Category Archives: Nevada

Las Vegas highlights

November 8-12, 2023.

Photo album

Our first real foray into a big city with the van took place in Las Vegas. It was a place I could convince both my brother and some college friends to fly in for a visit. So, Aaron and I began our trip by parking for a night outside our friend’s house in Henderson.

City walking

While Aaron worked the next day, I plotted a roughly 9 mile course from the van to the Vegas strip, where I’d meet my brother and his wife. I love taking city walks as a way to get acquainted with a new place. Besides, I’ll travel hundreds of miles out to a remote wilderness to do a ten mile walk, why not do it in an urban location?

I fell into a rhythm, threading my way through park trails that connected to city sidewalks. I wandered along walled-off communities and into more friendly looking neighborhoods. It was impossible to plan a route that didn’t parallel the airport or major highways, so I spent much of the time trying not to duck under low-flying aircraft. I found the Vegas area pretty pedestrian-friendly, as drivers waited patiently for me to cross, no one cut me off and I never felt unsafe being surrounded by so many cars.

Is it a tree or a cell tower? There’s no way to know.

When I arrived at the strip, my brother sent me a string of text message clues to get me from where I was to where he waited for me. We had lunch, then visited the Hello Kitty Cafe and played black light mini-golf in a Twilight Zone themed room. What a surreal day.

Desert walking

Many people do not know that Las Vegas is a very convenient hub for outdoor activities like rock climbing, hiking and canyoneering. I had been aware of this for years, but never had the opportunity to take advantage of its proximity to varied park and recreation areas. I booked a limited-entry permit for Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to take my visitors on a pretty desert hike. We explored some washes and slickrock adjacent to where people were climbing on the gorgeous red rocks. Then we continued the drive to the other side of the loop road and hiked into a deep, shaded gash in the cliffs appropriately named Icebox Canyon. What a sharp contrast to the hot, sweaty hike we’d just done!

Icebox canyon: bring layers!

Later that weekend, my friends Sue and Karen arrived. We also hiked in the Red Rocks area as well as in the nearby Rainbow Mountains Wilderness. This area did not require permits and it was easy to find a parking spot late on a Saturday morning. We scrambled to a few highpoints and did plein air painting at scenic vistas each day that we hiked. I introduced Sue to painting outdoors last year, so I was thrilled to see that she showed up with her own kit on this trip! I set Karen up with supplies and the three of us created art, capturing the scene in three different ways.

There were so many places I didn’t get to on this visit: Sloan Canyon, Mt. Stirling, Charleston Peak, Lake Mead. That just means I’ll be back.

Viva Las Vegas

During our visit, Las Vegas was preparing to host a Grand Prix race. Some iconic sites were inaccessible, traffic was even crazier than usual and massive bandstands were being built up along the strip. The wealth on display was so immense, and in sharp contrast to the unhoused people on the street. People desperate to make a buck selling trashy trinkets outside shops selling ridiculously priced designer bags and things literally no one needs. How inhumane this society is that enables such disparity; I couldn’t help but think about this as I walked through crowds of blissfully unaware vacationers.

Unable to solve the persistence of inequality in those moments, I had no choice but to join the mass of tourists shuffling along the busy streets.

We ate at restaurants for nearly every meal, which completely blew out our budget for the month. The food was expensive and mostly not that great. Drinks also cost way more than they would anywhere else. I had to grit my teeth and not sweat the prices, knowing we’d be back on the road, preparing our own food in the van soon.

It was billed as a botanical garden but it was more like a huge floral arrangement.

With each pair of visitors, I spent quite a bit of time walking along the strip and in the surrounding areas. It’s definitely something I’d recommend doing once in a lifetime. It was unlike any other walk I’d ever taken. Well into the night, lights shine brightly from every hotel, casino and monument. There are fountains and public art and replicas of world famous architecture everywhere. And there are always so many people out and about, you’ll never feel alone.

The Vegas experience I just had to have was partaking in a street daiquiri from one of the many daiquiri bars I’d seen on the strip. Sue joined me in imbibing during one of our long evening walks while Karen made the probably better decision to stick to water instead. Although we didn’t have too far, as the crow flies, to get back to our room, pedestrian connectivity was not good in this part of town. We kept running into dead ends or highways that required us to walk several miles out of the way. Drinking and walking doesn’t suit me well, but I got to cross off that item from my to-do list.

Tips for van travelers

Vegas is a pretty fun place to visit for all sorts of people. Whether you love nightlife, the outdoors, museums, parties, restaurants or people watching, there’s something there for you. Be prepared to spend a lot of money while you’re there, because everything costs money and even things you’re used to paying for cost more.

I spent a lot of time reaching out to AIrBnB hosts about if it was legal/possible to park my van in their lot. This was a surprise. Many hosts operate under HOA’s that do not allow oversize vehicles or vans specifically. Or, they only had access to parking structures with ceiling heights too low for the van to fit. And while some hotels do allow oversize vehicle parking, it is typically for an additional fee. You’ll have to consider the size and type of your vehicle before booking a place to stay.

Once you’re there, I’d recommend using Uber/Lyft/taxi to get to places in town and only take your vehicle out to drive to trailheads and activities outside the city. It’s much less stress trying to deal with maneuvering and parking a large vehicle in such a congested place. And if you want to take a walk, try to plan a route on Google Maps so you don’t get stuck where the sidewalks disappear into freeways, gated lots and parking garages.


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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.


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.


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.

2023 Annular eclipse in Nevada

October 14, 2023.

Photo album

One of the natural events we hoped to experience on our long roadtrip was the annular eclipse. This type of eclipse climaxes when the moon obscures the sun in such a way that it forms a ring of light. The eclipse path encompassed large parts of Oregon and Nevada before continuing further south and east. Since we’d be in Bend just before the eclipse, I focused on getting us down to Northern Nevada to catch the event. Most Oregonians planted themselves at the Coast, Crater Lake or other notable parks and public lands. But I wasn’t too excited about betting on clear skies in October on the west side.

