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.
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.
I started writing this blog and chronicling my hikes over ten years ago. It’s been an incredible journey for me, learning how to explore the mountains safety, maintain an appropriate level of fitness, and decide how best to share (or not share) my experiences with others. Looking back at the last 10 years is rather daunting, so today, I reflect on the last year of hiking adventures and choose some of the highlights to share today.
This year’s totals:
637 miles hiked
117,000′ of elevation gained
5 states visited
1 foreign country visited (Canada)
The year 2016 began at an AirBnB rental outside of Ashland, Oregon, which gave my partner and I a base camp in Southern Oregon to visit some new places. We wandered around the parks in Jacksonville and Ashland but the highlight of this trip was the snowshoe up Brown Mountain. From the top we could see nothing but blue skies and a gorgeous view of Mt. McLoughlin, a snowshoe destination for another day.
View of Mt. McLoughlin
The next big trip took me on assignment for Outdoor Project. We headed up to British Columbia for a long snowshoe slog out to a cabin in the woods. The Journeyman Cabin was, by our standards, pretty plush accommodations. There was a roaring fire keeping the multi-story building warm. All our food was artfully prepared and delicious, and the other cabin-goers were quite friendly. During our visit we enjoyed the views of the Canadian backcountry and sneaked in a few waterfalls and coastal explorations while we were there.
Journeyman Lodge, Callaghan Country
Back at home, I ventured out on lots of short hikes whenever I could squeeze them in: Abiqua Falls, Peavy Arboretum, Spencer’s Butte, Horse Rock Ridge, Dimple Hill, Baskett Slough, Beverly Beach. Hiking to me is like medicine. It keeps me sane, happy, and healthy. Whenever I saw a gap in my schedule, I’d pull out the map and go somewhere new.
The biggest trip of the year was yet to come. My partner and I try to get out on a 2 week vacation once a year, and this year we headed to Hawaii. We split up the two weeks between Maui and Kauai. Although I was anticipating that I’d love Kauai (I was told it was a hiker’s paradise), I truly enjoyed Maui.
On Maui we explored the volcanic national park, waterfalls, beach hikes, dragon’s teeth, blowholes, jungle hikes and city walks. We got engaged on an isolated beach under the palm trees. We ate shave ice, went snorkeling, visited museums, and savored local specialties. It was a magnificent getaway.
Waianapanapa State Park, Maui
Upon our return, we quickly signed on a new house and started packing up for Bend. It was a challenging summer, with getting back from vacation, buying a new house, moving my business, and traveling home before my mom passed away. There wasn’t much time for hiking, but I made time when I could. I was grateful to have planned a multi-day trip before all the chaos began, so I had a little escape in the woods at just the right time.
And it just so happened to be in my new backyard. I met up with my friend Rick for 3 days of peak-bagging: The Wife, The Husband and Little Brother. All three peaks were on the west side of the Three Sisters. It was brutally hot, the mosquitoes were fierce, and the trails were long, but there’s nothing like a long,hard day to set my head straight. We successfully accomplished our goal and reached the top of all three mountains.
Rick heads across the plains towards “The Wife”
At this point, I started racking up a lot of hikes on Pilot Butte, my new local hill. The trail to the top is just under a mile, but if I walk from my house, it turns into about a 4-mile round trip. I counted the first few hikes towards my annual hiking mileage total, but I quickly stopped recording these since they felt more like normal walks than honest-to-goodness hikes.
Dramatic clouds from Pilot Butte.
By now I was really digging life in the desert and dreading the weekly commute back to Corvallis. But, I was excited to be training my last Corvallis-based climbing team for their South Sister ascent in September. On a whim, I decided to join my friend Karl on a nighttime climb to try and catch the meteor showers from the top of South Sister on the evening of August 12th. Well, I hiked through the night to meet him at the summit, and we hiked out the following morning together. I’ve never blasted up that mountain so quickly. When it’s dark, and you’re alone, the only thing to do is walk! The only breaks I took were to watch the incredible sunset from the flatlands above Moraine Lake.
Sunrise over Middle and North Sister
Oh, how different the mountain would be just a month later. When our team climbed it on September 17, we got caught up in nasty weather. Wind pummeled us on the whole ascent up the upper ridge, and it was so cold at the rim we hunkered down in the first windbreak to layer up and get some calories down. We forgoed the actual walk to the summit rockpile because it just wasn’t worth it. There were all sorts of unprepared characters up there who were freezing and all we wanted to do was get down.
South Sister team
But every trip to the mountains brings its own lessons. We learned that being uncomfortable is okay, just uncomfortable. Anyone who showed serious signs of hypothermia, difficulty breathing, etc. we attended to right away. After we hiked back down out of the clouds and wind, the smiles grew back on everyone’s faces and we knew we’d each just gotten a little stronger and more experienced. I was happy to have facilitated that experience for everyone, and helped my team build some respect for the mountains and for each other.
A week later I was back on a plane, this time to New York City. I spent a few days at a work-related event, but I tacked on a few days of free time that I used to explore the city on foot. My favorite walk took me from Brooklyn to Manhattan, through Prospect Park, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and along hundreds of different city blocks.
Hiking the Brooklyn Bridge
Back in Oregon, I used my weekday time off to get out into the Three Sisters Wilderness as often as I could, tagging several peaks in the time I had before the road access would be snowed in.
View of Broken Top
As the snow fell in the high desert and fewer peaks became available, I started looking east. For this year’s Thanksgiving trip we drove east and south to BLM land that wasn’t socked in for the season. Out there we camped in solitude for several days and scrambled up to a few highpoints along the way.
Somewhere in the desert, we roam.
For the past few months I’ve been wrestling with the ethics of sharing information with the masses online and what the impact of such widespread sharing has on our public lands. I haven’t come up with any major conclusions or guidelines, and by no means do I think that this humble website has much impact in the grand scheme of things, but I’m becoming more aware of this ethical dilemma. With more information easily available, that means more places becoming overwhelmed with visitors. But these places also need easy access and proximity to services, which many of my off-the-beaten-path discoveries do not. So what’s the harm in sharing? As I become more cognizant of this potential impact, I’m stopping to think about what details I’m willing to share, and with whom. And I’m listening closely to what other people are saying with respect to the sharing debate.
