Friday, July 27, 2012

Backpacking the Pemi Loop, New Hampshire

The "Pemi Loop" is one of the ultimate challenges of the rugged White Mountains. This is a very difficult route which could be anywhere from 32 to 38 miles depending on which 4,000 footers you would like to bag. More importantly, it traverses through one of the greatest wildernesses in the Northeast; the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
The Pemi Loop over Bondcliff
Its been almost 4 months since I was last on a 4,000-footer and that needed to change! Of course, I've been spending plenty of time in the Whites but its been mostly reserved for rock climbing around the North Conway area. On this particular weekend, I wanted wilderness! It was actually about a year ago to the day that I completed the Presidential Traverse which is the other infamous widow-maker hike of the White Mountains. 

I left Portland at some ungodly hour and made it to the Lincoln Woods Trailhead at around 7:00 in the morning. This is approximately 3 hours later than when most people start the Pemi Loop... call me lazy. The parking lot was a hilarious scene. The thing about the Pemigewasset Wilderness is that you simply cannot get to anywhere without hiking less than 15 miles. So this parking lot is basically an olympic arena of ultramarathon runners, thru-hikers and other endurance athletes. In fact, I was the wimp because I was doing this in 2 days, not one. I chuckled over this as I hit the trail.
The Pemigewasset River
I was doing a counter-clockwise Pemi Loop which worked out well for this particular trip. I would be hitting the high peaks tomorrow morning before the thunderstorms. So the first 6 miles or so completely contrasted the rest of the Pemi. It was a happy little stroll along the river with no ups and downs and plenty of shade! Until you get to the Bondcliff trail, it is a light and enjoyable walk in the woods. I tried to enjoy this part as much as possible seeing as the rest of the hike is on joint-destroying rocks up and down 60-degree slopes. 

The Bondcliff trail followed and was a 4.1 mile ascent up to the 4,265ft summit. It was steep but much gentler by White Mountain standards. In the first half there were a couple of water sources if you need to fill up but there's nothing from there to the Guyot Shelter. Still, the hike up all three bonds is most people's favorite part of the Pemi Loop since it is the least crowded and most wild. 
Everybody loves the Bonds!
Bondcliff is a bare, rocky summit with 360-degree views. From here, the hike up Mt Bond, 4,698ft, was full of panoramic views. The trail dips below treeline and then resurfaces on a spur of West Bond, 4,541ft. West Bond was perhaps my favorite view because it is somewhat of a unique vantage point in the Pemi. You can look right down into the Franconia Brook valley and Owls Head and nearly every summit of the trail can be seen.

After coming down West Bond, I hit up the Guyot Shelter which is the only opportunity for water for 5 rough miles (or more if you're doing North Twin and Zealand!). The Guyot Shelter had a stream which was barely running (as of 7/22/12) so check local trip reports for intel before going! The bare summit of Mt Guyot, 4,588ft, is just beyond the shelter.

From here, I decided to drop my pack and quickly tag the summit of Mt Zealand, 4,260ft. This is not traditionally part of the Pemi Loop and is an extra 2.6 miles. However the summit of Mt Zealand has absolutely no views and little appeal to me so I figured I'd bag it while I was there. Apparently Zeacliff is impressive, but Zealand itself was nothing more than a slightly elevated point on a spur of higher peaks.
Mt Guyot, 4,588ft
Back from Zealand, I headed up to South Twin, 4,902ft and one of the highest points on the hike. The whole section from the Bonds to South Twin was actually pretty tame. It was also being traveled by a bunch of other adventurers like me and I enjoyed the social aspect of this trail! I find that hiking along the Appalachian Trail is delightful because there are so many other wild spirits who completely understand why a 38-mile trip over two days sounds like fun!

