Category Archives: Hiking

Trip reports!

American Fork Twin Peaks from the tram

August 26, 2019.

2.4 mi. | 960′ ele. gain | 2.5 hr.

Photo album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pfeifferhorn

August 26, 2019.

10 mi. |3700′ ele. gain | 7 hrs.

Photo album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box Elder Peak, North Ridge

August 24, 2019.

10.4 mi | 4600′ | 8:15 hr.

Photo album

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

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

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

Box Elder Peak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trona Pinnacles

April 3-4, 2019.

Photo album

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

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

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

We saw lots.

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

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

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

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

Hiking the south side of Joshua Tree

April 2-3, 2019.

Photos from Joshua Tree south

Lost Palms Oasis

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

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

Desert aster

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

Desert tortoise!

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

Palm tree oasis

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

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

Just out for a walk

Sand dunes

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

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

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

Sand lily

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

Rambling

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

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

Hungry, hungry caterpillar

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

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

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

Off trail adventures

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

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

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

Hiking the north side of Joshua Tree

April 1, 2019.

Photos from Joshua Tree north

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

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

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

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

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

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

Umm, where are all the flowers?

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

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

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

Scramblin’

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

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

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

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

Desert dandelion.

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

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

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

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

Can you see me?

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

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

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

Octotillo up close.

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

Hiking Santa Cruz Island

March 26-27, 2019.

Photos from Channel Islands National Park.

We arrived early at the dock, excited for our foray to Santa Cruz Island. We decided to camp for a night on the island in order to have more time to explore and not feel rushed by a ferry schedule.

The boat ride to the island was the first part of our adventure. Along the way, we stopped to watch wildlife: sea lions, whales and dolphins. The dolphins seemed to enjoy swimming and playing in the wake of the boat. Everyone staggered to the railings to watch the scene unfold in the water. It was more exciting than I thought it would be. There were so many dolphins, so close to the boat!

Upon our arrival, we lamented the amount of time it took for them to unload our gear. We stood around, watching time tick away, as every last item was unpacked from the boat. It was nearly lunch time.

We decided to hike into camp and set up our tent, then eat lunch, before starting our hike for the day. The initial plan was to do the long hike on day 1 and a shorter hike on day 2, but after some thought we flipped our plan around.

Smuggler’s Cove

With full bellies, we began the 8-mile out and back hike to Smuggler’s Cove. The route follows a dirt road all the way across the island and ends at a small beach on the other side. As we walked, I admired the delightful flowers and grassy meadows that lined our path. We hiked at a comfortable pace in the heat of the day. I felt as if I was walking through a postcard because all the colors were so bright and clear. The road wasn’t nearly as charming as a trail would be, but the scenery was mesmerizing enough to take my mind off the road.

Along the way we passed many hikers on their way back to the ferry. We were passed by one couple rushing along, hoping to make it to the beach before they had to catch their boat. A few minutes later, they passed us again headed the other way. “We ran out of time,” the lady said. I was immediately glad that we’d decided to spend the night on the island. We casually finished the walk to the beach, where we spotted our first island fox.

A descendant of the mainland gray fox, the island fox is a species unique to the Channel Islands. In fact, six of the eight islands have resident fox populations, which are all distinct from each other. We first spotted a fox sniffing around a picnic table, looking for scraps. It was lethargic, moving slowly and without a care in the world that we were nearby. I admit I was a bit disappointed on seeing this animal. It had clearly become acclimated to humans and didn’t behave in a fox-like manner.

LeeAnn and I found a spot on the sandy beach to lay out our towels and sit down for a snack. Before getting too settled I suggested taking a dip in the ocean. We had to, it was right there! We stripped down to our underwear and ran into the ice cold water. It took my breath away. I fought the waves for a few minutes and reveled in the fact that just a few days ago I was complaining about the cold and wet spring we were having in Bend and now I was making the choice to freeze my butt off in the California sun.

Back on the beach we dried off and watched another fox rooting for bugs among the rocks behind us. After a relaxing rest we packed up and sauntered back along the dirt road to our camp.

As the sun began to set, the wind picked up and we retreated to the shelter of our tent for a long sleep.

Montanon Peak

The following morning we got up early to eat breakfast, pack up and stashed our gear near the dock. We planned on a ten-mile day to the highest point within the National Park boundary on Santa Cruz island.

Our hike began under partly cloudy skies. Tall plants closely lined the singletrack trail we followed through Scorpion Canyon, the thick dew soaking our pants and shoes. But the pretty wildflowers and colorful rock distracted us from the slight discomfort. Besides, I was really excited to climb a mountain today, my first since I injured my hip nearly 2 months prior.

