Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Hiking

Summiting Mt. St. Helens

Panorama of a large volcanic crater with a mound of solidified lava in the center
View of rocky and snowy ridgeline with volcanic peak in the background

Looking east along the crater rim of Mt. St. Helens to Mt. Adams in the distance.

Of all the volcanoes in the northern Cascades, Mt. St. Helens is by far the easiest to climb. For starters, the most common route, Monitor Ridge on the south flank, is non-technical, eliminating the need for specialized gear or advanced mountaineering skills. At just 8,366 feet, its summit elevation post-1980 eruption places it several thousand feet lower than neighbors such as Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier, essentially taking the ill effects of altitude out of the equation. However, at 10 miles round trip and with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s still a robust day hike.

After numerous trips to the base of Mt. St. Helens over the years, reaching the summit of this active volcano has long been on my to-do list. When we moved back to Washington last summer, I knew I might finally get my chance. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest limits the number of climbers to 100 per day in the summer months, and the permits sell out quickly when they go on sale in March. Sadly, I missed the initial sale this year, leaving me to obsessively check every few days for cancellations. Eventually I got lucky and spotted two permits up for grabs in late-July. A few minutes later, they were mine.

From a distance and elevation gain standpoint, the hike up Monitor Ridge is comparable to many of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners”. One major difference: on Mt. St. Helens we would be topping out at a lower elevation than one starts most Fourteener climbs at. The other big difference would be the terrain. Most Fourteeners have a fairly distinct path a good way up the mountain and are on reasonably solid rock (my dislike of exposure and falling means I haven’t done any of the ones on rotten rock). On Mt. St. Helens, after a brief foray through the forest, the climb traverses a mixture of large lava boulders and a loose scree consisting of pumice and volcanic ash. This is a hike where a mask was on the suggested gear list before they were cool!

To the hike! As the National Weather Service had accurately predicted several days in advance, the morning of our climb dawned with some fairly dense fog at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead where we had camped the previous night. We hit the trail at 6:00 am, anticipating that it would take us 4-5 hours to reach the summit. The first two miles of trail climbs gently through a moist and somewhat unremarkable second growth forest. At timberline is where the route changes from a well-maintained trail to the aforementioned scree and boulder scramble. Wooden posts serve as guides for the remainder of the climb, but following them too closely didn’t always make for the most sensible route. In places there is a fairly obvious path, while in others (particularly in the boulder fields), you just sort of have to find what works best. Just before arriving at timberline, we began to emerge from the clouds, revealing views of Mt. Adams to the east and the extremely conical Mt. Hood to the south that we enjoyed the rest of the day. Once above the trees, our pace slowed significantly, but before too long we were several hundred feet above the cloud deck we had been immersed in a short time earlier:

A hiker scrambles up a rocky slope with a forest and low-lying clouds in the background

Breaking out of the trees on the Monitor Ridge route.

A hiker walks along a rocky ridge with clouds and a distant volcanic peak in the backgrounde background

Heading up Mt. St. Helens with the clouds below us and Mt. Hood in the background.

Dark, jagged volcanic rocks on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens with clouds far below

Nearing the top of the boulder field on the Monitor Ridge route. Only a mile to go!

We made fairly good time through the ~2 miles of boulder fields. The final mile through a deep and loose mixture of volcanic ash and pumice was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. With masks on to prevent inhaling clouds of ash kicked up by our feet (and the wind), it was somewhat analogous to hiking up a sand dune: two steps forward, one step back, repeat. After about four hours, we were standing on the crater rim.

The first view northward into the bowels of Mt. St. Helens was stunning, and definitely one of the most dramatic viewpoints I can recall. Unlike many lesser peaks in the Cascades, or most peaks in the Rockies, where you are often surrounded by other peaks of comparable elevation, Mt. St. Helens stands alone. On this volcano, you are standing on what is, by far, the highest point for dozens of miles in any direction, with only the other volcanoes exceeding you in height. Looking down onto the crater formed by the 1980 eruption, the lava domes that are slowly rebuilding the summit, and the Crater Glacier (one of the few alpine glaciers in the world that is actually advancing) was spectacular. Cornices of hard-packed, dirty snow clung to the nearly vertical slopes of the crater walls just beneath our feet, necessitating caution as we moved our way along the rim. Gentle puffs of steam were visible on portions of the lava dome, a gentle reminder that we were standing at the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The dull roar of rock and ice fall from the crater walls was nearly constant for the hour we spent taking in the view from the summit.

Panorama of a large volcanic crater with a mound of solidified lava in the center

Panorama from the Mt. St. Helens crater rim, looking north across the lava dome and Crater Glacier to Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier. (Click image to enlarge)

Panorama showing a variety of distant mountains and a low cloud layer

Panorama looking south from the crater rim. Mt. Adams at left, Mt. Hood just left of center. (Click image to enlarge)

View of a volcanic peak with a blue lake in the foreground

Clouds part to reveal Spirit Lake and the distant cone of Mt. Rainier, more than 4,000 feet higher that Mt. St. Helens.

While the hike up had been relatively uneventful, the journey down was definitely less pleasant. Hiking poles are a must for the descent due to the steep, loose, and rocky terrain. This is definitely one of those hikes where coming down is exponentially more difficult than going up!

Compared to our experience hiking Fourteeners in Colorado, the significantly lower elevation of this hike makes a huge difference and in my opinion dramatically lowers the overall difficultly of this route. There is a big difference between inching your way up a scree slope at 13,000′ and having to stop every few steps to take in oxygen, and doing the same at 8,000′ where breathing isn’t as much of an issue. While the terrain was definitely more difficult than your average hike with similar specs, in the end we felt like the difficulty of the Monitor Ridge route was somewhat over-hyped based on some of the accounts we read in advance. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. As far as special gear, a mask was definitely helpful for both COVID and volcanic ash purposes. Hiking poles were more or less useless on the way up, as the boulder fields often required the use of hands to navigate, but essential on the way down. Other sources recommended bringing garden gloves to protect against cuts on the sharp volcanic rocks. We bought some cheap ones and definitely found them useful. I never actually put mine on during the ascent, and made it to the summit with only one small abrasion on the back of my hand. Long pants are also a must if you don’t want your lower legs ripped to shreds by the rocks.

With Mt. St. Helens checked off, next up on the to-do list is Mt. Adams, which is also a non-technical climb at the right time of year, albeit longer. We may not get to that one this summer…perhaps our goal will be to climb one Cascade volcano per year!


Glacier National Park: Grinnell Glacier Trail

Dark clouds loom over a range of mountains and an azure-blue alpine lake

With one job ending in June and the next not starting until September, we spent most of this past summer on the road. It’s now mid-October, and I’m finally getting the chance to seriously sort through the resulting pictures.

Our last big stop of the summer was Glacier National Park in Montana and neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Glacier was one of the few remaining national parks in the west I had yet to visit, so I was excited that we were able to squeeze this trip in. Despite uncharacteristically foul weather for mid-August, a harrowing experience on the park shuttle bus, campgrounds with problem bears (and problem campers), and an unscheduled detour to an auto parts store in Cardston, Alberta, we managed to get in 60+ miles of hiking among some truly first-class scenery. Our most memorable hike was the trek to Grinnell Glacier in the northeast corner of the park. Here are a few photos from that journey:

A series of sharp mountain peaks are reflected in a tranquil lake at sunrise.

Sunrise light on Mt. Grinnell, reflected in the tranquil waters of Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana.

A hiker climbs a steep trail surrounded by green vegetation and wildflowers with large mountains in the background.

Hiking through the redbeds of the Grinnell Formation on the way to Grinnell Glacier. The Grinnell Formation, part of the Belt Supergroup, is a ~1.5 billion year old unit of sedimentary rock that preserves ancient ripple marks, mud cracks, rain drop imprints and more in its maroon layers. 

Cliffs of rock surround several glaciers and an azure-blue lake containing numerous icebergs.

Panoramic view of Grinnell Glacier (left) and Upper Grinnell Lake. The lake has existed only since the 1930s. In the early 1900s, Grinnell Glacier filled the basin now occupied by the lake, at one point depositing the sediment in the moraine the photographer is standing on. Today, only a small piece of Grinnell Glacier remains. As temperatures have warmed, the glacier has retreated leaving Upper Grinnell Lake in its place. The milky blue-green color of the lake is due to finely powdered rock (“glacial flour”) suspended in the water.

Gray cliffs of igneous and sedimentary rock tower over a aquamarine lake filled with icebergs

Cliffs of dark gray limestone belonging to the Helena Formation tower above Upper Grinnell Lake. The thin band of darker rock cutting horizontally across the cliffs is an igneous sill, formed when magma intruded along a plane of weakness in the limestone and then solidified. The lighter rock immediately above and below the sill is marble, created when the hot magma “cooked” the limestone into which it had intruded.

Dark clouds loom over a range of mountains and an azure-blue alpine lake

A thunderstorm approaches over the Garden Wall on the descent from Grinnell Glacier. This was the final photo I took on the hike. We spent most of the next hour running the several remaining miles back to the trailhead as thunder and flashes of lightning exploded behind us.

A bighorn sheep stands amongst vegetation with a glacier in the background

A bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) alongside the trail, with Grinnell Glacier in the background.


Wonderful Waters of the Escalante

A large waterfall dwarfs a hiker approaching for a photo.
A large waterfall dwarfs a hiker approaching for a photo.

Lower Calf Creek Falls sits on a tributary of the Escalante River. It’s not everyday you find a waterfall this large in the desert! 

The Escalante River in south central Utah was supposedly the last river in the continental United States to be “discovered” and mapped. You don’t have to spend too much time with it to see why. First of all, it’s not large. “River” is a bit of an overstatement for most of the year, when it is easily forded on foot. Only during torrential summer monsoon storms does it resemble anything that the rest of the world would call a river. Secondly, even the most easily accessible stretches of its ~90 mile course take some time to get to. The Escalante is crossed by a grand total of one paved highway, a remote stretch of Utah Highway 12 that is among the most scenic drives in the west.

The lower reaches of the Escalante’s sinuous canyon pose even more of a challenge, reached only by boat on Lake Powell, or via a combination of hellish dirt roads and long hikes, something we undertook on a backpacking trip a few years back when we entered the Escalante via one of its tributaries, Coyote Gulch.

Upper portions of the canyon are far more accessible, if not as imposing, requiring only an occasional wade across the river to see sights such as the Escalante Natural Bridge:

A natural bridge spans a canyon wall above green cottonwood trees.

Escalante Natural Bridge, more than 100 feet in length, blends in well with its surroundings. 

A small arch sits at the top of a colorful sandstone cliff.

Streaks of light mud and dark desert varnish coat towering cliffs of Navajo Sandstone in the upper Escalante River canyon. 

Streaks of mud and desert varnish coat a sandstone cliff

Cliff dwelling in a cliff alcove surrounded by pictographs.

A cliff dwelling and pictographs in a high alcove along the Escalante River. This alcove looked thoroughly inaccessible from below, but the relatively modern graffiti visible through the telephoto lens sadly indicated otherwise. 

One of the most significant tributaries of the upper Escalante River is Calf Creek, best known for a pair of waterfalls that are refreshingly out of place in a place not generally known for its aqueous wonders. Lower Calf Creek Falls, the larger of the two cascades, is reached via a ~3 mile hike along a broad canyon carved by the creek:

Sitting on a rock looking at a waterfalls tumbling from the sandstone cliffs.

Enjoying a peaceful and relatively uncrowded visit to Lower Calf Creek Falls.

Green moss clinging to a sandstone cliff beneath the waterfalls.

Various colors of brown, tan, and black desert varnish on the sandstone cliffs.

Desert varnish is a common sight throughout the southwest, but the palette of colors on the cliffs flanking Calf Creek seemed especially varied.

A bright red desert paintbrush flower in the sand

One of the few wildflowers left standing in late September: a single desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa)

A few miles north, reaching the smaller Upper Calf Creek falls requires a short but steep scramble down a slickrock slope into the depths of the canyon:

The moon sets over white and yellow rock formations.

The 3rd quarter moon sets over sandstone rock formations in the Upper Calf Creek drainage.

Upper Calf Creek Falls plunges into a verdant green pool

Enjoying the solitude at Upper Calf Creek Falls.

Multicolored mosses and other planets cling to the rock beneath a waterfall.

Clumps and mats of moss and other plants coat the cliffs beneath Upper Calf Creek Falls.

