Category Archives: Hiking

Trip reports!

Brown Canyon to Ramsay Canyon

January 4, 2024.

12.4 mi | 2000′ ele. gain | 5:10 hr.

Snow-kissed view

Photo album

We stayed with friends in Sierra Vista for a couple days, and they recommended hiking right from their backyard into the mountains. I couldn’t resist. With a hand-drawn map in my pocket, I walked along the neighborhood streets, admiring all the southwest architecture and noticing…a blimp? I sent a pic to my friend Sarah, who’s obsessed with all things aviation. She quickly fired back an article written from the perspective of a local who first learned about the blimp on a field trip in kindergarten. (It’s a great article, you should definitely read it). I scanned the article as the cold air froze my face and my heart sunk yet again; more surveillance. I guess that’s the tradeoff people need to learn to live with in a border town. I hate it.

Blimp.

Soon, I reached a backdoor entrance to Brown Canyon Ranch. The open desert scrub gave way to a mixed coniferous forest, which provided a nice wind buffer. By this point, I had already seen plenty of people out enjoying the trails. Mostly older folks, all on foot except for one cyclist. Despite it being mid-week and with weather coming in, everyone seemed to be having a great time!

The novelty of snow crunching underfoot on a trip to Arizona made me smile. Back in Bend, my friends were lamenting how they hadn’t been able to get their skis out yet. Everything seemed topsy-turvy. I climbed the trail into the Miller Canyon Wilderness, enjoying the water trickling in the canyon. According to my offline map, the trail should intersect with another one that traverses across to Ramsay Canyon. I planned to take the connector trail, come down through Ramsay Canyon and walk the road back to Brown canyon and to my friends’ house. They did not know I had this grand plan, of course, but how could I resist the lure of a loop over an out-and-back hike?

I tried to stay on the main trail in the canyon, despite several offshoots going off in every direction. After passing the Pomona Mine junction, I stayed left, presumably on the main trail. The snow got a little deeper, and I found myself sharing the trail only with deer prints. When I checked my map, it appeared I was off trail, but I could see water bars and other engineered features, so I kept going. Eventually my track joined the one on the map; maybe the trail was re-routed and the apps were not updated.

Agave in the snow

It was so peaceful along this stretch of the hike. Snow fell, sometimes in delicate sprinkles and sometimes in a hurry. I caught glimpses of the higher peaks through gaps in the trees. I kept moving because I had all my layers on and it was still chilly, but so many times I wanted to stop and soak in all the magic that was happening.

When I arrived at the Hamburg trail, which led down into Ramsay Canyon, I saw a flurry of human tracks. I followed them down into another gorgeous canyon lined with many different trees I didn’t bother to identify. While looking for a place to paint, I stumbled across a signed viewpoint and headed that way. I found a beautiful spot to sit. It had a clear, unobstructed view upcanyon. And the full force of the weather was upon me. I knew as soon as I sat down, the clock was ticking.

I made it about 20 minutes before my fingers were so cold I could barely hold the brush. DONE! I said, and quickly packed up my things. I held on to my open sketchbook as I hiked, hoping the paint would dry before I got down to the Nature Conservancy building.

When I arrived, I ducked inside to use the bathroom, which was lovely and warm. I chatted with a friendly volunteer and wandered through the small gift shop before continuing my walk. I still had to hike out of the canyon and get back into the neighborhoods!

As I passed through the parking area and down the road, I heard a flurry of squawks and saw some movement. Turkeys! So many turkeys, hanging out in a small greenspace. Walking up the road. Making a commotion. There were a couple groups of at least 20 each. As I kept wandering down the road, they wobbled up toward me. After the turkeys, then there were deer. First one, then another, then many more. The longer I walked, the more wildlife I saw, and all of it was located out of the boundary of the Nature Conservancy site. I had dreaded this road walk when I planned this hike, but it turned out to be one of my favorite parts! The sun had come back out, I was warm and comfortable, there was so much to look at.

Turkeys!

The last major turn took me down a dirt road to Brown Canyon Ranch. I found a trail that roughly paralleled the road and walked on that. The wind was blowing fiercely by the time I made it to the ranch, so I went inside to get a break. The ranch had been preserved with furniture, books and interpretive exhibits inside. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t just walked 10 miles.

I braced myself for going back out into the wind and took a detour along a nature trail and pond. There, I saw a red tailed hawk, roadrunner and a single ring-necked duck floating on a small pond. The rest of the hike involved walking back along the side streets in Sierra Vista. What an excellent way to spend a day!

Atascosa Lookout and Peak

December 31, 2023.

7.7 mi. | 2455′ ele. gain | 5:15 hr.

Sunrise

Photo album

One more hike on the last day of the year. We parked overnight at the trailhead, where we watched another stunning sunset. And that put me in position to get a dawn start on this hike. We had plans for an early dinner with a friend outside of Tucson, so I wanted to have plenty of time.

The trail to the lookout is fairly well maintained and easy to follow. I appreciated the cool temperatures the early morning brought, even if that meant I had to rally before dark. I seemed to chase the same two deer up the trail as I hiked, although I couldn’t be sure. I was certain of how beautiful it was, with sotol, agave and prickly pear dotting the desert landscape. Gorgeous golden hills extended in all directions and each turn of the trail brought a new perspective to the mountain I was on.

Atascosa Lookout

At the small lookout site, only a foundation remained. I sat on its edge and ate a snack as I contemplated my next move. I had about a mile of bushwhacking to the true summit and my head swirled with the numerous reports I read of the route the night before. It would be tricky getting off the backside. Follow the cairned route. No, don’t follow the cairned route. It’s easy. It’s hard. Yeah, that’s what good the internet provides. I knew I’d just have to figure it out on my own.

