Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hiking the Remote Sweetwater Range and Mt Patterson

The Sweetwater Range, on the very eastern border of California, is a solitude seeker's dream. 
The Sweetwaters, viewed from the Sierras
There was something powerfully nostalgic about traveling to the Sierras for the first time in nearly 7 years. Coming up over Sonora Pass was like seeing an old friend. I guess it was a bit odd that I just kept going past and landed in the Sweetwater Range. I thought I was a bit crazy to pass up such a familiar place but for some reason I was feeling like being in the desert that weekend. 

The eastern Sierras and the various mountain ranges on the California-Nevada border go largely underappreciated for residents and travelers of California. I find this a bit odd as the attractions of the area are phenomenal- Mono Lake, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and the White Mountains are stand alone destinations. However, it is a little counter-intuitive to be passing up the likes of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to get there. However, if solitude, sweeping views and uninterrupted wilderness are things you appreciate, you will have no trouble leaving those familiar places for something new.

Here's a map of the area I explored;

I was feeling a little daring now that I have a true 4 wheel drive vehicle with comparatively high clearance to my old sedan. There are parts of the Sweetwater Range that are strictly accessible to serious 4-wheel drive vehicles but you can get to most trailheads by good 2-wheel drive vehicles. Having said that, I don't think I would have driven up this way in my old sedan!

As you can see from the map above, there isn't a shortage of free drive-in campsites with fantastic views of the Sierras. I ran into a few 4x4 folks who were very courteous and willing to share their more extensive knowledge to help orient me to the area. 

The trailhead I used was right on the shore of Lobdell lake (which is a reservoir). There's some fishing and campsites at the lake. Although its not natural, it is a fairly peaceful place to camp or begin hiking!

Things can be a bit confusing here. The 4x4 road circles around the west shore of the small lake and it is possible to shave off about a mile of walking to drive to the second trailhead (which actually has a sign). I was told this would be a bit dicey in my car, so I parked near the southern shore. 

Note, there is no formal trailhead here and I essentially followed closely along the eastern shore of the lake, crossed the small creek feeding into it and walked up the 4x4 trail to the first major fork in the road. From here, there is a sign letting you know you're about to travel into an alpine wilderness and to leave no trace. This is the only sign with a map and directions I spotted on the trip. Directions are fairly straightforward but just be aware of this.

From a hiker's perspective, the road/trail is in excellent shape. I ran into a crew of 4-wheel drivers doing some train maintenance to keep it that way; God bless them! I ran into about a dozen folks that day in various 4-wheel drive vehicles and all of them were very pleasant to me. I found them to be some of the kindest people I've ever met on a wilderness hike!

The road steadily ascends the mountain with very little elevation loss or flat sections. Water sources are fairly numerous and dependable up until about 10,000 ft. I didn't have any problems crossing the East Fork of Desert Creek although earlier in the summer this could be a bit rough. 

As the trail rises above treeline, the brilliant volcanic colors of the mountains become more evident. This part of Eastern California has no shortage of volcanic features which are most obvious near Mammoth Lake and in the Devils Postpile National Monument. The Sweetwater Mountains themselves are the obvious remnant of the explosive Little Walker Caldera. It's ancient rim is not as obvious as that of more southerly calderas in Mono County but the view from the Sweetwater Range is illuminating. 

Thankfully the area is long extinct from its more violent geological past leaving behind mountains of orange, violet and red ribbons. Surely these are some of the most colorful mountains in the state!

At about 11,100 ft, the trail comes crests on a fairly level plateau that looks like Mars. Devoid of the lush vegetation below, only scrubby, flowering plants seem to flourish this desolate environment. They are easily mistaken for rocks but the environment is sensitive to trampling and off-road driving. Hikers and drivers should not veer off trail.

At the summit, I was greeted with fantastic views of Nevada and California. Snow lingered even into August after a very snowy winter. I was told that the road did not clear of snow until late July this year! I lucked out.

Its the same way down but the late afternoon light continued to create an ethereal sight that made if feel like I was on a different route. 

