Thursday, December 30, 2010

Exploring San Francisco Part 2: Hiking Trails in the City

It might surprise you to know that a city with a population density of 17,383 people per square mile has an abundance of hiking trails. As a matter of fact, a significant amount of San Francisco's city space is set out as park land. In fact, the National Park Service operates "Golden Gate National Recreation Area" which encompasses beaches, trails, and historic sites. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself going on a legitimate trail run within the city limits and pretty much having it all to myself. Here are some sights I recommend

Trails run through the west side of the city and through WWII era installments
The Presidio of San Francisco

Most people believe California somehow came into existence during the 1950's and hippies later colonized the new land; this is false. The Presidio of San Francisco was a Spanish military base established in 1776 the same year the United States was founded. Three different countries have claimed it since then, Spain, Mexico, and the United States and at one point it was an active military base. Far too much has already been written about the history of the Presidio to be contained here, but it should be noted that it is well worth the visit. The buildings within the park are the antithesis of San Francisco architecture; the houses are large and colonial with an austere feeling to their design. There are expansive yards and many buildings that are hundreds of years old. The trail system is mostly towards the beaches but a walk through the Presidio will not feel like traditional San Francisco.
  
The Presidio is a much older part of San Francisco
 Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is the most famous prison in the United States. The short story is that pretty much every single 1930's who's who in the criminal world was a prisoner at one point in Alcatraz. The most interesting part about visiting the island is learning about all the true escape stories from Alcatraz. While no one has ever been found to have escaped, the stories of how they tried it are fantastic. The island has been featured in many films such as "Escape from Alcatraz", "The Birdman of Alcatraz" (great Burt Lancaster film) and "The Rock" (ehh... maybe not so great). But in reality, there is a rich amount of history around Alcatraz Island making it well worth the visit. It is also nice to hike around the island away from the city although I doubt the past prisoners enjoyed the same freedom.
A very strategic location for a prison
"Hiking" the Golden Gate

Its sounds like somewhat of a joke, but hiking the Golden Gate Bridge can be a difficult affair. Its about a 3.5 mile hike round trip across the bridge but it has wild weather. Seafarers know that it is a very difficult task to cross into the bay from the ocean due to the fog, wind and wild currents. While you don't have to worry about the ocean on the bridge, be prepared for cold weather and very strong winds. However, this is a classic San Francisco adventure and its something every visitor must do before leaving this beautiful city! Pack some warm clothes!


Angel Island: I'm almost embarrassed to say this, but I've never been to Angel Island, another hiking destination within the San Francisco Bay. If you have been, I would love to hear about your experience!

No shortage of hills!
So get out there and enjoy a city that has some real "urban" hiking!

Read. Plan. Get Out There! 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Point Reyes: The Cape Cod of California


"To cross this valley to the peninsula (Point Reyes) is to leave modern California and enter an island of wilderness, forgotten by progress, a quiet land misplaced in a noisy world." -Stephen Trimble

Its getting more and more difficult to find a beautiful and serene beach that isn't packed full of tourists and sunbathers. Furthermore, when such a place is "discovered" it is quickly devastated by an onslaught of resorts and tours. Yet, for the wayward adventurer who does not mind a walk in the woods, there is still Point Reyes.
Lonely footprints on a wild beach
     Point Reyes is located only about 25 miles north of San Francisco and couldn't be more different than the hustle and noise of the city. Its a slice of Northern California that has been and will always be wild and uncivilized. Point Reyes National Seashore, preserved by the US Park System, encompasses a large stretch of rugged shoreline that contains rocky shoals, sandy beaches, dense forests, plenty of lakes and wildly green landscapes. Best of all, it is only accessible by long hikes; no roads, cars, airplanes, hovercrafts, rocket ships, UFO's or other motorized systems can reach these beaches. You can be sure that everyone at the beach is as much of a hiking enthusiast as you are.
The actual Point Reyes on a particularly clear day
Overview

      Northern California coastal areas are characterized by a certain degree of rugged beauty. There are many beaches and areas that are completely inaccessible. Unlike the gently flowing beaches elsewhere in America, you can expect to be climbing a significant amount of elevation after leaving the visitor center before descending to the shore. Also, this is one of the wettest areas of the country; fog, rain, dew and mist are ubiquitous and the weather can turn foul instantly. However, while we may term this phenomenon as "bad weather", it has created a vibrant and lush ecosystem that displays every shade of green you could possibly imagine. Life near the shore is similar to a rainforest; it is dense, diverse, and very wet. Therefore a very unique beauty exists in the park and the website reports that over 1,000 species of plants and animals exist in a space that is about the same size as the Bay area. Hikers will be treated to both empty, serene beaches as well as noisy and bountiful forests. It is by far my favorite coastal area of the West and I've certainly seen my fair share of remote Pacific beaches.