Surrounded by some of the least developed land in the continental United States, the night sky from the Escalante canyons is a prime attraction as well!

The Summer Milky Way sets over the southern horizon

The summer Milky Way sets over the southern horizon near Escalante, Utah. No light pollution in sight!


Slots of Fun in Cottonwood Canyon

Multicolored sandstone ridges on Yellow Rock
Multicolored sandstone ridges on Yellow Rock

Multicolored Navajo Sandstone at Yellow Rock, Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

The 47 mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road slices through some of the most otherworldly terrain in Southern Utah, connecting Highway 89 in the south with the Bryce Canyon region in the north. Mostly unpaved, some GPS devices have been known to lead travelers down this road in the name of a shortcut to Bryce Canyon National Park. When dry, Cottonwood Canyon makes for a wonderful scenic drive and is indeed a shortcut. But in the days following rain or snow, the layer of clay-rich shale the road follows for most of its length turns into a veritable morass, and renders the road impassible regardless of how many-wheel drive your vehicle might possess. Coming from the south, the road initially follows the broad valley of the Paria River drainage, before leaving the river behind and heading up the narrower valley of Cottonwood Creek. This portion of the road passes through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; other sections used to as well before the monument experienced its recent “downsizing.”

We recently took a three-night camping trip to explore Cottonwood Canyon and some nearby areas. Our first stop was Yellow Rock, near the south end of the road about 13 miles from Hwy 89. Yellow Rock is a massive dome of Navajo Sandstone, easily visible from the road as is rises high above the jumble of rock layers alongside Cottonwood Creek. While the hike to its summit is not long, getting there requires a moderately-difficult scramble up a hidden rocky chute littered with loose boulders. Hiking poles/sticks highly recommended. After scrambling to the base of the rock, the real fun begins. After a few years living in Southern Utah, it is natural to assume that you’ve seen every color, pattern, and texture of sandstone that can possibly exist, but then Yellow Rock comes along and proves you wrong:

Yelow, red, orange, and pink swirls in the Navajo Sandstone

Walking up the east flank of Yellow Rock, enjoying the outdoor art gallery of beautiful colors, shapes, and patterns in the Navajo Sandstone. 

Multicolored sandstone and a view looking north along Cottonwood Canyon

Colorful sandstone near the summit of Yellow Rock, looking north towards Hackberry Canyon. 

Yelow, red, orange, and pink swirls in the Navajo Sandstone

Mesmerizing soft-serve patterns. 

While the abundant cottonwood trees lining the canyon bottom were still quite leafless, even in early April other signs of spring were beginning to show in this high desert. Traversing across Yellow Rock, we encountered many pockets of Desert Paintbrush, Anderson’s Buttercup, and Manzanita in sandy stream bottoms or in crevices in the sandstone, already in full bloom:

Bright red desert paintbrush plant.

Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa) growing in deep sand. The flower of this showy plant is actually the inconspicuous green spike at right; the bright red parts are the bracts and sepals. 

Orange and white spotted butterfly atop a yellow flower.

A orangetip butterfly enjoys the wild mustard buffet in the Cottonwood Canyon Narrows. 

Alternating bands of white and red rock.

For over a dozen miles, the Cottonwood Canyon road parallels the “Cockscomb”, a jagged ridge of resistant sandstone tilted to near-vertical. Here, varicolored rocks of the Carmel and Entrada Formations line the road near the Cottonwood Canyon Narrows trailhead. 

On our final night, we camped near the north end of the road, not far from Kodachrome Basin State Park, where we were treated to a spectacular sunset and even more stunning dark, moonless night skies:

Pink clouds and a band of pink rocky cliffs at sunset

Sunset from our campsite overlooking Kodachrome Basin.

Photo of the spring night sky with zodiacal light and Orion

Three landmarks of the winter night sky, Sirius (left), Orion (center, in flashlight beam), and the Pleiades (right) make their way towards the western horizon, where the bright band of the zodiacal light juts into the sky. 

No Southern Utah camping trip would be complete without a saunter through a slot canyon, so on the way home in the morning, we made a quick detour to Willis Creek Canyon. At the beginning of our trip, we had briefly probed the famous Buckskin Gulch, just south of Cottonwood Canyon in Arizona, but were quickly turned back by waist-deep mud & debris pools that were emanating quite possibly the most foul stench to ever besmirch this Earth. In contrast, Willis Creek Canyon is a rare bird in Southern Utah; a beautifully sculpted slot with no technical obstacles to rappel over, and no putrid cesspools to wade through. Instead, a small babbling brook winds through the sandstone narrows, seemingly oblivious to its own high-quality handiwork:

white and black streaked sandstone canyon walls

Narrows section of Willis Creek Canyon

A small stream flows between narrow sandstone canyon walls

Approaching a wide portion of the canyon. 

Narrow sandstone canyon walls

Back in the narrows!


Pyroclastic Pixels Goes to Italy!

Colorful clouds and sea at sunset in Manarola.
Colorful buildings and a view of the sea from Vernazza

The village of Vernazza occupies rocky cliffs and ravines along the Ligurian Coast of Italy. 

We recently returned from a week in Italy; a refreshing change of pace, both scenically and climatically, from winter in the Utah desert! While we spent the majority of the trip enjoying the historic sights of Florence and Rome, just a handful of hours after touching down in Italy, we were aboard a high-speed train bound for the Cinque Terre, a rugged section of Ligurian Sea coastline where we spent the first several days of our trip hiking, exploring, and ingesting some of the best seafood of our lives. The Cinque Terre (“five lands”) consists of five small villages clinging to the rocky shore, surrounded by ancient stone terraces, vineyards, and olive groves, and crisscrossed by a network of hiking trails that, since 1999, have been part of the Cinque Terre National Park. A hot tourist spot in peak summer season, in March, with the temperatures still far too cold and the skies much too drizzly for a dip in the sea, the streets and trails were definitely still enjoying the relative calm of the off-season. On the stormiest day, we struggled to find an open restaurant or market to grab a bite to eat!

The five villages (from south to north: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) are spread out along a six mile stretch of shoreline. A regular train connects the five villages to one another and the larger cities of Liguria, making its way along the coast via a series of long, dark tunnels, only to pop out into the open briefly to stop at the station adjacent to each town. Coming from La Spezia (the closest major city to the Cinque Terre), we hopped off the train at Manarola, our home base for our all-too-short stay:

The train station in Manarola, Cinque Terre

The train station in Manarola. A hundred-yard long pedestrian tunnel connects the station with the town, here seen peeking through gaps in the steep cliffs.  

Like the other four towns, the colorful buildings of Manarola cling to the hillsides in impressive fashion. The terrain, while steep, is relatively easy to traverse thanks to the vast network of dry stone terraces, originally built centuries ago. Not only do the terraces help minimize erosion of the precipitous slopes, the treads provide flat surfaces on which grapes, olives, lemons, and other food products are grown. Most of the trails that wind through the Cinque Terre follow these historic terraces, providing an easy walking path, great views, and an up-close look at many of the vineyards which are still operated to this day.

The village of Manarola spreads out below vineyards in a large ravine.

The village of Manarola as seen from the terraced vineyards that surround the town.

Colorful clouds and sea at sunset in Manarola.

A colorful sunset in Manarola, looking north along the Cinque Terre coast.

Colorful buildings of Manarola line the waterfront at dusk.

The Manarola waterfront at dusk.

The streets of Manarola at night. The local fishermen had all removed their boats from the harbor for safe storage on the streets because of the storm and high surf.

Despite the convenience of the train, the most enjoyable way to travel between the towns is to walk. Hiking is one of the primary attractions here, and the five villages are connected by a famous 7-mile long coastal trail that follows the curves of the shoreline in dramatic fashion. So dramatic in fact, that many segments have been closed for years due to landslides that have made them dangerous and impassible. On day two, we struck out from Manarola to hike to the next village to the north: Corniglia. With the direct route along the coast closed indefinitely, we undertook a more circuitous route up through the vineyards and terraces to the village of Volastra, then back down a steep grade to Corniglia. The views of the Ligurian Sea from this trail were phenomenal, despite the occasional rain & thunder.

Stone terraces and vineyards frame a few of Corniglia in the distance

A damp hike through terraced vineyards on the “high trail” between Manarola and Corniglia.

Agave and other plants cling to a rocky sea cliff

We were surprised at the how many different kinds of agave and cacti graced the slopes of the Cinque Terre. It was odd to see so many of the familiar “desert” plants from our Utah home in such a temperate climate! Here, several agave cling to a vertical cliff not far from our lodging in Manarola. 

After enjoying a picnic in Corniglia, we opted for a short rest and utilized the train to reach the next town of Vernazza. Vernazza was by far the busiest and most active town we visited; it was hard to imagine what the crowds would be like in the sweltering heat and humidity of summer. Interestingly, Cinque Terre, which attracts ~2.5 million visitors each year, faces many of the same challenges as Zion National Park in our own backyard: namely, lots of visitors and not a lot of room for them to spread out. The peak-season crowding has gotten bad enough that the Cinque Terre National Park, much like Zion, has begun exploring the use of reservation systems and other strategies to mitigate the crowds in peak season. Another parallel between Cinque Terre and Zion: deadly flash floods. In 2011, heavy rains swelled many of the streams that the villages are built along (or literally over in many places), killing several and burying the main streets of Vernazza and Monterosso in over a dozen feet of mud. While the towns have mostly recovered, the reality is that this will always be a very geologically active place. Nature doesn’t like near-vertical terrain.

Coloful buildings line the harbor in the village of Vernazza

A view of colorful Vernazza from high above its harbor.

Steep cliffs rise out of the sea in the Cinque Terre

Looking southeast along the Cinque Terre coast from the coastal trail between Vernazza and Monterosso. Vernazza is the prominent village in the center of the photo; Corniglia and Manarola are just barely visible through the mist in the background.

The city of Levanto and surrounding hills

The town of Levanto, just north of the Cinque Terre and the start of our hike to Punta Mesco

On our final day, we left the Cinque Terre proper and headed to the small town of Levanto, just to the north. Our plan was to hike a lesser known section of the coastal trail that traverses a wide peninsula jutting out into the Ligurian Sea, and then back to the Cinque Terre and Monterosso via Punta Mesco. Oddly, we saw far more people along this stretch of trail than we seen the past few days in the Cinque Terre, including an excursion of an Italian hiking club numbering at least 100 people. After a few dreary days, we finally got to bask in the beautiful Mediterranean sun on this trek, and were rewarded near the end with exquisite views of the entire Cinque Terre coast from Punta Mesco.

Panorama of the Cinque Terre Coastline

A panoramic view of the Cinque Terre from Punta Mesco along the coastal trail between Monterosso and Levanto.

A few days hiking (and eating) in the quiet and laid-back Cinque Terre were a great way to kick off our trip and ease us into tackling the hustle and bustle of Italy’s larger cities!


The Heart of Utah: Capitol Reef National Park

Hickman Bridge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Hickman Natural Bridge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The least visited and most isolated of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef hosts what is perhaps the quintessential Utah landscape. It is as if someone took small portions of the other four parks and mashed them into one; here you can find a plethora of arches and natural bridges, deep snake-like canyons, soaring Navajo and Wingate Sandstone cliffs, and even a few hoodoos thrown in for good measure.

Looking east across the Waterpocket Fold toward the Henry Mountains

Looking east across the Waterpocket Fold toward the Henry Mountains, the last mountain range in the lower 48 to be mapped and named, and their high point: 11,522′ Mt. Ellen.

The skinny sixty mile long park was originally established as a national monument in 1937, but became a national park in 1971. The odd shape stems from the inherent nature of the feature it protects: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100+ mile-long kink in the Earth’s crust known as a monocline. Creeks and rivers have dissected the fold over millions of years to reveal what is quite possibly the most colorful and diverse array of rock layers in Utah.

Capitol Reef is far from just about everywhere (which made the flat tire we experienced on the way that much more annoying). To the east and south lie the last major mountain range and river, respectively, to be mapped and added to the map of the lower 48 states. Not until the 1960s did a paved highway cross the Waterpocket Fold through Capitol Reef. In the northern part of the park, the Fremont River slices a narrow canyon through the Waterpocket Fold, its water creating one of the few habitable areas in the entire region. Petrogylphs attest to the importance of this year-round water source to ancient inhabitants. In 1880, Mormon settlers established the settlement of Fruita along the banks of the Fremont. The remains of this historic farming community and the abundant, lush green orchards and fields seem out of place in the otherwise stark central Utah canyonlands but add to the allure of the park.

