Category Archives: Hiking

Trip reports!

Elkhorn Peak, Wallowas

August 8, 2022.

Photo album

Mountains majesty.

When I re-planned my trip to the Wallowas, knowing I would now be going solo, I wanted to choose a route that would involve a base camp and day hikes. The first half of my trip was very strenuous, which is not sustainable forever. Ideally, on the second half, I’d be able to have some chill days and at least one summit day. That led me to the Copper River basin and Elkhorn Peak.

Elkhorn Peak, standing at 9238′, is the twelfth highest peak in Oregon. I decided to make this the central feature of the trip and scouted a basecamp from there. That line of reasoning took me to likely the busiest trailhead in the Wallowas, Two Pan. But my solitude-finding-superpower kicked in and I only saw about a dozen people in four days on this leg of the trip.

Solitude in the Wallowas?

I arrived at the trailhead around dinnertime on August 6, drove by tons of cars parked along the road and parked in a spot in the lot. I unpacked my car camping gear, set up camp at one of the free campsites and ate a pint of ice cream for dinner. I had no neighbors that night.

The next morning, I woke up and got my backpack loaded with ALL the creature comforts for a luxury three-night trip. A tenth of a mile off the trail, I turned off the main route to the lakes basin, then a couple more miles up I turned off the trail again to a lesser-traveled area, meaning I saw no one that morning. As Elkhorn Peak came into view, I began looking for places to camp. Despite the trail following the river closely on the map, there were not many great spots with water access. The river often flowed down in a rocky canyon for much of the way.

The trail kept climbing, but eventually leveled out right before a gentle creek crossing and voila! I spotted a beautiful, large campsite just off the trail with multiple “rooms,” plenty of hammock trees, a flat tent spot and easy river access.

The best campsite.

When you know, you know. That was the spot. I dropped my heavy pack and began unloading. Hammock in the den, tent in the bedroom, kitchen on the rocky ledge, bathroom tucked in the trees. I did a few camp chores, painted a creekside watercolor and read my books.

Elkhorn Peak and west ridge scramble

The next day, I left camp in search of the climber’s route that led to the impressive-looking south gully on Elkhorn Peak. I’d read the summitpost description a thousand times and I spent the entire previous afternoon and evening staring at the gully. I felt ready to go.

I discovered the climber’s path pretty quickly. It zig-zagged through the forest, crossed another creek, climbed to a rocky bench with a beautiful miner’s cabin, then descended to the base of the gully. Based on the topo map, I knew I had to climb 2000 vertical feet in about a mile. Here we go, I thought…

Miner’s cabin

Perhaps based on my recent experience or just my experience in the mountains in general, the gully felt remarkable stable and straightforward. It was steep and hard yes, but not scary, not that difficult, and before long I found myself standing at the summit in a tornado of butterflies. I called Aaron to check in and during that phone call I started rubbing my left eye. “Stupid sunscreen must have run into my eye,” I said. And kept rubbing.

elkhorn peak wallowas
Okay views from the top.

In an effort to make a loop, I’d eyeballed the west ridge, which at “only” a mile long seemed like a reasonable connection to a nice trail leading through stair-stepped meadows to my camp. At any rate, it would be more interesting than slip-sliding back down that gully. Or, so I thought.

Dear reader, I am a slow learner. I should have realized that based on the ridge connection I just did, that this was going to be more difficult than at first glance. It started pretty benign, luring me into such an obstacle-ridden cluster of ups and downs that I fell into the sunk cost trap. “Well I can’t just turn around now, I’ve made it this far.”

The ridgeline consists of a junky, blocky series of rocks that are sometimes passable, sometimes not. Either side of the ridge drops steeply into the adjacent basin. I mostly stayed on the south side due to exposure. While it was annoying and steep I was in no danger of just falling off the mountain. But that meant I had to go up and down and up and down on a combination of scree and solid rock in order to stay in the “scrambling not climbing” zone. Several solid rock ribs intersect the ridge at roughly ninety degree angles, and they were almost never traversable. I fought the urge to want to stay high on the ridge for views and joy with the urge to just drop low and get this shit over with.

My ridge is on the left side of the photo behind the tree.

Meanwhile, my eye was still really irritated and weeping uncontrollably. Even with sunglasses and a hat on, sunlight made it feel worse. I couldn’t watch my surroundings very closely through one eye, but seeing with both eyes didn’t help either. Then my nose started running.

Did I mention it was hot? The sun felt extra vicious and I had only packed enough water to do a straightforward scramble, not an exhausting one. There were a few trees along the way that offered small patches of shade; they quickly became my intermediate targets. My body fully resented me from taking on this extra challenge.

Approaching what appeared to be the last major obstacle, I faced a big, loose down climb to get around the last monster rib. I was so frustrated that I stopped to get my bearings and wondered aloud “Is the north side any better?” I looked up, and it seemed so far away, but I knew it wasn’t. I noticed that a solid slab of rock led almost to the top from where I stood. I went for it.

The slab.

That was actually the most fun part of the day’s scrambling! Once I took a look at the other side of the ridge, I concocted a new plan. It wasn’t going to be easy in any sense of the word, but I felt like I had more and better options on that side. Here we go.

Two hours after leaving Elkhorn’s summit, I arrived at a broad, rolling meadow that I knew would drop me back on a trail. I collapsed in a patch of snow, rubbing it all over my skin to cool me down. My water supply was low, but certainly I could ration it in a way that would last til camp. As soon as I found a creek, I dunked my sun shirt and hat in the cool water and put them back on. I felt human again.

My legs moved forward but my brain was toast. Some part of me knew I was moving through an exceptionally beautiful place, but I couldn’t enjoy it. All I wanted to do was get back to camp, change out of sweaty clothes and lay in the hammock.

Once I returned, that’s what I did. I dunked a bandana in the creek and made a compress for my still irritated eye. Now it was puffy, red, weepy and painful. I had no mirror to see if I had something stuck in it or what was going on. I hoped some rest would help.

A note on ultralight backpacking

Let’s start with something you likely know already: I am not a person who follows trends. The ultralight thing is no exception. I come pretty close to despising backpacking altogether. My body does not carry weight well. “Then Jess, shouldn’t you love the ultralight approach?” No, and here’s why:

I can tolerate being miserable while I’m walking if that means I can be comfy at camp. Packing light means carrying a finicky shelter that takes 20 minutes to set up, not having luxury items like books, painting supplies, stoves, nice food, hammocks etc that are excellent ways to spend time at camp. It means stopping to filter water every time you see a source instead of loading up for the day. It’s expensive gear that doesn’t hold up to repeated use. It’s more chores than I want to deal with. Those are simply trade-offs I am not willing to make.

So my rules for backpacking are:

  • There has to be a peak involved, or…
  • There has to be something really amazing on the route that cannot be experienced in a day hike.
  • I need to have something fun to do at camp like paint, read, etc.
  • I must have hot food and hot beverages.
  • Since I’ve learned this is an option, I must have my hammock!
  • I have to be able to keep myself warm.

I am willing to tolerate a LOT of suffering on my outdoor adventures. But a terrible time in a backcountry camp is where I draw the line.

Also, stay tuned for when I roll out my plans for the SKT website: Slowest Known Time. If I could name one trend I find even more annoying and elitist than ultralight backpacking, it’s the Fastest Known Time nonsense :vomit:.

Rest days

After that debacle, I took a full on rest day. I slept in. The clouds looked marginally threatening, so I took that as my cue to lay in my tent all morning doing crossword puzzles and listening to podcasts. Eventually, I rolled out into the world and packed up my painting supplies. I had to return to those picturesque meadows to stop for every wildflower and to paint.

A horrible place to hang out and paint.

A short hike brought me back to the place I scouted on my miserable return to camp the previous day. I found a nice perch with some shade on a rock outcrop. From there, I looked down on the winding alpine streams and delicate meadows. In the distance, jagged peaks rose up at a seemingly vertical angle. Wispy clouds, eventually turning into blanketing clouds, twisted and swirled over their tops.

It was my thirtieth plein air painting session of the year. My goal: fifty. At the start of 2022, I declared it the year of the watercolor and I knew I’d need some sort of direction to keep me on track. I sat and observed the colors, textures and shapes in my view. I struggled with the usual challenges of outdoor painting: changing light, bugs flying into my paint, wind blowing my pages around, the general lack of flat surfaces. It’s all part of the fun and learning.

Painted til the wind got too annoying.

All that was left on my Wallowas adventure was reading and napping, so I headed back to camp to do just that.

