Friday, January 28, 2011

Introduction to Caving in Northern California's Lava Tubes

Caving; a sport for the insane
Caving is about as crazy as it gets. It can be cold, damp, dark and very, very tight. Caving is truly a sport for those with nerves of steel. For some of you, I'm sure this unique type of challenge is appealing! If you've never thought about doing it, well here's a couple of insights to caving in Northern California.

Introduction to Caving in Lava Beds National Monument

As mentioned earlier in my introduction to Lava Beds NM, caving is the popular and primary sport of the park. Fortunately, the National Park Service makes it easy and accessible to even a first time caver. (Disclaimer: caving is dangerous) In fact, the service will rent you a high powered flashlight for free and even give you solid directions to each marked cave. OF COURSE, you need to purchase the cave maps before going. Its only two dollars! From the visitor center, the "Cave Loop Road" will take you to the marked caves of the park.
The Northern California lava beds are full of caving opportunities
Caving Essentials

     -Light sources
     -Extra light sources (I always bring three just in case)
     -Batteries and extra batteries
     -A very reliable cave map (can be purchased at the visitors center)
     -A very reliable compass
     -SMALL backpack that can fit through tight spaces
     -Warm clothing, even in the summer
     -Knee pads
     -Water, food, snacks ect.

The good news about caving in Lava Beds is that most lava tubes are lateral as opposed to vertical. This allows the caver to move relatively easily through most of the caves and no technical gear is needed. There are lava tubes in the park that are not formally mapped and do require more extensive experience, but the rangers usually avoid telling you their whereabouts.

Easy-ER Caves

If you have never done caving, I would recommend heading over to Mushpot Cave which is right behind the visitors center. Its well lighted and provides the visitor with a good idea of what lava tubes are like.
After the entrance, there is no light!
Personally, I found Sentinel Cave to be my favorite of the easier caves. Its a good 3,280ft long and there's plenty of space to move about. Unlike many other caves, no ducking or slithering is required; its simply a hike through a cave. I elected to walk to the very middle and turn my light off for a while. True darkness is nearly impossible to experience outside of a cave. It was a nerve-racking experience at first- your eyes try to adjust to the dark, but there is absolutely no illumination. However, I came to enjoy this aspect of caving; we hikers often overly rely on our vision for guidance but caving forces you to put full trust in a map and compass. I do believe caving has made me a better navigator. Sentinel Cave also has the advantage of two entrances, so if you get too scared, its pretty easy to get out.

Tighter sections in Juniper Cave
Hercules Leg Cave and Juniper Cave together form a two entrance cave that is around 4,200ft long. This is a more difficult cave, requiring some duck-walking and scrambling. I did get a little disoriented right at the start because there are several side passages. The advantage of this cave is that there are many holes where light shines through which adds a nice break into the caving experience. This is considered a more difficult cave and good orienteering skills are essential. I used this cave as a good preparation for the 6,900ft (one way) behemouth known eerily as The Catacombs.

Stay tuned for a guide to the longest lava tube in California!
Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Exploring the Lava Beds of Northern California

"Volcano: a mountain with hiccups"
A less explored part of Northern California
Ask most people where you would find volcanoes and they would probably think of Hawaii or maybe even Washington. What surprises many people is that a large amount of recent volcanic activity has actually happened in Northern California. In fact, Northern California’s Mt Lassen erupted only 95 years ago and is far from dormant. I guess there really isn’t a safe place to live in California. Despite the long term danger, all this volcanic activity has left massive areas covered in ancient lava beds. The largest fields are located in the north-eastern part of the state and represent a moment of catastrophic geological disaster frozen in time. These days, it is protected by Lava Beds National Monument and provides the adventurer a glorious place for hiking, caving, and exploring how life can flourish after such a fiery event.

