Monday, January 26, 2015

Hiking South Franklin Mountain, Mckelligon Canyon and The Window, El Paso Texas

Last week I spent and extended weekend in a much sunnier portion of the country- El Paso, Texas. No visit to the capital of West Texas would be complete without a hike in the Franklin Mountains and Mckelligon Canyon. The rippled, high desert mountains are an outstanding place to hike.

Trail up South Franklin Mountain

El Paso is a lovely town for anyone outdoors inclined due to the fact that it has the largest mountain park of any us city. Franklin Mountains State Park is entirely within El Paso and contains summits between 6,000-7,000 feet. Its a nice respite from the hot desert floor of El Paso and in the winter they can be snow-covered. An abundance of desert flora make for perfect nature hiking.

On this trip I was able to explore much of McKelligon Canyon along with the ridgeline leading to South Franklin Peak. North Franklin Mountain is higher but doesn't have the nice views from the ridgeline nor a chance to see "The Window" natural arch. Here's a hiking map of the area-

As you could probably tell from the map, it does involve a substantial amount of climbing and some areas are legitimate scrambles. Fortunately the park service has installed chains into those sections which help with the climbing. Nevertheless, there are some precipitous drop-offs on several sections which might cause a novice hiker's heart to race.

I started at the highest parking area in McKelligon Canyon which is easily accessible to anyone on the east side of El Paso. There's a trailhead which warns of no water nor facilities on the entire hike- bear that in mind, especially in the summer. The trail is poorly marked and there are an abundance of boot-legged side trails that abruptly end. It's more of a route than a trail but some sections are marked with blue dots. I just as well followed my own route to the ridgeline. Along the way I visited the little cave which can be seen from the parking area.

The trail up McKelligon Canyon with the small cave visible in the center
Looking up the ridgeline. South Franklin is not visible here

Looking down on McKelligon Canyon

Once at the ridgeline, the view was excellent. El Paso and Juarez have some smog but for the most part I could see nearly every major mountain range in the area. It was a fantastic sight for someone who has been living in Chicago the last 4 months. You could see no further from the "summit" of the Hancock building.

The trail/route generally follows along the ridgeline for most of the way up South Franklin. The short and sparse desert plants make the distance look much shorter but do not be fooled- it is a pretty long ways from the top of the canyon to the true summit. But the views are constant so I enjoyed it!
Ridgeline above "The Window"
"The Window"
As the trail snakes up the ridgeline, it comes to a knife's-edge like area where the trail just barely cuts into the cliff. This is the section just below the Window where I wish I had my hiking poles. It is steep, narrow and loose- bring a good pair of boots or shoes. The particularly scary sections had chains drilled in to the mountain to help navigate the loose rock.

After the window, the trail pops out just below the summit to a bare and flat plateau. The summit itself is actually quite ugly with a bunch of decrepit radio towers and the chairlift. I preferred the subpeak as it was more natural. Despite the buildings, panoramic views of the northern mountains and New Mexico are abundant. I later learned that this is the furthest south that the Rocky Mountains reach.
Chains up to the Window
Great views!
With a car spot, its possible to hike from McKelligon Canyon to the Trans Mountain Road which would be about an equal distance of 6-7 miles. That would be another excellent hike for another day. North Franklin Mountain, the only peak rising higher than 7,000 feet, is also on the list. The whole range abounds with hiking opportunities.

For now, I simply headed back the same way I came and was careful not to fall off the mountain on those slippery parts. It is easy to get going down the wrong way so carefully retrace your steps. Total time was just over 1/2 a day and I finished in time for lunch at Whataburger.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Photojournal of the International Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Quebec

Overview of the International Appalachian Trail as it winds from Mt Katahdin, Maine all the way to the edge of the Gaspé Peninsula of Québec. 