Later that evening, water began to fall from the building clouds. A gentle rain fell all night. I tucked into my sleeping bag, pleased with how kind the weather gods were on this trip. And, no mosquitoes either! A short walk and a long drive stood between my current reality and my future reality. I wish the amount of time I spent in each was reversed. And I’m working on that.

Sacajawea-Matterhorn-Hurwal Divide-Point Joseph

August 4-6, 2022.

Photo album

So pretty.

Thorp Creek

My adventure began on the Hurricane Creek Trail, one of the gateways to the Wallowa Mountains in Northeastern Oregon. I’d been to the Wallowas three times before, but never to this particular access point. I had dreamed up a route connecting several range highpoints on a three-day long loop, starting and ending at the Hurricane Creek Trailhead. My vision put together pieces from other people’s hiking, climbing and trail running reports; none exactly matched what I wanted to do. So, despite having one big hole in my plan, I set out to see what I’d find.

I used Barbara Bond’s 75 Scrambles in Oregon book to piece together the first day’s route. About 1.8 miles up Hurricane Creek trail, I was to look for a place to cross the (cold, ragey) creek and pick up the long decomissioned Thorp Creek Trail to access a base camp just downslope of Sacajawea Peak. At about that mile marker, I found the start of a well-worn use trail through the dense cover at the edge of the creek. This quickly disappeared, so I crashed through the brush and made my way to the water. I found a good place to cross, but no trail on the other side. No matter, I mucked around in the boggy grass, stopping to ogle all the pretty flowers, until I stumbled into bits and pieces of trail. Eventually the trail became continuous and I was on my way uphill.

Nice climber’s trail.

Since the trail officially doesn’t exist anymore, it is not maintained by the Forest Service. As a result, I had to step over a lot of downed, charred trees. It was nothing compared to what I’d eventually have to do, but in the moment it felt like some extra work. Where there weren’t downed trees, the trail was surprisingly nice, albeit very steep.

The trail climbed and climbed until it roughly leveled out on a grassy bench. All the surrounding trees were burned and either standing like a charcoal stick or littered across the ground. I could see the elegant north ridge of Sacajawea paralleling my route as I continued. The wind whipped across the bare rock and through the burnt forest, creating an eerie and foreboding sound. I walked alone, into the unknown and towards the Thorp Creek meadows I’d read about online. It was described in a mountaineering trip report as a beautiful place; mountaineers rarely wax poetic about the scenery so I had pretty high expectations.

Cumulus clouds over my camp.

Despite that, reality exceeded my expectations. I wandered along two small, braided creeks in a lush and open valley surrounded by high peaks. When I found a sufficient place to string up my hammock, I called it a day and dropped my heavy pack on the ground. From my camp, I carefully surveyed the surrounding landscape and memorized the features I could see. For the first time, I could see in person all the places I’d just read about online. It was happening.

I used my downtime in camp to paint, eat, recover and plan for the next day.

Sacajawea and Matterhorn

At 6 am, I started hiking. I knew I had a long and challenging day ahead. Sacajawea, the highest peak of the Wallowas, stood 2300′ above me and I’d cover all that elevation gain in approximately 1 mile of walking. With my overnight pack on. With all the water I’d need for the foreseeable future, since I would have no water access until I completed all the highpoints. I grumpily hauled myself up the relentless climbers trail under a clear und unsympathetic sky.

Sacajawea Matterhorn
On the way up Sacajawea.

From my camp, Sacajawea looked daunting. But the climber’s trail continued to provide a relatively easy and safe way to get up there. Before I knew it, I stood on the top. It was a bit disappointing, as the summit was merely a slightly higher blip on a rocky ridge, but oh well. No summit register, no fanfare. I walked uphill until I couldn’t go up anymore, then I started going down.

The gendarme ridge. This is what I had fretted about for weeks before the trip. Everyone talks about how sketchy and scary it is. And those people were mostly wearing daypacks. I agonized over how smart it would be to tackle this ridge with an overnight pack, alone, having never done it before. Exposure. Rock scramble. Knife edge ridges. Oh my. After consulting with my friend Matt, who’d done it himself, I decided I was up for the challenge.

Sacajawea Matterhorn ridge
One of the gendarmes.

On the other side of the ridge, I thought, “that was it?” Sure, there were some sections that got a little confusing, but as long as I poked around enough I found a way. Some spots were even marked with cairns! I moved slowly, intentionally and always took time to look for a reasonable way to go. If I started going over or around something and got uncomfortable, it was not the way. And so, with that behind me, I celebrated on the more interesting summit of 9775′.

This highpoint was smack in the middle of Sacajawea and Matterhorn. I’d return here to continue along the Hurwal Divide, so I joyfully dropped my backpack. With just a fanny pack and a half liter of water, I scampered along the solid and enjoyable ridge to the Matterhorn.

Yet another letdown. Sheesh. It was cool up top, to be sure, but I didn’t feel like I had to do any work to get there. If only I’d known how much work was in front of me, maybe I’d appreciate it more. There were 4 people milling around the summit, all of whom had come up from Ice Lake.

Sacajawea Matterhorn traverse
Matterhorn ahead.

I decided to enjoy myself a little more on the hike back to my pack, marveling at the interesting shapes and colors that some geologist could explain better than me. I stopped to gaze down the mysterious big hole and also made sure to take in the spectacular scenery in all directions.

Hurwal Divide Traverse

Underneath the full weight of my pack, I set off in an easterly direction along the long ridge making up the Hurwal Divide. It was not as scary and sheer as it had looked on the climb up Sacajawea, and for that I was grateful. I had a handful of photos from other people’s trips to go by, but no real sense of what to expect.

I mostly walked to the right of the ridge proper, avoiding the most exposure and traveling on what I dubbed “safe but annoying” terrain. The ground underfoot crumbled under each step. I skidded along the talus and scree for mile after mile, up and down, up and down. I’d scrambled on far more difficult terrain before, but the mental exhaustion of having to choose each step carefully really took its toll. Each time I slipped more than twice in short succession, I stopped to take a rest, sip some water and look around. It was so fun to actually see, up close, my view from camp.

Close up of Hurwal Divide.

Hurwal Divide Southwest (9508′), check. I tapped the top of this rubble pile among rubble piles, then kept going. Back down, again. This part was steep and loose with several gullies to negotiate. My brain was so tired from all the routefinding and my legs were tired from not being on solid ground for 90 percent of the day. I suppose it would have been easier to have better beta for the route so that I would have been able to mete out my energy and expectations over the course of the day.

But, I was in it now, so I pulled out every mountaineering self-talk trick in the book. Calling out moves helps me a lot: “right foot there,” “oh I don’t like that,” “that looks better,” “grab this rock,” etc. That, and singing songs, telling myself stories, faking some positive self-talk and occasionally just yelling “fuck this sucks.” My favorite strategy for keeping things moving is choosing intermediate goals. For example, to keep walking until that red boulder or that flat spot. Once I reached one goal, I’d look ahead on the ridge and select the next one. If I needed a break, I’d take a break at one of the spots I reached.

Despite all these tricks, I still moved slowly. The Hurwal Divide proved to be a formidable challenge!

The next major destination was the point at which the ridge abruptly turned north. I sat down here, took off my socks and shoes, watched the butterflies swirl around me. Buckwheat poked up from between the talus. And below me, Ice Lake glistened in the sun. I briefly considered bailing out to Ice Lake and hiking out to Wallowa Lake instead of finishing my route, but that thought didn’t last long. Let’s keep going, I thought.

Buckwheat and Hurwal Divide, looking towards Point Joseph

Belly full of snacks, I slogged along to the summit of Hurwal Divide. It didn’t look too bad on the map, but at this point in the day I couldn’t be fooled by that sort of nonsense. My journal describes this section as “and annoyingly loose shit pile with several little ups and downs, that at this point in the day, didn’t feel so little.” Fortunately there were a few sections of goat trail that made my life a little easier as I finished up this leg of the journey. I put my head down and walked; in about an hour I saw the cairn marking the top.

Here, I smiled wide at the sight of that cairn as well as something else. Ahead, on the ridge, I noticed a small knoll that had trees and a snowfield. C A M P ! My original plan involved continuing to Chief Joseph Mountain and descending to one of the creeks below. However, this looked incredibly inviting and I decided to shift my plan to spend a night on the actual divide. It’s the happiest I’d felt all day.

I still had to get there. Descending 1000 vertical feet in less than a mile, then climbing back up another 200 feet took some effort. As soon as I found two whitebark pines sturdy enough to support my hammock, I called it a day. I settled in for a painting session, a delicious dinner (and snow-chilled cider) and watched one of the most spectacular sunsets in my life.

Sunset to end all sunsets.

