Sunday, October 23, 2011

50 Greatest Adventures in America : Part VI

Celebrating 1 Year of Blogging with the 50 Greatest Adventures in America!
West Quoddy Head, Maine
#26 See America's First Sunrise, Maine

Its a bit ironic that the easternmost point in America is named "West Quoddy Head". This is the easternmost part of Maine and therefore it is America's first sunrise. This novelty is what really draws people to this rather isolated part of Maine but the sunrise is beautiful in itself. Its hardly ever that crowded and it sports views of one of Maine's most beloved lighthouse and a classic rugged coastline. I've seen a lot of sunrises in this World and none could ever compare to the one I saw in West Quoddy Head.

Information on West Quoddy Head
Sunset at Cape Alava, Washington
#27 See America's Last Sunset, Washington

While "America's First Sunrise" has become a somewhat well-known location, "America's Last Sunset" is a much more isolated and the true spot is unknown. The Pacific Northwest from Northern California to Washington is almost all at the same longitude and there are several very tall mountains within 100 miles of the coast. Nobody knows or has cared enough to find out when the sun's rays last leave land, but the westernmost point in America could be a good candidate. Located in Olympic National Park on the ocean, Cape Alava is a 6 mile hike. The hike itself plunges deep into the temperate rainforest that is the Pacific Northwest before dumping you out on the shore. A short walk North from here will bring you to... perhaps... the last sunset in America.

Cape Alava: Directions and Information
Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park
#28 Rock Climb Joshua Tree National Park, California

Living near Joshua Tree as a climber is as awesome as a surfer living in Hawaii. There are literally over 10,000 named routes in Joshua Tree and probably a couple hundred new routes being pioneered every year. Although a little sharp, the rock is perfectly stable. Southern Californians spend years trying to climb all the routes in Joshua Tree and it never runs out of possibilities. There also happen to be many options for novice climbers and this is often the first destination for people learning how to climb. I somehow return to J-Tree every year and love just picking out a random route and just climbing away. There are hundreds of guidebooks available and the towns around the park all have an extensive network of climbers and outfitters. Whether you live in So-Cal or a thousand miles away, every rock climber must make a pilgrimage to this destination.
America's most recognizable mountain landscape
#29 Climb the Tetons, Wyoming

Well I'm probably not the first to tell you the climbing in the Tetons is amazing, but leaving it out of the 50 greatest adventures would be a travesty. Climbing in the Tetons is perhaps the closest you could get to climbing in Alaska without leaving the lower 48. The Tetons are characterized as having very long, brutal winters and a short climbing season. America's first mountaineering school was founded here and they play one of the most prominent roles in the sport. Grand Teton is an obvious destination for most and it is a technical climb from any approach. Middle Teton is a good option if you're looking for something that only requires class III mountaineering skills but it is still more challenging than the most of the southern Rockies. The Tetons have also become a backcountry skiing destination and expert skiers are known to cross the Tetons in the winter months.

Climbing Middle Teton, Wyoming
The Inside Passage, Alaska
#30 Kayak the Inside Passage, Alaska

It would be a bit of a stretch to say I've kayaked the inside passage in the same way I've kayaked other places across America but I have fond memories of two day trips. The Inside Passage is the shipping route through the Alaskan Panhandle that has become a major destination for tourism. Cruise ships commonly use this route today but kayakers are also frequently seen. The existence of cruise ships should not take anything away from the fact that this is the ultimate wilderness. Parts of the passage are scarcely a half a mile wide while being a thousand feet deep. Other parts are fed by massive glaciers which commonly drop house-sized icebergs into frigid water. The fjords create a serene yet erie landscape that is as dangerous as it is thrilling to kayak through. Wildlife abounds as killer whales use this route more often than anyone. This is one adventure I haven't really done as much as I would like. Someday I hope to kayak the inside passage from Seattle to Skagway.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Northeast Kingdom: A Vermont Vacation

Lake Memphremagog in Newport, Vermont
I've always been enamored with geographical enclaves within the United States. These are parts of the country that have a particular culture which has been shaped either by geography or by indiscriminate state and county boundaries. For whatever reason, such boundaries have generated unique cohorts with strong regional pride. A few examples of these would include Downeast Maine, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Northern California, the Olympic Peninsula of Washington and Eastern Oregon. So when I heard about the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, otherwise known as the N.E.K., I was intrigued and wanted to visit. Although somewhat of a tourist-y move, I decided to visit over the Columbus Day Weekend for the fall foliage.

