Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan

November 18, 2019.

10.4 mi. | 4300′ ele. gain | 9 hrs.

Photo album

Guadalupe Peak

The winds picked up early in the morning, cutting my night’s sleep short. The forecast called for gusty winds all day and we had two mountains to climb. The forecast for the next day looked worse, so we had to go for it.

Guadalupe Peak is the highpoint of Texas at 8,751’. It is one of many peaks along an ancient, exposed coral reef studded with Permian fossils. It was the inspiration for this trip.

We began our hike at 8 am, marching uphill along the well-graded Guadalupe Peak Trail. Again my eyes were drawn to the plants: sotol, yucca, oak trees, cholla. We even saw some flowers! Indian paintbrush, a familiar bloom, as well as some yellow composites. It was shocking to me to see flowers this late in the year.

As we gained elevation, the wind grew stronger. I wrapped my buff over my hat so it wouldn’t fly away. One other woman on the trail had already had her hat stolen by the wind.

The trail ascended by means of several switchbacks connecting nearly flat traverses. We dipped in and out of the forest, in and out of the shade. Near the summit, we finally caught a glimpse of our secondary objective: El Capitan. It was only a mile off the trail, so I thought it would be a simple add-on if our hike to the top of Texas wasn’t enough to fill the day.

I knew we were at the summit when I saw the shiny obelisk perched on the rocks. I’d seen photos of this structure while doing research for the trip. Two other people sat near the base of the obelisk, enjoying their success. We bundled up and joined them, wolfing down some snacks and drinks in preparation for the second part of the day.

El Capitan

We descended just a few switchbacks from the top before angling off-trail towards El Capitan. I was not exactly sure where we were “supposed” to start our route but the landscape was pretty easy to read. We walked down a broad ridge, dancing between cactus and spiny shrubs. As we neared the convergence of several drainages, the landscape became a bit more steep and rocky. After finding the nicest path off of the rocks and into a streambed, we walked downhill for a few more minutes before eyeballing a possible ascent path.

The hillside in front of us looked steep and forbidding. The heavily vegetated slopes were broken up by slabs of rock. And of course, there were plenty of cacti hiding within the shrubbery.

We took turns leading the way, aiming for the path of least resistance while avoiding sharp cliff edges and heavy brush. Eventually we gained the ridge.

Aaron was moving much more slowly than usual. We stopped frequently so he could catch his breath and get his energy back. But, it was just not his day. We were within sight of the summit when he decided to stop and rest while I pressed ahead.

I promised I’d be back quickly and started moving along the cliff’s edge, peering over occasionally to get a sense of where I was. El Capitan is an impressive feature, with a sheer west face dropping over a thousand vertical feet towards the desert below.

Not long after I started up the ridge, I crested over the last bump and saw the summit marker: an ammunition box with a register inside. I signed into the register and flipped through some of the previous entries before picking up Aaron for our hike out.

We did our best to re-trace our ascent route back to the convergence. We made a few minor detours but mostly stayed on track. Then, it was time to basically re-climb to Guadalupe Peak and hike all the way back down. It was a link-up that looked better on paper, I guess.

Scrambling up that dry ridge in the heat of the afternoon felt even more draining than our climb to El Capitan. But, one slow step led to another and we eventually stepped back onto the trail. Aaron got his mojo back once we were on the official route and it took us no time at all to get back to the trailhead.

About 2/3 of the way down the trail we crossed paths with a solo hiker heading up. He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, carrying a cell-phone in one hand and a liter of water in the other. No backpack. No jacket. No headlamp. “Hi,” we said, and continued on our way.

Later that night at camp we noticed a beam of light from the flanks of Guadalupe Peak. Aaron thought back to the only hiker we knew was headed up the mountain late in the day. He thought maybe it was the light from a cell-phone flashlight, and that it wouldn’t last long. As we sat bundled up in down jackets eating a warm meal by the tent, we worried about the status of that hiker. Aaron ended up calling in to report what we’d seen, hoping that a ranger could hike up the trail and make sure whoever was on the trail after dark could make their way back down safely.

Carry the ten essentials and remember the first principle of Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare.

Devil’s Hall

November 17, 2019.

6.8 mi | 1030′ ele gain | 5:30 hr.