The quintessentially rugged coast of Northern California
You can have an entire beach all to yourself out here
 What to do, when to go, where to go

      Backpacking is probably the best way to explore Point Reyes. This is because it usually takes most of the day to even reach the beach but also because the trails are scenic enough to prevent rushing. First, go to the National Park Website and find the park's map of Point Reyes. I've done every trail in the park and there really isn't a wrong way to go. I've loved hiking up to the tallest point in the park, Mt. Whittenberg (1,407ft) and then descending into Coast Camp. This camp is usually very empty. This also will put you in great position to do the Coast Trail which is an absolute must when visiting Point Reyes. From here, you can view both the sandy beaches and the rugged coast of the area.



Green Everywhere!!
      I've also become quite fond of hiking from the south end of the park. Starting at the Palomarin Trailhead, you can head about 5 miles north into Wildcat Camp which also has sandy beaches. This way will take you by many coastal lakes and dense forests. Also, you have a chance to see Alamere Falls. Interestingly enough, it is a waterfall that falls straight into the sea (I've never seen this before!).

Looking Northeast from the actual Point Reyes
     I should not forget to mention the place for which the park is named; Point Reyes. The point itself juts awkwardly out from the mainland due to the ever-present San Andreas fault line. This point is almost exactly like a smaller version of the famed Cape Cod of Massachusetts. There is a quaint lighthouse that you can hike down to and there are whale watching opportunities in the winter. Also, any interested bird watchers will have a field day out on this point.

     So, if you live in San Francisco, or would just like to see a more solitary beach for once in a while, point your car north on highway 101 and just head 30 miles out of San Francisco. Pull in to the Bear Valley Visitor Center and tell them that Joe sent you.... well, just tell them you want to see the beach.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rubio Canyon Canyoneering, Los Angeles

Los Angeles might be one of the World's largest cities but it is in no short supply of rugged adventures. What is surprising to know about southern California is that a half an hour drive can not only get you out of town, it can get you to some of the country's best adventure spots. Mountain biking meccas, mountaineering challenges, extreme hikes and canyoneeering spots are only a hour's drive away from the world's worst traffic. Today, I'd like to present you with one of the more unique urban adventures; Pasadena's Rubio Canyon
Rubio Canyon; an adventure with a view of the LA skyline
      Rugged adventures are close to home in Southern California; Rubio Canyon is located right in Pasadena and its as epic as it gets; 90 foot waterfalls, massive double repels and an approach that takes you through old-town. It was rather ironic that you could see the LA skyline while carefully descending down a vertical cliff. This is one of the best spots in So-Cal for Canyoneerng.


What is canyoneering?


     Before I go any further, let me define canyoneering for you. Canyoneering is like reverse rock climbing. Instead of starting at the bottom of a rock face and climbing up and hiking down, you hike to the top and repel your way to the bottom. The advantages of canyoneering over rock climbing are that you don't need as much gear, physical fitness, or technical know-how. However, like any adventure sport, it is dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. You will be repelling a lot which means that you hook yourself into a rope at the top of a cliff and gently descend down using proper techniques. Get the appropriate training for canyoneering before going off into the wild. Also, you need to know exactly everything there is to know about the canyon because once you go down into it, there's only one way out. So if you don't bring enough rope for a larger repel, you're pretty much screwed.
A 90-foot waterfall you will encounter on this canyon


      Having said all that, I have found canyoneering to be a wonderfully adventurous sport; its a great way to experience all the thrills of rock climbing while seeing places that very few are able to see.


Canyoneering Rubio canyon is a great adventure but it requires the utmost knowledge of both the sport of canyoneering and the obstacles of Rubio Canyon itself. Please do not attempt this canyon without the knowledge or someone who knows the route.


For more detailed information about this canyon, please visit the online guidebook at http://www.dankat.com/advents/rubio.htm


The Approach


      The trail to the top where you descend into Rubio Canyon starts in Pasadena at the park on the corner of Loma Linda and Lake Avenue. You should leave a shuttle vehicle on the corner of nearby rubio vista road and pleasant ridge road (http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=rubio+vista+road+pasadena+ca&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=30.130288,86.220703&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Rubio+Vista+Rd,+Altadena,+Los+Angeles,+California+91001&ll=34.204952,-118.123605&spn=0.007666,0.02105&z=16&iwloc=A)) This place gets pretty busy on the weekends so show up early! The Sam Merrill trail is the one to look for and be forewarned, it is a zoo. This 2.5 mile trail will take you to the top of the very popular "Echo Mountain" which used to be a mountain resort. The foundations are still there and you can also observe several thousand bumbling tourists and trail runners in their natural habitat. The place is a wreck; I'm sure every single person who's ever bought at bottle of spray paint has felt the urge to climb up here and sign their name. Stay not a minute longer than you must to catch your breath; the good stuff is to come.


