Saturday, December 29, 2012

Where Django Unchained was Filmed; Adventures in Eastern California

The Owens Valley and its towns of Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop have been filming locations for many 21st century blockbusters such as Django Unchained, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Ironman and Gladiator. A significant number of Spaghetti Westerns were also filmed here. Beyond just movies, the Owens Valley holds a lifetime's worth of unique destinations and outdoor adventures. 
Lone Pine, California and the Owens Valley
On the far side of the Sierras in Eastern California lies one of the deepest valleys in North America. The Owens Valley is a 10,000-ft valley flanked by 14,000 foot mountain ranges on both sides. These days "The Old West" is more of moniker for tourist traps and dude ranches across the Western United States but the frontier spirit lives on in this arid desert. I've always loved traveling to the Owens Valley because it seems like its one of those places that's just too rugged and too harsh to ever seriously populate. (Kind of the same reasons why I love living in my adoptive state of Maine). 

Desert landscapes and snow-capped mountains with some legitimate frontier towns are probably some of the reasons why places like Lone Pine, Independence and Bishop have ended up being the backdrop for hundreds of Spaghetti westerns. More recently, Lone Pine has been the filming location for Django Unchained, G.I. Joe, Ironman and Gladiator. I recently saw Django Unchained and, as any climber would, instantly recognized the scenery and mountains. 
The Alabama Hills, where parts of Django Unchained were filmed
Route 395 is the highway that runs through the Owens Valley and is a major thoroughfare for skiers/snowboarders heading to Mammoth Mountain and alpine climbers. Even if you just drive through the valley, you will not be disappointed; its abundant with natural beauty and landscape.   People have a tendency to romanticize "The Old West" but I've always felt that this 100-mile stretch of land is where it lives on. So here's what you could see if you ever should find yourself on route 395.

View Owen's Valley, California in a larger map

Getting to Route 395 is difficult from any direction. If you're coming up from Los Angeles, it involves a drive across the Mojave Desert. From the North, it crosses several mountain ranges in the Great Basin and if you're coming from Sacramento or San Francisco, you have to cross the Sierras themselves. These are other reasons why this place has remained rural. But let's just assume you come from the South.
You have to cross a bunch of empty space if you're coming from Los Angeles!
I've made the drive from Los Angeles more times than I can count and yet I'm still left speechless when I come across 150 miles of desert to 10,000-ft mountains. Route 395 begins paralleling the Sierras just past Ridgecrest California and its difficult to keep one's eyes on the road. Heading North, you pass by a few mountains and then hit Red Hill which is actually a volcanic butte. Ancient lava flows appear here and there along the trip and allude to the volcanic history of the valley. 

Just before entering Lone Pine, California, Owens Lake will be to the East. This was once a much larger lake but has been dry for quite some time with the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Thank goodness we still have Mono Lake!
Owens Lake is just above the prominent mountain in the center of the picture. It used to be a lake!
Past Owens-not-really-a-Lake is the town of Lone Pine. Although its a tiny little town, there's not a climber in all of California who is not familiar with Lone Pine. Lone Pine's bread and butter are hotels and hostels for climbers and great pre- and post- climb food. On every Mt Whitney trip I've ever been on, we've always gotten up extremely early on our last day to make down to the Mt Whitney Cafe. Its the kind of place that specializes in gigantic meals for starved mountaineers and gaunt thru-hikers. Beyond that, there are some great outfitters and a few pubs that I used to frequent when I came here more often.

The Whitney Portal Road heads west out of town and up to about 8,600-ft on the slopes of Mt Whitney. Its the entry point for everything from the hike up Mt Whitney to the intensive alpine routes of the country's highest point. Its also where you can get a bacon burger with 8 slices of bacon (not kidding). 

Outside of town are the Alabama Hills which are a perfect destination for a short hike. The Mobius Arch is a natural rock arch which famously frames Mt Whitney. Its also the site of one of California's most difficult ultra-marathons, the Lone Pine Ultra . Although its a smaller race, it tends to attract the who's-who of western Ultra-runners. Oh, did I mention that hundreds of movies have been filmed here? 
Classic Lone Pine Scenery.
Past Lone Pine, the drive steadily travels through the arid valley dotted with cottonwood trees and scrubby bushes until a conspicuous guard tower appears. Manzanar National Historic Site is a preserved Japanese-American Internment Camp where over 100,000 once were interned. This is a highly significant site with a very controversial history; I could not do this site any justice with just a paragraph so I'll simply recommend a visit. 
Soul Counseling Tower, Manzanar National Historic Site
Route 395 continues onward through the towns of Independence and Big Pine and the views of the White Mountains become more magnificent. The White Mountains are often overshadowed by their slightly taller neighboring Sierras but they are every bit as wild. White Mountain Peak is barely 300 feet shorter than Mt Whitney yet nobody has ever heard of it. What really makes a visit to the White Mountains special is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest which I gush about to anyone who listens. I'm still enthralled by pictures of them; to touch and see trees that are 3,000-4,000 years old is nothing short of a spiritual experience. Trees older than the majority of civilization, living organisms that pre-date the pyramids, one single tree that could represent and epoch of humanity... its a pretty groovy place, man.

