Monday, June 20, 2016

Hiking Mt Lemmon via Marshall Gulch Trail

Mt Lemmon is the most prominent feature of the Tuscon-area and is one of the region's finest examples of a Sky Island. Both the drive and the hikes are worth the visit
From near the summit of Mt Lemmon
After spending a more relaxing long weekend in Sedona, Arizona, I was ready to hit the road again in my more typical fashion. I've spent a lot of time in different parts of Arizona over the years though its mostly been in places everyone knows about- the Grand Canyon, Phoenix, Flagstaff ect. Part of Arizona which has more recently intrigued me was the "Sky Island Country" of the southeastern portion of the state. Well known to locals though off the grid for tourists, it holds a special place in the hearts of mountain climbers and adventurers. 

"Sky Islands" are perhaps the most fitting term for this highly distinctive environment. The floor of the Sonoran Desert is variable- ranging from 2,000-3,000 ft near Tuscon and between 4,000-5,000ft near Sierra Vista and Douglas. Compare this to the summits of most of the mountain ranges which are 9,000-10,000ft. At the bottom, temperatures routinely sore into the 100's and 110s in the summer while the mountains maintain a pleasant 60-70s. Life adapts appropriately and it creates a Galapagos-like in biodiversity. In this case, its not an ocean that separates the "islands" but rather a hot desert.

Blooming Saguaro on the highway up Mt Lemmon
Normally I don't care too much for highways up mountains as it detracts from the adventure of hiking to a summit. I make an exception for the Mt Lemmon scenic highway. Starting in the outskirts of Tuscon, the highway traverses to the tip top of Mt Lemmon in about 28 miles. I did actually download the Mt Lemmon Science Tour App which really complimented the already great drive. It syncs precisely with the drive and highlights the geological and human history of Tuscon and Mt. Lemmon. I didn't realize that by driving to the higher elevations of Mt Lemmon or any of the sky islands, its the equivalent of traveling nearly 1,000 miles in latitude based on the environments you encounter along the way.

I loved how the stately Saguaros of the desert gave way to lush evergreen forests. Rocky hoodoos also rose at the higher elevations. What was supposed to be a straightforward drive took me at least two and a half hours with my constant stops and side hikes. Even at that pace, I felt rushed!

Though the highway is a destination in itself, I was here to hike Mt Lemmon. There's perhaps a dozen ways to make it to the summit on foot though none are straightforward. I don't know of any direct route to the summit. Some trails actually have the summit as a trailhead and head down from there. I preferred to put at least some effort in to hiking the summit so I chose Marshall Gluch as my trailhead. This is at an elevation of about 7,440'. Note that this parking is scarce here and the trailhead is popular- get there early!

Here's a map of the approximate route I took-

The trail stays in a protected and shady canyon for the first mile and a quarter. There's a smell of pine trees in the sun that I always associate with tranquility and memories of my first hikes in the Sierra Nevada. That first mile of the hike was powerfully nostalgic. Months of drab midwestern winter blues melted away.

Emerging from the canyon at Marshall Saddle, the views start to open up. Past forest fires have laid some patchs almost completely bare. Unfortunately the forest fires are the product of strict fire management in the past before we realized that low-level forest fires are a natural part of the Arizona environment. Nevertheless, the views really open up in these sections with the entire Tuscon Valley and the Rincon Mountains in plain sight. I kept my camera out constantly for pictures.

The trail did steepen quite a bit as it meandered towards the summit. Switchback abounded though the continuous stream of panoramas eclipsed the hard work of climbing. My favorite section would have been about the 8.500' section were development was minimal. As the trail winds up to the summit, the ski resort and observatory make the final push underwhelming. But there was still a sense of accomplishment that came with finally bagging my first summit in months. Had I more time, I would have liked to have hiked the Meadow Trail Loop which is easily done in 45 minutes to an hour and probably a better summit experience .