I'm sure the resort was actually a sight to see at one point
The Canyon


      Rubio canyon is located east of the concrete remains of the resort. Finding the trail to it is a little trickey. Head back to the Sam Merrill Trail and look for the large, rusted cog and the picinc benches. Look for the "Castle Canyon" trail sign and follow that little trail. There is a faint trail that takes you around the resort area and behind the mountain. This is a faint trail but you should be headed down a steep section into Rubio Canyon. Once you dip down into Rubio Canyon, there should be no more ascending.
      The first mile or so of the canyon involves a fair amount of bushwhacking and climbing through dense vegetation. Bring some good pants and a good pair of gloves because some of the bushwhacking is intense. About the time you get tired of the first slog, you will reach the first descent.
The first repel
      Remember, after that first repel, there is no turning back. If the weather starts turning bad, you might want to consider heading back. The first repel is a double repel so use a 200ft rope. After the initial waterfalls, you will come up upon Thalehaha Falls, which is the tallest and most dramatic waterfall of which you will descend. This is a good 90 foot falls, so make sure you're rope is long enough to handle it. Additionally, you can't see the bottom from the top, so if you have any doubts on the length of your rope, this is a bad place to test it. Descending Thalehaha Falls can be slippery too, take it slowly and mark your route well.

Be prepared for double repels, don't pull your rope until you are sure!
      From here, it is pretty much a staircase of repels. The first is a double repel that is pretty straightforward followed by another two falls. They can be done as a double repel, but there is another bolt after the first repel and it will make rope retrieval easier if you use it. The last repel is another double repel down another very scenic waterfall.


Out of the Canyon


      After the final repel, you simply follow the river until you get to a water treatment plant. A dirt road parallels the river from here popping you out in a neighborhood. The road will be East Loma Linda road and all you need to do is hang a right and follow it until you reach Rubio Crest road. Turn right here and make your way back to the car.


Final Note


      This guide serves only as a basic overview of Rubio Canyon and you should go with someone who knows the route. Canyoneering can be dangerous so don't be a fool. Also, remember, canyons are dynamic; big storms can change the shape or structure of waterfalls and canyons so be prepared to make some changes. Enjoy yourself out there and don't take any chances.




Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mt Katahdin and the Heart of Maine's Wilderness

"The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains, — their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Katahdin."
(Pomola is a Native American deity)
Welcome to the wildest mountain in the East!
Introduction

     As a Californian, I believe I know a thing or two about wilderness. As a matter of fact, my definitions of wilderness have been shaped and measured by the deserts, mountains and lost seashores of California's more rugged side. Needless to say, I was a bit sceptical when I first went off to Maine to explore the "emptier" parts of the state. After a climb of Mt Katahdin, let me assure you that the Maine outback is every bit as wild as the California Sierras.

     Mt Katahdin is almost exactly a mile high and is just about the only real mountain within a hundred miles. Some West Coast and Rocky Mountain climbers might scoff at the relatively low height of Katahdin but believe me, it is rugged. As you can tell from the above picture, you're looking at a scramble up "Class 3" terrain from most sides. This involves a lot of boulder hopping and hands and feet climbing. Additionally, while summer in the Sierras and Rockies is relatively refreshing, summer climbing up Katahdin involves dealing with extreme humidity coupled with high temperatures and the ever present threat of a summer storm. Again, Katahdin is like a smaller version of Rainer; there are easier ways of getting up it but weather is extremely unpredictable and its prominence relative to its surroundings attracts the storms.
There are some real climbing routes up the mountain as well
     Having said all this, anyone looking at climbing Mt. Katahdin is in for some panoramic views of New England wilderness and one heck of an adventure!

Hiking Katahdin

     Before hiking Mt Katahdin, it is important to make sure you get a permit. Permits may be hard to come by on a busy weekend in July; the state park does a great job of keeping this part of Maine from becoming a disneyland. I'd recommend getting the permit at least two weeks in advance. Additionally, follow the weather patterns before you go up and make sure you have a very sturdy pair of shoes/boots.
Massive vertical relief

      Katahdin is located in Maine's Baxter State Park and the park is a well preserved wilderness park which means there are absolutely no forms of technology within the park. Bathrooms are all pit toilets and there are no snack bars along the way like there are on New England's Mt Washington. Also, be prepared for a very long day- the hike is a long one and there is a big elevation change. The good news is that if you bring a way of purifying water, there are many water sources along the way.

Cathedral Ridge and the "Knife's Edge"

      There are many ways to get up Katahdin, but I have been told that the Cathedral Ridge to Knife's Edge is one of the best. From the hiking station at the end of Roaring Brook Rd. Here there will be a station to sign in and it is recommended that you do. Again, Baxter State Park is a real wilderness park and there is little help beyond this point. Head on the Chimney Pond Trail for about 3.5 miles. This trail goes through some very deep woods of the park and it will be very hot and humid in the summer. Be prepared for mosquitos as well.
The view of Katahdin at Chimney Ponds
      After a rather uneventful section, you will pop right out on the Chimney Ponds and the foreboding ledges. To the right, you will climb the Cathedral Ledges trail which goes to the right of the ponds. This is where it gets more like a climbing route and less like a hiking route. Blue paint marks the trail and be sure to follow it closely; the talus makes the route somewhat ambiguous if you're not careful. The "cathedrals" are three prominent rocky points along the way- use them as guides when climbing up. This section will take the most time so be patient and chose each step wisely.