This is probably the 5th or 6th time I've said it on this blog. So with apologies to any regular readers, you have to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest!
Patriarch Grove, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Past Big Pine, the road continues on to Bishop, California which is another climber hub in the Eastern Sierras. Two great entry points for the Sierra Nevada wilderness are Glacier Lodge Road and the end of Route 168, west of Bishop. Glacier Lodge road is plowed all year long and allows access to the Palisades of the Sierras which are some of the most difficult alpine climbs in the state. I once traveled through here on New Year's Day a few years ago and it was absolutely devoid of anything human. Scary and serene. 

The trailhead at Lake Sabrina leads to Bishop Pass and Evolution Valley which I've written more about here. I don't think I've ever been further away from civilization than I have when I was near Bishop Pass. 
Backpacking through the Palisades in the Winter, Sierra Nevada Mountains
Back in the Valley, just past Bishop is the Owens River Gorge which is a scenic hiking and epic climbing destination. I have not climbed there myself, but its on my list.

Bishop is essentially the northern end of the Owens Valley and after that, Route 395 ascends 4,000ft to the Mammoth Lakes area. Although technically outside of the valley, the area between Mammoth Lakes and Mono Lake is also worth your time as the scenery is less desertous and more alpine. 
Back in the Owens Valley
It funny to me how places like Lone Pine, Independence, the Alabama Hills, Mt Whitney and the whole valley have popped up everywhere in cinematography. Its even more bizarre how this place is used as a backdrop in films about Afghanistan, Iraq, Spain and nameless towns in the Old West. With all the special effects and CGI, its easy to believe that such a place exists only in theater. However the Owens Valley is a real place and the actual location is much more majestic than any movie could ever make it out to be. Given its remoteness, it will probably always be that way. So, to borrow from a similar phrase, the real place is better than the movie!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Whiskeytown Falls, California

Its hard to believe that a 220ft waterfall would remain hidden on any map until 2005. This is only possible in places as wild as the temperate jungles of Northern California. Fortunately this gem can be hiked in 1/2 a day.
Whiskeytown Falls, California
The Northwestern Mountains of Northern California are some of the most sparsely populated and seldom traveled places in the state. The area bound between Route 101 and Interstate 5 is characterized by lush, green forests covering surprisingly rugged coastal ranges. Its certainly not the California where you see people sunbathing and surfing but its beautiful in its own right. Only a few highways and logging road permeate the area and most of it is National Forest Land. I suppose that's why Whiskeytown Falls remained off the grid until the 21st century.

Whiskeytown Falls is located in Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area Its located about 10 miles west of Redding, California, 2.5 hours from Sacramento and about 3.5 hours from San Francisco. The lake/reservoir lies at the foot of the coastal ranges of Northern California and is surprisingly accessible. To get to the trailhead for Whiskeytown Falls, follow these directions.
Upper Cascades of Whiskeytown Falls
Hiking to the falls is not far nor very difficult but it is a little steep and slippery in some sections. I'd recommend bringing rain gear in the winter and lots of water in the summer. This part of California tends to have extremely hot summers without the benefit of the Delta Breezes that Sacramento has. Total round-trip distance is about 3.4 miles. The trail is well marked and easy to follow.

Once you reach the bottom of the falls, you can stop here and get some pictures or ascend the slippery slopes, using the hand rails for balance. This part is a little dangerous!
Whiskeytown Lake
If the 220ft falls does not satisfy you thirst for waterfalls, there are an additional three falls to hike to. Boulder Creek Falls is a 138ft drop and the second highest in the park. Brandy Creek falls is a nice group of cascades also worth seeing. Finally there's the Crystal Creek Falls which are very easily hiked. 

Its rare to hear of something being off the map until the 21st century, but that just goes to show that Northern California is one wild and rugged place. Its nice to know that things are still being "discovered"!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Hiking Mt Moriah via Carter-Moriah Trail: New England 4,000 Footers

Mt Moriah is a 4,000 footer with a full, 360-degree view from its summit. The trail from Gorham, New Hampshire also has a surprisingly large number of views on the way up too. This is a great 9-mile day hike.
Carter-Moriah Trail
Its that awkward time of year again when the cold weather is here but there is no snow. All of us snowshoers, cross-country skiers, snowboarders, mountaineers and ice climbers are on the edge of our seats waiting for some glorious precipitation. But no snow is not a reason to not go out for a hike, especially when its on Thanksgiving! 