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The arrival

We pulled into Guadalupe Mountains National Park late last night. The moonlight cut through the pitch black sky, illuminating silhouettes of the trees and plants surrounding our campsite. The tree branches were blowing in the wind, portending the first obstacle I’d deal with on this trip.

Putting up a tent in the wind was a real challenge. I asked Aaron to help hold the tent down as I piled rocks on each corner of the fabric. The ground was rock solid; no tent stake could penetrate its surface. Once I got to pitching the fly, I had a real dilemma. Rocks wouldn’t work there. But the soil on the edges of the tent pad was soft…if only I could reach it. I had no cords or webbing at my disposal. I frantically tore through our luggage to find something to extend the fly so I could get some stakes in.

My hands fumbled across my Yaktrax, and at last I had a solution. I used a couple of carabiners to clip the Yaktrax to each other and then to the stake. I collapsed into the tent, dreaming about seeing the park in the daylight the next morning (check out my handiwork).

We watched the sunrise from the tent, then ate breakfast and wandered around the Visitor’s Center. After probing the ranger for some information about current conditions and recommendations, I settled on hiking to Devil’s Hall as our introductory hike in the park.

Devil’s Hall

The hike began on a trail right from the campground. We followed the trail right into Pine Spring Canyon and continued straight towards the Devil’s Hall. Along the way, my eyes adjusted to the southwestern desert flora. The most unusual plant I saw was sotol, a succulent that resembles yucca. A thick cluster of toothed, green leaves surrounds a single, tall flower stalk. On this day in November, the dried blooms made the stalks look like giant brushes. They towered over my head, impossibly tall. But those weren’t the only intriguing plant around. Cholla, bedecked with their bright yellow fruits, lined the trail.

The vegetation held my attention until we entered the canyon proper, where the geology took center stage. I marveled at the colors, textures and shapes of the rock. We explored little caves and undercuts, scrambled over conglomerate boulders, examined the perfectly horizontal layers of stone.

A natural staircase, carved out of those parallel layers, led into the “Devil’s Hall.” We climbed the slippery stairs and continued ahead to a truly remarkable spot. Sure enough, nature had created a wide hallway between two nearly vertical walls that reached high above the canyon floor. I suppose water must rush through the hallway during periods of rain, but it was bone dry on that day. Just beyond the hall, a metal sign marked the end of the trail. The canyon beyond the sign is closed to entry for part of the year in order to protect wildlife. Not this part of the year; we kept walking.

Almost immediately, the canyon floor became rougher, rockier and more overgrown. We rock-hopped our way through the quiet forest. Bright red maple leaves fluttered down from the branches above. I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier day.

We scanned the canyon for wildlife, but didn’t see anything much. A few little wrens hid in the spaces between boulders. A couple of grasshoppers posed on the rocks. But there were plenty of animal signs. Most notably, we noticed a distinctive magenta scat around every corner of the canyon. We couldn’t figure out who was leaving it, or if every animal out there was eating prickly pear fruit, but it was E V E R Y W H E R E.

After about a mile of walking beyond the sign, we stopped for a rest and then retreated.

Back at camp, I hurried to make dinner before the sun set. We feasted on taco salad and quickly retired to the tent: it was dark and cold and fires were banned. Shortly after getting into my sleeping bag I thought gosh, it must be like midnight!

It was 6:30 pm.

Eagle’s Dare, Acker Rock

September 7, 2019.

The beautiful morning sun

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After climbing the Peregrine Traverse in August, I determined that I’d be ready to tackle Eagle’s Dare with my friend Linda. Rated 5.9+ by most sources, it felt well within my ability to lead. After all, it was totally bolted. The catch: the route starts at the bottom of 7 or 8 rappels, and the only way to get out is to climb…

When we rendezvoused at the gate early that morning, the air was heavy with moisture. Linda pulled out a stack of pages filled with beta about the route. I thought about the crumpled post-it note with beta I’d shoved in my pocket the night before. We divided up the gear and hiked up to the lookout. The sun poked up above a sea of clouds as we prepared to descend into them. It looked just like all the photos I’d seen of the climb!

We left extra gear in a pack at the top of the climb and located the first rap anchors. It was now or never. I rigged up my rappel and stepped backwards into the abyss.

Into the nothing.

