Saturday, April 30, 2011

Exploring and Hiking Yellowstone in the Spring II

Day: 14
Miles: 3,004
Location: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Strange colors
I've been on the road for two weeks officially! Two weeks ago I was setting off from Southern California and driving through the desert. Now I'm sitting here in Jackson, Wyoming enjoying a well needed beer right downtown! Its been a heck of a trip and I don't think I could have asked for a better time. I've seen some of the country's greatest spectacles and also seen some great friends. The weather hasn't been perfect, but it's only prevented me from climbing one mountain. (knock on wood!) I'm feeling a little bit sad because I will soon be crossing the Continental Divide for the last time and leaving the West. I'm looking forward to Maine, but I do think I'm a child of the West and will soon return to these wonderful mountains and deserts.
Yellowstone Falls
I played the part of Joe-tourist again today and saw the other half of the park! I could go off exploring the backcountry, but I felt that was for another time. I don't want to miss anything as spectacular as Yellowstone Falls anyways! While I would have preferred to hike to it, the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone" is best viewed from a short trail from the parking lot. I can't wait to come back and backpack alongside the river!

Yellowstone Falls was first, then I turned west and visited Obsidian Cliff and Roaring Mountain. Both were interesting, but not quite as amazing as the South end of the park. I spent a little time checking it out and headed off to the Norris Geyser Basin.
The hundreds of geysers in Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin, in the opinion of this traveler, was the best part of the park. This is because there was so much variety of geysers and they were everywhere. Also, the lookout points gave the hiker better perspective of volcanic landscapes. Most of all, exploring Norris Geyser Basin was an adventure of the senses. That is, it was appealing to four out of five senses. It was visually stunning; there were hues of green, blue, orange, brown and red that are often hard to come by in nature. The thermophilic bacteria that survives in these geysers gives off these hues. The auditory side of the geysers was also very stimulating! Some geysers sounded like a babble while others sounded like an airplane! Every geyser had its own sound!
Although you can't touch the geysers themselves, you can feel the distinct heat that each gives off. Some are very hot while others are warm. Some might not prefer the smell; sulfur. The smell does help you realize that these geysers are very deep and have extensive underground networks though!

The landscape was unlike any other landscape I've ever experienced. I've seen a fair amount of volcanic activity in the Hawaiian Islands and in the Cascades of Oregon and Washington, but nothing like Yellowstone. Between Old Faithful and Norris Geyser Basin, I would recommend the latter.
Bison in the road!
Even with the cold temperatures, Yellowstone was still beautiful and less crowded. Summer is an excellent time to get crazier on the backpacking front, but it sure was nice to see the tourist-y things without any crowds!

Now its off to the Tetons!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Hiking Old Faithful and Surrounding Areas of Yellowstone National Park

Day: 13
Miles: 2,500
Location: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Yellowstone National Park. Need I say more? Chances are, you've either been there yourself or seen pictures of everything in the park. What you might not know is that this was America's and the World's first National Park. That is, it was the first time a government set aside land for public enjoyment forevermore. Do you realize how utterly incredible this was? For a government to establish land that is owned by nobody and for all? Indeed, National Parks are one of America's best ideas-
"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." ~Wallace Stegner
So it was with great interest that I was able to make a pilgrimage to a park with so much history.
Castle Geyser
I had quite the time getting out to Yellowstone. For those who do not know, it is located in the very Northwestern corner of the US state of Wyoming. Parts of the park spill into Idaho and Montana as well. The problem is, I was coming from Southern Wyoming and planning on entering through the South Entrance. Well its closed till mid-May! Not a problem, I can just go through the West Entrance in Montana, which wasn't too far away. So I hopped the border at Teton Pass and made my way up Idaho. Well, a snowstorm hit me up in the mountains and I was forced to turn around. That was a low-point; I'd driven nearly 300 miles across Wyoming and Idaho to get skunked only 20 miles away. I slept in Ashton, Idaho for the night.