Early morning in the Fruita orchards and pastures

Early morning in the Fruita orchards and pastures

Bighorn sheep petrogylphs along the Fremont River, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Bighorn sheep petrogylphs along the Fremont River, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Here are some of the sights from our quick trip to Capitol Reef this past weekend:

Patterns in colorful sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

On a hike through Capitol Gorge, we encountered a bed within the Navajo Sandstone with some unbelievably complex and colorful patterns:

For the most part, the landscape at Capitol Reef is quite open, allowing vast views and superb light at sunset:

Chimney rock at sunset, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Chimney Rock, a tower of soft Moenkopi Formation mudstone capped by harder sandstone belonging to the Shinarump Member of the Chinle Formation

Sunlight on cliffs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Late afternoon scene along the Chimney Rock Trail, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Sunlit cliffs at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

More sunset scenes

Crumbling cliffs of Wingate Sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Hiking among crumbling cliffs of Wingate Sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Moon rising above cliffs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

A nearly full moon made it hard to do much stargazing at Capitol Reef, which is world-renowned for dark night skies.

Not far from the park campground and visitor center are the remnants of an old trail leading up a sandy wash, then up a short but steep talus slope before arriving at a hidden basin containing hoodoos and other strange rock formations. Unfortunately it was just about noon and the light was about as direct and harsh as possible, but it was cool to explore an area off-the-beaten path yet still in sight of the tour buses below:

Climbing up a talus slope, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Ascending the talus…

Balanced rock hoodoo, Capitol Reef National Park

Gravity-defying hoodoos were the reward!

Hoodoos at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Hoodoos in the Chinle Formation at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah


Coyote Gulch in Pictures

ALcove and Jacob Hamblin Arch, Coyote Gulch, Utah

Jacob Hamblin Arch and a series of deep alcoves cut into the Navajo Sandstone are the highlights of a trip through Coyote Gulch.

This past weekend we made our first foray into the interior of the Colorado Plateau since moving to Utah. Our destination was Coyote Gulch, a well-known tributary of the Escalante River that straddles the boundary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recereation Area. Below are some photos from the trip:

Trail through Hurricane Wash, Utah

The hike begins with a nearly six mile slog through the desert along, and often in, Hurricane Wash. Toward the end it gets interesting, but mostly it looks like this. Nice, but nothing to write home about.

Sign along Hurricane Wash, Utah

After about three miles of walking along Hurricane Wash, the trail leaves Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and enters Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It is here that things start to get more interesting.

Cliffs in Hurricane Wash, Utah

Soon, cliffs of Navajo Sandstone begin to rise up along the wash and become progressively higher as you head downstream. Eventually a small stream appears in the canyon bottom, after passing through several short sections of dry narrows like this one.

Alcove along Coyote Gulch, Utah

Eventually, Hurricane Wash meets Coyote Gulch, which is perhaps best known for a series of enormous undercuts carved into the smooth and sheer walls of pink Navajo Sandstone.

Alcove along Coyote Gulch, Utah

This was the largest alcove we encountered and we were fortunate enough to be able to camp in its shadow. For most of the trip, the air was incredibly calm and still and standing inside these alcoves felt like being inside a great rotunda or cathedral.

Large alcove with hiker for scale, Coyote Gulch, Utah

The scale of the alcoves is truly incredible and difficult to grasp without being there. Note Michelle for scale in the lower left.

Star Trails as seen from an Alcove along Coyote Gulch, Utah

A group camped directly beneath the alcove on our first night spent several hours messing around with some extremely bright flashlights and spotlights. It was rather annoying when we were trying to fall asleep, but it actually made the star-trail sequence I was shooting come out rather nice.

Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Utah

Just a few hundred yards downstream from the large alcove where we camped was Jacob Hamblin Arch (also see photo at top of page). The creek makes a tight meander around the fin of rock containing the arch, allowing it to be seen from both sides.

Coyote Natural Bridge, Coyote Gulch, Utah

On day two, we day-hiked from our campsite near Jacob Hamblin Arch down to the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River, a distance of about 13 miles round trip. One of the many attractions en route was Coyote Natural Bridge.

Green grass and trees in spring, Coyote Gulch, Utah

It was mid-April and the canyon was incredibly lush and green. Many of the stream terraces alongside the creek were resplendent with green grasses and wildflowers.

Spring and rock formations, Coyote Gulch, Utah

Numerous springs emerge from the canyon walls along Coyote Gulch. Do you see the “T-Rex” in the upper left?

Lower Coyote Gulch, Utah

Moving downstream, Coyote Gulch leaves the Navajo Sandstone behind and carves into deeper and older layers of rock. Near the confluence with the Escalante River, the canyon walls are in the bright orange Wingate Sandstone.

Confluence of Escalante River with Coyote Gulch, Utah

Looking downstream along the Escalante River at its confluence with Coyote Gulch.

Stevens Arch, Escalante River Canyon, Utah

A ford of the waist-deep Escalante and a short walk upstream from the confluence reveals the impressive Stevens Arch high on the canyon wall.

Stevens Arch

Another view of Stevens Arch.

The surface elevation of Lake Powell when full is about 3,700 feet, almost exactly the elevation at the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River, as shown by this Bureau of Reclamation benchmark.

At various times in Lake Powell’s history, most recently in the 1980s, the lake surface rose just high enough to flood the lowest reaches of Coyote Gulch and inundate the confluence under shallow water. The remnant water level lines are still faintly visible in lower Coyote Gulch.

Rocks, trees, and desert varnish, Coyote Gulch, Utah

The hike to the Escalante and back was a long one, but views like this around pretty much every bend made it seem shorter!

As a final note, Coyote Gulch has, for good reason, become an extremely popular destination over the years. We actually had some second thoughts about going after reading guidebooks that implored us not to visit on a holiday weekend in the spring (it was Easter) and after the BLM employee who issued our permit told us we would be “joining a party.” In the end, we found the over-crowding hype to be somewhat overblown. While there were more folks down there than you might expect to find in such a remote location, it could hardly be called a party. We camped in the most popular half-mile section of the gulch and couldn’t see anyone else from our site along the banks of the creek. We met just a handful of other groups on our hikes in and out of the gulch, and only occasionally encountered other people on our all-day hike down to the Escalante River and back. If you are seeking complete and total solitude or isolation, this is probably not the place for you. But we didn’t feel like the crowds detracted from the experience much if at all.

The increase in visitation to Coyote Gulch certainly creates challenges for the future. Hikers are now required to carry out all human waste, which seems to be a step in the right direction. However challenging keeping the gulch in pristine condition might be, I tend to believe that this situation is better, in the long-term at least, than the alternative. Coyote Gulch has been described as one of the last remaining echos of Glen Canyon, a small remnant of the scenic wonders that were submerged after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the filling of Lake Powell in the 1960s. Glen Canyon was lost ultimately because it was “the place no one knew.” The same cannot be said of Coyote Gulch. It is one of those places where the term “loved to death” gets thrown around, but ultimately we only fight to protect places that we love and value and it is hard to truly appreciate a place like Coyote Gulch solely through pictures. Hopefully the more people that go to Coyote Gulch and experience its majesty first-hand, the more people there will be to stand-up for it against future threats that are assuredly to come.


A Hidden Geologic Gem: Ashdown Gorge

alcove along ashdown gorge
alcove along ashdown gorge

Inside a spectacular alcove along Ashdown Creek. Alcoves such as these are numerous along Ashdown Gorge where the stream has eroded laterally into soft rocks near the canyon bottom. The perspective here makes the alcove appear a little deeper than it actually is, but the entire creek bed lies beneath the overhanging cliffs.

Not far from the increasingly overrun splendors of Bryce and Zion is a canyon frequently overlooked when discussing the many attractions of Southern Utah. The stunning Ashdown Gorge lies just a few miles from Cedar City off of Highway 14, yet I’ve seen a grand total of three other people on a pair of weekend hikes up the gorge this summer & fall. The solitude likely stems from the fact that there is no marked trail or trailhead for this hike; Ashdown Creek is the trail for a spectacular jaunt up the canyon. One must also scramble down the steep toe of an active landslide strewn with old vehicles, guardrail fragments, and asphalt chunks just to reach the creek bed from the highway. Once this has been accomplished though, it is fairly easily walking for many miles up the gorge as the water in the creek is typically only ankle deep except during spring snow melt and after heavy rains.

colorful scene along ashdown gorge

Beautiful colors in a narrow section of Ashdown Gorge.

Ashdown Gorge has a very different character than many canyons in Southern Utah, starting with the color of its walls. Not red or pink – the famous layers of Zion and Moab are well below the surface here – but rather varied shades of grey, tan, and yellow. The majority of the gorge is carved into the Cretaceous Straight Cliffs Formation, an impressive unit formed when southwestern Utah was a swampy coastal plain trapped between a disintegrating mountain range to the west and the shallow Cretaceous Interior Seaway to the east. Periodic but short lived rises in sea level are marked by occasional beds that contain almost nothing but fossilized oysters and other marine organisms.

Ripple marks on boulder, Ashdown Gorge

Not far from the junction of the gorge and Highway 14 is a gigantic boulder of the Straight Cliffs Formation displaying some of the best preserved ripple marks I’ve ever seen!

Ashdown Gorge is not quite a slot canyon, although it tries in places. Despite this, the walls for much of its length are several hundred feet high and there are many locations where you would NOT want to find yourself during a flash flood, so take a close look at the weather forecast before attempting to explore the gorge! Unlike the relatively hard sandstone that forms most of Utah’s famous slot canyons, the Straight Cliffs Formation is rather soft and crumbly. The creek has taken advantage of this by eroding laterally in many places. The result of this erosion is perhaps most spectacular around the outside edges of the many tight meanders of Ashdown Creek. Here the creek has carved into soft layers near the canyon bottom, undercutting harder layers of sandstone near the rim, creating vast alcoves that completely cover the creek bed.

Another alcove along ashdown gorge

Inside another alcove further downstream. Beneath this one were a plethora of large, partially pulverized blocks of grey rock that had clearly fallen quite recently (they had not yet been covered in the orange mud like most of the rocks in the creek bed) from the overhang above. We chose not to stick around in this one for long…

While walking along the creek, one thing that is striking is the color of the boulders upon which you walk. Not grey and tan like the canyon walls, but rather varying shades of orange, pink, and red. This is because Ashdown Creek drains the vast amphitheater of Cedar Breaks National Monument upstream to the east. The soft limestones and siltstones of Cedar Breaks are easily eroded, and Ashdown Creek can turn bright orange during even minor rains.

Flanigan Arch from Ashdown Gorge

Flanigan Arch from Ashdown Gorge

Another highlight of a hike up Ashdown Gorge is a good view of Flanigan Arch, an impressive span (reputable estimates of its length are hard to find, but most seem to say ~60 feet) that is difficult to access or even see from any other location.

In addition to the lack of crowds, the high elevation of Ashdown Gorge (7000-8000′) makes it a wonderful day hike (or potential overnight trip) for escaping the heat in summer (just watch for flash floods…) Ponderosa Pine, spruce, and fir are the most commonly seen large trees in the gorge which has a very “mountainous” feel to it. When we hiked it in late October, the temperatures were actually getting a little too cool to fully enjoy the numerous required stream crossings. In June when it was 80 degrees, the creek crossings were heaven!

Ripples in the creek in Ashdown Gorge

Some small riffles along Ashdown Creek.

small waterfall along ashdown gorge

Hiking up the gorge is fairly easy, a few small riffles and waterfalls can be easily scrambled around.


Greyrock Trail Loop, Poudre Canyon, Colorado

Poudre Canyon before sunset
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Greyrock Mountain and Greyrock Meadow

And now for a few more photos from before winter roared back into Colorado this past week:

Earlier this winter we took a day trip up Poudre Canyon, about a half hour northwest of Fort Collins. One of the more popular trails here is a ~5.5 mile loop combining the Greyrock Trail and the Greyrock Meadows Trail. A short spur trail heads up to the summit of Greyrock Mountain (pictured above) near the apex of the loop but we opted to pass on this route due to icy conditions and dwindling daylight. Despite ranging in elevation from 5,500-7,000 feet, the trail was surprisingly snow free, save for the lower sections that were well-shaded by the canyon walls.