Point Joseph

“Not one mountain goat,” I grumbled to myself as I got up to make coffee. I was sure there had to be goats in the area, but despite all the time I spent at elevation the day before I had not seen one.

As I watched the sun rise and packed up my camp, I noticed a white rock on the hillside that I didn’t see during all the time I spent painting a watercolor of that same slope. Could it be? I zoomed way in on my camera phone and confirmed, in fact, it was a mountain goat! I was excited and quickly finished getting ready so I could see what would be in store for the day.

In the crisp morning air, I dropped off my magical knoll and began climbing up the next bump, a steep slope that got steeper and looser as I went. I followed the goat until the goat moved no more. Two goats, actually. Confused, I paused there to watch their behavior and decide if it would be safe to proceed. Goats have big pointy horns.

Stubborn goats

They paid me no mind, and the larger of the two plopped right down on the ridge. They had no plans to move any time soon. So, I followed suit and sat down too. For the next forty minutes. I put my puffy on, ate another bar, took some photos. I couldn’t believe my day was being held back by mountain goats, and I had some un-scouted terrain to cover!

Suddenly, they began to move…towards me! I found out why; what I couldn’t see was the steep cliff on the other side of them that apparently none of us could descend. So I ended up having to do a hairy downclimb to skirt around the cliff before re-joining the ridge. Ugh, this was already a morning. The rest of the ascent to Point Joseph proceeded smoothly and soon I stood atop its interesting brown cap. The entire mountain, save for the summit, looks like a hill painted in delicate pastels. But dark brown boulders create a fortress shape on the top, strange rocks I hadn’t seen anywhere else on this traverse.

Point Joseph’s fortress cap.

From the summit, I eyeballed my route down and checked the waypoints I’d put in my map. On the hike in, I tried to note good places to cross Hurricane Creek. I just had to work backwards to connect my current position with a reasonable creek crossing. What lay in between was my choice of rocky ridges plummeting into steep forest of unknown quality. From what I’d seen so far, I assumed it would be brushy and/or burned. I was right on both accounts.

Looking down the rocky ridge.

I dropped off the summit, followed a rocky ridge peppered with delightful wildflowers and descended through a steep forest. I ended up in a dry drainage, which I had hoped would be easy to follow. It was not. Back up on the steep, steep hillside.

At each point of the day, I thought I was at the hardest obstacle. I was literally never right. I sat down, took out my map and tried to gain perspective on the situation. I had one mile to go and I’d be at the creek. “I can do anything for one mile,” I asserted. Two elk, hearing my desperate affirmation, spooked and crashed through the forest. I got to watch them for a bit, since even they had trouble navigating the blowdown and tangle of weeds. Great, I thought.

The steep, forested hillside turned into a slightly less steep, burned hillside. It was at the state of the burn where some regrowth had begun. So I alternately was stepping over charcoal-crusted trees, crashing through ankle-grabbing brush, stepping into soft holes, weaving between incredibly sharp, twisted dead branches and looking for some path of least resistance.

Burnt forest.

There was none.

And then, it got worse. The regrowth became denser, taller and seemingly more angry with me. At points I could take a step and not know if I was on the ground or not. I’d step on a solid-looking log and crunch right through it. At one point I stepped down into thin air, dangling over a rushing creek, my hands grabbing for anything solid but the earth disintegrated in my hands. I CANNOT GET HURT HERE, I yelled into the abyss.

My frustration levels maxed out several times on this heinous descent through hell. Each step was carefully calculated, and even then, was often a failure. I had to downclimb, re-climb, backtrack, crawl under, scramble over and pull myself around an endless string of obstacles. Once I somewhat got the hang of the obstacles in front of me, the character of the forest changed and I had new things to figure out. There are no words to accurately express the degree of Type 3 Fun I experienced in that long, long mile. Skipping ahead two and a half hours, I made it to the creek.

Hurricane Creek.

It may be called creek, but it felt more like river. I couldn’t just walk across at any point. It was flowing cold and deep in some narrow channels. The point at which I arrived was not a good spot to cross. Upon checking my map, I learned I was further downriver than I wanted to be. What did that mean? More backtracking. Regardless, I was dying to get my shoes off so I swapped into my trusty Bedrock sandals and hoofed it through the (of course) thick, brushy riverside up river.

I ended up finding a place where the creek split into several broad channels, spreading out the water so it wasn’t so deep. But cliffs lined the other side of the creek, with no way to get up to the trail. Regardless, I went for it. On the other side, with nowhere else to go, I walked in the actual creek bed until the slope above me mellowed out. There was a little bit of bushwhacking and then…

THE T R A I L ! ! ! !

Elation.

I was so elated, I also do not have the words! I felt all the opposite feelings I had just minutes before. My eyes moist with tears, I practically ran along the well-graded trail all the way back to my car. It was the easiest mile of my life.

After changing my clothes and throwing all my gear in the car, I drove to Terminal Gravity brewery in Enterprise for a burger and a beer. I picked up a pint of ice cream at Safeway for dinner. And I drove to Two Pan Trailhead, where I’d camp for the night in preparation for the second half of my Wallowas adventure the next day.

South Warner Wilderness

May 29, 2022.

6.8 mi. | 2000′ ele. gain | 3:30 hr.

south warner wilderness

I had one final peak in me on our grand, Grand Canyon road trip. Plan A involved driving from Arc Dome Wilderness north through Austin and Winemucca into southeast Oregon and poking around some desert canyons and mountains to finish our tour. But, the forecasted thunderstorms made us shift our course west towards Reno and then up into southeast California instead. There, a little-known place called the South Warner Wilderness (which had long been on my “someday list”), called my name.

The night before my hike, we found a quiet, free, campground in the woods to stay nearby. We assembled some dinner with the remaining supplies in our food box and read stories from our Grand Canyon deaths book.

Again, Aaron agreed to drop me off at a trailhead so I could burn some energy while he stayed behind to do some work. I waved goodbye at the Pepperdine trailhead. Snow dusted the ground, even in late May.I could already tell I was walking into an adventure.

The closest highpoint, the poorly named Squaw Peak, was my chosen destination for the day. I didn’t want to leave Aaron there for too long. This off-trail destination is encircled by two trails: summit trail and Squaw Peak trail. Ironically, neither of those goes to the summit of Squaw Peak. Seriously, who was in charge of naming things there?! In my mind, I envisioned a loop in which I’d take one trail to get up the peak and the other to come back down. Here’s how it went.

south warner wilderness

After a short ascent through the forest, the trail leads across a beautiful, windswept, rocky landscape. The trail became challenging to follow under the light snow cover since there was no clear path through the trees. Everything looked like a path. Somewhat luckily for me, someone had just set off on this trail right before me so I could see his footprints. However, I’ve learned not to trust other people’s footprints in the snow. I proceeded with caution.

I got especially confused at one tricky switchback near a runoff ravine and some thicker trees that had me literally going around in circles for a bit. With the help of some shifting visibility and my GPS app, I eventually got back on track. I veered off the summit trail and followed a steepening ridgeline up to the top of the peak at 8646′. The last stretch of the ascent involved icy snow in the trees and then a mix of icy and powdery snow over boulders and stubby shrubs. It was tricky, slow going, but I topped out just after 1 pm. I found a summit register made from PVC pipe and caps, but the darn thing was frozen shut! I tried with all my might to open it up but I failed.

Wearing all of my layers, I hunkered down away from the wind and munched on some Cheetos as I contemplated my route out. I could make the easy choice and go back the way I came, but where’s the fun in that? From the top I could see steep, snowy cliffs below me. And to my right there was a bouldery pile leading to a snow slope that seemed within my abilities to navigate with the gear I had. Somewhere, beneath that snow slope, was the other trail that would loop me back.

I chose the latter.

It was fun to descend the slopes once there were no boulders sticking out! I practically ran down with the aid of my microspikes and poles. That is, until I got to a surprise marshy stretch that was hidden beneath the snow cover. Carefully, I poked my way along the edge of the marsh, trying to keep my feet dry. I could hear the water running below. There’s nothing worse than being cold and wet, so I tried to keep myself in the cold and dry. Eventually, I found the actual trail, veering off of it slightly whenever it made a weird stream crossing. I preferred to cross the streams where they were melted out and in full view; the sound of water beneath snow is not one of my favorite sounds.

After making it back to familiar territory, I picked up the pace. Much of the snow dusting I began walking through had melted during the sun breaks, so it was almost like hiking an entirely new route! Up ahead, I saw a couple of hikers stopped and looking closely at the ground. I thought maybe they had found a cool flower or rock or something. As I approached them, they pointed at me and said “hey, it’s you!” Apparently they’d seen an unusual track in the snow and were trying to figure out its origins. The track? My hiking pole snow baskets. We all laughed. I was glad to have given them an interesting forest mystery to solve while they were out and about.