I was not a huge fan of how the descent looked off the summit. Below my feet were what appeared to be loose aggregations of boulders held together by prickles and spines. I carefully descended right of center to avoid the worst bits and then veered back toward the ridge proper. Once I got back on track, I still had to figure out my way through or over the maze of boulders between the lookout and the summit. Occasionally, I stumbled across a cairn, but no two cairns were visible at the same time so they were pretty useless. I kept my eyes looking ahead at the destination and tried to avoid the worst of the vegetation and drop-offs.

Atascosa Peak

It was slow but not too awful. Only a few moves required my full attention. I noticed specific kinds of debris along the way: a torn backpack, a shoe, a can of snuff, an empty tuna packet. Flotsam from migrants or smugglers traveling between the US and Mexico. As I’ve come to spend time along the border, the politics, tensions and humanity of this invisible line is very apparent. I paused to think about the difficulty of traversing a landscape like this when your life depends upon it, versus being out on a fun little day hike. I only had to walk on this ridge for a mile, what about those who need to travel tens or hundreds of miles? In the heat, with no water sources and with every plant trying to tear the flesh from your bones? It’s incredible that anyone makes it through.

December phlox!

At the summit, I enjoyed the serene landscape and plotted my return. I tried to follow the cairns back, which I almost did. When I lost them for good, I stood and looked around for any sign of the route. I didn’t find it, but I did notice three furry tails sticking into the air like periscopes: coatis! It was my first wild sighting. When I worked in a zoo right out of college, I took care of a couple coatis. Otherwise, I likely wouldn’t have known of their existence.

The coati was too busy rooting around for food to show its face.

I was so glad to have let the cairns pull me off course for this chance sighting. Once they shuffled off, I fought my way back on the ridge and found the cairns again. I followed them until they petered out again. At that point I ended up in a thicket of catclaw acacia just below the lookout. It tore at every piece of clothing and square inch of exposed skin as I moved along the shortest path through it. Then, at the base of the previously intimidating, crumbly step that I avoided on my way down, I realized it actually wasn’t that bad. I scurried straight up the rock and landed right on top of the concrete lookout base. It’s amazing how something can look completely different from an alternate perspective.

Not too far down the trail, I ran into my first people of the day. Then a couple more. I raced down the path so that we’d have plenty of time to make it to my friend’s house for dinner. I couldn’t help but stop at all the interesting little cacti and towering dead agave plants. It still feels like such a foreign landscape, everything so curious and inviting!

Picacho Peak

December 24, 2023.

7.9 mi. | 2340′ ele. gain | 7 hr.

Photo album

We spent the night among the saguaro at Picacho Peak State Park (pronounced pee-KAH-cho). In the morning, we weighed our hiking options. We could drive to the trailhead, do the short but steep hike up the peak and back, or we could hike from the campground. I thought the flat trail leading to the trailhead would be a nice warmup for the main course, so that’s what we did.

Along the flats, we heard and saw many birds that we were just getting to know, like the cactus wren and gila woodpecker. At the trailhead, we paused to look at the map and prepare for the steep switchbacks that were soon to come. I had read a little about this trail so I knew there were cables and ladders near the top. It sounded like a fun adventure.

We arrived at the cables much sooner than necessary; they felt like a nuisance on some of the earlier sections. Maybe, I thought, they were useful when the ground was wet? It seemed like an over-engineered situation for most people.

At the saddle, before the real climbing began, we ran into a volunteer ranger. He was friendly and offered up some useful tips for the next portion of the hike. He also confirmed that our plan to climb to the top and the circle around the backside was a good one. With that, we started hiking…down! The trail drops several hundred feet before ascending again. Now, I was sure glad for those cables! Some of the rock was steeply slanted and slippery, with plenty of exposure to cactus-studded slopes below.

We encountered many other groups on the final ascent to the summit. Some were wearing santa hats and there were choruses of “Merry Christmas!” every few minutes. The mood was fun and cheery; everyone seemed to be having a great time.

When we got to the summit, a huge cloud bank had taken over the sky. With the sun tucked behind the huge gray drapes, temperatures dropped quite a bit. Most people were dressed lightly for a quick Arizona mountain hike. But we’d packed fleeces and wind layers so we could hang out on top as long as we wanted. We ate lunch, then I painted and Aaron read his book. It stayed fairly quiet up there as people came and quickly left.

On the way down, we followed the cables back to the junction with the Sunset Vista trail, which looped around the south side of the mountain. Here’s where we found the steepest and most fun section of cables bolted to a long slab. Conveniently located indents in the rock created a stair-step pattern that made me question whether they were added by humans or not. Starting from the top, we couldn’t see where the cables ended up; they disappeared into the abyss. Good times.

The backside of the mountain was refreshingly quiet. We enjoyed the variety of scenery and all the cactus. A short road walk from the trail led back to the campground. If I were to do it all over again, I’d choose to do it the same way. But maybe in spring when all the wildflowers are blooming!

Lost Dutchman State Park

December 20-23, 2023.

Cliffs containing the Flatiron

Photo album

With rain in the forecast and having no prior experience dispersed camping in Arizona, I decided our best bet would be to camp in actual campgrounds. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I didn’t want to get stuck in the mud. We were fast approaching the Christmas holiday and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find a place to stay, but I lucked out and booked 3 nights at Lost Dutchman State Park.

