Category Archives: Roadtrips

Humphrey’s Peak

April 8, 2018.

10 mi. | 3200′ ele. gain | 7:15 hr. | Photos

We woke up at 5 am to hit this mountain early in the day. I’d done plenty of research regarding the route and what to expect, but after spending several days in the sun-baked desert I felt fairly unprepared and bewildered that we’d be in the snow today.

I opted to pack light: Yaxtrax, down jacket, rain jacket, normal layers, hat and sunglasses. I wore my Altra trail shoes and Dirty Girl Gaiters. I forgot to pack gloves for the entire Southwest road trip so I borrowed a couple of pairs from Aaron (he packed 4 pairs!). Just enough food and water, small backpack, hiking poles. It felt pretty minimal but I figured it wouldn’t be that bad.

By 6:30 am we were ready to start walking. I was confused as to which parking lot was the one the ranger had told us to leave the car. The ski area was not well-labeled for climbers. We found a spot in a mostly empty lot and made our way to the trail. A snow groomer was loudly and carefully going over a tiny patch of snow that just happened to be right in our path. That was just the first obstacle of the day.

The trail was a mix of bare ground and icy snow patches. It was chilly at this time of the day and the snow was still well frozen. We went as long as we could without Yaxtrax but eventually decided to put them on. We mostly followed the trail, but as we approached treeline we lost the track. Just a little futzing around got us back on route and soon we had gained the ridge.

We’d heard the wind for most of the day but the closer we got to those stunted, alpine trees the more we were at the mercy of the icy blasts. I put all of my layers on and zipped everything up tight. Even under all those layers it felt really cold. Aaron’s hands were freezing. That NEVER happens. He was being very gentleman-like, and donated his warmest gloves to me. Since my hands were comfy warm in there, we switched gloves on our way to the summit.

The wind took my breath away. Every step felt like what I imagined a step on Everest would be. So dramatic! But the rime ice coating the trees, the rocky ridgeline and the panoramic views kept a big smile on my face. It was so beautiful up there. Near the top, we saw one couple on their way down: the first people we saw all day. “Almost there!” they said.

I was anticipating a quick photo op on the summit before descending back down out of the wind. But due to some kind of miracle, there was a spot on top sheltered from the wind. We plopped our packs down, took shelter and ate a nice big snack from the top of Arizona. What a great day!

Before taking off we posed for pictures with the sign and then hurried down the ridge. By now, some other people were heading up. In shorts. With miniature dogs. Oh, it was time for the circus to begin.

Back below treeline we re-adjusted our layers and settled in to an easy downhill pace. Through the trees I heard, “Where’s the fucking trail?” And then there were two hapless hikers floundering through the now soft snow, searching for the route. “Right here,” we replied, and waited for them to get to where we were. For the next few minutes we listened to one of the guys bitch about how poorly marked the trail was and how hard it was to wallow through the snow with a 45-lb pack on. He was training for something, he said. I found it hard not to laugh. Training for…mountaineering? Right? So this is kind of perfect training. Routefinding, poor snow conditions, heavy pack. Feeling confused and suffering? That’s mountaineering 101 my friend.

After we left those characters behind, we encountered many more. People who got a pretty late start, with no snow gear, wearing jeans, no concept of the route. That’s what you get for climbing a state highpoint, I suppose. I wondered what drives these people to do this? People who aren’t hikers, who have no mountain experience and who don’t know what they don’t know…

It took us longer than I planned to get down. That threw off the rest of the day a bit, but no worries. I was excited to have gotten this one done. It was a challenging and fun hike with just enough of an alpine experience to make it feel like a real mountain. But I don’t think I’ll be working on the state highpoints list any time soon. Humphrey’s Peak brings me to #4 out of 50. I’ve done Mt. Hood (OR), Mt. Washington (NH) and Katahdin (ME).

We finished the day with a long drive, a fruitless search to find a campsite for the evening and more unrelenting wind. Aaron made the call to find a motel and crash for the night. It was probably the best decision of the trip.

Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments

April 7, 2018.

Photo album

Sunset Crater Volcano

After a lazy morning in camp we packed up and headed up the road to Sunset Crater National Monument. This stop came highly recommended from a friend, and it was on our way to Wupatki National Monument anyways.

We arrived at the Visitor’s Center before it opened and we would have waited around, but…there was a bus full of Asian tourists unloading as we drove by. NOPE. That meant keep going. There were way too many people in one place for my liking.

As we sped off to the next stop on the road, I wondered. Why Asian tourists? Why aren’t there busloads of African, South American or Australian tourists? Is visiting national parks more of an Asian hobby? And which Asian country’s populations are most likely to fly to the US to sit on a bus day after day? It’s an interesting phenomenon. I didn’t have much time to ponder because we pulled in to the A’a trailhead.

Having limited information about this park, since we missed the visitor’s center, we looked out at what appeared to be a very short loop and got out of the car. As it turned out, it was a short loop and soon we hopped back in to drive to the next pull-out.

The Lava Flow Trail was a partly paved and partly natural surface loop that traveled about a mile through the flow near Sunset Crater. Whoop-dee-doo, I thought. We could see this at home.

Besides, it was kind of overcast and windy. The bus had arrived while we were finishing up the loop. We had to dodge tourists who were walking off trail and posing for photos near anything vaguely interesting. It felt a bit like Disneyland. Let’s get outta here.