We repeated this ritual six more times until we reached what was presumably the bottom. Along the way we passed by wildflower gardens, patches of lichens, shrubs, trees and various textures of rock. It was a beautiful series of rappels, with big, beefy anchors just where we needed them. With our 70 m rope, none of the raps felt like rope-stretchers.

I reached the ground first, got out of the rope and began searching for the first bolt. In the process of walking through deep grass, I soaked my pants and shoes. I scanned the rock, high and low, looking for some shimmer of metal to get me on track. After much futzing around, I finally located what looked like a single bolt up a lichen-encrusted slab. “I think I found it!” I yelled. I looked down at my feet and there it was, a cairn, marking the start of the route. My gaze had been aiming high and I’d completely missed the obvious stack of rocks. Sigh.

We were completely socked in; I couldn’t see the next bolt or guess where the route went from there. We sat and waited for a sign. And waited. A 1-minute sun burst was all I needed to get excited to lead. I didn’t know that it was the last glimpse of sun I’d see all day. It was 11 am.

See the first bolt?

Pitch one felt runout but very easy. Although the air was wet, the rock felt dry and sticky. Relaxed climbing took me to anchor one. I belayed Linda up and then set off on pitch 2. I’d been anxious about this pitch, the technical “crux,” and I was delighted to see how well-protected it was. I made the dreaded step-across move, which was not that hard, then breathed easy.

The next pitch consisted of what was described in the book as pitches 3 and 4. There was one wonky high step part-way up the otherwise lovely climbing. The position was exciting and I could only imagine the views that we could have had if the sun was out.

We could hear another team climbing the Peregrine Traverse the entire time we were climbing; but they were only visible for about 5 minutes as the clouds briefly parted. I wondered how alone we would have felt if we couldn’t hear any other humans all day. It probably would have amped things up a bit.

Our neighbors on the Peregrine Traverse

Next, the “Terrible Traverse,” which I re-named the “Terrific Traverse” after climbing it. Perhaps the loose stuff had dislodged since the first ascent. I thought it was thin, but quite interesting and enjoyable. Very well-protected, too.

Linda climbs the Terrific Traverse (p5)

After that, I simply played connect-the-dots with the bolts over varied terrain. Some awkward moves at the bottom gave way to enjoyable movement later up the pitch. I carried just enough alpine draws to clip all the bolts before the anchor. On the following pitch, the hardest part was getting through the PG sections where it felt especially runout, given the bolt spacing on the rest of the route. Near the top, I went right around a little rock spine, then cut left to reach the anchors. As a result I had horrific rope drag bringing my partner up. As far as I could tell, that’s how the route went, so I’m not sure what I could have done differently to avert the rope drag.

The final pitch was the weirdest and least enjoyable: a short, leaning rappel to a narrow ridge with a big drop below, followed by a traverse around a blind corner and up into a gully leading to the top. All the descriptions we read of this last bit described a scramble but we clipped into a set of bolt hangers and belayed that last bit up to the lookout.

Coming up the last vertical pitch

All in all this was a fun, adventure climb. Despite the gloomy weather, the rock was perfectly climbable and there was enough visibility to feel safe proceeding. Kudos to the efforts of the FA team who put this up! The only drawback is that Acker Rock is far enough away from anywhere that I can’t see myself getting back there anytime soon. Now it’s your turn. Get out and enjoy.

American Fork Twin Peaks from the tram

August 26, 2019.

2.4 mi. | 960′ ele. gain | 2.5 hr.

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With only 5 days to experience Salt Lake City and its surroundings, I wanted to pack in as much as I could before having to leave. So after we hiked up the Pfeifferhorn, I set my sights on American Fork Twin Peaks. According to the 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Salt Lake City guidebook, I could snag another highpoint by taking a tram up to nearly 11,000 feet and then hiking just over a mile to get there. CAKE! I thought.

We bought our tram tickets and rode up to the top of the ski area, covering something like 3000 feet in 8 minutes. Now that was an efficient way to climb a mountain! The tram was packed full of people and loud; I couldn’t wait to get off.

Once we unloaded, we followed the book’s description of the route to the base of a little hill that led out towards the ridge. After a short walk the ridge became narrower and rockier, with steep drops on either side. I had to point out good hand- and foot-holds for Aaron, reassuring him as we moved forward.