The highlight of the hike is most certainly the spectacular granitic rock formations surrounding Greyrock Mountain. I say granitic because the rock here is actually not granite but what geologists call quartz monzonite; essentially granite with slightly less quartz and slightly more feldspar (hence the pinkish color). A seemingly trivial difference perhaps but an important one to geologists trying to unravel the history of the rocks. The steep, smooth faces of Greyrock Mountain wouldn’t look out of place amongst the granite domes of Yosemite National Park. There’s also some good sized pegmatite dikes that criss-cross the area. We found some very large and attractive quartz and feldspar crystals poking around the meadows that surround Greyrock Mountain.

A view of Greyrock Meadow

Standing on a large pegmatite dike looking down into Greyrock Meadow. The continuation of the dike can be seen as the prominent vertical pink stripe on the hillside just beyond the meadow.

On a non-geology note, the trails winds through several different burn scars, apparently of different ages based on the amount of regrowth in different areas. Many of these burned areas are likely due to the High Park Fire of 2012, one of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history which ravaged the lower sections of Poudre Canyon. There had apparently been a large windstorm here recently, as there were numerous downed trees, some dead snags but some still very much green and alive, strewn across the trail:

downed Ponderosa Pine on the trail

One of many large, recently downed Ponderosa Pines on the Greyrock Meadow Trail.

On the hike back down to the trailhead (on the Greyrock Meadows Trail), we were treated to a spectacular sunset over Poudre Canyon as well as views of the distant Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Poudre Canyon before sunset

Golden hour light looking east down Poudre Canyon

Sunset above Poudre Canyon

Sunset over Poudre Canyon


The grand old Rocky Mountains!

Fall color along Bear Lake Road
Peaks and Clouds from Bierstadt Lake

Clouds linger over the Continental Divide as seen from Bierstadt Lake

The grand old Rocky Mountains!

Their bold and massive forms,

Like Pyramids of age,

Defy the sweeping storms!

-Enos A. Mills, 1887

A hectic few months has kept me away from the website recently but fortunately not from my camera. My recent move to Fort Collins, CO means that my new backyard playground is Rocky Mountain National Park, only an hour from my doorstep and home to some truly spectacular scenery, especially in the fall when the aspens and willows turn golden and storms begin to dust the high alpine tundra with snow.

Fall color along Bear Lake Road

Fall colors along Bear Lake Road

My arrival in Fort Collins happened to coincide with the annual fall elk rut, in which bull elk gather large groups of females (called harems) together to mate. The many large grassy parks in RMNP are a popular gathering place for the elk and hundreds of people can be found lining the roads and trails skirting the meadows each evening to observe them in action. Even though I used to regularly see elk in our backyard growing up, this was a new experience for me.  After an evening of watching and photographing the bull elk mate, lock antlers with other males, and toss back their heads to bugle, I can now confidently check “witness an elk rut” off my non-existent bucket list. I would share some of my photos of this unique spectacle, but in order to keep this website rated PG-13, I had better pass…

Elk cow and calf

An elk cow shares a tender moment with her calf.

While snow starts to fall in the high Rockies in late September or early October, the weather usually remains pleasant well into October or even November. We’ve had a few storms the past few weeks that have dropped some not insignificant amounts of snow in the high country so every hike I’ve taken so far has been an exercise in scouting trails less likely to be covered in snow and ice.

Loch Vale in Rocky Mtn NP

The Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park

Earlier this week I decided to hike to the base of the east face of Longs Peak and Chasm Lake. I was unsure if I would actually be able to make it to the lake given its 11,700 foot elevation but I had picked Chasm Lake because I had noticed that the last (and highest) mile of trail hugged a south facing slope. A south facing slope equals more direct sun and theoretically less snow. My scouting paid off; the trail was nearly snow free save for some hard packed, but easily traverse-able snow just above tree line and the final 200 yards to the lake. The final 200 yards presented a bit of a challenge: a 30 degree slope guarding the lake that was basically one gigantic ice rink. I wasn’t going to be getting up the main trail without crampons but thankfully, a series of rock ledges alongside the trail were solid and dry, providing an alternative route up the final 200 vertical feet to the lake with only a little Class 3 scrambling required. Upon finally reaching the lake, I was met by a wonderful late autumn scene and quite happy to have avoided the the colossal disappointment of hiking 4+ miles only to get turned around with only a few hundred yards to go.

Chasm Lake and Longs Peak

The Ships Prow (left) and Longs Peak (14,259′, right) tower above Chasm Lake

The snow and ice had the added benefit of deterring the crowds that seem to linger in the park well into the fall. The previous week I had hiked to Loch Vale in a busier section of the park and just getting to the trailhead had involved being stuffed like sardines in a park shuttle bus. Chasm Lake though I had all to myself for over an hour, save for a pair of climbers descending from Longs Peak, the highest summit in the park. The east face of Longs Peak is an imposing sight, “abrupt and precipitous for three thousand feet” according to Enos A. Mills, an early resident of the area and the driving force behind the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. The silence was stunning, save for the occasional high-pitched “eeeeeeeee” of a pika, the intermittent roar of the wind whipping up loose snow, and the din of fallen icicles and chunks of glacial ice crashing their way to the base of the cliffs.

At eve and morning lighted

With liquid gold all around,

Thy crests and hills and valleys

Gleam bright with glory crowned.

—Enos A. Mills, 1887

Rocky Mountain Aspen and grass

Aspen and grass waving in the wind in Horseshoe Park

Sunset and Moon from Moraine Park

Sunset and gibbous moon from Moraine Park


Speechless in the San Juans: A Day at Ice Lake

Panorama of Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

It’s no secret that I love mountains. It’s also not much of a secret that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are my favorite mountains. I love the San Juans for a number of reasons. One of them is geology. Look at a map and its easy to lump the San Juans in with the rest of the Rockies, but geologically speaking, they’re a whole different ballgame. Formed not by uplift but by some of the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history (think Yellowstone only MUCH, MUCH larger…), the San Juans have a personality all their own. They are tall (12 peaks above 14,000 and 314 above 13,000), large (more than 10,000 square miles, as opposed to the long but skinny ranges that dominate the rest of Colorado), and so steep that only three ski resorts exist here.

I also love the San Juans for the solitude they can offer. 5+ hours from major metropolitan areas (*cough*Denver*cough*), escaping the crowds here is much easier than in the rest of the state’s mountains (*cough*Aspen*cough*).

As of last weekend though, my number one reason to love the San Juans is that the San Juans contain Ice Lake, which might be the most beautiful location I’ve visited on Earth to date.

Panorama of Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Ice Lake reflecting Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn, and Pilot Knob

Ice Lake is a glacial tarn located at 12,300 feet not too far from the mining town of Silverton. Fortunately, it’s one of the few major destinations in the San Juans that you can’t get anywhere close to with a jeep, which drastically limits the number of people that you see and the number of engines that you hear. Instead, it is accessed via a steep 3.5 mile hike from a trailhead along South Mineral Creek. It’s been on my list of places to go for several years now and my girlfriend Michelle and I recently got a chance to spend a few days in the San Juans and make the short but steep trek up to the lake. Hiking in Colorado’s high mountains in the summertime can be challenging. Near daily vicious afternoon thunderstorms make it hard to spend any appreciable time above tree line. Despite the fact that a good chunk of this hike was above treeline, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 8am but fortunately the weather gods cooperated on this day.

While the scenery along the trail is spectacular, all is forgotten once you catch your first glimpse of Ice Lake. One look at the brilliant neon blue water and you suddenly feel as if you’ve been hiking through a prison yard for the last few hours. I’ve never seen water so vividly colored; some of the hot springs in Yellowstone are the only things that come even remotely close. The color is caused by the presence of “rock flour” in the lake, extremely fine sediment left over from the days when large glaciers scoured out Ice Lake Basin and ground the fragile volcanic rocks into a powder. These sediment particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water, scattering blue light toward the eyes of every astounded hiker and backpacker that reaches the basin.

Several lakes in Ice Lake Basin

Ice Lake (blue) and unnamed lake (green) with U.S. Grant Peak (13,767′) towering overhead.

Clouds reflected in a pond in Ice Lake Basin.

Late afternoon clouds reflected in a small pond in Ice Lake Basin

Unlike many of the other high alpine basins in the San Juans, Ice Lake Basin is HUGE! Covering nearing five square kilometers, the basin contains several other named and unnamed lakes as well as some of the most impressive wildflower fields I have ever seen. White, red, pink, and yellow varieties of paintbrush, elephant ears, asters, and columbines blanketed the basin. Wildflower season in the lower elevations has long past but up at 12,000 the show is just reaching it’s zenith!

Pink Paintbrush in Ice Lake Basin

One of many colors of Paintbrush found in Ice Lake Basin.

Rock Mountain Columbine

Hey look! Colorado’s state flower, the Rocky Mountain Columbine!

Interestingly, the other lakes in the basin were not nearly as brilliantly colored, but rather a more drab blue-ish green that was nevertheless spectacular, especially when the wind calmed and the waters began to reflect the ring of peaks surrounding the basin. We lucked into a day where the thunderstorms had trouble developing and so we were able to spend 5-6 hours exploring the basin, crossing fields bursting with wildflowers, and relaxing by the lakes. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the mountain goats that often frequent such basins, but we had to settle for a handful of marmots and a trio of llamas which another party had used to pack their overnight gear into the basin.

Unnamed lake below Vermillion Peak

Unnamed lake below Vermillion Peak (13,894′)

Golden Horn reflected in Ice Lake

Golden Horn (13,769) reflected in Ice Lake.

Lower Ice Lake Basin

Some of the views on the way up to Ice Lake. Here Corn Lily grows rampant in Lower Ice Lake Basin.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the basin, I was reminded of Robin Williams’ famous quip about Glacier National Park: “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.” Apparently God has now purchased a summer home in the San Juan Mountains because the scenery here is truly second to none.  

Ice_Lake_Basin_Panorama

Can’t remember ever being this sad about having to hike back to the car. Will have to come back and spend the night someday!


Larch Hunting in the North Cascades

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Golden Larches at Blue Lake in the North Cascades.

Still reeling from the disappointment of having to leave Colorado a mere fortnight before the world’s largest Aspen forests exploded into their annual displays of color, I was determined to find some similar photo opportunities in Washington this fall.  The “Aspen of the Pacific Northwest” is arguably the Western Larch. Most common in the Northern Rockies, a handful of Western Larch stands can be found east of the Cascade Crest in Washington state. Tall but unassuming for 50 weeks out of the year, and then drop-dead spectacular for two, the Western Larch looks all for the world like an evergreen, but it is decidedly deciduous. Most high-altitude Pacific Northwest forests are all evergreen, so unless seeing dead and decaying brown pine-needles pile up on the forest floor is your thing, autumn up in the high Cascades isn’t anything to get too excited about. Add larch though and it’s a different story. The yellowish-green needles of the larch go out with a bang, turning a glittering golden-yellow for just a few short weeks in the late fall before leaving the tree buck naked until the following spring.

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Golden larch season in the Cascades is an event that generally attracts hordes of needle-peeping Seattleites to the mountains. My hope was that the several feet of early-season snow the mountains had received in late September would be deep enough to temper the crowds. I was wrong. The parking lot at the Blue Lake Trailhead off of Highway 20 in the Okanogan National Forest was completely full, forcing us to park alongside the highway. Fortunately, photographers are born with an innate desire to bask in late-afternoon light which meant we were headed up the trail to Blue Lake late enough that most other folks were already on their way down. One advantage to having lots of folks on the trail was that we were alerted to the presence of a solitary mountain goat scrambling along a rocky gully a few hundred feet above the trail.

The lower portion of the trail was snow-free, but by the time we reached the goat and the larch groves, it was several feet deep. The main trail was hard-packed snow and ice due to all of the foot traffic but wandering off trail trying to take pictures of the larches sans people would definitely have been easier with a pair of snowshoes. The larches were nothing short of spectacular, especially against the snowy-white backdrop.  In the late afternoon sun, the color of the needles was so resplendent that you could have painstakingly coated each needle in gold leaf and not known the difference. Individual larches on mountain ridges miles away could easily be picked out, their needles back lit by the sun, shining like beacons in a sea of mountains.

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A surprisingly sunny and warm October afternoon in the North Cascades is perfect for larch hunting.

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Exploring off trail, gazing out at the Cascades through the larches.

Later in the evening, headed to a lower-elevation (read: warmer) camping spot, I was able to catch the very last rays of sunlight on Liberty Bell Mountain. And just in case larches and a spectacular sunset weren’t enough, the clear skies and nearly full moon were ideal conditions for some nightscapes of the North Cascades!

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Sunset along the North Cascade Highway.