Wupatki

We continued on to Wupatki. This National Parks site preserved Native American ruins and artifacts. Not my usual thing, but I figured since we were out there we’d take a look. And boy was I glad we did!

The first stop was Wukoki Pueblo. It was already very hot outside, despite the layer of clouds overhead. We grabbed our water bottles and cameras and walked out to the ruin.

The structure and the views were breathtaking. I imagined what it would be like to build, maintain and live in such a place. It must have been such a harsh way of life. As the wind blew all around us, we stepped inside for a respite. It was quite nice as a wind block. It was cool that we were allowed to walk inside, outside and atop the ruin. It felt more real that way, as it wasn’t behind a fence or otherwise out of reach. We could touch the rock, see all the little cracks and pebbles. I couldn’t always tell what was original and what was reconstructed, but that didn’t really matter. It was thought-provoking.

Next we stopped at the Visitor’s Center, where I enjoyed reading through the exhibits and learning more about the area. The Park Service actually took on some tough topics, including the human history of the land and how they came to acquire the park, basically kicking people out who had been living here for generations. Again I wasn’t sure how I felt about all of it but I was glad to have the opportunity to learn and reflect. So much in life is complicated and I appreciated being presented with multiple perspectives and nuance.

From there we headed out the back door, where a clever sign reminded us to carry some water, and off towards the big pueblo. This structure had many distinct rooms. It was something to behold. We had an interpretive guidebook that we borrowed from the ranger, so I stopped and read the information aloud at each numbered sign (one of my favorite things to do on interpretive trails!).

We finished that loop trail, returned the book to the Visitor’s Center and paused for a moment to enjoy the air conditioning. It was now really freaking hot and I was beginning to break down a little bit.

We had four more pueblos to see though, and we were going to see them all.

First, Nalakihu, then the Citadel. This was located in a particularly scenic spot and the clouds were putting on quite a dramatic show. The ruins were starting to look the same, and there were people everywhere. I was getting cranky, and it had nothing to do with dehydration.

Finally we took the Lomaki Trail to view the last two sets of ruins. The Box Canyon Ruins were sitting up on a pretty perch. Perhaps water used to run through the shallow canyon, providing life-sustaining liquid to its former residents. I strolled around in a bit of a daze, waiting for Aaron to take all the pictures he wanted so we could leave.

Worst camping

On our way out, we found a shaded picnic area along the road where we stopped and ate lunch. My next hike of the day turned out to be too far of a drive to be worthwhile, so we headed towards tomorrow’s trailhead. The ranger had recommended camping at the Friedline Prairie Dispersed Camping area, which SUCKED. There was trash everywhere, the sites were ugly, it was windy as hell and there was no privacy. But at that point we were exhausted, grumpy and just needed a place to sleep so we could get up early to climb Humphrey’s Peak. This would have to do. Tomorrow would be better.

Mt. Elden

April 6, 2018.

Photo album

We had a tasty breakfast at Indian Gardens Cafe in Oak Creek Canyon before driving to the Flagstaff Ranger Station. At the ranger station, we chatted a bit about conditions and picked up our permits to climb Humphrey’s Peak. They’ve got the mountain a little more locked down in the winter due to snow conditions. It was free, they made sure we had the appropriate information and we went on our way.

Mt. Elden stands prominently behind the ranger station. Its south and east sides are made out of impressive slabs of rock. A trail zigzags steeply up the east flank in the forest. But we weren’t interested in that.

My research had pointed me towards an off-trail excursion on the rocks. I had a rough description of the route and so we headed that way. The hike began on a nice dirt trail, with cactus and scrubby brush all around. Alligator juniper provided some shade and made it difficult to find the start of our route.

After some back and forth, we found a way up on to the big rocks and started up. The jumble of large boulders was somewhat difficult to navigate. There were giant chasms beneath some of the boulders. Spiny cactus grew in between the smaller crevasses, meaning we had to watch each hand and foot placement carefully. After some creative routefinding we made it to a huge, continuous section of slabs that we’d follow almost all the way to the summit.

Aaron was a bit sketched out by the scrambling we’d done so far. We stopped to take a break and catch our breath on a ledge. The city of Flagstaff sprawled across the landscape below us. A cool breeze swept across the rock as the sun beamed down on our faces. It was at once cool and hot. Once the adrenaline had settled down, the real fun began.

Above us, over a thousand vertical feet of rock scrambling stretched off into the distance. We hiked up and up and up, our calves screaming the whole way. Along the route we came across two other hikers who said they’d never seen anyone up here. It was a brilliant route, hidden in plain sight. They quickly passed us and we were again alone on the mountain.

As we climbed higher, the winds really started to pick up. We negotiated our way up the rock, weaving between occasional stalks of agave and clusters of little cacti. I admired the cracks, eroded pits and other features on the rock surface. It was wild, rugged and quiet. A perfect place to take a hike.

The slabs ended abruptly in a stand of trees and grasses. It took a little more thought to find a beaten path through the upper portion of the mountain. Powerlines, cables and other development associated with the summit lookout tower provided obstacles for us to avoid on our way. This wasn’t the prettiest part of the hike, so we tried to make our way through as quickly as possible.