I'm at the point in my pursuit to climb all of the White Mountain 4,000-Footers that I have several "odds and ends" to tie up and a few of the bigger single day ascents like Owl's Head and Isolation. I didn't bag Moriah when I did the Carter Ridge and Wildcat so today would be a great day for it! After all, the trail would be clear and quiet and I've heard the views are fantastic.

I came up over Pinkam Notch and down over to Gorham, New Hampshire to do this hike. There was still now snow up in the Great Gulf, Huntington Ravine or Pinnacle Gully yet so I was glad I wasn't missing out. The hike actually begins at the end of a residential road and the parking situation was confusing- there's really no parking lot and its not really a cul-de-sac either... so I just pulled slightly off the road and the trailhead was at the end of the road.

The trail meanders along a ridgeline that eventually leads to Mt Moriah. What made this trail special was that there were multiple lookouts on the way up. Most hikes I've done in New Hampshire stay in the dense boreal forests and with only fleeting views. I was delighted to see that there was plenty to take my mind off the steep hike.

At about halfway up, I stopped for lunch and noticed something very unique; there was complete and utter silence on the trail. There was no wind, no birds, no bugs, no other hikers and no noise. Usually hiking here is such a social affair; today there was nobody! I enjoyed the quietude. 
Its quite icy this time of year
Summit views from the top of Mt Moriah
If you are one who hates "false summits", then this mountain is probably not for you! The ridgeline hike plays all kinds of tricks with you and there were probably some 15 false summits along the way. Also, it was very, very icy in most parts of the trail. I mean, this was expected when hiking in late November, but there wasn't enough ice to don the crampons or micro-spikes, yet. 

When the real summit finally came in to view, it was certainly worth the trip. There was a full panorama of views! The best was probably the view into the Dry River Wilderness and Valley, just to the East. You could also see most of the Carter Ridge and well into the Presidentials and Northern White Mountains. Way off in the distance I spied a pyramid-like mountain that was barely visible. It could have been Sugarloaf in Maine, almost 60 miles away! Regardless, it was a million-dollar view.
The Presidential Range from Carter-Moriah Trail
Well, I hope there's some real snow soon and that my next post is about some ice climbing or mountaineering!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hiking Big Moose Mountain, Maine

Big Moose Mountain, previously known as Big Squaw Mountain, is the highest point along the shores of Moosehead Lake in North Central Maine. The view from the top is certainly one of the best in the state.
Sunset on Moosehead Lake from the summit of Big Moose Mountain
Climbing Big Moose Mountain was actually my first adventure in the Moosehead area even though this is my last post about my adventures. At 3,196ft, this relatively shorter mountain rises abruptly from the shores of the massive alpine lake. Its absolutely one of my favorite mountains in the state to climb for this reason!

There's a few options for climbing Big Moose Mountain and, unfortunately for me, they kind of depend on what kind of car you have. The south side of the mountain has a legitimate trail while the north side can be ascended using the old ski trails. Either way is a short but grueling hike to the summit.

The Big Moose Mountain trail is marked on the Maine Gazetteer, page 41, D1. 

Inevitably I had to start from the end of the paved road. I don't like to take any chances with my car on dirt roads, especially in rural Maine! However starting at the old ski area is just as good and you get the benefit of a view all the way up. So it wasn't so bad, even if it didn't feel very wilderness-y.

Using the ski trails made the trip pretty simple and steep. Afterall, I was hiking black diamonds in some sections! Eventually I made it to the top of the ski area and there was a tiny trail which ascended to the true summit from the final lift. Its not marked but it is a real trail and its possible to come up one direction and go down on the other side if you do a car shuttle.
Sunset on the summit of Big Moose Mountain
The summit of Big Moose Mountain was glorious, I think I could see 2/3rds of the state of Maine on a clear day. To the North I could see the volcanic domes of Big and Little Spencer Mountain. Just East of the summit was Baker Mountain and the 100-mile wilderness of the Appalachian Trail. I'm quite sure I could just make out the summits of Katahdin and Baxter State Park in the Northeast. To the Southwest I could see to the wild Bigalow Range and a bunch of other nameless summits. It was a hell of a view! Definitely worth the comparatively short hike.

So there you have it! A 5 or 6 mile round trip hike brings you to one of the best summits in the state. That's a bargain!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hiking Moxie Falls, Maine

Moxie Falls is a 90-ft waterfall located in central Maine along the Kennebec River. Its a short hike near the tows of The Forks and is something not to be missed on the drive to Jackman and Quebec. It is the second highest waterfall in Maine after Katahdin Falls.
Moxie Falls, Maine
After finishing the kayaking trip of Moosehead Lake, I decided to take the roundabout way back home to Southern Maine. So instead of heading south from Greenville, I headed west along the shore of Moosehead and on to Jackman. I was basically making a list of things to come back to  when that inevitable restlessness hits me again and I have to head off to some wild place. It was such a scenic drive and I shared it with no other cars save for a few logging trucks. 