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The constellation of Aquila sets over North Cascade peaks illuminated by the Full Moon .


Rails Vanquished, Rails Reclaimed: Hiking the Iron Goat Trail

The largest concrete snowshed on the Iron Goat Trail

Driving west on Highway 2 over Stevens Pass last spring, I kept catching glances of what appeared to be some sort of elongate, dark grey, overgrown, man-made structure paralleling the highway on the opposite site of the Tye River valley. Whatever it was, only isolated chunks of it were visible through the dense vegetation and the deep, late-season snowpack. It appeared to me to be made of concrete, although it was hard to be 100% sure given that my primary goal at the time was to prevent a van full of people from careening off the highway and plummeting into the gorge below. Ironically, little did I know that the very existence of the mysterious object I was seeing was the result of a passenger train carrying hundreds of people doing exactly that 113 years earlier.

The largest concrete snowshed on the Iron Goat TrailWalking through a large concrete snowshed along the Iron Goat Trail, built at the site of the 1910 Wellington disaster to prevent future avalanches from sweeping trains and passengers off the rails.

The logo of the Great Northern Railway at the Iron Goat Trailhead

It didn’t take long after getting home to my internet connection to figure out that what I was seeing was the old grade of the Great Northern Railway, the northernmost of the transcontinental railway routes in the U.S. The Great Northern reached Seattle in 1893 and the route it took across the Cascades can best be described as “gnarly”. A series of extremely steep switchbacks, and eventually a 2.60 mile long tunnel completed in 1900, funneled trains safely, if not easily, over Stevens Pass to Seattle. In the summer at least. The biggest danger of the route lay in the combination of heavy winter snows and steep rugged topography. The railway built a number of snowsheds, large concrete or timber structures which covered the rails in avalanche prone areas to protect the locomotives. Avalanches don’t always play nicely though, and in March of 1910, during a storm in which 11 feet of snow fell in one day, a 10′ thick slab of snow detached from Windy Mountain several hundred feet above the tracks and swept two trains off the tracks just outside the railroad town of Wellington, Washington. 96 people perished in what remains the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history, and one of the worst railroad disasters in the country’s history to boot.

Despite the somber backstory, the old railroad grade has been turned into what has to be one of the most fascinating hiking trails in Washington: the Iron Goat Trail. Taking its name from the mountain goat on the logo of the Great Northern Railway, the Iron Goat trail follows the portion of the railroad grade that was abandoned in 1929 after the 8-mile long Cascade Tunnel (still in use by the BNSF today) opened, which for the first time allowed trains to bypass the pass and its deadly avalanche chutes entirely.

The west entrance to the Windy Point Tunnel

Looking into the abandoned Windy Point Tunnel along the Iron Goat Trail

While this hike may not provide a wilderness experience (Highway 2 and the associated drone of motor vehicles is just a stone’s throw away across the valley), it does provide a heavy dose of history and just enough eeriness to keep you from ever wanting to spend the night. In between the Wellington disaster and the opening of the Cascade Tunnel, a span of just 19 years, the Great Northern Railway heavily fortified the section of rails near Stevens Pass in an attempt to prevent another disaster. I hiked the four mile section of the trail from Highway 2 to the Wellington Townsite and nearly the entire stretch was engineered in some way: tunnels, timber snowsheds, concrete snowsheds, you name it, the Great Northern Railway spared no expense in attempting to tame the mountains and make this a viable travel route over the Cascades. They even gave the town of Wellington a new name, “Tye”, because of all the bad publicity. Ultimately though, the mountains emerged victorious: the line was abandoned in favor of the tunnel less than 30 years after it was first constructed, leaving the man-made structures built in response to the Wellington disaster to slowly decay and become re-assimilated into the mountain.

This process is already well underway. After decades of enduring heavy winter snows, timber snowsheds are now unrecognizable piles of rotting wood. Concrete snowsheds are crumbling, exposing their innards in a scene that my hiking partners likened to the post-apocalyptic visuals of the Hunger Games.

A concrete snowshed falls into disrepair along the Iron Goat TrailDeep snow and avalanches ultimately get the better of anything man builds to lessen their impact

Many of the tunnels have partially collapsed, including the Old Cascade Tunnel, the longest in the world when it opened at the beginning of the 20th Century. In 2007, a portion of the roof collapsed, creating an unstable dam of debris which occasionally likes to rupture and send a deadly torrent of water rushing out the west end of the tunnel without warning. The Windy Point Tunnel, built to keep trains from derailing around a particularly sharp curve, is also slowly crumbling away while the entrances are slowly reclaimed by the forest:

Entrance to Windy Point Tunnel on the Iron Goat Trail

Moss and debris slowly reclaims the old grade of the Great Northern railway at the entrance to the Windy Point Tunnel

A rockfall along the Windy Point Tunnel is the backdrop for some fall foliage

Portions of the Windy Point Tunnel have been heavily damaged by rockfall. Thankfully, Gary and the fall foliage escaped unscathed.

After a somewhat strenuous 700 foot climb from the trailhead up to the Windy Point Tunnel, the hike follows the gentle grade of the old rail bed for several miles in either direction. Thanks to impressive work by local volunteer groups, the trail is well-maintained and a series of interpretive signs explain the history of the Great Northern Railroad and the chain of events that led to the Wellington disaster. Several spots on the trail have great views of the Tye River valley and the surrounding peaks in the Cascades making for a beautiful, intriguing, and incredibly diverse hike. But stay away during the winter for obvious reasons, and like I said, not really somewhere you’d want to spend the night…

Interesting graffiti in one of the snowsheds

Fun graffiti inside the concrete snowshed

For more info, trail maps, and directions, check out http://www.irongoat.org/


A Little Southern Utah in Western Colorado: the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness

Pedestrian Bridge over the Gunnison River

Pedestrian bridge over the Gunnison River at the entrance to Dominguez Canyon

Colorado is known for its mountains, and with an average elevation of 6,800 feet rightfully so, but tucked away in the far western part of the state are a number of spectacular red rock canyons and landscapes that look like they were lifted straight out of a Southern Utah travel guide by some sort of magical, three dimensional silly putty. Colorado National Monument is home to the perhaps the best known of these canyons but several equally impressive chasms can be found just to the south in the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area.

Wind-sculpted boulders on the floor of Dominguez Canyon

Wind-sculpted boulders in Dominguez Canyon

Dominguez Creek is a tributary of the Gunnison River just north of Delta, CO that flows year-round through a series of spectacular canyons cut into sedimentary rock of varying red, orange, and pink hues. About a mile upstream of its confluence with the Gunnison, the canyon splits; Big Dominguez Canyon to the west, and Little Dominguez Canyon to the south. Gentle trails undulate along the floors of both canyons for dozens of miles, all the way up into the headwaters of the drainage system on the Uncompahgre Plateau. I chose to hike up Big Dominguez Canyon, which I knew was home to some year-round waterfalls (ended up being nearly dry…) and impressive rock art. This turned out to be a really good decision as you’ll see shortly. Since most of my hiking recently has involved steep mountain trails at elevations often 11,000 feet, trekking along a relatively flat trail at 5,000 feet was a welcome respite that allowed me to cover quite a bit of ground.

Dominguez Canyon is located within a federally designated wilderness area, one of 43 such areas in Colorado. The Wilderness Act of 1964, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In many ways, these values were on display in Dominguez Canyon; despite the area’s proximity to Grand Junction, I hiked about 15 miles (told you it was flat) and didn’t see another human soul until I was almost back to the trailhead. Apart from some rumbles of thunder that echoed magnificently through the canyon in the early afternoon, the landscape was perfectly silent, despite its location only a half dozen miles from U.S. Highway 50. In other ways they were not, such as when I came across piles of metal equipment associated with an old mine (likely copper based on the abundance of azurite and malachite in the surrounding rocks), although being geologically inclined I’m never one to complain about this sort of thing since there are few things as fun and adrenaline-inducing as poking around old mine dumps for an hour!

Dominguez Canyon Petroglyphs

One of the larger petroglyphs in Dominguez Canyon? A turtle? A chunky centipede? Other ideas?

Dominguez Canyon is also known for being prime Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep habitat, yet a quick glance at the trailhead register told me that seeing these creatures is by no means guaranteed. The BLM asks people to record the number of sheep they spot in the register on their way out, and I noticed that the handful of groups that had visited in the last few weeks had either A) seen more than 20 sheep or B) seen zero sheep. Hit or miss indeed. Despite my best attempts at making convincing sounding sheep noises, my visit was sadly a miss; I had the pleasure of recording a big fat zero in the register as I departed, despite frequently taking breaks to scan the red cliffs for any sign of movement and feeling insanely jealous of the groups just days before that had hit the bighorn sheep jackpot. Despite the lack of sheep, some smaller and less wooly residents of the canyon made themselves known and were even nice enough to pose for a few photos:

Western Collared Lizard on a rock

Western Collared Lizard, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, CO

A Canyon Treefrog in a puddle

Canyon Treefrog, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, CO

Despite the nearly continuous presence of distant thunder, which almost prompted me to turn back about an hour into the hike, I didn’t feel a single drop of rain the entire day. Yet when I returned to the junction between Little and Big Dominguez Canyons late in the afternoon, I discovered that the creek coming out of Little Dominguez Canyon, which had been nothing more than a pathetic looking transparent trickle at 10 A.M., had been transformed into a thick brown torrent of mud and debris accompanied by the extremely potent aroma of fresh cow pie. Yum.

A muddy Dominguez Creek following a flash flood

This waterfall along Dominguez Creek had been nearly dry just a few hours earlier.

In hindsight I wish I had taken a “before” picture for comparison but that morning the creek was flowing with less gusto than your typical garden hose so my camera and I weren’t exactly drawn to it. Clearly the headwaters of Little Dominguez had gotten a lot of rain in a short amount of time and seeing this dramatic transformation was a good reminder that flash floods can strike areas far removed from any significant precipitation and validated my decision to hike Big Dominguez Canyon instead.

As spectacular as the canyon was, I can only imagine how enchanting it would be at sunrise or sunset when the low-angle of the Sun illuminates the fantastic geology or in the spring when snow melt swells the creek. Always good to have an excuse to go back!


The Spectacular San Juans: A Trip to Yankee Boy Basin

Taking in the scenery

Note: I’m reaching back into the archives here. I have about 10 posts in my drafts folder, all in various stages of completion and many from this past summer, that I’ve decided it’s finally time to post. This is one of them. And yes I know this is my 2nd consecutive post with glacial and geological undertones. I’m not sorry, glaciers are totally radical man!

On my lifetime list of most spectacular landscapes, Yankee Boy Basin in the San Juan Mountains ranks quite high. I’ve seen expansive fields of wildflowers with different species spanning every color of the rainbow plus some. I’ve seen 100 foot high waterfalls that have undoubtedly been the setting for numerous Coors commercials. I’ve seen craggy, majestic mountain peaks and pinnacles sculpted over millions of years by the work of a posse of many abrasive glaciers. I’ve seen aqua blue lakes appear seemingly out of nowhere as they fill from the meltwater of a lobate rock glacier. I’ve seen ribbons of crystal clear snow melt water plunging in an endless stream of cascades straight down the side of a mile wide glacier cirque. Never though have I seen all these things in one place. Yankee Boy Basin truly has it all. It rivals anything I ever saw in the mountains of New Zealand. Throw in the fact that I saw up-close and in person just about every glacial and periglacial feature I learned about in geomorphology class and it doesn’t get much better. Miraculously, you can actually get here with minimal effort, especially if you have a 4WD vehicle (or, in our case, the ability to rent one), and don’t mind driving on roads that look like this:

Section of shelf road cut into cliff heading back down towards Ouray from Yankee Boy Basin

Mind you, merely walking around on a level surface at nearly 13,000 feet involves a fair bit of effort and energy expenditure.  Altitude acclimatization definitely makes things easier but even then, running around in excitement is definitely not recommended since I imagine the scenery would not be as greatly appreciated if you are passed out on the floor of the basin. Amazingly, over 1500 individuals each year blatantly ignore this advice during an annual 17 mile footrace up and over nearby 13,114′ Imogene Pass.  In an additional twist that can only be explained as a classic example of male one-up-manship, in the early 1990’s, some folks decided that running 17 miles at extremely high altitude was not torturous enough and thus the Hardrock 100 was born.  Participants in this masochistic race traverse 100 miles of rough terrain at an AVERAGE elevation of over 11,000 feet, climbing up the passes and peaks in the vicinity of Yankee Boy Basin.  The total elevation gained and lost during the race is a mind-boggling 67,984 feet. Yeah, altitude does crazy things to people.