The Northeast Kingdom has been heralded by poets, artists and outdoorsmen alike as one of the most peaceful and most desirable places to visit in America. In the opinion of this traveler, there is no grander place for fall foliage hiking and relaxation!
Vermont Fall Foliage Hike
Hiking Jay Peak, Vermont

After a very long three day weekend filled with work, I was so ready for this mini-vacation. I'm originally from California so I simply had to see if "leaf-peeping" was as amazing as everyone says it is. As I have been commuting to Portland (Maine) from my tiny town of Gorham, I'd actually been deliberately taking longer commutes just to enjoy the foliage. However nothing compares to the brilliant display of color that happens in Vermont. I could scarcely keep my eyes on the road as I was meandering down country lanes and county highways. To my delight, it seemed like I left all the RV's and car tours behind as soon as I crossed the New Hampshire-Vermont state line.

Jay Peak was my first destination. Its one of New England's 50 Finest and high up on my list of mountains I'd like to climb during my tenure in this part of the country. Although its mainly known as a ski resort, the famous Long Trail crosses its summit and this served as the trailhead. I hit the trail very early to enjoy the morning appenglow. There was just something so surreal about watching the sunrise through the fall forest. It really brought out the color contrast while on the trail. Taking a bad picture would have been impossible!
Great views from the Jay Peak Trail
One of the more delightful parts about hiking the Jay Peak trail is that there are several openings in the forest that provide panoramic views of the Green Mountains. Its also high enough and far enough North to have a real alpine zone. This created a unique tree line. There was a very clear line upon the mountains which separated the deciduous forests from the alpine. It was as if an artist had painted a lines of red an yellow next to a line of dark green. This was also noticeable on the trail I hiked- I very quickly passed that certain elevation which divides the two forests.

Once I summited, there was a full, 360-degree panorama. From Jay Peak I could see Mt Mansfield in central Vermont, the Adirondacks of New York, Lake Champlain Valley, and even the mountains and plains of Quebec. One of the best views was the view to the northeast where I could see Newport Vermont and Lake Memphremagog which are both bound by some isolated mountains.
View of Newport, Vermont from Jay Peak
The prominent mountain on the left is Owl's Head located in Quebec, Canada
I spent a good two hours atop this mountain just relaxing and enjoying the view. As a climber, I rarely get opportunities to simply enjoy a summit- usually the weather or schedule will only permit a few minutes taking a victory shot. It was nice to enjoy some simple moments of peace.

Hiking down was not disappointing though! With the sun hitting the leaves at a different time of the day, it felt as if I'd taken a different route down. I suppose me waxing poetic about the leaves further marks me as someone who is clearly not from New England. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that of the few hikers that I saw on the trail, all of them were native Vermonters who were just up enjoying the same scenery I was. I later made the determination that the Northeastern Vermont is where real Vermonters go when they want to "leaf-peep".
Newport, Vermont
My next destination was the town of Newport, Vermont. Located on the Quebec Border in Orleans County, it is the one of the only major towns in the entire region. At just over 5,000 people, its the second largest town in the Northeast Kingdom which happens to be the least populous region of the 2nd least populous state in America.