      Shortly after the third Cathedral, you will come across the Saddle Trail which takes you directly to the summit. If you go in the summer, you might even see some Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers coming down from their 2,100 mile journey. This trail is a little flatter and straightforward to Baxter Peak and the top of Katahdin (same thing)

Can you believe people hike from Georgia to Maine?
      The Knife's Edge is ahead of you and be prepared for the thinnest trail you could ever hike. In this 1.1 mile section you will teeter your way across the fantastically thin ledge that takes you across Katahdin's spine. Again, travel very slowly and be careful where you place each step. Thsoe who have extreme vertigo should travel back the way they came.

      After the Knife's Edge I recommend heading down the Helon Taylor Trail which will take you almost directly back to the parking lot where you came from. This is another 3.5 mile long trail which has a more gentle descent compared to Cathedral Ledges. Also, you have wonderful views of the Maine woods which are untouched within Baxter State Park.
Maine's Untouched Wilderness
      Katahdin is perhaps one of the most difficult hikes in New England and there are many people who underestimate its difficulty. However this should not deter a good hiker from attempting this mountain. Anyone who does will be rewarded with spectacular solitude and beautiful views of New England's wild side. Happy Trails!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Loneliest Highway in America: Highway 50


‘There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it.’
The 287-mile stretch of U.S. 50 running from Ely to
Fernley, Nev., passes nine towns, two abandoned
mining camps, a few gas pumps and the occasional coyote.
‘We warn all motorists not to drive there,’ says the AAA rep,
‘unless they’re confident of their survival skills.’

-Quote from Life Magazine, as printed in the "Highway 50 Survival Guide"

Welcome to "The Loneliest Highway in America"
How Highway 50 got its name     

     Its called, "The Loneliest Highway in America" and it sure does live up to its reputation. It has all the thrills of Route 66; scenery, little towns build for the highway, and just an all around great ride. Highway 50 itself crosses the country, beginning in Ocean City, Maryland and ending in my quaint little hometown of Sacramento, California. It is a unique ride. Unlike Interstates 80, 90, 10 and other cross country routes, it is designed to be scenic, not necessarily the easiest and most direct route. While I've driven interstates 80, 40, 10 and others significantly, Highway 50 is a much more interesting route, especially through Nevada.


      "The Loneliest Highway in America" refers specifically to the section of Highway 50 that cuts straight across the great desert of Central Nevada. It gets this name from an article produced in Life Magazine that portrayed this highway as a rugged one which penetrates the most uncivilized parts of the country. Originally, it was meant as a serious warning to the wayfaring motorist but it since has attracted the attention of many road tripping adventure seekers. This is how I was able to drive it and why I recommend you do the same!

The Grand Tour 


      I drove Highway 50 in the spring of this year and loved every minute of it. I will give you the tour, from west to east. I drove it the other way but "traditionally" it is traveled in an easterly direction. Starting in beautiful Lake Tahoe, Highway 50 winds its way down from the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada into the incredibly different high desert of the Great Basin. In a matter of miles you will instantly see the effect of the Sierra Nevada's rain shadow on Nevada's desert.


      Carson City, the capital of The Silver State, marks the last real city you will see on the route. I actually had an extra two gallons of gas with me just in case; there are parts of the highway that go 100 miles or more without gas. Carson City itself is an interesting city; it somewhat feels like an old western town, but there are better things to see on the highway.

      Leaving Carson City, you start getting deeper into the Great Basin and notice a marked difference in trees and shrubs. Despite the colder temperatures, it is a desert and rarely rains or snows. It isn't a stereotypical cactus filled desert but those who are environmentally inclined will appreciate the rugged beauty of this area. Plants have adapted to desert conditions while also adapting to extreme cold temperatures and wild winds that make the area such a harsh place to grow.

A real open road!
      As you head eastwards, you will pass through several very small mining towns. These are mostly remnants of the Mining boom of Nevada and are now just road stops on Highway 50. Most of Nevada is grazing land these days and you may see some wild horses that still inhabit the vast stretches of government owned open land. A couple points of interest on the first section is "Sand Mountain", a large sand dune off the road which has since become a major spot for strange adventure sports... like "sandboarding". Also, you will certainly pass by the famous "Shoe Tree"! It is a massive cottonwood tree with perhaps 10,000 pairs of shoes tossed upon its boughs. Its quite the sight to see; here, in the middle of the desert, is a massive tree covered in shoes. There also an interesting history to the tree which I will certainly post about later.
"Shoe Tree"
"Sky Islands"


      As you move through the middle of the state, you begin to realize Nevada's rather unique topography. See, Nevada has the most number individual mountain ranges in the United States. This makes the ride like an old time wooden roller coaster. One moment you're climbing up an 10,000ft mountain pass, the next you're in a deep valley and the whole thing starts over again. Each mountain range is like a "sky island". Due to their height, these ranges attract the little moisture that moves through the area. Therefore, there is an abundance of life in the higher regions of the mountain, which is rather ironic compared to most other mountains. What's even more interesting is that each valley is essentially a barrier to life migrating between ranges. So, life in each range is literally isolated although they may only be 30-40 miles apart.