As we pulled into our campsite, I was thrilled to see it guarded by a huge saguaro! Another bucket list item checked off. Previously, I’d only seen saguaro cactus in the roadrunner cartoons. I’d been dying to see one in real life. And here they were, all over the park. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to stay in a campground.

Later that afternoon, I got sick and tired of being sick and tired so I decided to take an easy walk. I threw on my backpack, which is always ready to go, and set off on a trail in the campground. Within 5 minutes of walking, I saw the flash of shiny feathers: a roadrunner! Then, the quick blur of a rabbit’s tail. Gila woodpeckers clinging to the sides of the saguaro. Chattering curved-bill thrashers. It was a wildlife paradise. And the backdrop to this nature show: the dramatic, towering spires of the Superstition Mountains.

Roadrunner

Flatiron

According to my research, there is one thing to do here, and that is to climb the Flatiron. It is only six miles roundtrip, but with 2600′ elevation gain and some steep sections, it would be a push. I was still feeling pretty sick, but with the rain coming the next day I knew this was my only chance. I left early and loaded up a bag with supplies so I could take all the time I needed. Being under the weather is no fun, but I knew I’d feel better after hiking up a hill.

Welcome to the Superstitions

I followed the trail as it gradually ascended the slopes below the striking massif in front of me. At the base of Siphon Draw, a large gully slicing into the rock cliffs, the trail steepened. I began seeing a few other hikers on the trail. I let them pass me, opting to take lots of rest and move as slowly as my body needed to. It was so beautiful; I was in no rush.

The trail abruptly ended at a slickrock bowl that funneled into the gully. The inviting, smooth rock ended all too soon. Not entirely sure where to go at this point, I followed the path of least resistance into a brushy cactus slope to my right. Had the other hikers gone left? It looked like that led to a dry waterfall! Stopping to catch my breath and blow my nose, I looked up and saw an old man tying his boot. “Oh hi!” I said, and we exchanged some pleasantries. I picked up on his New England accent right away so we chatted some more. It was his first time on the route as well, and he also seemed unsure which way to go. “This way looks good,” I said and took off up the hill. He started up behind me at an even slower pace. I didn’t want to wait for him, but I felt bad leaving him behind.

Just as I had that thought, I saw a couple headed towards me, then I heard some more voices. Of course, this is a popular route, there will be plenty of people to keep eyes on that guy. I pushed ahead.

Watch your step

From that point on, I picked my way up the gully one step at a time. I kept seeing more people, headed up and headed down. People hiking solo and people in groups. Old people, young people, kids, families. People with no backpacks, people with supplies, people with water bottles. People in jeans, shorts, t-shirts, hiking garb, track suits. I actually couldn’t believe how many people were up here in this pretty gnarly, dirty chute. It felt more like New England hiking than west coast hiking, a very rough, get-to-the-top kind of route. Either the people out here are really badass or oblivious to the hazards; I guessed a bit of each.

Near the top of the gully, I got stuck behind a large group of hikers who were calling out every single move for every single person. I stopped and waited for them to figure it out, then started walking again. I didn’t mind the break. Well, after repeating this about ten times and getting pretty annoyed I finally grabbed an opportunity to pass. That obstacle sorted, I had one more to go: a ten-foot vertical step. Wait, what? If I hadn’t seen people coming down that section I would have been really confused where to go. But there it was. I wasn’t too concerned about getting up but I knew I’d hate coming down. I figured if all these yokels could do it, I’d sort it out later. Up I went and hurried off to the viewpoint.

It was an absolute circus of people when I got up there, all talking loudly for some reason, so I took a quick picture and scampered off. I saw two alternate highpoints to scramble to from the top of the Flatiron and decided to head toward Ironview Peak.

Gendarmes

Its summit is guarded by a labyrinth of gendarmes. Not to mention all the cactus, too. I carefully sniffed out a path between all these obstructions, which meant some crawling under, scrambling over and squeezing in between those big rock spires. After 20 minutes or so, I looked up towards the final section and saw two heads looking down at me.

“Is there an actual trail up here?” I asked. They mentioned something about a path marked with cairns, then we talked a but about hiking in the area. Once we parted ways I was just a few minutes away from the summit marker. From that peak, I delighted in views of the Superstitions that I couldn’t get from the Flatiron. I was in awe. Once I found a good sit spot, I ate my lunch and did some painting. A curious rock wren kept me company most of the time. Crows circled overhead. This place was magic.

On the way down, I was able to pick up my pace. I lingered on top; I knew Aaron would be wondering what took me so long. Luckily my snotty airways were not a hindrance coming down and my legs felt strong. Once I got to that wall I’d been dreading, I was very close to asking someone below to spot me. But he left before I could utter the words. Alone, I remembered what I observed on my hike up and rehearsed the moves in my head. I really hate downclimbing. But, I pulled it together and it was easier than I thought. With that behind me, it was easy to scramble the rest of the route down to the trail. I messaged Aaron to let him know my ETA and happily bounded down the remainder of the hike.

Camping in the rain

The rest of our time at Lost Dutchman was pretty chill. The campground is quite nice. I loved being surrounded by Saguaro cactus. There were many other cool cacti and plants and spring must bring bursts of wildflowers. The dreary clouds and moisture had its own charm as well.

We took a couple of field trips, one to the Goldfield Ghost Town for dinner and holiday lights (skippable) and the Superstition Mountain Museum. I really enjoyed the history museum, especially because we had the whole place to ourselves! We learned a ton about the myth of the Lost Dutchman mine that drew many a prospector trying to strike it rich. Plus displays teaching about Native Americans, infrastructure, natural history and more. There were several walking paths and outdoor exhibits that would have been nicer on a warm, spring day. But it was brown, drizzly and cold. The highlight for me was finding a small covey of Gambel’s quail, a new quail for my list!