I've been to many small towns in America and this was one of my favorites. With the migration of people away from cities and the rise of rural appeal, many desperately cling to their small towns status amidst the economic growth. Some New England towns have since become small cities with an identity crisis (i.e. Bar Harbor, Maine and North Conway, New Hampshire). But even with the Northeast Kingdom becoming a somewhat well-known destination for 4-season tourism, Newport has retained its status as a down-home and genuinely-quaint community of friendly people. I was as captivated with Newport as I was with the foliage on Jay Peak
Orleans County Courthouse
Hiking Gore Mountain, Vermont

The next day's adventure was in Essex County which is the most rural county in New England. Here lies a mountain of no importance to anyone but those who are climbing New England's Fifty Finest- Gore Mountain. It was very difficult for me to find any information on any trails in the area and it seemed as if there were none.

Fortunately the kind folks of the Green Mountain Club have a cut a trail though the dense forests and bogs. While its not a very wide or visible trail, it is enough to get you to the top and hence bag another one of the 50 finest. Other than that very reason, there is little motivation for the average hiker to climb this mountain as there are only fleeting views and no remarkable sights. Nevertheless, it was a nice hike which I had all to myself.
Gore Mountain Trail, Vermont
Despite its modest elevation and lack of sweeping views, Gore Mountain was still a wonderful mountain to hike. The trail weaves its way through the North Woods of Vermont and nearby some bogs. I saw a massive beaver dam and some evidence of bears. On occasion I was welcomed to a view through the trees of nearby mountains. I realized that this was just a nice place to be alone for a while!

One must pay close attention to the "trail" as it becomes somewhat ambiguous at times. There are a couple of signs which mark the way and a few of those white markers but it would be easy to lose your way. Bring a compass or GPS! After a little over 4 miles I was standing on the summit.
Just a walk in the woods!
The summit log simply made my day- I flipped though this notebook and discovered that I was only the 18th person of 2011 to have climbed Gore Mountain. Not only that, but since the log-book's inception in 2008, there had been fewer than 50 souls who had summitted and cared enough to sign it. July appeared to be the peak's busiest month- 3 people trudged up here on the 4th. Most other months had one or at most 2 hikers. It was safe to say I was alone for about 5 miles in all directions, which gave me a sense of joy!

Those who know me well would probably not guess that I'm much into meditation, but I find that its hard not to do this while in such a serene place. I don't mean meditation in the "new-age-y" way that its often associated with. For me, it was simply just being on top of a lonely mountain and listening to the wind and few birds which provided me company. With all the business of graduate school and work, it was wonderful to take some moments and thank the Lord for all the blessings that come with living in Northern New England.

An old fire lookout, long abandoned on the summit of Gore Mountain
Well it was time for me to return once again to my busy life out in Portland, Maine. The best thing about returning was that just outside my door I have a perfect view of a dairy farm and some woods which are just changing color. It made me laugh to think that my last apartment's "great view" was that of the 405 freeway.

It was quite the move for me to go from the left-coast to Maine. I miss my 14,000ft peaks, high deserts, redwood forests and of course, the beaches. Then again, California doesn't have beautiful seasons, empty trails and 300 hundred year old small towns. To me, there's a lot to miss about California and a lot to love about New England.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Best Outdoor Adventures in America: Part V

Celebrating 1 Year of Blogging and 100 posts with the Best Outdoor Adventures in America!
Continued from Best Outdoor Adventures in America: Part 4

The Loneliest Highway in America
#21 Road Trip Highway 50, "The Loneliest Highway in America", Nevada

Central Nevada... no-man's land and the home of "America's Loneliest Highway". Before the creation of the Interstate Highway System, Highway 50 was one of the main corridors that allowed for cross-country traffic. A full tour of the country can be done on Route 50 and you will see very few major cities. The route starts in the uninspiring capital of Maryland and ends in my humble hometown of Sacramento, California. By far the highlight of this highway is its route through Nevada! Traveling from Lake Tahoe to Baker, Nevada will give you new appreciation for the Great Basin.
First of all, you will see an endless number of mountain ranges. One moment you'll be driving at nearly 10,000ft through snowy slopes and the next you'll be at the bottom of a desert basin. The few towns that exist on the route also have a distinctive and legitimate "western" feel to them- its still a frontier of America. If you're daring enough, you can even wander through Great Basin National Park which is the most wild and isolated park in the lower 48 (other than the North Cascades). Last of all, if you get a Highway 50 Passport and get it stamped at every town, the Governor of Nevada will send you a signed "I survived Highway 50" Certificate! Hokey? Maybe. Awesome? Absolutely!

