Sunday, September 27, 2015

Hiking Deseret Peak and Wilderness, Utah

Deseret Peak is an infrequently visited massif just west of Salt Lake City and valley. Its a steep 8 mile hike that is easily done in a day. Although only 30 miles from the Wasatch Front Range metro area, its a much emptier alternative to the more famous mountains that overlook the valley.
Looking up towards unnamed peak 10,685 in the Deseret Peak Wilderness
Its a wonder how I've managed to go nearly 5 years now without climbing a mountain greater than 10,000 ft. In fact, the last mountain I climbed that was greater than any east coast height was Mt Eddy in Northern California at just about 9,000' even. This isn't to say that I've been lacking in adventures but its been too long since I've had a western alpine experience. For 5 days, I've been drifting around Utah and Nevada getting all that wonderful thin air back in my system which has been rejuvenating. The first destination was Deseret Peak and Wilderness.

Here's a map-

After getting off the plane in Salt Lake City International, I was greeted by the welcome site of distant snow-capped peaks. Even this early in September, winter comes quite early in the high summits of the Rockies and Great Basin. Deseret peak stands at 11,026 ft and would be snow-capped this warm, late-summer day. While this would certainly lead to some interesting navigation, I was thrilled to be here during autumn colors. The last three years in New England have made me a connoisseur of fall brilliance and this part of the country would not disappoint me. Even driving up the dirt road to the parking area had all the colors of an artist's palette.

Snow capped summits in the Summer
Fall colors just coming in to view at 6,900'
Reaching the trailhead, I was finally greeted with a sign I haven't seen in a very long time. A classic, rounded, oblong pentagon which is hardly ever seen in the Midwest denoting "wilderness". A warm feeling of contentment came over me as I crossed the invisible line.

The first part of the hike is through alpine forests which are turning a bright yellow this time of year. The trail also runs through several scrubby open meadows which are equally beautiful. Now above the clouds, the mountains rose out of the fog almost the way land rises from the sea. 
An ocean of clouds below
Back in the forest
This trail gains a significant amount of elevation over about 4 miles and there are rarely flat sections. I almost forgot how slow the pace can be at the higher elevations and I plodded along slowly. This wasn't drudgery however, I was able to more fully take in this rare scenery. Utah's western ranges are where the dry, high desert ranges of the Great Basin meet the even higher but more temperate mountains of the Rockies. It makes for an interesting mix of environments with traces of each biome abounding. Flora is abundant but stunted by the higher and dryer climate of this harsh area. Some have the appearance of being dead when in fact the greater organism is still very much alive. Grizzled pines dotted the landscape as if each had their own subdivision. After hiking so much in the densely wooded boreal forests of New England, this area stood in stark contrast.
Breaking close to 10,000ft and the clouds rolling in again
Walking through a fire-damaged area of the wilderness, caused by lightening in 2013
Crossing the ridgeline
After switch-backing up to the ridge line, the trail still gains more elevation but at a less grueling pace. By this time, I was completely in the clouds which made for an ethereal walk. There were no trees and only faint signs of small plants here and there. With no wind, no animals and 25,000 acres of wilderness essentially to myself, a strange silence prevailed. 
Headwall of the main summit
Mountaineering route
Subsidiary peaks caught in the fog
At one point the fog became so dense that it was hard to say whether I'd actually crossed the mountain's apex. My altimeter read somewhere in the range of 12,000 ft and the head-wall above looked faintly similar to the more famous pictures of this summit. After a big of searching around, I found the summit canister and confirmed my location. Ambient temperature was close to 31 degrees and as you can see from the pictures, winter wasn't far away. 

It was a marvelous feeling to be so alone and so far away from anything even remotely suggestive of civilization. The summit stands less than 50 miles away from a metro area of 1.1 million people but the remoteness of the wilderness area was accentuated by the grueling hike and sheer emptiness of the summit. A brief survey of the summit's signature book proved the area to be infrequently traveled. What a pleasant change it was from the urban hustle of Chicago!
Clouds lapping at the higher elevations
Under-cast invading the high summits in the evening light
The trail continues along the ridgeline still gaining and losing substantial elevation before coming to the saddle between Deseret Peak and the unnamed 10,685' summit just north of it. According to the map, this less famous but equally photogenic summit had at least 1,000' of prominence itself making it a worthy side trip. I dropped my pack and continued onwards.

Parts of both the trail and this extra summit are really more of a route than a trail which adds to the adventure. Hoping I would actually come up over the clouds, the second summit of the day was just as foggy. Nevertheless, there was no summit canister and no sign of any human disturbance here which again, added to the allure of this special place.

