canyon to meadow to alpine zone, there was so much to see in such a small place! I’m now very curious what the other side of the island looks like…

Condor Gulch Loop

March 25, 2019.

5.1 mi | 1450′ ele. gain | 3:10 hr

Photo album for Pinnacles National Park

On our second day at Pinnacles National Park, we were prepared to get an earlier start on the trail. That meant one important thing: fewer people.

Our route would overlap some of the ground we covered the day before, but we didn’t mind. The running joke was that we’d have to see the High Peaks vistas AGAIN, OH NO! That was one of the prettiest stretches of trails around and it was even better in the cool morning sun with no other people around.

This hike began at the Bear Gulch parking area, just a couple miles away from where we began the High Peaks Loop. But it felt like a world of difference between the two trailheads. We discovered different flowers and shrubs there. Bright red Indian paintbrush stood out among the leafy greens and soft brown rocks. The orange petals of California poppies were furled tightly in the early hours of the morning.

We climbed and climbed up to the high peaks ridge and again looked upward for condors. The trail felt desolate, deserted. Yesterday there was an abundance of human life all over these pathways. Today it was just the two of us. I breathed deeply, peacefully as we strode along the well-worn trail. Less than 24 hours before, on this same patch of ground, I felt suffocated by the crowds. It’s amazing the difference an early start (and a Monday) can make.

Again we walked up the stairs blasted into the rock faces. Hanging on to the sturdy, metal rails we admired the thought and craftsmanship that went into building this beautiful trail network in an otherwise inaccessible place. It’s no wonder people flock to these trails.

Occasionally we’d nod a hello to a couple passing by. The questions we got were always the same: “have you seen the condors?” Everyone seemed excited to catch a glimpse of the rare birds. We had a short conversation with one family who was hoping to see them. As if on cue, a huge condor soared close above our heads; the white feathers on the bottom of its wings were really obvious. We all gasped. “Wow!”

Wildlife encounters are always special. I didn’t know much about the California Confor before visiting Pinnacles so I enjoyed reading about the birds in the park brochure. Fun fact: condors can fly up to 200 miles in one day.

Luckily we only had to walk about 5 miles today, since there was an afternoon of driving ahead. On the second half of our loop we enjoyed more new views and plants, including a very healthy sprig of poison oak! I was not expecting to see that. Near the bottom of the loop, the trail character changed significantly. There was lots of shade, moss and water. We were close to the Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir but we didn’t have the energy to explore either.

Instead we opted for a picnic near the parking lot to fuel up for our drive to Ojai and tomorrow’s adventures on the Channel Islands.

High Peaks Loop

March 24, 2019.

9.5 mi. | 1970′ ele. gain | 5:30 hrs.

Photo album for Pinnacles National Park

After a full day of driving and a cold, windy night of camping, we finally arrived at Pinnacles National Park. This was the first stop in a two-week road trip filled with opportunities to camp, hike, explore, dance and play Capoeira. Today’s adventure would be simple: hike a popular loop through the park in search of wildflowers and California condors.

The trip came at a challenging time. About a month an a half prior, I injured my hip to the point that I couldn’t walk without crutches for a couple of weeks. Continued pain and lack of mobility limited my activity levels and speed; I was feeling not like my usual self. I left Oregon with a swirl of emotions and fears. Would I be able to hike? Would I be able to participate in all the activities I’d planned? This first outing would serve as a litmus test for the rest of the trip.

It was 10:30 am by the time we were ready to hike; a late start, for sure. The parking lots were full and we anticipated National Park size crowds along the trail.

At once, I was struck by the warmth of the sun’s rays and the palette of colors at my feet. We’d emerged from winter’s snowy cloak in Bend and transported ourselves right into springtime. Crowds or not, I was thrilled to be out in the sun.

With poles in hand I methodically slogged up the trail behind my roadtrip buddy, LeeAnn. We stopped frequently to admire and photograph the many wildflowers we saw along the way.

The trails were busy, so we did our best to ignore the crowds and noise and focus on the incredible vistas around us. As we neared the upper ridge, we kept our eyes peeled for California condors. Looking up we saw large birds circling overhead. Were they condors? Hawks? Crows? Most of the birds we found were crows. However, we learned to identify condors in flight by looking for a broad, white stripe underneath their wings.

It was cool to see these birds. Brought to extinction in the wild in 1987, they are making a comeback thanks to captive breeding programs. With only 170 wild condors presently in California, we were grateful for the chance to see these majestic birds in their native habitat.

But our attention was often drawn downward: thousands of colorful wildflowers, which couldn’t fly away from us or leave us guessing, captivated my curiosity. I took dozens of photos. Each time we found a “new” flower, we’d exclaim, “over here!” and excitedly observe the details of our discovery. My favorite flower was Pedicularis densiflora, commonly known as Indian warrior. These funky flowers grew profusely in the shade beneath larger shrubs. The deep red color of their petals seemed to bleed right into the toothy leaves at the base of the plant. These fierce looking blooms commanded attention when they grew by the trail. Unlike the delicate, ephemeral poppies that put on the big shows, these punk-rock beauties quietly hid in the shadows of the manzanita.

About halfway through the loop I paused to assess my progress. Less than two months prior, I fell and injured my hip so badly that I was resigned to walking on crutches for a few weeks. My hip function had suffered as a result and I wasn’t even sure I would be able to get out and enjoy hiking on this trip. Although at that moment I felt soreness and weakness in my hip, I mostly felt grateful that I was able to get around under my own power. And I knew my friend wouldn’t get on my case about slowing her down. She enjoyed the slower pace, knowing that we had a lot of activity in store over the next couple weeks, and appreciated the reduced speed for her own self-preservation.