At the summit we could barely hear each other talking, it was so windy. We took a summit selfie and then barreled down the trail to get to some shelter. Taking the lookout trail back would save us from having to downclimb the slabs, not a fun proposition.

On our way down we passed LOTS of people heading up. We refueled once and then high-tailed it back to the car. It was a great hike with lots of outstanding views, and I was glad to have poked around a bit to find this particular pathway that avoided the dog route to the summit.

There was plenty of time left in the day to run some errands in town, take a quick tour of Walnut Canyon and do the Flagstaff Art Walk. Well after sunset we drove east to find camping near tomorrow’s destinations.

Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona hikes

April 3 – 5, 2018.

Photo album

After a delightfully quiet night of camping near Williams, Arizona, we headed east towards Flagstaff for a quick resupply. Then it was south to Oak Creek Canyon.

We’d been warned. A friend who went to school in Northern Arizona told us that it would be crowded, even mid-week. She was right. We pulled into Manzanita Campground mid-morning, hoping to secure a campsite before playing for the day. Fortunately, someone had just left and there was one spot open. We took it.

Oak Creek Canyon

I’d heard that the West Fork hike was really popular, but I had it on the back burner as a possibility since it was supposed to be super cool. But our drive to camp took us right past the massive, yet still overflowing, parking lot. And that stifled any idea about heading to that trailhead. Instead we ventured into a little-known wash that I’d read about in a hiking book. There was no official trailhead and no official trail. We parked off the side of the road at a pullout and fumbled our way until we found what we were looking for. There were many surprises to come…

The wash was broad and brushy. We scrambled along the boulders, admiring the tall, sandstone walls on either side of us. Before long we started to notice bolts in the cliffs. Climbing. The sandstone looked pretty fragile, and we found a few holes where bolts had pulled out of the walls. Not somewhere I’d climb, but I guess it’s a sweet little place to get outside if you live in the area. Certainly not a destination.

We continued on, following the wash as it turned right, left, and right again. Around each corner the character changed. The vegetation, the rocks, the shapes, the smells, the textures… it was like many different hikes packed into one. We stopped for a snack break on a rock ledge above the canyon bottom. Above us, trees clung to the cliff edges, vying for soil and sunlight.

A short while later we heard voices up ahead. When we caught up to them, it was a couple of guys from Pennsylvania who had reached an impasse. The wash came to a sudden dead end at a short rock wall. The rock was smooth, with no good hand holds, and you couldn’t see what it was like on the other side. They decided to turn around. We decided to get creative.

To our right, the boulders led up to a steep hillside that looked scramble-able. It was totally fine. At the top of the scramble, we found a “beach” where the fragile sandstone had eroded away to form a bench of soft, yellow sand. Incredible! We crossed the beach, dropped back down and discovered pools of water behind the rock wall.

We shouted down to the two men that we were okay and continued on our private canyon hike.

The next couple miles revealed more treasures: a slot canyon, pools of ice, walls hundreds of feet high and a beaver marsh. And the best part was that we had it all to ourselves.

The beaver marsh was truly impenetrable so we made that our turn-around spot. The whole walk back we could hardly believe what a special place we had found. And I was happy that the crowds were content being in a crowd. This was perfection.

Wilson Mountain

We camped like sardines at Manzanita Campground and quickly broke down our things the next morning. Next up: Wilson Mountain.

I was glad we pulled up early to the small parking area near Midgely Bridge. Our book called this a 6-mile hike, but the map seemed to tell another story. Oh well, how bad could it be, I wondered. We were about to find out.

We struck out in a forest of manzanita, pinyon pine, yucca, cactus and agave. What a cool environment! I was so enamored with the desert. All these spiny plants and interesting flowers. Wait…that’s a toilet paper rose. Damn. There was so much TP littering this trail it was really kind of crazy. And a pile of human poop right next to the trail! I was flabbergasted. I tried to refocus my attention on the massive, dried up agave stalks and postcard views of the Sedona Red Rocks.

We walked up and up and up. The trail was steep but well switchbacked. There were lots of great views along the way and hardly a soul out there.

At a trail juction at the First Bench of Wilson Mountain we sought shade under an alligator juniper tree. Another couple was there, looking at their map and getting ready for the final bit of uphill to the top.

That last stretch had a bit of an open range feel to it. There were sparse juniper trees, low cactus and the occasional agave. Then we walked into a fairly recently burned forest. The next junction gave us two options: Sedona Overlook or Canyon Overlook.

We chose Sedona. The trail went up and then down again to a nice viewpoint. Cool, but no summit. We backtracked to the junction and headed toward Canyon Overlook. My guess was that it would head to the summit or thereabouts, which was right in front of us. Instead, it meandered further and further away, with no end in sight. We were already behind schedule because the hike was closer to 9 miles instead of the 6 we had planned for. And I wanted my summit. So we decided to split up: Aaron would find the viewpoint and I’d tag the summit.

I raced back up the trail and scrambled over and around the fallen trees en route to the highpoint. I learned why there was no trail there; it was made of crumbly rock. Not a great place to send the masses. I took in the views and then bombed downhill to the junction where I agreed to meet Aaron.