But not soon into the difficult sections, Aaron said he wanted to go no further. We were atop a gully that he felt was an adequate escape route; he’d meet me back at the tram so I could finish my highpoint quest. After a little bit of debate, we decided this was the best choice and we parted ways. I watched him descend the gully before setting out towards the peaks.

The wind blowing across the ridge made the scramble feel even more serious. I suddenly noticed my aloneness. But I’d climbed, scrambled and hiked solo over all sorts of diverse terrain; why was this getting to me? Taking my time, searching for good hands and feet, I plodded slowly ahead. Partway across the ridge I stopped and gasped, or, was it laughed? A shiny bolt hanger drilled into the rock by my side let me know that I was not the only one who felt a little sketched out on this ridge. Apparently others had chosen to protect the “scramble” with ropes and bolts. I felt justified in my gut feelings and slowed down even more to ensure no slips and falls on this exposed route.

The book description felt laughable at this point. How was the author selling this as a “hike” to a casual adventurer? It was irresponsible, at best. But there I was, determined to finish the route and use it as an opportunity to dial in my breathing, footwork and focus.

Once I was through the “no fall” zone, I scrambled up the loose, slabby rocks on the main face of the mountain. Atop this ridge, it was a quick jaunt to the first peak, followed by a gentle amble to the second. There, I dropped my backpack and sent a text to Aaron that I’d made it and I would be on my way back shortly. He replied that he was back at the tram building watching me the whole way.

I worked up the nerve to return, being mindful of both the tram schedule and our dinner meetup with my friend later that evening. This adventure had taken me much longer than I’d anticipated. With focus, I descended the loose rock and regained the legitimate knife-edge ridge. I’ve often said that I can’t meditate sitting on a pillow in a room surrounded by candles, but get me on a rock climb and I can meditate there. This is exactly how I felt as I eased my body across the rocks on the ridge, choosing each step and body position deliberately. Grateful that I could pay attention only to myself and not have to worry about a partner or a team. One of many reasons why I love solo trips so much.

As I approached the end of the ridge I noticed a group of about eight twenty-somethings hanging out on a wide patch of ground, watching me move closer. I moved quickly, hoping that I would not have to pass them coming in the other direction. But, they never moved, and as far as I could see, they chose to turn back at that point. Probably a wise decision!

Aaron met me as I popped off the ridge and we walked back up to the tram together. Utah had really surprised me with its rugged routes just beyond the city limits! I had just enough of a taste that I knew I would have to return for more. I may decide to cross-reference my route choices a little better the next time, instead of relying on a single book for information. Fortunately there’s a plethora of information available, should you choose to use it.

Pfeifferhorn

August 26, 2019.

10 mi. |3700′ ele. gain | 7 hrs.

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With a full day to explore the mountains outside Salt Lake City as my friend was at work, Aaron and I headed for an off-trail highpoint.

Before the trip I started following people on Instagram who were sharing photos of hikes in Utah. I reached out to one person in particular, whose feed was fun and inspiring. I asked if she had any recommendations for adventurous peaks that could be done in a day from SLC and this is what she recommended. Hooray for using social media in a positive way!

I began researching trip reports and ogling the maps I could find online. There were loads of them, so I quickly surmised that this was a popular scramble. We’d be going early on a Monday, so I hoped that would diminish the crowds.

The hike began on a well-used trail, traversing the hillside from the White Pine Lake drainage to the Red Pine Lake drainage. We walked uphill amidst a sea of unfamiliar wildflowers and shrubs. Upon reaching Red Pine Lake, we stepped aside to take a snack break and to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Above the lake, long rock ridges stretched out in all directions. It was quiet, for a moment. A group of chattering women appeared, breaking the silence. We watched them walk past the lake and continue out of sight. We savored a few more moments of peace before another couple arrived—photographers. Okay, we decided, it’s time to go.

From the trail’s end at the lake, we’d have to find the scramble route uphill through the forest. We passed the group of women and began walking up a social trail that was occasionally marked with cairns. Soon, the women were hot on our heels and we stepped aside to let them pass. Five minutes later they stopped, looking confused, and we passed them again. To be fair, the route splintered in various directions since there was no official trail through the woods. But I was getting annoyed with the leap-frogging. It would happen again: a couple of trail runners appeared right behind us. We stepped aside to let them pass but they stopped short, unable to figure out where to go next. We passed them again. And again, they were right on our heels. While I am thrilled that more and more people are getting into exploring the outdoors, I am discouraged by the apparent lack of etiquette and preparation that many people are taking with them. I’m not sure what the solution is, if there even is one. And I’m sure that I’m in the minority of people who want to feel solitude in the wilderness versus traveling in a pack. I can only think that more education is the answer.