"Sky Islands" attract the little moisture of the desert
      Austin, Nevada is near the center of the state and is actually a mountain biking destination. If I ever do this drive again, I will remember to bring a mountain bike and hit one of the many trails that lie just outside of town.

     Towards the eastern part of the state, you will drive through the town of Ely, Nevada and then come to my absolute favorite site- Great Basin National Park. Yes, there is a national park all the way out here and it is perhaps the most isolated park outside of Alaska. Great Basin National Park is another "sky island" and one of the state's highest points. Wheeler Peak is 13,026ft tall and it is a very rugged mountain to climb, even in the summer. I did a winter ascent of this mountain and was proud to say that I had the entire 77,000 acres of the park all to myself. I don't believe I have ever been to a more remote location.

Great Basin National Park
      Beyond viewing the wild environment of the Great Basin, the national park also has the Lehman Caves. This is a massive limestone cave and is very accessible. The Lehman caves have some rather alien-like structures and has some that are found nowhere else on Earth. Tours are offered by the park for very reasonable prices. Great Basin National Park is perhaps the highlight of Highway 50

The Lehman Caves
Final Thoughts


     Road Tripping is certainly one of America's favorite pastimes. Seeing large areas of the country all in one trip helps develop an appreciation for the diverse environments of our country. I certainly hope that you make the wildest road trip you can and drive "The Loneliest Highway in America"


Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Grand Canyon Grand Backpacking Trip

First time seeing the Grand Canyon

You might not expect it, but before this last weekend, I had never been to the Grand Canyon before. I've seen a lot  of the country, but somehow managed to never make it down to this part of Arizona. So, for my birthday, I decided to go backpacking with a friend in the Grand Canyon and it certainly lived up to its reputation.
The Grand Canyon lives up to its well-earned reputation
I was in an interesting position to be visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. See, I've visited so many places with an abundance of natural beauty that I almost expected the Grand Canyon to just be another trip. I've also done a fair bit of traveling and adventuring in Southern Utah which is a very similar environment to the Grand Canyon. Needless to say, I am conditioned to seeing places that are incredibly picturesque. Having said that, I was still as amazed by the Grand Canyon as someone who is not as well traveled.

The Trip
     The Grand Canyon is (only) an 8 hour drive from Southern California so me and a backpacking friend hit the road at around 2PM Southern California time. Although we were mostly driving across the desert at night, the anticipation was terrible. We finally got there around 11 at night and promptly slept at the rim.

The next day we awoke as early as possible to begin trekking down the canyon. Backcountry permits are often difficult to obtain, even in November, so we showed up as soon as the visitor center opened and luckily snagged two backcountry permits. Anticipation continued to grow as we hopped on the Park's free bus system to take us to the trail. We were doing the South Kaibab Trail-Bright Angel Trail loop, which is a classic backpacking trip and I highly recommend it for anyone's first time to the GC. After picking up final supplies at the local store, we finally caught a glimmer of the canyon while riding the bus before dipping back into the forest. I practically blasted out of the bus when we finally reached our destination.
First Look!
First Look!
     People often use the phrase "it took my breath away" too liberally and for things that don't actually take your breath away. However, seeing the Grand Canyon and all of its glory for the first time literally took my breath away. Again, I've seen some "grand" canyons before, but this one took the cake. I couldn't stop saying "WOW!" Of course, my camera was constantly on, taking pictures.

We started descending into the canyon via the South Kaibab trail and it was the best; the trail is blasted into a ridgeline that goes straight down into the canyon so you really do get the best views. I confess I was very slow on the going down because I couldn't keep my eyes on the trail. One of the things that surprised me about the Grand Canyon is that it very much resembles a staircase. You hike a thousand vertical feet downwards, level off for a bit, hike another thousand feet downwards and continue like that to the mighty Colorado River. It seemed like every turn and every section offered a completely different angle for viewing the canyon.

After several hours of pure descent, we reached the Colorado River and crossed it using a suspension bridge build for hikers and mules. It seemed too easy, early pioneers had incredible difficulty navigating this area and we were able to get to the bottom and cross in a matter of a half a day.
A simple crossing for a mighty river
The campsite at the bottom was in a magnificent little place. It was nice to be in the company of other brave hikers who had decided to enjoy the canyon despite the impeding storm. That is when DISASTER struck! A 50 mile an hour gust completely knocked over an expensive bottle of whiskey that I brought all the way down the canyon. I confess, despite the surrounding natural beauty, I really lost it. Oh well, we headed off to Phantom Ranch to check out the campground. I never knew this, but Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the canyon, has such incredible luxuries such as running water, flushing toilets, and beer. Dinner was amazing as well, the best I've ever eaten in the backcountry; we made noodles and curry tuna. Well played.

