Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Climbing on Wheeler Peak, Nevada

Guide to climbing Wheeler Peak in Nevada during the winter. An isolated summit in the Great Basin wilderness with a technically easy climb.
Wheeler Peak Summit, Nevada
Its not often that one can claim they are writing anything new on a mountaineering route but it seems that both literary and online information regarding winter climbing on Wheeler Peak are lacking. Other than a few scattered trip reports and a little blurb on the NPS website, this blog might also help those rare souls who would like to climb this isolated peak in the winter.

At 13,063ft, Wheeler Peak is Nevada's highest mountain entirely within the state. While Boundary Peak is higher, it is nothing more than an arm of another higher peak in California. Simply put, it doesn't count in my book. I may not be the first person to have ascended Wheeler Peak in the Winter, but I would like to put some more detailed information on the web about what it takes and some general considerations.

Wheeler Peak is within Great Basin National Park which I consider to be the most rugged National Park in the contiguous United States. In the winter, there are hardly any visitors save for a few park rangers. You could very well have this park to yourself on a winter weekday. On top of this we have Wheeler Peak which is also incredibly isolated. In the summer, it can be hiked in a long day but in the winter, roads are closed making it a daunting affair. Nevertheless, Wheeler Peak has become somewhat of a classic hike/climb for Nevada and America due to its prominence and topographical isolation.

The Massive Headwall of Wheeler Peak
The Approach

Once you get to Great Basin National Park, you can head up to the Upper Lehman Creek Campground and park the car. This is a paved road that is plowed in the winter and is at the elevation of 7,700ft. It is a very long approach to Wheeler Peak from here and this can be done in one to two days. You can also pay for camping at this campground.

The Lehman Creek Trail leaves immediately from the parking lot and generally parallels the creek for about 4 miles before dropping you off at the Wheeler Peak Campground. This trail is generally well marked and is snowshoed on a somewhat regular basis in the winter. Its a steep, winding trail which climbs 2,000ft. Of course, a topographic map is essential for this trip.

From the Wheeler Peak Campground, the trail continues to the cirque of alpine lakes. The forest begins to clear at this point making route-finding easier. This is an incredibly beautiful area which makes the 5 mile trek in worthwhile. In the summer, its a nice place to relax and enjoy the mountain air.
Treeline at the Cirque, looking west towards Bald Mountain
One of the "couliors" of Wheeler Peak- Significant rockfall and avalanche danger exists along the ridgeline
The Route

There's no real name to the route up Wheeler Peak in the winter. In the summer, a trail exists from the Wheeler Campground parking lot to the summit. There are two couliors on the North side of Wheeler Peak. I took the nearly direct North-South coulior which parallels the ridge-line. Its more direct than the Standard Route and easier to find in the winter. However significant rock-fall and avalanche danger exist on this route. The Wheeler Peak ridge-line is notoriously windy and this can create massive cornices which could dump right into the coulior.

From Stella Lake, one could make the steep ascent to the col and follow the ridgeline all the way to the peak. Again, almost any time of the winter there will be violent winds and the ascent from Stella Lake also has hazards. Avalanche danger appeared to be low on the day that I went and I preferred the protection of the coulior to the horrendous winds. You will have to make a judgement call when you make it to the Cirque.
Looking back towards the Stella Lake area and the Wheeler Peak Campground
The summit ridgeline
Despite the hazards, the ascent is gentle and easily trans-versed with a mountaineering ice axe and crampons. Either way will bring you to a flattened area and the summit will be in view. The final push for the summit is not steep but it is cold, windy and will leave you oxygen starved. The summit itself is exposed and cliffy; be mindful of potential cornices and incoming storms.