Mt Patterson is the highest mountain of the range but hardly the only place to see. Wheeler Peak looks like it is worth the trek as well. The sisters- South, Middle and Eastern are an off-trail trek that is rarely done but I'm sure it is quite the adventure as well. Even though I was a bit sad to not have spent more time in the Sierras, I was so happy to have stumbled upon this gem! 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Hiking Boundary Peak, Highpoint of Nevada

If there's one thing that could be said about Nevada, it is a mountainous state! Even a visit to Las Vegas can't shroud the looming desert peaks that surround the fabulous city. I love Las Vegas as much as anyone but what has always drawn me to the Silver State are is many mountains.

I've been traveling up and down Nevada since essentially I became an adult. I celebrated my 22nd birthday in Great Basin National Park and returned the next winter to summit Wheeler Peak- Nevada's tallest summit wholly within the state. Boundary Peak is technically Nevada's highest point although it should be said that this "peak" is more of an arm of a higher summit in California. Of course, the summit itself is glorious in its own right.

(The absurd pasttime of peak-bagging and highpointing requires one to accept that state boundaries were often drawn without respect to topography. This means that many states have a high point that is not a true summit- Connecticut and Maryland are both mountainous states without a high point that is a true summit)

At the Nevada Highpoint with Mt Montgomery and the White Mountains just over the California border 
For me, this was high point #38 and a fantastic adventure. 

Part of the difficulty of ascending Boundary Peak is that it is quite isolated from nearly any major center of population. Reno and Las Vegas are almost exactly equidistant by driving. Cities in Calfiornia are more like 8 hours away. The road to the parking area can be passable by a skilled w-wheel driver but I was happy to have my all-wheel drive. The road is not rough by Nevada standards but might be a bit intimidating if you're not used to it. Here are excellent directions to the trailhead.

The parking area is well marked and has a map. As most of the trail is in wilderness, there are no other signs to mark the way for the entire trip. Having a topographic map and compass is essential.

As you can see from the map, there are two fairly established routes. Both could be best described as herd paths- easy to find in the daylight but ambiguous in some sections. I preferred the more straightforward ascent of the obvious Northeast-facing bowl. 

The first few miles parallel trail creek. It was a wet year so there was no shortage of water sources but I would be hesitant to bank on this after a dry winter in the late summer. A few sections were difficult to navigate but generally speaking you stay to the south of the creek. Just before the fork between the two cols, there is a fantastic forest of ancient bristlecone pines and limber pines that is worth a brief detour-

I never actually found the turn off herd path for the route up to Trail Creek Saddle. Instead I charged up the bowl to the ArĂȘte of the summit. As it turns out, it wasn't too bad of a trail. In the way of scree-scrambles, it was neither too miserable nor hard to follow. If you're not used to scree, be prepared for slow going.

At the col, there were stunning views. Sure I had at least an hour before I would be on the summit but I was already getting the views I was hoping for. The summit is tantalizingly close but be mindful that it is about another 45-minutes to 1 hour of fairly exposed Class II and III scrambling- 

Eventually I made it to the summit and wow, was it ever worth the struggle! I could see for perhaps 50-75 miles. The Eastern Sierras were still glistening with snow, even in August. Miles below was the vast Owens Valley as well as the nameless valleys of the Great Basin and Range. It had been at least 4 years since I last breathed air this thin but I was so thankful to be back. 

I ran into a botanist at the summit who was the only person I saw the entire day. He was also a peakbagger and he illuminated the already fascinating science behind high alpine desert forests. I was thankful.

What a great summit- fine in its own right, even if I was there because of it's highpoint status. I would have liked to have bagged Montgomery Peak while I was there but that would have been another 2-3 hour scramble even though it is less than a half a mile from Boundary Peak. Of course, the summits of Mt Dubious and White Mountain Peak are others I intend to visit in the future as I further explore the area. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Hiking Gossip Rock, Garin Regional Park, East Bay, CA

Garin Regional Park and it's neighbor Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Park are two beloved parks of the East Bay and well worth the trip from anywhere in the region.