It rained all night but both of us managed to stay dry. I slept in my ever so durable bivy sack and my friend slept in a very reliable rei half dome. I was pleasantly surprised to awake to a light drizzle and discover that the bivy sack fared so well that not a drop of water had seeped through.

Rain on the Colorado River
The Hike Out
     The hike out was every bit as enjoyable as the hike in. What's really so wonderful about the Grand Canyon is that it has hiking that is not destination-based; there are great views everywhere. So, despite the light rain, cold temperatures, and wind, there was nothing bad about the trip. In fact, as we hiked higher and higher, the views were even more glorious with the clouds and rain. We even had the privilege of seeing a full double rainbow over the canyon. I was just aghast at the many people we encountered who were downright miserable. There was absolutely nothing bad about hiking up 4,000ft in rain and wind; every part of the trip was enjoyable.

There's no such thing as bad weather!
Its a funny thing hiking out of the Grand Canyon; most people are accustomed to thinking that you start out hiking up and then end by hiking down. Everything is reversed in the Grand Canyon- you hike DOWN first and hike UP to get out. This is why the Grand Canyon Search and Rescue Motto is "Down is optional, Up is Mandatory!" Funny... sometimes I adopt the same mentality when mountain climbing... oh well.

One of several rainbows encountered on the hike out
We eventually reached the top of the rim again and unfortunately had to leave this enchanting place. Leaving the Grand Canyon is like leaving Disneyland; its saddening and all you think about is how soon you can make it back. Hiking it in the offseason, November, was even better than the summer. The temperatures were relatively comforable with the right clothing and there were not too many tourists bumbling around. So, I highly recommend you make it out to this gorgeous place and backpack it; you will see every side of the canyon and gain a better appreciation for such and incredible natural wonder.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"127 Hours" and other Strangely Ironic Tales of Success


      It seemed like it was only a matter of time before the legendary story of Aron Ralston was made into a film. Although the story is now quite well known, Aron Ralston was made famous by his incredible story of survival from a canyoneering accident near Moab, Utah. While climbing alone, a large boulder fell on his arm, pinning him inside a tight canyon with no way of getting out. In an incredible demonstration of the power of will, Ralston cut off his own arm with a small pocketknife, somehow repelled out of the canyon and hiked several miles before finding help. The book and movie are destined to become classics and have already received great reviews.

      Its strangely and beautifully ironic, isn't it? I do not mean to appear insensitive or sadistic by this, only to point out the final results of such an ordeal. A man has a ghastly and gruesome encounter with death, is forced to do the unthinkable, and comes out a successful motivational speaker, climber and businessman. Not only that, but many other survivors of harrowing experiences have had similar success as writers, motivational speakers and businessmen.

      Take for example, the story of Joe Simpson, who's story is every bit as unimaginable as Ralston's. Joe Simpson was the "Aron Ralston" of the 80's. For sake of time, the simplified account of his story is this; Joe and his climbing partner Simon Yates summit the previously unclimbed west route of Siula Grande, a 20,000ft mountain in the Andes. After just barely starting their descent Simpson breaks his leg, which, with the route and elevation, is a death sentence. Both Simpson and Yates continue at a snail's pace until another disaster happens. Essentially, Yates lowers Simpson to the end of the rope, leaving him stranded mid-air over a deep crevasse. Yates is forced to cut the rope sending Simpson plunging deep into this crevasse. Not only does he survive this fall, Simpson is able to climb out of the crevasse and crawl his way down the technical route without any water or food. He was quite literally dying when he reached base camp.
      After such a harrowing experience, Simpson wrote a famous book, Touching the Void, which became one of the greatest mountaineering books ever written. It was subsequently turned into a documentary and Simpson is now a famous motivational speaker. He recounts the irony of the situation in a true and humorous manner. "Almost dying on Siula Grande... has made me a successful businessman, which I find odd". The list goes on. The Worst Journey in the World, Alive, Into Thin Air, and many of our favorite stories of the power of human will all seem to have propelled the writer into timeless stardom.

     I hope that I do not appear as if I believe these amazing and factual stories do not deserve attention. On the contrary, I truly enjoy them and have the highest respect for those who have survived the most unthinkable situations. If anything, they provide more support to ideas that we consider cliche or take for granted: the importance of optimism, the power of attitude and how even the worst of situations can turn out for the better. Perhaps the real question I would ask our survival heroes is, "Knowing how it would all turn out, would you still have stopped yourself from going on what would become a terrifying survival experience?"

     In conclusion, in order to get my little blog to take off, I am considering putting myself through an incredible near death experience.