That took us on a long drive across Oregon’s dry side, past Crane Hot Springs and the Alvord desert, down into Northern Nevada. I’ve spent a good amount of time in the area and had some ideas for places to go. But anything even remotely close to amenities (and I use this word loosely) was overflowing with visitors a couple days ahead of the eclipse.

I pulled up the maps on my phone and went through all my backup plan ideas, then drafted a new plan. We drove an hour east from our intended stop to a random pullout on a side road I noticed on Google satellite. Someone was even parked there! We committed to driving down that road, wherever it took us. A few miles down, we found a good enough place to pull off that was flat and open. Good enough, and good grief!

Good place to park

After being van-bound for the whole day, I quickly stuffed a pack with the basics and charged up the hill behind the van. Sunset was coming fast. I scrambled up to the top of an unnamed ridge, then over to another little lump on the horizon. That lump seemed to be a great place to see the eclipse the next day.

Viewing the eclipse

In the morning, I boiled some water and made breakfast burritos, then packed it all up to go. We hiked 15 minutes or so to the top of the lump. Aaron laid out our picnic blanket and I made instant coffee with our hot water. We put on our eclipse glasses and looked up; it had just started!

For about an hour, the moon gradually took larger and larger bites out of the sun. Aaron busied himself setting up a shadow-viewing setup and I took out my painting kit. We watched as large swaths of clouds threatened to cancel the whole event. But instead, they added a curious mystique and changed the mood of the sky. We laughed as several cars blasted down the gravel road below us, as if they were trying to get a better view at the last minute. Our perch was perfect.

At 9:15 am, we watched the sun turn into a ring of fire. It was just as cool as it sounds! The entire thing lasted about 4 minutes, then the sun began to retain its circular shape. Soon after totality, the clouds rolled in and the weather cooled down. We packed up our things and went back to the van. We relaxed in our rolling home for the rest of the day.

Inspired by our time on the hill, I completed a painting to commemorate the eclipse based on the sketches and notes I had from the morning. It’s so nice to sit at a table to create art in a controlled environment. The feeling is completely different than sitting outdoors on an uneven surface, wind blowing, shadows changing and bugs landing in your paint! It almost feels like cheating. In short time, I put together something I really liked that captured our experience.

Eclipse in watercolor

Satisfied, I cleaned out my Art Toolkit Palette and refilled my most-used colors with fresh paint. That evening, we made burgers for dinner and played an Unlock! escape room game. These games are fun to have in the van because we can play them anywhere and it’s good entertainment for an hour or two.

Adventures in Northwest Nevada

November 21-26, 2022.

Photo album

I always take Thanksgiving week off of work. Not to honor the holiday in the traditional way, just because most people will cancel that week and there’s no sense in me sticking around town for a few stragglers who may show up. So after taking care of a few errands in town Monday morning, I started the 5 1/2 hour drive to the edge of the Black Rock Desert.

Day 1: Getting there

As the sun was getting ready to set and I was less than 20 miles from my destination, I noticed a truck in the ditch on the side of the road. A man waving his arm stood up from near the truck. So this is how my week of solitude was going to start.

Long story short, this man was a long ways from his ranch house, his cell battery was dead, and the chance of someone else driving by was very slim. I drove him home as he thanked my profusely and I refused the seven dollars in his wallet. Once he was safe, I got back on track. The sun had long since set, and I rolled up to the free BLM cabin under a pitch black sky. Home.

Car emergency karma secured, I brought my stuff into the cabin, which smelled musty despite looking very clean. I built a fire in the fire pit outside and got to work setting up my camp kitchen. The cabin didn’t have propane or electricity but that was okay with me! I made stir-fry on the camp stove and lost myself in a book by the dancing flames by my feet.

Day 2: A hike to the top of a thing

As I get older and spend more time outdoors, I think less and less of what accomplishments I can achieve and get internet points for. Instead, I think about what brings me joy? What adventures can I go on? What can I learn from this place? Why would I want to rush through the experience as fast as I can so I can brag about it to others?

I still love chasing summits, but they don’t have to be long, epic, technical or notable in any way. Finding those little USGS markers is like succeeding at a scavenger hunt. And it helps me narrow down the endless options of where to go. So, I saw one summit within walking distance from my cabin and I packed my bag to head in that direction.

Since there are no developed trails or routes in the area, I planned on trekking cross-country to get there. But much to my delight, I found a gravel road that followed the broad wash that led up and into the hills. I walked the road network most of the way to the top, following tracks from rabbits, deer and other unknown critters. A thin layer of snow covered the ground. And although it was well below freezing the night before, I ended up reaching the summit in a t-shirt and sunglasses. It was warm, clear and quiet.

As soon as I sat down on a pile of rocks to start painting, a thick cloud blanketed the sky and the temperature dropped significantly. Despite that, I completed another watercolor, one step closer to my 50 days of plein air painting in 2022 goal, then packed up to retrace my steps out.

On the walk back, I stopped to admire all the shiny black rocks on the road: obsidian. I was surprised to notice how dull and drab the rock looked in the places where it wasn’t broken open. Although I felt I should have known that by now, it was an interesting thing to observe, just one of many pieces of knowledge I’d gain in my trip to the desert.

Day 3: Welcome to Sheldon

I sadly said goodbye to the lovely cabin and drove up towards the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area/ Dark Sky Sanctuary. This part of the country is one of the most remote places from urban areas (read: light pollution.) It was especially dark this time of the month, during the new moon. I was excited to poke around this new-to-me area. But I couldn’t find much information online, so I had a loose plan to find a gravel road, disperse camp, and explore on foot for a few days.

It was not to be. I drove all along the southern and western borders without a single enticing road to follow. Plus, a low cloud of frozen fog hung above the dry lakebeds where I’d presumably camp. Since it didn’t look inviting, I kept driving into the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.