Getting My Kicks on Route 50
Local Website on Route 50 Roadtripping
Summit of Elbert
#22 Climb Mt Elbert, the Highest Mountain in the Rockies, Colorado

Its no small task or accomplishment to climb the highest mountain in the second longest mountain range in the World. Yet, its not as hard as you would think! Although this picture above might say differently, on a pleasant summer day, one can hike to the roof of the Rockies in 11.2 miles from the South Elbert Trail. It is a nice hike too- you can wander though alpine fields which abound with flowers in the spring. Of course climbing Mt Elbert has become a mountaineering pursuit as well- winter ascents are common and somewhat dangerous. However if you are just looking to bag a 14er, this is a relatively easy one compared to some of Colorado's more difficult mountains!

Unfortunately I have no photos of a nice day on Elbert!
South Mt Elbert Trail
Spring/Winter-ish Ascent of Mt Elbert

Another Sierra Nevada Mountain Biking Destination
#23 Mountain Bike Downieville, California

Downieville California is quickly becoming the Moab of California. Its a mountain biking destination for hard-core single-track searchers with hundreds of miles of trails. For the competitive mountain biker, the Downieville Downhill Race has become perhaps the Kentucky Derby of the sport. No joke, this is a World Wide destination for mountain bikers. Yet, Downieville remains a town of less than 300 people and retains its great history of being a gold rush town. Of course, adrenaline is the new rush of this place! Local residents are very kind to the mountain biking crowd so preserve our reputation by being cordial and clean!
Single Tracks through the Pine Forests
So where do you go? Really, the best idea is to just show up in town and visit one of the mountain biking stores for direction- they can hook you up with a map and tell you the best trails to your abilities. Here is one of Downieville's major outfitters and their trail descriptions. Generally speaking, be prepared for massive ascents and therefore enjoyable descents. The trails are all pretty well maintained, but the further into the woods you go, the more technical it gets. Be prepared for some knee scratches and wet shoes. If you go in the spring/ early summer, you'll definitely get that good ol' mud trail running down your back.

Mountain Biking Downieville, Trip Report
Mt Lafayette, New Hampshire
#24 Bag New England’s 50 Finest

Here's another great peak list to try and accomplish. You may have heard about New England's 4,000 Footers and this list has many similar mountains. The difference is, you can't bag many of these in the same day- this list involves more topographically isolated mountains which are less accessible (therefore more adventurous!). Other than simply another list to keep you occupied, it is one that will really get you exploring the parts of New England that are more wild and less touristed.
Mt Baldpate in Western Maine
Western Maine, Northern New Hampshire and Vermont's Northeast Kingdom hold some of the best places to get some wilderness solitude and enjoy mountain top views that are unspoiled by parking lots. You might even be doing some hardcore bush-whacking to summit these! However some of New England's well-known favorites are also on this list so you won't be missing anything. 

Trip Reports Covering New England's 50 Finest
Unofficial Website of the 50 Finest
Lava Tubes in Northern California
#25 Go Spelunking in the Lava Beds, California
Northern California's Lava Beds National Monument has been a topic of discussion many times on this blog. I still believe it is one of the best and most unknown adventure destinations in America. There are perhaps 20 marked caves in the park of all sorts of technicality. Everything from easy, well-lit caves to real spelunking adventures exist in this park. The park is a great place to visit even for non-cavers. In the winter it is easy to spot bald eagles, golden eagles and all sorts of birds-of-prey in addition to other desert wildlife. The park is also stepped in Native American History as it was a major battlefield in the Modoc Indian Wars. Whatever your preferences are in a National Park, this one will suit all.
Lava Beds National Monument
Well I'm sure that's enough to keep you busy for a while!
Read. Plan. Get Out There!