Category Archives: California

Trona Pinnacles

April 3-4, 2019.

Photo album

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…

Condor Gulch Loop

March 25, 2019.

5.1 mi | 1450′ ele. gain | 3:10 hr

Photo album for Pinnacles National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Peaks Loop

March 24, 2019.

9.5 mi. | 1970′ ele. gain | 5:30 hrs.

Photo album for Pinnacles National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feather Falls

March 9, 2018.

Feather Falls Loop | 8 mi | 1870′ ele. gain | 3:15 hr.

I found Feather Falls in a Northern California hiking book. I had to drive to Sacramento for a weekend event, so I decided to tack on an extra day and do some hiking. The book rated Feather Falls as a “3” difficult level but “10” for scenery. Sounded like a plan to me. The description noted, however, that the trail was once a loop but now an out-and-back route due to some trail damage. The out-and-back would be 9 miles, but since it was pretty flat and easy going I figured I could tackle it in under 4 hours.

I camped for the night at the trail head camping area, a free, walk-in tent site in the forest. It was very convenient to roll out of my tent in the morning and walk right up to the trail. I had forgotten to pack any hiking pants so I put on my sweats, hugged my thermos of tea and started up the trail. There was no indication of any closure up ahead so I was excited to be able to do a loop hike.

The path was wide, well-worn and well-graded. There was a disappointing number of plastic water bottles tossed on the side of the trail. I can’t believe people are still actually buying those things.

I sipped my tea as I wandered up the trail, enjoying all the unusual plants of the northern California forest. Everything looked similar to Oregon’s flora but just different enough to make me feel like I was on a movie set. There were fir-like trees, madrone-like shrubberies and ferns that were just a little off.  The occasional mushroom, flower, or newt splashed color on the otherwise brown and drab landscape.

About a half hour up the trail I reached a pretty waterfall on Frey Creek. The water tumbled down beautiful granite slabs, with lush green moss growing on either side.

Not 15 minutes later I approached a viewpoint of Bald Rock Dome, a mini-Half-Dome right across the valley. This striking granite rock face apparently has some “old-school” climbing routes on it, but today was not about climbing for me. I admired it, wiped the drool from my mouth and continued on.

Signs along the trail kept me both entertained and informed. One warned of poison oak, which apparently grew everywhere (but I didn’t see any).

I reached a new-ish looking trail sign that pointed towards the falls and headed in that direction. The trail looked like it was paved long ago but was now pretty eroded and worn away. Shooting star grew along the trail. More views opened up. The anticipation was building.

Suddenly I could hear the water’s roar. I sped up, following the eroded trail to a wooden viewing platform with a front-row seat at the falls. Feather Falls, according to the signs, was the 6th largest waterfall in the contiguous U.S. and the 4th highest in California. It has a bit of an identity crisis, as the trailhead sign marks it at 640′ tall and the Internet calls it 410′ tall. Besides, a quick search of “tallest waterfalls in California” shows that it doesn’t even rank in the top ten. Despite the number, it was an impressive waterfall. I enjoyed a good 20 minutes here, looking at the panoramic views and appreciating the solitude.

I returned to the “falls” sign and headed towards the other half of the loop. Again, there was no indication that the trail was impassable so I went that way knowing that I might have to backtrack if I encountered a sketchy section.

The sun finally peeked through the clouds. The warmth felt good on my skin. I negotiated a few washed out sections of trail but otherwise the other side of the loop was totally passable. It did have a different character: it was steeper, narrower and more rugged. I’m sure most visitors simply did the out-and-back. But doing the loop at least shaved off a mile, so I was back to the car in just over three hours. Plenty of time to make it to Sacramento and take a nap before I had to be presentable.

Feather Falls lived up to its expectations, well, except for the height. The trail was lovely. The waterfall was mesmerizing. And the early morning solitude was well-worth the early wake up.

Lava Beds for Thanksgiving

November 22-26, 2017.

View all the photos from this trip here.

With forecasts for unseasonably warm and wet weather all across the west, we decided to head south to a not-terribly-well-known National Monument for our Thanksgiving weekend escape this year.