Sunset was just about over when I began the trek back to the trailhead. Making a loop out of the trip was a nice way to make sure I didn't see the same thing twice. I rounded another ridgeline, pictured above and saw the almost-glaciers of the east-facing massif and wondered about a winter ascent. Certainly one could have a lot of adventure with this summit alone.

It was almost 10 miles exactly with the added side trip of the nameless peak. Total time was about 9 hours- clearly I spent a lot of time taking pictures or just taking in the view. Although it had been a while since I was last in Utah, I think this place was magnificent even by this state's high standards for such things. By the end of the trip, it ended up being one of my favorite summits.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Stand-up Paddleboarding the Galena River, Illinios

Galena is quickly becoming our home away from home in Chicago. We recently traveled back for another glorious weekend which included a nice balance of leisure and outdoors. This trip we did a paddle with Fever River Outfitters and I had my first experience with Stand-Up Paddleboarding
Stand-Up Paddleboarding the Galena River
With our first trip to Galena being a resounding success, we were eager to return now that we had a little more ground-level knowledge about the place. Our first trip to a new destination is mostly about making a list of things to return to. Towards the top of our "Northwest Illinois List" was a gentle paddle down the Galena River.

Galena is a favorite destination for many of us busy Chicagoians. Accessible and rather posh, its perfect for long weekends and getaways. The comparatively rugged scenery of the northwest fin of the state starkly contrasts with the common idea that Illinois is flat and uninteresting. One could easily into several thousand feet of elevation gain and loss if on a bike. Hiking opportunities abound too. I've thought of it as New England Scenery meets Midwestern Nice.
A different kind of river experience than the one we're used to in the Loop
A unique experience to be had in this part of Illinois is on the Galena River. In the late summer, the river looks serene and unassuming. Tall levees on either side would point towards a different story in the early spring. Nevertheless, the river remains in a very natural state which starkly contrasts the Chicago River we are used to.

I've never been stand up paddleboarding before but Dee is a tremendous fan. Being a yoga teacher and a lady quite fond of all things water, she took to stand up paddleboard yoga as a way to combine her favorite things. We rented through Fever River Outfitters and has a nice 4 hour trip up and down the river.

Initially we headed north past most of the iconic sights of Galena. The town's golden gate bridge instantly came into view and towered over our little paddleboards. Clearly the river gets quite high as the bridge looked strongly built- like it could withstand a tremendous amount of force from a spring river. Towards the right, the famous Grant Park and all of its Civil War era relics were nicely framed.
Grant Park who's famous lettering was washed away in a major flood. Of course, somebody's Eagle Scout Project was restoring this sightly location!
The river bottoms out quite easily in some sections so it is prudent to paddle slowly as to not break a fin. The fever river, namesake of our outfitters, came in to view too. We worked our way up it a ways before getting in to too shallow of water-
Dee, going up the Fever River
Enjoying nature
After passing under the second pedway, we were soon clear of the city and in a wilder part of the river. If there was a current, we could hardly detect it and we effortlessly paddled onwards. SUPing isn't as labor-intensive as kayaking but it is more of a full-body workout. Going at a gentle pace involves both upper and lower body posture and poise which isn't difficult to learn. Being that Dee was an experienced SUP-er and yogi, she quietly out-paddled me.

Outside of town the trees and flora close in and the river seems just about as wild as it has ever been. Horseshoe mount looms overhead and the rugged landscape of this part of the state is clearly appreciated. We saw a few other intrepid paddlers on our trip but for the most part we were alone. This late in the summer, the river was teaming with life and a cacophony of noise from insects and birds. Such a pleasant noise to hear when one is used to the roar of downtown Chicago!
A few other paddlers on the river
At some point we turned around and half-floated/half-paddled our merry way back through Galena. Had we more time, we would have liked to have made it to the Mississippi River about 4 miles away. We did paddle about another half a mile down the river from our starting point and further appreciated a waterway in its natural state. 

I'm used to the "dawn to dusk" long distance kayak paddling trips which usually involve more effort than appreciation of scenery. I admit I've long made fun of standup paddleboarding as a fake sport but this trip I really came to like this pasttime. Its a less intense way to experience the river but still we felt we burned enough calories to enjoy more food downtown. I'll sheepishly admit that I was even a bit sore after 4 hours of paddling, something Dee will never let me live down. 

We found another way to explore our new-favorite getaway! I'm sure we will be back in the fall.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!