View Moxie Falls Trailhead, Maine in a larger map
Once I pulled into Jackman, I spent a little time walking around the town and enjoying the view of  Wood Pond. Then I turned South for the glorious drive from here to Skowhegan. Highway 201 stays relatively high by East Coast standards and winds through the Appalachian Mountains before dropping down along the Kennebec River Valley. I pulled into the famous whitewater town of The Forks, Maine and went down the paved Lake Moxie Road to the Moxie Falls Trailhead. It was surprisingly accessible!
The cascades of the Moxie River before the falls
Moxie Falls was the last stop on this Moosehead Lake trip and it was a great way to end! Its a very gentle, one mile round trip hike with several overlooks. After leaving the parking lot, the trail winds through the woods a bit and then comes to a four-way trail intersection. Just keep heading straight to get to the falls. Before I knew it, I was there! You get a lot of bang for your buck on this hike!
There's also a pretty large gorge after the falls.
You just gotta love the Maine Gazetteer, always pointing out places like this that would otherwise go unnoticed on a road trip. It would be a long drive from Portland or Boston to get here, but there's a thousand other sights to see so I don't see why it wouldn't be worth the trip. 

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Kayaking Moosehead Lake and Maine Public Reserve Land

Moosehead Lake is one of Maine's greatest natural wonders. Located on the southern edge of the expansive North Woods, it is the largest alpine lake in the East. Moosehead is still one of the most wild and untouched wildernesses of the Northeast.
Moosehead Lake and the Great North Woods of Maine
Before traveling out to Moosehead Lake for the long weekend, I had gone an unbelievable four weeks without tramping into the woods. That must be a record for me. After all, when you're an outdoorsman living in Maine, you're about as happy and active as a surfer living in Hawaii. But these last for weeks of wilderness-less-ness have been a testament to how stressful they have been. Personally, I don't think its very healthy for me to go that long without something- even a day hike will help me feel recharged. So when the Veteran's Day weekend hit and I thankfully had no work nor major tests to prepare for, I went to one of the greatest wilds I haven't been to yet- the North Woods.

I've been meaning to get up to Moosehead since about the time I moved to Maine. A large, majestic lake surrounded by Appalachian Mountains and the endless northeastern forests sounded better than a tropical beach to me. My plan was to spend two days hiking and two days kayaking.

Greenville Maine, the last stop before the North Woods!
I think they thought I was a bit of a nut when I walked into Northwoods Outfitters and asked if they still rented touring kayaks in November. After all, the lake temperature and air temperature were probably in the 30s and the winter wind wasn't helping either, so I don't blame them! But I was serious and experienced. I also rented a tracking GPS just in case I got into real trouble. Shortly thereafter, I was casting off of the Greenville docks and headed North!

The lake was especially windy and choppy but that did not deter the adventure and scenery. Off to my left was Big Moose Mountain which towered 2,000ft above the lake. To the right were the seaplane docks and hunting camps along the shores of the lake. In front of me were the hundreds of islands which dot the lake, some as large as a town and others supporting just a tree or two. It actually felt like I was kayaking across the Maine Island Trail but without the lobster boats and currents!

View Winter Kayaking on Moosehead Lake in a larger map

Although there were no currents, it was cold... very cold. I was glad I brought a wetsuit and dry clothes. I had to land on a couple of islands just to warm myself up and take a break from kayaking into the wind. So in some ways it was more difficult than kayaking on the ocean but at least I did not have to deal with tides.

One of the more delightful aspects of the trip was kayaking through the several archipelagos on the lake. From a general map of the area, only the large islands are marked but I discovered that there are hundreds of smaller islands that are spread across the lake. They offered a nice respite from the wind and it was fun to poke around their shores. I would have been content with a day trip of just island hopping.

Small islands everywhere!
Crossing Sandy Bay was difficult and coming between Moose Island and Burnt Jacket Point, about halfway through the trip, were very windy and exposed. Massive cliffs on the shore took my mind off the rough paddle but it was slow going nonetheless. After rounding Burnt Jacket Point, I made a second difficult crossing of Beaver Cove. I found out from one of the locals that this is a particularly difficult section as the surrounding topography tends to funnel the wind though the cove. I got a little soaked coming through there! But once I was on the other side I had a fantastic view of the sun setting over the tops of Katahdin and Baxter State Park. 

At about that time, it was 3:30 and the sun was already low in the sky so I looked for a suitable campsite. Lily Bay State Parks was not far off and I found a great landing with a gorgeous view of the lake and Big Moose Mountain. Perfect spot for a camp! I pulled the boat out and quickly set up a tent to warm up.