Our route took us up the canyon, past some old oil extraction machinery and up a rutted, old road. We ascended to a saddle where the official trail dropped down the other side, heading towards Prisoners Harbor and the Nature Conservancy land. At that location we turned straight up the ridge on a well-defined use trail to the summit. Along the way we were treated to a lush alpine rock garden. Succulents, unusual wildflowers and native shrubs spread out as far as the eye could see. And that wasn’t too far; the clouds had steadily rolled in as we made our way towards the summit.

We arrived at the radio tower and looked at the ridge ahead. “Is that bump higher?” I asked. I couldn’t tell for certain, but I hadn’t come all that way to stop a few feet short of the summit, so we kept on walking. At the next bump, we sat down for a snack and some summit victory photos.

After a long rest we started hiking back. Out of nowhere, it started pouring rain. We dashed beneath the solar panel array at the radio tower and put on our raincoats. But it was all for naught; the rain cleared just a few minutes later and the humid air felt stifling. We wrestled with layers for the rest of the day as rain intermittently spattered down from the sky.

We saw no one on our way up the mountain, but suddenly we passed several groups headed in the opposite direction. The day hikers had arrived.

My hip was sore those last few miles. I was a little thrilled when we were finally done. We had some time before the boat arrived so we hunkered down near our pile of overnight gear and dozed in and out of sleep.

The ferry ride back was just as thrilling as the ride in. Again, a huge pod of dolphins surrounded the boat. We stopped for quite a while to watch whale spouts far off in the distance; I didn’t move from my seat. Whale watching is not my favorite thing to do. But the dolphins— those were exciting.

All in all, I had a lovely visit to Santa Cruz island. I was amazed by the diversity of plant life across the island. From coastline to canyon to meadow to alpine zone, there was so much to see in such a small place! I’m now very curious what the other side of the island looks like…

Condor Gulch Loop

March 25, 2019.

5.1 mi | 1450′ ele. gain | 3:10 hr

Photo album for Pinnacles National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Peaks Loop

March 24, 2019.

9.5 mi. | 1970′ ele. gain | 5:30 hrs.

Photo album for Pinnacles National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring the Channeled Scablands

November 22-25, 2018.

Photo album

Thanksgiving weekend, 2018. I asked my husband Aaron to pick a destination for our outdoor holiday adventures. He said “how about Eastern Washington? We’ve never been there.”

Eastern Washington. A land with no mountains, no points of interest that immediately captured my attention. I did some research and saw a lot of the same: lakes, rivers, rolling hills. It was a landscape formed by the Missoula Floods between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. Glacial Lake Missoula, held in place by a 2,000 foot tall ice dam, periodically broke through the dam and sent cataclysmic floods across the Pacific Northwest. The coulees, channels, rock islands and giant current ripples in modern Eastern Washington were formed as the floodwaters scoured the earth. So this year we’d take a tour through some of this unique and fascinating geology.

Gingko-Petrified Forest

Our first stop took us to one of many Washington State Parks we’d visit on this trip. We began at the interpretive center, which was closed for the day. But just outside the front doors lay several examples of petrified wood. Down a set of stairs we found a display of basalt pillars covered in petroglyphs. The pillars had been moved from their original location and put behind a fence to protect them from vandalism. More on that later.

From there we drove up the road to the Trees of Stone Interpretive Trail. The landscape had suffered from what looked like a recent burn. We walked under a thick, gloomy fog across a nearly barren landscape. Every few yards we’d spy a chunk of petrified wood. How would we know? They were all cached inside thick metal cages. Yes, we’d entered a rock zoo.

It was depressing and I couldn’t wait to get back to the car.

To learn more about this park and to find out when the visitor’s center is open, check out their website.

Lenore Lake Caves

In advance of this trip I saw lots of cool photos coming from this area so I arrived at the trailhead eager to explore. A clear path led uphill towards a series of “caves” in the basalt cliffs. The caves were more like overhangs, carved out by water and subsequent erosive forces. As we hiked we picked up trash near the trail. And in the first cave, we were instantly disappointed. Graffiti. Everywhere.

Well, I thought, maybe if we walked a bit further, the other caves wouldn’t be so marked up. I was wrong. We walked from cave to cave, seeing loads of signs of obnoxious visitors. None of the trails were marked so herd paths led all over the place. The caves were all marked up. There were cans and bottles and debris strewn about the rocks. We got over this place real quick.