As we wrapped around the second half of the loop we experienced the many different flavors of Pinnacles National Park: the high-elevation vistas, the craggy rock formations, the cool forests and the flowing streams.

Near the end of the hike we walked through an area littered with massive pine cones. I didn’t know what they were at the time, but a little post-trip Googling brought me to the Gray pine, the only conifer in the park. If tree identification was always that easy…

That evening, we retired to the campsite we’d reserved for the night. Our site was set back from most of the other ones, which were all cozied up next to their neighbors. While it wasn’t my favorite campground in the world, I was glad we didn’t have to drive around searching for somewhere to sleep. Tomorrow we’d continue our exploration of the park.

Exploring the Channeled Scablands

November 22-25, 2018.

Photo album

Thanksgiving weekend, 2018. I asked my husband Aaron to pick a destination for our outdoor holiday adventures. He said “how about Eastern Washington? We’ve never been there.”

Eastern Washington. A land with no mountains, no points of interest that immediately captured my attention. I did some research and saw a lot of the same: lakes, rivers, rolling hills. It was a landscape formed by the Missoula Floods between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. Glacial Lake Missoula, held in place by a 2,000 foot tall ice dam, periodically broke through the dam and sent cataclysmic floods across the Pacific Northwest. The coulees, channels, rock islands and giant current ripples in modern Eastern Washington were formed as the floodwaters scoured the earth. So this year we’d take a tour through some of this unique and fascinating geology.

Gingko-Petrified Forest

Our first stop took us to one of many Washington State Parks we’d visit on this trip. We began at the interpretive center, which was closed for the day. But just outside the front doors lay several examples of petrified wood. Down a set of stairs we found a display of basalt pillars covered in petroglyphs. The pillars had been moved from their original location and put behind a fence to protect them from vandalism. More on that later.

From there we drove up the road to the Trees of Stone Interpretive Trail. The landscape had suffered from what looked like a recent burn. We walked under a thick, gloomy fog across a nearly barren landscape. Every few yards we’d spy a chunk of petrified wood. How would we know? They were all cached inside thick metal cages. Yes, we’d entered a rock zoo.

It was depressing and I couldn’t wait to get back to the car.

To learn more about this park and to find out when the visitor’s center is open, check out their website.

Lenore Lake Caves

In advance of this trip I saw lots of cool photos coming from this area so I arrived at the trailhead eager to explore. A clear path led uphill towards a series of “caves” in the basalt cliffs. The caves were more like overhangs, carved out by water and subsequent erosive forces. As we hiked we picked up trash near the trail. And in the first cave, we were instantly disappointed. Graffiti. Everywhere.

Well, I thought, maybe if we walked a bit further, the other caves wouldn’t be so marked up. I was wrong. We walked from cave to cave, seeing loads of signs of obnoxious visitors. None of the trails were marked so herd paths led all over the place. The caves were all marked up. There were cans and bottles and debris strewn about the rocks. We got over this place real quick.

In an effort to get away from the human impact, we searched for a way to return on a loop, off-trail. Luckily, Aaron spotted a little ramp that led down the seemingly impenetrable cliff and we circled back towards a path near the water. Along the way we found lots of interesting things: animal bones, cool plants, cracked soil. It was scenic and beautiful and mostly unscarred by humans.

At the trailhead I unloaded the trash from the side pockets in my backpack; there was a garbage can right at the trailhead. I noticed that the bulk of the garbage came from single-use beverage containers: soda and beer cans, glass beer bottles, plastic water bottles. How complicated is it to pack a re-usable water bottle and bring it back with you? I wonder about the future of our natural spaces if people can’t even be bothered to carry an empty drink container a half a mile back to their car.

Soap Lake

As we headed towards our next park I eyeballed the map. In my research I had noticed a “Unique Natural Features” symbol near the town of Soap Lake. I’m a list person, I love checking things off of lists. And visiting all the the Unique Natural Features list in my Delorme Road Atlases is something I’ve been working on since moving west.

And so we pulled in to the not-quite-thriving town of Soap Lake. The mineral-rich lake had been known since before pioneer time to have “healing waters.” Thus, it became a destination for tourists to come and seek a cure for their ailments. We walked through a city park on the water’s edge and dipped our hands in the water. Felt like water.

Today the town had more boarded-up buildings than operable ones. On one corner downtown a small Ukrainian food market seemed to be doing quite well. We stopped in for some snacks and continued on our way.

Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park

I had been really excited to see Dry Falls and it  did not disappoint. Even on this dreary, cold and gray day, the vista from the Dry Falls Visitor Center was absolutely stunning. From the edge of the parking lot we looked into a chasm that rivaled the views at the Grand Canyon (minus the people and stench of pee).

The sign indicated that during the floods, Dry Falls would have had torrents of water rushing over its 3.5 mile wide edge. Niagara Falls, by comparison, is only a fifth of the width of Dry Falls.

There wasn’t much hiking to be done from the top, so we drove through the main park entrance to a trailhead 400 feet below.

As we strolled among the grasses and rocks in the basin I looked all around me in a state of awe. It was difficult to comprehend the size of the space I was in. I felt small. We climbed on top of rock piles, took lots of pictures and then checked the time. It was Thanksgiving, and it was time to find a place to camp so we could eat some turkey.

Steamboat Rock State Park

We rolled into Steamboat Rock State Park just before sunset, giving us enough daylight to find a nice campsite to call home for the evening. There were hundreds of campsites in three separate campgrounds; only a few areas were open during the winter and I could count on one hand how many people were actually camping. Only one other tent was pitched nearby.