Wonderful spot for a camp! The far mountain is Big Moose Mountain
That evening I popped my head outside of the tent and was rewarded with one of the greatest sights I've ever seen- a completely uninhibited night sky. It was a new moon over northern Maine in November and there was not even the distant lights of a logging truck or hunter's camp to interrupt the brilliance of the stars. I've only seen this clear of a sky in parts of Utah, the Sierra Nevada of California and northern Minnesota. The Milky Way stretched across the sky like a silver rainbow and the evening star was reflecting perfectly off of the calm water. What an incredible and rare sight! I took off along the shore and took in the frigid view!
Kayaking Moosehead in the early winter!
The next day held completely different weather. Not only was the wind blowing at the same speed in the opposite direction, there was also some freezing rain. Good thing I brought the wetsuit. When I was paddling hard into the wind, I was able to stay warm but it was still difficult. The same crossings and same channels were just as hard with the wind and chop. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the trip- its not often I'm able to get this much quietude and solitude. 

I think that's one of the things I love the most about Maine- if you drive into Portland or two hours South to Boston, you can enjoy some of the finer things about East Coast cities- all the good food, art, history, nightlife, culture, people ect. But if you get tired of that, you can just drive two or three hours North and be completely alone save for the wildlife. I'm no recluse and I'm not a hermit but I love spending time alone in the wild. The abundant solitude is delightful. Its nice to know that in a state like Maine, there will always be a half million acres of land for anyone, be it a Mainer or someone "from away" to get out and enjoy some fresh air and time in the wild. Thank God for that!
Kayaking along Sugar Island, Moosehead Lake
So I pulled into Greenville in the afternoon and promptly warmed myself up with some coffee and dry clothes. Despite the cold and constant struggle against the wind, the trip was serene and rejuvenating. It reminded me that I can't stay away from these places for too long- its just plain unhealthy! But it wasn't the end to my Moosehead Travels- I was able to climb Big Moose Mountain and drive all along the shore up to Rockwood. I think I might have found my favorite place in Maine

Looking at the maps, I suppose I was technically just skirting around Maine's Public Reserve Lands but it all felt the same to me. There are some excellent resources if you would like to travel through the North Woods. The website and map for Maine's Public Reserve Lands is very useful. Simply by chance, I picked up a copy of Tom Hanrahan's guide to the public lands, Your Maine Lands: Reflections of a Maine Guide, which was filled with practical advice and plenty of good reasons to head up here. 
Sunset on Moosehead Lake from the summit of Big Moose Mountain
Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hiking the Salton Sea: Strangest Place I've Been

In the Southeastern corner of California, 200ft below sea level lies an unlikely inland sea with a unique history. The Salton Sea is one of the largest lakes in the United States and has, perhaps, one of the  most confusing natural and unnatural history of any lake in the country
The Salton Sea
The Colorado Desert of California is a strange and wonderful place. Its a place that has mountains and snow, deserts and dunes, farms and small towns, while also having one of the largest lakes in the country.  If you stop for gas and need change, you will likely receive it in pesos. Its populated by a strange mix of desert farmers, Latino immigrants, drifters and "desert people".

Two years ago while on a mini-vacation with my girlfriend in Palm Springs, I had the wild idea to head out to the infamous Salton Sea. I do not know what exactly possessed me to leave the spas, golf courses, air conditioning and cultivation of Palm Springs for a large, smelly hot sea below sea level. (I am sure she was annoyed by this decision and I really can't blame her) Not only that, but if one was to have an outdoor adventure in Palm Springs, there were much better options on the more temperate San Jacinto Mountain or in the comparatively cooler Joshua Tree National Park. No, for some odd reason I had to finally see the Salton Sea. 

So, we loaded up the car at 8 o'clock in the morning when the temperature was already 101 degrees and headed 60 miles south into this seemingly bottomless valley. Past the outlet stores, past that one place where they have the concerts, past the golf courses and into the Salton Sink.

The shores of the Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, or more accurately, the Salton Sink, is the second lowest place in North America. At 226ft below Sea Level, the surface of the sea is only 60ft higher than the Badwater Basin. Mind you, the deepest point of the lake is 52ft below the surface, so essentially this place is Death Valley 2. There are only a handful of places in the World which are lower than this lake.

Whether or not you've heard of the Salton Sea, this place has actually shown up in many small documentaries and some literature. Most of it I find appalling- trying to frame the Salton Sea as if it some post-apocalyptic scene where the wealthy have left their scar on its lonely beaches or the Salton Sea as an environmental catastrophe on par with Chernobyl and the Aral Sea (seriously?). I suppose parts of that are true, but really, most of it is meant to entertain. A much more accurate and fact-based picture of the Salton Sea can be found on the Salton Sea Authority's website. While it is certainly a place in need of conservation and attention, it is not this abandoned toxic dump that it is commonly portrayed as by modernist photographers and amateur documentaries. Here is another excellent resource you should see before you go out trying to make the Salton Sea look like a wasteland.