The Medicine Lake Volcano
Quick Background on Lava Beds

The Medicine Lake Volcano is one of the largest volcanoes in the US. Its not quite as massive, conical, or even prominent as some of the world’s more famous volcanoes, but it packs quite the potential for explosion. In the volcanic Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest, it has the largest mass out of all. Geologically speaking, Lava Beds NM is full of lava formations which offer some great adventures.

Outdoor Adventure in Lava Beds

As mentioned earlier, this place is a mecca for outdoor adventure. The primary activity of the park is CAVING! The park contains literally hundreds of caves formed in the petrified lava. These caves are actually known as Lava Tubes. I won’t go into detail on how they are formed, but they can be extensive and maze-like. Some of the caves are quite simple and accessible while others require serious cave navigation skills. I will have a more detailed blog post on which caves are available and which are the best to see.

Hundreds of caves to explore
Hiking the park is also a great experience which doesn’t require the sort of grit and claustrophobia that defines caving. Several trails permeate the park and there are a couple that climb the several lave buttes. However, I preferred simply trekking across the massive expanses of lava to hiking the trails. I would simply pull my car over and enjoy the serene landscape that was once so catastrophic. Petrified lava is very sharp and can crumble easily so I would recommend using some rugged boots and gloves if you intend to hike.

The view from Petroglyph Point
Historical and Archaeological Significance (actually quite interesting)

In addition to being a fantastic example of weird and wonderful lava formations, Lava Beds is the sight of much Native American history. The Modoc Wars of 1872-1873 took place here when the US government attempted to relocate the Klamath and Modoc tribes were relocated to the same reservation. These tribes were, to say the least, not friendly with each other and this escalated to some larger conflicts. (this is a very abbreviated history, visiting the park will fill in the gaps.) The leader of the Modoc resistance, Captain Jack, took advantage of the natural fortress-like formations of the lava beds and was able to repel off an army 10 times the size of his band. Named “Captain Jacks Stronghold” the formations themselves feel much like a military fort.
Natural Fortress; "Captain Jack's Stronghold"
Lava Beds also happens to have a spot known as “Petroglyph Point” which contains the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the United States. The point is highly sacred to the Native Americans who still live there so access is not permitted. However it is possible to see some glimpses of it by hiking to the fence line of the point.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Remembering Nevada's Mighty Shoe Tree

"While cultural anthropologists trumpet the aggregated populist statement of the gum tree or the gob rock, we believe Shoe Trees soar to greater heights."

I know that there are a lot other tragedies happening in the world right now, but it did strike me that Nevada’s famous shoe tree was cut down by vandals sometime around New Year’s Eve. The Middlegate Shoe Tree was located in the middle of Nevada off of highway 50 as was considered the largest “Shoe Tree” in the world. A Shoe Tree is exactly what it sounds like; it’s a large tree with thousands of shoes tossed upon its boughs. There are perhaps hundreds of shoe trees in the country and I’ve seen about 3 of them; one was located on 395 on the way to Mammoth Mountain, another near Amboy, California. Every one of them has a story behind it and its always a strange one.

Road Oddi-trees.
The Legend of the Middlegate Shoe Tree

The Middlegate Shoe Tree was commissioned sometime in the 1990’s and was the result of a newlywed dispute. A couple was traveling across Nevada from Colorado on their honeymoon. I'm sure that driving for long periods of time can be difficult on a new marriage and they got into a marital dispute in the middle of Nevada. As things began to escalate, the husband somehow seized his new wife’s shoes and said something to the effect of “If leave me, you’re going to have walk barefoot!!!” He then chucked her shoes upon that cottonwood tree and drove away in a fury. In his anger, he consulted the local marriage counselor of Middlegate, Nevada who gave him some sound advice. In a couple of hours, that kindly bartender convinced the disgruntled husband to return to his wife and work it out without the shoe tossing. He humbly returned to the tree where his wife was still waiting (Its central Nevada, where else would she go?) and they resolved their differences and harmoniously continued upon their Californian Odyssey.
Walking barefoot on this highway? Not an option.
I'm sure they lived happily ever after... but they decided to start a family tradition and returned a year later to toss the shoes of their first born baby upon the same tree. Drivers upon that section of Nevada's Highway 50 decided to continue the tradition and before long, the shoe tree had a large amount of footwear hanging from its elegant boughs. Central Nevada can be a pretty lonely place but on this section of Highway 50 it was quite common to see other travelers continuing this tradition by throwing their own shoes upon that cottonwood tree.