The next morning it was SUNNY! Not wanting to believe it, I checked the weather and doppler radar for the mountains- completely clear! Even the roads were clear! I happily drove up into West Yellowstone, Montana! I had made it to Yellowstone National Park!
Old Faithful from afar
Turns out, this was an excellent time to be going through Yellowstone. Spring is truly the "secret season" of Yellowstone. I encountered no crowds! I hardly saw another soul on any of the well traveled trails. Additionally, the wildlife is flourishing right now! I saw hundreds of American Bison and many Bald and Golden Eagles. Tomorrow I will be headed through parts of Yellowstone that have so much wildlife, its been called the "Serengeti of North America"! This is the time when many animals come out of hibernation and before the RV's move in.
From the "safety" of my car
Since it was my first time to Yellowstone, I decided to play the tourist and visit all the great sites that the park makes accessible. I did see Old Faithful erupt twice. Mind you, it does erupt consistently, but not at the same exact times every day. There are probably 30-40 other geothermal features to see in the Upper Geyser Baisn too. Several of them have small eruptions on an almost constant basis. Don't get too fixated on only seeing Old Faithful. Midway Geyser Basin has the colorful and famous Grand Prismatic Spring. Also, I was able to hike the Fountain Paint Pot which has every type of geothermal feature. The mudpots, hot springs and geysers were everywhere on the drive to Old Faithful!

Over HALF of the WORLD's geothermal features are protected by Yellowstone National Park.
Well I certainly had fun in the Southern portion of the park. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I will explore the central basin and canyons of Yellowstone. Cross your fingers on the weather!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cross Country Skiing in the Snowy Range, Wyoming

Day: 11
Miles: 2,143
Location: Saratoga, Wyoming
Not closed to us!

Saratoga, Wyoming, population 1,700 and one strange traveler from California! To get to Saratoga, you have to drive 70 mile west from Laramie, and then drive 15 miles south on a county road; its out there! I ended up here to see a very good friend of mine from my time on Catalina Island. He and his family generously offered to put me up for the night and the following day!

Its funny how you can go 5 years without seeing some of your friend but it only feels like a couple of weeks. We were both adventure trip leaders for the Boy Scouts on Catalina Island and went on many hiking, kayaking, mountain biking and canoe trips. Adventure friendships never die.

Saratoga is an absolutely delightful small town in South-Central Wyoming and I learned a lot about the states culture through this stay. It was so refreshing to be in a small town! Everyone was so welcoming of the stranger from California and I never once felt like an outsider! I hope to someday settle down in a place like this!
The day was filled with adventure! For my first time ever, I donned a pair of cross country skis. I instantly fell in love with this sport! We were up in the Snowy Range of Southern Wyoming, which is a rugged range. On highway 130 we could cross country ski our way up to about 10,000ft. In the not-so-distant-future, I hope to have a chance to climb Medicine Bow Peak. This is the high point of the range and a very isolated part of Wyoming. The conditions were too poor for an ascent on this day, but it was wonderful to be experiencing wild Wyoming. All in all, we were able to ski about 8-10 miles of backcountry near highway 130. It is possible to make a multi-day winter ascent of "Med-bow" but it wasn't in the cards today.

Regardless, we had a great time and then went back to Saratoga. I was invited for a couple of cocktails and my friend's grandfather's place! His house was positively one of the most beautiful dwellings I've ever seen. Everything was build by hand and it was almost entirely made of wood from the surrounding forests. The only thing better than the house was the company. Me and my friend's Wyoming family sat drinking cocktails, eating wings, and telling all sorts of stories of adventure and travel. Between the four of us, we had seen just about everything in the country! I will return to this town!
View from the cabin's bay windows!
Later that night, we went out to the local microbrewery and enjoyed some artesian beers.  The SNow Mountain Brewery had lagers, porters, and a variety of ales and European style beers. Their porter was my absolute favorite. Don't go to Wyoming without stopping here.

The night continued with a couple rounds of pool and some Jimmy Buffett songs at the local poolhall! I could go on and on about how wonderful it was, but I have to be on my way to Yellowstone!

Epic Ascent of Panorama Point, Nebraska High Point

Day: 10
Miles: 1,900ish
Location: Panorama Point, Nebraska elev. 5,424ft
The tricky last 5.10d section of the ascent of Panorama Point
Every climber has a couple of stories of climbs that simply went all wrong. I've had some good climbs and bad climbs, but this one takes the cake. Panorama Point is Nebraska's high point. Think of a kitchen table. Now place a quarter on that kitchen table; the table represents the state of Nebraska. The quarter represents the high point. You can drive to it if you wish. You might be wondering- how could such a place turn out to be an epic climb? Well, in true Joe-fashion, it just sort of ended up that way.