You can hike Mt Lemmon in an all day blitz from the valley floor or make it a drive. I suppose this hike is the best of both worlds- I was able to enjoy the scenic byway but also have some wilderness and solitude in my trip to the summit. Any map of Mt Lemmon will show you that this is one of perhaps several dozen ways to get to the summit and I'd like to hike an all day trek next time. But I had more Sky Islands to see and I was off to a great start!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Hiking Boynton Canyon, Sedona, Arizona Vortexes

One of our last hikes in the area was certainly one of the most special. Boynton Canyon is one of the more secluded Sedona Vortexes and is worth the 5 mile round trip hike.
Boynton Canyon Hike
It was bittersweet to hike our last Sedona Vortex just prior to heading back to Phoenix. Having been immersed in Southwestern culture and beauty over three days had made us want to stay longer. Boynton Canyon solidified this desire.

The hike begins on the outskirts of town, just before the entrance to the Enchantment Resort. Its a national forest trailhead with a nominal fee though the honor system. Many mountain bike trails and hiking trails leave from this lot. Here's a map-

Leaving northeast from the parking lot, the trail quickly comes to a "T" and the vortex/trail is well marked. The second junction is encountered shortly after the first and if you bear right, this goes to the actual vortex of Boynton Canyon. As some consider this a deeply spiritual place, it is best to experience this side hike in quiet reverence. 

Hiking to the actual vortex offers a fantastic view of both the canyon and the greater Sedona area. This can be easily done in less than an hour though it is a little steep at the end. We preferred to keep hiking deeper into the canyon. 
The trail rounds the resort which actually doesn't detract too much from the overall experience. Canyon walls loom over the trail with dramatic repose. Once the trail leaves the resort area, wilderness abounds. There's an intermittent creek which runs nearby the trail but was dry this time of year. Nevertheless, an abundance of wildlife kept us company as we hiked deeper into the canyon.

Boynton Canyon has well deserved fame and though many hikers hit this trail, few actually hike beyond the first mile or so. Despite its notoriety, the trail is long enough to diffuse the less serious hikers while those seeking silence and stillness are rewarded when they hike an hour or two from the trailhead. What I liked the most about this hike (and hikes in Sedona in general) is that there isn't really a specific destination that we hiked to. Walking under the shadow of ancient canyons is the destination and the awe stayed with us for hours. 

We spent a lot of time reflecting on our first foray into Red Rock Country. It had been a great sampler of all the destination has to offer though we had an ongoing list of what we'd like to come back to. The hikes we did were the classics though we would have loved to have done some of the less-explored routes further outside of the city. In an unusual turn for me, I would have also liked to have spent more time at our resort. Lastly, I think I would have liked to have invested in a more big ticket activity like a morning hot air balloon ride or renting a 4x4. Certainly there's a lot to return to.

With some more research, I found that we came at a perfect time of year- shoulder season. In mid-May, the weather is hot but not blistering. All we had to do was make sure we got an earlier start to our hikes. Our resort would have been far more expensive had we stayed even two weeks prior to our trip. For our next trip, I think we would enjoy coming in October when the fall colors make the canyons even more gorgeous. Until next time, Sedona!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hiking the Bell Rock - Courthouse Butte Loop, Sedona Arizona

This is about a 5 mile hike which does include one of the four famous Sedona vortexes. Whether or not you believe in spiritual energy, the hike is quite captivating. 
Atop Bell Rock, overlooking Sedona
Bell Rock and it's adjacent big brother, Courthouse Butte, comprise of some of the most recognizable landmarks in Red Rock country. They loom above the landscape much like the recognizable silhouettes of Monument Valley. Certainly no trip to Sedona would be complete without paying tribute to these gorgeous formations.

The thing I love about Sedona that I find so enticing is that it is surrounded by wilderness on every side. I don't mean this metaphorically; congressionally designated wilderness areas surround the city and you can just about guarantee that any hike will take you through an untouched natural masterpiece. So while Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte remain very accessible even to the novice hiker, the trail winds through areas that seem dozens of mile s away from civilization.

Here is a map of the hike:

The hike begins at the Courthouse Vista Parking lot which is about 15 minutes south of the town center. Its a big lot though it can fill up easily on a busy spring or fall day with good weather. A network of trails, both hiking and mountain biking leave from this parking lot and fortunately most of the crowds diffuse about a half a mile from the trailhead.

The imposing north side of Bell Rock rises quickly in front of the loop trail and it is possible to scale almost to the summit of bell rock with a few steep switchbacks. The scramble up Bell Rock is not an official trail so many routes exist. However, if you don't mind a few exposed slides and using hands and feet, there are rewarding visitas from the "summit".