I’d briefly visited Sheldon before, but it had been such a long time ago and there is so much that I hadn’t seen yet that it deserved a second trip. I stopped at the welcome signboard to note the camp locations and chose one that had a pit toilet as my destination. On the way to camp I stopped to do a short hike to another viewpoint summit, where I saw a few deer, a female sage grouse and a cluster of juniper trees.

The juniper trees are worth noting because I needed to harvest juniper berries (cones) for my Thanksgiving meal, and I hadn’t seen a single juniper since reaching camp Monday night. The hills were dotted with sagebrush as far as the eye could see, but the juniper were nowhere to be found. It had not occurred to me that this was possible, since there’s so much juniper in the Oregon high desert. I harvested enough berries for my recipes, plus a few more, since I had no idea what to look for in a juniper berry.

Each year, I question and redefine a new element of the Thanksgiving story. I’ve ditched the family obligations. I’ve re-learned my history. I deepen my connection to the land and my place in it. This year I decided to honor native foods and learn more about native cooking, by reading cookbooks and learning about Pacific Northwest foods. More on that tomorrow.

I settled into a very cold night at camp and went to bed really early. Not before attempting some night sky photography.

Day 4: The big meal reveal

It was difficult to get out of my cozy bed burrito. But eventually, the warm sun lured me out. I did a mellow hike to the summit, er, the gentle rise above my camp, did some painting and returned by lunch time. During the afternoon I did a ton of reading and splitting wood, then made a game plan to juggle all the dishes I wanted to prepare for dinner.

My revised menu consisted of my family foods (listed first) and foods native to the PNW. The list:

  • carrot and parsnip mash
  • meat stuffing
  • jellied cranberry sauce
  • green beans
  • corn pone
  • salmon patties with juniper berries
  • cranberry sauce made with local honey

For dessert, I brought a pumpkin pie to complete the Three Sisters theme (beans, corn, squash) as well as some heavy whipping cream to give me something to do after dinner.

The corn pone was dry, but otherwise it was an enjoyable meal. I’d make the salmon patties again! And while I do enjoy turkey, I didn’t miss it and I was not willing to pay the inflated prices this year. I think there’s a lot of value in assessing why we uphold the traditions that we have, and doing something because “that’s just how we’ve always done it” is poorly reasoned.

Without Aaron around, I had to whip cream myself for the first time. It took forever, as you’d imagine, in a tiny bowl with a plastic fork. But, I did it. It partly froze as it splashed against the side of the bowl, and it tasted absolutely fabulous with my pumpkin pie!

Day 5: One more hike

Determined to rescue my hockey-puck-like corn pone, I heated up some butter and heavy cream in a pan, dropped in my corn pone and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Then I added huckleberries (from my freezer, waiting since summer!) and some maple syrup. That first bite was pure heaven. It was the tastiest breakfast I’d ever made. You can take that idea for the next time you overbake your corn bread.

northwest nevada

I turned to hike up the road from my camp towards another highpoint, about 5 miles away. Again I got lucky that the roads led me nearly to the top of the hill, so I was able to get there in a reasonable amount of time. It was cold and windy, however, so I didn’t linger at the top to paint. I ate some Pringles and took in the views before returning.

It was nice to be able to hunker down in place for three days instead of having to constantly pack and unpack my camp. I again spent my free time reading, painting, napping and enjoying the fire. I noticed how relaxed and at peace I felt in this space. A space most people would call “empty,” “desolate,” “boring.” I loved that I only saw one vehicle in three days. That I only heard an airplane buzzing overhead occasionally. And that the stars shone so brightly and intensely each night.

Day 6: What does the cold do to an old battery?

I awoke to a gentle snowfall and grayish-white skies. It looked like the weather was finally closing in on me. I built a nice warming fire as I made breakfast and packed up my camp. It was time to go home.

But when I tried starting the car, there was no juice. Ah, a dead battery. I immediately regretted not moving the car every day. Normally, we’re much more mobile on these kinds of road trips. Lacking a time machine, I grabbed my InReach and texted Aaron about my predicament. The battery pack car-charging device that we have was not in the top box but instead in the garage. I was too far to walk anywhere for help and it was unlikely anyone would be driving by today. Drat.

Eventually Aaron decided to buy a new battery and hop in his rental car to come bail me out. Remember the drive time between here and home is over five hours. It was about noon.

By this time, the sun had returned and it was turning out to be a lovely day. Minus the stranded in the desert part. But I had all my camping gear, so much food and water, and plenty of reading to do. I re-kindled the fire, set my tent back up, and prepared to occupy myself at camp for the rest of the day.

Just in case someone was out and about, I walked to the main road and drew a big arrow in the snow pointing to my camp. I wrote “help” facing each direction and placed a piece of firewood vertically in the middle of the road. One of those clues should grab anyone’s attention.

At about 1:30, I noticed a truck. I booked it down to the road, flailing my arms in the air. He saw me and drove into my camp. After 20 minutes of futzing around with battery packs and jumper cables, we got the car started. I thanked him, thinking about how crazy it was that I cashed in my car karma so quickly. To be safe, I left the car running as I broke down camp. I messaged Aaron to turn around and began the long drive home.

Every trip teaches many lessons. This time, they were about car maintenance (our five-year old battery needed replacing!), not freaking out, and trusting in the kindness of strangers.

And that is just one of many reasons why I love solo roadtrips. They always keep me learning, keep me humble and inspire introspection. This year I enjoyed the choice to keep the week free of goals an agendas. My only intentions were to: walk every day, paint every day and look up at the stars every night. From that very basic framework, I had all that I needed to enjoy a restful and meaningful desert adventure.

arc dome

Arc Dome

May 27, 2022.