Overall, this was a fun adventure that only served to get me more curious about this area. I’ll have to come back another time, with more time, and see what other wonders await me.

arc dome

Arc Dome

May 27, 2022.

14 mi. | 5000′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr.

arc dome wilderness sign

On one of several long drives on Nevada’s lonely roads, I spied the Arc Dome Wilderness in my atlas. For some reason, it captured my imagination. And, it’s featured highly on many mountain lists due to its overall height (#7 in Nevada) and prominence (#8 in Nevada). Prominence, if you’re not acquainted with mountaineering speak, is basically how high a peak is relative to the lowest point around it. So, since Arc Dome is 5213′ higher than the nearest low point, it has a prominence of over 5000′. There are only 57 peaks in the continental US that have a prominence of 5000′ or greater.

It was so far from everywhere that it was never on the way to or from another destination. I had to explicitly build it into a route itinerary. And it was so that this year would be the year I’d tackle the long hike to the top of Arc Dome.

Aaron dropped me off at a campground right at the trailhead, where I’d spend the rest of the day and get some sleep for an early get up the following morning. From there, he drove back to town to get some work done and sleep in a real bed. I also find it helpful while on a multi-week road trip with your partner, to find some quality alone time along the way! It was too hot for activities, so I relaxed with my feet in the creek while reading a book and drinking a pre-mixed margarita before calling it a night.

Climb time

The alarm rang before sunrise and I started walking under a dim sky at 5:40 am. The trailhead sits at almost 9000′ elevation, so I could feel the thin air struggling to fill my lungs right from the get-go. The trail switchbacks up through a lovely aspen forest, then transitions into an interesting sagebrush desert with big, old trees that looked a lot like bristlecone pine. Tiny wildflowers dotted the earth in even the most inhospitable places. It was a landscape like no other.

The Columbine trail climbed and climbed up to the Toiyabe Crest Trail, which I’d use to access Cirque Mountain, North Arc Dome, and Arc Dome, one by one. The trail skirts just below the first two on the way to the notable Arc Dome, but I couldn’t help scurrying up to tag the other two.

I quickly warmed up, despite the cool air and breeze, for all the effort it took to walk among giant peaks. It was worth it, however, to finally step foot in a place I’d dreamed of for so long, and to appreciate all its nooks and crannies. Plus, the views couldn’t be beat; I could see for literal miles.

arc dome

I hit my first highpoint just before 8 am under blue skies. In the summit cairn lay a register with entries dating back to 2015. I love reading the old entries and seeing how many people each year sign in on Cirque Peak it would appear, just a handful.

Coming off of Cirque, I met my first major obstacle of the day: a steep snow wall clinging to the east face of the ridge. Luckily, I’d packed microspikes just in case of such a situation. They helped me get on top of the snow with relative ease and I was back on route.

Next, I skipped right up to North Arc Dome, just a few hundred feet lower than Arc Dome itself. But, I had to drop back down to a 10,700′ saddle and then back up another thousand feet or so in over a mile of walking to get to the highest highpoint. It looked so far away from where I stood. This is why it’s important to get an early start and bring lots of good snacks. That’s just good life advice.

Forever was actually about ninety minutes, after which I plopped down at the top of the Toiyabe Crest and chilled out. This summit canister, made out of a mayonnaise jar, was filled to the brim with mini notebooks and scraps of paper upon which people signed their names. It’s amazing what being featured on a list or two will do to your popularity. Just a couple miles away, the book had hardly a few entries. Even so, I was the only human on the trail today and I was one of the first this year to stand on the top of Arc Dome. Kind of incredible.

As I sat on the summit relaxing, the sky got to work. What was formerly a beautiful blue backdrop became a swirling gray mass of clouds. I’d checked the forecast and all looked well, but I trust what I see and feel right in front of me much more than what I intellectually know. Besides, I had at least 5-6 miles of ground to cover before I’d cross paths with a single tree; if it started to thunderstorm, I would be a sitting duck.

With a big sigh, I packed up and quickly hauled out of there. As soon as the terrain allowed, I broke into a quick walk/slow run. There was plenty of talus and loose stuff that could easily sprain an ankle or worse. In that situation, there’s a fine line between walking quickly enough to get out of perceived danger and walking slowly enough to control your extremities and avoid getting hurt. This is just one of many judgment calls one must make while hiking in the mountains. To me, this is part of the excitement and joy.

While moving quickly, I still had to stop and admire the wildflowers, which had now fully opened up. I saw hundreds of asters that on my hike in had been completely shuttered. Whether it’s exposure to heat or light that makes them open I’m not sure, but they were expressive and jubilant now! They made me smile as I raced down the mountain.

To shake things up, I descended the Toiyabe Crest trail to Stewart Creek trail, making a loop. That meant I was out of the trees for a little while longer, but I got a fuller picture of the landscape and I stumbled across a small herd of wild horses, too. It was a beautiful loop; since I’ll probably never be here again, I wanted to cover as much new ground as possible. Despite the ominous clouds and wind, it didn’t rain one drop on me during the hike, and storms barely grazed the edge of camp later that evening.

What’s next?

So that’s two peaks on the Nevada top ten list for me so far: Wheeler and Arc Dome. I got stormed off a planned attempt at Boundary a few years ago. If I could pick one to do next, it would be Ruby Dome. I’ve walked into the base of the Rubies once before and their magnificence took my breath away. Nevada is a wonderland of unspoiled vistas and long mountain ranges. I’ll be back soon.

Lunar Crater

May 25, 2022.

2.75 mi | 500′ ele. gain | 1:20 hr

lunar crater nevada
Lunar crater, Nevada

Way out in the middle of nowhere, driving between two remote destinations in Nevada, I desperately needed a leg stretcher. I spied on the map one of the “unique natural features” that I’m so fond of. And it was a short(ish) detour to get there.

That detour: Lunar Crater.

To be fair, seeing volcanic features in the wild is a little less exciting now than it used to be. I’m surrounded by spectacular lava flows and volcanoes every day I live in Central Oregon. So, I wasn’t super excited that this was what we were driving out to. But, if the map architect decided to call it out in the Gazeteer, I thought it must be worth a peek.

The drive in took us past buttes, cinder cones, depressions and colorful lava flows. It looked familiar enough, but had its own special character so that I knew we weren’t exactly at home. The road came to a dead-end at the edge of a crater. Despite the name, it’s a run-of-the-mill volcanic crater, but it’s unique to this part of the west. So unique, in fact, that it’s “one of Nevada’s six natural landmarks.” This seems totally unreasonable given the amazingness across this state. I feel like the people who decide these things either don’t get out much or have a secret agenda to develop tourism in particular places. Anyways, it didn’t appear that the tourism campaign encouraged much development, so we had a nice quiet stop along our otherwise boring drive.

A short trail led from the parking area to a bench, and a user trail continued a bit beyond that. Eyeballing the crater, I guesstimated that it was about a 2-mile trip around and that sounded like the perfect little walk for me. Aaron disagreed, heading back to the car to edit his photos and catch up with friends and family via text.

The air felt much hotter than the mild 73 degrees that registered in the car, but that was likely due to the complete lack of shade and the heat emitted by the dark lava.

lunar crater nevada
The bouldery canyon

I moved quickly along the edge of the crater in my Bedrock sandals, which were getting a lot of use on this trip. It was mostly flat until it wasn’t. I descended into a bouldery canyon, which was much easier to navigate than it looked from afar. On the other side, I ascended up a relentlessly steep pile of cinder towards what looked like the summit. Luckily, there were so many tiny wildflowers blooming on this slope that I had more reason to stop than just to catch my breath.

Tiny flowers

Atop what I thought was the rim, I spied the true summit just to the south of the crater’s edge. I made a quick detour to the jagged boulder pile and found that I’d been beaten to the top, by a chubby black lizard. I touched the top of it without disturbing my highpointing lizard friend and sent Aaron a quick text check in.

King of the mountain

I’d be back in no time, I thought, and began walking back towards the edge of the crater.

I was stopped in my tracks, however, by a 6-8 foot tall vertical cliff band. Hmmm…I thought, it was supposed to be a quick but miserable scree slide off the side of the crater. I didn’t want to walk towards the center of it, so I backtracked to the summit and looked for a breach in the rock. Nothing. UGH. I’ve climbed so many of these volcanic buttes that I thought I had a good sense of what kind of terrain to expect, but then I remembered I wasn’t in Oregon anymore.