The drive down to Lava Beds is just a few hours from Bend. We arrived after dark and pulled into the campground there. There were two loops; one was nearly full and the other was (inexplicably) empty. So we chose the best site on the empty loop.

The next morning we drove to the visitor’s center to pick up our free cave permit and gather information about entering the caves. I’d been here once, a long time ago, but my caving experience was rather limited. We spoke with the rangers for awhile and left satisfied that we had all the information we needed to have a fun time in the caves.

Cave Loop

On the first day of Thanksgiving weekend, we decided to hit all the open caves on the cave loop (with the exception of Catacombs). The park brochure provided basic information about each cave, including its length and a difficulty rating. They were similar to ski run ratings: green dot for easy, blue square for moderate, black diamond for challenging. We started with a black diamond cave because it was the first one on the loop! Thunderbolt Cave. After donning our helmets and headlamps we took our last breath of above-ground air and descended a metal staircase into the darkness.

There were a few differences between walking on earth and walking underneath it. First, it was quiet. SO quiet. Second, it was disorienting. When I could only see just a little ways in front of me it was difficult to retain any sense of direction or distance. Third, it felt spooky. Okay, I think I’m pretty resilient and have dealt with quite a lot of lousy adventure situations in my life. But this felt different. Monsters lived in caves, right? And did we turn down this passageway or that passageway? Shit!

Without a map or visibility beyond a few yards, navigation was difficult. I felt that little knot in my throat at one point wondering how we were going to get back out again. Great, we got lost in our first cave. But we soon remembered a landmark and soon saw that refreshing beam of sunlight coming down from the outside. Phew! We’d have to be a little more careful in the other caves. This was a wake-up call right from the outset. Nice job, Lava Beds, on not dumbing down the caves with lights and navigation arrows. I’ll take this more seriously now.

Next, Golden Dome. This one was recommended by the ranger. As we walked deeper and deeper into the cave, I’d exclaim: I found the golden dome! There was a hydrophobic bacteria on the cave ceiling that looked like gold flakes when it was coated with beads of water. It was amazing! But then I’d walk into the next room and say, no here it is! There was so much of it! As the trip wore on we’d discover this bacteria living in most of the caves. Why this one was singled out as the golden dome I’m not so sure. Other caves also had spectacular displays of this coloration.

Then, Hopkins Chocolate. There were some low sections that required stooping and creative crawling so that we didn’t tear up our pants. In this one rare instance, I wished I would have been wearing an old pair of jeans.

On to the Blue Grotto and lots more crawling. We popped up through a few skylights and ended up wandering into Labyrinth Cave somehow. The only way we knew was that We’d found a metal staircase leading up into the light, plus a trail register in a PVC pipe with the cave name listed. Knowing that Labyrinth Cave was closed we decided to hightail it out of there. We wandered up through an unmarked cave opening and walked cross-country back to the car, being careful not to fall into any unmarked skylights!

Next up: Ovis, Paradise Alley, Sunshine. We were racking up caves left and right.

At Natural Bridge we got to do a little surface walking. Then it was back underground at Indian Well Cave. I was feeling a bit of cave fatigue.

Finally, Mushpot Cave. This was the only developed cave on the cave loop, which was made obvious by the sounds of screaming children that got louder and louder as we approached. Lucky for us, they were finishing up their cave activity and we got to have it to ourselves. It felt so plush and luxurious after being in the undeveloped caves all day.

Last cave of the day: Valentine Cave. I was so ready to be done. I would have appreciated this more in the beginning of the day. We could mostly walk upright in the spacious chambers. The main passageway looked like a subway tunnel. But I wanted to be back at camp, building a fire and making dinner.

That night we feasted on roast turkey and our favorite sides: gravy, squash puree, green beans, etc. Plus a marionberry pie and freshly made ice cream. Oh I’m drooling just thinking about it.

Big Nasty Trail and Hidden Valley

The next morning we rolled out of the tent with full bellies and headed out for a full day of exploration. We stopped into the visitor’s center again, this time to purchase a book of maps for the caves. After our first experienced of feeling disoriented I knew I’d be happier with a map.

