Author Archives: Jess B

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.

Mt. Elden

April 6, 2018.

Photo album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona hikes

April 3 – 5, 2018.

Photo album

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

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

Oak Creek Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilson Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secret Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Hot Springs

April 2, 2018.

Photo album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forest camping

Best decision ever.

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

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

Valley of Fire State Park

April 1, 2018.

Photo album

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

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

Mouse’s Tank

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

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

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

Rainbow Vista

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

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

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

White Domes Loop and beyond

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

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

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

So we did.

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

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

Camp disappointment

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

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

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

 

Entering Nevada: mining and aliens

March 30-31, 2018.

Photo album

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

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

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

Stokes Castle

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

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

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

Tonopah Mining Park

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

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

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

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

Camping

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

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

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

Kentucky Falls

September 30, 2015.

6 mi. | 800′ ele. gain | 3:15 hr.

The drive to the trailhead for this hike was probably the most adventurous part…

To find this remote series of waterfalls, it was necessary to negotiate a network of poorly marked (or unmarked) logging roads. It was an exercise in following directions precisely! I was by myself, had no cell service and was miles from any civilization, so you can imagine my relief when I pulled into the parking area. Sigh, I made it.

The Kentucky Falls trail was a thin ribbon of brown dirt enclosed by a lush, coastal forest. There was greenery everywhere: trees climbing towards the sky, lichen dangling from every available branch, mosses and ferns blanketing the ground and shrubs squeezing through the soil in search of sunlight. It was a magical, fairyland forest.

Quiet, too. Not surprisingly, there were no other cars out here today. I was truly alone in the woods. A feeling I enjoy but don’t get to experience too often.

The river was absolutely beautiful. Moss-covered boulders lay strewn throughout the water. Newts, slugs, snails and bugs crawled about the forest. This was a place full of life and color.

In just under an hour of walking, I arrived at the epic viewpoint with two lovely waterfalls pouring down steep, rocky cliffs. I wasn’t alone here; there was a massive colony of millipede-looking bugs on nearly every surface they could cover.

At first I just saw a few. Okay, no big deal. But then, hundreds. Thousands. Squirming, writhing, being bugs. It is so bizarre to me how a few of a thing can be cool and interesting but thousands of the same thing is horrifying and disgusting. Besides bunnies, maybe. Thousands of bunnies in a big bunny pile? Probably still cute.

I stood there for a while, angling for all the perspectives I could get of the two waterfalls, while avoiding the throbbing masses of millipedes.

But I didn’t just come here for an hour of hiking. I decided to press on a bit further. I continued on the North Fork trail past the waterfalls and into an even lusher, richer world. The path felt a bit more rugged and closed in here. In places, huge fallen tree stumps were covered in moss, creating tall green walls on the side of the trail. I pushed through curtains of dangling lichen as if I was entering a mystical temple.

And then, mushrooms. So many mushrooms! The diversity in this short stretch of trail was astonishing. Oh, Oregon coast range, you never disappoint.

But the final gem had yet to be discovered. I walked a bit further and caught a glimpse of the river through the thick trees. I continued until I found an easy way to get down to the river. And there I found paradise.

The flowing water had carved bowls, pools, potholes and cliffs into the bedrock beneath the river. It was unreal. I wandered around, walking from rock to rock, observing all the shapes and patterns carved into the rock. The gentle flow of the water created a lovely background of white noise. No one else was around. I felt like I’d stumbled into a private sanctuary. True bliss. I scouted out a resting spot and there I sat, taking it all in, savoring this time and place, alone in the river.

Nature is powerful. This was a particularly moving place for me. I was tempted to never share pictures, never write about it, never draw attention to it. But alas, here I am. Years later I still distinctly remember being here. There is something to be said about the feeling of discovering your own special place. Nothing in the book or Internet write-up mentioned the magic of this spot. Perhaps that was a good thing.

My only hope is that people who come here leave with the same sense of wonder and joy that I did. That they refrain from carving their names into trees, stacking rocks, leaving trash, building fires or any other thing that people seemingly like to do. Just let it be, so someone else can be captivated by its un-scarred beauty.

Hiking while female

“Where’s your husband?”

I was taken aback. I don’t remember the year, or the exact hike I was doing, or many of the details of this encounter. But I do remember being asked this question by a total stranger while out hiking by myself. Maybe she thought it was an innocuous question. But I felt angry.

“I’m not married. I’m hiking alone.”

She reacted to my answer with as much shock as I reacted to her question. Alone! A young girl like you. Gasp!

I’ve had countless interactions like this since that day. Some are more obvious than others. Most are pretty subtle. But the message is the same: it’s not safe or appropriate for YOU to be out here by yourself. Your delicate, innocent, unskilled, incompetent, lady-self.

Undermining me, subtly

Do you know the look? The look that says:

  • I don’t think you can keep up with me.
  • You don’t belong out here.
  • Do you even know what you’re getting into?

