Category Archives: Roadtrips

Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan

November 18, 2019.

10.4 mi. | 4300′ ele. gain | 9 hrs.

Photo album

Guadalupe Peak

The winds picked up early in the morning, cutting my night’s sleep short. The forecast called for gusty winds all day and we had two mountains to climb. The forecast for the next day looked worse, so we had to go for it.

Guadalupe Peak is the highpoint of Texas at 8,751’. It is one of many peaks along an ancient, exposed coral reef studded with Permian fossils. It was the inspiration for this trip.

We began our hike at 8 am, marching uphill along the well-graded Guadalupe Peak Trail. Again my eyes were drawn to the plants: sotol, yucca, oak trees, cholla. We even saw some flowers! Indian paintbrush, a familiar bloom, as well as some yellow composites. It was shocking to me to see flowers this late in the year.

As we gained elevation, the wind grew stronger. I wrapped my buff over my hat so it wouldn’t fly away. One other woman on the trail had already had her hat stolen by the wind.

The trail ascended by means of several switchbacks connecting nearly flat traverses. We dipped in and out of the forest, in and out of the shade. Near the summit, we finally caught a glimpse of our secondary objective: El Capitan. It was only a mile off the trail, so I thought it would be a simple add-on if our hike to the top of Texas wasn’t enough to fill the day.

I knew we were at the summit when I saw the shiny obelisk perched on the rocks. I’d seen photos of this structure while doing research for the trip. Two other people sat near the base of the obelisk, enjoying their success. We bundled up and joined them, wolfing down some snacks and drinks in preparation for the second part of the day.

El Capitan

We descended just a few switchbacks from the top before angling off-trail towards El Capitan. I was not exactly sure where we were “supposed” to start our route but the landscape was pretty easy to read. We walked down a broad ridge, dancing between cactus and spiny shrubs. As we neared the convergence of several drainages, the landscape became a bit more steep and rocky. After finding the nicest path off of the rocks and into a streambed, we walked downhill for a few more minutes before eyeballing a possible ascent path.

The hillside in front of us looked steep and forbidding. The heavily vegetated slopes were broken up by slabs of rock. And of course, there were plenty of cacti hiding within the shrubbery.

We took turns leading the way, aiming for the path of least resistance while avoiding sharp cliff edges and heavy brush. Eventually we gained the ridge.

Aaron was moving much more slowly than usual. We stopped frequently so he could catch his breath and get his energy back. But, it was just not his day. We were within sight of the summit when he decided to stop and rest while I pressed ahead.

I promised I’d be back quickly and started moving along the cliff’s edge, peering over occasionally to get a sense of where I was. El Capitan is an impressive feature, with a sheer west face dropping over a thousand vertical feet towards the desert below.

Not long after I started up the ridge, I crested over the last bump and saw the summit marker: an ammunition box with a register inside. I signed into the register and flipped through some of the previous entries before picking up Aaron for our hike out.

We did our best to re-trace our ascent route back to the convergence. We made a few minor detours but mostly stayed on track. Then, it was time to basically re-climb to Guadalupe Peak and hike all the way back down. It was a link-up that looked better on paper, I guess.

Scrambling up that dry ridge in the heat of the afternoon felt even more draining than our climb to El Capitan. But, one slow step led to another and we eventually stepped back onto the trail. Aaron got his mojo back once we were on the official route and it took us no time at all to get back to the trailhead.

About 2/3 of the way down the trail we crossed paths with a solo hiker heading up. He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, carrying a cell-phone in one hand and a liter of water in the other. No backpack. No jacket. No headlamp. “Hi,” we said, and continued on our way.

Later that night at camp we noticed a beam of light from the flanks of Guadalupe Peak. Aaron thought back to the only hiker we knew was headed up the mountain late in the day. He thought maybe it was the light from a cell-phone flashlight, and that it wouldn’t last long. As we sat bundled up in down jackets eating a warm meal by the tent, we worried about the status of that hiker. Aaron ended up calling in to report what we’d seen, hoping that a ranger could hike up the trail and make sure whoever was on the trail after dark could make their way back down safely.

Carry the ten essentials and remember the first principle of Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare.