(just kidding)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Geologic Wonder of the World: John Day Fossil Beds

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon

Waaaaay out in Eastern Oregon lies a number of wondrous places that are unknown to anyone outside the world of adventure. Eastern Oregon? Its one of the blank spots on the map; strictly grazing and farming land. However, within this part of the country are natural treasures such as the deepest canyon in the United States, spectacular fossil beds, and endless amounts of rock climbing areas. I would like to highlight the John Day Fossil Beds as a place you should sometime visit however far you may be.

The appropriately named "Painted Hills" unit of the Park.
      The John Day Fossil Beds are well protected by the US National Park service and contain sites where active archeology is underway. Its an incredibly rich site for plant and animal specimens of the Cenezoic Era. While the scientific discoveries of the site may bore some, the sites themselves look artistic and designed. Perhaps that is why the monuments most famous site is known as the "Painted Hills"

(not) Photoshopped
     The Painted Hills are hills that comprised of unique color stratifications that are hardly ever seen in nature. While these delicate shades of red, purple, orange and yellow correspond to geological eras and the events that happened within each, they are simply beautiful. Personally, it was amazing to see all these completely natural colors all gathered into one landscape. It was like a painter's pallet; in one scene, I could clearly see every shade of purple, blue, green, orange, red, yellow, brown and white. How often does that naturally occur? Despite its obscurity and remoteness, it is a location I highly recommend getting to some day 
The full spectrum of Color in a single landscape
     If you are scientifically-inclined, the monument also has a museum and a few active sites where you can see real fossils. In the same "Painted Hills Unit" is a spot known as "Leaf Hill" which literally contains thousands of fossilized leaves of ancient trees. Many are still there too; I managed to spot 10-12 in a short hike around it. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is part of the park and contains exhibits and fossils that have been found in the monument. It is a great place to learn about prehistoric America.
Color Stratification
     So, the John Day Fossil Beds are about as far away from anything as you can get. Bend, Oregon is the closest city to the monument and its still a haul. I won't post the full rundown of directions, but basically you head north from Bend, Oregon to Redmond via Highway 97. From there you take highway 126 all the way to highway 26 and continue to the small town of Mitchell. From there, its about 9 miles further on highway 26. Again, if you need more specific directions, feel free to message me.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hiking the 10,000ft Cactus to Clouds Trail, Mt San Jacinto, California

If you were to ask me to make a list of the craziest things I've ever done in a day, the "Cactus to Clouds Trail" would probably top the list. Backpacker magazine rates this trail as the 3rd most difficult day hike in the country. This trail takes you from the city of Palm Springs, California to the top of Mt San Jacinto in about 16 miles. That's over a 10,000ft gain! I've never heard of, nor encountered anything quite like it in all my adventuring. Hike this trail and you will most certainly be able to impress any dayhiker.

One hell of a climb!
How insane is the trail?      
      This trail is very rugged, very steep, and not a lot of people are on it. Between Palm Springs and the top of the Aerial Tramway, 10 miles into the trail, there is no water or any other service; you're on your own. Water sources exist, but they are very unreliable. Its best to bring at least a gallon of water on the way up because once that desert sun rises, you will be sweating a lot. This brings me to another point- you HAVE to get an "alpine start" on this trail. This means if you haven't STARTED by 3:30AM you are going to run into two problems. First of all, it starts in the desert, so if you don't put some elevation under boots, you will run into extreme heat. Second of all, if you leave late, you will probably reach the summit at night and you will run into extreme cold. BE SMART, LEAVE EARLY! DO NOT TAKE CHANCES WITH THIS TRAIL!

Leave Early, Leave Early, Leave Early!

      The Trail The Cactus to Clouds trail starts in Palm Springs, literally. The trailhead begins at the Palm Springs Art Museum in downtown Palm Springs and beginning ascending from there. Be careful with this section- it is over rocky terrain which is confusing and ambiguous. Follow the white paint marks for a mile until you get to a clearing. This marks the true beginning of the trail and there are profuse warnings about not pushing your luck. Heed them!
Here's the basic run-down of the trail
  • Miles 0-1- rough, rocky trail marked by white paint
  • Miles 1-5, desert terrain to the halfway point
  • Miles 5-11, trail is mostly direct with some rough patches
  • Mile 11- The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (gets you down if need be)
  • Miles 11-16- smooth and gentle ascents to the top of Mt San Jacinto
  • Mile 16- The Summit
  • Miles 16-21 smooth descent back the way you came to the Aerial Tramway
  • Head down via the Tramway
       From the Art Museum, the trail ascends through scrubby, desertous terrain while endlessly switching back. You should reach the halfway point, which is usually marked with rock cairns. If you are seeing the sunrise at this point, you're on schedule. If its midday by this point, its risky to head down or up- once you get to the top, you could take the Palm Springs Tram to the bottom, but its a long hike. If you chose to descend, you will run into that terrible desert heat.
       The trail from the halfway point to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway gets somewhat rough and ambiguous as well; I've lost my way here. However, a good landmark you can use is a VERY conspicuous and prominent rock point that is close to the tramway. Obviously it isn't very noticeable from a distance of more than a couple miles, but as you approach the Tram, you will see it clearly.