But first, hiking. I was itching for a real hike and the Big Nasty Trail was high on my list. How big and nasty could it be?

We began walking under chilly, overcast skies. A short, paved trail led to a viewpoint of Mammoth Crater. This looked exactly as it sounded. A steep-sided crater with lava rock walls lay before us, so big that it was hard to get it all into one photo. From there we sauntered out on the Big Nasty Trail, named for the conditions of the nearby lava flow. The trail itself, however, was lovely. Pebbles and sand made of pumice lay underfoot. This soft surface felt nice after scrambling over lava blocks in the caves the day before. The landscape was very open and beautiful. While it looked very similar to the high desert near our home in Bend, there was a surprising amount of lichen and moss covering the vegetation. Mountain mahogany grew alongside the more familiar Ponderosa pine and juniper trees.

We returned from the loop and hopped on the Hidden Valley trail just across the street. It led a quarter mile out to a viewpoint of the Hidden Valley. This depression in the landscape was filled with Ponderosa pines all lined up as if planted in rows. It would make for a fun scramble down on another day. We had some caving to do.

Heppe Cave

Onward ho! To Heppe Cave. A short trail led to this short cave with towering ceilings. There was a little pool of dirty water at the bottom. In fact the hike out there and the nearby Heppe Chimney were more interesting than the cave itself. Or maybe I just felt a little grumpy about the cave because I slipped on the wet rocks several times there. I did not wear the best shoes for rock-hopping.

Merrill Cave

A picnic table outside the entrance to Merrill Cave was a great place to sit and have lunch. As we ate, a few families exited the cave, got in their cars and left. Ours was the only one remaining, so that meant it was time to explore the cave! We’d been extraordinarily lucky in our adventures so far. There were a few people out and about but we almost never crossed paths with anyone inside of a cave. We passed a few folks entering as we were leaving and vice versa, but otherwise the caves were our own personal hideaways. We felt like explorers for nearly the entire trip.

Like Heppe cave, Merrill Cave had a history of harboring perennial ice. But today, without much ice these caves were far less interesting than they must have been in the past. Good thing we didn’t bring our ice skates. Metal stairways and catwalks led to a gated viewpoint of where the ice used to be. How, so…anticlimactic.

Balcony and Boulevard Caves

It was finally time to pull out the map book! Our last stop was the trailhead for Balcony and Boulevard Caves. These were both listed as “moderately challenging” in our cave guide. We first wandered into Balcony Cave. There was no indicator at the entrance which one this was, but there was a feature that resembled a balcony right near the cave opening. So that was our best guess.

We walked under a heart-shaped skylight and explored the various tunnels and nooks, trying to locate ourselves on the cave map. While I felt pretty comfortable with my navigation skills, I felt like a total newbie in deciphering the cave maps.

We wandered back up, enjoyed the insane clouds for a moment, and then descended into Boulevard Cave. The map looked SO SIMPLE. Any idiot should have been able to figure it out. But I was struggling to match up what I saw in front of me with what was drawn on the map. To test our map skills further, we decided to try one more thing…

Sharks Mouth

On the same page as Balcony and Boulevard, we noticed Shark’s Mouth Cave. With a name like that, how could we possibly go back to camp without looking for that first? There was no developed entrance but based on the information in the book it should have been well within our reach.

Out came the map and compass and we walked slowly in the direction where we believed one of the entrances would be. One led into an 8 foot tall chamber, so we figured it would be easy enough to find.

While it was not “easy,” we eventually found an entrance to the cave and ducked inside. It was a valuable activity to practice using the map inside the cave. I started feeling a little more confidence with this skill. We noticed the shark’s teeth formations and crawled into the shark’s mouth.

Success! Yay! Emerging from the cave just before sunset, we decided to call it a day and drove back to camp.

Catacombs

Armed with the map book and the knowledge of how to use it, we felt ready to test our skills in the Catacombs.

According to the rangers, people can spend upwards of FOUR HOURS exploring the network of tunnels inside the Catacombs cave system. That’s a lot of time underground! Looking at the map, I guessed we’d be able to see about half of it without needing to squeeze into a 2 foot tall slot. That’s not for me.

