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

      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

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 (,-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!

     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!