Trail headed up to Wright’s Lake

One of the neatest features of Yankee Boy Basin is a 50 yard wide body of water called Wright’s Lake.  Wright’s Lake is bounded on the east by a terminal glacial moraine which forms a small ridge meaning that the lake does not come into view until you are practically wading into it. I had not seen any pictures of the lake prior to the hike so I was unsure what to expect. After smoking my little brother up the short trail from the road, I came around the edge of the moraine to see an enormous rock glacier flowing down from Gilpin Peak 1000 feet above me and terminating at the edge of an aquamarine blue lake, a sight which exceeded even my most hopeful expectations. The sight of a lake sourcing a not-insignificantly sized stream with no immediately obvious source of replenishment is an odd one indeed until you realize that the wall of talus on the far side of the lake is cored with ice.

Panoramic View of Wright’s Lake. Gilpin Peak and rock glacier at left, Mt. Sneffels at right.

Rock glaciers are interesting beasts. They are essentially glaciers covered with a layer of rock that serves to insulates the ice which continues to flow downslope under the influence of gravity. To completely cover a glacier in rock, one naturally needs a lot of rock. The peaks in the San Juans generally consist of extremely crumbly, scuzzy volcanic tuff and ash deposits. Gilpin Peak, the summit from which the rock glacier descends, is no exception as it looks like the whole mountain could slough off into the valley during the next stiff breeze. Debris from the peak above the glacier falls from the sheer cliffs ringing the basin and accumulates on the surface of the ice. The insulating effect of the rock has allows these small remnants of ice (the San Juans were home to much more extensive glaciers during the most recent glacial period) to survive here even though the current climate in the San Juan’s is too warm and dry for traditional glaciers to survive.

From Wright’s Lake, it is about 1.5 miles and another 1500 feet up to the summit of Mt. Sneffels, one of Colorado’s famous 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet high) and one that is not on anyone’s list of “easiest to climb”. On this day, the notoriously nasty conditions on the summit of Sneffels was apparently even from a quarter mile below. From the lake you could easily hear the wind whipping around on the summit ridge and thunderstorms were approaching from the west.

As I finally get around to finishing this post in early January, I am struck by the thought of how this amazing landscape is now buried under many, many feet of snow. While I am sure that the San Juan’s are equally inspiring in the winter, perhaps even more so to many people, thinking about this gives me an even greater appreciation for such places, given just how short of a window we have each year to experience alpine landscapes such as this one. The winter of 2011-2012 was an incredibly dry one in Colorado, and many places such as Yankee Boy Basin were mostly snow-free and accessible by May or June. In a normal snowfall year, vehicle access to these high altitude basins is often impossible well into July or even August, leaving potentially as little as 6 weeks before next winter’s snows begin to reclaim the land once again.

Yankee Boy Basin


The “Less” White One: Mt. Baker and the Ever-Shrinking Easton Glacier

View of Mt. Baker (right) and the Black Buttes (left) while hiking along the Railroad Grade moraine, left behind by the retreat of the Easton Glacier.

View of Mt. Baker (right), the Easton Glacier, and the Black Buttes (left) from the Railroad Grade moraine, evidence of the former extent of the Easton Glacier.

You’ll notice that the Sun is shining brightly in all of these photos which should immediately tip you off to the fact that I’m several months behind in posting, since getting pictures this radiant at the present time would require either a a 200-mile drive east, or a 500-mile drive south. I’ll gripe more about that in a future post, rest assured.

One of the consequences of the copious winter precipitation here in the Pacific Northwest is the simply massive quantities of snow that pile up in the Cascades, just a half hour or so to the east of my current, comparatively temperate residence. In many areas, not all of that snow can melt the following summer and having more snow than you can melt is one of the key ingredients for a glacier. Almost all of Washington state north of Seattle has been covered by glaciers or ice sheets at some point in the last 20,000 years but nowadays the only glaciers remaining in WA are those high in the North Cascades and Olympics, and the tendrils of ice that snake down from the summits of the mightiest Cascade Range peaks; Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Baker.  Although the amount of glacial ice in Washington is getting ever smaller (Mt. St. Helens’ Crater Glacier is actually one of the few in the U.S. that is actually getting larger. Can you guess why?), according to the USGS Washington remains the 2nd most extensively glaciated state, 2nd only to Alaska. And they’re WAY further north so that’s sort of like cheating anyways.

Easton2

The Easton Glacier descending from the summit of Mt. Baker.

The Easton Glacier on the southern slopes of Mt. Baker is one such glacier that has undergone rapid retreat over the past century. Covered by more than a dozen glaciers, Mt. Baker is an active volcano that was known by the Lummi as Koma Kulshan, which roughly translates to “Great White One”.  Mt. Baker experiences some of the largest annual snowfalls anywhere in the world, including a U.S. record 1,140 inches (that’s 95 feet!) during the winter of 1998-1999 according to NOAA. So how could its glaciers possibly be getting smaller with that much snow?  To understand that, we need to understand a bit more about how glaciers work. If you groaned at that last sentence and would rather skip ahead to the pictures at this point, go ahead. I won’t be offended. In fact, since this is a website, I won’t even know. But you’ll be missing a really great analogy that I use in just a bit here so you should probably just stick with me for another paragraph or two. Plus glaciers are really cool. Pun wholeheartedly intended.

Here’s the (very) quick and (very) dirty version: A glacier is a body of ice that flows downhill. During the winter, snow accumulates on the glacier, temporarily adding to its mass. When temperatures warm the next summer, the snow on the lower, warmer portion of the glacier will melt (as will some of the ice) but some of the snow on the upper, colder portions will survive and turn into ice, replenishing the glacier. If more ice is added in the upper part of the glacier than can melt in the lower part, then our glacier gets larger. If less ice is added than is lost, the glacier gets smaller. If they two equal, the glacier stays put. As hard as it might be to believe given the massive snowfall on Mt. Baker, rising global temperatures mean that in most years, the Baker glaciers lose more mass during the summer due to melting then they gain during the long, dreary, snowy winters. In geology speak, this is known as a “negative mass balance” and, if left unchecked, it spells doom for a glacier. Now, its completely normal for a glacier to have a negative mass balance year every once in a while. No biggie. Rather, it’s when negative becomes the new normal that the glacier will begin shrinking and will continue to shrink unless something changes to bring it back into balance.

Easton_Melt

Meltwater flowing down the surface of the Easton Glacier in September.

Think of it this way: let’s say you wake up really hungry tomorrow morning and you decide to make yourself some bacon. Before you know it, you’ve gone right ahead and eaten that entire package of bacon all by yourself. I’m sure you can all empathize with THAT feeling.  Anyways, while that may not be the healthiest breakfast you’ve ever had, doing so once probably isn’t going to have much of an effect on your long-term health. You’ll go for a run the next day and burn those calories right back off, much like a glacier might experience a low-snowfall year followed by a record breaking snowfall the next year to make up for it. (Note: by now you’ve hopefully noticed that this analogy starts to break down when you consider that a glacier LOSES weight during a negative mass balance year…)  But if you start eating an entire package of bacon by yourself every few days, or even once a week, well….sad as it is to say, you might start having some serious health issues. Same is true for a glacier. If you lose mass one year, it probably won’t be that noticeable. But if temperatures increase, if the summer melting season becomes longer and you start losing mass year after year after year, then regardless of how much snow falls in the winter, it won’t take long before you start shrinking, and shrinking fast.

For example, here is a more expansive view of what the Easton Glacier and its surroundings looks like today:

EastonTrough

The long valley or trough stretching across the image represents the path carved out by the ice when the glacier was much larger than it is today. Just 25 years ago, much of the trough you see in the immediate foreground would have been filled with ice. The prominent ridge on the opposite side of the trough is a feature known as a “lateral moraine” (rhymes with “romaine” as in romaine lettuce, which I can emphatically say is far less tasty than bacon). A moraine consists of loose sediment that was once trapped within the ice. When a glacier is stable, i.e. when it doesn’t shrink or grow but rather sits in the same for an extended period of time, all that sediment gets deposited in large piles around the edges of the glacier when melting occurs. The presence of a moraine here tells us that the Easton Glacier once filled the entire trough to the level of the far ridge, and did so for a prolonged period of time. Considering that the ridge crest is more than 200 feet above the floor of the trough, we can see that not only is our glacier retreating, but that it was also once much thicker than it is today.

One way to get an estimate of how long the glacier has been gone from a particular area is to look at the vegetation (or lack thereof). While the time it takes for vegetation to sprout up in an area uncovered by a glacier varies widely (depending on factors such as soil development, climate, and species), often times smaller plants will begin to reestablish themselves within about 20 years or so of the glacier’s exit. In this case, much of the bare, brown/orange colored land in the center of the image was covered by ice as recently as the 1980s.  Even more amazing: follow the valley downhill to the right. Look how far down we have to go before we encounter even the slightest sign of grasses, much less trees. Scale is a little tricky in this picture but see that greenery way way down at the downhill end of the trough? That point is over a mile away from where the picture was taken and it happens to mark the approximate terminus of the glacier in the mid 1800s, near the end of a cool period known as the Little Ice Age. The Bellingham Herald has a nice article on the retreat of the Easton Glacier over the past 100 years, with spectacular photos comparing the modern glacier to how is appeared in 1912, here. As you can see, it is now a shell of its former self. Other glaciers on Mt. Baker are in a similar predicament.

Meltwater

Easton Glacier remains one of the easiest glaciers to access anywhere in the continental U.S. The toe of the glacier can be reached by hiking for about 2 miles along a moderately strenuous but well-maintained hiking trail. Eventually this trail crosses a wooden swing-bridge over the meltwater creek that issues from the glacier. From here, you simply head off trail and hike up the old glacial trough for an additional mile and a half or so (at the time of publication at least…) until you hit ice.  This part of the hike is decidedly more strenuous but as you can see from these photos, the scenery is spectacular!  Exploring the terminus of the glacier is fascinating! Huge piles of mud and debris deposited by the melting glacier cover the ice near the toe, masking the ice and making travel treacherous. A large meltwater stream emerges from the base of the glacier through one of these piles as if by magic. The ice near the terminus is heavily crevassed so one must tread carefully when hiking on the ice itself.

So next time you’re in the area, check it out before it’s gone entirely. Who knows, maybe you’ll even burn off the calories from that pound of bacon you ate for breakfast!

Hiking down the moraine. Glacier Peak on the horizon at left.

Hiking back down the moraine towards the trailhead. Glacier Peak visible on the horizon at center-left.


Rocky Mountain High…literally

When hiking, alone and sleepy, though a dark, pre-dawn, dense forest of tall lodgepole pine, every shadow and tree stump looks like a bear. It’s a great way to get your heart rate going early in the morning. I had risen from my restful (save for some early morning screaming and yelling coming from the campground across the road) sleep at 4:30 A.M. in an attempt to climb Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert, without getting myself electrocuted. I found myself mentally preparing to defend my White Chocolate Macadamia Nut ClifBar to the death at least half a dozen times over a 1 hour period. Not only is Mt. Elbert the highest point in Colorado, it is also the highest point in the Rocky Mountains as well as the 2nd highest point in the entire continental United States, just 65 feet lower than California’s Mt. Whitney.  Despite its height, the summit of Mt. Elbert can be reached via several well-traveled trails. All require a fair bit of elevation gain but the one I was forced to use as a result of not possessing a 4WD vehicle climbs 4,900 feet  in 4.5 miles, a healthy climb regardless of altitude.

Summer is generally considered a bad time to climb any peak that involves spending time above treeline because of the summer monsoon thunderstorms that are ubiquitous across the southwest. Unlike its Indian counterpart, the southwest monsoon generally doesn’t deposit several feet of rain on the surface (although they can produce some locally heavy, but brief, downpours) but they can, and often do, produce copious quantities of lightning. Lightning, as you most likely know, hits high places. Mt. Elbert is the highest point in Colorado. A person standing on Mt. Elbert, would then, by extension, temporarily be the highest thing still attached to the ground in Colorado. Put two and two together and you can see this makes for a potentially life-threatening situation.  The problem with these lightning storms is that they can develop incredibly rapidly and without warning out of clear blue sky. Your best chances of avoiding them is to hike early….really early.