A Symbol of Road Culture

Unfortunately, the "Largest Shoe Tree in the World" was cut down which I find very saddening. Shoe trees and other road-oddities are all part of American road-culture. This "culture" has had a distinctive, adventurous and quirky spirit which has been present since the first road travelers headed westwards on Route 66. Most of it stems from the spirit of long distance traveling and a simple desire to see the wilder side of the country. Road culture includes a lot of strange music, literature, poetry, small towns and Kerouac-inspired people. Yet who among us doesn't dream of going on an epic cross country journey, studying abroad, or backpacking across Europe? Maybe that's just me, but seeing even the quirkiest of sights is all a part of the joyful experience of traveling. So, maybe the disappearance of the Middlegate cottonwood won't exactly change the world or cause a national "Shoe-Tree Awareness" program, but I'm sure the Middlegate Shoe Tree will be missed by us hitch-hiking, road-lovin' ramblers. There was an actual memorial held for its loss this month and I don't doubt that it was attended by other weird adventure-addicts like me. But hey... there's still plenty of weird to be seen out on the road, isn't there?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Crater Lake National Park in the Winter

This activist loves Oregon more than he loves life. ~Tom McCall, Oregon
Wizard Island on the spectacularly clear Crater Lake
Everyone has heard about Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. It one of the only other National Parks that everyone has heard about. However, unlike the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, Crater Lake is a beautiful location that sees a significantly less number of tourists. Despite this, it can still be a crowded location in the summer time. Most people elect only to drive around the lake and stop off at the lookouts. In the winter however, Crater Lake gets more snow than most of Alaska and Canada driving away the wimps and allowing the hardcore adventurers free reign of the Pacific Northwest's most scenic lake.

Epic amounts of snow can fall in a single day

Crater Lake is one for the record books. Its the deepest lake in the United States; it is 1,949ft or 350m deep. This is a fantastic depth considering the lake is essentially a circular lake that's only 5-6 miles across (8-10km). As mentioned earlier, the snowfall in Crater Lake is unmatched by most places in the US and the world. In the winter of 1948-49 it received an incredible 822 inches (over 2,000cm) of snow. This record has only been surpassed by Thompson Pass in the Churgach Mountains of Alaska. Winter at Crater Lake can be a beautiful wonderland or a blizzard depending on the day or even time of day. Lastly, the lake is the clearest in the world. It is common for the visibility to be over 100ft (30m).

If you're wondering why I'm specifying standard and metric measurements, it is because this blog has gone international with viewers from every continent except South America and well... Antarctica.
West rim of Crater Lake
Snowshoeing and Winter Sports in Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake's beauty is surely augmented by a white blanket of snow. The lake's only island "Wizard Island" appears even more mysterious when snowcovered and the lake seems to become more reflective. Only the main entrance road is plowed in the winter meaning anyone coming up should carry car chains. The highway that circles the the park and lake becomes a highway only for snowshoers and cross country skiers. The park asks that travelers along the snowcoverd highway leave two separate tracks for snowshoers and skiers but usually there isn't enough traffic to create a discernible route. Often winter travelers will attempt to circumnavigate the lake. This is a serious 33 mile trip which can be several days on snowshoes. It is quite enjoyable to penetrate deep into the wilderness of the north end of the park and it feels as if you have a National Park to yourself.