The rock cliff

After what I felt was too much backtracking, I finally saw a safe gap to get through the rocks. That 6 foot drop may just as well have been 600 feet; I couldn’t get down in either case. But what was worse was that the easy part was *so* close!! Annoyed, but in one piece, I proceeded to bomb down the steep, loose and hot scree field.

Remember, I was wearing my sandals, so every 3 seconds I had to stop and remove a rock that got between the sole and my foot. That was, until I discovered that loosening the straps just so allowed the pebbles to pass through without getting stuck. After that adjustment, I was infinitely more comfortable and fast! At the bottom of the hill, I re-joined a road that led me right back to where Aaron was parked.

I never would have sought out this place to visit, but it was a worthy diversion along our route that day. I’m glad I followed my curiosity all the way around the “lunar” crater.

Cape Final

May 17-18, 2022.

4.2 mi | 400′ ele. gain | overnight

cape final

In looking for a quiet and unique experience at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I stumbled across a blog describing an overnight trip to Cape Final. It described an easy 2 mile walk out to a single backpacking site along the rim of the canyon. Sounded perfect! So, what was the catch? You had to secure a permit ahead of time to reserve the site. I dug around the NPS website to learn about reserving permits, and I learned that I missed the first possible date to send an application in by a few weeks. Undeterred, I faxed (yes, faxed) my application in and just a few days later learned that we got the site!

Fast forward to the afternoon of May 17. We had just finished the scenic drive and accumulated a few miles of hiking already. The sun was blazing hot, but this hike promised shade trees. We loaded up our overnight packs with every possibly luxury (since the pack in was so short!) and slowly began plodding up the trail.

We passed a few groups hiking out, all of whom were shocked that you could camp up there. Yes! I thought, my planning had really paid off. Cheery purple larkspur dotted the trail through the airy Ponderosa pine forest. In fact, I couldn’t even tell we were at the Grand Canyon; it was forest in every direction. After nearly 2 miles of walking, we finally got some peek-a-boo views of the canyon at the edge of the trees. The trail took a sharp right turn and soon deposited us at a little campsite marker just before the sign for Cape Final.

We quickly dropped our backpacks at the flat spot behind the sign. But Aaron noticed another flat spot tucked just behind some trees, and there it was: the ultimate campsite. We hoisted our heavy packs up once more and claimed this more private site as ours for the night.

After setting up camp, we gathered up food, beer and layers and walked out to the viewpoint. It was even more spectacular than I’d expected. We’d already seen so many incredible vistas, so I didn’t think this one would be any different. But this provided a panoramic view over deep, dramatic gorges; we could hardly figure out which one held the Colorado River just by looking out at the landscape.

I happily drank my Grand Canyon Prickly Pear Wheat Ale, accompanied by prickly pear cactus on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and we watched the setting sun paint ephemeral pictures of the cliff edges all around us. Vultures played in the thermals rising up from the warm canyon bottom as we reclined on the rocks. It was so quiet and peaceful.

And then we went into the tent to sleep. *Snort*. Those lovely thermals turned into ripping gale force winds that rattled the tent, the trees, my brain and everything else all night long. The nearly full moon blasted through the thin nylon walls like a bright headlight. And the remarkably hot air made this cold sleeper crawl out of the bag, sweating, for the duration of the night. I barely got an hour of sleep over the course of the evening. I could not wait for my alarm to go off.

I set an alarm for 50 minutes before sunrise, but it was already light by the time the alarm rang. We sprang out of bed and rushed to the viewpoint to catch the sunrise. I fumbled back to the food bag I hung last night to grab our coffee making supplies, because when else in my life would I be able to sip coffee with the sunrise at the edge of the Grand Canyon?!

Admittedly, the sunrise was not that exciting. But I couldn’t sleep anyways and the coffee tasted good. We returned to our camp where I made breakfast: dehydrated eggs, kale, turkey sausage and onions, topped with hash browns. Better than any lodge breakfast you could have asked for! We slowly packed up and then I scouted a morning watercolor spot while Aaron poked around and took more photos.

We stumbled across several other overlooks, arguably better than the official Cape Final, until I settled on my favorite one. For the next couple hours, it was just me and the birds and the ever changing light on the canyon.

cape final watercolor

To say this was a highlight of the trip is an understatement. Despite all the advance planning and anticipation (which can sometimes make a place feel *less* exciting once you finally get there), finding so much solitude and peace at Cape Final was worth the effort. I’ll catch up on sleep some other time.

See all our photos from the North Rim here.

Cape Royal Scenic Drive

May 17, 2022.

The Cape Royal Scenic Drive is an excellent way to spend the day getting acquainted with the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. We began our drive around 9 am and made a point to stop at every pullout and scenic viewpoint, 11 stops in all.

The first few stops only had an interpretive signboard to read. Several made note of the role wildfire plays in the ecosystem. Others talked about the creation of the park and other historical facts. The best stops were, of course, the ones that involved at least a little walking.

Point Imperial, the highest and most northern of the North Rim viewpoints, has a large parking area and developed viewpoint. We got out there, walked past several old Rolls Royce cars that were touring the park, and meandered over to the official overlook. The views were breathtaking. It was still early, so we were among a small handful of people who were out and about. I enjoyed having some time to soak in the views without feeling rushed to get out of anyone’s way.

Next, we stopped at Greenland Lake. More a puddle than a lake, we followed a decent trail counterclockwise until we reached an old salt shed. From there, the trail disappeared. But, determined to circumnavigate the soggy depression, we pressed on through thorny thickets made of New Mexican Locust until we returned to the main trail.

We took another short walk at Roosevelt Point, where a short scramble off the official trail led to a rock outcropping with a tremendous view. The gnarled old trees and wildflowers added some drama to what was already a pretty dramatic vista.

The next interpretive stop was Walhalla Pueblo. I downloaded the guide from the NPS app and read aloud the description of each room of the pueblo as we walked by it. Without the guide, it would be a bunch of boring lines of stone on the ground, so I was grateful to have the information on my phone to provide context to what we were looking at.

After lunch, we headed down the Cliff Spring Trail. I had low expectations for this hike, but it was just the thing to get out of the heat! A short, steep walk down through open forest led us past an old granary and then to a shady pathway leading under an overhanging rock. The walls of the rock were wet; moss and plants grew there. As we neared the spring, water began to pool at our feet. It was obvious why Native Americans used this area to escape the intense heat just a quarter mile away! I was ready to move in for good after just a short time in the sun.

We continued past the spring and the end of the official trail. The user path was nearly as good as the actual one. Anyway, the vegetation got more diverse and interesting as we walked. I recognized several plants from previous trips to the southwest: Mormon tea, buffaloberry, agave…but as the path began to deteriorate, we decided we had to call it somewhere.

Cape Royal marked the end of the road. Suddenly, it felt like we were back in a National Park. Most of the other stops, even the ones with trails, were very quiet. But here, the large parking area was bustling with people. Hikers walking right past the “No dogs” sign with their dogs. People taking Instagram selfies right on the edge of the cliffs. Large groups of people oblivious to anyone else trying to walk around them. All what you’d expect at a National Park. I grumbled to myself that the whole day had been really lovely and I could tolerate this nonsense for a half an hour.

We read all the signs along the paved paths, learning about the unique ecosystem at this very point. Apparently, warm winds blowing up from the canyon below create a microclimate in which lower elevation cactus and shrubs can thrive. I was delighted to try and spot as many cacti as I could while we tried to avoid the worst of the crowds.

I was surprised at how few guard rails there were at major viewpoints, and also at how close people walked to the edges of dizzyingly high cliffs. I’ll never forget the rule I learned in rock climbing: never get closer than a body-length away from an edge unless you’re anchored in. Clearly, this is not a universal rule. Even where guard rails existed, they were barely waist high and didn’t really make me feel much safer. I have a great respect for heights and kept my distance from the edges. Watching people’s super casual behavior here is what inspired us to buy the book about deaths in Grand Canyon.

In a single day of exploring with several easy walks to punctuate the car time, the Cape Royal Scenic Drive was an excellent way to gain an appreciation for the natural and human history of the North Rim.

Widforss Point

May 16, 2022.

9.7 mi | 1000′-ish ele. gain | 7:45 hr including watercolor time

After a chill morning getting acquainted with Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim, we set off on our first real hike. Widforss Point is located at the end of a nearly 5 mile trail, with who knows how much elevation gain. My newly updated app decided to stop tracking accurately, and online sources range from 300-1200 feet of elevation gain overall. This seemingly simple fact is hard to track down. But, after having hiked it, I can report that there is a small chunk of elevation gain but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that much.