Towering high above the East Bay are the ridgelines of the Diablo Range. For me, they are tantalizingly close to where I work and live and I take every opportunity I get to explore them. Garin Regional Park along with the Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Park has plenty of draws for both the causal explorer and serious hiker.

The six mile hike I did was a perfect sampler of everything that makes this place regionally loved. There were open vistas, narrow canyons, historical sites and plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing. 

I decided to get all the elevation gain out of the way earlier in the hike and took the high ridge loop trail looming above the picnic area. It was instantly steep! Thankfully the trail rose well above the opposing ridgeline allowing for outstanding views of the bay. After the first 0.5 miles, the trail goes from strenuously steep to modestly steep. Most of your elevation gain save for various ups and downs is done within the first 1.25 miles.

I think most are intimidated by the steep trail above the parking area so I didn’t run into any other hikers on the magnificent ridgeline! It’s a great spot t take it a little slower and appreciate the scenery
Steep at first, becoming more pleasant
Pioneer Park is an appropriate name for this area. Even though Silicon Valley, San Francisco and most of the East Bay can be seen from the ridgeline trail, there’s plenty of evidence that this area is an active ranchland. I believe the cattle of the park are not exactly a commercial venture but you’ll certainly feel like you’ve stepped back in time on these trails.

The High Ridge Trail intersects with the brief loop around Gossip Rock. I discovered that Gossip Rock is not a peak or highpoint but it is a curiosity in an otherwise open savannah. The rocks create an oasis of trees overlooking the bay which is a pretty sight. The trail loops around the edge of the park boundary and has views of the more prominent summits of Mount Allison and Mission Peak.

Back on the main trail after the loop,  the trail takes a steep descent before arriving at the intersection with the  Pioneer Trail. I wasn't expecting much from this trail but was pleasantly surprised at how narrow and lus its canyon was.  Like the previous Trails, I encountered no other hikers and had excellent solitude. Two steep ridgelines sheltered the bottom of the canyon from any outside noise other than that of the wildlife!

The trail does rise up over a saddle, adding to the total altitude of the hike, although this elevation gain is comparatively gentle. On the other side it runs through another Canyon before intersecting with a spiderweb of trails which eventually lead back to the parking area. If you follow the map, it is easy to find your way back.
Gossip Rock

In the end, the distance was 6 miles exactly with roughly 1,000 ft of elevation gain. Although very steep at the beginning, the effort is rewarded greatly. I'm sure I'll come out here again, soon!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hiking Mt St Helena, Napa Valley, California

Mt St Helena is the tallest mountain in the San Francisco Bay Area. At 4,342' it is one of the rare coastal summits that receives measurable snow in the winter. A true classic for any hiker in the region
The summit views of Mt St Helena
Boy is it ever refreshing to be surrounded by mountains again! The summits of the coastal ranges of California are not very tall compared to the sierras and transverse ranges of the state. However they are far more lush and the views are no less phenomenal. I decided to kick off my peakbagging of the state by hiking Mt St Helena

This is a very popular summit to hike, especially in the summer months. In addition to it's lofty summit, Bubble Rock is accessed by the trail and is a classic rock climbing destination. Solitude is not always abundant here but the trail does offer almost continuous panoramas of the Napa Valley.

Here's a trail map-

Robert Louis Stevenson State Park is where the parking area is. I came at about 8:30 on a Saturday and the parking lot was practically overflowing. Thankfully I was able to get a spot but I would caution anyone with arriving too late in the morning. People tend to start clearing out again around 12-1 so an afternoon may be more fortunate for parking.

The trail itself is actually not very obvious from the parking area. An unmarked double-wide dirt track leads away from the highway to a picnic area and clearing. From here, there is an actual sign that says "Mt St Helena, 5 miles". That's really one of the only directions provided by signage. 

Enjoy the shaded forest in the first mile of the trail- you won't encounter it again in the 4 miles afterwards that lead to the summit. The trail switches back and fro before coming to a monument to Robert Louis Stevenson. Shortly thereafter the trail comes to it's first major overlook. This may suffice for some hikers looking for a brief out-and-back.