I get this look often. I only really see it when I’m out by myself. And I think I notice it less and less, mostly because I try to quickly hike past people when I’m out on my own, itching to get back into my solo groove instead of stopping and engaging with judgmental people. Sometimes the look progresses to a conversation, but it usually does not. It is very easy to establish that I know my shit once a conversation is started.

Whenever I walk away from such an encounter, my brain starts racing a mile a minute. Would they have treated me this way if I was a man? If I was older? If I looked tougher? If I had dressed differently? If I had a rifle slung across my back? Just what was it about me that made me look like I shouldn’t be here?

I know now that the way people treat others is more a reflection of how they feel about themselves than it is about the other person. But I’m still curious…just why people feel that a woman traveling alone in the woods is such an inconceivable notion?

Going it alone

That was it: alone. Solo hiking was the problem, not being female. Or was it? I very much doubt that solo male hikers get interrogated about why they’re hiking alone. Or lectured about how dangerous it is. I remember chatting with a lady at a bar in Eastern Oregon about the solo trip I was on, and how I was planning on camping that evening nearby. “Well that’s just stupid. What about the wolves? Do you have a gun? How will you protect yourself? You can’t camp alone.” She was furious with me. I bet if I had been linking arms with a cowboy on the next barstool that conversation would never had happened. If only I’d had a protector.

Wolves. In Eastern Oregon. Okay, lady…

There are certainly reasonable fears to ponder before venturing out alone. A twisted ankle 10 miles away from civilization can be much trickier to manage by yourself. But living in crippling fear of predators that don’t exist in an area and even if they did, aren’t interested in hunting you, are no reason to re-think your solo trip. But talking about irrational fears is a whole other topic for a different day!

Woman, or human?

When I started hiking back in 2005, I had a few friends who indulged me in my pursuit of outdoor adventures. But mostly I headed off by myself. I wasn’t making a statement or breaking barriers or being bold. I literally had no one to go with. If I didn’t hike alone, I wouldn’t hike at all. Out of necessity, I became pretty confident getting out hiking and camping by myself.

With the help of the Internet and local hiking organizations I eventually made my way onto some group hikes and learned from more experienced mentors. They were predominantly male, but a few women showed up now and again. Mostly, though, I preferred hiking alone. I could walk at my own pace, see what I wanted to see, set my own agenda. It was liberating and enjoyable. I liked the feeling of self-sufficiency. I felt like I learned new things with every trip. Group hikes could be fun but I found myself much less engaged in hiking when I was out with a group.

Flash forward to today. The Internet is millions of times bigger than it was before and, it would seem, there’s a website for everything. There are lots of women writing about hiking and sharing their experiences online. And yet, the articles about women and hiking feel very trite and superficial. I connect with almost none of them. I don’t need to read about how to manage my period while hiking (spoiler: it’s really not that difficult). Or about how to protect myself (carry pepper spray! always hike with a dog! stay SUPER close to home… bla… bla… bla). Quite honestly, I don’t know why hiking tips for women need to be any different than hiking tips for men. I feel like a human on the trail, until someone creates some awkward interaction with me that reminds me of my female-ness.

It’s not brave

On the other hand, there are stories, sagas, of women who are called out for being brave and exceptional. For going outside and doing things they love to do. This is not bravery. This is simply choosing to exist as you want to be despite the world that doesn’t understand you. I would hope that this is what everyone strives to do (whether or not they achieve it). I have no interest in being called brave. Walking outside is one of the simplest and most natural things a person could do. A person of any age, gender, size, color, background, ability, anything.

Hiking while female is normal. Safe. Enjoyable. Exciting. Calming. Physical. Natural.

It’s not brave.

But hearing that narrative over and over does something to your psyche. It can create some serious self-limiting inner monologue. “Should I be out here? Am I capable of what I think I am?”

Moving forward

None of this has stopped me from hiking. But that subsurface self-doubt has held me back in more technical pursuits, like climbing and mountaineering. I have almost always been the follower and not the leader. This year it changes.

In my travels I have met many competent, adventurous and strong women who are motivated to get out there and do their thing. I have missed many opportunities to go with them. Learn from them. Take the lead. Achieve my potential. While I am proud of the few chances I have taken I know that I’ve got more in me. A lot more.

This year I’m feeling way more confident in my abilities for a number of reasons. One: I am choosing to surround myself with other outdoor women. Two: I am taking classes to refresh my technical skills. And three: I am training hard, not only physically but mentally. As it turns out, those mental barriers are harder to break than the physical ones and the mental barriers are way more paralyzing.

So, what’s your experience of hiking while female? I do not claim to have the only female narrative. I know it’s different for each of us. But I haven’t quite heard my perspective told yet. It’s taken me a long time to put this out there. I hope that if anything these musings will cause you to take a moment and reflect on your own outdoor pursuits, acknowledge the real and perceived barriers  in your way and allow you to make peace with the choices you make when you do what you love.