Standing on the summit of Mt Twin at sunset was serene. To the Northeast was the Presidential Range and to the South was the full Pemi wilderness. Many other long-distance hikers were takign in the view and I enjoyed their company. I also decided to bag North Twin, 4,761ft while I was here and that was another quick 2.6 mile side trail. The view was nice but not as nice as South Twin. There's also a sizable campsite between the twins if you're looking for a place.
Sunset over the Presidentials
Coming down South Twin to the Galehead Hut was a nightmare- very steep downhill and completely rocky. After a 20 mile day, the final mile was absolutely miserable. After about an hour and a thousand profanities, I ended up at the Galehead Hut. I dropped my pack off and hiked the Galehead Spur to the summit, 4,026ft.

I slept a ways from the Galehead Hut but returned in the morning for a coffee and the weather report. I love spending time at the Appalachian Trail huts because it adds to the camaraderie of hiking in the Northeast. One group was hiking a full 50 miles in a day! Another was doing the Pemi Loop in a day. Others had hiked just a couple miles in and stayed the night in the shelter. The conversations are almost all the same- How many of the 48 have you hiked? Done the AT yet? Inevitably, you always spend way more time chatting and swapping stories at the huts than you originally planned. 

Back on the trail, I made the trudge up Mt Garfield. The first 2 miles between Galehead and Garfield are normal ups and downs and then the ascent is killer. The summit of Garfield, 4,501ft, is bare and also has an incredible view. It also has a view of one of the toughest sections- the descent down Garfield and up to Lafayette!
Mt Lafayette from Mt Garfield
So it was another yo-yo- down, down, down from Garfield, up up and away! There's a small pond on the saddle between the two summits that supports a campsite and almost always has water. Fill up your bottles because there's nothing much until you're at the bottom of Mt Flume! From here there are perhaps a half dozen false summits along the way. Seriously.

Eventually I popped up above tree-line into the very familiar and quintessentially Northeastern alpine environment. From Lafayette to Little Haystack, you spend about two and a half miles above tree line with splendid views. Of course, once I got to the summit 5,261ft, it was as busy as downtown Boston. Some people who hike the pemi loop hate this part of the hike but it wasn't so bad after getting off the summit of Lafayette. 

Mt Lincoln, 5,089ft is only a mile from Lafayette but, you guessed it, its another yo-yo. However its a bare summit with less crowds so I had some lunch. Just beyond is Little Haystack is technically not a 4,000-footer but it will add to the endless ups and downs.
Mt Lincoln and the Appalachian Trail
On to the home stretch! The trail went back below tree-line on the way to Mt Liberty. It was a less wild stretch of the trail and Liberty 4,459ft and Flume 4,328ft punctuated the roller-coaster descent back to Lincoln Woods. 

The trail down was very steep but less rough than the trail up Bondcliff. I was happy with my choice to go counter-clockwise. For the particularly steep sections, there were wooden staircases which were much more preferable to uneven rocks! This trail eventually comes to a gentle descent along the Osseo Brook and the flat trail back to Lincoln Woods.
Last Look... descent of Mt Flume
Well, I did it! I did a wimpy 2-day Pemi Loop! I'm not even trying to be modest here... many people do the Pemi loop in a day. In fact, some folks do it in less than 12 hours! I couldn't imagine... Nevertheless, this was one of the most enjoyable trips I've ever had. The Pemi, unlike some other parts of the Whites, is a true wilderness with only the most seasoned of adventurers roaming its mountains. There are no parking lots on the tops of mountains and no highways cutting through the middle. In the future, I plan on hiking Owl's Head and "desolation" which are destinations in this vast wilderness. This is a special place which cannot be missed, especially if you live in the Northeast!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Kayaking and Hiking Santa Barbara Island, Channel Islands National Park, CA

Forty miles off the coast of the bustling metropolis of Southern California lies the small uninhabited Santa Barbara Island. It appears like something out of a pirate tale and remains a mysterious, difficult yet unique place to travel.
Sunrise over Santa Barbara Island, California
Its funny to think that my first job was on an island off the coast of Los Angeles. I started working at Emerald Bay on Catalina Island in 2004 and had an adventurous summer. One opportunity that I had was to visit the remote Santa Barbara Island which is directly West of Catalina. Since then, I traveled back to that island two other times for kayaking, diving and hiking. Its is the smallest of the California Channel Islands but it remains a unique place for sea-faring and outdoor adventure. 