How different the desert looks in the rain

Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

November 25, 2023.

4.7 mi. | 550′ ele. gain | 3:30 hr.

Photo album

If you want to see red rocks, you’ve got a lot of options. A quick Google search lets me know that there are:

  • Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV
  • Red Rock State Park, Sedona, AZ
  • Red Rock Park, Church Rock, NM
  • Red Rocks Park, Denver, CO

But today we ventured to Red Rock Canyon State Park, located east of Bakersfield, California. I’d never heard of this one, but we were in the area. Our tour began at the visitor center, as it usually does. Visitor centers are usually hosted by informed staff or volunteers who are happy to offer up advice or suggestions for activities. I’ve gotten a wide range of information from such people, and usually I’m able to learn something new. Whenever possible, I recommend talking to someone who knows the place before you step foot on it, if you’ve done extensive research or none at all.

This visitor center also had a few displays on native inhabitants, geology and wildlife. A great opportunity to begin to understand where we were.

Cholla

We began our hike along a nature trail leading up from the parking area to a viewpoint. Along the way, we stopped to read the information in the brochure about each numbered sign (I love a nature trail brochure). From that vantage point, I began to see what the topo lines on the map I scoured the night before actually meant. We followed some user paths on a quest to make an off-trail loop through some of the park’s spectacular rock formations. This would turn out to be a non-trivial objective.

We found ourselves on top of a canyon with steep-sided walls dropping into a series of washes below. The rock formed crumbly slopes or vertical drops, neither was good for un-roped travel. So after several thwarted attempts to get down into the wash, I finally found a break in the cliff band. We gingerly made our way down the moderately steep, grassy slope to the badlands underneath. Safely down in the flats, we meandered between hoodoos, slots, arches and other features eroded from the volcanic ash and sandstone.

Rocky wonderland

Long afternoon shadows gave the rock walls more depth and mystery. The cliffs standing above us on our snack break looked like drapes cascading down from a tall mansion window. The whole place gave me Cathedral Gorge vibes.

We delighted in the silence that came from being off trail, then braced ourselves for the inevitable return to the state park slew of people. For being a holiday weekend, it actually didn’t feel that crowded. We ran into folks within a 10-minute radius of the other parking area, then it was back to quiet. A wash paralleling the road helped us loop back to where we started a few hours earlier. I did not see any desert tortoise or other creatures I’d hoped to run into, but it was still a delight to be out there. We found many flowers in bloom, including the surprisingly beautiful desert dandelion. I’m still in awe that things are colorful in late November!

If you like cool rocks, choose-your-own-adventure style hiking and desert weather, this park is your jam. It’s pretty out there, but a worthy stop on any road trip if you’re in the area. I’d definitely go back in the early spring or after a rainstorm. I bet the wildflowers really put on good show then!

Black Mountain #6

November 24, 2023.

12.3 mi. | 2330′ ele. gain | 6:30 hr.

Photo album

This hike falls squarely into the “because it’s there category” that has become all so common on this trip.

There are countless mountains I’d like to climb, I’ve got list after list after list. However, what I’m able to climb is highly dependent on where specifically we park the van. I can try to find strategic camping, as I did here, or else I need to wake up, look around and point at the closest blip on the horizon.

In my research, I found some route descriptions for Black Mountain #6 (numbered because it has a common name) but they all started from a gnarly road on the other side of the peak. I’ll take an easier drive and longer hike than an annoying drive an shorter hike any day. I found a nice dispersed campsite roughly 5 miles due west of the summit. So on this lovely fall morning, I picked out an old road heading roughly in the direction I wanted to go and started walking.

Desert calico

I could have easily blasted through the road walk, but I kept stopping to ogle the wildflowers. They were everywhere! Evening primrose, desert calico, so many GDYC‘s. Not to mention all the Joshua trees and cholla cactus, looking sparkly in the sunshine. It was so beautiful! I followed the road up to what appeared to be an old mine, then I picked a ridge and followed it up to the horizon. The tricky thing about walking to the horizon is that you never quite get there…

Once I reached one bump that led to another, then another. A sinuous ridge of blocky sub-peaks eventually put me on track to reach the summit of Black Mountain #6. I knew I reached it when I opened an ammo canister to find no less than five notebooks filled with entries dating back to 1970. A popular place, it must be on some important list!

You can blame the LA chapter of the Sierra Club for all the visitors 🙂

To me, it was just one of those “hey I think I can walk there from the van” peaks. Regardless of its overall popularity, there was no one else there on this day, so I enjoyed a long summit break by myself. Then I roughly retraced my steps to the van. In the last mile, I pulled out my little trash bag and stopped to pick up any garbage I found along the road. I filled it up with cans and bottles by the time I returned. This is a good habit to get into on your next hike, if you don’t do this already.

All day I scoured the landscape for desert tortoise, tarantula, rattlesnake, anything to indicate I was in the desert. I did at one point see a flash out of the corner of my eye: a jackrabbit. Later, another flash: a coyote. Mammals are cute and all but you never get to really see them. If you find a reptile or insect, at least you get some time to enjoy them!

Minus the constant drone of ATVs ripping around the nearby roads, this area was quite nice. In the wilderness, where motor vehicles are not allowed, there is lots of room to roam around and explore. I’d come back here, maybe not on a holiday weekend, maybe when the flowers are in peak bloom.