So, there I was, in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. I had to take a spider-web of county roads to get to the point. Its located in the extreme southwestern corner of the Nebraska Panhandle, just north of the Colorado state line. (If you want to climb it, directions are at the end of the blog) Its actually quite a site to see with rolling prairies and roaming antelope. Some might consider it boring, but there is a certain elegance to this part of the country. The point's entrance is located on County Road 5 which is really in the middle of nowhere.
Middle. Of. Nowhere.
That was about when DISASTER STRUCK! I walk over to the entrance station to pay the $3 fee, with the car still on. Then, the wind blows hard and closes my car door.

The automatic locking system engages and locks me out of my car.

Without a phone.

In... the... middle... of... nowhere....

I must confess, I absolutely flipped a lid. Shamelessly and violently, kicked the dust, and screamed all kinds of countless obscenities. For the record, it was a pretty serious situation. The car was still on with the phone charging inside. I have my wallet and the clothes on my back. Houses are literally 1 per 25 square miles. To top it all, its supposed to rain later. Damn.

After getting over the initial frustration, I started making my way down to the first ranch. It was actually a buffalo ranch on the Colorado boarder and about a mile away. I searched around the ranch, but nobody was home. Back to the car. I had to walk another mile north to the next house. Again, nobody's home. So I walked another 2 miles to the intersection of County Road 5 and 6 (cause that seemed like it would be a pretty happenin' place). I waited about an hour for any car to pass, but none did.
A long ways from civilization
At this point, I realized I will probably have to break a window to get into the car. So, I made a long walk back to the car and about 2 miles into it A CAR FINALLY PASSES! The very nice folks let me use their cell phone to call AAA. After a 20 minute call they finally found a company that could help me. Mind you, these nice folks are waiting in their pickup truck. Of course, it was incredibly difficult to explain where I was, but they said they'd send someone out.

I had to walk 2 more miles to the place where I'd meet the truck. Ever heard that Tom Petty song, "The Waiting is the Hardest Part"? It most certainly is. I waited, and waited, and waited and nobody showed up. Back to Plan B- break the window. For the third time, I made the 2 mile trot back to my car. The AAA people were already over an hour late so I figured they couldn't find me. Fortunately, another nice guy passed by and I was able to call AAA again. They FINALLY ARRIVED! But I wasn't out of the woods yet... turns out its very difficult to break into my car. All their equipment was too large for the windows. In a moment of ingenuity, we found some clean, simple wire lying around that was able to fit into the window. After 30 minutes of fiddling about, we finally were able to use it to roll down the window and get into the car... whew.

Another tricky section of ice climbing
Might as well climb the point! The road goes all the way to the top, but I decided not to take any chances and hiked most of it. I took several funny pictures with the ice axe; its neither a climb nor even much of a hike! However, if you are a "state-highpointer" like me, then this is just one more box to check! I do recommend seeing it if you're traveling east on highway 80, because it is scenic. Hopefully your ascent will be less troublesome.

Here is the website and directions if you would like to "climb" Nebraska!

...and please, take your keys with you!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Snowshoeing Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Day: 9
Miles: 1,723
Location: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

 I don't know how many times I've quoted it, but "the good traveler has no fixed plans" and I came up a little dry today. The original plan was to, weather permitting, climb Longs Peak. Its a fourteener in the Front Range of Colorado. A good mountaineer (not that I'm one), takes more pride in knowing what he/she can't do than what he/she's done. I'm still learning how to gauge and make judgement calls, but I'm getting better at avoiding "summit fever". After all, there's old climbers and bold climbers, but no old bold climbers.

The conditions for Longs were not very good when I drove up today. There was a recent snowstorm and the roads were a tad icy. I drove to the trailhead, but the peak was bathed in clouds. This isn't always a deterrent, but this mountain has some particularly difficult sections that are prone to avalanches. There was a chance of snow and somewhat warmer temperatures, so avalanche danger was high; I had to back out before I even hit the trail. Oh well!
So, Plan "B" was to climb Flatttop Mountain which is easier, but still a climb. Busted again! The road up to the parking lot was also very icy and I couldn't risk it! Bummer! On to plan "C" which was Deer Mountain. Its about a 6 mile round trip hike/snowshoe to a 10,000ft summit. 