In the time it took me to eat an apple and take a little rest, Aaron came into sight. He never made it to the viewpoint. It just kept going…

Our return trip was slow, hot and taxing. Aaron had worn some lightweight shoes for this hike, which turned out to be totally insufficient. He was hurting. The desert sun didn’t help. At least we knew there was an AirBnB waiting for us at the end of today!

Secret Canyon

Our lovely AirBnB host showed us several options for hiking the next day. “How to avoid these insane crowds?” we asked. He offered a variety of suggestions, and we chose Secret Canyon. “The 4×4 road keeps more people away,” he said, “but you should be able to get there in your Subaru.”

It was a grueling and stressful mile and a half down the aforementioned 4×4 road where we decided to call it quits. Aaron found a place to park on the side of the road and we hoofed it the rest of the way to the trailhead. There it was surprisingly shaded. Madrone trees and tall shrubs protected us from the already boiling hot desert sun.

Soon, however, the trail emerged from the shade and gave us our picture-perfect views. Towering red rock sculptures rose up on all sides. The trail hovered above the canyon bottom and eventually took us down into the forest.

Yes, the forest. So much for another epic canyon hike. At least there was shade, and no people. We walked and walked. And walked. It wasn’t terribly exciting in there. Everything was bone dry. The leaves were mostly brown, there was hardly a flower around, and the vegetation blocked our rocky views. This is not what we came here for.

We each came to a similar conclusion several miles in. Do we have to do this? So, we turned around and made good time getting back to those pretty views. We had to decide what to do next. There were several hiking options and plenty of time, but we instead decided to call it a day. We’d spent the last few days hitting it hard and it would be nice to have some down time.

Sedona was a mob scene of people and traffic and oblivion. It is not a place I would choose to visit again. I was longing for the quiet of the ponderosa pine forest. I was needing some natural beauty without humans.

Arizona Hot Springs

April 2, 2018.

Photo album

We left Valley of Fire and headed to Arizona Hot Springs. I knew it was a popular hike, but I counted on today being a Monday for keeping the crowds down. We arrived just before 9 am and parked in the large lot right off the highway. It was a strange place to start a hike.

Signs at the trailhead warned about excessive heat. In fact, the trail is closed several months of the summer due to unsafe heat conditions. I’d never heard of such a thing. Sure, it was only April but I could already feel the desert sun beating down on me.

The trail went under the highway and came to a signed junction. It wasn’t terribly clear which trail was “our” trail but we walked in the general direction and followed the most well-worn path. It was wide open desert dotted with sage. Occasionally, prickly pear cactus brightened up the place with its brightly colored flowers.

As the path dipped down into a wash, tall rock walls cast shadows in our path. It was delightful to walk in the shade. Suddenly, flowers appeared everywhere. Turned out the plants appreciated some sun protection, too.

The character of the wash changed from wide to narrow, rocky to sandy. We wove through the canyon, wondering what would be around every corner.

There were people. Interesting groups of people. Mostly families, who apparently were hiking out after spending the night. We tried to guess how close we were to the hot springs based on how tired they looked. We were much further away than we’d guessed!

Eventually we heard voices. Lots of them. Mostly children. And then, a hot splash into a steaming stream of water. We’d arrived at the hot springs.

It was nothing like I’d pictured. Nothing like any hot springs I’d ever been to. A trickle of extremely hot water poured down the canyon wall, creating pools in a narrow, twisting slot. The pools were kept in place by stacks of white sandbags. The water temperature became much more bearable as we walked from the upper pools to the lower pools. But all of them were crowded with kids and their parents. And it smelled bad.

We politely pushed our way past the families, hoping to find a cooler and quieter pool. The canyon abruptly ended at a steep drop-off, where a ladder bolted to the rock allowed further passage. We decided to stop for a bit here and have a snack. A group of twenty-somethings sat in the lowest pool. Another pair of travelers, with their dog, were getting ready to leave. It was’t terribly busy but it still felt like a zoo. And taking a dog to a slot canyon with hot pools seemed like a really unsanitary thing to do. We were not impressed. I even forgot to take any photos, so you’ll have to create the scene in your mind.

After snack time, we climbed down the ladder and out of the narrow canyon. From there we saw lots of people heading up from the Colorado River. So THAT’s how so many people got here. Not by hiking through the brutally hot desert, but by floating down the river and walking up a few hundred feet. That also explained why hardly anyone had a backpack.

Instead of hiking back the way we came, we decided to make a loop by finding the White Rock Canyon Trail.

But first, did I mention we were at the COLORADO RIVER?! Holy cow was it beautiful! We scrambled up a little outcrop to get a better view. It was packed with kayaks, raft and other river craft, but it was easy to look past all the humans and soak in the immense natural beauty in front of us.

After some confusing routefinding, we scrambled down to a little sandy beach with no one in sight. We stripped down to our swimsuits (which we’d brought for the hot springs) and took a dip in the crazy cold river. Aaron got right in but I was too chicken to get all the way submerged. But our blissful peace was quickly interrupted when a large group arrived at a rock above the beach, playing music on a bluetooth speaker. Cool.

Now we were really introduced to a cast of characters. A dizzying array of people started descending on the area from all directions. It was time to go. We navigated past some confusing signage and a network of social trails in order to get to the White Rock Canyon.