The IAT through the Chic Choc Mountains
It’s about this time of year when the restless of winter gets to the best of us and we begin great summer travel plans. For more than a few of us, that will include an almost holy-pilgrimage to the mother of all long distance trails- the Appalachian Trail. Hiking the entire length of the AT is something to be proud of but many are unaware of the quietly added International Appalachian Trail. The IAT or Sentier international des Appalaches (SIA) is a delightfully global long-distance trail which follows the totality of the Appalachian Mountains.

Perhaps this factoid might better appeal to the nerdy natural history types, but many are aware that the Appalachian Mountains are one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth. With that in mind, hiking the true length of the Appalachians involves hiking from Florida to Quebec. From there, its several water crossings which involve trips to Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. The IAT finds routes through all the British Isles. Chapters of the IAT-SIA exist on the Iberian Peninsula and the route is suggested to eventually continue through the mountains of Morocco and Algeria. It’s quite a bold addition to the already imposing trail from Springer Mountain to Mt Katahdin. A total hike would be a grand adventure in the outdoors and international culture; something which perfectly suits we millennial travelers.
The volcanic mountains and hills of Traveler Mountain and Mt Chase

Mars Hill in the morning
International Appalachian Trail in Maine

After ascending Katahdin, “The Greatest Mountain”, the IAT descends and meanders about Baxter State Park before exiting onto a swath of comparatively flat land. While there is a set trail from Katahdin to Quebec, the hiker is freer to hike whatever pleases them on this wilderness route. The northern portion of the park is all ancient volcanoes which are strangely similar to those of Oregon and Washington. Mt Chase is the tallest mountain between Katahdin and New Brunswick. It allows a panoramic view of all the mountains of BSP.
America's first sunrise
From Mt Chase and through Aroostook County, the elevation change is minimal but the wilderness is vast. Aroostook county is Maine’s breadbasket and where much of the state’s famous potatoes come from. It’s a rural county with a friendly mix of Acadian and English culture which would be worth the trip on its own. The isolated summit of Mars Hill provides the hiker with the very first sunrise in the 50 US states during the summer months. It is not something to be missed.
Mont Carleton, NB

IAT in New Brunswick

Although technically not a part of the IAT, a great side visit is Grand Falls/Grand-Sault, New Brunswick. The Saint John River carves a substantial gorge into the otherwise flat farmlands creating somewhat of a Grand Canyon. Hiking, zip-lining and photography are excellent.
St John river gorge

Once the international boundary is crossed, the IAT follows a very rural route through the New Brunswick Highlands. It is similar to the 100-mile wilderness of Maine where a hiker is more likely to encounter loggers than anyone else. Self-sufficiency and a heavy pack are a small price to pay for a trip in an otherwise pristine wilderness. Mont Carleton Provincial Park is the highlight of this leg where the trail climbs to the tallest mountain in the Canadian Maritimes.
Enjoying the highest summit in the Canadian Maritimes

After an extensive leg through the mountains, the trail arrives at the edge of the Bay of Chaleur. Internationally designated as one of the “World’s Most Beautiful Bays”, both the Quebec and New Brunswick sides have a very laid-back atmosphere to compliment the natural wonder. Interestingly enough, the water is about as warm in the summer as it is on the Virginian coast, nearly 1,000 miels ot the south. The Acadians of the area are steeped in old French culture but with a distinctly Canadian twist that runs much deeper than just the existence of poutine. Although, if you really need a great trail snack, try eating Dulse which is essentially eaten like potato chips in New Brunswick.
The glacial valley cutting into the otherwise flat top of Mont Albert

Gaspésie Quebec

The Trail runs straight through the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec. While the mountains haven’t the altitude of the more famous Canadian Rockies and Coast Ranges, they are every bit as spectacular. The trail runs through the center of this mountain range which includes a crossing of Parc national de la Gaspésie. This area contains one of the largest uninterrupted stretches of alpine tundra and wilderness south of the Arctic Circle. Deep in the heart of the peninsula, the Chic-Choc Mountains reach their highest elevation and create otherworldly scenes. Lucky hikers will encounter one of the park’s three caribou herds, a species typically not seen this far south. If you’re handy with a fly fishing rod, you can catch some of the massive Atlantic salmon who run these rivers.