This was not exactly a difficult hike, but I still felt the elevation. The trail is completely covered in snow so I had to do some route-finding. I was taking my time and made it to the "summit" in a couple of hours. There wasn't much of a view, but it was nice to add another mountain to my tick-list. Clouds were forming around the higher peaks and I made my way down in an hour and a half. Again, not a crazy climb, but rather relaxing!
I had a little time to chill in the town of Estes Park! I'm planning the next section of my trip through Wyoming and trying my best to plan around the weather. Stay tuned for a visit to Yellowstone, the Tetons, Saratoga, and the Wind River Range!

Taking a Break in Denver, Colorado

Day: 8
Miles: 1,600ish
Location: Denver, Colorodo

I spent a wonderful Easter with my Aunt, Uncle and Grandmother out in Denver, which was downright sensational. I enjoyed such luxuries as a shower (1st in 8 days!), a bed (no hail!), warm food (NOT Mac n' Cheese), and most importantly, good company! Easter brunch was delectable and I tried not to scarf down a cheese and meat omelet, ham, potatoes and all sorts of deserts. My grandmother seemed a little worried about me and gave me money for food for the rest of the trip! Thanks Grandma! I even got some hiking in with my Aunt and her adorable dogs!

The place we walked was nearby Columbine High School. For those who were not in the United States in 1999, it was the site of the worst high school shooting our country's history. We payed our respects to the somber yet beautiful memorial nearby the school. Although the event was a tragedy, the memorial was focused on remembering the lives of those who were killed. The memorial was purposefully designed to evoke both a great sense of loss but also a great sense healing and rebirth. It was a deeply emotional and spiritually touching place.

Later that night I made my way out to Boulder, Colorado to catch up with some old friends from my work on Catalina Island! I'm visiting many old friends and comrades along this journey which is making this trip absolutely amazing!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hiking the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and Garden of the Gods

Note- It is named "Florissant Fossil Beds", NOT "Fluorescent Fossil Beds". Florissant is a french word for "flowering"; the fossils do not glow.

Day: 8
Miles: 1,434
Location: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and Garden of the Gods Park
Three fossilized redwoods in central Colorado
So I'm actually ahead of schedule in my adventures by a whole day. Not only that, but I'm 8 for 8 in things I've wanted to do; this never happens! Anyways, after an arduous climb of Mt. Elbert, I wanted to have a more relaxing day. It was going to snow hard at the higher elevations, anyways. I pointed the car eastwards and ended up in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

The ever-so-helpful Park Rangers were eager to have visitors and showed me all the neat fossils and trails. Its hard to believe this high and arid region of Colorado once was a thriving Redwood forest, but that's exactly what the monument preserves. In an interesting twist of natural history, there was a Redwood Forest teaming with life 34 million years ago and it was preserved in the most interesting of ways. A nearby volcano had a fierce eruption which covered the surrounding area in a volcanic layer (for lack of a better word). So essentially, the stumps of the redwoods were preserved while the tops died off. Also, the ancient lake was covered in volcanic ash, which basically preserved all the insects, plants and fish that were in it at the time. For a more academic explanation, please actually visit the monument!
Very well preserved fossils
Anyways, what you should really know is that this is one of the most diverse and abundant fossil records in the World. Its been called "The Rosetta Stone" of fossils for the time period and specimens recovered here can be found in museums across the country and world. Best of all, its a national park, so anyone can see it! We take for granted how absolutely incredible it is that our country preserves such sites for anyone to see.

I happened to be there on "Junior Ranger Day"! It was so endearing to see young people enjoying the national park and having fun with all of its activities. If I ever have kids, they will become Junior Rangers as soon as they can walk. On a related note, one family brought their 8 month-old infant to the park, and it was his first!
Massive petrified redwood trunks
I hiked as much as my sore body could take and then headed off to Colorado Springs! The Garden of the Gods has to be one of the most epic "city parks" in the country. How many other city parks have multi-pitch rock climbing listed as "activities"? This place was the Joshua Tree of Colorado Springs with limitless climbing opportunities. Unfortunately this also meant there were limitless crowds. I'm always happy to see people enjoying nature, but crowded parks are just not my style. Also, it was unfortunate to be in a place with such tantalizing climbs without a speck of gear! Oh well, I guess its just somewhere to come back to!
Climbers Paradise at Garden of the Gods
It's Easter Eve! I will be spending Easter Day with family and taking a well deserved break from climbing. But don't worry, after Easter, its more Rocky Mountain climbing for me in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Tetons, and Yellowstone!