Firmly rooted in Bend, I decided to take on a leadership role with the Cascades Mountaineers. I put a few trips on the schedule and met some great people at the end of the year. We snowshoed up almost to the top of Lookout Mountain in the Ochocos, a wonderful and long route that leads through pretty, east-side forest. I also took a group out to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which had just gotten hammered with snow before our trip. We explored the Sheep Rock and Painted Hills units, which were all blanketed in snow.
Blue Basin, John Day Fossil Beds
To finish the year and rack up a few more miles than I did last year, I set out on a solo Christmas camping trip and took a group of friends up the elusive Paulina Peak on New Year’s Eve. Solo trips, contrary to popular belief, are not lonely or scary. They’re peaceful, reflective, challenging, and inspiring. I enjoy hiking with a partner or a group, but I also enjoy hiking by myself. These are all totally different experiences, and valuable for different reasons.
Next year, my goals are:
finish the (kind of) top secret hiking project I’ve been working on
Get away from humanity. It’s not that I don’t like you guys, it’s more that it’s nice to get away sometimes. Like, really away.
Adventure. There must be some places to hike and explore nearby.
Dessert. Pie, ice cream, and maybe some dinner foods and even vegetables. But, clearly dessert is the highlight.
Desert. Yes, drop the “s” and you get another essential. In winter, being in the desert is akin to being on the moon. It’s cold, desolate, barren, and almost guaranteed to be free of people. It’s the perfect place for me (and Aaron) to experience solitude on this crazy holiday.
Planning for Thanksgiving is almost as fun and anxiety-inducing as undertaking the trip itself. I dug out some hiking books and pulled out the Oregon Gazeteer to scout some locations. Now that we’re in Bend, we’re three hours closer to the dry side, and that opened up a world of possibilities.
The day finally arrived, and we loaded up the car with supplies. Heading out of town on a late Wednesday afternoon, we quickly angled south and east, driving past Fort Rock, Silver Lake and Winter Rim. A quick stop in Paisley for dinner and our bellies were full for the last stretch of the drive. Our travels took us nearly to Nevada, then we turned off into a maze of gravel roads for 20 miles to our camp.
In the pitch black night sky, we swerved and skidded to avoid literal hordes of jackrabbits who were apparently meeting for a star party. There were SO MANY of them. I was relieved when we pulled off the road and didn’t find any pelts flattened on the car tires. We quickly set up camp under brisk 20-degree evening skies and fell asleep.
A four mile tour
I had acquired some rough hiking information for this area from books and websites. Today’s jaunt would be a 4.5-mile loop with about 1500′ of elevation gain. Pretty mellow by the numbers. But we discovered yet again that theory and practice are often very different beasts.
We began walking up a dirt road in the direction of a spring. When we arrived, we found a spot with slightly more vegetation than the surrounding area, suggesting perhaps there was water nearby. A small, fenced in area prevented us from walking straight towards our destination, so we veered left into a jumble of rock pinnacles, canyons and brush.
Making our way through, over, around and down the rocks took a lot more time than the “as-the-crow-flies” distance would suggest. But it was a fun little scramble. We found caves, interesting rock formations and lots of animal sign. The gray clouds above set a moody tone across the vast desert. We had all day to ramble, and so ramble we did.
The mountain we were ascending was more like a rolling plateau with several highpoints. We walked over one of them without even registering it as a destination since we were so focused on the higher point in our sights. Atop that high point, we sent a SPOT check-in to the family back home and continued towards the next peak ahead.
A barbed wire fence blocked our passage to the actual high point, so we sat on a pile of rocks out of the wind and finally ate lunch.
Coming down was an adventure, too. We aimed for a broad gully between the two peaks. The seemingly straightforward slope was a medley of tangled sage and loose rocks. Slowly we plodded downhill. It was nice to finally reach a dirt road and briskly hike out the rest of the way.
Six miles and 4.5 hours later, we made it back to camp. A couple of hours relaxing in the tent killed the remaining daylight. Then it was time for the real festivities to begin.
I’d learned a lot about preparing a massive holiday dinner on a camp stove in the last seven years. This year I streamlined the menu and the prep, and making an incredible meal was a cinch.
On our plates:
bread and butter
And of course, dessert. We had a delicious apple pie from Newport Market. Our campfire provided warmth and ambiance on that long night, and we marveled at how dark the skies above were. We’ve been to some pretty remote places, but it felt especially dark here. No moon, just some stars through the clouds. With no fire or headlamp, and no light pollution on the horizon, it felt like being in a cave. Pure darkness. And pure silence. No air traffic overhead. That particular combination of darkness and quiet was something I’d never felt before.
Another day, another hike
On our second adventure from camp, we walked back up the road we drove in to try and find a “trailhead” for a second mountain hike. This one started at an alleged road that would lead past a watering hole to a gate. We walked right past the road’s location, as confirmed by checking my GPS app, so we walked cross-country in the general direction of the aforementioned road.
Upon finding the watering hole, we kept climbing uphill until a gate came into view. The “road” was so overgrown it was barely even noticeable, so it didn’t help us walk faster or stay on course. The mountain was visible from camp so the route was very simple. The only obstacle was the barbed wire fence in our way.
Aaron figured out how to open the gate, thankfully, as I alone probably would have just climbed over the rock pillar to pass over it.
On the other side, we just walked uphill, avoiding the occasional boulder and the very frequent animal den. The rabbits were very busy digging holes in this hill.
As we neared the summit, the wind started blasting full force. When I stopped to catch my breath I was nearly knocked to the ground, so I just kept moving. On top, we again sent a SPOT signal and had a little snack as we tried to protect ourselves from the battering wind.
My hike directions mentioned that you could do a ridge walk over several other little highpoints, terminating on a pointy bit a couple miles away. Sounded like a plan to me, so we fought through the wind over the broad, rocky ridge, wondering exactly which of the many highpoints we were aiming for.
Along the way we encountered another fence, but found an easy place to cross it. As we ambled down the ridge, the wind began to die down a bit and the walking almost became enjoyable again. The remoteness of the region was so beautiful. With the exception of the fence and one dirt road, there was hardly a sign of human presence here.
Atop our final highpoint of the day we surveyed the area, trying to identify the valleys, peaks, mesas, and other features we could see from there. And, in the back of my mind, I was quietly scheming the next trip.