As I came to find out when I visited, the Salton Sea is neither the "California Riviera" it was once envisioned to be but also not a horrible disaster either. It's actually somewhat of a clever dimorphism and not entirely unnatural. Long story short, the Salton Sea, as it is seen today, was "created" by heavy flooding on the Colorado River which broke the levees and slowly filled this below-sea-level valley. So for two years, almost all the water from the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Grand Canyon and everything came to the Salton Sink and created this massive lake. Of course, there was always seasonal fluctuations of water in the sink from the San Bernardino, San Rosa, and other smaller ranges surrounding the basin. For that reason, its been a major truck-stop for migrating birds long before it was ever considered a sea. It still is today and it is one of the best birding areas in the Southwestern United States.

At the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, we stepped out to the classic, brine-y smell of the sea not unlike the smell of a fishing dock. There were dozens of people fishing and despite the common sight of dead fish on the shores, fishing is perfectly safe. There were a few broken down buildings and signs of development. I am sure some hipster photographer was absolutely ecstatic for the opportunity to make social commentary from a picture of an abandoned building. 
Walking further away from the highway, we could appreciate the size of the Salton Sea
So be both found it to be laughable and weirdly enjoyable to be walking along a gigantic inland sea in triple-digit temperatures when we could be enjoying a nice spa treatment in Palm Springs or golfing at a famous resort. I admit, its probably not some place you would want to go every weekend. 

At one point during the trip, we parked off the side of the road and hiked a little into the desert hills to get a better view of the lake. The scenery became more recognizable for the Colorado Desert. Stout cresolate bushes, occasional Ocatillos and a dozen other shrubby plants I don't know the name of. Each plant has its unique little lot surrounded by sand and dirt- like a desert suburban. We even caught a glimpse of a few bats and lizards. 

Here is the list of places to hike around the Salton Sea.
The Colorado Desert's Mascot
Looking towards the Salton Sea from the summit of Mt San Jacinto
If you stand on the shores of the Salton Sea during the spring and fall, you will see several wonderful things you would not expect in the desert. Directly in front of you, of course, is the second largest saline lake in the country. On a good day, you could spot hundreds of species of migratory birds stopping by on their way North or South. Past the lake, there are the Santa Rosa and San Bernardino Mountains which are covered in snow for much of the year. Even the comparatively lower mountains of Joshua Tree which barely exceed 5,000 ft can be completely covered in snow. All of this can be seen from a comfortable 80 degrees at the right time of the year. Yes, the lake is smelly and there are dead fish along the shores. Yes, its an environmental quagmire. But that's a scene you can't really find anywhere else. Well, it was worth the trip for me, at least.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Top Rope Rock Climbing in North Conway, New Hampshire

North Conway is known for world-class rock climbing and ice climbing. If you're not ready for some of the epic sport and trad climbs, here's a couple of places where you can easily set up a top rope.
Square Ledge, Pinkam Notch. NH
I've always loved to rock climb but this summer has been the first time I've actually made a serious push to become a real climber. Before this, I would go out climbing maybe once every couple of months and climb at a gym with the same infrequency. The push to get into climbing was, of course, partially fueled by having some friends who have full racks of gear and finally getting a membership to the Maine Rock Gym. Now I have no excuse for not becoming a better climber...

Indoor climbing is great training but outdoor climbing is the ultimate goal for me. North Conway and the White Mountains have some of the finest multipitch climbs in the world but they also support some great climbs for lowly folks like me. This is a list of the areas we have explored over the summer which are not just for top-roping but certainly have many options for climbers of every skill level.

#1 North End of Cathedral Ledge

Cathedral Ledge is the crown jewel of North Conway and about as well known as El Cap is in Yosemite. However you don't have to be El-Cap status to climb Cathedral Ledge. You can park your car right at the summit and dip right below the parking lot to find some great routes.  Pine Tree Eliminate (5.8+), just above Thin Air (5.6), is an ultra-classic and beautiful climb which can be lead or top-roped. It can be a traffic jam up there, especially if climbers finishing Thin Air elect to finish with it instead of walking off.  Pine Tree Eliminate is aggressive and sustained 5.8+ climbing which might give you a run for the money. However there's plenty of options for protection and a few nice trees at the top to set an anchor. Just to the right of Pine Tree Eliminate are some other easier climbs including a 5.7 chimney and some short 5.8-5.9 flakes. 
V-Grove, 5.8, Saco Crag
#2 Saco Crag, Humphrey's Ledge Area