Trip Report of a Spring Ascent of Mt Elbert, Colorado

Day: 7
Miles: 1,394
Location: Mt. Elbert, 14,440ft, Colorado (Highest Point in the Rockies and Colorado)
The insanely rugged summit of Mt Elbert!
My goodness, the Rockies are a whole new ballgame for me. Three years ago when I bought my mountaineering boots, the biggest decision point the salesman asked me was "Well, do you ever plan on climbing in the Rockies?" The point being, the Sierras and Cascades are nothing like the Rockies. This was my baptism by... ice(?) in Rocky Mountain Climbing.

Mt Elbert, at 14,440ft, is the highest point in the Rocky Mountains and is only 16ft shorter than Mt. Whitney. Despite its elevation, its actually considered one of the more moderate climbs in Colorado Mountaineering. In the continental United States, we refer to 14ers as mountains that are above 14,000ft of elevation (4,200m). 14ers only exist in the Sierras, the Rockies and the Cascades. In the grand scheme of mountaineering, 14,000ft is respectable, but certainly not world-class in climbing. However, the oxygen pressure at 14,000ft is half of what it is at sea level. Thus, climbing a 14er is a  true alpine adventure.
The lower mountains of the Elbert region, morning of climb.
This wasn't my most difficult or most technical climb, but I think it was my best. I was epically prepared and planned. First of all, I'd been monitoring the weather using NOAA for about a week before the climb. In addition, I was making my own observations while in the lower regions of the Rockies. I bought the guidebook and studied it carefully and selected appropriate gear out of my ever-increasing selection. I was also mentally prepared to turn around at any point in the climb.

So, I woke up at the awfully late time of 5:30AM. This is unforgivable in the mountaineer's world, but it played to my advantage because the tail end of a storm was clearing out by then. I prepared my breakfast and pack the night before, so I was on the trail 20 minutes later. The South Elbert Route is a Class I trail in summer, but it was still winter up there. After hiking a couple of mile, I finally hit the south-eastern spur that leads to the summit. It was rather calm and a little snowy below the tree-line. Man, once I climbed above the trees at 12,000ft all hell broke loose with the wind. I don't believe I've ever experienced anything quite like the wind that was hitting that ridgeline. It was blowing at around 40mph constantly with 60mph gusts.
Intolerable wind
At times, the wind was so hard that I had to crouch down to avoid being literally blown over. The gusts made it difficult to walk, but surprisingly I was warm. I was FULLY bundled up; not a quarter inch of skin was exposed. My system of layers was working incredibly well and even my extremities were not too cold.

I'm at the point in my mountaineering career where I'm well beyond "summit fever" a.k.a. push to the summit if it kills you. So throughout the climb, I had my finger on the trigger, ready to turn around if needed. The wind was terrible, but the climb itself wasn't too difficult and I was holding up well under the conditions. I was moving at a snail's pace, but I set a good course and schedule for breaks. At around 13,500ft I was beginning to see the signs of the last slope to the summit. It was only a Class III climb, but this felt like the crux of the climb. False summits were  mentally tormenting, but I was still warm and moving at an acceptable rate.
Slowly getting there
At around 14,000ft it was an athletic move just to drink water. Its like being sick; you don't feel like you need water or food, but you need to force yourself to do so. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally saw the summit proper. It was only 1,000 yards away, but this took around a half an hour with the wind. I'm no weatherman, but I do believe it was blowing at a constant 50mph at the summit. Its a gentle slope to the summit, so there was no danger in blowing off a cliff, but I didn't waste any time up there. It was literally a 2 minute, take a picture, and run down.
 Well the climb down was not too bad! In fact, things started to clear up (go figure). The wind was still pretty bad, but the skies were only partly cloudy. I practically raced for the cover of the treeline and enjoyed a classy lunch of protein bars and cereal. For the first time in the day, I was taking off layers and taking off the annoying facemask. I made it back to the car around 5:00PM making the climb in about 11 hours.
From 13,000ft looking southwards
It was at about that time that I figured I needed some coffee and a warm place to... warm up. So, less than 7 hours after I reached the summit, I was sipping fair-trade, organic, certifiably-snotty coffee at a quaint lil' indi-coffee shop in Leadville, Colorado. That's what you're supposed to do after climbing; its in the guidebook, I swear.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Canyoneering the Tomichi Route of The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Day: 6
Miles: 1,266
Location: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