Perfect pathway!
Mountaineering is also possible in the winter. Scott Peak is the highest in the park and in the winter it will require some serious navigation. Several points along the rim of the lake offer some climbing challenges as well. The Watchman is a point that is commonly climbed and skied down. Garfield Peak which is very near to the parking area is also a great mountain to climb and ski down. I've personally climbed Hillman Peak which is the highest point on the rim of Crater Lake. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it because it is extremely steep and exposed. The snow is often deep and light so expect to be moving through knee-deep snow even with snowshoes on. Nevertheless, climbing to the top of Hillman Peak will bring you to the tallest remains of the volcano that collapsed to form Crater Lake.
From Hillman Peak

Interestingly enough, there is a downhill ski and snowboard route which exists in the winter. The Raven trail parallels the road up to the lake. You would have to do a car shuttle from bottom to top, but it would be a cool thing to say "I skied Crater Lake!" I've never skied Crater Lake before, but I was interested to know that it is possible!

Remember that the weather can change on a dime. The rangers at the lake will let you know that you have about a 50% chance of driving up and never seeing the lake when a storm comes up. And of course, bring your snow chains in every month thats not June, July or August. Good luck and enjoy the lake in the off season!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mountain Biking Orange County

Life is like riding a bicycle - in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.  ~Albert Einstein

A Mountain Biking Mecca!
Orange County is for Mountain Bikers

You know what's the funniest thing about the sport of mountain biking? Its a dirty, bloody, grungy sport populated by climber bums and middle aged adrenaline junkies and yet its beginnings were in some of the most luxurious parts of the country. San Francisco's Marin County, Crested Butte, Colorado, and Orange County all have claims on mountain biking's beginnings. There are perhaps hundreds of places that dubiously claim to have started the sport, but there is archaeological evidence to support Orange County's claim. Yes, the fossil record indicates that mountain biking was alive and well in Orange County in the 1970's. Thankfully, we can still ride these ancient trails out in Crystal Cove and several other locations near Laguna Beach.

(I hope you don't mind my weird sense of humor, its a mountain biker thing)

Single Track Heaven
Crystal Cove Mountain Biking Mecca

I hope you had a chance to read my last post about Crystal Cove State Park for hikers. All the trails in the park are open to mountain bikers and I would highly recommend hitting them up. Now, people have many different ideas about "mountain biking". Whatever yours may be, biking Crystal Cove is technically challenging and physically difficult. The trails aren't just an off road path; they are tight single tracks with significant elevation changes and lots of rocks. The "Rattlesnake" Trail is one of the premier mountain biking trails in the park and it will chew you up and spit you out! It's quite exhilarating to mountain biking this part of Orange County though. The trails are challenging but still feel like roller coasters. Plus, you have beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean as you're charging down 1,000ft of madness.

Spring Mountain Biking
Joe's Mountain Biking Picks

The aforementioned Rattlesnake Trail is the number one biking trail in the park. If you're looking for a more gentle ride with plenty of shade, check out the El Moro Canyon Trail. If you are looking for a long and epic loop of the park, take the No Name Ridge Trail to the single track Tickerton-Deer Canyon Trail which is going to be a very long uphill. Once at the top, the Fenceline Trail to Missing Link Trail are good single tracks with more gentle elevation changes. I like this area the best because you can see the entire area of Orange County and LA. Then, head down on the Moro Ridge Trail which gives you the best ocean views.

Watch for wildlife!
Mountain biking Crystal Cove is like skiing at a resort; there are enough trails to challenge anyone and getting back down is never too difficult. Early mountain bikers started a great trend here and Crystal Cove will always be a Mountain Biking Mecca. Enjoy!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hiking and Wildlife Viewing in Crystal Cove State Park, Orange County

The wild, scenic, and distinctively Mediterranean escape from civilization in Orange County.  

Wild, scenic, and close

Anything But Posh...