14 mi. | 5000′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr.

arc dome wilderness sign

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

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

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

Climb time

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

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

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

arc dome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

Lunar Crater

May 25, 2022.

2.75 mi | 500′ ele. gain | 1:20 hr

lunar crater nevada
Lunar crater, Nevada

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

That detour: Lunar Crater.

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

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

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

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

lunar crater nevada
The bouldery canyon

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

Tiny flowers

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

King of the mountain

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

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

The rock cliff

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

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

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

Hiking Cathedral Gorge State Park

April 12-13, 2018.


We arrived at Cathedral Gorge before lunchtime in order to increase our chances of getting a campsite. We had cut it a bit close yesterday. When we got to the park the campsite was pretty empty, so we had our choice of spots to choose from. After claiming a site we did a quick hike at Kershaw-Ryan State Park (not impressed), ate a picnic lunch on the lawn there, drove to Pioche for coffee and then returned to camp. It was still windy as hell and my foot still hurt, so you can imagine how awesome my mood was when it came time to take another walk.

Nature Loop and Cathedral Caves

We bundled up and set out for the Nature Loop, a half-mile interpretive trail. I could handle that. The trail was pretty meh but the Cathedral Caves were filled with unexpected treasures.

One note before the trail report: the signage at Nevada State Parks is absolutely ridiculous. The maps are gorgeous. But the table of data on every sign has so much superfluous information it’s almost laughable. No one visiting the park who’s heading out on a 1-mile loop needs to know information like “maximum cross slope,” “typical surface firmness (in inches, of course)” and “typical tread width.” WTF? Maybe this information is useful in internal documents, but not on a public-facing sign. Distance and elevation gain is pretty much all that’s necessary. But wait, the tables don’t even list elevation gain? I really couldn’t understand the impetus for such a sign. And they’re in every Nevada State Park we’ve visited. In an age when people’s eyes glaze over if they have to read a sign that says “pack it in, pack it out,” I can’t imagine anyone is understanding the information overload on these signs. Okay, rant over.

I had originally become interested in this park after seeing a photo in a AAA magazine. I was mesmerized by the colors and shapes carved into the unusual rock here. But that is all I knew about the place. What we discovered were tall, narrow hallways that burrowed into the fluted rock formations. Called “caves,” these passageways were unlike anything I’d seen before. The “rock” didn’t even look like rock, but like flaky, delicate piles of mud. It looked as if a single rainstorm would wash it all away. The passages were just barely wide enough for us to walk through.

None were terribly long, but they were really fun to explore. You’d walk in a few yards, hit a dead end, turn around. Some of them had branching passages to explore. At each hallway terminus it felt like you could say, “beam me up, Scotty!” and be taken to another dimension.

A side benefit was that the caves offered complete protection from the wind, which we were reminded of every time we stepped out into the open. They were so cool! We spent quite some time oohing and aahing over the geology before trudging back to the campsite. It was so insanely windy that I holed up in the tent while Aaron prepared dinner, and we ate inside the tent, too. It was going to be another long night.

Juniper Draw Loop

The wind blew hard all night long. In the morning, the air was quiet but cold. After breakfast we each enjoyed hot showers in the campground before taking a walk on the Juniper Draw Loop.

The trail passed close to the badlands formations that make the park so unique. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The fluted spires and pillars that looked so fragile had, in fact, formed from ash deposited tens of millions of years ago. Geology is so in your face in the west. I remember yawning through geology class in college back in New Jersey, where all of it seemed so theoretical. But here it was tangible, visible, notable. You couldn’t deny it. How my life may have been different if I grew up here…

Along the way we saw jackrabbits and lizards. No snakes. I couldn’t believe I was on the tail end of a two week desert trip and I hadn’t seen one single rattlesnake. It feels like the only people who see rattlers are the ones who don’t want to see them.

We walked slowly around the loop. I was keeping my fingers crossed that my foot wouldn’t act up today. I didn’t want to push it. Looking down I noticed cryptobiotic soil. I’d first learned about this phenomenon on a visit to Utah a couple years prior. Between the rocks, the microbes, the animals, plants and weather there was a lifetime of science stuff to geek out on here. But we weren’t done yet.

Near the end of the loop we came across more of those “caves.” Some of them were signed: Canyon Caves, Moon Caves. They were nearly identical to the ones we’d explored yesterday. But there were some passageways that led uphill, providing a view looking down into the thin hallways. I was terrified up there, as if at any moment the ground beneath me could collapse. We hurried back down to the safety of the floor and continued on our way. By now, my ankle was hurting. I got grouchy again and made a beeline for the car.

Despite the foot injury I felt like we made a good effort to see this park. While the colors weren’t as impressive as the (probably photoshopped) images from my AAA magazine, the experience was just as delightful as I’d hoped it would be.

Valley of Fire State Park

April 1, 2018.

Photo album

We rolled into Valley of Fire State Park around 9 am. Immediately we were sitting in line, waiting to pay the entry fee to get into the park. To be fair, it was Easter weekend, which is apparently one of the most popular weekends in the park. Our first objective was grabbing a campsite and dropping our stuff so we could go out hiking for the day without wondering where we’d spend the night.

We drove through Arch Rock Campground and secured a site. Then we drove up White Domes Road to check out several short hikes. A quick stop at the Visitor’s Center was less helpful than I’d imagined. There was no map to buy (they were out!) and the ranger seemed pretty uninterested in making hike recommendations. I took a bunch of pictures of the posted hiking map and we went on our way.

Mouse’s Tank

First stop: Mouse’s Tank. There was a raging party going on across the street at a picnic area, with tons of people, radio blaring, kids yelling… We were glad to hit the trail and disappear around a corner back into quiet.

The hike was lovely, following a gentle wash. There were pictographs on the vertical rock walls along the trail. At the end, we reached Mouse’s Tank, a pool of water that allegedly kept a Paiute nicknamed “Mouse” alive while he was hiding from the law. There wasn’t a great viewpoint of the tank itself. We even scrambled up the rock above it to see if we could get a better look. Nope.