As soon as we set up our tent and got a fire started, it started to rain. I worked quickly to warm up our Thanksgiving meal and get everything ready to eat. As the rain picked up we made up our plates and shuttled into the tent to eat our dinner out of the cold rain.

In the morning, we had some hiking to do. Steamboat Rock, a flat-topped butte rising up out of Banks Lake. The lake lies within the Grand Coulee, one of the most impressive features left behind by the Missoula Floods. We packed up for a cold and possibly rainy day and set off from a marked trailhead below the rock.

The trail passed through a surprisingly colorful sandy hillside. The sagebrush and other hardy plant life had taken on hues of gold, orange, brown and red for the winter. At the base of Steamboat Rock, we hiked up a jumble of talus that led to the rock’s broad summit plateau. From there, social trails led every which way. Nothing looked terribly official up there. So, we went left.

For the next hour or so, we walked where our curiosity led us. We hiked to overlooks above the slate-blue lake. We explored erratic boulders, left behind an ice age ago. We looked for wildlife but mostly found poop and tracks. There were lots of poop around the boulder piles. The animals up there apparently liked to hang out in the same places I liked to go. After circling around much of the rock formation we headed back down.

Grand Coulee Dam

Just before lunchtime, we rolled into the parking lot at Grand Coulee Dam. Grand is an understatement. Here we found another impossibly big structure, this time one constructed by man. We watched streams of water trickle over the edge of the 550′ tall concrete dam, then walked through the Visitor’s Center to learn more about the construction, history and impact of the dam.

I remained interested in the educational nature of the center until my hunger got to me. Back at the car we assembled some lunch: a turkey leftovers wrap for me and a meat and greens salad for Aaron. We had a long drive ahead.

Palouse Falls

We were tight on time yet again. These short November days were really hard to manage. The dark skies were sprinkling down rain. As we turned down the road to the falls we were greeted with a flashing highway sign that foreboded: “Danger. Four recent deaths.” I had read about one of them while I was planning this trip. Our goal today was to stay on the marked trails, get some views, and hurry back to the car to find a campsite.

The falls and the canyon below the falls were gorgeous. I was blown away by the dramatic cliffs, colors and churning water. I could see why it lured so many people in.

But the rain and cold was getting pretty grating. We walked a short path along a railing and then returned to the car. Finding a campsite that evening was not as easy as I thought, since the campground I planned on staying at was closed. Another 40 minutes of driving brought us to Potholes State Park well after sunset.

Potholes State Park

I happily gobbled down a piece of pumpkin pie for breakfast as we burned a pile of firewood to warm up. It froze last night; we awoke to a landscape covered in ice crystals. With earplugs it would have been an idyllic morning. But the constant whine of motorboats and frequent, piercing shotgun blasts reminded us that most people don’t come here to just quietly be in nature.

We took a short hike before heading to our destination for the day. The signboard at the park indicated a trailhead, with dots leading off the sign in the direction of an indeterminately long trail. We walked a short loop in no time at all, strolling through a lovely wetland near a bright blue inlet stream. We could see snow-capped mountains far in the distance.

Hanford Reach National Monument

We arrived at Hanford Reach on a perfectly clear, bluebird morning ready for a full day of hiking. I’d read about the White Bluffs, a stretch of cliffs above the Yakima River, which offered pretty trails and wildlife viewing opportunities.

This monument is unique in that it preserves an area around World War II nuclear reactors. The land in this area has been undeveloped since the 1940’s, when the nuclear program was active there. As a result, this “involuntary park” remained a sanctuary for wildlife and was designated a National Monument by Bill Clinton in 2000.

The Subaru stood alone in a small, empty parking lot as we began hiking up the hillside.

I breathed deeply, the crisp and dry air filling my lungs. It felt good to get out on a real hike. Today was the first day since catching a cold three weeks ago that I felt like a whole person again. Down below we heard whining coyotes. Over our head we saw vee-formations of geese. And all along the trails we saw animal tracks. It was a wild place.

The trail climbed up to the top of the bluffs through familiar high desert brush. But then it revealed its other side: long, undulating sand dunes that disappeared into the distance. It was beautiful. I took my socks and shoes off to explore the cushy sand.

The first set of dunes became engulfed in brush for awhile, then it re-emerged into open sand. As I was adjusting my footwear a man popped up from the sage. We chatted for awhile. He’d lived in the area and had lots of great stories and hiking recommendations for us. As he was leaving he said “Well this is the end of the line for me. It’s just a lot of sand up ahead.”

Just sand.

That’s what I was excited about. We bid adieu and I gleefully strode barefoot out on the sand. We eyed the highpoint of the dunes for our lunch spot. And as we were up there I started thinking. Could we get to the river? The bluffs were sheer, but it appeared that there were a few ramps cutting through the cliffs. Yes, we’d give it a try.

We dropped in elevation and Aaron scouted a route down to the flatlands below. With not too much trouble we made our way to the water’s edge. The earth was mushy and unstable here. There wasn’t much of a beach to hang out on. We re-traced our path towards the dunes in fear of getting cliffed out. The rest of the walk was an easy ramble.

Hat Rock State Park

That night we stayed in Kennewick. The following day was just a drive day. But I threw in a couple of bonus stops outside the Channeled Scablands to enjoy some lesser visited parts of Oregon.

Located on the Columbia River, Hat Rock State Park preserves a basalt plug that was allegedly used by Lewis and Clark as a navigational landmark. The rock was set behind a chain link fence, which was quite disappointing, but we managed an interesting hike on and off the trails. We hiked out to a beautiful viewpoint of the river and then walked cross-country to the top of Steamboat Rock, another highpoint in the park.