Devil’s Hall

November 17, 2019.

6.8 mi | 1030′ ele gain | 5:30 hr.

Photo album

The arrival

We pulled into Guadalupe Mountains National Park late last night. The moonlight cut through the pitch black sky, illuminating silhouettes of the trees and plants surrounding our campsite. The tree branches were blowing in the wind, portending the first obstacle I’d deal with on this trip.

Putting up a tent in the wind was a real challenge. I asked Aaron to help hold the tent down as I piled rocks on each corner of the fabric. The ground was rock solid; no tent stake could penetrate its surface. Once I got to pitching the fly, I had a real dilemma. Rocks wouldn’t work there. But the soil on the edges of the tent pad was soft…if only I could reach it. I had no cords or webbing at my disposal. I frantically tore through our luggage to find something to extend the fly so I could get some stakes in.

My hands fumbled across my Yaktrax, and at last I had a solution. I used a couple of carabiners to clip the Yaktrax to each other and then to the stake. I collapsed into the tent, dreaming about seeing the park in the daylight the next morning (check out my handiwork).

We watched the sunrise from the tent, then ate breakfast and wandered around the Visitor’s Center. After probing the ranger for some information about current conditions and recommendations, I settled on hiking to Devil’s Hall as our introductory hike in the park.

Devil’s Hall

The hike began on a trail right from the campground. We followed the trail right into Pine Spring Canyon and continued straight towards the Devil’s Hall. Along the way, my eyes adjusted to the southwestern desert flora. The most unusual plant I saw was sotol, a succulent that resembles yucca. A thick cluster of toothed, green leaves surrounds a single, tall flower stalk. On this day in November, the dried blooms made the stalks look like giant brushes. They towered over my head, impossibly tall. But those weren’t the only intriguing plant around. Cholla, bedecked with their bright yellow fruits, lined the trail.

The vegetation held my attention until we entered the canyon proper, where the geology took center stage. I marveled at the colors, textures and shapes of the rock. We explored little caves and undercuts, scrambled over conglomerate boulders, examined the perfectly horizontal layers of stone.

A natural staircase, carved out of those parallel layers, led into the “Devil’s Hall.” We climbed the slippery stairs and continued ahead to a truly remarkable spot. Sure enough, nature had created a wide hallway between two nearly vertical walls that reached high above the canyon floor. I suppose water must rush through the hallway during periods of rain, but it was bone dry on that day. Just beyond the hall, a metal sign marked the end of the trail. The canyon beyond the sign is closed to entry for part of the year in order to protect wildlife. Not this part of the year; we kept walking.

Almost immediately, the canyon floor became rougher, rockier and more overgrown. We rock-hopped our way through the quiet forest. Bright red maple leaves fluttered down from the branches above. I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier day.

We scanned the canyon for wildlife, but didn’t see anything much. A few little wrens hid in the spaces between boulders. A couple of grasshoppers posed on the rocks. But there were plenty of animal signs. Most notably, we noticed a distinctive magenta scat around every corner of the canyon. We couldn’t figure out who was leaving it, or if every animal out there was eating prickly pear fruit, but it was E V E R Y W H E R E.

After about a mile of walking beyond the sign, we stopped for a rest and then retreated.

Back at camp, I hurried to make dinner before the sun set. We feasted on taco salad and quickly retired to the tent: it was dark and cold and fires were banned. Shortly after getting into my sleeping bag I thought gosh, it must be like midnight!

It was 6:30 pm.

Trona Pinnacles

April 3-4, 2019.

Photo album

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

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

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

We saw lots.

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

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

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

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

Hiking the south side of Joshua Tree

April 2-3, 2019.

Photos from Joshua Tree south

Lost Palms Oasis

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

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

Desert aster

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

Desert tortoise!

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

Palm tree oasis

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

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

Just out for a walk

Sand dunes

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

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

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

Sand lily

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

Rambling

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

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

Hungry, hungry caterpillar

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

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

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

Off trail adventures

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

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

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

Hiking the north side of Joshua Tree

April 1, 2019.

Photos from Joshua Tree north

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

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

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

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

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

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

Umm, where are all the flowers?