I camped about 100 yards from the Mt. Elbert trailhead the night before the hike. A developed forest service campground was located directly across from the trailhead whose “services” I could utilized for $15 per night. Option #2 was to drive across the road and set up camp in a small clearing for $0 per night. The only things I would be missing (considering that I could simply walk across the road to use the water spigots) were the fire pit and picnic tables located in each developd campsite. Considering that I was alone (thus making a picnic table a bit unnecessary) and that a complete fire ban was in effect, I decided to save my hard-earned moolah.

Venus and Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky at the trailhead

Several vehicles were in the parking lot upon my arrival at 5 A.M.  By the midway point of the ascent, I had managed to pass all of these groups, save for a pack of Boy Scouts who had ascended beginning at 1 A.M. in order to see the sunrise from the summit. Lunatics. After about an hour or so of hiking through the forest, the Sun rose above the horizon just as I hit timberline at about 11,500 feet.  If you climb mountains on any regular basis, you’re probably aware that treeline on many peaks is a welcome sight. The lack of foliage generally provides reassurance that you’re almost there, in addition to providing spectacular vistas of the surrounding countryside. In other words, treeline often tells you: “Hang in there! Just a little bit longer!”

Treeline on Mt. Elbert invokes no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather, treeline on Mt. Elbert is merely a courtesy reminder that you are less than halfway there and that you still have more than 3,000 vertical feet to climb through ever decreasing oxygen levels. And the vistas aren’t anything to write home about from this point to boot.

Breaking out of the trees at 11,500’…still 3,000′ to go!

One of the few inhabitants of the upper mountain, the American Pika is a small, elusive rodent that call the scree slopes its humble home.

Mt. Elbert also redefines the term “false summit.”  Fortunately, for my sanity, I had thoroughly read a number of guidebooks and was well prepared for this matter. Good thing otherwise I probably would have consider hanging myself after reaching  the 2nd one and finding the true summit still out of my reach (fortunately, the lack of trees would have made this a tricky proposition…). On the way down, I encountered a number of weary and inquisitive hiking parties just below the lower-most and most evil false summit (still nearly 1000 vertical feet from the true summit) whom I regrettably had to inform that they still had a good hour or more of trudging to go. Judging by their reactions and creative use of profane adjectives, they were not as well-prepared for this as I was.

Nearing the first of the false summits. This one is particularly nasty since it is in plain view from the beginning of the trail.

Skirting around the edge of false summit #1, false summit #2 comes into view….

…and then the true summit finally appears on the horizon!

The view from the summit is, as would be expected, spectacular, although not necessarily any better than a number of other, lesser peaks in Colorado. Mountains fill the field of view as far as the eye can see in all directions. Several other Sawatch Range 14ers are visible from the summit including Colorado’s 2nd highest peak, Mt. Massive to the north (Mt. Massive is aptly named, it consists of four individual peaks of 14,000+feet along a 5 mile ridge) and La Plata Peak to the south. The view on a clear day (which it was) stretches all the way to Pikes Peak outside of Colorado Springs, almost 100 miles to the southeast, and the Maroon Bells outside of Aspen.  Being the first person apart from the overachieving group of scouts to summit that morning, I had the place all to myself for about half an hour. By the time summit-er #2 showed up at about quarter to 9, clouds were already starting to build up around the mountain so I decided to head back down.

View to the south along the Sawatch Range from Mt. Elbert. 14,000 foot peaks and other notable summits are labeled.

View to the north from Mt. Elbert. The mutiple peaks of Mt. Massive are at right. The prominent ridgeline in front of Mt. Massive is the ridge followed by the Mt. Elbert trail.

Sadly, having reached the highest peak in the Rockies, my options for setting a new personal elevation record are now somewhat limited unless Warren Buffet unexpectedly names me in his inheritance or I find a big bag of money on the street (those are pretty much the same if you think about it…) and decide to go to Alaska or South America (to make a donation, you can find my contact information on the About page). Or, on a slightly cheaper thought, Mt. Whitney anyone?

14,433 feet!


Mountains of Sand

Sunset over the Great Sand Dunes. Note the sunlight catching the thin layer of sand being blown across the surface, no more than a few inches above the ground. Saltation in action!

Sunset over the Great Sand Dunes. Note the sunlight catching the thin layer of sand being blown across the surface, no more than a few inches above the ground. Saltation in action!

I’ve been to my fair share of sand dunes; St. Anthony Dunes and Bruneau Dunes in Idaho, Oregon Dunes on the Pacific Coast, Coral Pink Sand Dunes in southern Utah, Juniper Dunes near Walla Walla, and a handful of dunes in New Zealand that I don’t remember how to pronounce much less spell.  By comparison though, the Great Sand Dunes in south-central Colorado truly deserve their title. In fact, one feels somewhat uncomfortable using the term “dune” due to its complete and total inability to convey the grandiose scale of this geological wonder. A weary traveler approaching them might be liable to exclaim “That’s no dune!” (if you didn’t catch that cleverly placed Star Wars pun, you should watch this short video clip immediately) upon the realization that these are no ordinary dunes.  No, they are perhaps better described as a small mountain range made of sand. When one first looks upon the dunes, it seems inconceivable that the entire massif could be made of sand. After slogging my way to their summit though, I assure you that they are.

Approaching the dunes from the south…Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background.

Before beginning to ascend the dunes, one must first cross Medano Creek, a small stream originating in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that flows between the mountains and the dunes. Due to the abnormally low snowfall in the Colorado mountains this past winter, by the time I visited in mid-June, this was a non-issue. The creek was only a few inches deep and therefore easily traversed.  Medano Creek is nevertheless just one of many features that makes the Great Sand Dunes stand out from their sand dune brethren around the world. The presence of a reasonably reliable water source along the base of the dunes creates a beach-like environment that, judging by the number of families with small children, is very conducive to building sand-castles.

Medano Creek meanders its way across the sand flats

The hike up to High Dune (which confusingly is NOT the highest dune; that title belongs to nearby Star Dune which is about 100 feet higher) is well-traveled yet there is no official trail so everyone ends up taking a slightly different route making it difficult to find footprint-free sand for good photographs. Hike past High Dune though and you are almost immediately alone in the midst of many, many square miles of untrodden, pristine, windblown sand. Anyone who has ever hiked up a sand dune before knows that you have to expend quite a bit of energy to extract your sinking foot from the sand after each step.  The somewhat demoralizing thing about hiking through sand dunes is that what takes you an hour to hike up, you can run down in less than a minute. Given that the running down part is thoroughly enjoyable; hiking the sand dunes is, in a way, analogous to waiting in line at Disneyland for two and half hours in order to go on Splash Mountain for two minutes. The analogy fails in that Splash Mountain doesn’t leave you picking sand out of every part of your body for the next three months and you don’t get an on-ride photo running down the sand dunes.  However, even hiking up the dunes, while difficult, is still a very enjoyable experience.

A lone hiker trudging up a small foredune on the way to High Dune provides an excellent sense of scale

Hikers cross the final ridge to High Dune underneath a 3rd quarter Moon

Wow, I’ve written three entire paragraphs without even MENTIONING geology yet!  This must stop now before they make me give my degree back. Anyhoo, most of the sand originates in the San Juan Mountains to the west, is transported to the edge of the vast San Luis Valley and then blown eastward by prevailing winds for many miles before the sand slams into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and accumulates in a ginormous pile at their base. The color of the sand is a bit difficult to describe. During the day, it appears slightly off-white, cream, or ivory you might even say. However look at the sand closely and you’ll see that it consists of many orange to pink to yellow colored grains; colors which are brought out in all their glory at sunset.  In a few spots on my hike/run down the dunes, the innards of the dunes were visible, exposing the intricate bedding pattern that results from sand being blown up the shallow side of the dune and then cascading down the slipface.

A series of 1-m scale sand avalanches slide down a steep slipface

A rare outcrop of sand reveals the layering that underlies the sand dunes

Sunset in the dunes was one of the most indescribable experiences I’ve ever…umm…experienced. Never mind that positioning yourself correctly on the dunes allows you to watch the sunset half a dozen times if you start at the top and slowly move your way downhill, the colors and patterns in the dunes brought out by the Sun setting through the smoke and haze in the western sky (much of it regrettably emanating from wildfires in New Mexico fires)  were spectacular. The low angle of the sun revealed the small-scale dunes that are ubiquitous yet nearly invisible in the harsh mid-day lighting (see photo at top of page).

Looking north towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at sunset.

Walking along the dune crests at sunset.

Since this has already ballooned to one of my longer entries, let’s go ahead and make this Part 1 of 2. The dunes are just one of many attractions in the San Luis Valley/Sangre de Cristo region. The other attractions that I will detail soon may or may not include an alligator farm…

And that my friends, is called a “cliffhanger.”


Obituary for a DSLR

My trusty Nikon D70 died today after nearly 35,000 shutter actuations, in a beautiful place no less; more than 10,000 feet above sea level along the West Fork of the Cimarron River, high in the ice-sculpted pinnacles of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Given that it had pluckily survived numerous 5+ foot drops onto hard, rocky surfaces, many torrential downpours, hitchhiking across the sheep-filled land known as New Zealand, and being partially submerged in mineral-rich water as I uncontrollably floated down Havasu Creek, it seems odd that a light bump against a ratty-looking old lodgepole pine is what ultimately brought it to what in hindsight seems a rather ignominious end. Alas, this accidental tap caused the camera’s shutter to cease operating, casting the camera’s 6.3 megapixel CCD chip into a state of eternal darkness, never again to capture the majestic photons emitted by the incomparable scenery of this great Earth.

The final shot…

Not even the most exquisitely crafted prose can capture the stunning allure of the natural setting in which the D70 ultimately met its demise.  Its final hours were spent summiting the rocky, yet green and verdant slopes of 12,152 foot Courthouse Mountain, a impressive edifice that is but a mere foothill to the soaring 14,000 foot peaks of the San Juan’s above. Despite it’s striking appearance, more than 1200 other peaks in the state of Colorado exceed it in height, although after today’s passing, none will exceed it in sentimental significance. A more glorious and perfect day could nary have been found; the weather gods were beaming upon the landscape below, basking the D70 in warm, unintterupted sunlight as it ascended the mountain, strapped to the shoulders of its loving owner.

The south face of Courthouse Mountain, composed of layer upon layer of volcanic tuff and breccia.

Courthouse Mountain Trail

The last photo with a human being in it…

From the summit, the D70 faithfully recorded its final panorama; a wide swath that included the jagged crags of Dunsinane Mountain and Precipice Peak, the dark green lodgepole stands of the Uncompahgre Wilderness, and the distant summits of Uncompaghre Peak and Mt. Sneffels, gripping tightly to their last vestiges of winter snow. To the north, beyond the exquisitely layered deposits of Chimney Rock belaying its violent volcanic history, lay the verdant Uncompahgre Valley, home to the towns of Ridgway, Montrose, and Delta. Along the eastern base of the mountain lay the valley carved by the West Fork of the Cimarron River, on an arrow straight path north to eventually meet the mighty Gunnison River.

Panoramic View from Courthouse Mountain, looking east into West Fork Cimarron River valley. Chimney Rock and Silverjack Reservoir visible at left, Precipice Peak at right.

View from Courthouse Mountain looking south and west towards San Juan Mountains.

The perilous promontory of Precipice Peak

Until such time that a suitable replacement can be procured, the D70 will be replaced by a small, yet capable Canon point-and-shoot camera. In lieu of flowers, please send Amazon.com or B&H Photo gift cards.


el Cañón del Colorado

According to my calculations, it has been 865 days since I last visited the Grand Canyon. Having grown up about an hour away from the Big Ditch, this seems sort of, well, unnatural.  It’s been even longer since I’ve visited in the winter, which is sad because winter tends to be the only that that a visit to the Grand Canyon doesn’t make you feel like you’re fighting your way through your friendly local neighborhood Super Wal-Mart.

One of the things that has always amazed me about the Grand Canyon is the fact that you can literally be standing 20 feet from the edge and have no idea that it even exists. Unlike many of our other semi-urbanized natural wonders, you can’t really see it that well, if at all, from the parking lot.  The Canyon was “discovered” by European settlers with horrendous depth perception in 1540 .  A soldier named Cárdenas was searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola under the command of his boss, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado when he and his small regiment stumbled upon the canyon. Cárdenas were either inherently godawful at judging distance and depth or they were really really drunk at the time because they thought that the river at the bottom was only 6 feet wide. Dangerously low on water, Cárdenas sent several soldiers down into the canyon, thinking that they could reach the river, obtain water, and return to the rim within a few hours. The erroneous nature of that estimate soon became clear and whatever horror stories Cárdenas’ men told the rest of their party were apparently bad enough to keep any other Europeans from visiting the canyon for more than 200 years.