Joshua trees line the desert floor

Bare Mountain from the Cement Plant

November 6, 2023.

9.1 mi. | 3220′ ele. gain | 6:30 hr.

bare mountain
Barrel cactus in front of Bare Mountain

Photo album

From our dispersed camp at an old cement plant, I looked outside the van window. A jagged ridge of rugged, colorful mountains lurched up to meet the sky. I looked to the internet to find some kind of information about hiking routes in these impressive looking mountains, but I didn’t come up with very much. But Bare Mountain, the tallest of the highpoints on my app, didn’t inspire many trip reports. So, I was left to my own devices to concoct a route and pick my way up towards the summit.

One thing I’ve learned on this trip is to go into any adventure with no commitment to an outcome. While I would have loved to plan to summit this peak, I knew that a number of factors would have to line up in order to make that happen. With limited time and information, I couldn’t guarantee achieving that goal. So, my goal today was to take a nice walk, see some cactus, enjoy the sunshine and burn some energy. I’d be able to achieve these things whether I made it to the summit or not.

The approach

Under the warm morning sun, I stepped out onto the gravel road leading up to the mines at the base of the mountain. I had a long, straight road walk to get to the start of the mountainy part of the route. A few minutes into the walk, I saw a few varieties of cactus and a tarantula! I was so excited to be in this novel environment.

Tarantula!

As I walked up the long, boring road, I looked at the nooks and ridges and peaks ahead of me. The complex terrain was going to give me a run for my money. And I knew there was some old and/or current mining activity to avoid. Other than that, it was a mystery. I enjoyed watching the shadows pull back to reveal more and more of the mountain faces as the sun rose in the sky. Near the top of the road, I walked past a truck that must have been parked last night or this morning. The truck was empty, so I thought someone else must be out exploring, too.

The previous evening, I put some pins on my mapping app numbered “1,” “2”… all the way up to 5. Each point brought me closer and closer to the summit. I based the position of each pin on the topography on my map, since that was the only information I had to go on. Upon reaching the end of my access road at point #1, I took out my app to compare what was in front of me to what I’d planned on my phone. Since chains across the road indicated that was off-limits, I headed cross-country towards my #2 waypoint high on a saddle to my left.

Carefully, I picked my way between cactus thorns, broken glass, metal scraps, holes and other natural and man-made obstacles. I was glad to be wearing approach shoes and long pants! However, the mine openings and slumps in the ground really stressed me out so I was focused on getting up to that saddle as quickly as possible.

Up we go

It was time for some food, water and reconnaissance. I looked up at the mountain ridge ahead of me. Cactus dotted the steep, rocky ridge. “One step at a time, as far as I can go” was my mantra. The relentless wind kept me on my toes, making each move with deliberate intent. I switchbacked up the steepest bits, crafting a route that never felt too scary or difficult. The intimidating cliffs softened as I approached them, always offering up a suitable passageway. I followed the path of least resistance, sometimes traversing on the shaded north side, sometimes on the sunny south side and sometimes right on the spine of the ridge. There goes #3…

The steep cliffs and profusion of cactus made for a slow ascent. I mean, I had to stop and look at EVERY single one of the spiny succulents, especially the teeny tiny ones. And the big ones. And the hairy looking ones. Well, you get my drift.

Baby barrel.

The crows and I had passed glances with each other all morning. No other evidence of sentient beings had surfaced, until I perked up at the sound of voices coming down the peak. Sure enough, two humans were headed down a scree slope as I huffed and puffed uphill.

Halfway along the slope, we crossed paths and I stopped to talk to them. The couple was quite friendly and we chatted about the mountain, the weather and other scrambling adventures in the area. They were avid desert peakbaggers and it was a delight to swap stories with kindred spirits. We wished each other a good day and continued on our paths.

bare mountain scrambling
Fun and varied scrambling near the top

The closer I got, the slower I moved. Not because I was getting tired but because the routefinding and footing was trickier. I bounced back and forth between spires and gullies and edges until I finally caught sight of the summit block. #4, #5 and there I was! Nestled between some rocks, I found the summit register, ready for its second entry in the same day. I hung out to celebrate a job well done and also to chow down some food in anticipation of the long walk back.

Summit register

The descent

With the intention of backtracking my exact route, I started re-tracing my footsteps down the ridge. After the first few obvious features, I got a little disoriented and veered slightly too far right, too far left, then back again. I struggled to find an easy path on the way down. It had been so intuitive on the way up and I couldn’t quite find my way coming down. Maybe it was the rock, maybe it was my tired legs, I am not quite sure what it was. But the descent felt exceptionally tedious and slow. Once I returned close to point 2, I decided to make a loop of it. The terrain was pushing me down into a gully on the north side of the ridge anyway, so I just followed it down.

Hopsage?

From there, I took a long, sweeping arc around the east arm of the mountain. The wash led to a road and easy walking all the way back out. I gained some new perspective from this variation, plus it let me avoid all the dangerous mine holes and debris.

I made it back to the van just as Aaron wrapped up his work day. Another full and fulfilling day in the mountains.

Oregon coast roadtrip, part 2

September 28-29, 2023.

Sunset in Newport

Photo album

Nehalem Bay State Park

The last time I visited Nehalem Bay was on Christmas Eve, 2009. I had recently gotten out of a long-term relationship and my mom flew across the country to keep me company. The weather was so good on the coast that we took the drive out there and walked the beach together. It’s one of my favorite memories of being with my mom.

Needless to say, the bar was high for this visit!