This short walk was a good way to get acclimated to the desert weather and get up close to the red rock walls.

Rainbow Vista

Next up: Rainbow Vista. This was another short hike that led to a canyon overlook. There were lots of pretty cacti and rocks, but what I most enjoyed was seeing the chuckwallas!

I’d been itching to see a chuckwalla in the wild ever since our trip to Death Valley several years ago. Aaron spotted the first one. It was sunning itself on a rock. Then, he found another one on the same rock formation. And another. They had staked out this rock as a cozy chuckwalla condo. There was even a sentry sitting at the very top! We watched these cool creatures for a while before continuing along the route.

The rock here was all different colors: red, yellow, white. At the end, there was a pretty viewpoint. And if we’d had the time maybe we would have scrambled down into the canyon to explore. But there was one other trail head on my agenda.

White Domes Loop and beyond

By the time we made it to the White Domes trail head it was about lunchtime. It was pushing 90 degrees and I was feeling pretty low energy. We made up a lunch and found some shade to sit and eat. There were people milling around everywhere. But I had a plan.

The White Domes Loop, a popular, mile-long hike, connected to a trail that the ranger recommended: Prospect Trail. We walked the east side of the loop, past an old movie set and into a slot canyon. Then we kept our eyes peeled for a sign. When we found it, we were delighted at what it said: 5.5 miles to main road, not maintained or marked. PERFECT.

We wandered down a wash, through another mini-slot and then into the open. The trail on the map looked like it followed the canyon, so we tried to stay roughly on route. But it was so tempting to explore.

So we did.

It was very hot, and shade was at a premium, so we didn’t make it too far back there. But we had enough time to do some hiking in the wash, up on the slickrock and into some nooks and crannies. We saw one other couple hiding out in the shade, but that’s pretty much it. The views were incredible. There were so many rock colors; colors I’d never seen before. No people, no noise, just the rocks and lizards and big blue skies.

On our way back we saw some flagging and decided to follow it to the White Domes Loop. This route was far more tedious than the route we had chosen but we stuck with it anyways. Once on the trail we walked quickly from one shady spot to the next, admiring the various types and colors of rock along the way. It sure was a stunning location and no wonder this trail was so popular.

Camp disappointment

On our way back to camp we stopped back in the visitor’s center, which had run out of cold drinks (of course) so we just wandered around in the A/C until our body temperatures dropped back to normal. Before calling it a night we made two more stops: Petrified Log and Elephant Rock. Neither were that spectacular, or maybe that was the heat stroke talking. We passed by a mother who was encouraging her two sons to climb on Elephant Rock so she could take a picture. And to my utter amazement, one of the boys pointed to the sign that said “please do not climb on rock” and said he wasn’t comfortable doing that. BRAVO, KID!

Back at camp, we got ourselves all set up and prepared to cook dinner. In the meantime, a band of kids kept running back and forth through our campsite to climb on the rocks behind us. And their parents were doing the same. For the rest of the night we got to listen to one of the obnoxious dads howling like a wolf, followed by the chorus of kids howling back from all over the camping area. Father of the year. It would have been an absolutely beautiful place to camp if not for that one group of inconsiderate people. The rest of the camp was pretty quiet.

I was determined not to camp in a developed site anytime soon after that experience. There’s always one person who ruins it for everyone else…


Thanksgiving 2016 off the beaten path

November 23-27, 2016.

It’s become something of a tradition, the annual Thanksgiving trip. There are a few important components:

  1. Get away from humanity. It’s not that I don’t like you guys, it’s more that it’s nice to get away sometimes. Like, really away.
  2. Adventure. There must be some places to hike and explore nearby.
  3. Dessert. Pie, ice cream, and maybe some dinner foods and even vegetables. But, clearly dessert is the highlight.
  4. Desert. Yes, drop the “s” and you get another essential. In winter, being in the desert is akin to being on the moon. It’s cold, desolate, barren, and almost guaranteed to be free of people. It’s the perfect place for me (and Aaron) to experience solitude on this crazy holiday.

Planning for Thanksgiving is almost as fun and anxiety-inducing as undertaking the trip itself. I dug out some hiking books and pulled out the Oregon Gazeteer to scout some locations. Now that we’re in Bend, we’re three hours closer to the dry side, and that opened up a world of possibilities.

As you read the story, check out the photos.

Arriving in Eastern Oregon

The day finally arrived, and we loaded up the car with supplies. Heading out of town on a late Wednesday afternoon, we quickly angled south and east, driving past Fort Rock, Silver Lake and Winter Rim. A quick stop in Paisley for dinner and our bellies were full for the last stretch of the drive. Our travels took us nearly to Nevada, then we turned off into a maze of gravel roads for 20 miles to our camp.

In the pitch black night sky, we swerved and skidded to avoid literal hordes of jackrabbits who were apparently meeting for a star party. There were SO MANY of them. I was relieved when we pulled off the road and didn’t find any pelts flattened on the car tires. We quickly set up camp under brisk 20-degree evening skies and fell asleep.

A four mile tour

I had acquired some rough hiking information for this area from books and websites. Today’s jaunt would be a 4.5-mile loop with about 1500′ of elevation gain. Pretty mellow by the numbers. But we discovered yet again that theory and practice are often very different beasts.

We began walking up a dirt road in the direction of a spring. When we arrived, we found a spot with slightly more vegetation than the surrounding area, suggesting perhaps there was water nearby. A small, fenced in area prevented us from walking straight towards our destination, so we veered left into a jumble of rock pinnacles, canyons and brush.

Making our way through, over, around and down the rocks took a lot more time than the “as-the-crow-flies” distance would suggest. But it was a fun little scramble. We found caves, interesting rock formations and lots of animal sign. The gray clouds above set a moody tone across the vast desert. We had all day to ramble, and so ramble we did.