This Prominent Point marks the location of the Aerial Tram


The Prominent Point from a further distance, not as reliable, but it does help


      The trail will finally top off at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which can take you down the mountain if need be. Mind you, the bottom of the tram drops you off far from town but cab companies will drive you back to the Art Museum (or you could always hitch-hike!). Do a little self-evaluation and make sure you are in good shape for another 10 miles or so. Its not as strenuous, but it will feel like it after the initial ascent.
      The ranger station is near the tramway and you will have to pick up a permit for the hike. I would recommend purchasing a map in the Tram store too- there are multiple trails and you wouldn't want to go down the wrong trail at this point! All you need to do now is follow the signs for the summit. The first 2 miles to "Round Valley" are gentle and easy whereas the last 3 miles to the top are a little more difficult. Again, a map really helps for this point.


Bask in the glory of your accomplishment!
      Most people will reach the summit in the late afternoon; don't spend too much time here. San Jacinto's prominence and proximity to the ocean make the weather unpredictable. Take some photos to prove you did it and follow the exact same route down to the Tram Station. Even the craziest of day hikers will be content taking the tramway down, but some will insist on descending the whole way by foot; your call.



Heading back to the Tram


Another reminder, the Tram will take you down the mountain to a parking lot which is just outside of Palm Springs. Either hitch a ride or pay for a cab to get you back to the Palm Springs Art Museum. And, for goodness sake, have a beer or something, YOU accomplished the most difficult dayhike in California!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mountain Biking Mecca: Downieville, California

      A "Mountain Biking Mecca" is the term given by hardcore enthusiasts to a place that has the best trails in the United States. It is a place that any self-respecting mountain biker must ride at some point in their life. It is a right of passage, holy ground for those on two fat tires. While there is no official accreditation for a location to become a "Mountain Biking Mecca", the term is used for only the most glorious of mountain biking destinations. So, I would like to bring to your attention, the town of Downieville, California.
Unless you are a hardcore mountain biker, you have probably never heard of Downieville, California. In ten years of California adventuring, I had never heard of it until about a month ago! Although it is not as well known to the general public, this tiny town is a prime location for some of the best trails in the country. The famous "Downieville Classic" is actually one of the biggest downhill races in the country. There are ENDLESS opportunities for biking- from beginner trails to crazy-ass technical trails that require nerves of steel. Needless to say, if you have a mountain bike, get yourself up here!
The "Trail", don't fall off to your right!
Where can you ride?       In a word, anywhere. Head into town and stop at a mountain bike store or an information booth and you will get the run down on every single trail. You can ride any off road vehicle on most trails too- great 4x4 driving and dirt biking exist  too. It would take a long time to describe the trails I did, but here are my recommendations if you make it up here-
  • The Downieville Downhill: This is the premier trail of the town, the creme de la creme, the "why-go-to-Egypt-and-not-see-the-Pyramids" type of place. It will rock you, roll you and send you happily screaming down 4,000 vertical feet of glorious single track. I did this trail as an out and back trail but there is a shuttle system that you can pay for that will cut off the huge elevation gain. This trail has jumps, technical sections, steep downhills, river crossings, and varied terrain. You definitely need a damn good mountain bike for it. What I loved most about it was that it took me about 4 hours to climb up it and about 45 minutes to descend. Wheeeee! Trail maps are available in town- if you take the shuttle, expect 29 miles of uninterrupted ascents and descents through Sierra forests and streams.
  • The SBTS Mountain Epic Route: This is another route that is not too far from the town of Downieville. This is a dirtbiking trail but mountain bikers have made a claim on its route as well. This trail is also known as the "Second Divide Trail" and can be done in conjunction with the Downieville Downhill. Its much more difficult than the Downhill route- more tricky rocky sections, tighter curves, and some very "cliffy" sections. I highly recommend it though!
  • Chimney Rock Trail: I haven't personally done this trail, but it was also highly recommended by local mountain bikers. This can be done through the local shuttle as well but it still involves about 5,000ft of elevation gain. It is a 28 mile trail with great views that is locally described as simply "outrageous". Let me know if you get a chance to ride this one!

Despite the well-deserved "atrociousness" of the trails, they are quite peacefull and usually empty
Where the hell is Downieville?
      That's what I said when first heard of the town. Downieville is located in the Northern Sierras, northeast of Sacramento, California. Its almost directly north of Auburn California (if you know where that is!). From anywhere in Southern California or San Francisco area, you are going to have to make it to 80- East. Auburn is 25 miles east on I-80 from Sacramento. From here, head north on Highway 49 for 70 miles to the town of Downieville. Make sure you follow the signs to stay on Highway 49- it forks off once near Grass Valley. The drive itself is beautiful and you will see some gorgeous views of the Yuba River.