The view from the top is one in a million. Its gives an excellent perspective of the Great Basin and its endless ranges and valleys. Nevada is a unique state whose outdoor adventures are often overshadowed by Las Vegas.
The Snake Range- looking South from the Summit of Wheeler Peak
Looking North from the summit of Wheeler Peak
Its almost a 14 mile trek when its all said and done with about 5,300ft of elevation gain. For the record, it is the 2nd highest point in Nevada, the 12th most prominent mountain in contiguous America, and the 11th most topographically isolated summit in contiguous America. Although its simply a long day hike in the summer, the winter offers a new challenge for this mountain. The technicality of the climb is easy however it is in one of the ultimate wildernesses of the continent. The Great Basin is a land of weather and temperature extremes so make sure that you are well prepared for its challenges.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Most Underrated Adventure Travel Destinations in America

I suppose it would only be appropriate to follow up my last post with a more uplifting one about destinations that are unknown and continue to offer boundless adventures without the crowds. Its been one of the central focuses of the blog for a while now so I'll be right back on track! I know that several of these places are locations that I've written about before but I've recently had an influx of new viewers so I hope this doesn't appear too stale. However, rest assured that this Holiday Season will bring many new adventures and places to write about. For now, put these eight places on your list for a day trip or vacation for the wilderness-minded
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison; grander than the Grand Canyon
#1 The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
It seems like every time I pick up an outdoors magazine or national park publication there will be yet another article detailing the beauty of the Grand Canyon. But after visiting the Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Kings Canyon and a hundred other canyons across America, I think the real Grand Canyon should be the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I've never seen a more awesome and majestic display of what water can do to rock over a long period of time. It was one of the few destinations that actually "took my breath away". 2,000 feet deep and only a quarter of a mile wide... enough to give this rock climber vertigo. As you can imagine, this is also a center for adventure sports. Whitewater kayaking, big wall climbing and epic canyoneering beckon the outdoor extremest. And of course, as the picture alludes to, it is indeed possible to scramble 2,000 feet down from the rim to the river. You don't have to be crazy to do that... but it helps.
Minnesota Boundary Waters
#2 The Upper Midwest- Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin

The Upper Midwest... unbeknownst to anyone save for residents, fishers and of course, Boy Scouts. I didn't think there would be anything to see in the way of adventure until I drove across the country. South Dakota has the Black Hills and North Dakota has an abundant amount of wildlife. Minnesota in particular has endless forests, lakes and some of the best paddling in the country. Between the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park, you could probably kayak or canoe a thousand miles worth of lakes, rivers and rapids. Also, the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River are at Itasca State Park.
Kelso Dunes and Mountains of Mojave
#3 Mojave National Preserve, California

Mojave National Preserve is California's forgotten National Park. It has all the wonders of Joshua Tree and Death Valley and yet remains off the grid for most travelers. The preserve is rich in Western history with the Kelso Depot which served as a resupply stations for the Union Pacific Railroad and was essentially the oasis of the Mojave. Just south are the Kelso dunes which are the 3rd largest sand dunes in North America. To the North are the volcanic Cima Dome and Clark Mountain. Clark Mountain, which is visible on I-15 on the way to Vegas, is actually a substantial mountain which supports many rare species of flora and fauna that take advantage of its elevation and cooler environment. In the dead center of the park there is Hole-in-the-Wall Canyon which is a unique site. Wind and water erosion have created a canyon with a beehive-like appearance that draws curious hikers. Lastly there's the Michell Caverns which is a large limestone cave located near the canyon. Truly a gem of the Mojave Desert.
Lake Memphremagog near Newport, Vermont
#4 Northeast Kingdom, Vermont

I've been gushing praises about Northeastern Vermont ever since I visited this place for some fall foliage hiking. I'm thoroughly convinced that this is the best-kept secret of New England for everything outdoors. Other than being a stellar hiking destination, its also a ski/snowboard and paddling destination. This is also where I first heard about the Northern Forest Canoeing Trail which is a 700+ mile long water trail from New York to Maine. Both flat-water and swift-water paddling are in abundance throughout the "N.E.K." While neighboring  New Hampshire is crawling with folks trying to bag the 48 4,000-footers and people car-touring the White Mountains, Northeastern Vermont will always be free of crowds.
The Painted Hills, a Photographer's Dream
#5 Eastern Oregon