Saco Crag is another place that's easy to get to and there's a full range of routes to top rope. Saco Crag is also the perfect place to go if you're up in North Conway on a hot, humid day as it is very shady and right next to the Saco River. Its located just past Humphrey's Ledge on the Westside Road. The parking lot is literally right next to the river and its a short, steep trail to access the ledge. This is one of the easiest places to set a top-rope- scurry around the right side of the crag and you will come out right on top where there are plenty of trees to anchor to. You'll have many 5.8-5.9 options. The V-Grove (5.8) is almost all the way on the right side of the crag and is a somewhat tricky crack climb. Most of the routes are unnamed but there's a good selection of intermediate climbs. 
The Chimney (5.5), Square Ledge
The Brain (5.8), on the right side of the pinnacle
#3 Square Ledge, Pinkham Notch

Square Ledge is a magnificently scenic climbing area with incredible views of Mt Washington, Huntington Ravine and Tuckerman's. There's some top rope options as well as some easier trad climbing options. The Chimney is a 5.5 which can be easily top roped and there's lots of options for protection in the crack which follows the route. We did a couple of mock leads on this route. Just to the right of the Chimney in the pictures is The Brain, a 5.8 which can only be top roped. Again, plenty of options for anchoring at the top. Standard Route is a 5.4, 2 pitch climb up the face of Square Ledge which can be tricky to protect in some areas. This area can get busy on the weekends and holidays.

Top of Family Crag, Shell Pond, Maine
5.9+, single pitch on Family Crag
#4 Shell Pond, Maine

I've only visited Shell Pond once and it is perhaps my favorite climbing destination in the North Conway Area because it supports a number of longer intermediate and difficult climbs. Shell Pond is also somewhat difficult to get to- its located off of Route 113 on the NH-ME line and down a dirt road. Here are the directions. The parking lot isn't much of one- large enough for 4 cars, maybe. After that, follow the goat path into the woods and... well... look for the cairns which bring you to the left and around to Family Crag, the easier of the two crags. The larger crags supports some extremely difficult climbs and is slightly west of Family Crag. It will also take some searching to find the class 3 "trail" up and around the top of the crag to set up a top rope. Watch out for bees nests in the ground and trees?

Finding the crag might be arduous, but the climbing is absolutely superb. There are many 100ft, single pitch routes generally ranging from 5.8-5.10d's. Most of the climbing is lengthy, slab climbing and nearly everything is bolted if you'd prefer to sport climb. If you can find the wall, this is one of the best kept secrets of North Conway!

South Side of Jockey Cap, Maine
Top of Jockey Cap
#5 Jockey Cap, Maine

Jockey Cap is a wonderful little nubble just outside of Fryeburg Maine which is probably the easiest place to set up a top rope. It's an especially great place if you're up in the North Conway  area on a crowded weekend. I've previously written about Jockey Cap here. Overall, the west side of the wall has a couple of 5.6-5.8 routes. The south side of the rock supports some very tough sport climbs. 

This is, of course, only a partial guide. The best thing you can do is purchase Ed Webster's "Rock Climbs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire", which is the original Bible of climbing in North Conway. Another wonderful resource is Jerry Handren's "North Conway Rock Climbs" which has plenty of color photographs to help with route finding. The latter book is only available through stores in the North Conway area and a few other locations in New England. Both books are absolutely indispensable for climbing in North Conway as internet guides will only get you so far!

However, if you're an up and coming climber just looking for some good places to set up a top rope and get on the rock, than I hope this helps!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Hiking Ripley and Arethusa Falls, New Hampshire

An easier hike brings you to the highest or second highest waterfalls in New Hampshire. A longer hike could bring you to both waterfalls and to the summit of Frankenstein Cliff. Its a wonderful place to hike in New Hampshire!
Ripley Falls, second highest in New Hampshire
Well its about that time of year to start writing about some great fall hikes in New England. This last Saturday, I figured the first day of fall should be kicked off properly. I had even more of an excuse to get out and hike because my favorite college football team had a bye week! The day's destination was Mt Willey which I was unable to climb when I did Mt Field and Mt Tom on a winter trip

However, I did discover that Frankenstein Cliff, Arethusa Falls and Ripley Falls can be hiked in the same trip! The hike is strenuous but passes by three of New Hampshire's most iconic natural landmarks.

The parking lot for Ripley Falls is where the Appalachian Trail crosses Highway 302 near Bartlett, New Hampshire. There's a paved road that ascends to a small parking lot which fills up quickly in the summer and fall. You can also park at the bottom of the road near the intersection with 302. The parking lot for Arethusa Falls is just before (or past) the Ripley Falls parking lot and is well marked. Both falls can be accessed from either parking lot. 