At the lake we paused only briefly; I wanted to create some distance between us and the other groups so we could enjoy the route on our own. After looking around a bit at the piles of fractured rocks, an obvious rock rib became apparent; that would be the easiest way up.

From there on we had the scramble to ourselves. Only occasionally we would hear the loud banter of the hikers behind us. It very much felt like a wilderness experience yet again. We continued up the rock rib to a broad ridge, where the wind picked up and the views carried on forever. The occasional critter darted between rocks as we methodically walked towards the impressive summit of the Pfeifferhorn.

The Pfeifferhorn doesn’t show up on any of the maps; instead it is called “Little Matterhorn.” In 1939, the name was renamed to honor Chuck Pfeiffer, a beloved local climb leader and leader of the Wasatch Mountain Club (the maps still haven’t caught up).

I thought about how sweet it would be to have a mountain named after you. Mr. Pfeiffer must have had a significant impact on the community to have earned such an honor. I also thought about how badass climbers in the 1930’s were, compared to modern day hikers with modern gear and access to up-to-the-minute beta and weather forecasting. What we do today pales in comparison. It’s still a lot of fun, though.

When we reached the “knife edge ridge,” that was not really a knife edge, the real fun began. We scrambled up, down and around massive boulders that were delightfully secure. There was some exposure, but the going felt very safe. Aaron felt more of the exposure than I did, since I find myself in these situations much more frequently than he does.

The final stretch climbed up what looked like an impossibly steep and loose gully, but its bark was worse than its bite. We separated ourselves slightly so as not to kick down rocks on each other and quickly made our way to the summit. All along the way, wildflowers sprung forth from every crack and nook in the rocks. Life will find a way. At the top we marveled at the panoramic views and the perfect weather we’d been lucky to have that day.

The crux of the day was trying to eat our lunch without being harassed by ground squirrels. It was plainly obvious that people had been feeding them up here. I was frustrated again by the behavior of my fellow humans, so I threw rocks at the squirrels to try and un-train them; they were hardly moved.

As soon as the other group of hikers arrived on top, we departed, having had sufficient summit solitude of our own. It seemed only right to offer them the same experience. We scampered down the entire route without another soul in sight. Once we were back on the trail, we began encountering the masses. A trail crew was hard at work re-routing and hardening the trail for generations of hikers to come. The least I could do was offer up generous handfuls of peanut butter M&Ms to the workers, which I did.

Near the end of the trail, we discovered some of nature’s treats: wild raspberries. We found a few berries that were of sufficient size and ripeness to eat and then continued on to the trailhead. It was a glorious hike, but I had no idea that the most difficult part of the day still lay ahead…

Box Elder Peak, North Ridge

August 24, 2019.

10.4 mi | 4600′ | 8:15 hr.

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Aaron and I took a trip to Salt Lake City to spend time with our friend Kevin. After an evening of debating where we should go hiking, we decided on a route to the top of Box Elder Peak. Our first idea, Mt. Timpanogos, seemed like it would be too crowded. Based on what I read, it was like SLC’s South Sister. That didn’t sound like a nice way to spend the day.

Based on some late night internet research, I envisioned a grand scheme that would involve ascending the north ridge, descending the south ridge and tagging the south and southeast peaks before returning to the trailhead. But I had to remember that I was not going this alone, and that my hiking partners might not share the same summit lust as I.

So, hoping for some solitude, off-trail adventure and peakbaggery, we set out for Box Elder.

Box Elder Peak.

The hike upwards on the steep trail got us warmed up quickly. The air was dry and cool, perfect for a summer day. We were greeted with views shortly into the hike. Then, the wildflowers began. As I was unfamiliar with Utah wildflowers, I paused to admire them and soak in their details. It was fun to be in a novel environment with new sights to see.

We walked higher and higher, sucking the thin air into our lungs and forcing our legs to keep going. The trail turned sharply and crossed a sea of white rock, with colorful blooms poking up between the boulders. And then we reached the meadows: fields of gold, red and purple, stretching down into the yawning gullies below.