We set a bearing to our camp and headed in a straight line, cross country, to our destination. We knew there would be two fence lines in our way, and decided we’d just figure out that bit when we got there.
The first fence crossing had a conveniently placed board that allowed us to push the wire down and cross over. Easy. On we walked, crossing a field filled with golden grass. Aaron spotted a coyote in the distance, the first thing besides a rabbit that wed seen. Keeping right on our compass bearing, we continued over undulating valley hills. In the distance, I saw the fence. As we got closer, I saw a gate. Right. Where. We. Needed. One. It was kind of ridiculous. We passed through the gate and had nothing but time in between us and our camp. It turned out to be a glorious day.
Another restful afternoon in the tent, and then dinner. Chili, if you were wondering. It’s not only delicious, warm and hearty, but pretty easy to make in camp. But the highlight of this evening was ice cream ball soccer. We were a bit too full last night to have ice cream with our pie, so we saved the festivities for tonight. Ice cream ball soccer has been part of the Thanksgiving tradition for the past few years. It’s fun, and a great way to generate some heat on a cold winter camping trip.
The next morning, we packed up the car and had a quick breakfast: banana, ice cream and chocolate almonds (that’s all the food groups, right?) before heading out. We cruised over the gravel roads easily, this time in the daylight and without rabbits everywhere. Back on the highway we continued into Nevada with our destination in sight: Sheldon National Antelope Refuge.
I’d tried to find some information on sights to see in the refuge before we left on our trip. But information besides the basic logistics was hard to come by. The official refuge brochure states:
“Hiking is encouraged throughout the refuge where open terrain provides ample cross-country hiking options. No designated trails are maintained, but game trails may be followed up many drainages and onto plateau tabletops.”
The refuge overview map indicates some places, but there’s no information on how to get there or what there is to do/see there. I found a few newspaper articles mentioning hiking, but again there were no directions or recommended places to go. We would be on our own.
So we began at the Virgin Valley Campground, the only campground that was maintained for year-long use. The campground was nice, but really windy. On our way in we’d noticed a beautiful canyon and were curious if we could check it out. A road behind the campground led uphill towards a purported viewpoint. We drove up the road until we felt like stopping, then walked about 2 miles to an overlook above the canyon.
It was jaw-dropping for a number of reasons. Glorious views, check. Dizzying heights, check. No guard-rail or signage to prevent you from free-falling to your death, check. Just nature in all her raw beauty. And we’d just kind of stumbled across it. There’s real value in adventure, something that is lost with astonishingly easy access to information.
That’s one thing that drew me here: the surprising lack of information. No trails, no hike descriptions, no step-by-step maps. As our parks and wild places become enticing destinations for more and more visitors, they appeal to me less and less. I don’t want to share the trail with 500 other people just to see a view I’ve seen posted all over the Internet thousands of times before. It’s just not that much fun anymore. When you venture off into places unknown, there’s greater potential for more memorable experiences. You run the risk of encountering duds, making wrong turns, and problem-solving obstacles, but isn’t that the whole point of exploring?
Now, our appetites whet for more we retreated down the road to find our way to the mouth of the canyon. Before heading in we warmed up some soup for lunch. The sun was reaching its afternoon peak and we’d appreciate that for our exploratory walk into the depths of the canyon.
We started up a game trail that led up into the jumbles of rocks beneath the canyon’s steep but crumbly cliff walls. Not good for rock climbing. Besides, every crack, hole, crevasse, and depression looked like an animal condo. I’d never seen so many middens, dens, and piles of animal scat in one place before. We hoped to see some critters in there, but they were safely tucked away for the duration of our hike.
Aaron led the way, and as the game trail petered out we hopped across talus fields, scrambled down to the water and tramped along the dry, cracked mud at the edge of the stream. We hiked to a sunny patch in the canyon, where we plopped down on a boulder and lay out like a couple of lizards, absorbing heat before continuing on.
We had planned to turn around there, but Aaron was wondering what was around the next corner…
That’s a dangerous road to travel in a twisty canyon. There’s always another corner. But it was so hard to turn back. Eventually we did, picking a different route and making new discoveries along the way. It was one of the highlights of the whole trip.
Last camp, and a surprise
Since the roads were clear, we decided to drive west through the refuge on one of the auxiliary roads to scope out a few more camping options. We drove through expansive sagebrush hills, looking hopefully for a herd of antelope, but to no avail. We saw about 8 deer near the Virgin Valley Camp, and that was it.
When we got out of the car to explore, we were met with bitter winds and cold that sunk right into our bones. It became more and more difficult to leave our cozy, mobile cocoon.
As the sun was threatening to go down, we pulled into the Catnip Reservoir Camp. A few haphazard fire rings sat near the lake. There was a pit toilet, but no other amenities. We chose our favorite site and began assembling our camp. The wind was constantly reminding us that we humans are not built for this. My frozen fingers set up the tent as quickly as they could while Aaron worked at getting a fire started. In my makeshift kitchen I squatted by the camp stove with wind pouring up my backside through the gap between my sweatpants and my five upper layers. So that’s why Patagonia sells onesies, I thought. I used the rest of our turkey gravy in our pork stir-fry, which was a warm and welcome addition to the meal.
We grabbed a chocolate bar and retreated to the tent soon after dinner to warm up. The wind would continue to blow all night.
And then, it began to snow. Icy pellets of snow pounded into the tent fly for half the night. I didn’t know what to expect the next morning, or how awful the roads would be. We still had many, many miles of unknown gravel road to get back to Oregon.
We waited for a break in the weather before bursting out of the tent. We moved efficiently to get a fire going, make breakfast and tear down camp. The snow relented enough so that we were only battling the cold and the wind. Only. I admit I was a little grumpy this morning, as I fought with cold hands, a finicky stove, and snow-covered everything.
After getting some cocoa and eggs in my belly I felt a little more human and rallied to pack up the tent and load up the car. The roads were totally driveable, and the whole scene covered with a blanket of fresh snow was nothing short of magical.
My photos do nothing to paint the picture. Thick clouds and filtered sun made everything on camera seem much darker and flatter than they looked in person. Score another point for actually being there instead of living through pictures. You really need to be in a place to truly experience that place. Even if I had a pro photographer documenting this trip, the pictures do little to communicate the wholeness of the experience.