My new favoirte National Park
After a long drive up from Durango, I crashed in the National Park and paid $6 for a campsite. Its wonderful to know there are still parks that offer campsites for six bucks a night. Most are $20-40 these days which is why I prefer camping in our free National Forests. The night was pleasent, but then I awoke to another hail-freezing rain-snowstorm which got me down. I was pretty sure I would just run up to the rim of the canyon, snap a picture, and leave, but the snow subsided quickly. As a matter of fact, an hour after I woke up, it was sunny!

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is as foreboding as it sounds. Its a 2,000ft deep canyon that is only a quarter to a half a mile wide! For comparison, the Grand Canyon is 6,000ft deep and 18 miles wide. The river literally cut straight down into the rockbed and has exposed billion-year old rocks. I was absolutely floored to be standing atop its rim. Unlike the Grand Canyon, the Black Canyon's walls are vertical. Painted Cliff is a sheer 2,000ft drop and is the tallest in Colorado.
Painted Cliff, to the right
Being the intrepid explorer that I am, the first question that came to mind while viewing the canyon was... can you get to the bottom? YES? EXCELLENT! A couple of helpful park rangers gave me a briefing on what routes are available and recommended the Tomichi Route. While climbing routes do exist, this was not a climbing route, but more of a scrambling route. No ropes or gear needed. The Gunnison Route is supposedly the easiest route down but the Tomichi Route is completely exposed to the sun. In the late winter, this makes the route clear of ice and snow. I received a backcountry permit and gave the rangers a return time.

The Tomichi Route leaves from Tomichi Point and immediately descends. Again, its not a technical route, but its not a hike either. I wore a helmet and brought pleanty of supplies. It descends roughly 2,000ft in about a mile; do the math. Hiking poles were absolutely essential and they helped greatly with the descent. The route is pretty well marked by previous travelers, but its important to be continuously noting your surroundings and making sure you know the way back up. Rocks, scree and dirt composed most of the "trail" and I would never recommend this to someone with bad knees!
The harrowing descent into the Canyon!

Total descent time was about 1.5 hours and I stayed a good 1 hour down there just hanging out. Its nice to be by such a river with absolutely no distractions! It was certainly one of the most peaceful places I've ever visited. After the hour of chilling, I had to climb back out. For me, climbing up is always easier and faster than climbing down, I made it out in about the same time. The ranger was a little shocked that I made it back in the same day!
This is the greatest vacation ever
Well, I was headed off to climb Mt Elbert after that, but I'll have to find time to post about that later!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hiking Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Day: 5
Miles: 1,033
Location: Mesa Verde National Park, Southwestern Colorado
The largest ancient Puebloan settlement ever unearthed
After a most pleasant night spent in the San Juan Mountains, I drove off to Mesa Verde National Park. This is a very unique National Park because it is the only one that preserves man-made wonders as opposed to natural features. It is also an international world heritage site and international it was! The ranger who gave us a tour was from Switzerland and there were Germans, Italians, and French people with me on the tour! Not to mention there were probably all 50 states represented in license plates.

Of all the parks I'm touring, this is probably the most tourist-y. This wasn't surprising, but nevertheless it was unfortunate. I first toured the famous "Cliff Palace", pictured above, with about 30 other people.
Spruce House Settlement
Most pictures of Mesa Verde National Park are of the Cliff  Palace but there are literally hundreds of archaeological sites to see. Most sites require you to hike with a ranger guide, but the tours are only 3$. The picture above is of Spruce House which can be hiked on a self-guided trail. The roads throughout the park provide good chances to see nearly every major settlement.

Square Tower House
While there are a few good hikes in the park, hiking is pretty restricted. This is a great park for auto-touring and learning history though! The "Park Point" lookout is also one of the greatest viewpoints in America. You can see 4 states from the top! I could see several mountain ranges in Utah, New Mexico's "Shiprock, the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and a couple of mountains in Arizona! On clear days, you can see for 160 miles. I've never seen anything like it.
Park Point
So, the first leg of my grand adventure is complete! The American Southwest has some of the greatest examples of natural geological wonders as well as marvelous ancient ruins. I now begin the Rocky Mountain leg of my trip as I make my way through Colorado and Wyoming. Wish me luck!

Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument, Utah

Day 4
Miles: 857
Location: Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument, Southeastern Utah
A 180 foot long Natural Bridge
There simply is not a place on Earth quite like Southern Utah. The incredible natural architecture is just overwhelming at times. I think that this will always remain my favorite part of the country.Today's adventure took me under three of the worlds most stunning examples of natural bridges in the aptly named "Natural Bridges National Monument"

After a rather poor night's sleep, I headed off to the monument. The best way to see this place is by taking the 8.4 mile hike which passes under the parks bridges. Its not a difficult hike and the canyon and bridges will prevent you from ever getting tired!
Sipapu Bridge, the second largest in the World
Sipapu Bridge was an easy 1 mile descent into the canyon. This is the second largest natural bridge in the world at 225 feet. You could fit a one lane highway on the top of it and fit a whole house underneath. The funniest thing about it is there's only a trickle of a creek flowing underneath! That must have taken a while!

I should note that natural bridges are caused by flowing water. Often what will happen is there will be an acute bend in a river at a place with softer rock. Over time, the river will wear away at the bend in the river and eventually push entirely through it! This changes the course of the river and the bridge will expand in size.
Kachina Bridge
After a few more miles of hiking in the canyon, I came across Kachina Bridge. This one was as thick as a football field is long. This is actually a much younger bridge because it hasn't seen the magnitude of erosion that the others have experienced. I ate lunch under the bridge!

The last bridge was my absolute favorite. It looked completely staged! Owachomu bridge is only 9 feet thick at the center and 180ft long! These bridges were the perfect compliment to an equally beautiful canyon. If I could, I would post the other 100 pictures that I took!
Hovenweep National Monument
One of the rangers informed me that Hovenweep National Monument was only a hop, skip and a jump away from Natural Bridges! This is great news, because I intend to see every National Park and Monument on the map; I headed off!

This park is on the Utah-Colorado boarder and preserves an Ancient Pueblo Peoples settlement. The term "Ancient Pueblo People" has replaced the term "Anasazi" because the Ancient Pueblo People are the cultural root of several Native American tribes. This settlement was in a very inhospitable part of the desert and the people used dry farming techniques and incredible resourcefulness to survive. The 2.2 mile hike around the park was an excellent way to see the dozens of ruins.

With that, I was off to see the crown jewel of ancient ruins at Mesa Verde National Park!

Hiking, Hailstorms, and Centipedes in Valley of the Gods, Utah

Day: 3.5
Miles: 853
Location: Valley of the Gods, Utah
Valley of the Gods, Utah
Mapbooks are funny. This whole trip is based off of the directions from the old school Michellen Mapbook. Its a better, purer way to travel. Unlike google maps, mapbooks still have roadside attractions labeled. But even mapbooks fall short!

The picture above is from Valley of the Gods, Utah. On the map, its just labeled as "State Rt 261". I was not prepared for this scene! A road steadily climbs up this massive mesa offering views for 50 miles! I just had to stop and enjoy such sights!
This one took a while to get...
I spent a rather fitful night atop this mesa in some national forest. Before I even got to sleep, I found an 8 inch, bright orange centipede beneath my sleeping bag.... WHOA!!! (That is the male version of screaming). I tossed him as far as I could into the woods. Later that night I was awakened by quite possibly the loudest thunder I'd ever heard. The lightening was also phenomenal and frightening. This is literally one of the most remote parts of the country; there are no artificial light sources.
It is hard to explain what the lightening was like. The flash was absolutely blinding. After each flash, it took probably a full minute for my eyes to re-adjust. Then there was the hail. It was like being pelted by a thousand airsoft pellets all at once. This happened three times that night... I didn't sleep well... The next morning was completely cloudless! Go figure.