John Day Fossil Beds: Clarno

Lastly we took a quick detour to the quietest of the John Day Fossil Beds units in Clarno. This place is on the way to nowhere, so you really have to make a point of coming here. But it has one of my favorite trails in the state: The Trail of Fossils.

We first assembled a lunch of all the scraps left in the cooler before hiking all three trails in the unit. Our route began on the Geologic Time Trail, where trail markers told the story of the rock and fossils here as if we were literally walking back in time. Next we hiked among the fossil-laden boulders, searching for leaves and sticks encapsulated in stone. Finally we trudged uphill to a viewpoint beneath the Clarno Arch. It’s a very scenic park that would no doubt see more visitors if it was in a different location. I’m glad it’s not, though. We only saw a handful of people and it was a lovely way to finish our Thanksgiving adventures.

Hiking Cathedral Gorge State Park

April 12-13, 2018.

Photos.

We arrived at Cathedral Gorge before lunchtime in order to increase our chances of getting a campsite. We had cut it a bit close yesterday. When we got to the park the campsite was pretty empty, so we had our choice of spots to choose from. After claiming a site we did a quick hike at Kershaw-Ryan State Park (not impressed), ate a picnic lunch on the lawn there, drove to Pioche for coffee and then returned to camp. It was still windy as hell and my foot still hurt, so you can imagine how awesome my mood was when it came time to take another walk.

Nature Loop and Cathedral Caves

We bundled up and set out for the Nature Loop, a half-mile interpretive trail. I could handle that. The trail was pretty meh but the Cathedral Caves were filled with unexpected treasures.

One note before the trail report: the signage at Nevada State Parks is absolutely ridiculous. The maps are gorgeous. But the table of data on every sign has so much superfluous information it’s almost laughable. No one visiting the park who’s heading out on a 1-mile loop needs to know information like “maximum cross slope,” “typical surface firmness (in inches, of course)” and “typical tread width.” WTF? Maybe this information is useful in internal documents, but not on a public-facing sign. Distance and elevation gain is pretty much all that’s necessary. But wait, the tables don’t even list elevation gain? I really couldn’t understand the impetus for such a sign. And they’re in every Nevada State Park we’ve visited. In an age when people’s eyes glaze over if they have to read a sign that says “pack it in, pack it out,” I can’t imagine anyone is understanding the information overload on these signs. Okay, rant over.

I had originally become interested in this park after seeing a photo in a AAA magazine. I was mesmerized by the colors and shapes carved into the unusual rock here. But that is all I knew about the place. What we discovered were tall, narrow hallways that burrowed into the fluted rock formations. Called “caves,” these passageways were unlike anything I’d seen before. The “rock” didn’t even look like rock, but like flaky, delicate piles of mud. It looked as if a single rainstorm would wash it all away. The passages were just barely wide enough for us to walk through.

None were terribly long, but they were really fun to explore. You’d walk in a few yards, hit a dead end, turn around. Some of them had branching passages to explore. At each hallway terminus it felt like you could say, “beam me up, Scotty!” and be taken to another dimension.

A side benefit was that the caves offered complete protection from the wind, which we were reminded of every time we stepped out into the open. They were so cool! We spent quite some time oohing and aahing over the geology before trudging back to the campsite. It was so insanely windy that I holed up in the tent while Aaron prepared dinner, and we ate inside the tent, too. It was going to be another long night.

Juniper Draw Loop

The wind blew hard all night long. In the morning, the air was quiet but cold. After breakfast we each enjoyed hot showers in the campground before taking a walk on the Juniper Draw Loop.

The trail passed close to the badlands formations that make the park so unique. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The fluted spires and pillars that looked so fragile had, in fact, formed from ash deposited tens of millions of years ago. Geology is so in your face in the west. I remember yawning through geology class in college back in New Jersey, where all of it seemed so theoretical. But here it was tangible, visible, notable. You couldn’t deny it. How my life may have been different if I grew up here…

Along the way we saw jackrabbits and lizards. No snakes. I couldn’t believe I was on the tail end of a two week desert trip and I hadn’t seen one single rattlesnake. It feels like the only people who see rattlers are the ones who don’t want to see them.

We walked slowly around the loop. I was keeping my fingers crossed that my foot wouldn’t act up today. I didn’t want to push it. Looking down I noticed cryptobiotic soil. I’d first learned about this phenomenon on a visit to Utah a couple years prior. Between the rocks, the microbes, the animals, plants and weather there was a lifetime of science stuff to geek out on here. But we weren’t done yet.

Near the end of the loop we came across more of those “caves.” Some of them were signed: Canyon Caves, Moon Caves. They were nearly identical to the ones we’d explored yesterday. But there were some passageways that led uphill, providing a view looking down into the thin hallways. I was terrified up there, as if at any moment the ground beneath me could collapse. We hurried back down to the safety of the floor and continued on our way. By now, my ankle was hurting. I got grouchy again and made a beeline for the car.

Despite the foot injury I felt like we made a good effort to see this park. While the colors weren’t as impressive as the (probably photoshopped) images from my AAA magazine, the experience was just as delightful as I’d hoped it would be.

Short hikes in Snow Canyon State Park

April 11-12, 2018

By some miracle, we rolled into Snow Canyon State Park sometime in the afternoon of April 11 and managed to snag the last available campsite. It was about a thousand degrees outside and we had one scraggly tree near our site. It wasn’t the best, but at least we didn’t have to keep driving. Besides, there were some hikes I wanted to do here.

After a little nap in the tent we packed up for a couple of short hikes to stretch our legs. My foot was really hurting after yesterday’s adventure in Buckskin Gulch. I didn’t notice it until I woke up this morning and could barely stand up. I had a rip in my left foot at the base of my big toe that prevented me from walking without a limp. And here I thought my feet held up great after a day of barefoot canyoneering. Wrong.