Choose your own adventure
This year I’m signing off with a plea. Go out. Just go. Explore. Find a new special place. Be there, in the moment. Prepare to be astounded. Prepare to be frustrated. Prepare to learn a lot: about yourself, about your travel buddies, about your world.
But here’s the key: prepare. Here are some tips to planning and carrying out your next adventure in the wild unknown:
Do your research. Find out what you can about an area. Buy or borrow guidebooks. Pore over local maps. See what you can locate online. Find recent trip reports, if possible. Or at least look for trip reports around the same time of year you anticipate going on your adventure. A trip to Sheldon in July is going to require different planning than a trip in December.
Anticipate and plan for problems. If you’re heading into the desert, bring more than enough water and an extra can of gas. Have the tools and knowledge to take care of possible car problems on the road. There’s no cell service and no amenities for many, many miles.
Have a plan, and be flexible. Communicate your plan to at least one responsible person back home. Let them know where you’ll be and when. Let them know when you’ll be back in town, and when to sound the alarm if they don’t hear from you. Have a backup plan, or two, in case what you want to do just doesn’t work out. Make sure they know your backup plans, too!
Carry a communication device. I’ve used the SPOT messenger for several years. And while I’ve never had to call for a rescue yet, I know that I’ve got that option if the you-know-what hits the fan. By far the most important feature is that I can check in with my contacts back home to let them know that all is well. They get an email with my GPS location and an “OK” message.
Keep a positive attitude. You know all those epic photos from National Geographic and pro adventure athletes? There’s a lot of pain and suffering behind each one of them. Adventuring off the grid and into the unknown can have its ups and downs. It isn’t a totally blissful experience from start to finish. Stay positive, be ready to be challenged, and face each one with a smile. It’s all part of the experience. You’ll be tired, cold, hot, achy, and irritated. But you’ll also be joyful, curious, exhilarated, and awestruck. And these are the feelings that keep us coming back and pushing the envelope.
Living in Bend has opened up many doors for recreation. Now, Crater Lake is only a 2 hour drive from home. So we sneaked in this last chance opportunity to visit several of the park’s attractions before the north entrance and rim roads are closed up for the winter. Here are the highlights.
11 miles | 1600′ ele. gain | 5:45 | PCT > Union Peak Trail
So many Southern Oregon peaks have been on the edges of my radar, but I haven’t made too much of an effort to get down there. The way Sullivan describes the Union Peak hike in his book makes it sound like one to skip. So I knew we would find some peace and quiet here.
The long approach on the mostly flat PCT would have gone by more quickly if there weren’t so many cool trees to stop and look at. Many of the trees, maybe hemlocks (?), had multiple trunks and interesting features. We had to climb, play, and photograph before moving along.
It was still fall but there was snow up in the hills already. The slog on the PCT was mostly snow-free but once we reached the Union Peak trail we started crunching through the white stuff more often than not. Eventually we popped out in a meadow with a view towards the rocky pinnacle of Union Peak. Finally, we could see what we were in for.
After a snack break, we continued along. As Aaron scouted a nice viewpoint, I had to re-find the trail in an indistinct section. Before long we were starting the switchbacks that climbed up this steep hillside. While the trail sign warned us of “the steepest trail in Southern Oregon!” we enjoyed the nicely graded pathway that clung to the rocky wall.
All along we basked in the bright sun and had endless views of the countryside. In the last 15 feet of the climb, the trail was completely obliterated so we carefully picked our way up in the simplest way possible. The exposure was enough to remind us to really pay attention. The snow on top of the rock made it just slippery enough to feel like an adventure.
From the top, perfect views. Peace. Quiet. The kind unheard of in a National Park. We felt incredibly lucky to be there.
The hike down was just as mindful as the way up, making sure not to slip on the snow-covered rocks. And when we got back to the car, well, we still had some exploring to do!
We were in the southwest corner of the park, so next we hit up the Godfrey Glen Trail. This hike sounded much more interesting than it actually was, and if you’re pressed for time, I’d recommend skipping it altogether. To be fair, it does get close-ish to some cool ash structures, but the viewpoints aren’t great. So you feel like you’re next to something really cool and you can’t quite get a good look. Shocked that this is listed as a wheelchair-accessible trail. You’d better have off-road tires on your wheelchair and a buddy if you want to take this one on. Or maybe there’s a community of badass wheelchair users that I’m just not aware of.
0.8 miles | 150′ ele. gain
On to the next viewpoint hike. This one was fun. And also, comically, rated as wheelchair-accessible. I’d be terrified on some of those slopes. Gosh, maybe I’m just a big weenie? I dunno. This hike climbs up from the parking area to several beautiful views of Crater Lake. Since this one is on the main drag, you will be sharing the trail with lots of characters. Prepare.
You can see the Phantom Ship from this viewpoint, which is pretty amazing. From this viewpoint, it’s hard to imagine that the tallest spire stretches up 200 feet! It looks so tiny.
Phantom Ship Overlook
We kept puttering along, checking out all the viewpoints to find a good spot to watch the sunset. While Aaron was busy capturing the majestic golds, yellows and pinks as the sun dropped behind the lake, I was taking this SWEET photo of our adventure-mobile.
0.8 miles | 10′ ele. gain
Now this is the hike to do to see the ash spires. We went early in the morning, so none of my photos do this hike any justice. You’ll just have to go see for yourself. The easy trail edges right along the top of the canyon, where you can see the impressive towers coming up on both sides. It also gave us an excellent vantage point of Mt. Scott, which we’d take on next.
Mt. Scott is the highest point in Crater Lake National Park, it offers a view of the entire lake, the trailhead is right on the main drive, and it’s less than a 5 mile roundtrip. So as you can imagine, you’ll be sharing this trail with some people.
Actually, most people walk up the trail 20 yards or so, take a picture, and then get back to the car before their lattes get cold. So it’s actually not as bad as you’d expect it to be.
It was a chilly but sunny morning that we headed up to Mt. Scott. The trail was beautiful, crossing a pumice plain and some pockets of forest before making the ascent to the lookout tower. The twisted whitebark pine stood as evidence to the extreme weather conditions the native plants and animals must survive here. The trees were simply gorgeous.