From the boat launch/day use area, I followed the short trail to the beach. There, I took off my sandals and started walking south along the coastline. For miles, it was just me and the sea birds. The ocean waves crashing on shore put me in a meditative state. Hiking into the wind, gray skies enveloping me, I put one foot in front of the other until I reached the giant log pile on the end of the spit.

Dead stuff on the beach

I peeked over the logs to get a view of the sea pouring into the bay. The waves were violent and crushing; there’s a reason they say never turn your back on the Oregon coast.

After a brief backtrack along the dunes, I found a trail that crossed over to the bay side. I walked through the forested center spit, heavily vegetated with grasses and stunted trees. I’d learned my lesson more than once about trying to bushwhack on the Oregon coast. It’s futile. And it’s the one place I’d much rather be on a trail than off trail. The high tide allowed me to walk on the sand for just a short while before forcing me back onto a forest trail. I skipped around the flooded beach sections and returned to the water’s edge where it became safe again.

After about five miles of walking, I made it back to the van. Just in time for lunch, too. On Aaron’s next break, we hit the road and pulled into a public lot at Rockaway Beach. I took another barefoot sand walk, then we popped into the farmer’s market. There weren’t many vegetables that we wanted to buy, but there were plenty of baked goods that looked appetizing.

Tourist stops on the Northern Oregon coast

As we continued driving, we made a couple more necessary stops. First we hit up Pronto Pup, one of the businesses that claims to have invented the corn dog (apparently this is up for debate). We ordered a couple of originals as an afternoon treat. Admittedly, I’ve only ever had one corn dog in my life and I thought it was way better than the one we had here. But, you’ll have to go to the little food truck in Sumpter, Oregon to find it!

Next, we stopped at the Tillamook Creamery, probably the most visited attraction on the Northern Oregon coast. Aaron had never been there, so we both took a deep breath and stepped into the tourist hell inside.

Tillamook Creamery

First, we headed upstairs to the viewing area to see how the cheese is made, but nothing was running and mobs of people were everywhere. So we quickly bailed back down to the first floor and got in the absurdly long line for ice cream. They didn’t have many unique flavors that you couldn’t buy at the store, which was a little disappointing. But they did offer a “flight” option, which had 3 different scoops of ice cream in a tray. I was tempted to order a flight containing a scoop of each of the different vanillas (how different could they possibly be?!). However, I decided to choose more interesting flavors, like the limited edition s’mores something-or-other.

Cape Lookout

I’d booked a campsite at Cape Lookout so we had a convenient place to crash for the night as well as hiking trails in the morning.

We both began the next day with bellies full of delicious cinnamon rolls. I walked down the beach towards the Cape Lookout trail system, enjoying the morning solitude. I didn’t expect much of that on the hike, since this was a reasonably popular place to visit. But I was pleasantly surprised to encounter only a handful of hikers on my way to the end of the trail. The first couple miles traversed upward from the campground to the actual trailhead, and I loved walking through the densely green coastal forest. Ferns cascaded down onto the trail as twisted, robust conifers seemed to anchor the sky above. Once I reached the parking lot, the steepness mellowed out and I breezed along the well-worn Cape Lookout Trail.

Fern wall

Halfway down, I encountered a sign warning me that it would be slippery and muddy ahead. I was ready, wearing my Bedrock sandals and mentally in need of some interesting walking. Sure enough, the route became a muddy, rooty obstacle course, which I found quite enjoyable. As the trail neared the end, I got peek-a-boo views of the ocean far below. I even enjoyed some lovely quiet at the trail’s terminus, just me and the pelicans.

On my walk back, I encountered many more hikers, including two who stood in the middle of the trail, looking down at something. As I approached the couple, they gleefully pointed to a banana slug. “We saw one with a shell on it yesterday!” the man exclaimed in some sort of European accent. I did not correct him. It made me happy that they were happy to see this exotic slug right before them. Aaron picked me up at a pullout where the return trail met the road, and we were off to the next destination.

Not “the” banana slug, but one I’d seen earlier.

Depoe Bay

We couldn’t drive through the cute little town of Depoe Bay without making a stop. They’ve got ample parking on the main road, so we grabbed a spot and walked to the whale watching center adjacent to the tiny bay. Inside volunteers offered up information and binoculars to those who were interested. I’m terrible at using binoculars so Aaron grabbed a pair for himself and we wandered to the viewing window. Turns out, the key to finding whales is to train your eyes on the whale watching boats on the horizon. They’re tracking the whales, of course. So, we saw some spouts, whale backs and whale tails from the Gray Whales passing through.

After we’d seen enough whales, we wandered through all the little trinket and candy shops on the way back to the van. Then it was off to our next home for the night.

South Beach, Newport

Tree tunnel on the way to the beach

After a yummy dinner at the Crab Shack, we pulled in to our campsite at South Beach. It was nearly sunset, so we quickly hopped out of the van to walk to the beach. We found a little trail out of our campground loop leading west. We caught sunset just in time. As we crested over the final grassy hill adjacent to the sand expanse, our eyes fixated on a ship…on the beach. There she was, the fishing vessel “Judy,” sadly washed up on shore. It was an odd and unexpected sight. We walked towards the water, wind blasting our face with sand, just to see another unusual happening: someone was kiteboarding just off shore.

We watched them go one way, turn 180 degrees, go back, and repeat, endlessly as the pinks and purples lit up the sky. How exhausting, I thought, that person must be ridiculously strong to hold tension in their body for that long.

As the last rays of light filtered up through the clouds, we hurried back to get on the trail. Once we reached the van, we collapsed into a heap on the bed. It was a full day of activities!