Once we reached the saddle, we picked up an unofficial use path leading up towards the summit. Obviously, others had used this path before. A few trailrunners, wearing their signature tiny shorts and arm sleeves, raced down the slippery hillside. We’d see less than 10 people on our whole hike today.

We took more frequent breaks on this portion of the route. The ground underfoot was slippery and steep. I was reminded that not everyone is comfortable walking in this type of terrain. I did my best to make sure my companions felt safe and were having a good time.

I noticed some really unusual flowers on this portion of the hike. Without a guidebook to identify them, I took some photos and kept walking. Ultimately this steep trail left the forest and broke out onto a windy ridge. The path flattened out and narrowed. One of my partners said he’d had enough. With only a quarter mile to go until the summit, I made a quick run for it on my own. This was one of my favorite stretches of trail. It wasn’t any harder than what we had just done and the rocky scrambling bits were just plain fun.

At the summit I chatted with the couple who were enjoying their solitude. They helped me identify some peaks in the distance before I bounded back down the ridge. I met up with my team below where I’d left them; they decided to retreat out of the wind.

In order to salvage some kind of loop from our original plan, we decided to take the unmarked cut-across trail that traverses the east side of the mountain. This poorly maintained trail was adventurous to follow. It crossed through lush meadows and a few twisted tree stands. All along the way we could look up at the ridge we’d just walked across.

Eventually the trail dead-ended at White Canyon Trail, which was signed. We turned east towards the campground and walked on a more developed pathway for the remainder of the hike. Partway down I noticed some ripe berries: thimbleberries! These are my favorite wild foods. We stopped to gorge a bit on these rare forest finds before returning to the car.

This was a tremendous introduction to hiking in the Wasatch. I can’t wait to see what’s next…

Trona Pinnacles

April 3-4, 2019.

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After saying goodbye to Joshua Tree, we drove out to Trona Pinnacles for an evening of camping and casual exploring. As we drove down a washboard road and crossed into BLM land we caught sight of the tufa pinnacles off in the distance.

It was an alien landscape, as expected. About a dozen blockbuster movies were filmed, at least in part, out there. But I wasn’t interested in that. I did want a free place to crash for the night and a chance to watch a pretty sunset. I hoped that there wouldn’t be too many people out there and I was sort of right.

There was enough space among the rock formations for people to spread out. Lee Ann and I picked a spot with no other campers in sight and set up our tent. Then, we walked the road encircling the largest cluster of rock spires to look for wildflowers.

We saw lots.

I was amazed at the swaths of color that carpeted the sandy soil. It was no Joshua Tree superbloom, but it was still mighty spectacular. We walked slowly and stopped any time we saw a “new” flower. Although I couldn’t identify most of them, they still took my breath away.

We also collected trash along the way, which we disposed of in our car garbage bag or repurposed when possible (a binder clip came in handy).

LeeAnn was on dinner duty that evening, so she prepared a warm and hearty meal as I wrote in my journal and watched the sun go down. We had a small campfire, because we could, and got to sleep shortly after dark.

While the Trona Pinnacles is not a great destination, it makes for a great rest stop if you’re in the area.

Hiking the south side of Joshua Tree

April 2-3, 2019.

Photos from Joshua Tree south

Lost Palms Oasis

Although we knew the Lost Palms Oasis would be a sea of humanity, we decided it was a unique enough experience that we wanted to check it out. So we hit the trailhead bright and early. There were only a few cars in the parking lot, and much to my surprise, palm trees stood just feet away from the pavement. I guess we didn’t have to do any hiking to see an oasis, after all.

The trail was very well-graded and lined with a dense profusion of flowers. We stopped frequently to assess our finds. Now in the Colorado desert, there were many new shapes and colors to see. The northern half of Joshua Tree sits in the Mojave desert. Each desert encompasses different ecosystems with their own characteristic flora and fauna. It was is we were hiking in a brand new park.

Desert aster

Partway up the trail, LeeAnn stopped in her tracks. Just to our left she pointed out a desert tortoise, tucked securely in his shell. I had never seen a desert tortoise. We stood there for many minutes, as groups of hikers passed by seemingly unimpressed by the lowly reptile. Eventually he crawled away slowly, stopping every other step to munch on the flowers surrounding him. Imagine what it would be like to wake up and walk through an endless salad bar…

Desert tortoise!