Once in the canyon, it was easy to make our way back. It was an enjoyable walk, too, with plenty of shade breaks. Once we burst out of the canyon we just had to cross that open desert one last time.

We returned to the car around 1 pm. It was 92°. My original plan had a late afternoon hike scheduled after a rest break, but we both decided the heat had taken it right out of us. Instead we chose to make some headway on our drive that afternoon. We stopped partway for an ice coffee and then aimed to find a place to camp in the Kaibab National Forest.

Forest camping

Best decision ever.

By late afternoon, we found our spot: a flat, dry space surrounded by a sparse Ponderosa pine forest. It felt an awful lot like being at home. The air was cool: a refreshing break from the hot hike we just completed. The ground was littered with trash from previous campers: aluminum cans, bottle caps and other miscellaneous garbage. I grabbed a trash bag and cleaned it up, then set up camp. Aaron busied himself by clearing away all the dry pine needles from around the fire pit. We gathered downed wood, relaxed and made dinner. We ate by the campfire and watched the sun set.

Compared to last night’s camping situation, this was a dream come true.

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…

 

Entering Nevada: mining and aliens

March 30-31, 2018.

Photo album

I was itching to get on a road trip. When the day finally came, I felt like a racehorse at the gate. We packed up the car and started driving towards Nevada. That stretch of highway between Bend and Burns is usually pretty monochromatic and boring. But today there was a surprise. Bald eagles, maybe thirty or more, just hanging out in a field near the road. They were perched on the irrigation equipment, soaring around, sitting in the grass. It was really strange. Then, a herd of pronghorn. The wildlife sightings kept me engaged as we headed out of town.

Day one was strictly driving. We got to Winemucca around dinner time and found a city park where we could assemble some dinner food and stretch our legs. One last burst of driving took us to Mill Creek Campground, where I’d planned on staying the night. But a sign at the gate said the campground was closed due to wildfire damage. Someone was camped in an RV near the gate. So we decided to drive further back on the gravel road to find our own space. There we camped under a full moon and lots of stars.

Day two was mostly driving, but we took a few planned and un-planned stops to break up the drive. First up…

Stokes Castle

The tiny town of Austin, Nevada lies on the “Loneliest Highway” and bills itself as a worthy stop with “plenty to see and do.” I had my doubts, but I did want to get out and see what Stokes Castle was all about.

We drove up a short gravel road to the top of the hill and there it stood: a stone structure standing three stories high. It was just a shell of a building, the interior was empty and the balconies had been torn down years ago. A chain link fence protected the structure from vandals (it was obviously put up too late.) It did sit on a pretty little perch and it felt good to be standing outside in the sun, but we didn’t linger very long. Just the remnants of some wealthy miner’s project that his family only used for a couple months before moving out of town.

From there we went into Austin and drove through slowly to see what might be worth checking out. There were some nice bathrooms for visitors, but otherwise it felt like a ghost town. Some old storefronts remained. No businesses appeared to be open. We read the interpretive signs near the bathrooms and headed out to the next destination. I’m not sure why Austin is marketing itself when there is absolutely nothing happening there.

Tonopah Mining Park

We stopped in Tonopah for gas and searched for a park where we could relax and eat some lunch. I noticed signs for Tonopah Mining Park on our way into town, and a quick Google search got us there.

We sat at the lone picnic table and munched on some food while some other visitors handed us their walking map as they were heading out. Surveying the map it looked like there would be a lot to see here, so we went inside the museum. Inside there were bits and pieces of Nevada’s fascinating mining history. We saw old pieces of equipment, black and white photos and lots of samples of minerals and rocks.

That was cool but we were dying to get outside. This was a hiking trip, after all. For a $5 entry fee per person, we got to explore the park grounds on our own, using the map as our guide. We gladly paid our fee and stepped out into the warm Nevada air. We explored several of trails, which led us past the preserved mine-related structures. We saw huge cracks in the ground from where miners hand-drilled out the precious ore. HAND-DRILLED. Huge cracks. Unbelievable. There were structures used to help move the rock out of the ground to the surface. An old bank safe. Tunnels. Houses for workers. It was a fun place to wander around. All the dangerous stuff was fenced off, so all you had to do was stay on the trail. Plenty of interpretive signs explained what the various features were used for. It was a very unique and worthy stop!

The remainder of the drive would take us along the Extraterrestrial Highway, also known as the most overblown destination in Nevada after Austin. It is located near Area 51, apparently, so it’s earned a bit of a reputation. A few businesses have capitalized on this but neither (IMHO) are really worth visiting. We found this out the hard way, and grumpily piled back into the car for more driving.

Camping

I was excited to get to camp, that is, until we arrived at my planned camping location. It was full. No, there was one spot left but it was wedged in between two RV’s on the shore of a very windy lake. This would not do. We got back into the car and hit the road. I furiously scrambled to find a backup destination.

We pulled off the main highway on a back road that looked like it was headed for the wilderness. It was, but just a few miles up the road it appeared to be washed out. We looked over the edge of the wash and decided it looked like a pretty sweet place to camp. After shuttling all our stuff down and setting up camp I discovered a dirt path that circumvented the wash and re-connected to a perfectly drive-able road on the other side. Whoops. Oh well, it made for a pleasant place to take an evening walk.