Regardless of the stats, we loaded up with plenty of water and snacks. Aaron packed his hammock and I packed my watercolor kit for trail’s end activities. We hit the trail after 10 am, and the temperatures were already pretty hot. We walked slowly, enjoying the lovely Ponderosa pine-aspen forest as we ascended the trail. Early-spring wildflowers dotted the trail. Now, out of my home range, I had a lot of researching to do in the Arizona wildflower app (yes, this exists, it’s free and it’s an incredible resource!).

Although the trail roughly follows the edge of the canyon, there are only occasional peek-a-boo views into its depths. The Grand Canyon is indescribably BIG. So big that, from nearly every viewpoint on this trip, we could not see it’s creator: the Colorado River. It was tucked so deeply into the labyrinthine canyon walls that standing only at just the right angle and elevation would offer up a small glimpse of the water.

As a result, every time we got a peek at the canyon we were overjoyed. And, it gave us good reason to stop and catch our breath. We proceeded from one view to the next until the trail entered into the woods for the last couple miles. On our trek, we passed five groups heading in the opposite direction. The last group assured us we’d have the end point to ourselves, a wonderful side effect of starting a hike later in the day.

After one extended food and shade break, we finally walked the last stretch into the yawning panoramic view at Widforss Point. This was worth the hike in. To our left, a small grove of trees offered Aaron a spectacularly scenic hammocking spot. Straight ahead, a goat path down a few rock terraces led me to a windy point at which I could take out my paints. We went our separate ways for a couple of hours.

I found a broad, flat rock upon which I could set up a small watercoloring station. As I attempted to brush off some of the pebbles atop the rock, I discovered that they were attached. And they were marine fossils. What a wild thought, that this 8000′ cliff’s edge was one submerged in the sea.

In my kit, I found everything I needed except a pencil. Oh well, I thought, I guess I’m going straight to paint on this one! As a novice watercolor artist, it is terrifying to begin a new painting with no graphite guide rails. But, I had the time, the view and the motivation to do it so I gave it my best shot.

The wind was pretty consistently strong, with occasional big gusts. I used an elastic band and a binder clip to keep the pages from blowing around while painting. My paints picked up a lot of grit from the air. So, I guess an actual part of the Grand Canyon lies within the painting itself.

Widforss Point watercolor

After what felt like ages, I wrapped up and hustled back to Aaron. He was happily lounging in the hammock without a care in the world. I could have painted well into the evening with no complaints!

widforss point

Just as we packed up, a few people meandered out of the forest and over to the viewpoint. We said hello, then a quick goodbye, and returned down the trail. It was much cooler now. Well rested, we made good time all the way back to the car. Hungry for dinner but needing a few supplies, we busted back to the Grand Canyon store to pick up a few things before they closed.

The previous day, we’d found a secluded, dispersed campsite in the Kaibab National Forest just outside the park. We returned to our sweet little site where I made a nice chili and we ate heartily. The full moon rose through the silhouettes of trees and we clambered into the tent for an early bedtime.

Olympic South Coast Trail

July 16-18, 2021.

Photos from the trip

olympic south coast trail

I’m huge on planning, but I’m not a person who chooses to hike in places that require advance permits. Emily is the opposite, and she is the person who inspired this trip. Based on a previous visit to the Olympic South Coast trail, she was itching to do it again. Backpacking in Olympic National Park requires purchasing permits ahead of time, packing in bear canisters and (in our case) setting up car shuttles. While this usually is not my cup of tea, I decided to go along on this adventure. Now that it’s done, I can say I am really glad I did.

Day 1: Third Beach to Strawberry Point

5.2 mi | 600′ ele. gain | 3:50 hr.

Emily, Renee and I arrived at the already crowded Third Beach trailhead on a Friday morning and shouldered our packs. I noticed how different it was here; we’d just come from the hot, dry high desert of Central Oregon the day before. Now, we stood surrounded by towering trees draped with lichen. A cool mist hung in the air. Ferns, shrubs and ground cover created a thick understory on either side of the trail. I took a deep breath of the moist air and fell in line for the walk down to the beach.

It always takes a mile or two for my body to adjust to carrying an overnight pack. I had the bear canister, packed to the brim with food, as well as all my necessary gear and a liter of wine. I guess that was necessary, too.

At least the beginning of the trek was downhill on a well-groomed trail. This was not a good representative of the remainder of the route. We blissfully descended towards the beach, following the sound of the ocean.

A thick blanket of clouds greeted us when we arrived at Third Beach. Nonetheless, we could see interesting sea stacks in the distance and lots of sea creatures at our feet. I grew up on the East Coast and fondly remember spending all summer on the beach, hopping across rocks and playing in tidepools. Those memories came springing back as I looked at colorful sea stars, sea anemones, barnacles and other critters clinging to life on the water’s edge.

Soon, though, I snapped back to the present day: “There’s the first rope,” someone said. And then I began to understand what we were in for on this trip.

olympic south coast trail

The beach came to an end at an impassable stretch of boulders and cliffs. In order to get back on the headland, we needed to go up. Straight up. A steep sand hill led us back to the forest, and to ascend the hill, we used a knotted rope that someone had tied to a tree above us. It didn’t look terribly official, but it would have to do, so up we went. After that rope, there was a ladder. Then another rope. All these trail accoutrements looked to be marginally maintained, but good enough. The ladders had missing rungs. The ropes seemed to be old marine rope that had washed up on the beach. All part of the adventure, to be sure…

We slowly plodded along the steep, muddy, narrow forest trail. This was nothing like the promenade we started on just a couple hours before. I was happy we got an early start so we had all the time in the world to get to camp.

Next, we dropped onto another beach, then quickly came to a section of big boulders buffering the forested cliffs from the crashing ocean. Huh, I thought, there must be a trail here, but Emily insisted that this was one of the rock crossings. We went for it.

Luckily, this section was short. The ocean pounded into the rocks just feet away from where we were scrambling. We moved as quickly as we could while carrying our heavy, awkward loads. Everything was wet, slippery and dramatic. Once I could see the flat, sandy beach on the other side, my heart rate relaxed a bit. There was not much longer to go.

Our reward: a long stretch of sand and tidepools that led right to camp. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Night 1: Intro to hammock camping

At Strawberry Point, Emily picked out a nice campsite and we dropped our gear there. The ocean air calmed me as I ate my lunch and searched for the best spot to hang my hammock.

I’d never hammock-camped before, but I thought I’d give it a try on this trip. I borrowed a hammock and webbing from a friend, and threw in the footprint from my 3-person backpacking tent to use as a tarp just in case. There was no rain in the forecast, but this was the coast…

All afternoon we lounged around, reading books, napping, exploring tidepools and taking casual walks on the beach. We waited as long as we could to make dinner: dehydrated turkey chili with fresh toppings. Then, we drained the bottle of wine and watched a curious seal head bobbing in the waves for hours. A curious deer wandered into our camp, nibbling on fresh greenery as it went. She was completely unbothered by us; it was her home, after all.

At bedtime, I hopped into the hammock, nestled in and went to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable even though I later learned that I set it up all wrong. The sea breeze kept the bugs at bay. Nailed it, I thought…

At 2 am I woke up to the song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Actually, I woke up to a soaking rain that would make my down sleeping bag useless and put me in a hypothermic state if I didn’t figure out a way to make shelter, and fast. I grabbed my headlamp and pulled my emergency tarp out, then began looking around to improvise a rain cover for my hammock. I’ve been here before, I thought, and it was way more serious then. My mind flashed back to the night I unexpectedly had to bivy on Mt Hood in a sleet storm. Memories of past shenanigans help me remain calm and confident. Knowing I’d survived more heinous conditions reminds me how strong and resilient I am.

From all the years I’ve camped and backpacked, I’ve got a pretty solid and foolproof system down. So, abandoning the known and venturing into the unknown put me back in to beginner mode. But, this is how we develop skills, so I spent a moment reflecting on past experiences before focusing on problem-solving.

As disgusting as all the trash washed ashore was, it sure came in handy. I scavenged large pieces of rope from the marine debris to use for my shelter. I tied a length of rope over the hammock and threw the tarp over top like an upside-down taco shell. Then, I had to stake out the corners to make the tarp taut. I used the long ends of webbing that held my hammock in addition to a thin rope I cut from the large piece and some sturdy fronds of grass (yes, grass). At this point I was wet from being out in the rain, but still reasonably warm. I crawled into my damp sleeping bag and looked for flaws in my system.

“Huh, even though the tarp doesn’t cover the hammock completely, I’m not getting wet.” Scanning up and down the hammock with my headlamp, I wiggled my toes, felt the sleeping bag over my head and noticed my body temperature. I was warm, comfortable, and reasonably dry. I turned off my headlamp, curled up in my sleeping bag, and drifted back off to sleep.