The day quickly warmed up and we happily descended into a canyon to sit in the shade at the oasis. Several groups had set up shop under the trees so we explored around to find a quiet patch of sand near a few giant boulders. In the shadow of the rocks we ate some food and planned our next move.

Palm tree oasis

The oasis was pretty sweet but the day was young, and it felt like too soon of a turnaround point. A few continuations were described in the book so we attempted to follow the directions. We quickly got off the route and decided to just ramble around until we got tired of it. That led us to a few cool discoveries: scattered bits of a sheep skeleton, huge canyon views and our own private oasis. The palm trees were massive; I appreciated just how big they were as I walked right underneath them, touching the bark and crunching my feet on the fallen fronds. After ambling through a lovely ocotillo garden we decided to go roughly back the way we came. Our path took us through a massive boulder pile, requiring some tricky maneuvering. And I got to walk across a fallen palm tree just for fun.

The hike back was very hot and by the time we got to the car we thought we’d seek shade for a quiet afternoon of book reading and napping.

Just out for a walk

Sand dunes

With bellies full of taco salad, the dinner we made in the parking lot, we walked cross country in the direction of the sand dunes. Now, “dunes” is a bit of a misnomer. Compared to the sand dunes I’d visited at Mojave National Park, Death Valley National Park and the Oregon Dunes, these were nothing. As we walked closer and closer to our purported destination we wondered if we even had the right place.

As we approached, however, something magical happened. At our feet we identified a new variety of plant life—flowers that only grew in sand dunes! Sand verbena, sand lilies and dune primrose put on a glorious show.

The most spectacular bloom, by far, was the sand lily. Standing tall in the fading daylight, they barely budged in the strong wind. Their stout, trumpet-shaped flowers looked like they belonged in a fancy bouquet, not growing out of the dust.

Sand lily

While the dunes themselves were nothing to write home about, the wildflowers provided a pleasant surprise.

Rambling

The following day we decided to take one more hike before leaving Joshua Tree behind. Again, we arrived early at a quiet parking area and set off into the desert.

We had a route in mind but got off course immediately (we wouldn’t find this out until much later). It was no matter, though, because we were immersed in the continued beauty and intrigue of what we discovered. At the parking area we saw one little caterpillar crawling along the ground. As we hiked, we saw one more. Then another. Then swarms of them, covering particular flowering shrubs; the shrubs convulsed under the weight of the bugs. Around us, boulders and wildflowers dotted the landscape. More unfamiliar trees, shrubs and flowers appeared: smoke tree, desert lavender, wishbone bush.

Hungry, hungry caterpillar

As we hiked in, several hikers passed us on their way out. Early risers! The last couple we passed asked if we’d been on that route before. They ended up turning around because the route disappeared. Ha! They’re not as savvy as us, I thought, as we bid them good day.

We approached a rockpile that must have been where that couple turned back and we walked straight over it. On the other side, when we stopped to assess our location, we noticed that we could see a road to our left. That shouldn’t be! I took out my phone and looked at the map. Ah, not only were we off-route, so were all the people who had come before us. We re-oriented ourselves to get back on track and aimed for a notch on the horizon that would put us in the correct canyon.

Our mistake led us to a wonderful, sandy walk among cactus, sage and desert dandelion. Jackrabbits occasionally exploded out from behind a bush and ran off into the distance. The sky overhead was blue and clear. Getting temporarily re-routed in the desert is generally very forgiving, as long as you know how to get back on track and are carrying enough water.

Off trail adventures

Our return hike got us back on the planned route, where we found blooming beavertail cactus, caterpillar-annihilated shrubbery and petroglyphs. It was a fantastic way to end our visit to this incredible national treasure.

On the drive back through the park, we noticed something remarkable: people were pulled over everywhere, and crowds were randomly tramping across the flower beds within fifty feet of the road. I couldn’t believe it.

If you want to get away from the madness, all it takes is the ability and desire to hike a half mile away from any road, ranger station or popular trail. The solitude is yours if you’re willing to put in a tiny bit of effort. Much of the park’s true beauty is found just off the beaten path. Remember though, especially for off-trail travel: Leave No Trace.

Hiking the north side of Joshua Tree

April 1, 2019.