The mountain we were ascending was more like a rolling plateau with several highpoints. We walked over one of them without even registering it as a destination since we were so focused on the higher point in our sights. Atop that high point, we sent a SPOT check-in to the family back home and continued towards the next peak ahead.

A barbed wire fence blocked our passage to the actual high point, so we sat on a pile of rocks out of the wind and finally ate lunch.

Coming down was an adventure, too. We aimed for a broad gully between the two peaks. The seemingly straightforward slope was a medley of tangled sage and loose rocks. Slowly we plodded downhill. It was nice to finally reach a dirt road and briskly hike out the rest of the way.

Thanksgiving dinner

Six miles and 4.5 hours later, we made it back to camp. A couple of hours relaxing in the tent killed the remaining daylight. Then it was time for the real festivities to begin.

I’d learned a lot about preparing a massive holiday dinner on a camp stove in the last seven years. This year I streamlined the menu and the prep, and making an incredible meal was a cinch.

On our plates:

  • roast turkey
  • gravy
  • mashed potatoes
  • green beans
  • cranberry sauce
  • bread and butter
  • meat stuffing

And of course, dessert. We had a delicious apple pie from Newport Market. Our campfire provided warmth and ambiance on that long night, and we marveled at how dark the skies above were. We’ve been to some pretty remote places, but it felt especially dark here. No moon, just some stars through the clouds. With no fire or headlamp, and no light pollution on the horizon, it felt like being in a cave. Pure darkness. And pure silence. No air traffic overhead. That particular combination of darkness and quiet was something I’d never felt before.

Another day, another hike

On our second adventure from camp, we walked back up the road we drove in to try and find a “trailhead” for a second mountain hike. This one started at an alleged road that would lead past a watering hole to a gate. We walked right past the road’s location, as confirmed by checking my GPS app, so we walked cross-country in the general direction of the aforementioned road.

Upon finding the watering hole, we kept climbing uphill until a gate came into view. The “road” was so overgrown it was barely even noticeable, so it didn’t help us walk faster or stay on course. The mountain was visible from camp so the route was very simple. The only obstacle was the barbed wire fence in our way.

Aaron figured out how to open the gate, thankfully, as I alone probably would have just climbed over the rock pillar to pass over it.

On the other side, we just walked uphill, avoiding the occasional boulder and the very frequent animal den. The rabbits were very busy digging holes in this hill.

As we neared the summit, the wind started blasting full force. When I stopped to catch my breath I was nearly knocked to the ground, so I just kept moving. On top, we again sent a SPOT signal and had a little snack as we tried to protect ourselves from the battering wind.

My hike directions mentioned that you could do a ridge walk over several other little highpoints, terminating on a pointy bit a couple miles away. Sounded like a plan to me, so we fought through the wind over the broad, rocky ridge, wondering exactly which of the many highpoints we were aiming for.

Along the way we encountered another fence, but found an easy place to cross it. As we ambled down the ridge, the wind began to die down a bit and the walking almost became enjoyable again. The remoteness of the region was so beautiful. With the exception of the fence and one dirt road, there was hardly a sign of human presence here.

Atop our final highpoint of the day we surveyed the area, trying to identify the valleys, peaks, mesas, and other features we could see from there. And, in the back of my mind, I was quietly scheming the next trip.

We set a bearing to our camp and headed in a straight line, cross country, to our destination. We knew there would be two fence lines in our way, and decided we’d just figure out that bit when we got there.

The first fence crossing had a conveniently placed board that allowed us to push the wire down and cross over. Easy. On we walked, crossing a field filled with golden grass. Aaron spotted a coyote in the distance, the first thing besides a rabbit that wed seen. Keeping right on our compass bearing, we continued over undulating valley hills. In the distance, I saw the fence. As we got closer, I saw a gate. Right. Where. We. Needed. One. It was kind of ridiculous. We passed through the gate and had nothing but time in between us and our camp. It turned out to be a glorious day.

Another restful afternoon in the tent, and then dinner. Chili, if you were wondering. It’s not only delicious, warm and hearty, but pretty easy to make in camp. But the highlight of this evening was ice cream ball soccer. We were a bit too full last night to have ice cream with our pie, so we saved the festivities for tonight. Ice cream ball soccer has been part of the Thanksgiving tradition for the past few years. It’s fun, and a great way to generate some heat on a cold winter camping trip.


The next morning, we packed up the car and had a quick breakfast: banana, ice cream and chocolate almonds (that’s all the food groups, right?) before heading out. We cruised over the gravel roads easily, this time in the daylight and without rabbits everywhere. Back on the highway we continued into Nevada with our destination in sight: Sheldon National Antelope Refuge.

I’d tried to find some information on sights to see in the refuge before we left on our trip. But information besides the basic logistics was hard to come by. The official refuge brochure states:

“Hiking is encouraged throughout the refuge where open terrain provides ample cross-country hiking options. No designated trails are maintained, but game trails may be followed up many drainages and onto plateau tabletops.”

The refuge overview map indicates some places, but there’s no information on how to get there or what there is to do/see there. I found a few newspaper articles mentioning hiking, but again there were no directions or recommended places to go. We would be on our own.

So we began at the Virgin Valley Campground, the only campground that was maintained for year-long use. The campground was nice, but really windy. On our way in we’d noticed a beautiful canyon and were curious if we could check it out. A road behind the campground led uphill towards a purported viewpoint. We drove up the road until we felt like stopping, then walked about 2 miles to an overlook above the canyon.

It was jaw-dropping for a number of reasons. Glorious views, check. Dizzying heights, check. No guard-rail or signage to prevent you from free-falling to your death, check. Just nature in all her raw beauty. And we’d just kind of stumbled across it. There’s real value in adventure, something that is lost with astonishingly easy access to information.