Jenny’s Canyon

This was possibly one of the most disappointing hike of the trip and it’s all because we were spoiled in some sweet slot canyons already. Plus, there was a loud (but surprisingly small) group ahead of us whose sole purpose of visiting the park was clearly shouting their life stories across the valley. Fun.

Hidden Pinyon

I have a bit of a soft spot for park interpretive trails with brochures. This was one of them. Plus, it gave me an excuse to stop at every numbered sign and read about the vegetation and animal life in the park. We slowly meandered along this trail, enjoying the learning opportunities and stopping breathlessly underneath every shade tree. I could never live in Utah.

White Rock Amphitheater

We drove up to the northern-most trailhead in the park and set out on a trail to the White Rock Amphitheater. It was a quick but beautiful walk to the natural amphitheater set in a movie-like backdrop of white sandstone. By now the sun was low enough in the sky that the air felt comfortable. A light breeze blew by and we had this place all to ourselves. Now I was starting to settle in here. Despite my angry foot I managed to scramble up the slickrock to the high point above the bowl because, duh, it was there. Aaron was on a mission to find a desert tortoise, so we pretended to look for one at every little patch of sand and shrubs along the hillside. We didn’t find one, but we did see some pretty agave and cacti.

It was quite breezy and cool up top; I could have stayed here awhile. But our hungry bellies were ready for dinner so we hauled back out of there.

Back at camp, we grilled up some pork chops and asparagus. The camp host walked past and warned us about high winds and rain coming through tonight. We thanked her, finished our meal and collapsed in the tent.

Petrified Dunes

So there was some wind last night. It was blowing so hard I got probably an hour of sleep. Several times I woke up to stick my feet up on the tent ceiling to help bolster the poles. I’d never seen my low-profile backpacking tent get pushed around so much! It was nuts. And since we were in the desert, we woke up with a thick layer of sand on everything in the tent. And in our mouths and noses. And, yeah you get the point. It was a miserable night. We packed up and got right in the car.

We took one more walk in Snow Canyon at the Petrified Sand Dunes. The wind was still blowing, the sun was barely up and the air was surprisingly chilly. I layered up for this walk.

The trail crosses petrified sand dunes, which look like any other slickrock hill I’ve ever been on. There were funky trail markers drilled into the rock for the start of the hike, but after seeing about three of them we never saw another one. We meandered around on the rock until we felt like we’d seen enough, turned around and looped back towards the parking area. My foot was still really angry so I had to walk very carefully and slowly, not an easy thing for me to do. I struggled with feeling so inept at walking but I tried not to let it get me down. The wind didn’t help my mood.

Back in the car we drove off towards Nevada for the next couple of state parks on our journey…

Buckskin Gulch

April 10, 2018.

Photos.

Last night’s campsite was the most spectacular of the trip. It’s really something when taking a chance works out in your favor. Having never been in this area before, it felt like a bit of a crapshoot. Nevermind all that Internet research, there’s still something unsettling about pulling up to a foreign place for the first time. But we nailed it.

Where did we stay? Well, let’s just keep that a secret. What I will say is that doing your research ahead of time sometimes pans out. And sometimes you just stumble across the perfect spot. It’s up to you to plan your trips (or not) the way you want to. Some things, I think, are better left to the imagination.

The trail head

We drove up to the Wire Pass trailhead, confused as to why there were so many cars there. A minivan speedily pulled in next to us. They rolled down the window and shouted “Is this the parking lot for THE WAVE??”

Ah, so that explained the excitement.

I read the sign and sure enough, this trailhead did provide the access point for the Wave. If you’ve ever seen a picture of the American Southwest, you’ve seen this picture. It became such a popular area that there are now limited entry permits required to visit it. With my disdain for both permits and popular hiking spots, the Wave was not on the top of my to-do list. Instead we were heading for another slot canyon, the longest in the southwest.

Unlike yesterday’s hike, I knew we wouldn’t reach the end of it. But I wanted to see how far we could get.

The canyon

Unsure of the trail conditions, the temperature inside the canyon and the water situation, I had trouble figuring out what to pack. I read that there would be some sections of standing water we’d have to wade through so I wore sandals. I figured it might be cooler inside the slot so I packed my fuzzy yellow fleecy top. And I knew we’d need lots of snacks and water so of course I packed all that.

The trail began as a path in a broad wash lined with shrubs and wildflowers. There were other people walking ahead of us, their WAVE permits dangling from their backpacks. We turned a corner, passed through a dry slot, scrambled down a vertical channel and popped out into a large canyon with tall, steep walls. There were a couple of groups of people sitting at the edge of this canyon, where it joined up with Buckskin Gulch.

One man walked up to me, asked where I was heading and shook his head. “You can’t get through there, the canyon is filled with thigh-deep mud.” I thanked him for the beta and kept walking towards the canyon. I had to see for myself.

We reached the canyon mouth and turned right, heading for the narrow section that I’d read about. Just a short ways into the gulch we reached some mud. Then deep puddles of water. Very quickly, my shoes came off. And I’d keep them off for the entire day.

In some sections, the pools of water were avoidable. The canyon bottom was wide enough, and had a mud bar to one side, so that I could skirt the edge of the water. But in other places the canyon was so narrow that I had to walk right into the water. It was ankle deep. Knee deep. Over the knees. Oh yes, there was thigh deep…water, not mud. This was totally passable! And a grand adventure. We decided to keep going.