The next morning, we celebrated Easter by eating some colored, hard-boiled eggs and packing up to drive to Valley of Fire State Park…

Crater Lake: Wallowas edition

May 4, 2015.

Photo album on Google plus

This was the last big stop on our spring roadtrip. We had no plan, except Aaron had never visited the Wallowas and he wanted to check it out. Although most of Oregon had a low snow year, the Wallowas seemed to still be buried in snow. Wanting to learn more about current conditions and access, we stopped into the Pine Field Office near Halfway in the southern part of the forest. This was the least heavily visited part of the much beloved Wallowas. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the rangers but we figured we’d give them a chance.

Much to my delight, there were two women working the desk: one young lady who first greeted us and seemed new to the job, and an older woman hiding in the back. The older woman emerged when she heard our long list of questions and she was incredibly helpful in answering them. She sounded like she was out on the roads and trails frequently (a rarity among rangers I’ve met at the ranger stations) and had decades of knowledge accumulated from working and living in the mountains. When we said we wanted to climb up to see some views, she pointed us to the East Eagle trailhead. After describing the best driving route, she explained that the Little Kettle Creek trail would lead us up a bunch of switchbacks to an amazing view of the mountains. We could stop and turn around at any point, but we surely couldn’t take the trail all the way to Crater Lake due to the snow.

Challenge accepted, ranger.

When we arrived at the trailhead, Aaron got packed up for a 6-mile hike. In my head, I’d already decided that we were going to press on through the snow to find the lake. I hadn’t shared that little tidbit of information yet.

As I packed up for a 12-mile snow adventure, I broke the news to him. I rarely see Aaron put on a grumpy face, but I sure was treated to one today. I said, “well, we’ll see how far we feel like going,” knowing that I was hell-bent on making it to the lake.


Off we went, up a steep, dirt track that seemed to lead to nowhere. “What the…?” Already we were bushwhacking and confused. After some mucking around, we found the actual start of the trail and began hiking up.

The trail climbed, and climbed, and climbed up a series of steep switchbacks. We huffed and puffed for breath and quickly warmed up. As we ascended, we began to get views of the beautiful mountaintops. I knew it would be worth it. I still don’t think Aaron was convinced. He charged up ahead, I could barely keep up. My lungs were straining, my legs not cooperating. I felt totally off today.

As we silently walked through the forest, we were startled by a pair of equally startled elk. We saw their huge backsides as they bounded out of view. I don’t think either of us had come so close to elk in the forest. I thought maybe that would help win Aaron over.


Eventually we left the bare ground behind and began to cross larger and larger patches of snow. Aaron was at least prepared with his Yaktrax; mine were buried in the car somewhere. I slipped and slid right behind him as we continued up the snow. All signs of the trail disappeared, and we switched to navigation by geographic features and the map. At the bottom of a basin, it was not entirely clear which way to go, and where exactly we would find the lake. So we took a gamble and committed to climbing up a wide snow ramp to a nice viewpoint.


From there, we peered down on what looked like a body of water. We both said: is that the lake? Are we done? But we both thought: that’s definitely not the lake. Tired from all our snow slogging, we regrouped and made a plan. According to the book, the lake should have been about a quarter mile past the ponds. We could do that. We kept going.

It was the longest quarter mile in history, but we emerged from the trees to gaze upon a large, snow-covered lake. A ring of bright blue snow melt encircled the lake. It was stunning. I dropped my pack to explore, take pictures, and soak in the experience. It was worth every step.

As we turned to retrace our snowy footprints back to the trail, we relaxed a bit and settled into a comfortable pace. Crossing the rocky plateau, we stopped in our tracks when we heard rockfall. I scanned the cliffs above us and saw…goats! There was a herd of mountain goats tooling around on the rocks. We watched them for a bit, wishing we had binoculars. So far it was one of our best animal sighting days!

Walking downhill was a dream. We could really enjoy the scenery around us. We hadn’t seen a human all day. Hiking in solitude, in one of the most picturesque places in Oregon, turned out to be an incredible last chapter in a memorable trip. I am so grateful to have a partner who is always up for a crazy adventure, who is adaptable, willing to walk forever in the woods, and willing to drive long distances just to find our own quiet piece of the world.

Twin Falls, Idaho and Bruneau Dunes

May 2- May 3, 2015.

As we said good bye to Utah, it was clear that we were on the tail end of the trip. Our route was looping us back towards home in the central Willamette Valley. We made a couple of short pit stops in the Twin Falls area along the gorgeous Snake River.

twin falls mapWhen I’m a passenger for long periods of time, I like to pore over the maps and guidebooks I’ve brought along so I can learn more about the area I’m driving through. On our way to Twin Falls, I noticed a curious symbol in the Gazeteer. Quietly tucked away, alongside the symbols for Information Center, campground, and boat launch was something that looked like a spaceship-car hybrid.

Soon, I would find out exactly what that symbol was all about.

Perrine Bridge

Our first real stop was the iconic Perrine Bridge, where BASE jumpers from all over the world come to take a leap. It’s one of the only places where it’s legal to do so without a permit. Just upstream from the bridge, the daredevil Evel Knievel tried to jump across the river in his “skycycle.” While he didn’t make the jump, he survived the crash with just a broken nose to show for it. And now, his unbelievable attempt is recorded forever in the Idaho Gazeteer with a spaceship-car hybrid marking the location of his jump. I thought, if I was a map-maker, what might I try to sneak into a map…?