The joys of trail work

Aaron works to clip back encroaching brush on the Jefferson Lake trail

It’s been a long time coming

Since 2005, I’ve hiked nearly 10,000 miles. This year alone, I’ve racked up 700 miles in about 440 hours, and the year isn’t over yet. When I get back from my hikes, I happily scroll through photos, do some journaling, talk up my experience with others and bask in the reset I received from nature. Despite doing this on repeat for years and years, I haven’t spent too much thought into what I have to offer back to nature. The transaction is almost entirely one-sided.

That is, until recently. I’ve always been trail-work curious. But I have also been quick to come up with dozens of reasons not to participate. Mostly, by the time I was able to get out on a hike, I felt like I needed it for myself as a break from being around people, to do what I wanted to do and not to do more work while also conjuring up more social energy. I was making all these judgments, of course, without any first-hand experience.

Besides, in an average year I was spending several hundreds of hours on trails. If I dedicated just five percent of that time to trail work, that would cover a work party or two each year.

Doing the thing

With this in mind, I finally began looking for ways to give back. I started by doing trailhead ambassador work, which I absolutely loved. Then, I picked up an independent monitoring project for ONDA, where I got to visit one area twice a year on my own timeline, gathering data and reporting back. Then, I dipped my toes into trail maintenance and building. And that’s the real heart of this story.

When I’m out on a hike, I spend almost zero time thinking about what it took to build and maintain the trail I’m walking on. It’s easy to get annoyed if there’s a tree down, brush overhangs the trail or a section is clogged with water and debris. But trails aren’t gifts of nature; they’re built by humans and managed over time. It requires regular work from staff and volunteers to keep a trail passable. I don’t mind if a trail isn’t perfectly free of obstacles, but many people do. And some people require trails to be meticulously maintained for access. All of this requires lots of time and labor.

At this point, I’ve spent less than 100 hours working specifically on trail projects, so I still feel very new. However in this short time, I’ve learned a lot. I found out that trail volunteers are really special people. They’re hard workers, fun to hang out with, happy to chat (or not) and share a passion for being outside. I’ve met so many amazing people since I’ve started volunteering on trail crews that I can’t believe I didn’t start doing this sooner. In addition, trail work demands a wide array of skills, so I’ve been learning how to use certain tools and gain a greater understanding about why trails are built the way they are.

In sum, as a trail volunteer, you get a solid workout, spend time outside, develop a deep sense of connection with place, learn new skills and meet great people. How cool is that?

Putting up fence to keep cattle out of sensitive habitat

Cultivating a practice of service

Someone I met recently taught me a new acronym: STP, or “same ten people.” As in, it’s the same ten people in any community who are the only ones who get stuff done. Everyone else is content complaining, wondering why an ambiguous “they” aren’t doing anything about <insert issue here>. That really struck me. I’ve been one of the complainers for a very long time. So how does one get involved? How does one change the culture in a community to get more than the usual folks to show up and get work done?

For me, thinking about my relationship with the outdoors as being more reciprocal instead of one-sided has helped. Looking at my end of year stats showed me that I actually do have the time. And then feeling the benefits of participating has made a big impact, too. But I’ve been thinking about how much more impactful it would be if a much larger percent of hikers played a role in the building, maintenance and advocacy for trails. It would benefit not only the individual participating, but also the greater hiking community.

I’ve developed a decision-making tool to see where and how you might want to get involved with trails in your community. It’s based on your current access to the following resources: time, money and physical ability. It assumes that you are a person who uses trails in some capacity and that you have some interest in getting involved.

If you have:

Time but no money or physical ability: Time is a valuable resource. You can offer up your time to be an advocate for trails. Find a local trail organization and volunteer to write letters, make phone calls, post to social media, attend events and rally others to support! You could volunteer for a position on a committee that makes decisions related to trails and the outdoors.

Physical ability but no time and no money: Just keep hiking. Don’t feel obligated to offer up what you don’t have. Enjoy the trails, go outside to reap the mental and physical health benefits. Know that if/when you have greater access to resources, you’ll be able to contribute some funds or labor to the places you love. If you really want something to do, consider adding a trash bag and/or gloves to your daypack so you can pick up trash on your next hike.

Money but no time or physical ability : You’ve got just enough time to drop a check in the mail or make a recurring donation to your favorite local trail group!

Time and physical ability but no money : Sign up for some trail work! Choose a project on a favorite trail or find a new place to explore. You might start easy with a light brushing project or trash cleanup. Over time you might develop enough interest to get trained in using saws and other equipment to do the heavy-duty work. Most organizations offer projects that appeal to a range of physical abilities and interests. If you’re not sure, reach out to the coordinator and they’ll help you find a good match.

Money and physical ability but no time: It only takes a minute to send off a donation. If time is an unchangeable barrier, you can leave it at that. If you can find some time, you might be able to volunteer an hour or two at a local park or creatively integrate trail work with something else you already want to do, like spend time with your kids or organize a team-building event with your staff.

Time and money but no physical ability: If trail work is not for you, there are plenty of ways to get involved! You can volunteer in advocacy, donate to trail organizations, recruit friends to the cause and share trail work info on social media. Or hey, you can provide food, water or other support to active trail volunteers.

Time, money and physical ability: You’ve got loads of options. You can volunteer on singular trail projects, commit to an adopt-a-trail program, donate on a one-time or recurring basis and/or rally people in your community to join you.

Picking up trash is a gateway activity to harder trail work ?

I’d love your feedback on this decision matrix, especially if there’s something important I overlooked.