Near the top the forest thinned dramatically and we were exposed to all the wind. The final stretch crossed a ridgetop leading right to a fire tower. There, some hikers were discussing some of the must-see places in the Cascades. We skirted by the conversation, found a quiet spot out of the wind and enjoyed snack time with views of the lake.
I didn’t get to all the points of interest I wanted to see on this trip, but we bought an annual pass to encourage more visits over the next year. There are still a few highpoints in the park I’d like to climb, and the west rim was closed for road repairs. While many online reviews list Crater Lake National Park as a half day trip at the most, I’m excited to spend more time on the ground adventuring around this beautiful landscape.
By now we were getting settled in on Maui. Most of our time had been spent in the upcountry, however, and we were ready for the beach. We got up early to head to Lahaina for our very first surf lesson.
Not having planned ahead, we showed up at a surf school to try and get a same-day lesson. But the first place we stopped into turned us down, so we walked across the street to Banyan Tree Park where Aaron started making phone calls to other shops nearby.
I wandered beneath the gigantic Banyan. Native to India, this tree was brought to Maui over 150 years ago as a gift. It was planted, nurtured, sculpted into a symmetrical shape, and now covers nearly an acre of parkland with its enormous canopy. Prop roots dangling from the branches were encouraged to root into the ground in order to create satellite trunks. These new trunks enabled the tree to keep growing wider and wider, providing a nice, shady respite from the Hawaii sun. Meanwhile, Aaron scored us a surf lesson from the Goofy Foot Surf School and we were off to our next adventure.
We met our instructor, Armadillo, a stereotypical-looking surf bum. After the rest of our group arrived we headed to the beach for an introduction to surfing. He taught us how to stand, how not to stand, how to turn, where to put our arms, etc., all while safely grounded on the beach. After that we paddled out into the water where we followed him out to the surf one person at a time. I had to leave my glasses behind so I was going blind from here on out.
Amazingly, we each got up on our first wave, excited that the abusive lesson we’d just endured actually sunk in. We went on to have varying success on several more waves in the next couple hours. They were pretty small and predictable, but it was pretty exciting to be standing on top of the water.
After that we were ready for a snack. We stopped at a shave ice stand so Aaron could see what all the fuss was about. I had fond memories of shave from the last time I was in Hawaii. We both enjoyed our treat, one of many, many more that we’d have on this trip.
We putzed around for the rest of the morning and early afternoon, trying to escape the wind and rain showers. Around 3 pm we pulled up to the parking area for the Dragon’s Teeth. Our guidebook described a short walk alongside a golf course that led to an unusual rock formation at the ocean’s edge.
It took us a few minutes of walking around, asking “is this it?” before we literally walked single file along a thin dirt track sandwiched in between a golf green and an ancient Hawaiian burial site. It was weird. But soon we saw the formation and knew we were in the right place.
Tall fins of solid lava rose up from the cliff edge like waves frozen in time. The gray clouds above us and the gray rock beneath our feet created an eerie mood about the place. Succulent plants provided an occasional burst of color within the black and white scene.
We watched waves crashing. We looked at all the nooks and crannies in the rocks. It was a mesmerizing place. Just wandering. Not hiking. Not walking to a destination. Just being, exploring. Aaron went his way and I went mine and eventually we met up again and thought, “well this is cool.”
But there was one more geological oddity we needed to see today so we hustled back to hop in the car and continue north along the coastal highway. We drove through a couple tiny towns, eyes on the windy road, not stopping until we got to a parking area for the Nakalele Blowhole. The book described a few ways to get there, but we wanted to take the “Acid War Zone” hike to the blowhole. So we pulled into what we thought was the right spot.
The blowhole is, of course, marked on Google Maps (isn’t everything?) so we knew we were in the right neck of the woods. There was no sign, and no trail. but some vague directions to cross the brushy shoreline to a lighthouse and then walk cross-country through the rocky “war zone” until we happened upon the blowhole. Hooray for another adventure! We found our way through the sand, shrubs, and trees to a man-made structure that resembled some sort of light beacon. There was a parking area there, with a truck there, so I guess we could have started further up the road. Regardless, we found a little path through the rock that was marked with white blazes (are we on the Appalachian trail, I thought?). Down we went through the rock. It was, in fact, carved up as if the rock had gone through an acid bath. The pock-marked black lava rock was ruggedly beautiful.
It started to rain. We were mostly prepared for that. We pulled out our rain shells and zipped up our phones in their protective cases. We encountered one guy heading towards us who confirmed we were heading the right way. After cresting over a couple of rock piles we found our blowhole.
It was just what you would expect, a hole in the rock where a column of water bursts through with each incoming wave. Standing in the rain, it didn’t feel all that impressive. But we enjoyed the meandering walk along the rocks. I wonder now, that I’m back at home, if we found the right one or if it was one of the distractions along the way to the real thing. Not sure that it matters at this point.
Heading back we were on a serious mission to the car. We were getting chilly, Aaron’s sandals were failing and the rain was pouring down harder now. It was not one of those sunny days with lovely palm trees like all the travel brochures depict. It felt like a war zone, and we hurried along to the shelter of the car. It had been another long day.
Coming from Oregon, we were hoping to bask in some much-needed sunshine, but instead it felt like the rain and cold followed us across the ocean. Not to worry, though, because at least we were prepared for it. Our tropical vacation was chock full of unexpected surprises and it would continue to offer interesting twists and turns as we worked our way across Maui.
We got up at o-dark-thirty to begin the very popular drive to Hana. The plan was to drive out to the far side of Haleakala National Park to hike the bamboo forest, making a few detours along the way. Our trusty guidebook was very frank about which attractions were worth stopping at and which were not, so we bookmarked a few key points of interest and hit the road.
First stop: Haipua’ena Falls. A brief walk up a dirt path led through the thick, tropical vegetation to this pretty little waterfall. It was a nice Hawaiian sampler: colorful flowers, lush greenery, interesting mushrooms and a picturesque cascade pouring into a pool.
With a lot of ground to cover, we kept our eyes on Hana while making just a few more stops along the way. One noteworthy stop was at Wai’anapanapa Park, a beautiful place with a crazy name. There was a lot to explore, including lava caves, a black sand beach, and shoreline trails. It was impossibly sunny and bright. The ocean sparkled as the water swelled towards the rocky shore. We walked along a short hiking trail past some caves, then meandered towards the black sand beach. Several people were out sunning themselves on the dark sand. The black lava rock created sharp, statue-like formations along the edge of the surf. Every angle looked just like a postcard: palm trees framed lovely ocean views in the intense light.