The day went like this: walk a bit on the mud, approach the next pool, gingerly test how deep the pool was, hike up shorts accordingly. Occasionally stop to adjust layers, as in put MORE clothes on. It was damned cold down there, which was especially weird considering it was probably 90 degrees outside the canyon. Little sunlight was able to penetrate the deep and narrow canyon, so it was like we had entered a completely different world.

The interior of the canyon also looked otherworldly. Rocks were eroded in unique shapes and patterns. Flash flooding had created holes, pockets and channels into the stone. The canyon bottom exhibited a wide range of textures, going from fine sand to smooth boulders to sharp pebbles, all in the blink of an eye. The sun, when it reached the canyon floor, created interesting shadows and silhouettes. I stopped to take a picture at least every 3 minutes, thinking, I’ll never see this again!

We were walking through the slot for so long it felt like it would never open up. As soon as we got a small widening in the gulch, we plopped down to have a much-needed snack.

Just a few minutes after we sat down, we heard voices. People?! Who would choose to walk through this water and sludge?

A couple appeared, wearing sandals, tank tops and shorts. They asked “Does this go to the Paria River?” Well yes, I thought, but that’s like 10 miles away. I informed them of this, then turned to reach into my bag for the map. When I turned around, they were already gone, retreating back the way they came. Well, that was odd. Who would have walked this far into a challenging hike with no sense of where they were or where they were going?

We pressed on, again the only people in the canyon. Right around the next corner the canyon opened wide and we felt the warm rays of the sun. Aaaahhh! It was wonderful.

But now we really got a sense of the size of the canyon. The walls to either side of us rose straight up, hundreds of feet. We felt tiny inside of this massive split in the earth. Since the canyon was so wide, it was now easier to avoid the slick mud and deep holes filled with water. It gave us an opportunity to dry our feet out and walk on soft ground.

At some point we reached a point in the canyon that was choked with boulders and debris. It wasn’t clear which way was the best way to get around it, so I picked a side and went. There may have been a handful of climbey-type moves on less than stellar rock but we both made it over just fine. And kept walking.

“When should we turn around?” Aaron asked. Oh, do we have to?! We both thought simultaneously. We looked at the time, selected a hard turnaround time and continued on.

I was mesmerized by the experience and already planning a return trip. How cool would it be to backpack the entire Paria Canyon? And I’m not even a backpacker!

At x-o’clock in the afternoon, I don’t remember what time, we decided it was time to turn around. I really didn’t have a sense of how far we had come, since the GPS on my phone was wildly inaccurate inside of a canyon. And while it felt like we had walked 20 miles, in reality we assuredly hiked much less!

On our way back, I stopped to take fewer pictures, but I was no less in awe of the place we were in. Each fold in the rock, each groove in the mud, each bundle of debris and each shadow on the water was a spectacular moment to be cherished. I just didn’t need to capture it on camera.

We had almost made it back to Wire Canyon when we began to hear voices again. Another couple was heading our way. We chatted with them a bit, and they seemed excited about their adventure. They knew how late in the day it was and it sounded like they were planning to turn around soon.

After stepping out of that last puddle of water I breathed a sigh of relief. While Aaron washed his feet and put his shoes back on, I found a place to sit just off the trail. OUCH. Every plant in this damn place is covered in spines! I carefully found another seat and savored a few moments of quiet rest. There wasn’t another soul in the canyon.

The rest of the hike was uneventful, but my feet were pretty sore. Every little pebble and sticker sent sharp pains through my body. I put my sandals back on. Feet, you’ve had a long day.

Upon arriving at the car before sunset, I took a moment to reflect on a day well spent. Adventure is there for those who are willing to grab it, and I was grateful to have a partner who put his trust in me to find a new trail and was all in to give it a shot.

Hanging Garden and Wiregrass Canyon

April 9, 2018.

Photos.

There are very few maintained trails in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which I found fascinating. However, there were route descriptions on the official park service website. They were preceded with stern warnings regarding lack of cell phone reception, the need to carry water and other such things people should know, but they made an effort to put some routes out there for adventurous travelers. Thanks!

After a quick breakfast at our hotel we drove towards the visitor’s center at the dam to pick up maps and information. But we were too early, so we did a warm-up hike to kill time before the doors opened.

Hanging Garden Trail

1.6 mi | !40′ ele. gain | 45 min.

Luckily we stumbled across the Hanging Garden Trail just up the street from the dam. It was a 1-mile round trip path to a “hanging garden,” a wall of vegetation fed by a water seep. It was a hot and sunny morning and the trail was totally exposed. The landscape was utterly beautiful. There were a few blooming cacti in sight. Lizards darted around on the rocky ground. And in the distance we could barely make out the sparkling blue water of Lake Powell.

We arrived at the garden quickly and it was okay. I mean, it was interesting in that there was a wall of ferns in the desert. But to me, the best part of the trail was the landscape it traveled through. On the way in we saw a double line of rocks veering off trail and leading, seemingly, up to a high point. We walked that path on our return hike. Sure enough, it did lead to a highpoint and the views were more of the same: incredible.

This was a lovely diversion and a highly recommended stop.

Wiregrass Canyon

11.6 mi | 800′ ele. gain | 7 hr.

We picked up a map at the visitor’s center shop and took off. The trail head to Wiregrass Canyon wasn’t too far away but we did have to drive across a running creek to get there. A jeep sat alone in the parking lot. We’d never see its owner, or anyone else for that matter, all day.

My research for this canyon stated that this would be a 7.4 mile hike in a canyon to a turnaround point. Cool, we could do that. We loaded up with plenty of water and took off. In the back of my mind, though, i thought we could run it out to the lake. I mean, it was right there…

We dropped down into the shallow canyon by following a sandy trail that took us to the bottom. From there, the directions were pretty simple: follow the canyon floor. Well, with one exception: shortly into the hike we’d reach an impassible slot that we’d bypass. That’s what the Internet consensus was, anyways.