Day 2: Strawberry Point to Mosquito Creek

6.2 mi. | 530′ ele. gain | 4:30 hr.

First off, let me tell you that the statistics for this hike do not in any way tell the story of the character and difficulty of this route. As I look back at the measly elevation gain numbers and short miles, I can hardly believe these data are accurate. That’s how deceptive the Olympic South Coast trail is. You get a big bang for your buck on this one. Now, on to day 2…

In the morning, I hopped out of my dry cocoon and inspected my handiwork. Not too shabby for a rush job. Note the red strap on the bottom right corner, tethered only by a few strands of grass. Bushcraft, I guess.

hammocking on Olympic South Coast

It was my turn to make breakfast in the morning, so I took my sweet time assembling ingredients and creating a delightful egg scramble with veggies and chicken sausage. Hooray for home dehydrators!

We enjoyed a lazy breakfast on the uncluttered shoreline near our camp, opposite the trash pile. Leave No Trace, eh ocean? Today’s hike seemed much less daunting than the previous day, but since we survived that I felt ready for anything. Bring it on, obstacle trail…

olympic south coast trail

The day began with a mile-long beach walk to Toleak Point, where a number of groups were camping (we were essentially alone last night). There, we stopped to filter water. Out of nowhere, a beautiful young buck trotted along the sandy beach, then sprung straight up into the thick forest. Quite majestic! We continued along the beach for a while before going up into the forest. There was only one forested section on the route today, with no crazy low tide crossings to plan.

deer on Olympic South Coast

But the forest trails involved lots of scrambling, climbing over trees, negotiating tree roots and using hand lines to get up and down the steepest bits. I sure was glad the rain cleared out and the ground was mostly dry. Doing this trek in the rain would potentially bring this into the type 3 fun category.

During our short tromp in the forest, we ran into an endangered species, one I had not expected to find here: a park ranger. We had a pleasant exchange in which he inspected our permit, asked us the standard questions, made some boring small talk and went on his way. Shortly after, we ran into his ranger partner. She sounded like an alien trying its best to disguise itself as a young human woman. I don’t know how much training is required to be a park ranger, but it would seem that communication skills are not so much taught to this group. She was nice enough, and harmless, and we got back to putting one foot in front of the other.

An hour and a half after entering the forest, we followed one last handline down a dirt ramp back to the wide, flat beach. While soaking up that sweet, sweet sunshine, I searched the rock crevasses for critters and dipped my toes in the wet sand. Aaron had just gotten me a pair of Bedrock sandals for my birthday, which I wore through the entire trip. They were bomber on the mud, the rocks, pretty much every surface I had to walk across. And they let my feet dry off in between dipping them in mud puddles or ocean surf.

Once we got to Mosquito Creek, we spread out to scout a good camp for the night. I had hoped to string up my hammock from the big driftwood stumps like I’d seen on trip reports posted online, but no such spot existed here. Instead, we followed a steep sandy path up off the beach into a magical, well-loved campsite. It had multiple rooms for us to lay out gear, set up a cooking station and arrange the tent and hammock. But, it was dark and gloomy in there. We spent much of the afternoon laying on the beach letting our legs rest before the big day. I got into my swimsuit and took one very chilly dip in the Pacific before retiring to my beach towel…

Since we had nothing but time, I carefully crafted a stout hammock fly set-up just in case the weather turned overnight. I made use of the extra tent stakes and cord from Renee’s tent, and practiced incorporating my hiking pole into the rigging. As with all skills, it takes practice in a different kinds of situations with a variety of supplies to become proficient, so I took this opportunity to experiment. I remembered a few useful knots and hitches from my climbing days, but made a mental note to review a few more releasable hitch types and practice them before I take a hammock out again.

We enjoyed a hearty dinner of fresh veggies and mac and cheese, and tried really hard to stay up late enough to watch the sunset.

We didn’t make it.

Day 3: Mosquito Creek to Oil City

6.6 mi. |960′ ele. gain | 7:10 hr. (including 2 long rests)

Anticipating our last major hurdle, a rock crossing that can only be made at low tide, we set an alarm for an early get-up. I woke up 5 minutes before the alarm, freaking out that I’d overslept, then checked the time. Turns out the others did the same.

We scarfed down some oatmeal, packed up, and got moving a half an hour before our projected start time. Knowing that most of the trail would be in the forest, and that our hike pace was particularly slow in the forest, we gave ourselves plenty of time to complete the trail leading up to the rocks.

As we walked from our camp, I gazed at the beautiful, wispy cirrus clouds overhead. I remembered reading about these in the book The Secret World of Weather by Tristan Gooley (highly recommend, by the way). But I could not remember what they meant. Since reading that book, I’ve been obsessed with clouds, and paying attention to them much more than I ever have. I suppose I’ll need to read the book a few more times and start taking notes to really make the information stick. But, step one is just being aware. What information is stored in those clouds…

This day’s stretch of woodland trail felt like the most challenging of them all. It is the longest continuous trail in the forest, with many obstacles to overcome. Ladders and stairs and other built trail features were in sad states of disrepair. We didn’t always love the rope choices, but we had to use what was there. I recall lots of throwing my legs over the top of some downed trees, slithering under the ones that were too gnarly to mount, clambering up “steps” chopped out of logs and stepping over rotten boardwalk pieces. We took several breaks, not only to rest our legs but also to rest our overworking brains. It was tough!

When at last, we could see the beach peeking through the trees, we took a somewhat premature sigh of relief. The trail here dropped nearly straight down, with a broken ladder and a rope to help us make that final descent to the sand.

At last, some easy beach walking. We found a spot about halfway between the forest and the rocks to sit and hunker down for a bit. I used my InReach to contact Emily’s husband, aka our shuttle driver, to coordinate a pickup time. Then, we just saw and waited until our safe crossing time: an hour before low tide.

I wondered if we’d planned it right, because we watched several groups walk by us, continue down the beach, and begin hopping across the rocks. But, we stuck to our plan and were the last group to begin the crossing.

Compared to the hairy scramble from day one, this felt like a piece of cake. It was a much longer section of rocks than we’d done before, but the rock was textured and sticky, there was plenty of dry land between us and the ocean, and the whole scene just felt far less ominous. We were moving so quickly that we caught up to the group ahead of us. And before long, our feet hit dry sand.

At this point, all that was left was a short beach walk followed by a half mile trail in the woods to the parking lot. Instead of waiting for our ride in the parking lot, we decided to chill on the beach and watch the birds for an hour. It was peaceful and relaxing, a fitting end to a difficult day. A pair of bald eagles perched like sentries on the mouth of the Hoh river, while hundreds of gulls alternated between milling about on the beach and flapping furiously into the sky. I worked through a few crossword puzzles to pass the time.

The last little trail walk was more work than I was anticipating, and it’s likely because I mentally switched from work mode to “I’m done” mode. It was a good reminder that it’s not over, til it’s over.

Take-aways

Do not underestimate the South Coast Trail. It will challenge even experienced hikers and backpackers, in one way or another. And the things that challenge you might not be the ones you planned for.

Hammock camping ROCKS. It takes no time at all to set up a hammock (minus the, ahem, fly situation). It’s extremely cozy, even when you do it all wrong (as I learned later, whoops). And it’s a nice place to hang out and read, have a snack, etc when you’re just spending time in camp. The gentle back and forth rocking is rather soothing.

Bedrock sandals are well worth the investment. I normally don’t take a pair of shoes right out of the box and into a 3-day backpacking trip, but these were perfect. They fit my feet well, allowed my toes to breathe, provided excellent grip on challenging surfaces and went from wet to dry without a second thought. Please note that I packed my trail shoes as well, thinking I’d mostly wear those, but they ended up being just camp shoes on this trip.

Hip, hip, hooray for sun shirts! This was another new piece of gear I tested on this trip. I normally don’t like wearing long sleeves because they never fit me quite right and they feel hot. But this sun shirt was buttery soft and comfortable, cool on my skin and saved me a bunch of sunscreen applications throughout the weekend. It didn’t even stink after several days of wear.

Did I change my mind on permits? Nah. I get why they’re used in certain places, but with a half bazillion places to explore in this world, I’ll choose the ones with the least red tape. I’m glad that there are plenty of options for all types of users who want different types of experiences out there. But I will not turn down an invite to a permitted area if someone else is willing to navigate the system.

Thompson Peak

August 27, 2020.