In an effort to get away from the human impact, we searched for a way to return on a loop, off-trail. Luckily, Aaron spotted a little ramp that led down the seemingly impenetrable cliff and we circled back towards a path near the water. Along the way we found lots of interesting things: animal bones, cool plants, cracked soil. It was scenic and beautiful and mostly unscarred by humans.

At the trailhead I unloaded the trash from the side pockets in my backpack; there was a garbage can right at the trailhead. I noticed that the bulk of the garbage came from single-use beverage containers: soda and beer cans, glass beer bottles, plastic water bottles. How complicated is it to pack a re-usable water bottle and bring it back with you? I wonder about the future of our natural spaces if people can’t even be bothered to carry an empty drink container a half a mile back to their car.

Soap Lake

As we headed towards our next park I eyeballed the map. In my research I had noticed a “Unique Natural Features” symbol near the town of Soap Lake. I’m a list person, I love checking things off of lists. And visiting all the the Unique Natural Features list in my Delorme Road Atlases is something I’ve been working on since moving west.

And so we pulled in to the not-quite-thriving town of Soap Lake. The mineral-rich lake had been known since before pioneer time to have “healing waters.” Thus, it became a destination for tourists to come and seek a cure for their ailments. We walked through a city park on the water’s edge and dipped our hands in the water. Felt like water.

Today the town had more boarded-up buildings than operable ones. On one corner downtown a small Ukrainian food market seemed to be doing quite well. We stopped in for some snacks and continued on our way.

Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park

I had been really excited to see Dry Falls and it  did not disappoint. Even on this dreary, cold and gray day, the vista from the Dry Falls Visitor Center was absolutely stunning. From the edge of the parking lot we looked into a chasm that rivaled the views at the Grand Canyon (minus the people and stench of pee).

The sign indicated that during the floods, Dry Falls would have had torrents of water rushing over its 3.5 mile wide edge. Niagara Falls, by comparison, is only a fifth of the width of Dry Falls.

There wasn’t much hiking to be done from the top, so we drove through the main park entrance to a trailhead 400 feet below.

As we strolled among the grasses and rocks in the basin I looked all around me in a state of awe. It was difficult to comprehend the size of the space I was in. I felt small. We climbed on top of rock piles, took lots of pictures and then checked the time. It was Thanksgiving, and it was time to find a place to camp so we could eat some turkey.

Steamboat Rock State Park

We rolled into Steamboat Rock State Park just before sunset, giving us enough daylight to find a nice campsite to call home for the evening. There were hundreds of campsites in three separate campgrounds; only a few areas were open during the winter and I could count on one hand how many people were actually camping. Only one other tent was pitched nearby.

As soon as we set up our tent and got a fire started, it started to rain. I worked quickly to warm up our Thanksgiving meal and get everything ready to eat. As the rain picked up we made up our plates and shuttled into the tent to eat our dinner out of the cold rain.

In the morning, we had some hiking to do. Steamboat Rock, a flat-topped butte rising up out of Banks Lake. The lake lies within the Grand Coulee, one of the most impressive features left behind by the Missoula Floods. We packed up for a cold and possibly rainy day and set off from a marked trailhead below the rock.

The trail passed through a surprisingly colorful sandy hillside. The sagebrush and other hardy plant life had taken on hues of gold, orange, brown and red for the winter. At the base of Steamboat Rock, we hiked up a jumble of talus that led to the rock’s broad summit plateau. From there, social trails led every which way. Nothing looked terribly official up there. So, we went left.

For the next hour or so, we walked where our curiosity led us. We hiked to overlooks above the slate-blue lake. We explored erratic boulders, left behind an ice age ago. We looked for wildlife but mostly found poop and tracks. There were lots of poop around the boulder piles. The animals up there apparently liked to hang out in the same places I liked to go. After circling around much of the rock formation we headed back down.

Grand Coulee Dam

Just before lunchtime, we rolled into the parking lot at Grand Coulee Dam. Grand is an understatement. Here we found another impossibly big structure, this time one constructed by man. We watched streams of water trickle over the edge of the 550′ tall concrete dam, then walked through the Visitor’s Center to learn more about the construction, history and impact of the dam.

I remained interested in the educational nature of the center until my hunger got to me. Back at the car we assembled some lunch: a turkey leftovers wrap for me and a meat and greens salad for Aaron. We had a long drive ahead.

Palouse Falls

We were tight on time yet again. These short November days were really hard to manage. The dark skies were sprinkling down rain. As we turned down the road to the falls we were greeted with a flashing highway sign that foreboded: “Danger. Four recent deaths.” I had read about one of them while I was planning this trip. Our goal today was to stay on the marked trails, get some views, and hurry back to the car to find a campsite.