Photos from Joshua Tree north

After four days of attending a movement festival on the outskirts of LA and being around a ton of people, LeeAnn and I were ready for spending quiet time in the desert.

We arrived early Monday morning at the Visitor’s Center in the little town of Joshua Tree, armed with questions for the staff. I already had a good idea of what I wanted to do in our precious few days in the park, but having local knowledge never hurts.

The ranger immediately squashed our dreams of blissful hiking in solitude. “There’s no camping available in the park, don’t even try. It’s busy everywhere. You’ll never get away from the crowds. Good day.”

I stormed out in a huff. Was it worth being there? The parking lot was already swamped at 8:30 am and our camping options seemed limited to a big gravel parking lot full of RVs outside the park. Should we just move on? But, I’d done all that research!

We had a brief chat outside and weighed our options. There were a few off-trail routes nearby that I wanted to try, so we angled for those first.

I pulled into an empty parking area and got out of the car. My jaw dropped. We were surrounded by a vast array of wildflowers that displayed every color of the rainbow. They sprouted from the sand, filling the gaps between the rocks and spreading across the broad washes. It was incredible! Surely we were in paradise.

Umm, where are all the flowers?

As we packed up for the hike, a man wandered over and asked, “so where have you seen good wildflowers in the park?” I looked at him aghast. Did he not know he was in the middle of wildflower central in that very spot?

We left him behind and set out on our cross-country route. It would be short but steep, just the way I liked it.

As we scrambled over the sticky, granite boulders we left all semblance of civilization behind. We spotted occasional boot prints in the sand but we were otherwise on our own. I stopped frequently to admire the flowers: desert chicory, Mojave yucca, desert dandelion, creosote bush, desert Canterbury bells, wild heliotrope and many others.

Scramblin’

And the barrel cactus. I don’t know why, but those stout cacti just bring a smile to my face. They stood tall among the rocks and I wandered from one to the next, taking pictures and soaking in every little detail. We chased cacti all the way up to a saddle and I checked my GPS track. Nope, that was not our route.

Barrel cactus. Doesn’t it just make you happy?

We took a snack break and contemplated our descent to get back on track. It wasn’t too challenging and soon found ourselves in a sandy wash that led to the second half of the loop. There, yucca plants dominated. Each spiky stalk was topped with a huge cluster of cream-colored flowers. I’d never seen so much yucca in bloom at once.

During the entire four-hour hike we saw exactly zero people. Suck it, ranger.

Desert dandelion.

We moved the car to a second off-trail hike. This one was a bit more popular, as we started seeing people right away. But the hike led us up a canyon toward a steep slot. To our surprise, a trickle of water streamed down the canyon floor and we had to hop from one side of the stream to the other a few times as we approached our destination. We did some creative scrambling to avoid the wet, slippery rock and along the way LeeAnn found a rattlesnake! I just caught up to her as is slithered beneath a rock. Exciting.

The slot was not in a great viewing position so we clambered up the rock slab to the side of it to get a closer look. Above the slot, the terrain opened up and I could see endless possibilities for exploring.

But, it was hot and we were tired from our morning adventure. We decided to follow the water towards the slot and sit in the shade for a bit before returning.

“Croak, croak.” A huge sound reverberated off the rock walls. A frog? Up here? We scanned the edges of the rushing water to find our loud amphibian friend. Where was that sound coming from? I was at a loss. We took off our shoes to soak our feet in the water. And then, LeeAnn spotted it.

Can you see me?

A tiny frog blended in perfectly with the smooth, speckled granite near our feet. We inched closer to watch him. He entertained us for the next twenty minutes. I was impressed with his ability to jump and stick to nearly vertical rock.

I had not expected to encounter water, let alone frogs, in the hot and arid Joshua Tree desert. Day one was already full of surprises.

As we drove through the park to our planned campsite, we made one quick stop at the side of the road. We had to: we discovered our first octotillo. This unusual plant is made of tall, thick stems that reach 10-20 feet into the sky. Each stem is covered in small leaves and intimidating spines. Some of the stems were topped with a drooping cluster of bright red flowers. It was a remarkable sight, and well worth the stop to examine these wild-looking plants.

Octotillo up close.

The takeaway lesson here is: if you want to find solitude, read a book. Most park visitors will go online to search for hikes and use the park’s official map. If your route isn’t on the map, you’ll likely find a little peace and quiet.

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…