Since I’m taking a hiatus from work and we’re spending so much time on public lands right now, I’m making a concerted effort to volunteer, donate and connect with trail advocacy organizations wherever we travel. So far I’ve had incredible experiences with ONDA (Oregon Natural Desert Association) and SECT (Save Our East Cascades Trails). I currently follow several southwest trail organizations on social media. When we make it to Arizona and New Mexico this fall, I’ll know where to go to find opportunities.

Learn more or get involved

If you don’t see any links relevant to your area, do a search for “trail volunteer <place>”

American Hiking Society: helps protect access to trails and the outdoors and organizes volunteer vacations

Discover Your Forest: is the non-profit partner of the Deschutes National Forest, offering many ways to give back

National Park Service: provides opportunities to volunteer in education, maintenance, wildlife monitoring and more

Trailkeepers of Oregon: coordinates trail work and advocacy opportunities across Oregon

Washington Trails Association: has so many ways to get involved, plus tons of resources for recreation across the state of Washington

Disguising a confusing user trail in the Badlands

Monkeyflowers at Diamond Craters

September 17-18, 2023.

Look, a crater!

Photo album

On our way to Steens Mountain, we made a last minute decision to pull off for the night at Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Most folks will never make it here once in their lifetime; this would be my third visit. It is remote, there are no services and it gets no press. But it truly is outstanding, and this visit it was unusually so.

Nesom’s monkeyflower

As we drove past one of the first volcanic features, I had an “Aaron, stop the van!” moment. What at first looked like autumn red leaves on the ground turned out to be a superbloom of Nesom’s monkeyflowers: showy, bright, fuchsia blooms peppered throughout the cinder. It was a magnificent sight. I jumped out of the vehicle to get a closer look. While I was out there, I also noticed some delicate buckwheat flowers and the characteristic late summer bloomers: smoothstem blazing star.

Yes, we’d stay here.

Another surprise on our evening walk

Further up the road, we found a nice pullout with a hilltop view of the surrounding hills and craters. According to the BLM website, this designated area has the entire suite of basalt volcano features, such as spatter cones, lava tubes and maars. If you are curious enough to Google those things, you might want to schedule a trip to Diamond Craters to see them in person!

That evening, Aaron and I took a short stroll along a the road. We found thousands more flowers in bloom, and then…a flurry of activity. Hummingbird moths were busily zipping from flower to flower, feeding on the sugary nectar inside. I’d never seen so many of them at once! The pastel colors spreading across the dusky sky provided a beautiful backdrop for the scene unfolding in front of us. Sometimes the most memorable moments are unplanned.

Can you see the hummingbird moth?

Take a hike

The following morning, Aaron got to work and I took off on a hike. We were within a few miles of Malheur maar, a volcanic crater with a spring-fed pond inside. I made that my destination.

It would be another oppressively hot day, so I started walking right after breakfast. Along the road I saw some interesting flowers in bloom, which I later learned are introduced weeds. Nonetheless, I enjoyed looking at the delicate, translucent petals tucked between sharp points projecting from the stems. Apparently, some local butterflies appreciated the plants too.

So pokey.

I veered off the road at Twin Craters, following a use path along the east side of one of the twins, then bushwhacking around the northern perimeter to the other one. The whole time, I was very cognizant of the possibility of running into a rattlesnake like I’d done just a few days before. No snakes today.

On the other side of the craters, I stumbled across many other cool lava features, including deep cracks in the ground and what I like to call sourdough loaves. I think these are more properly called “tumuli,” but they look so much like the cracked tops of freshly baked loaves of bread that I can’t resist renaming them.

I wandered through the features, poking around anywhere that looked interesting, until I eventually made it to a lava balcony above Malheur maar. This location was incredible because here, out in this hot and dry expanse, I heard a cacophony of water-loving birds. I saw a ring of luscious green grass. I felt like I was transported into a new and unexpected landscape. The maar is quite small, but it creates its own riparian ecosystem surrounded by sagebrush and craggy volcanic rock.

Malheur maar

It was a scene that asked to be painted. So, I sat there to paint. As I did so, the morning clouds began to part and make way for the blazing sun. The hike back was much hotter and sunnier than before. The bright light now glinted off of the many bottles and cans carelessly thrown from vehicles years, even decades, before. I collected them as I walked.

Another feature distracted me from my beeline to the van: an old wooden structure. I veered off the road to investigate, and even as I walked all around it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. It couldn’t be an entrance to a mine, out here? It was just lava for miles. And it couldn’t have been a bridge, because why? Perhaps a little encampment? Again, why here? The mysterious wood remnants brought me, however, to another magnificent patch of monkeyflower. I lingered for a few more moments to bask in their beauty before the sweaty hike back.

This brief stop reminded me of several things about travel. One: just because you’ve been somewhere once doesn’t mean you’ve checked that place off your list for good. You can have many different experiences in the same place, especially if you visit during a different season, with a different person, in different weather or with a different attitude. Two: it’s important to leave flexibility in your travel agenda. I had no plans to stop here. About twenty minutes from the road intersection, I just happened to notice it while scrolling around on my map and said “hey let’s stop at Diamond Craters tonight.” Three: the unexpected little things often bring more delight than the big, much anticipated ones. Seeing the purple wildflowers carpeting the desert in September shocked and amazed me. Then, when we saw all the moths flying around, I felt like I’d found myself in paradise.

I love the childlike sense of wonder that I often feel when we’re on the road. That’s one reason I think we’ll keep doing it beyond our initial timeline. We’re already about five months in, but it seems like we’re just getting started…