Adventure Map of Santa Barbara Island

View Santa Barbara Island Adventures in a larger map

Getting to Santa Barbara Island

The trip to the island is just part of the adventure. Even if you have your own boat, the waters off the coast of Southern California are deep, wide and prone to intense currents and fog. Santa Barbara Island is so small that it could be conceivably missed without even knowing it on a foggy day. Yet, on a clear day you could see it from the mainland and surrounding islands. 

Most of us do not have a boat and there is only one commercial ferry (although there are many privately operated boats that could take you out). Island Packers is the main group connecting the mainland with all the islands of Channel Island National Park. Its an expensive trip but worth it to explore one of the last uninhabited parts of California.
Santa Barbara Island Hiking
Hiking and Land-Based Outings on Santa Barbara Island

This island is very cliffy and rugged; there are no beaches or docks. There's one option for getting on the island- an old outpost perched on the eastern side with a ladder down to the ocean. Did I mention its rustic? This is the place you can tie a dingy or kayak to and climb the ladder to the trail. This little trail will take you up to the Ranger Station which is quite contemporary compared to the landing. 

Its sometimes not staffed, but there are maps available and even a campsite! The campsite is also rustic but then again it has a beautiful view. Reservations must be made well in advance! Other than the campsite fee and the ferry ticket, there is no fee to hike or visit the island. 
High Point of Santa Barbara Island
There are about 5 miles worth of trails on Santa Barbara Island and the views are great from every direction. If you hike to the North, there are views of the cliffy coast and the mainland. If you hike across to the western part of the island, you can see the many arches and reefs that make the far side a more dangerous place to sail. The Southern side of the island has the highest cliffs and views of Sutil Island. Its perhaps the best place to look over the sea lion rookery and see many of the migratory birds that use this place as an aviary truck-stop. 

Hiking through the middle of the island may seem barren and uninteresting but the island has a recovering native landscape with endemic flora. Be aware that there are many old trails that are closed for vegetation recovery.
Sunset on the West end of Santa Barbara Island
Kayak Circumnavigation of Santa Barbara Island

If you fortunate enough to somehow get a kayak out to the island, a circumnavigation is possible. While its not a long route (6.0 miles), there are many submerged rocks and currents which can make it hazardous. Especially when rounding the western side of the island, it is important to be well off shore to avoid the submerged rocks. 

Kayaking around the island allows you to see the rugged cliffs and the two other islands that make this place so picturesque. On the North side there is a 60ft arch which is difficult to see from any of the hiking trails. There are other arches which can be kayaked! 
Massive Sea Arch, Santa Barbara Island, CA
Kayaking through a sea arch
One thing that can't be missed and is only a short distance from the anchorage the Sea Lion Rookery. I've found this place to be magical for kayaking and diving. Hundreds if not thousands of sea lions congregate here for some kind of marine mammal social club and visiting humans are a rare sight. I've kayaked out here twice and the sea lions have been so fascinated by us that they followed our kayaks for a full mile before getting bored. We literally had two dozen sea lions that were tailing us like loyal dogs. I've seen a lot of sea lions in my life but none that were as interested in me like those on Santa Barbara Island.
Our lovely troupe of Sea Lions
They just did not know what to do with us. To them we were probably some really strange looking sea lions.
Sea arches, sea lions, sea cliffs... everything you could ask for in sea kayaking!

One final thing that I found to be unique to Santa Barbara Island; we were able to watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. It didn't hit me at the time, but its a rather rare sight in California to see the sun come up over the waves of the Pacific Ocean... think about it. I doubt there are any other places where you could see that on the West Coast.
Kayak Sunrise, one of my all-time favorite photos!
Santa Barbara Island is a small spit of rock and a strange place. Not many people will venture out this far off the coast of California and even fewer will making this place a destination. I'm always looking for stretches of wilderness that remain wild and unexplored. Channel Islands National Park is a place that will remain forever wild. While its difficult (and expensive) to make it out to any of the islands, your travels will be rewarded with splendid wilderness and adventure. I hope to someday explore all the Channel Islands!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!