The hordes gather at Mather Point

A raven surveys the canyon from Hermit's Rest

Looking west from Desert View, the last rays of sunlight stream into the canyon

People watching at the Grand Canyon is always a fun little activity this time of year.  On one side of the spectrum you’ve got people in shorts who are flabbergasted at the fact that the canyon rim is covered in a foot of snow and are then forced to purchase very overpriced souvenir sweaters from the gift shop. On the other side we find the individuals (read: Phoenecians) who are dressed down like Randy from A Christmas Story (I can’t put my arms down!) even though it’s actually like 40 degrees outside.

Due to the snow, trails down into the canyon are notoriously treacherous this time of year so we stuck to the rim for the day.  One of my favorite places on the South Rim is a little-known overlook called Shoshone Point.  It’s unsigned and doesn’t appear on any park service maps yet can be rented out for weddings and other special events during the summer.  It’s about a one-mile walk from the main park highway on a dirt road.  Since the park service pretty much refuses to acknowledge that it exists this time of year, not only is it one of the most spectacular viewpoints, but you basically get it all to yourself as well. Unless other people see you parked on the side of the road in an entirely non-descript patch of forest and decide to check things out for themselves. Then you might have a bit of company. But hey, still better than dealing with 8 billion tour buses!

Mid-afternoon panorama from Shoshone Point

Watchtower at Desert View


Down the Staircase

Some photos from a week exploring southern Utah, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Staircase:

Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River. 4-shot panorama. Given that it was about 110 when I took this, I can't even describe how appealing that water looked...

The infamous murderer of Glen Canyon, a.k.a: Glen Canyon Dam, Colorado River

Peakaboo Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

Summer Milky Way from Rainbow Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

Kodachrome Basin, near Cannonville, UT

The Toadstools, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Toadstool. Yours truly for scale.

Toadstool close-up. Basically the orange sandstone of the Entrada Formation (same stuff that forms the famous spans of Arches National Park) is easily erodible but portions get protected by boulders of the harder and more resistant Dakota Sandstone that originate in the cliffs above.

The Toadstools, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument


Hitchhiking and a Last Huzzah

My last weekend in New Zealand has come and gone.  I decided the best way to start if off was to get up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning and stand for several hours on the side of the road trying to persuade random strangers to transport me to the last major remaining destination on my New Zealand “to do” list: Queenstown.  While I could have easily taken the bus, this way just seemed like way more fun. Anyways, during what became a frustratingly prolonged shoulder standing session on the outskirts of Dunedin, I discovered that even in a hitchhiking tolerant nation such as New Zealand, the reaction of drivers when confronted with a hitchhiker on the side of the road is quite varied.  In order to pass the time I came up with a comprehensive classification system for categorizing and stereotyping the thousands of drivers that did not have it in their hearts to give me a lift. My system is as follows:

  • Ignorers:  A common species, ignorers are easily spotted as they are the people who appear to be wearing invisible cervical collars around their neck.  It’s incredible how easy it is to tell when someone is trying very, very hard to avoid even the slightest bit of eye contact with you as they drive by.  I could have been standing there wearing a chicken suit and juggling flaming chainsaws and it wouldn’t make a difference.
  • Avoiders: Avoiders are by far the most egregious offenders.  These are the people that either dramatically accelerate (despite the approaching sharp bend in the road, which necessitated a speed reduction on the part of sane drivers) or abruptly move into the lane farthest away from me as they pass me by (a lane that, I might add, ended 30 yards down the road, thus forcing them to almost immediately return to the lane that had just passed dangerously close to me and my sign).  It was as if they thought I was going to brazenly launch myself onto their vehicle and cling precariously to the roof a la James Bond until they let me inside. I call shenanigans.
  • Squinters: This group made me want to put my head through the speed limit sign I was standing next to.  Fortunately, they are easy to identify ahead of time allowing you to avert your gaze until the danger has passed.  An experienced squinter will, beginning at least 50 yards away, hunch over the steering wheel and intently stare at your sign feigning a lack of comprehension.  They will continue to intently stare at your sign, as if expecting it to do a magic trick, until they have passed you. “Whoops, wasn’t able to read that until it was too late. Guess we’re not picking him up.”  Seriously folks, there’s one word on the sign and it’s in like size-250 font.  Don’t pretend you can’t read it.
  • Nodders: Nodders own the road, or at least they think the do.  To them, you standing there with your backpack and little sign are doing nothing but besmirching the good name of the road they are driving on. They love to give you disapproving glares or stern little head-nods in an attempt to communicate this fact to you.  Demographically, nodders tended to be older drivers, an age group on which my hopes rested on the albeit small chance that, maybe, just maybe, I would bear a striking resemblance to some little old lady’s grandson, prompting them to experience enough compassion to pull over.  As you have probably guessed, this was not the case.
  • Wavers: Most truckers fall into this category, but a lot of other people do as well. Wavers always make the deliberate effort to give you a thumbs up, a smile, or flash you a peace sign in order to show that, obviously, they sympathize with your plight hope you get a ride super soon. However, they are far to worried about getting burglarized or brutally murdered to actually pick you up.  Hypocrites.

Anyhoo, just as I was beginning to reconsider my choice of transportation methods, I was picked up by Lea, an exchange student from Colorado who was heading to Wanaka and would be able to take me to within about 30 miles of Queenstown.  The ride went without a hitch (couldn’t resist..apologies); Lea was friendly, easy to talk to, and (to my relief) a safe driver, although our conversation did reveal that she was a Mac enthusiast but since she was the only person in two hours with the heart to pick me up, I decided to forgive her for this. After being dropped off in a little hamlet by the name of Cromwell, I had barely pulled my sign back out of my backpack when I was picked up by two local girls one of whom was heading to Queenstown for a job interview (I should note that all three girls who picked me up were rather attractive…apparently my conscious decision to shave prior to hitchhiking so as not to look like an axe murderer paid off 😉 ).  They drove me the last half hour into Queenstown and gave me some tips on the best way to hitchhike back out of Queenstown (which I ended up not doing due to bad weather and time constraints), thus completing my short but successful hitching journey.

Me on Queenstown Hill with the slightly humorous side of my sign that I never actually had to use. The hitchhiking community is divided on funny signs apparently. Some say they help, some say it makes you look desperate. I got where I needed to go with just a simple "QUEENSTOWN"

Queenstown itself is an interesting place.  At any given time there are probably more tourists there than permanent residents here resulting in a very resort-ish and touristy, yet at the same time very upscale, feel.  Most people come here to bungee jump, skydive, paraglide, jetboat, zip line, or to participate in a myriad of other adventurous activities in the area. In fact, for the entirely reasonable price of $189, you can even be strapped into a plastic lawn chair, tethered to a steel cable, and pushed off of a 500 foot high platform that is suspended over a rocky canyon as a video showed to me by an English girl in my hostel proved.  My plans centered more on the…er…cheaper activities: namely, hiking.  Queenstown is smack in the middle of the mountain chain that runs along the entire South Island of New Zealand and there are countless trails in and around the town.  In the less than 48 hours that I was actually in Queenstown, I managed to get in almost 25 of hiking in breathtaking mountains surrounding the town.

Queenstown

Shotover St, the main drag through Queenstown

Shore of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown

The marquee hike in the Queenstown area is the Ben Lomond Track, which ascends nearly 5,000 feet in a distance of only about 4 miles.  I started this hike well before sunrise which made navigating the maze of approach trails on the lower slopes of the mountain rather interesting, but I managed to reach the summit by mid-morning.  I’ve never been skydiving but I honestly don’t know how it can be that much different that what I saw from the summit of  Ben Lomond. The views from the summit were undoubtedly some of the best I’ve seen in New Zealand, or anywhere else for that matter.  It wasn’t even a particularly clear day and yet from my vantage point nearly one mile directly above Queenstown, I could see peaks that were hundreds of kilometers away. To the south was Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s longest lake, with Queenstown strung out in a band along its shore.  To the north were the snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps, including Mount Aspiring, New’s Zealand’s second highest peak after Mt. Cook.  My stay on the top was short however given extreme winds that prevented me from even standing up long enough to take more than a few pictures.

Self portrait from the Ben Lomond Summit. It was crazy windy. My fully loaded backpack literally started rolling away in the wind at one point.

Ben Lomond from about 1000 feet below the summit

In the evening, I explored Queenstown with some other friends who had ventured into the mountains for the weekend.  Dinner was at the famous Fergburger (supposedly the best burgers in NZ) where I indulged in the enormous and absolutely delicious ‘”Tropical Swine”, a fresh NZ beef patty topped with cheese, bacon, pineapple, aioli, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and tomato relish.  I also lost a whopping $2 in a slot machine at a casino (gambling age in NZ is 20) and would have had photo evidence had the security guard not swooped in and politely informed us that photos were prohibited. All in all though, not a bad way to finish off my time in New Zealand.

More wrap up stuff to come once I finish my last two finals and pack my bags for the trip home.

Panorama from Ben Lomond Summit. Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu at left.


The Best Day Hike in the World

At least that how the Kiwi’s promote the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. Given that I haven’t expereinced the vast majority of the day hikes in the world, I am not in a position to judge the accuracy of such a statement, however after last week I can say with certainity that you would have a very difficult time arguing against them.

The Tongariro Crossing is located in the central portion of Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest.  The 19.4 km (12.0 mile) track climbs up and over a saddle between Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro, two active stratovolcanoes that along with Mt. Ruapehu form the backbone of the national park and are the highest points on the North Island of New Zealand.  If there is one thing that the trail is known for, it’s bad weather.  The trail had been closed for most of the week that we were on the North Island due to snow and 120+ km/hr winds but on the last day of the trip, the clouds parted, the winds moved on, and we had 100% perfect weather for the entire day.

Undertaking the Crossing involves taking a shuttle bus to a trailhead on the west side of the mountains.  19.4 km later, the bus picks you up on the north side and drives you back to the carpark.  From the very beginning, the landscape is incredibly stark, with almost no vegetation.  Mt. Ngauruhoe (which played the role of Mt. Doom/Mordor in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) looms above you for the entire first half of the hike.  In many ways, the landscape is similar to what you would experience hiking across the flanks of Kilauea or Mauna Loa in Hawaii only much more mountainous.  All three of the volcanoes in the part have expereinced significant eruptions in the last few decades and the trail crosses a number of fresh lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, craters, and steaming ground.

The trail begins by slowly climbing up a broad glacial valley on the western flank of the mountains. After about 8 kilometers and a 750m (2500 ft) climb up Devil’s Staircase (brief side rant: “Devil’s” is an prefix used FAR too often when it comes to naming moderately challenging sections of trail.  Go hiking anywhere in the world and I promise you you will encounter a difficult section of trail named Devil’s Staircase, Devils’s Highway, Devil’s Ladder, or Camino del Diablo or something like that.  I really want to know how these conversations go.  “Ooh, this here trail is pretty steep…what should we call it?”  “I dunno, whatever we call it though we should probably slap “Devil’s” on the front of it to make it sound nice and foreboding.”  I mean, I get that its steep and you might be a little winded when you reach the summit, but in all honesty, unless you are trying to climb Everest in 120 degree heat with no oxygen, I have a feeling the Devil could assign you far more hellish tasks.) , we arrived at Red Crater, the highest point on the main trail.  Side trails split off the main route and head to the summits of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro.  Since we had gotten a late start, we chose Mt. Tongariro since it was shorter and didn’t involve scrambling up a 45 degree scree slope. The views from the top were breathtaking, one could see almost from one coast of the island to the other.  After Red Crater, the trail descends sharply down to Emerald Lakes past a number of hydrothermal vents and pools and lots of steaming ground.  The second half of the trail basically just heads straight down the mountain and is relatively unremarkable.  We ended up running the last few km’s in order to catch the 3:30 bus back to our car and not have to wait for a hour to catch the next one.

All in all, an amazing hike, especially for the geologically inclined.  My only complaint were the hundreds of other people we shared the trail with.  This was to be expected I suppose given that this was the first day in a week that the trail had actually been passable but it was still far from what you would call a wilderness experience.  Despite the length and elevation gain, the crossing is not a particularly difficult trail.  With the exception of one stretch just after Red Crater, the trail is incredibly well maintained and the footing is superb.  We manged to complete the trail in exactly 7 hours including our side trip to Tongariro Summit.