When we arrived at the slot we took a spur trail to a high point to take in the view, then followed rock cairns around the steep drops. From there all we had to do was follow the winding canyon as long as we wanted.

The canyon’s rock walls seemed to change every minute. There were endless varieties of color and texture as we turned each corner. I was not sure where the alleged turn-around point was (it seemed so specific, half of 7.4 miles?) since the canyon just kept going. So we kept going, too.

The sun was fiercely hot and I was grateful for the shade provided by the walls of the canyon. We hiked from shade patch to shade patch, taking extended snack and water breaks along the way.

I was firmly set on making it all the way to the lake. I had visions of sitting on a remote lakeshore, dipping my feet in the water and relaxing to the sounds of nature. But I was ripped out of this daydream by the sound of boot-sucking mud. Yes, the hardpan dirt under my feet suddenly turned into a thick, pasty mud. We clambered up the banks of the canyon to higher ground and kept walking. But that’s where all the brush was…

For what felt like a hundred miles we bushwhacked through the thick brush, occasionally crossing the mud slick when the upper benches dead-ended in vertical walls. By now I had taken my shoes off but Aaron stubbornly left his on. One misstep got him over ankle-deep in the mud and he got grumpy.

This was not an Aaron mood that I was familiar with.

“But we’re so close!” I said, and tried my best to lighten the mood. Many, many twists and turns later we saw it: water. We’d made it to the lake!

There was no beach or any way to get to the water because it was protected by potentially thigh-deep muck. I wasn’t going to step in to it without a foot and both hands on shore. I thought I’d never get back out. So we sat on a rock and let our feet and shoes dry out as we ate lunch.

While we didn’t have the epic beach experience I’d hoped for, we enjoyed watching the birds and hearing the splashes of fish jumping out of the water. There was no sign of humans anywhere.

On the way back, we reinforced our mud crossings with branches, debris and anything else that would provide a bit more flotation over the slime. Once we got past the worst of it we settled into a nice pace.

It was hotter now, though, so we took more shade breaks. We also decided to zig where we zagged on the way in: there were a couple of side passages that offered something of a loop option. There were also a few slots that we had to investigate. Some were dead-ends, but others we could link back to the main canyon. It felt good to have options for exploration on an out-and-back type of hike.

Our final obstacle was the slot canyon we avoided on the way in. “Let’s just take a look,” I said. I wanted to see if we could find a safe passageway.

We did, although it involved a handful of vertical climbing moves to get up some short, steep sections. It was fun and an adventurous way to wrap up a long day.

When we arrived at the car I went right to the cooler for a cold drink. I selected the root beer milk that I picked up the other day for novelty’s sake. And it was REALLY GOOD. Like, dangerously good. It tasted like a melted root beer float. A refreshing treat after a day in the sun!

We did make one more stop today at Paria Toadstools. But it felt like a total circus, so we left almost as soon as we arrived at the toadstools. People everywhere, posing for pictures. It was so gross, especially after being alone all day. I’ll take my balancing rocks that aren’t perched conveniently close to the road!

Humphrey’s Peak

April 8, 2018.

10 mi. | 3200′ ele. gain | 7:15 hr. | Photos

We woke up at 5 am to hit this mountain early in the day. I’d done plenty of research regarding the route and what to expect, but after spending several days in the sun-baked desert I felt fairly unprepared and bewildered that we’d be in the snow today.

I opted to pack light: Yaxtrax, down jacket, rain jacket, normal layers, hat and sunglasses. I wore my Altra trail shoes and Dirty Girl Gaiters. I forgot to pack gloves for the entire Southwest road trip so I borrowed a couple of pairs from Aaron (he packed 4 pairs!). Just enough food and water, small backpack, hiking poles. It felt pretty minimal but I figured it wouldn’t be that bad.

By 6:30 am we were ready to start walking. I was confused as to which parking lot was the one the ranger had told us to leave the car. The ski area was not well-labeled for climbers. We found a spot in a mostly empty lot and made our way to the trail. A snow groomer was loudly and carefully going over a tiny patch of snow that just happened to be right in our path. That was just the first obstacle of the day.

The trail was a mix of bare ground and icy snow patches. It was chilly at this time of the day and the snow was still well frozen. We went as long as we could without Yaxtrax but eventually decided to put them on. We mostly followed the trail, but as we approached treeline we lost the track. Just a little futzing around got us back on route and soon we had gained the ridge.

We’d heard the wind for most of the day but the closer we got to those stunted, alpine trees the more we were at the mercy of the icy blasts. I put all of my layers on and zipped everything up tight. Even under all those layers it felt really cold. Aaron’s hands were freezing. That NEVER happens. He was being very gentleman-like, and donated his warmest gloves to me. Since my hands were comfy warm in there, we switched gloves on our way to the summit.

The wind took my breath away. Every step felt like what I imagined a step on Everest would be. So dramatic! But the rime ice coating the trees, the rocky ridgeline and the panoramic views kept a big smile on my face. It was so beautiful up there. Near the top, we saw one couple on their way down: the first people we saw all day. “Almost there!” they said.

I was anticipating a quick photo op on the summit before descending back down out of the wind. But due to some kind of miracle, there was a spot on top sheltered from the wind. We plopped our packs down, took shelter and ate a nice big snack from the top of Arizona. What a great day!

Before taking off we posed for pictures with the sign and then hurried down the ridge. By now, some other people were heading up. In shorts. With miniature dogs. Oh, it was time for the circus to begin.