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

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

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

Scramblin’

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

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

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

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

Desert dandelion.

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

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

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

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

Can you see me?

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

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

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

Octotillo up close.

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

Hiking Santa Cruz Island

March 26-27, 2019.

Photos from Channel Islands National Park.

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

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

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

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

Smuggler’s Cove

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montanon Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Condor Gulch Loop

March 25, 2019.

5.1 mi | 1450′ ele. gain | 3:10 hr

Photo album for Pinnacles National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Peaks Loop

March 24, 2019.

9.5 mi. | 1970′ ele. gain | 5:30 hrs.

Photo album for Pinnacles National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking Cathedral Gorge State Park

April 12-13, 2018.

Photos.

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.

Short hikes in Snow Canyon State Park

April 11-12, 2018

By some miracle, we rolled into Snow Canyon State Park sometime in the afternoon of April 11 and managed to snag the last available campsite. It was about a thousand degrees outside and we had one scraggly tree near our site. It wasn’t the best, but at least we didn’t have to keep driving. Besides, there were some hikes I wanted to do here.

After a little nap in the tent we packed up for a couple of short hikes to stretch our legs. My foot was really hurting after yesterday’s adventure in Buckskin Gulch. I didn’t notice it until I woke up this morning and could barely stand up. I had a rip in my left foot at the base of my big toe that prevented me from walking without a limp. And here I thought my feet held up great after a day of barefoot canyoneering. Wrong.

Jenny’s Canyon

This was possibly one of the most disappointing hike of the trip and it’s all because we were spoiled in some sweet slot canyons already. Plus, there was a loud (but surprisingly small) group ahead of us whose sole purpose of visiting the park was clearly shouting their life stories across the valley. Fun.

Hidden Pinyon

I have a bit of a soft spot for park interpretive trails with brochures. This was one of them. Plus, it gave me an excuse to stop at every numbered sign and read about the vegetation and animal life in the park. We slowly meandered along this trail, enjoying the learning opportunities and stopping breathlessly underneath every shade tree. I could never live in Utah.

White Rock Amphitheater

We drove up to the northern-most trailhead in the park and set out on a trail to the White Rock Amphitheater. It was a quick but beautiful walk to the natural amphitheater set in a movie-like backdrop of white sandstone. By now the sun was low enough in the sky that the air felt comfortable. A light breeze blew by and we had this place all to ourselves. Now I was starting to settle in here. Despite my angry foot I managed to scramble up the slickrock to the high point above the bowl because, duh, it was there. Aaron was on a mission to find a desert tortoise, so we pretended to look for one at every little patch of sand and shrubs along the hillside. We didn’t find one, but we did see some pretty agave and cacti.

It was quite breezy and cool up top; I could have stayed here awhile. But our hungry bellies were ready for dinner so we hauled back out of there.

Back at camp, we grilled up some pork chops and asparagus. The camp host walked past and warned us about high winds and rain coming through tonight. We thanked her, finished our meal and collapsed in the tent.

Petrified Dunes

So there was some wind last night. It was blowing so hard I got probably an hour of sleep. Several times I woke up to stick my feet up on the tent ceiling to help bolster the poles. I’d never seen my low-profile backpacking tent get pushed around so much! It was nuts. And since we were in the desert, we woke up with a thick layer of sand on everything in the tent. And in our mouths and noses. And, yeah you get the point. It was a miserable night. We packed up and got right in the car.

We took one more walk in Snow Canyon at the Petrified Sand Dunes. The wind was still blowing, the sun was barely up and the air was surprisingly chilly. I layered up for this walk.

The trail crosses petrified sand dunes, which look like any other slickrock hill I’ve ever been on. There were funky trail markers drilled into the rock for the start of the hike, but after seeing about three of them we never saw another one. We meandered around on the rock until we felt like we’d seen enough, turned around and looped back towards the parking area. My foot was still really angry so I had to walk very carefully and slowly, not an easy thing for me to do. I struggled with feeling so inept at walking but I tried not to let it get me down. The wind didn’t help my mood.

Back in the car we drove off towards Nevada for the next couple of state parks on our journey…