The falls and the canyon below the falls were gorgeous. I was blown away by the dramatic cliffs, colors and churning water. I could see why it lured so many people in.

But the rain and cold was getting pretty grating. We walked a short path along a railing and then returned to the car. Finding a campsite that evening was not as easy as I thought, since the campground I planned on staying at was closed. Another 40 minutes of driving brought us to Potholes State Park well after sunset.

Potholes State Park

I happily gobbled down a piece of pumpkin pie for breakfast as we burned a pile of firewood to warm up. It froze last night; we awoke to a landscape covered in ice crystals. With earplugs it would have been an idyllic morning. But the constant whine of motorboats and frequent, piercing shotgun blasts reminded us that most people don’t come here to just quietly be in nature.

We took a short hike before heading to our destination for the day. The signboard at the park indicated a trailhead, with dots leading off the sign in the direction of an indeterminately long trail. We walked a short loop in no time at all, strolling through a lovely wetland near a bright blue inlet stream. We could see snow-capped mountains far in the distance.

Hanford Reach National Monument

We arrived at Hanford Reach on a perfectly clear, bluebird morning ready for a full day of hiking. I’d read about the White Bluffs, a stretch of cliffs above the Yakima River, which offered pretty trails and wildlife viewing opportunities.

This monument is unique in that it preserves an area around World War II nuclear reactors. The land in this area has been undeveloped since the 1940’s, when the nuclear program was active there. As a result, this “involuntary park” remained a sanctuary for wildlife and was designated a National Monument by Bill Clinton in 2000.

The Subaru stood alone in a small, empty parking lot as we began hiking up the hillside.

I breathed deeply, the crisp and dry air filling my lungs. It felt good to get out on a real hike. Today was the first day since catching a cold three weeks ago that I felt like a whole person again. Down below we heard whining coyotes. Over our head we saw vee-formations of geese. And all along the trails we saw animal tracks. It was a wild place.

The trail climbed up to the top of the bluffs through familiar high desert brush. But then it revealed its other side: long, undulating sand dunes that disappeared into the distance. It was beautiful. I took my socks and shoes off to explore the cushy sand.

The first set of dunes became engulfed in brush for awhile, then it re-emerged into open sand. As I was adjusting my footwear a man popped up from the sage. We chatted for awhile. He’d lived in the area and had lots of great stories and hiking recommendations for us. As he was leaving he said “Well this is the end of the line for me. It’s just a lot of sand up ahead.”

Just sand.

That’s what I was excited about. We bid adieu and I gleefully strode barefoot out on the sand. We eyed the highpoint of the dunes for our lunch spot. And as we were up there I started thinking. Could we get to the river? The bluffs were sheer, but it appeared that there were a few ramps cutting through the cliffs. Yes, we’d give it a try.

We dropped in elevation and Aaron scouted a route down to the flatlands below. With not too much trouble we made our way to the water’s edge. The earth was mushy and unstable here. There wasn’t much of a beach to hang out on. We re-traced our path towards the dunes in fear of getting cliffed out. The rest of the walk was an easy ramble.

Hat Rock State Park

That night we stayed in Kennewick. The following day was just a drive day. But I threw in a couple of bonus stops outside the Channeled Scablands to enjoy some lesser visited parts of Oregon.

Located on the Columbia River, Hat Rock State Park preserves a basalt plug that was allegedly used by Lewis and Clark as a navigational landmark. The rock was set behind a chain link fence, which was quite disappointing, but we managed an interesting hike on and off the trails. We hiked out to a beautiful viewpoint of the river and then walked cross-country to the top of Steamboat Rock, another highpoint in the park.

John Day Fossil Beds: Clarno

Lastly we took a quick detour to the quietest of the John Day Fossil Beds units in Clarno. This place is on the way to nowhere, so you really have to make a point of coming here. But it has one of my favorite trails in the state: The Trail of Fossils.

We first assembled a lunch of all the scraps left in the cooler before hiking all three trails in the unit. Our route began on the Geologic Time Trail, where trail markers told the story of the rock and fossils here as if we were literally walking back in time. Next we hiked among the fossil-laden boulders, searching for leaves and sticks encapsulated in stone. Finally we trudged uphill to a viewpoint beneath the Clarno Arch. It’s a very scenic park that would no doubt see more visitors if it was in a different location. I’m glad it’s not, though. We only saw a handful of people and it was a lovely way to finish our Thanksgiving adventures.