That’s one thing that drew me here: the surprising lack of information. No trails, no hike descriptions, no step-by-step maps. As our parks and wild places become enticing destinations for more and more visitors, they appeal to me less and less. I don’t want to share the trail with 500 other people just to see a view I’ve seen posted all over the Internet thousands of times before. It’s just not that much fun anymore. When you venture off into places unknown, there’s greater potential for more memorable experiences. You run the risk of encountering duds, making wrong turns, and problem-solving obstacles, but isn’t that the whole point of exploring?

Now, our appetites whet for more we retreated down the road to find our way to the mouth of the canyon. Before heading in we warmed up some soup for lunch. The sun was reaching its afternoon peak and we’d appreciate that for our exploratory walk into the depths of the canyon.

We started up a game trail that led up into the jumbles of rocks beneath the canyon’s steep but crumbly cliff walls. Not good for rock climbing. Besides, every crack, hole, crevasse, and depression looked like an animal condo. I’d never seen so many middens, dens, and piles of animal scat in one place before. We hoped to see some critters in there, but they were safely tucked away for the duration of our hike.

Aaron led the way, and as the game trail petered out we hopped across talus fields, scrambled down to the water and tramped along the dry, cracked mud at the edge of the stream. We hiked to a sunny patch in the canyon, where we plopped down on a boulder and lay out like a couple of lizards, absorbing heat before continuing on.

We had planned to turn around there, but Aaron was wondering what was around the next corner…

That’s a dangerous road to travel in a twisty canyon. There’s always another corner. But it was so hard to turn back. Eventually we did, picking a different route and making new discoveries along the way. It was one of the highlights of the whole trip.

Last camp, and a surprise

Since the roads were clear, we decided to drive west through the refuge on one of the auxiliary roads to scope out a few more camping options. We drove through expansive sagebrush hills, looking hopefully for a herd of antelope, but to no avail. We saw about 8 deer near the Virgin Valley Camp, and that was it.

When we got out of the car to explore, we were met with bitter winds and cold that sunk right into our bones. It became more and more difficult to leave our cozy, mobile cocoon.

As the sun was threatening to go down, we pulled into the Catnip Reservoir Camp. A few haphazard fire rings sat near the lake. There was a pit toilet, but no other amenities. We chose our favorite site and began assembling our camp. The wind was constantly reminding us that we humans are not built for this. My frozen fingers set up the tent as quickly as they could while Aaron worked at getting a fire started. In my makeshift kitchen I squatted by the camp stove with wind pouring up my backside through the gap between my sweatpants and my five upper layers. So that’s why Patagonia sells onesies, I thought. I used the rest of our turkey gravy in our pork stir-fry, which was a warm and welcome addition to the meal.

We grabbed a chocolate bar and retreated to the tent soon after dinner to warm up. The wind would continue to blow all night.

And then, it began to snow. Icy pellets of snow pounded into the tent fly for half the night. I didn’t know what to expect the next morning, or how awful the roads would be. We still had many, many miles of unknown gravel road to get back to Oregon.

Homeward bound

We waited for a break in the weather before bursting out of the tent. We moved efficiently to get a fire going, make breakfast and tear down camp. The snow relented enough so that we were only battling the cold and the wind. Only. I admit I was a little grumpy this morning, as I fought with cold hands, a finicky stove, and snow-covered everything.

After getting some cocoa and eggs in my belly I felt a little more human and rallied to pack up the tent and load up the car. The roads were totally driveable, and the whole scene covered with a blanket of fresh snow was nothing short of magical.

My photos do nothing to paint the picture. Thick clouds and filtered sun made everything on camera seem much darker and flatter than they looked in person. Score another point for actually being there instead of living through pictures. You really need to be in a place to truly experience that place. Even if I had a pro photographer documenting this trip, the pictures do little to communicate the wholeness of the experience.

Choose your own adventure

This year I’m signing off with a plea. Go out. Just go. Explore. Find a new special place. Be there, in the moment. Prepare to be astounded. Prepare to be frustrated. Prepare to learn a lot: about yourself, about your travel buddies, about your world.

But here’s the key: prepare. Here are some tips to planning and carrying out your next adventure in the wild unknown:

  1. Do your research. Find out what you can about an area. Buy or borrow guidebooks. Pore over local maps. See what you can locate online. Find recent trip reports, if possible. Or at least look for trip reports around the same time of year you anticipate going on your adventure. A trip to Sheldon in July is going to require different planning than a trip in December.
  2. Anticipate and plan for problems. If you’re heading into the desert, bring more than enough water and an extra can of gas. Have the tools and knowledge to take care of possible car problems on the road. There’s no cell service and no amenities for many, many miles.
  3. Have a plan, and be flexible. Communicate your plan to at least one responsible person back home. Let them know where you’ll be and when. Let them know when you’ll be back in town, and when to sound the alarm if they don’t hear from you. Have a backup plan, or two, in case what you want to do just doesn’t work out. Make sure they know your backup plans, too!
  4. Carry a communication device. I’ve used the SPOT messenger for several years. And while I’ve never had to call for a rescue yet, I know that I’ve got that option if the you-know-what hits the fan. By far the most important feature is that I can check in with my contacts back home to let them know that all is well. They get an email with my GPS location and an “OK” message.
  5. Keep a positive attitude. You know all those epic photos from National Geographic and pro adventure athletes? There’s a lot of pain and suffering behind each one of them. Adventuring off the grid and into the unknown can have its ups and downs. It isn’t a totally blissful experience from start to finish. Stay positive, be ready to be challenged, and face each one with a smile. It’s all part of the experience. You’ll be tired, cold, hot, achy, and irritated. But you’ll also be joyful, curious, exhilarated, and awestruck. And these are the feelings that keep us coming back and pushing the envelope.

Great Basin National Park

April 18-20, 2015.

View the photo album from this leg of the trip.