After the overlook, the trail comes up to the access road which will serve as the route to the top. The road is fairly straightforward from here. While the openness of the access road gives way to some fantastic vantage points, there is very little shade. Note also that there are no services or water sources from trailhead to summit. 

With just a mile to go to the summit, the trail seems to arrive on the massif of the summit. Five peaks make up the mountain although only two are regularly climbed; the main summit and the east subpeak which happens to be the highpoint of Napa Valley. Thick chaparral seems to deter climbing the additional summits.  

At the very top there are some radio towers but that doesn't obscure the fantastic view into the northern wilderness of the mountains. With only a few small towns visible, you would never guess such a summit is with the range of the 7.6 million people of the Bay Area. 

I must have snapped several dosen photos at the top- it was wonderful
The taller, Cobb Mountain, off in the distance

The high-point of Napa County is very easily bagged on the same hike although it is an otherwise insignificant shoulder peak of the true summit. Naturally, I couldn't resist the 10 minute detour.

Total distance was roughly 12 miles round trip. I did it easily in about 3/4 of a day and saw hikers of all experiences on the mountain. Certainly I would like to return in the winter!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Hiking Canyon Falls, Upper Peninsula, Michigan

Continuing with the wonderful theme of amazing waterfalls after thunderstorms, I visited Canyon Falls. While the name itself is not very imaginable, the sights to behold are glorious. 

Canyon Falls is right off of Route 41 South of L'Anse Michigan. The hike to the falls is a relatively flat half a mile. Along the way the Bocco Creek was nearly jumping its banks given the recent storms. It was a preview of what was to come.

I could hear the falls from the parking lot, adding to the anticipation. There were several smaller and larger falls interconnected by rapids. The largest of the falls was an intense torrent. Getting up and close  felt precipitous. The roar of the falls was vibrating the very rocks I was standing on.  From here the river cascades through a very narrow gorge and runs down a second set of smaller falls.

A number of the rivers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are black water Rivers. I believe this is what gives the waterfalls such a distinct copper tone-  almost the same color as iced tea. Tannins are responsible for the unique color. Tahquamenon Falls is the famous waterfall of the UP that is on a blackwater river but several others exist. 
Tannin-stained blackwater
I find the colors to be exquisite and a natural part of the wilderness of Northern Michigan. Canyon Falls is one of the easier Falls to see of the Upper Peninsula and I would highly recommend it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

First Visit to Copper Harbor Mountain Biking Trails of the Upper Peninsula

At the northern Terminus of my journey through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, arrived at to Copper Harbor. I've known about this place for many years as a mountain biking destination, once I finally arrived I was filled with anticipation.  By the end of my weekend, it was clear why this place has become an international destination for mountain bikers.

The Keweenaw Peninsula could be accurately described as a peninsula within a peninsula. Located at the northernmost part of Mainland Michigan, it creates a jack-knife like landform on Lake Superior. Sawtooth-like mountains sharply rise above the glistening blue lake with tiny harbors along the shoreline. The geology of the mountains strongly favors the development of copper, and the first mining boom was in 3,000 B.C. Prior to European contact, Native Americans mined and traded copper that made its way across the continent. Subsequent copper booms have long exhausted the resource but a new one bloomed with the advent of outdoor travel. I've dreamed of coming here since I first visited the upper peninsula nearly six years ago.

I could have spent weeks exploring the peninsula but what drew me to visit this time where the Copper Harbor trails.  The IMBA “Epic Ride” status is a rarely given award to a system of mountain biking trails that has an outstanding variety of novice to expert trails and is worth a visit from anywhere. To me an “epic ride” is like a magnet. I’ve ridden close to 20 trail systems in the country that, at one point or another, have achieved this designation.

Copper Harbor seems to live and breathe mountain biking in the summer. Most of the hotels will be filled with the mountain biking crowd. Keweenaw Adventure Company Is the premier Outfitter and information center for all things biking in the upper peninsula and they were enormously helpful in acquainting me to the area.  Additionally they run a mountain biker shuttle during the summer months which makes the area essentially like a ski resort. You can spend a whole day doing downhill biking!