Back on the road, there were more and more roadside stands selling fruit, flowers, banana bread and trinkets. We cruised past Hana, where suddenly there was traffic congestion and people everywhere. The next stop was the Kipahulu entrance to Haleakala National Park.
Seven Sacred Pools
We were really excited to see these pools. Based on the description and photos in the guidebook, this was a serious must-do stop. But here it was overcast, gray, gloomy. And the path to the pools was closed due to dangerous surf conditions. So we couldn’t get very close and the view we got wasn’t very spectacular. Disappointed, we found a little nook tucked under a pandanus tree to sit and eat our sack lunch. Despite the mob of tourists visiting the site, no one walked by our sweet little lunch spot.
But the main attraction at this site was a 2 mile hiking trail to Waimoku Falls. The secret was clearly out; the trail was wall-to-wall packed with people. We pushed our way up the trail. The crowds died back a little the further we got from the parking lot, but not by much. We passed a few smaller waterfalls on the way to the big one. But the highlight of the walk was the bamboo forest. The thin bamboo stalks seemed to go on forever. At times the dirt path gave way to boardwalks. The whole place felt like it was manufactured, like we were walking through a cartoon. Only once before had I walked through a bamboo forest, many years ago in Thailand, and I remember it feeling equally strange and magical.
At the end of the trail there was a tall, skinny waterfall that felt like it had been transported from Oregon. People were whooping and hollering loudly from below the falls. Their voices echoed across the basin so although we couldn’t see anyone through the foliage, we sure could hear them. Other people stood at the viewpoint, getting into every photo. It was anti-climactic. One of those hikes that was worth doing once, but the whole time I kind of wished I wasn’t there.
We returned quickly, and about 2 minutes from the car the sky tore open. A quick but dramatic deluge of rain poured down on us. We praised our good timing and began the drive back into town. Along the way, Aaron stopped to pick up a hitchhiker (because I guess you do stuff like that). She was a tiny whisper of a person, a young, free-spirited, eco-traveling, hippy-type who needed to get into town for a yoga class or something. She was perfectly harmless and grateful for the ride.
After Hana we finally made a stop to buy banana bread and eat homemade ice cream. So yummy. Then we had the long and lazy drive back along the road, which was now packed with other drivers. The road was in remarkably good condition, it was just really narrow and treacherous in spots. It was one of the most scenic drives I’d ever done. The tropical plant life extends right to the car window as there was no shoulder on the road and only occasional pullouts. Cliffs on one side, trees and waterfalls on the other, there were no lack of sights to see while driving. It was important to be vigilant about other drivers, however, who seemed to have no ability to pay attention to the road or be smart about where it was okay to pull off the road. Near some popular waterfalls we had to wait as people were just randomly milling around in the middle of the road, with cars trying to get through in either direction.
It was a great way to spend the day, but we were ready for some more active adventures in the days ahead.
Oh, and one more thing
There were several stops I neglected to mention. I feel really strongly that we’re living in a time where too much information is at your fingertips. Every place has been written about, photographed, geo-tagged, and marked. There’s not much mystery in the world. But one of my favorite things about traveling is the sense of discovering a secret place for the first time. While none of the best spots we found were any secret, they were sort of happened-upon discoveries that weren’t on our pre-planned agenda.
At one of these special places of discovery, Aaron asked me to marry him. I’ll never forget this moment, or this spot, and the story is ours to keep forever. It was the perfect time and place, and we had it all to ourselves. No crowds. No food stands. No traffic. No tourist attraction signs.
The best adventures are the unexpected ones that come about by just being in the moment.
We woke up early so Aaron could meet his SCUBA boat at the dock by 5:30 am. The island was on fire. Or so, that’s what it looked like as we drove down from Kula towards Kahului on our way to the dock. A bright red-orange glow stretched out on the horizon below us. As Aaron drove I scoured the Internet, looking for breaking news. Nothing. Maybe our eyes were sleepy, or there was some local phenomenon that just made it look like we were driving into a massive brush fire. The closer we got to it, the less dramatic it appeared. We’d later learn that the sugar cane fields are burned right before harvest. Didn’t read that in the guidebook.
Aaron got on the boat and I was left alone in the dark on the island, so…what’s a girl to do?
Red Hill and Big Beach
I kept driving south to Makena State Park. The gate was locked but there was plenty of on-street parking so I locked up the car and walked along the short road into the park. One of the old guidebooks in the Corvallis Public Library mentioned a hike up a red hill inside the park. It was not a huge climb but it was a prominent feature and it intrigued me. I walked across the sand on a deserted beach that appeared to dead end into a rock face. Huh?
As I got closer to the rock I conjured up the scene with the worm in The Labyrinth:
And when I reached the wall, the opening made itself obvious. It was a brief scramble up a rock ramp to the base of the hill. I’d read online that the trail had been closed due to a rock slide. A sign was posted there to prevent people from going further. But it was apparent where the ground had slid and it was easy enough to avoid the sketchy stuff. I skirted around the base of the cinder just enough to pick up a network of steep use trails that climbed up towards the top.
The scratchy vegetation that made its home on that hill was just thick enough to be difficult to avoid. I guess this wasn’t the best day for shorts. When I reached the top of the hill I realized I was on the rim of a small crater, not at a clear summit. I traced the edge of the crater in search of the best viewpoint. The sun had not yet crested over the mountains to the east, so I sat in wait for better sunlight. From my perch I could see Kaho’olawe, an uninhabited desert island and the smallest of the Hawaiian islands. I admired the beautiful, yet thorny, lantana flowers, blissfully unaware of its epic weed status at that point.
After circling around the crater I descended back down the scree and took a short detour across a rock outcrop protruding into the ocean. I passed by some dazed-looking campers (squatters?) and walked down to a stretch of tidepools at the water’s edge. I wasn’t alone out there, someone was smoking and listening to music on his phone speaker, so I took a quick look around and busted out of there.