The bridge itself was beautiful. We walked to a viewpoint of the bridge, then stopped inside the Visitor’s Center, a modern building with big windows and interpretive signs about the area. There was a little gift shop as well as a wall full of pamphlets outlining nearby attractions. Lucky for us, there was also a little cart full of free ice cream cups from the folks at Coldstone Creamery. It was some sort of promotional thing, a delicious, delicious, promotional thing. Even without the ice cream, this would have been a worthwhile stop.

Caldron Linn

There is one type of map symbol that always grabs my attention: Unique Natural Feature. This symbol looks like a fan with four blades (see above map) and it corresponds to a key in the front of the book that gives a name and a short description of the feature. One feature that I wanted to see on our drive through Twin Falls was called Caldron Linn. Or Cauldron Linn, depending on what you’re reading. It took some sleuthing to find driving directions to this place. Even the fact sheet at the Visitor’s Center said “inquire locally for directions.” It seemed weird that this place was right outside a major city and its whereabouts were sketchy. I really wanted to go there, and really hoped it wouldn’t be another Pillars of Rome situation.

We found the place without much trouble, although we definitely should not have driven down the last section of steep, scary dirt road. We arrived unscathed and tumbled out of the car to see what this was all about.

The description was something like “a raging fury of churning water that cast early explorers to their deaths as they attempted foolishly to travel downriver.” That’s absolutely not a quote but that’s what I was picturing in my mind as we walked towards the river. Funny, we couldn’t even hear any rushing water.

The river was eerily low, which made for a mediocre waterfall but gave us an interesting look at the rocks that are usually covered by water. The bleached white rock looked like a jumble of dinosaur bones piled up on shore. Water pooled in cavities that were bored down into the rock by a more vigorous flow in times past. Lizards sunned on the rock and birds chattered away in the sagebrush. While I was sad that I didn’t get to see the river in its most dramatic state, I still enjoyed the diversion and adventure off the main road.

Shoshone Falls

I should not have expected anything different on our next waterfall stop. But, Shoshone Falls was nicknamed the Niagara of the West, so it had a bit more credibility than our little Cauldron. We stopped at the falls around lunch time, eager to get out of the car and have a nice little picnic. During our visit to this oversold attraction, the water levels were pretty low, and so it was a pretty disappointing stop. The falls were pretty, but they didn’t earn their nickname and certainly didn’t need to command the crowds that were swirling around us. We got our obligatory couples photo and ducked out of there.

The nearby park was also overrun with visitors but we found a spot on the grass where we could lay out our picnic spread and stretch our legs a bit. Today felt like a lot of driving. It was nice to just hang out and not feel like we had to get somewhere fast. We wanted to experience the last stop of the day after dark, so we were in no rush to get there.

Bruneau Dunes

By the time we rolled in to Bruneau Dunes, nearly all the campsites were taken. There were just a handful left in the Equestrian Camp just outside the main park, so we took it. Like Great Basin National Park, Bruneau Dunes boasted of its spectacular night sky program. They even had an observatory with a huge telescope that was open to the public on the weekends. So, we set up camp, made dinner and waited for the sun to go down.

When we finally made it over to the observatory, there were a bunch of people milling around. We got there late. It was dark, we didn’t know what was going on, and it took us a while to figure out how to pay. We dutifully stood in line to wait for our turn to look through the telescopes that were set up outside. Then, we waited in the longest line, the one at the big telescope, just to see a fuzzy cluster of stars half a zillion miles away. Yawn.

What I really wanted to do was hike the dunes under a starlit sky. So we grabbed our backpacks out of the car and set off on what we hoped was the trail we wanted, angling for the dunes.

When I planned this in my head, I imagined it would be like our night hike in Death Valley. But as I am noticing now, my images of reality don’t always match actual reality.

The Bruneau Dunes are an interesting phenomenon. They sit in the center of a semicircular basin, with winds blowing pretty evenly from all sides so they don’t move very much. At the foot of the 400-foot high dunes is a pair of lakes that formed only a few decades ago, after the water table rose due to changes in irrigation practices nearby. At the edge of the lakes, as one might guess, was a tangle of shrubs, grasses, trees, and other water-loving vegetation. That made finding our way to and from the dunes extra challenging.

Once we broke free of the plant life, we began hiking straight up the steep side of one of the big dunes. Right foot forward, slide back, left foot, slide… and on and on. At one point the dune ridge got so steep we had to crawl and monkey walk sideways just to keep going. It was exhausting work. In daylight, perhaps, we could have found a better route. But, we did the best we could.

Clouds covered large patches of sky for most of the night. Occasionally the moonlight would break through a gap in the clouds.

After we walked the entire length of the ridge, we happily ran down the side of the dune and headed for the lake. That was the best part. The worst part was trying to navigate a braided mess of user trails leading every which way through the thick, lakeside vegetation. Eventually we stumbled out on the other side of the water and made our way to a road that led back to the car. Mission accomplished.

In the morning we took a quick drive through of the park to see what it looked like in daylight. It was very pretty, and the dunes were scarred with mobs of tourists hauling their children and sand-boards up the hills. Glad we did the park by night.