My first uphill ride was “The Flow” which is a classic. Even in the early summer, most of the foliage had not come in yet and there were views in every direction. The trail was not a terribly difficult uphill or downhill ride though it helps to have a full-suspension bike. I caught a few glimpses of “Overflow” which is a far more difficult ride that I’ll have to try in the future. 

Trails on the west side converge at the “summit” of Brockway Mountain Drive, itself a panoramic viewpoint. It’s easy to forget you’re still in the midwest with a view like that!

From here, I cruised down “On the Edge” which was my favorite trail in every respect. The scenery is unparalleled- I almost went off the edge myself admiring the views! Further down, it has a network of corkscrews which challenged my abilities. I’m sure better bikers have a field day on that section of the trail. 

Whoopity Woo and Garden Brook Trails are fairly standard “blue squares” which are less challenging but flow-y and relaxing. All of the blue square trails on the south-eastern side of the park were pleasantly challenging. 

It’s a really neat scene this far up North. I met a mix of locals from around the peninsula and folks like me who had traveled great distances to be here. Overall, people are courteous and friendly. I do not ride with nearly the tenacity that people who mountain bike all the time do but nobody was rude or impatient with me on the trails. 

After a half or full day of riding, one can’t miss Brickside Brewery at the edge of town for local brews. Pines Resort also had a public tavern with plenty of Michigan spirits. Although I was only able to spend two days here, I could have easily spent a month. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Hiking and Waterfalls of the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness, Upper Peninsula, Michigan

The Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness exemplifies everything that I love about the Northwoods. Secluded, rugged and photogenic! 

Like standing next to a tsunami
This is a classic example of a magnificent place that I would not have known about had I not been in the area. Often when I travel, I have a faint scaffolding of where I want to go and make sure that I allow plenty of time for stumbling upon new places. In this case, I must thank the kind folks at Baraga County Tourism who illuminated this vast wilderness to me. 

The interior of the Upper Peninsula is as unspoiled and untraveled as it gets. If you understand how difficult it is for an area to attain "Wilderness" status in the US, you would know that this is no exaggeration. The exact wording of the law states that it is "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain" (Wilderness Act of 1964). I had a keen sense of this while wandering through these wilds. 
View from the top of the gorge
Getting to this are requires comfort in navigating unmarked logging roads although I had no trouble with clearance in a two wheel drive sedan (even following a rainstorm). The roads are fairly well graded and though I wouldn't go careening 40 miles an hour down them, I didn't feel too slow either.

The entrance to the wilderness area is deliberately vague. There's a parking area that is marked and then the trail leaves right across the street. Directions and maps can be found here and several other websites though I would strongly suggest that the traveler visit the Baraga CVB for a free, very detailed map of the area and any updates on road closures. With those directions, I had absolutely no trouble with navigation
Fairly typical roads of the area- not too shabby for a two wheel drive vehicle 

The classic pentagonal sign marking a wilderness area in the US
The hike that nearly ever visitor to the area completes is the hike to the Sturgeon River Falls. There's so much to enjoy about this hike. First, it immediately dips well below the rim of the canyon and into the wild. The waterfall is visible within the first mile and the trail skits the side of the lower gorge all the way along the river's edge. It is not unusual to see bald eagles and bears and this would be one of the better opportunities to see a moose in Michigan. Even if no large wildlife is seen, birding opportunities are abundant. For a complete list of wildlife that can be spotted in the gorge, visit here

I have been ever so lucky to visit this place after a thunderstorm. Sure the trail was a bit muddy but were the falls ever thunderous!

Here's another one of the lower falls-

The trail essentially fades into the woods along the river though there appear to be many informal herd paths that lead up the ledges. Towards the top of the ledges, I caught a great view of the river as it makes a large U - shaped bend. Nice spot for lunch!

The whole hike took less than two hours. It could be considered a bit strenuous coming back up the to the canyon rim but overall I think it's fairly do-able even for a less experienced hiker.

Just south of the trailhead for the falls is a pullout for one of the overlooks above the rim and it's a fine place to get some perspective on how deep it is. Bet you weren't expecting such a sight in the midwest!