Thompson from our camp

Photo album

People love superlatives: the highest, the farthest, the steepest, etc. When it comes to mountains, the highest ones always get all the attention. At this point in my life, I’m not that concerned with bagging the peaks that everyone knows about. But Thompson Peak, the highpoint of the Sawtooths, caught my attention for a few reasons. One, it has a non-technical route to the top. Two, it is located close enough to the road that you coul do it in one long day or two easier days. Three, compared to other well-known highpoints, this did not seem to attract a ton of foot traffic. And, since we had the opportunity to get up there on a weekday, I knew I had to go for it.

For the sanity of both myself and my partner, we decided to split up the climb into two days. We were in the Sawtooths for our first time anyways, and thought it would be cool to spend a night in the high country. I don’t regret that decision one bit.

Day 1: to camp, the hard way

5 mi. | 2440′ | 3:30 hr.

Since we didn’t have much ground to cover, our day began with a late get-up, breakfast fried rice and time packing up gear for one more overnight. After lugging around a bear canister for four days, I was thrilled to carry only a hang bag and a few items to get me through the night.

Into the Wilderness…

We started hiking at a casual 10-something am. After signing in at the trailhead (so cute!) we began hiking on the trail towards our camp. According to my research, much of the distance we’d cover was on trail. I settled into a comfortable walking pace behind LeeAnn.

The trail led up to, then just below, a ridgeline that taunted us with partial views for a good portion of the hike. I eagerly anticipated the big reveal. Which one was Thompson, I wondered. Craggy peaks reached toward the sky ahead of us, but as I was unfamiliar with the area, I couldn’t tell which was which.

As the trail ducked into the forest I obsessively checked the GPS on my phone for the point where we’d need to leave the trail. LeeAnn suggested that we’d find a good climber’s trail to get to the basin below our peak; my experience with climber’s trails taught me never to expect a good one. So, I got more and more anxious as our supposed trail failed to appear.

“I think we should just leave the trail here,” I said. I wasn’t psyched about it, but we’d walked a half a mile past the alleged junction. So, we thrashed headfirst into the woods, climbing over downed trees, traversing steep, grassy slopes and grabbing on to shrubs to help stay upright. We advanced at an agonizingly slow pace as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter.

“This sucks, no wonder more people don’t do this one,” I thought.

Our off-trail debacle

Our hairy traverse led us to even steeper slopes above an unnamed puddle and the only way to go was up. I picked a route up a somewhat stable talus slope interspersed with flowers, shrubs, and one heinous patch of alder. I’d occasionally come across a small stretch of trail-like passage that would disappear almost as quickly as it began.

On the other side of the boulders, something magical happened. I hopped onto one of those aforementioned trails, and…it kept going. Yahoo! We continued along the climber’s trail, faint in places, across a flat meadow, to more rock piles and eventually the lake just below Thompson Peak. The rocks dropped steeply into the lake and much of the surrounding terrain was exposed, rugged, and decidedly *not* flat. With a little bit of searching, however, we found a great little spot to pitch our tent among a small cluster of trees. We made it.

These things are basically designed to dry socks.

I hung our food while LeeAnn set up the tent, then we went for a quick dip in the lake. A couple who had just come down from the mountain sat at the lakeside and we chatted a bit. The mountain looked awfully daunting from this side.

That evening, gray clouds passed overhead. We waited for the first sign of a thunderstorm, the security of our tent just steps away. But, the rain never came. Our tent site was solidly sheltered from the wind, and we enjoyed a fantastic time in high camp without another human in sight.

Day 2: the climb

4.3 mi. | 1970′ 5:30 hr.

Sunrise

In the morning, a hazy sunrise quickly gave way to calm, blue skies. A perfect summit day! LeeAnn made pancakes for breakfast and we hit the trail just after 7 am.

Our climber’s trail disappeared almost immediately, so I did my best to read the landscape to choose the best route. I knew we had to spiral all the way around the mountain to end up at a couloir on the south side. According to my conversation with the couple at the lake the day prior, we wouldn’t have to cross any snow on the route, so I avoided snow patches as we walked.

The route took us up and across several alpine benches replete with cascading snowmelt creeks, thick patches of green vegetation and slabs of rock. If you close your eyes and envision an alpine paradise, you’ll picture exactly where we were. I smiled from ear to ear.

Well, the slab looked steeper in person.

Our first obstacle was a tall, yellow-gray rock slab that looked completely impassable from afar. But, as we approached, I found a weakness in the rock that offered up good hand holds and ledges. We put on our helmets and scurried up the slab. Next, we wove our way across a large, shaded bench system with some new obstacles to avoid: steep drops, icy ponds, flowing water, slick snowfields. It was like American Ninja Warrior, mountain series.

Chilly up here.

As we negotiated a path through these features, I remembered the other advice that couple had given me the day before: you’ll want to go high early, but stay low. We did just that, avoiding any unnecessary elevation gain that we’d need to downclimb later.

The next obstacle was one we’d conquered just a few days ago: a massive boulder field. All that we needed was patience and time. Most of this side of the mountain was shaded and breezy, so an extra layer helped, too. One foot after another, we plodded up and left to continue our spiral path towards Thompson’s south ridge.

I paused at the saddle, taking a moment to look at the new scenery that came into view from our high perch. The higher we climbed, the more peaks we saw. This was truly a mountain-lover’s destination.

Walking along the ridge, I envisioned the route ahead. It was never obvious until I got right to it. We found our couloir and scrambled up to the top; it was easier-going than the slab we surmounted earlier in the day.

At the top of the Sawtooths, we split a Kit Kat bar and read some of the many entries in the summit log. From the top, I pointed out an interesting lake that I wanted to check out on the way back down. I also wanted to tag an adjacent highpoint before returning to camp. So, we made a plan: LeeAnn would hike down to the lake, I’d go on my highpoint shenanigans and then join her at the lake.

We downclimbed to the saddle together, then went our separate ways. My goal was to traverse west, maintaining my elevation across the bouldery slope to the saddle near Mt. Carter. It was just over a quarter mile away. While Mt. Carter didn’t look all that interesting, I couldn’t get this close without tagging the top.

I shuffled across the boulders, making good time to the saddle. From that point, it was an easy walk up a broad ridge to the top. When I got there, tears began to well up in my eyes. I couldn’t believe the panoramic views. That subtle shift in perspective was everything; row after row after row of serrated ridges and peaks lay before me. Even in the haze, I felt a depth of perspective that I don’t get in the Cascades. We get basically one row of well-spaced volcanoes, with a smattering of rounded buttes all around. But there, from that summit, I felt incredibly small surrounded by hundreds of distinct, rocky spires. It was heaven.

Alpine wildflowers

While waiting for my InReach to send a check-in, I wandered around the large, open summit, making sure to look closely in all directions. Once I started down, I’d not see views like this for a very long time. I could have sat up there all day, but I knew LeeAnn would be waiting for me at the lake. I collected my things and began the descent.

Scree-skiing down from Carter, I aimed for the blue-green alpine lake that had grabbed my attention earlier that day. Sitting on a rock, writing in her journal, LeeAnn sat contently. I stopped to make a Del’s frozen lemonade with the glacier ice and my packet of dried lemon and sugar, something I had waited the entire trip to do.

Wouldn’t you go off route to check out this beauty?

Since the lake was off our original route, we charted a new course through the maze of obstacles between us and the rock slab.

We found the downclimb easily, then roughly retraced our steps back to camp. I made one wrong turn that brought us to the top of some cliffs near the lake, but otherwise it was pretty smooth sailing.

The hike out

4.8 mi | 15′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.

Back at camp, we leisurely began breaking down and packing back up for the walk to the car.

“Hey, did you see a group of four people up there?” Hmmm…someone got separated from their friends.

I must have done a double-take when I looked up, seeing an older lady wearing a sun hat and carrying a fanny pack; she did not seem like the mountaineering type. How the hell did she get up here, I thought? Was I being too judgmental?

“No,” we replied, and then got to thinking. If this lady made it to this location, there had got to be a decent climber’s trail that breaks off the main hiking route. I was determined to find it in order to avoid the horrible off-trail route we took the day before.

Lo and behold, I FOUND IT. As we began to descend among the boulders, I caught some faint whispers of a trail. It was clear for a short while, then got a little confused among the rock jumble, then clear again. We had a trail for the whole walk out! I wanted to laugh cry.

Why does a grouse cross the trail?

All was right in the world again. No more thinking. It was an easy hike out. Along the way, we stopped for several minutes to watch a little family of grouse sauntering across the trail. Unlike every other grouse I’d seen in my life, they didn’t fly off as soon as I came close. Instead, they stopped, watched us for a little bit, then carried on with their business. They were fun to observe up close like that!

The Sawtooths captured my imagination with their lonely trails, endless peaks and pristine lakes. I am already planning a trip back…