It’s nice to finish a hike with a walk on the beach. By now, a few walkers, runners and swimmers were around but it still felt quiet and peaceful. I took my shoes off, walked barefoot across the sand and listened to the waves crashing into the shore. A stand of trees at the opposite end of the beach provided some welcome shade. I relaxed there to kill some time before picking Aaron back up from the dock.
Later in the day we’d do Hawaii right. We had our first shave ice (but not last!) of the trip, went snorkeling, and had a picnic on the beach. I’m pretty sure we saw a hawksbill sea turtle at Makena Beach. It didn’t look like all the green sea turtles I’d remembered from college a billion years ago. The design on the shell was much more complex and geometric.
We learned about the afternoon wind on the South shore. It was kind of nuts. The water got so choppy while snorkeling that we had to get out, then it was nearly impossible to enjoy a quiet lunch in the grass. It felt like we were eating in a hurricane. Yet another reason to get an early start! We packed up and visited the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum on our way home. The best part was actually outside the museum, where they had some old trucks and machinery plus a ton of cool trees. Aaron foraged some nice looking mangoes from the ground to bring back to the house.
I finish here not with a random pictures of baby goats, but a purposeful picture of baby goats. We swung into the Surfing Goat Dairy Farm hoping to take a tour, but the last one had just left. Our consolation prize was getting to gawk at the babies playing in their little pen near the gift shop.
Just the place for an afternoon stroll. We chose a campsite at Marion Forks to spend the weekend. Wanting to do something active, we walked up the road to the Independence Rock Trailhead.
According to cascaderamblings.com, Independence Rock was named by a survey party in the 1800’s who just happened to be by this rock on Independence Day. In other words, there’s nothing terribly special about this place.
The trail was nice enough, traveling over soft dirt through an evergreen forest. The views would probably be great on a nice day, but we were in the clouds today. The hike is over just after you start, so it’s not a destination in and of itself. I’d love to know why there’s even a trail here. Maybe the people at the Fish Hatchery needed something to do on their lunch break.
Whatever the reason, it was a good excuse to stretch the legs before settling down to attempt cooking cedar plank salmon over the campfire…
East Ridge | 7.5 miles | 750′ ele. gain | 7.5 hrs. | Photos
We met up with Rick at a coffee shop before sunrise, and caravaned up to the Wildcat trail head in the central part of Zion National Park. With less publicity and several road closures planned for the day, we anticipated more of a wilderness experience on the trails.
Aaron, Rick and I hiked down the Wildcat Canyon Trail and turned on the junction towards Northgate Peaks. At trail’s end, the two Northgate Peaks stood like stone lions guarding the gate of some VIP’s mansion. We bushwhacked down the overgrown blocks of dark lava rock to the sandy valley floor. Heading directly towards our obvious target, we picked our way through scraggly shrubs and the occasional pine tree as quickly as we could. Once we reached the impressive sandstone slabs of North Guardian Angel, Aaron turned back to hike up East Northgate Peak while Rick and I harnessed up for our climb.
The first bit was a fun, third class scramble up the horizontally scarred slab to the long, flat landing zone above. My approach shoes felt incredibly sticky on this rock. We weren’t in Oregon anymore…
Once we hit the plateau, we roped in and I led up the first pitch of actual climbing. The hardest moves (as always) were right off the ground—within the first 30 feet or so—and so it took a little mental magic to push myself through on lead. Since I rarely ever climb rock anymore, my brain gets a little rusty on exposed, unprotected climbing, even when it’s technically easy.
Once past the tough spot I breezed up to a good anchor point and brought Rick up. There may not have been anywhere to place nuts and cams on this climb, but there were plenty of Ponderosa pines along the way. Each pitch ended at one such tree, and was almost always shared with a massive throng of red ants. That kept the pace moving. We consulted a photocopy from one of Rick’s climbing books that had a play-by-play route description to keep us on track, but mostly the pitches ran out whenever there was a convenient tree to sling.
We ended up climbing 4 or 5 roped pitches, then carried the rope up the final ascent. The climbing was really enjoyable and never that challenging, but the exposure made us pay attention. It felt nicer to be roped up, even though belaying up my partner was exhausting (since he was cruising along so fast).
Near the summit block, we had some options. We decided to go left and traverse around the “face” of the ridge, since it looked pretty vertical. The traverse was pretty easy, minus one airy step that Rick assured me was no big deal. After that, it was a straightforward scramble up some loose but not exposed sections of rock.
On the summit, the views were incredible. Pale, slickrock mountains jutted up from the forested scrubland all around it. Voices echoed out from the Subway, a popular canyoneering route nearby. We hung out and ate snacks for the first time today, admiring the colorful mountains and valleys in all directions.
On the way down, we walked to the edge of the summit block wall and set our first rappel. This saved us some time and hassle negotiating the exposed section we passed through on our way up. By combining downclimbing with rappelling we comfortably descended the ridge back to the plateau. One last slickrock scramble brought us to the base of the mountain, where we packed up our gear and headed out.
It was now pretty warm and we were both ready to be done. We aimed for the gap between the Northgate Peaks and I scrambled back up the lava to the trail while Rick stayed low in the valley. After much yelling, waving of hands, and wandering back and forth on the trail, we met up once again and retreated towards the trail head together.
At our final trail junction before the parking lot, we came across a group of young women with overnight packs on, who were paused for a break. Rick asked if they were headed to the Subway, to which they basically replied: “whatchutalkinabout?” They clearly had no idea what the (most popular route in the universe) Subway was, where they were or where they were going. We marched away from the confused ladies, remarking on the utter lack of preparation the average visitor seems to have in the National Parks.
We then continued marching along the (wrong) trail for another mile, wondering why we hadn’t reached the car yet.
It then occurred to us that we’d mistakenly taken the connector trail to the Hop Valley trail head and had overshot our destination. After a brief moment to reflect on the irony of the situation I pulled out the map and noticed that we could bushwhack up the cliffy rock band to our right once we reached the general area of the parking lot, instead of hoofing it all the way back to the aforementioned junction. Conveniently, there was a break in the vertical wall right where we needed it and we clambered up the rocks to the field just south of the lot.
Meanwhile, Aaron had gotten concerned that it was taking us so long to return, and had decided to hike back up the trail to look for us. Fortunately he ran into a couple who had passed us on the wrong trail and based on their conversation, he figured out what happened. We eventually reunited and all was well. Just a hiccup in the adventure.