After a couple weeks spent in Bend, Oregon, I've determined that Eastern Oregon is one of the few places that I'd be content to settle down in someday. Its an enchanting place that's been shaped by volcanic forces. The Newberry Volcanic National Monument, outside of Bend, is a perfect example of the nature and geology of the Cascades with lava buttes, lava tubes (caves), and miles of petrified lava flows. The numerous lava caves have generated a thriving spelunker society throughout the region. The rugged Deschutes River carves its way through this once-violent landscape and holds some epic white-water rafting and day hiking opportunities. Its also has a credible claim to be the Mountain Biking Mecca of the Pacific Northwest- there are hundreds of trails. As you travel further east from the Cascades, you will encounter bizarre and stunning sights such as the above-pictured John Day Fossil Beds. Also, "Hell's Canyon" on the Oregon-Idaho border is the deepest canyon in the US- 7,000ft deep. I could spend a year drifting around Eastern Oregon and not see the same thing twice.

The Least-Populous Region of America

#6 The Great Basin, Nevada

Nevada has the most mountain ranges, the second-largest National Forest, a large number of wilderness-designated areas and the absolute best stargazing in America. I know I'll probably be exploring (and blogging!) the Silver State until I die- there's just too much to see. While most people envision a trip to Vegas when they think about traveling to Nevada, it would be a shame if you only saw the Strip. First off, there's Tonapah, Nevada which is the undisputed king of American stargazing. There's also Valley of Fire State Park outside of Las Vegas which has incredible natural anomalies such as natural arches and rock sculptures. Hobgoblin Playground in the extreme southeastern part of the state is simply alien. Cathedral Gorge is a similar location with alien-like rock formations. Speaking of alien, why not try and get a glipse of the infamous Area 51 by *legally* hiking Tikaboo Peak. Again, its the only *legal* view of the military base! Great Basin National Park, the Ruby Mountains, Highway 50, Pyramid Lake... I could go on forever!!
The cliffy coastline of Lake Superior
#7 The Upper Peninsula, Michigan

If you ever travel to Michigan and don't see the Upper Peninsula, then SHAME ON YOU! The Northern Shores of Lake Superior are rugged and full of waterfalls. It is the pride and joy of the Great Lakes State! The very friendly and proud people of the Upper Peninsula (da "U.P.) are extremely welcoming to visitors. Along its 1,700 miles of coastline, there are hundreds of beaches and cliffs. The best location for hiking the coastline is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore which is best hiked in the spring when seasonal waterfalls are flowing. Also, the short but steep Porcupine Mountains are challenging to hike. Truthfully I've only begun to discover the wonders of the Upper Peninsula but it is towards the top of my list on places I want to return to.
Diablo Lake- naturally green
#8 The Northern Cascades, Washington

The North Cascades National Park is another place which I've only skimmed the surface of its wealth of adventures. Its one of those rare locations where every photo of it looks Photoshopped. With hundreds of glaciers and their emerald-green lakes, this park is the "Glacier National Park" of the Pacific coast. It also feels a lot like Alaska- there are towns that are only accessible by float plane, hikes that take you far from any civilization, and ancient mountains that would take decades to conquer. They also differ significantly from other parts of the Cascade Range because they are not volcanic. To me, the range felt more akin to the Sierra Nevada than the Cascades. At any rate, at just an hour and a half outside of Seattle, you would think it would be a more popular park but its overshadowed by Mt Rainer and Olympic National Park. Whatever your disposition, whether you're a glacier-climbing peak-bagger or just a quiet day-hiker, the North Cascades will suit your desires.

Well that's a wrap for what I've explored! There are many locations that I haven't been to that could also make it on this list such as Arkansas' Ozarks, the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, the Sky Islands of extreme Southeastern Arizona, the New Mexican Rockies.... so much to see, so little time... I'll be exploring this country until the day I die!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Most Overrated Adventure Travel Destinations in America

If you haven't figured this out by now, I happen to have an opinion on everything. Whether it be National Parks, newspaper articles or art, I probably have some kind of extreme opinion on it. Therefore when it comes to a disappointing travel destination, I feel obligated to put up billboards and caution tape all over it as to warn the wayfaring adventurer. So here we go with another one of my lists- the most overrated adventure travel destination in America.

I'd like to preface this list with saying that I'm sure lots of people have wonderful experiences when they have visited these places. I'm not anti-business and I'm certainly not saying that you can't have a good time at these destination. However, as an adventure traveler and lover of wilderness, I would certainly not recommend them to anyone who is of a similar ilk. So, take it with a grain of salt.