Hiking Monument Valley, Arizona

Day: 3
Miles: 710
Location: Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona
West Mitten, East Mitten, and Merrick Butte, posing for the camera
Today’s destination was the famous Monument Valley Tribal Park which is a part of the Navajo Nation. This is the largest Native American Reservation in the country and it spans three states: Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Its one of those very recognizable but less visited sites in America. If you have ever seen Forest Gump, this is location where he finished his epic run across the country.
This morning began with a glorious sunrise in Sunset Crater National Monument just north of Flagstaff. I stayed for free in Cococino National Forest just outside of the monument. Travel tip; you can camp for free in most national forests for up to 2 weeks (but check before you go!) I rolled on out to Wupaki National Monument 15 miles north on Highway 89. This was an incredible National Monument because it preserves the 1,000 year old pueblos which have long been abandoned. In this arid, high desert, people survived completely on little rainwater and the few crops which could grow. There were also stunning views of the volcanic landscape of Northern Arizona.
Buttes across the stateline in Utah
 Monument Valley is located on the Utah/Arizona stateline and the drive there is phenomenal. First, there was the completely barren Painted Desert. Unlike the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, this was a seemingly lifeless desert with very sparse vegetation. It felt lunar. However as I drove further north, I came across Black Mesa which had thriving populations of juniper trees and a few coyotes.

Finally I reached Monument Valley! It was one of those literal “take your breath away” moments. Standing at the visitors center, I looked out over the desert landscape and saw thousand foot monoliths and town-sized mesas. It was like natural rock-skyscrapers. I couldn’t wait to hike!
A trip to the Southwest without an Edward Abbey book is simply incomplete

Now, Monument Valley isn’t exactly a secret and there were probably a thousand or so visitors in their RV’s, SUV’s, Busses, Space Ships ect. I rather expected this and so I also expected packed hiking trails. The fact that there is only one 3.2 mile hiking trail made it seem like it would be a traffic jam.

The trail was completely empty! LITERALLY! I was the ONLY person out of the thousands of tourists who bothered to hike on the parks ONLY trail! The trail is well marked and traverses around the West Mitten. I relished in the solitude. At one point, in the shadow of three monoliths, I simply sat down and read a book for an hour. Three miles away the beehive of people was bustling with people too lazy to truck themselves and their fat digital SLRs down to the valley. Shame on them! Nevertheless, the hike was more enjoyable with less people.

Tomorrows adventures will take me through Natural Bridges National Monument and Four Corners. Stay posted!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Climbing Humphreys Peak, Flagstaff Arizona

"A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles." ~Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Desert Perspectives
Phoenix has forever ruined the image of Arizona. Not that I have anything against, Phoenix, I am a much bigger fan of Flagstaff. "Flag", as the locals call it, is Adventure-town USA. Nestled near the San Francisco Mountains of Northern Arizona, its the opposite of Phoenix. With more pine trees than palm trees, the terrain of Northern AZ is rugged and mountainous and it actually snows in the winter. I just couldn't miss this place on my journey!
A different landscape
Humphreys Peak is the tallest mountain in Arizona and is an extinct volcano. Its an imposing 12,637 feet (3,852 m) and alpine tundra can be found towards its peak. From a bird's eye view, it has the appearance of a hollowed out mountain. Its not a particularly difficult climb and the view from the top offers excellent perspective on the high desert!
Hollowed out mountain
My climb of Humphreys was mostly uneventful, but very enjoyable. It is still late-winter, early-spring at the higher elevations so I did bring my winter gear. The first part of the hike was through the alpine forest which was quite dense! The trees thinned at around 11,000ft and I laced up my crampons. Normally there is a simple trail to take you to the top, but it was solid class III terrain with the snow and ice. I never had to break out the ice-axe; trekking poles sufficed. Man, the ridgeline was the worst! Once I hit the final mile up to the peak, all hell broke loose with the wind! I wasn't in any danger, but there was a gail force wind towards the top! Brrrrrrrr!!! Strangely however, the summit was quite calm. I spent a full 30 minutes at the summit enjoying the views! (this is unheard of in the mountaineering world!)
Just for show!
Humphreys Peak had one of the greatest views I've ever seen from a mountain. I've climbed it all from Maine to Washington and this was one of my favorites! The air is incredibly thin, so I was able to see several different environments. The alpine tree-line was very distinct when contrasted with the lower forests. The peak is like Arizona's pimple, and I could see all the way to the famous Painted Desert of Northwestern AZ! It will absolutely shatter your perspective of a state "covered in cactus".

Well, I must be moving on- tomorrow I see Monument Valley!