View Hiking New Hampshire's Waterfalls in a larger map

So as you can see from the map, there are plenty of options for hiking in this relatively small area. Ripley and Arethusa Falls can be hiked separately or together depending on how adventurous you're feeling. Ripley Falls is the easier of the two hikes. Its a moderately strenuous, 1 mile round-trip hike from the Appalachian Trail Parking Lot. Arethusa Falls is a strenuous 2.8 mile round-trip hike from the Arethusa Falls Parking Lot. This is a somewhat steep trail- it ascends about 1,000 feet in 1.4 miles. However all the hard work of getting there is made enjoyable with views of the cascades of Bemis Brook before getting to the waterfall. 

For those looking to bag both waterfalls in the same trip, there is a grueling side trail that connects the two over Frankenstein Cliff. Its a steep 2.4 miles one-way between the falls so be prepared for a much longer day if this is your plan. However Frankenstein Cliff can be seen from this trail if you add another 0.5 miles to the total distance. This is one of the most spectacular views in the state and a mecca for ice climbing.
Arethusa Falls in the Winter
Arethusa Falls is just as impressive in the winter as it is in the summer and the hike is frequently done in all seasons. In the winter, you might catch a glimpse of some ice climbers tediously ascending its frozen slopes. Ripley Falls isn't as impressive in the winter but Frankenstein Cliff is ever so gorgeous.

I've always wanted to come out here in the early morning to photograph the falls- they are east-facing falls and can be completely shaded by early afternoon. Nevertheless, its a serene place to visit any time of year at any time. 
Ripley Falls and the little pool at the bottom
So there are many options and many seasons to hike in this place! Whether you're looking for a short jaunt or a long-day hike, you're bound to see something beautiful. 

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Pursuit of Life: 2 Years of Blogging!

Well, here we are 2 years down the line with 160 posts about places all across the country and some in Canada! The Pursuit of Life has grown from an infrequently read blog by friends and family to one read across the World!
The Pursuit of Life is read in over 90 countries!
This is, of course, one of those shameless self-promoting posts that liter the blogosphere but I'm genuinely exited to say that the Pursuit of Life has been on the air for 2 years. Its been a wild ride and I would never have guessed that two years after starting this blog I would end up 3,000 miles away from Southern California, working towards becoming a Nurse Practitioner at the University of Southern Maine. In fact, when I started this blog, I was deep in the middle of getting my EMT certification and struggling to find work amid the chaos of being a new graduate in the 2010 economy. Blogging was kind of an outlet away from the repetitious and job and grad-school applications. Spending long hours at Starbucks, posted up with a ultra-caffeinated grande coffee answering the questions like "Why do you want to go to grad school?" and "Why do you want to work here?" gets pretty damn tedious after a while. Why not start a blog and write enjoyably about National Parks and wildernesses across the country? Would anyone care or would this end up shelved with the countless forgotten web domains?
The first picture ever posted on this blog!
Well I'll be dammed if this actually became something read across the country and World! I get twice as many readers a day than I did in the entire first month of the blog! More surprisingly, I still enjoy doing it two years down the line. Now, its an outlet away from the countless hours of hitting the books and studying nursing (still more enjoyable than job applications!). But beyond the personal satisfaction, its become a way to showcase the thousands of glorious wildernesses, parks and trails which make this place so unique. Plus, its given yet another reason to get out there and explore.

Domestic Readership
So Who's Reading?

Several months ago, I signed on to Google Analytics which has been a helpful way to track readership. What's especially useful is the geographical statistics. Blogger tracks this too but not nearly at the level of Analytics. So now I get a state-by-state breakdown of where the blog is being read. I was most excited to see that there are readers in all 50 states! About 25% are visitors from the Northeast while another 25% are from California. The Mountain States, Midwest and South account for another 30% of traffic and the rest are international visitors. This blog has been a hit in Europe and Canada where its shown up on all sorts of message boards and tourist sites! 

I've unwittingly ended up with a blog with excellent search engine optimization (SEO). So a significant amount of traffic is organic (from un-paid google searches and such). But I've also had a fair amount of returning visitors which is also encouraging . I write about places all across the country so its not surprising that a lot of readers are looking for information on a single issue or location. 
Moving Forward

I suppose this post is nothing more than a brief interruption of adventures as I will soon be writing about all the rock climbing we did in North Conway this summer and I'm headed for a fall hike in New Hampshire tomorrow. But its nice to look back and see where this blog came from and where its going. Its almost strange to read my first couple of posts... a lot has changed and improved since then. Its like looking back on childhood finger paintings- partially endearing, partially embarrassing! None the less, blogging is still a wonderful pastime that will keep me away from studying and on the trail. So thanks for reading and I hope you get a chance to get out there and explore! 

As always...

Read. Plan. Get Out There!