And so, we packed a small bag with the essentials for a jaunt through the Catacombs.

As we walked through the cave we referred back to the map frequently, identifying marked points of interest and learning how to interpret the markings in the book. This cave had multiple levels, which were not always easy to figure out on the map. We climbed up and scrambled down, took lefts and rights, investigated small cul-de-sacs and squirmed through tight passages. I used all the crawling techniques I knew and invented a few more. It felt like a real adventure! But the really small spaces didn’t appeal to me, and we turned back right where I thought we would. No matter, we spent nearly two hours in the cave and got to see a bunch of cool places.

I had no idea “wilderness” like this existed in the National Parks System, and I was thrilled that this existed as a public resource without handrails, paved floors or a bunch of red tape to get inside. At the entrance of each developed cave there was a standard sign with a bunch of warnings that no one ever reads, and then you’re on your own. Awesome.

First thing I had to do after getting outside of the cave was water a tree!

Skull Cave, Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave

There were three more caves to tick off the list and all could be reached from the campground on a 5-ish mile hike. We drove back to camp, ate lunch and then set off on foot to tackle the final caves. It was a nice walk on trails through the sunny, high desert landscape to the parking lot of Skull Cave. This easy, short cave was reached via a long stairway down into complete darkness. This was another one of those “there used to be ice here!” caves which was not terribly exciting to explore. Since it was marked easy in the book there were also a number of other visitors here.

Next we walked up to the access trail for Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave. The walk, again, was the highlight of this visit. We saw a pika on the rocks and enjoyed the sunny skies above us. Symbol Bridge had some (shockingly) non-vandalized cave painting remaining from Native Americans who’d lived here eons ago. But the juniper tree growing right over the entrance was probably my favorite feature. At Big Painted Cave, very little Native American markings remained today but it used to be a spiritual place for the former inhabitants.

The walk back was a treat. A nice way to cap off a weekend of new adventures. Halfway back to the camp, we stumbled upon a couple of deer on our path. Aaron spotted them first and we both stopped to watch them amble through. Delightful.

I would go back to Lava Beds National Monument in a heartbeat. There’s more to explore. Labyrinth Cave, Hercules Leg, Sentinel, Lava Brook and Juniper Cave were all closed for hibernating bats. Fern Cave, accessible only by tour group in the summer time, was also closed. Plus there was a ton of land we didn’t even come close to exploring. And in a cold snap, the ice sculptures that form inside the cave would be worth the visit. I was glad to have had the chance to get to this special place in 2017 and hope it remains protected, and wild, for decades to come.

Kelso Dunes

April 6, 2017.

3 mi. | 650′ ele. gain | 2 hrs.

I arrived at the Kelso Dunes Parking area at 5:30 pm with the intention of enjoying sunset from the expansive dune field. The dunes lie within the Mojave National Preserve in southern California. Miraculously, these dunes are not open to off-road vehicles, creating a little haven for hikers who want to explore the sand on foot.

Having done a few night hikes on sand dunes before, I looked forward to the cooler weather, diminished crowds and sense of solitude that an evening hike would bring. There were a few other parties out on the dunes but most were wrapping up their day.

I put my shoes in my backpack and set off on the trail heading towards the dunes. Gray clouds cast a moody glow over the massive piles of sand. On either side of me, gorgeous flowers bloomed in purple and yellow. “Look what we can do!” they seemed to shout. I was in no rush, so enjoyed each little splash of color that caught my eye.

Once I reached the open sand, footprints went every which way. There was no marked trail here, just an open invitation to explore the dunes. I plodded up the steep and slippery sand, feeling the ground move under my feet with each step. As I climbed higher the views got better and better. The setting sun began to cast brilliant colors across the landscape. “Look what I can do!” the sun said.

All along the way I kept noticing these weird tracks in the sand. What made them? A snake? I couldn’t really tell. Something was working harder than me to cross this desolate landscape.

I reached a ridge leading to the highest dune and walked methodically towards the summit. There was a group of people taking videos and goofing around up there. Fortunately for me they were packing up just as I was arriving.