Two tall summits of the peninsula which can be relatively easily reached by a modestly in-shape hiker are Mont Jacques-Cartier and Mont Albert. The former is the tallest summit of the peninsula and rises well above the tree line. On a good day, I’ve been told a hiker can see all the way to the St. Lawrence Bay. Mont Albert is much shorter but exists as a plateau of alpine tundra. The extensive and pancake-flat summit is interrupted only by glacial canyons which the International Appalachian Trail runs through.  
Gîte du Mont-Albert

Nestled between these two summits is Gîte du Mont-Albert, a Swiss-styled mountain chalet. It might just be the nicest accommodations on the entire International Appalachian Trail.

The trail abruptly diverges from the Chic-Choc mountains and follows along the St Lawrence coastline for its final stretch on this continent. This section is positively cosmopolitan compared to the last stretch as there are plenty of small, friendly Quebecois towns to visit. Perhaps it was just my West Coast roots, but the coast felt vaguely Northern Californian in its rugged isolation but still laid-back atmosphere.
Late afternoon thunderstorm on Mont Albert's high plateau
The alpine route of the IAT, deep in the Chic-Chocs

Summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier, one of the tallest summits in Quebec

Near the end of the peninsula, the trail enters Forillon National Park, a real gem in the country’s system. The otherwise profoundly cliffy coastline has just a few beaches where one can enjoy some coastal respite. Summer temperatures keep the water warm enough for a swim on a humid day. At the very tip of the peninsula, there’s a monument to the start or end of the continental IAT. The plaque is the same as the Springer Mountain one with French translation. Although it’s impossible to see to Newfoundland, the view of the ocean and Anticosti Island was magnificent. It’s a moment where even the most worn out of thru-hikers would instantly want to hop on a boat and continue the trail through Newfoundland.
Coastal Highway on the Gaspésie 
Near the edge of the peninsula and end of the IAT
Parc national de l'Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé
Pierced Rock
The IAT is not as well-known nor established as the AT but its existence is a testament to the novelty of international backpacking. Few have ever hiked all the way from Florida to Newfoundland, much less through Greenland, Iceland, the British Isle and beyond. I might not have the opportunity to do so in one go but it’s become a personal travel goal to section hike as much of it as I can. Completion of the IAT would be a much greater adventure than just a really long hike.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Pursuit of Life, 2014 Wrap-up

The Pursuit of Life is now Midwestern Based!
I suppose I'll join the ranks of bloggers and websites who are recounting the year by blogging. This year was a particularly good year for what was once a little blog for family and friends. It was the first year where I did a fair amount of writing for other people- a small step in the grander scheme of things but a major milestone for me. I never intended for writing to be a pseudo-career but after doing something for a long enough time, its funny how people want to pay you. Here's a few highlights-

Best of the East, According to a Californian- Matador Network (December 2014)

Key Funding for Gulf Hagas Whitecap Project Secured- Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust (December 2014)

Travel Essentials that Can't be Replaced by a Smartphone App- Sponsored post for RelayRides (December 2014)

26 Miles to Paradise- Dwellable (September 2014)

Gaspésie: Eastern Canada’s answer to the Rockies- (April 2014)

Explore Topock Gorge- Scouting Magazine (March/April 2014)

Crocker Mountains, Maine- Public Presentation for Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands (June 2014)

Featured Blog- TrailsNH (2014)

People also seem to like the Pursuit of Life on Pinterest.
This is the scene from my new daily run
Its been quite a year, both professionally and for outdoor writing. The trip across the Mid-atlantic and the South was certainly helpful and I had a long running list of places I'd return to. Now that I've built up some time off at work, I'm looking forward to cashing that in with some trips back out West. Living in downtown Chicago has been much more enjoyable than I thought it would be but I need to hit the road again soon. I can't wait!

So, happy new year, from the pursuit of life!