Next up: Eastern Oregon. The grand parks tour was coming, sadly, to a close.

Silver Island Mountains

April 30 – May 1, 2015.

Our last stops in Utah were west of Salt Lake City. When researching possible trip destinations, I noticed that a nice route would take us by the Bonneville Salt Flats, famous for the land speed records set there. Also, as I would later learn, infamous for bogging down the Donner-Reed party in their race against the oncoming winter storms as they headed for California. Just nearby were the Silver Island Mountains, a place I’d never heard of before. But on the map it appeared to be an interesting place to explore.

According to Summitpost.com, it was. So I copied some notes about a few climbing routes and off we went.

Bonneville Salt Flats


We arrived at the salt flats after a long day of driving. A work crew was setting up a huge tent for some event that was happening the next day (we never found out what it was). But the Wikipedia page mentioned that the Bonneville Salt Flats hosted several races, movie shoots and other events year-round. We parked past the tent-raising and walked out onto the salt. It felt good to stand up after being driven around all day long. Shallow pools of water collected in some parts of the salt flats, which seemed unusual. We carefully walked around on the hard and surprisingly uneven ground, looking for interesting salt formations. We’d been spoiled by the intricate salt statues in Death Valley a few years ago, so this place seemed pretty ho-hum in comparison.

A night under the stars

It was getting to be dinner time and we needed to find a place to camp so we headed to the scenic byway encircling the Silver Island Mountains. It was all BLM land; we just needed to find a nice spot to pitch a tent.

And that we did. We found someone’s old fire ring just a little ways off the main road and decided to stop there for the night. We had an elegant meal of roasted asparagus and Dinty Moore Beef Stew. A camping classic. The dramatic sunset over the mountains behind us made it worth all the day’s driving. Although we could see the traffic buzzing by on highway 80 far off in the distance, it felt as if we were sitting in a remote getaway.

Volcano Peak


The next morning, we awoke to a spectacular sunrise and then headed off to our first destination: Volcano Peak. We did our best to follow the description of the drive to the recommended route, stopping a few yards short due to rough road conditions. The climb was straightforward: follow a gully to a ridge, stay to the left, and then head straight up from there. It took us less than 45 minutes from car to summit. The mountain was made up of interesting rocks with streaks of colorful minerals. We poked around for a few minutes until I stopped in my tracks.

SHEEP!

I yelled over to Aaron. Two bighorn sheep were standing on a ledge just below me. The mother sheep’s eyes locked with mine as her tiny baby bounced around her feet. The baby was adorable; the mother terrifying. We watched them as they held their ground on the ledge, and then they decided to retreat to a safer place elsewhere on the mountain. They remained visible from our summit perch, so we spent the next half hour watching them do their sheep thing.

It was so quiet up there. Never had 45 minutes of work felt so rewarding. But, we had one more peak to go, so eventually we took our parting shots and tromped back to the car.

Rishel Peak


Next in line was Rishel Peak. We could see it clearly from Volcano Peak, but it was less clear where the Summitpost author wanted us to start this next route. We made our best guess, parked the car adjacent to a rough dirt road, and started walking. All we had to do was get close enough, pick a good line, and head up the mountain. Out here, routefinding was easy. You could see the entire lay of the land from nearly every point on the land. There were no silly trees in the way.

There was evidence of human activity along the way. Old, rusty bits of metal, broken glass, and other items lay on the desert floor, cast away decades ago. But we didn’t see any other humans out here. There were plenty of lizards to keep our attention. They were fast, scurrying away quickly when we got anywhere near them.

This route was much more of a gradual climb. We wandered across a flat, brushy plain, then snaked up a broad ridge punctuated with rocky outcrops. Eventually we popped up on the main summit ridge and followed it until we couldn’t go up anymore. Views were killer, just like on top of Volcano. In our poking around we found some old telegraph wire and wondered what the stories this peak held. The clouds seemed to be thickening and turning grayer, so we descended with the intention to move a bit more quickly. They never turned into storm clouds, but it was better to be safe than sorry.

The scenic byway

The Silver Island Mountains Scenic Byway is a 54-mile loop of rough dirt road that loops around the Silver Island Mountain range. Aaron wanted to drive the whole loop, so we loaded up some podcasts and hit the road.

The scenery was stunning, of course. Each section of the drive had a slightly different perspective of the area. We got great views of Pilot Peak, just across the border in Nevada. We also eyeballed all the other mountains in the range we didn’t get to climb: Graham, Tetzlaff, Cobb, Jenkins, and others. Next time we head to Salt Lake…

The road just went on and on. Along the way we passed a couple of road signs indicating that we were crossing the Hastings Cutoff on the California Trail. This was where the Donner Party took a tragically long short-cut that ended up getting them stuck in winter storms in the Sierra. We marveled at just how harsh the life of the pioneers must have been, munched on some chocolate covered almonds and turned up the AC.

That night we headed for the border. We drove through the little casino town of Wendover, NV and started north for Idaho, with the intention of camping somewhere on BLM land. Somehow we got talking about hot tubs and buffets and decided to book a room in the next casino border town. There was only one room left on this Friday night and we grabbed it. We gorged ourselves on crab legs and other buffet goodies, and got one hell of a night’s sleep on an actual bed, the first we’d laid on in weeks.