Sitting atop the dunes, I was stunned at what I saw. Mountain ranges in every direction. The sun setting underneath a blanket of clouds. It was like sitting in the middle of a painting, hearing onlookers say, “ugh, that is so not real.”

And then a visitor arrived. It was the same critter that made the tracks I’d seen earlier. A beetle! And it was heading straight for me. Luckily, it was just as hard for the beetle to move quickly on the sand as it was for me, so he approached slowly. I picked up and moved so as not to be in his path. He shifted trajectory. What the?? This beetle had it out for me. I stood up and walked around a little, noticing all the shadows, all the features, all the beauty that was laid out in front of me. Incredible.

Before the sun had the chance to set, I headed downhill. My goal was to get back to the car before dark. No problem, as getting down the sand dune was far easier than getting up!

I turned to look back at the bright sun dropping behind the biggest dune. And up ahead, primrose flowers began to open. What a sight. At dusk, I reached the trailhead and brushed the sand off my feet. A spectacular end to an adventurous day.

Owl Canyon

April 4-5, 2017

Photos on Google

Driving down a washboard gravel road in the black of night, I hoped that I’d find the Owl Canyon Campground soon. It felt like it took me forever. Outside the bustling (read: not-so-bustling) community of Boron, California, my driving progress screeched to a halt. I sat in traffic for over two hours due to a pretty gnarly car accident up ahead. With no alternate driving route and no way to get information with a brick of a cell phone, I embraced the standstill and used my sitting time to catch up on things. I wrote in my journal, read road maps, and even made a batch of car guacamole. Once past the accident it was a race against the sun to make it all the way to Owl Canyon. In Barstow, I pulled off the road to make a mental note of all the turns I thought I’d have to take. I had a few things jotted on post-it notes in my California road atlas. And that was it. Fortunately there were a few brown signs pointing me in the right direction.

I tumbled out of the car, made a very late dinner, and went right to sleep.

The next morning I woke up, but I felt like I was dreaming. I found myself in a surreal landscape. I was inside a desert canyon. Soft, pastel stripes colored the rock walls all around me. A handful of cars and RV’s dotted the mostly empty campground. The air was still and quiet. Holy crap, this place was amazing.

I ate a nice camp breakfast and then walked around the campground in my sweatpants, drinking coffee. I was surprised to see not one but THREE playgrounds located in the campground: one on each loop. This place was amazing! If I lived nearby I’d be here all the time!

Eventually I decided to get changed and pack up for a short hike. The Owl Canyon Trail sign said 2 miles, so I started walking.

With each twist and turn of the canyon came new colors, textures, flowers, and features. It was like squishing 20 different hikes into one. There were parts with sandy bottoms, rocky bottoms, narrow slots, wide washes, tall walls, short walls, caves, you name it. In some places the canyon opened up into a very wide amphitheater and then closed up again. The canyon started out like this:

Some places were strikingly orange.

Others were impossibly green.

I even got to enjoy this canyon all by myself. Well, I did have to share with numerous jets blasting overhead. Hiking near a military base has its downsides, I suppose.

In places the canyon erupted with wildflower blooms. This lacy phacelia was particularly striking, and I recognized it from the Antelope Valley reserve.

Occasionally I had a run-in with one of the natives. This guy had clearly had a run-in with something before we met…

The canyon eventually opened up into a broad valley with paths going every which way. I guess that was the 2-mile mark. Although ATVs were not allowed here, this place had been torn up by plenty of dirt bikes. It was disgusting. I was pretty angry seeing it all. After I’d just walked through that pristine paradise, it felt out of place to be somewhere with so much visible human impact. How do we cultivate respect for wild places in our society? There are plenty of places set aside that you can rip around on a bike. Why here? I turned back to face the canyon and spend my time admiring the natural beauty of the rocks, plants and sky. I could just sit and take it all in, since I was in no rush to get to my next stop. So I did. Just sat, and breathed.

On the way back, I kept my eyes peeled for lizards and plants that I’d missed on the way in. It’s funny how different a place can look when you’re seeing it from the other direction. I felt like I took a million pictures; everything was photo-worthy! What a treasure.