Back below treeline we re-adjusted our layers and settled in to an easy downhill pace. Through the trees I heard, “Where’s the fucking trail?” And then there were two hapless hikers floundering through the now soft snow, searching for the route. “Right here,” we replied, and waited for them to get to where we were. For the next few minutes we listened to one of the guys bitch about how poorly marked the trail was and how hard it was to wallow through the snow with a 45-lb pack on. He was training for something, he said. I found it hard not to laugh. Training for…mountaineering? Right? So this is kind of perfect training. Routefinding, poor snow conditions, heavy pack. Feeling confused and suffering? That’s mountaineering 101 my friend.

After we left those characters behind, we encountered many more. People who got a pretty late start, with no snow gear, wearing jeans, no concept of the route. That’s what you get for climbing a state highpoint, I suppose. I wondered what drives these people to do this? People who aren’t hikers, who have no mountain experience and who don’t know what they don’t know…

It took us longer than I planned to get down. That threw off the rest of the day a bit, but no worries. I was excited to have gotten this one done. It was a challenging and fun hike with just enough of an alpine experience to make it feel like a real mountain. But I don’t think I’ll be working on the state highpoints list any time soon. Humphrey’s Peak brings me to #4 out of 50. I’ve done Mt. Hood (OR), Mt. Washington (NH) and Katahdin (ME).

We finished the day with a long drive, a fruitless search to find a campsite for the evening and more unrelenting wind. Aaron made the call to find a motel and crash for the night. It was probably the best decision of the trip.

Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments

April 7, 2018.

Photo album

Sunset Crater Volcano

After a lazy morning in camp we packed up and headed up the road to Sunset Crater National Monument. This stop came highly recommended from a friend, and it was on our way to Wupatki National Monument anyways.

We arrived at the Visitor’s Center before it opened and we would have waited around, but…there was a bus full of Asian tourists unloading as we drove by. NOPE. That meant keep going. There were way too many people in one place for my liking.

As we sped off to the next stop on the road, I wondered. Why Asian tourists? Why aren’t there busloads of African, South American or Australian tourists? Is visiting national parks more of an Asian hobby? And which Asian country’s populations are most likely to fly to the US to sit on a bus day after day? It’s an interesting phenomenon. I didn’t have much time to ponder because we pulled in to the A’a trailhead.

Having limited information about this park, since we missed the visitor’s center, we looked out at what appeared to be a very short loop and got out of the car. As it turned out, it was a short loop and soon we hopped back in to drive to the next pull-out.

The Lava Flow Trail was a partly paved and partly natural surface loop that traveled about a mile through the flow near Sunset Crater. Whoop-dee-doo, I thought. We could see this at home.

Besides, it was kind of overcast and windy. The bus had arrived while we were finishing up the loop. We had to dodge tourists who were walking off trail and posing for photos near anything vaguely interesting. It felt a bit like Disneyland. Let’s get outta here.

Wupatki

We continued on to Wupatki. This National Parks site preserved Native American ruins and artifacts. Not my usual thing, but I figured since we were out there we’d take a look. And boy was I glad we did!

The first stop was Wukoki Pueblo. It was already very hot outside, despite the layer of clouds overhead. We grabbed our water bottles and cameras and walked out to the ruin.

The structure and the views were breathtaking. I imagined what it would be like to build, maintain and live in such a place. It must have been such a harsh way of life. As the wind blew all around us, we stepped inside for a respite. It was quite nice as a wind block. It was cool that we were allowed to walk inside, outside and atop the ruin. It felt more real that way, as it wasn’t behind a fence or otherwise out of reach. We could touch the rock, see all the little cracks and pebbles. I couldn’t always tell what was original and what was reconstructed, but that didn’t really matter. It was thought-provoking.

Next we stopped at the Visitor’s Center, where I enjoyed reading through the exhibits and learning more about the area. The Park Service actually took on some tough topics, including the human history of the land and how they came to acquire the park, basically kicking people out who had been living here for generations. Again I wasn’t sure how I felt about all of it but I was glad to have the opportunity to learn and reflect. So much in life is complicated and I appreciated being presented with multiple perspectives and nuance.

From there we headed out the back door, where a clever sign reminded us to carry some water, and off towards the big pueblo. This structure had many distinct rooms. It was something to behold. We had an interpretive guidebook that we borrowed from the ranger, so I stopped and read the information aloud at each numbered sign (one of my favorite things to do on interpretive trails!).

We finished that loop trail, returned the book to the Visitor’s Center and paused for a moment to enjoy the air conditioning. It was now really freaking hot and I was beginning to break down a little bit.

We had four more pueblos to see though, and we were going to see them all.

First, Nalakihu, then the Citadel. This was located in a particularly scenic spot and the clouds were putting on quite a dramatic show. The ruins were starting to look the same, and there were people everywhere. I was getting cranky, and it had nothing to do with dehydration.

Finally we took the Lomaki Trail to view the last two sets of ruins. The Box Canyon Ruins were sitting up on a pretty perch. Perhaps water used to run through the shallow canyon, providing life-sustaining liquid to its former residents. I strolled around in a bit of a daze, waiting for Aaron to take all the pictures he wanted so we could leave.

Worst camping

On our way out, we found a shaded picnic area along the road where we stopped and ate lunch. My next hike of the day turned out to be too far of a drive to be worthwhile, so we headed towards tomorrow’s trailhead. The ranger had recommended camping at the Friedline Prairie Dispersed Camping area, which SUCKED. There was trash everywhere, the sites were ugly, it was windy as hell and there was no privacy. But at that point we were exhausted, grumpy and just needed a place to sleep so we could get up early to climb Humphrey’s Peak. This would have to do. Tomorrow would be better.