Niagara Falls, New York/Ontario

I've never been more disappointed by a supposedly beautiful display of "the power of nature". As a stand alone destination, the falls are a pretty sight but they are violently marred by high rise hotels and 25-dollar-an-hour-parking not to mention a whole host of tour buses and a complete lack of hiking trails. I had come to Niagara Falls from the Canadian side while on a cross country road trip and the traffic was worse than any rush hour. By the time I found a parking space four miles from the falls, I was so utterly disgusted by the impossibility of driving that the falls just weren't worth the effort. Of course, if you want a good view of the falls, you have to jockey through the other hundred thousand people trying to do the same. 
Bar Harbor, Maine

Bar Harbor is one of those small cities in denial that desperately tries to cling to their previous status as a homey, small town. Pictures of Bar Harbor make it appear as if its still one of those quintessential Maine lobster-towns but in the summer its a metropolis. I visited Bar Harbor for the first time via kayak as I was on another 100 mile trip up the Maine coast. After having kayaked through beautiful Stonington and the rugged, lesser traveled side of Mount Desert Island I finally made it to Bar Harbor and was thoroughly disappointed. It was like enjoying an incredible five star dinner only to have stale cake for desert. In my discussions with native Bar Harbor-ians, they confirm my suspicions that visiting in the summer is a nightmare. The real truth is, you can do so much better if you really want to see the coast of Maine. 

There are still several small Maine coastal towns that remain relatively undiscovered. Here are my recommendations.
Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Garden of the Gods is unfortunately a great climbing destination that's too crowded and too close to an ultra-active city full of climbers. Again, in itself its a great place to climb and hike but expect traffic jams on the routes and trails. Its actually a very well-managed park with a history that out dates most of our National Parks. But herein lies the problem- EVERYONE in Colorado climbs! So when you have a great destination that's 10 minutes away from a city, the routes get crowded and the trails are a traffic jam of trail runners. In addition there's the normal influx of visitors who just want to walk around and take pictures. The park is also rather small. For me, this just didn't jive with my tenancies. I'd much have preferred Joshua Tree which receives a similar amount of climbers but is literally over 200 times larger.
Beautiful summit views on Mt Washington
Mt Washington, New Hampshire

Well, I wouldn't be the first pretentious outdoorsman to complain about Mt Washington, but no list of uninspiring destinations would be complete without mentioning the highest parking lot in the Northeast. Truthfully though, everything but the summit is nice on Mt Washington. If you take any route other than the infamous Tuckerman's Ravine, you're likely to actually enjoy some peace and quiet. 

You could always see the better part of the White Mountains by doing the Presidential Traverse!

Oahu, Hawaii

To travel all the way across the Pacific Ocean and only visit Honolulu and Oahu is like flying all the way to Las Vegas just to play the slots in the airport. The city feels cramped and sprawling and its hard to find a place big enough for a towel on the crowded Waikiki Beach. Of course, there are other destinations on the island but really nothing that you couldn't see on another island. Oahu, by Hawaiian standards, is bland; it doesn't have the incredibly variable topography and environment that Maui and the Big Island have nor does it have the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific", lush rainforest and massive cliffs that Kauai has. Of course both the ancient and military history of the island are worth experiencing, but you're cheating yourself if this is the only island you visit in Hawaii.
Crowded Avalon
Avalon, Catalina Island, California

Catalina Island will always be near and dear to my heart except for the city of Avalon. Located 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, the island provides a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Avalon is the destination of most passenger boats and cruise ships so its grown quite a bit. To me, the city is a great place for starting an adventure or functioning as a base camp. Catalina has a plethora of hiking, diving, snorkeling, mountain biking and kayaking adventures but you have to step out of Avalon. I'd highly recommend Two Harbors, on the other side of the island, instead. Its much smaller and more laid back- like a little Margarittaville. Its also much easier to get to the wilder parts of Catalina Island from Two Harbors.

Instead of Avalon, try backpacking or hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail!

Tired of overrated places? Check out some lesser known destinations-

Most Underrated Destinations in America

Read. Plan. Get Out There!