Orange County may not be known for its hiking, mountain biking and other outdoor adventures but the free-spirited outdoorsman/woman knows much better. I've been exploring Orange County for years and years and have never found myself unsatisfied by all of its opportunities. Its almost sad to me that many are so unaware of Orange Countys boundless wilderness... and I mean WILDERNESS! I've seen mountain lion tracks, stepped on rattlesnakes, listened to howling coyote packs, run into beehives, gotten stuck in blizzards and heat waves. I've been frozen, burned, lost, found, and have a whole host of adventures in the county that is portrayed as posh, sophisticated and anything but wild. Today, I'd like to introduce you to one of my favorite locations for hiking and mountain biking; Crystal Cove State Park. 

Wildflowers in the Spring
Getting There

Crystal Cove State Park is located between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach off of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Its very simple to get there. Head out onto the section of PCH that goes between Laguna and Newport and look for El Morro Elementary School. Turn onto the road that goes to the school but don't park there. The road to Crystal Cove goes to the left and around the school and brings you to a large parking lot for the park. It is 10$ for parking and it supports the large state park that preserves this unique wilderness. It can sometimes get packed on the weekends but as long as you hike more than a mile, you should be in a pretty quite place.

Big ol' rattlers
Hiking and Wildlife Viewing

The primary activity for Crystal Cove is hiking. A network of well marked trails permeates the park and allows the hiker to explore nearly every canyon of the park. This area is beautifully Mediterranean which means there is a wide variety of flora and fauna (plants and animals). For some reason, there is a rich and diverse amount of wildlife in the park that has a strong desire to be in your photographs. I've seen many golden eagles, rattlesnakes, gopher snakes, salamanders, coyotes and all sorts of other wildlife. This is one of the premiere spots in southern California to experience wildlife viewing. The trails that take you to the mountain tops of the park usually have better birding opportunities. The canyons contains the more dense and green vegetation which provides good sites of the mammals and reptiles that exist in the park. Even the busiest of days at Crystal Cove have never left me unsatisfied in wildlife viewing.

There are too many trails to list here so I'd recommend getting a map at the park. Try and do one trail that takes you up a ridgeline and one that takes you through the Canyons. My favorites have been the "Rattlesnake Trail" and the "El Moro Canyon" trail. But really, anywhere you go will feel like a real escape from the business of the nearby cities.
Ocean Views
Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Outdoor Adventures in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada

The night before I left Las Vegas I walked out in the desert to look at the moon.  There was a jeweled city on the horizon, spires rising in the night, but the jewels were diadems of electric and the spires were the neon of signs ten stories high. 
~Norman Mailer
This past week I decided to bring in the New Year with some good old fashioned adventure. The destination was Southern Nevada and I decided to explore as much of it as I could in 4 days. Along the way, I slept in -5 degree weather at 7,000ft, snow shoed through avalanche terrain, stepped in quicksand, and randomly ran into a good friend in Vegas who graciously allowed me to stay in a penthouse suite on the stip. It was nine kinds of ridiculous.
On a dark desert highway
The vast mountain ranges, the wide open deserts, and unique geology of Nevada are often overshadowed by the lights of Las Vegas. It’s interesting to note that while the state is often known only for its gambling and gluttony, Nevada sets much bigger records in the way of its outdoors. First of all, Nevada is the country’s most mountainous state- 314 individual ranges and a mean average elevation of around 5,000ft. Nevada also has the country’s largest National Forest outside of Alaska; Humbolt-Toyabe National Forest, which is almost the size of Massachusetts. From someone who’s traveled Nevada far and wide, Vegas is a wild place but the other 97% of the state is just as wild!
Snowshoeing the Spring Mountains and Vegas
I drove up on New Years day after getting off my ambulance shift. My plan was to stay somewhere high up in the Spring Mountains which is a range located only 40 miles from Las Vegas. I stayed the night at 9,400ft and it was cold! The temperatures were somewhere between 0 and 10 degreed F. However, my bivy sack-sleeping bag combination held up beautifully; I was legitimately warm without even sleeping in a tent.
A world away from Vegas
I woke up the next day to cloudy skies so it wasn’t looking good on the snowshoeing front. Mt Charleston, the high point of southern Nevada, was only about 5 miles from where I was snowshoeing. Unfortunately, I began to notice the tell-tale signs of avalanche danger at around 10,000ft. My feet were beginning to freeze up and the snow was too deep for snowshoes so I had to make my way down. Nevertheless, there were some spectacular views of the mountains and the Great Basin desert below making the trip worthwhile
The City of Las Vegas
After the snowshoe, I retreated to lower elevations and I had a faint idea that a good friend of mine was still in town after a New Year’s stay in Vegas. After giving him a call, I soon found myself in good company at Margaritaville drinking, well… margaritas of course.
One moment I'm in the mountains, now I'm on the strip!
It should be noted that I have never been to Las Vegas. I’ve driven through it several times but have never really “done the Vegas thing”. I’m really not much of a drinker or gambler, but I had a supremely enjoyable experience in Vegas without either. A full report of the evening was something like this: Margaritas at Margaritaville, Ceaser’s Palace, swimming back at the resort, beer at Hofbrauhaus, and further partying and jackassery at the Cosmopolitan. Really, what made Vegas so enjoyable was the great company. I didn’t lose a bunch of money, didn’t wake up with a hangover, or even hit up any shows. It was just some good old-fashioned chilling with some old friends. Although… it was nice to stay in a pent-house suite. So, I’m a believer of good times at Vegas, even if it’s not for the traditional reasons.
The Strip is a designated "Scenic Byway"!
Valley of Fire State Park
I awoke the next day and looked out over the iconic fountains of the Bellagio to a peculiar sight; it was snowing in Vegas. That’s not unheard of, but it’s certainly not commonplace. So, I hopped in my car and drove about 60 miles out to Valley of Fire State Park.
Valley of Fire State Park is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park and has some of the reddest rocks I’ve ever seen. Additionally, it has alien-like rock features such as “Elephant Arch”, “Fire Wave” and “The Beehives”. It felt a lot like being in Utah’s Arches National Park; every turn and trail offered new perspective on a constantly changing desert landscape. I found myself trekking across the rocks, scrambling up hills and singing trail songs like a Norman Rockwell era boy scout.
Enjoying some well-needed time off
Then… I stepped in quicksand. Now, I am aware that quicksand does not commonly exist in the desert. Old western films portray quicksand as a common danger of the desert but this is false; quicksand is formed mostly by ground water in alluvial areas such as deltas and rivers. However, it was most definitely quicksand caused by the massive amount of rain that’s been pouring in the Southwest. For the record, it wasn’t the kind of chin-high stuff you see in the movies. In all reality, it was probably about knee deep and not lethal. However, it was slightly jolting and I minded my steps more carefully.
The strange and wonderful rocks of the Mojave
The Valley of Fire was one of the best state parks I’d ever visited and I hope I can come back.
Last Day: Red Rock Canyon
I spent the night at about 7,000 back in the Spring Mountains and this time it was a frigid -5 degrees. It was basically a pre-season gear shakedown for upcoming winter adventures. I was slightly uncomfortable at some points but never freezing.
Vegas's Best Hiking Location
Red Rock Canyon was to be the day’s destination. Las Vegas residents will probably puke if another guide is written about Red Rock but it was a new experience for a Californian. It was a beautiful day for exploring and I hiked up “Turtleback Mountain” for some wide-stretching views of the Mojave. I also explored the aptly named “Ice Box Canyon” which was only slightly wider than a slot canyon and quite frigid. I did get to  view a massive frozen waterfall which made the canyon worth exploring.
No shortage of rocks out here!
So, I learned a lot about southern Nevada in the course of 4 days. The mountains and deserts of the state proved to be picturesque and wild which will appeal to any adventurous spirit. I also discovered that even an uncivilized climber like me can have a great time in Vegas when in good company.