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Spring arrived, so was time for another big adventure. The decision on where to go was made easy when I was invited to climb a pair of peaks in Zion National Park in late April. In order to make the most of my travel time, I crafted a road trip that would last nearly 3 weeks and take us through 4 states. Fortunately, my partner was up for it and the two of us set out from the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon to explore some new territory.

Getting there

After spending a night in Northern Nevada, we got up early to make our way to Great Basin National Park. Driving down highway 50, or the “Loneliest Road in America,” we took a lunch, car maintenance and tourist break in the town of Eureka. I wandered into the Eureka museum, which chronicled the rise and fall of a mining boom-town. There were rooms full of old printing machines, newspapers, kitchen items, and relics of old stores, homes and businesses. There was little information to accompany all these items so it was kind of like walking into a crowded antiques store. Nonetheless, it provided a nice diversion and the woman working there was very helpful in providing information about the town and the area.

As we approached the park from the west, Wheeler Peak came into view. That would be our target for our first and most challenging hike of the trip.

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We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center to ask about current conditions and one of the rangers suggested an alternative route, involving climbing a couloir, that might be easier and more straightforward given the time of year. I thanked him for the suggestion and we settled into camp at Upper Lehman Creek.

Wheeler Peak

16 miles | 5300′ ele. gain | 12 hours

In the summer, Wheeler Peak is a challenging but accessible high peak. The trailhead starts at 10,000 feet so there’s less than 3,000′ of vertical climbing to get there. A nice path leads 4.3 miles one way to the summit.

But now the road to the trailhead was gated due to snow. We’d have to start our hike from the Upper Lehman Creek campground at 7,750′. That nearly doubled the mileage and elevation gain. No worries, we were ready for this.

Living at sea level doesn’t quite prepare you for being at elevation for any period of time so we woke up early in the morning feeling short of breath just walking around camp. We packed up and hit the trail before 6:30 am, with only one group signed in ahead of us.

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We walked along the steadily rising trail through stands of cactus, aspen, sage and juniper. About an hour into our trek we looked across a meadow to get our first view of Wheeler Peak. The bump we’d been staring at from our campsite was not, in fact, our mountain but some insignificant neighbor. The view was stunning. We’d see the mountain several times from many more angles through the course of the day.

After crossing the creek, we began to encounter patchy snow. Two hours into the hike we reached the Wheeler Peak Campground. Picnic tables and grills stuck out of the tops of snowdrifts. We followed the road, as the ranger had suggested, about a mile up the road to find the Wheeler Peak trail. Signs at the trailhead  warned us of the challenges that lay ahead and suggested some easier alternatives.

We followed the trail to a junction to Stella Lake. From here, according to the ranger, we’d find a couloir that would take us straight to the ridge below the summit. It would be easier than trying to find the main trail under snow. Besides, it sounded like more of an adventure.

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The couloir was an obvious ribbon of snow to the left of the lake. We circled around the southwest side of the lake and then headed cross-country over the hard-packed snow to the base of the couloir. I was surprised to see so many trees here, clinging to life at over 10,000′.

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The snow texture provided enough grip in most places to allow us to climb up without any gear. Yaktrax would have been helpful in some of the icier spots, but I found that if I moved quickly and stepped firmly enough it was possible to get past the worst of it without slipping. Poles were essential.

Once we reached the ridge we were both a little disheartened to look ahead and see how much further we still had to go. The combination of being at a high elevation and climbing was knocking the wind and energy right out of us. We took a few extended snack and water breaks to keep moving forward.

Along the ridge, the views were stunning. There were snow-capped mountain ranges in every direction. Wind farms were visible in the valley bottom. The sheer rock face of Jeff Davis Peak became more dramatic with each step forward. And the weather was so pleasant! Sunshine, dry skies, and moderate temperatures helped us keep taking steps forward.
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Once on the summit, we really took a rest. It was time for lunch and some backpack-free exploration. There was a summit register placed inside a mailbox that someone left in a windbreak. We watched flocks of small birds swooping above the snow in search of food. And we celebrated the success of our efforts: a panoramic view that very few park visitors have seen, especially off season. Click the link below to get an idea.

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Of course we were only halfway done and it was already 2:30 pm so we needed to start moving down. Aided by gravity we quickly ambled down the ridge and were back atop the couloir in no time at all. Going down was much faster and much more fun than going up. By the time we reached the snow above the lake the sun had softened it up considerably, so it was an agonizing slog to get back to the trail.

Knees wobbly from the cumulative effort of the day, it felt good to be on packed, dry ground and we made good time back to camp, arriving in time for a reasonable dinner. While I cooked many elaborate meals on this trip I had very little energy on this night. We settled for hotdogs and beans, a classic camp meal.

Lehman Caves

Before leaving for our trip I booked a Lehman Cave tour for 1 pm for the next day. I knew we’d be beat after our climb and could use an opportunity to sleep in. We did just that, had a delicious campfire brunch, and packed up our camp. We arrived at the Visitor Center just before the tour and layered up for our descent into the cold, damp cave.

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Unlike many of the caves in the Northwest, which are nearly all lava tubes, Lehman Cave is made of limestone. Our tour guide took us into several rooms of the cave. In the first room, she discussed how crazy it must have been for the first visitors to this space. She turned off all the lights. It was completely dark. Then she proceeded to tell us about experiments that demonstrate how quickly people go insane when they’re held in complete darkness. I could believe it.

Each room had interesting features, including some that were apparently pretty rare to find. There were the usual stalactites and stalagmites, plus several that had welded together into columns. There was cave popcorn and soda straws. What was most impressive to me was how many intricate features there were in every room. The cave was well-lit so we could appreciate the formations in the cave. Early visitors must have had a harder time appreciating it by candlelight.

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After the cave tour we ran to the small cafe attached to the Visitor’s Center to satisfy my milkshake craving, then hit the road. We had to book it to Zion National Park.