This would be our last foray into Zion National Park. I enjoyed the solitude, the outstanding views, easy climbing, and unique perspective of the park. I left Zion with a positive vibe and I was ready for the next stage in our road trip.
Doing more research? Here’s a very bare bones route description on Summit Post. And another from Mountain Project. Bring a rope, material to build belay anchors and a handful of slings; leave the nuts and cams at home.
Spring arrived, so was time for another big adventure. The decision on where to go was made easy when I was invited to climb a pair of peaks in Zion National Park in late April. In order to make the most of my travel time, I crafted a road trip that would last nearly 3 weeks and take us through 4 states. Fortunately, my partner was up for it and the two of us set out from the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon to explore some new territory.
After spending a night in Northern Nevada, we got up early to make our way to Great Basin National Park. Driving down highway 50, or the “Loneliest Road in America,” we took a lunch, car maintenance and tourist break in the town of Eureka. I wandered into the Eureka museum, which chronicled the rise and fall of a mining boom-town. There were rooms full of old printing machines, newspapers, kitchen items, and relics of old stores, homes and businesses. There was little information to accompany all these items so it was kind of like walking into a crowded antiques store. Nonetheless, it provided a nice diversion and the woman working there was very helpful in providing information about the town and the area.
As we approached the park from the west, Wheeler Peak came into view. That would be our target for our first and most challenging hike of the trip.
We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center to ask about current conditions and one of the rangers suggested an alternative route, involving climbing a couloir, that might be easier and more straightforward given the time of year. I thanked him for the suggestion and we settled into camp at Upper Lehman Creek.
16 miles | 5300′ ele. gain | 12 hours
In the summer, Wheeler Peak is a challenging but accessible high peak. The trailhead starts at 10,000 feet so there’s less than 3,000′ of vertical climbing to get there. A nice path leads 4.3 miles one way to the summit.
But now the road to the trailhead was gated due to snow. We’d have to start our hike from the Upper Lehman Creek campground at 7,750′. That nearly doubled the mileage and elevation gain. No worries, we were ready for this.
Living at sea level doesn’t quite prepare you for being at elevation for any period of time so we woke up early in the morning feeling short of breath just walking around camp. We packed up and hit the trail before 6:30 am, with only one group signed in ahead of us.
We walked along the steadily rising trail through stands of cactus, aspen, sage and juniper. About an hour into our trek we looked across a meadow to get our first view of Wheeler Peak. The bump we’d been staring at from our campsite was not, in fact, our mountain but some insignificant neighbor. The view was stunning. We’d see the mountain several times from many more angles through the course of the day.
After crossing the creek, we began to encounter patchy snow. Two hours into the hike we reached the Wheeler Peak Campground. Picnic tables and grills stuck out of the tops of snowdrifts. We followed the road, as the ranger had suggested, about a mile up the road to find the Wheeler Peak trail. Signs at the trailhead warned us of the challenges that lay ahead and suggested some easier alternatives.
We followed the trail to a junction to Stella Lake. From here, according to the ranger, we’d find a couloir that would take us straight to the ridge below the summit. It would be easier than trying to find the main trail under snow. Besides, it sounded like more of an adventure.
The couloir was an obvious ribbon of snow to the left of the lake. We circled around the southwest side of the lake and then headed cross-country over the hard-packed snow to the base of the couloir. I was surprised to see so many trees here, clinging to life at over 10,000′.
The snow texture provided enough grip in most places to allow us to climb up without any gear. Yaktrax would have been helpful in some of the icier spots, but I found that if I moved quickly and stepped firmly enough it was possible to get past the worst of it without slipping. Poles were essential.
Once we reached the ridge we were both a little disheartened to look ahead and see how much further we still had to go. The combination of being at a high elevation and climbing was knocking the wind and energy right out of us. We took a few extended snack and water breaks to keep moving forward.
Along the ridge, the views were stunning. There were snow-capped mountain ranges in every direction. Wind farms were visible in the valley bottom. The sheer rock face of Jeff Davis Peak became more dramatic with each step forward. And the weather was so pleasant! Sunshine, dry skies, and moderate temperatures helped us keep taking steps forward.
Once on the summit, we really took a rest. It was time for lunch and some backpack-free exploration. There was a summit register placed inside a mailbox that someone left in a windbreak. We watched flocks of small birds swooping above the snow in search of food. And we celebrated the success of our efforts: a panoramic view that very few park visitors have seen, especially off season. Click the link below to get an idea.
Of course we were only halfway done and it was already 2:30 pm so we needed to start moving down. Aided by gravity we quickly ambled down the ridge and were back atop the couloir in no time at all. Going down was much faster and much more fun than going up. By the time we reached the snow above the lake the sun had softened it up considerably, so it was an agonizing slog to get back to the trail.
Knees wobbly from the cumulative effort of the day, it felt good to be on packed, dry ground and we made good time back to camp, arriving in time for a reasonable dinner. While I cooked many elaborate meals on this trip I had very little energy on this night. We settled for hotdogs and beans, a classic camp meal.
Before leaving for our trip I booked a Lehman Cave tour for 1 pm for the next day. I knew we’d be beat after our climb and could use an opportunity to sleep in. We did just that, had a delicious campfire brunch, and packed up our camp. We arrived at the Visitor Center just before the tour and layered up for our descent into the cold, damp cave.
Unlike many of the caves in the Northwest, which are nearly all lava tubes, Lehman Cave is made of limestone. Our tour guide took us into several rooms of the cave. In the first room, she discussed how crazy it must have been for the first visitors to this space. She turned off all the lights. It was completely dark. Then she proceeded to tell us about experiments that demonstrate how quickly people go insane when they’re held in complete darkness. I could believe it.
Each room had interesting features, including some that were apparently pretty rare to find. There were the usual stalactites and stalagmites, plus several that had welded together into columns. There was cave popcorn and soda straws. What was most impressive to me was how many intricate features there were in every room. The cave was well-lit so we could appreciate the formations in the cave. Early visitors must have had a harder time appreciating it by candlelight.
After the cave tour we ran to the small cafe attached to the Visitor’s Center to satisfy my milkshake craving, then hit the road. We had to book it to Zion National Park.