We thoroughly enjoyed our jaunt up Bell Rock. In fact, without even realizing it, we had passed a few hours! Back down to the loop trail, we started making a clockwise loop around both of these natural skyscrapers.

For such a full parking lot, we hardly saw more than a handful of souls when we were about a mile away from the trailhead. Wilderness enveloped us and we felt like we were 50 miles away from civilization. The trail is neither particularly steep nor treacherous which allows for casual meandering. 

Near the easternmost part of the loop, the trail comes through a beautiful ocotillo grove and then has a view of a distant monolith. I think it looks a bit like the familiar profile of a desert jackrabbit? 

The trail continues west and winds around the south faces of both formations. Mountain bikers seemed to be more common here though they were quite polite to hikers. I really wished we had rented some mountain bikes on our trip. I'm always looking for some new singletrack to ride!

To me, Red Rock Country is one big vortex. On most hikes I'm usually desensitized to the beauty of it after about an hour- this wasn't the case on this hike. Views persisted throughout the entire 5 miles and it took us 6 hours to hike it when we were constantly stopping and snapping pictures. Like Faye Canyon, this one was a great bang for your buck. Its longer though really isn't terribly steep. I'd highly recommend it to your repertoire of "must-hikes".

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Hiking Faye Canyon, Sedona, Arizona

Fay Canyon is the best bang for your buck in Sedona. Easy, flat and meandering through Red Rock canyons
It doesn't get any redder than this

Faye Canyon easily topped the list as our favorite activities in Sedona. This is because it was a perfect "cherry on top" to our first day in the town. We had wandered about downtown and passed the afternoon with a siesta by the pool. When the sun went down and everything was a bit cooler outside, we drove out to the edge of town and began our walk

Faye Canyon doesn't make the infamous list of Sedona Vortexes though it has a certain draw and power of its own. Nestled in the red rocks that have made Sedona famous for decades, its very accessible and easily done as a first or last hike of the day. Here is a map-

The hike is almost entirely flat and quickly delves deep into the canyon.Afternoon heat quickly dissipated under the cool respite of the sheer walls. Sculpted ancient skylines of the canyon were a welcome change from our urban life. We've never lived in the Southwest before though it felt like we were returning home. 

As we hike further into the ravine, the walls tended to funnel until we reached the end of the trail and it felt like we were hiking in a slot. Flora was actually quite lush in this section where the water converges and support humongous broad-leafed and pine trees. Rising on the right was the Faye Canyon Arch which can be easily missed if you're not looking for it. This is a hike well suited for a leisurely pace with plenty of stops

From the entrance
The maintained trail ends roughly a mile from the parking lot though numerous herd paths exist from here. We elected to take the one that headed west (left) from the end of the trail and quickly scrambled to some fine viewing points. In the afternoon light, the famous buttes of Sedona were illuminated and neatly framed inside the canyon walls. Ribbons of green flora crept up the sheer face of each side creating a perfect southwestern palate of colors. We were in awe.

Higher the herd path went and we eventually came upon a gigantic overhung red rock that looked like a gigantic, frozen wave. Its shadow towered over us and was an inviting place for an evening snack. The initial excitement and aura of being back in the part of the country we love the most had not worn off in the slightest and we must have passed a full hour just trying to take it all in.
Off the main trail, up the herd path

Though I'm sure we could have spent all evening there in the canyon, we eventually did turn around and head back the way we came. After scrambling back down from our "wave", we took about as long as we could wandering our way back. At this point the sun was setting and creating a brilliant display on the east-facing ridgeline that dominates the Sedona area-

This was an excellent hike and such a great bang for our buck. Just 2.4 miles total, according to out GPS and well worth the minimal effort. All of what people love about Sedona hiking was easily viewed. For us, it only fueled our thirst for more outdoors. 
Not surprisingly, many other great hikes leave from this area, not the least of which is the Doe Mountain Trail. This brings the hiker atop an isolated butte with tremendous views as well. Doe Mountain is visible from most of the Sedona are though is comparatively simpler to other "mountain hikes" of the region. Hence, the parking lot allows easy access to both a butte and a canyon with minimal exertion. We would be happy to return later in the week.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!