Sunday, July 17, 2016

Hiking Natural Bridge, Wisconsin

You don't have to go to Utah to see a massive natural bridge!
This is a brief but wondrous hike just outside of the Devils' Lake/Baraboo area that's often overlooked. If you happen to be in Devils Lake for watersports, beachcombing or the excellent climbing and hiking, do not miss this spot just 20 minutes southwest. 

I've always been a fan of natural bridges and natural arches which comes with my affinity for the Southwestern US states. I wasn't expecting to find a natural bridge in this part of the country. As I was driving around the Wisconsin Driftless Area, I spotted this on the map and was intrigued. How I had missed it on previous trips was beyond me. 

Here's a hiking map and the area-

Getting to the Natural Bridge isn't necessarily difficult though it does require some familiarity of Wisconsin's lettered (as opposed to numbered) highways. Cell phone reception is spotty in this area, hence I would recommend either downloading the map to your phone or having a paper map in hand. The parking lot is located just north of highway C.

This is really more of a walk than a hike but that doesn't make it any less adventurous. The walk to the bridge can be done in about 15 minutes from the parking lot and involves just a little elevation gain. Make sure you bank right at both intersections. The trails aren't very well marked though it would be difficult to get lost. The bridge itself is both imposing and impressive-

Nice to get a little taste of the Southwest in this part of the country. The real draw of the area is Devil's Lake, of course, but seeing as this is just 15 minutes away from the south entrance, it would be a shame to miss this natural gem. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Hiking Charles Mound, Illinois Highpoint

Note: This is a hike on private land that grants public access ONLY on certain weekends per year. Though not the only highpoint on private land, this is the only high point that literally involves walking near the landowner's home. PLEASE respect the landowner's graciousness in allowing hikers to travel to this spot during the access days.

Highpoints is undoubtedly at the intersection of adventure and folly. Hiking, climbing or driving to the highest point in 50 spaces demarcated in recent times serves absolutely no purpose nor practice use which is perhaps why its so enticing. Here's my account of my 33rd state high point.

Illinois is a flat state though not as flat as people suspect, especially in Jo Daviess County. Located in the "Driftless Area" hills and rugged topography are not as uncommon as you would expect. Herein lies the high point of the state- Charles Mound. At 1,235' , its one of the shortest high points in the country.

Like many midwestern high points, its on a farm. Again, this is a high point that is on somebody's privately owned land. There are several high points that are on private land, including Sunflower Mountain (Kansas), Black Mountain (Kentucky), White Butte (North Dakota), Driskill Mountain (Louisiana), Hoosier Hill (Indiana), Campbell Hill (Ohio) 

(Rhode Island's infamously restricted high point, Jerimoth Hill, has more recently become completely publicly owned) 

Note that as of 2016, it appears that driving to the summit is not permitted. Park near the driveway and be sure not to block traffic! The hike up to the summit is about 2.4 miles, round trip. It involves a walk up a well-maintained dirt road to the very obvious summit marker. Despite its modest elevation, there are a number of expansive views of the beautiful NW Illinois scenery. Rolling hills ripe with crops make is an especially pretty sight in the Midwest.

As there are only about 4 weekends per year when hiking is permitted, one of the interesting experiences of this hike is the bottleneck of other highpointers. I met people from at least 10 different states on the morning I hiked. Every quadrant of the country was represented that day. We all swapped stories of victories and failures on more daring summit attempts.
The highpoint from a distance
The Wisconsin state line is no more than 1,500 yards away and is plainly visible from the summit. To the North, a number of higher "summits" exist and this sort of serves as a gateway to the Driftless Area which I'm discovering is an underrated destination for both climbing  and hiking. I've already taken many trips to Galena, Illinois as well as Devil's Lake, Wisconsin for other outdoor trips. Nonetheless, the hike up Charles Mound was unexpectedly delightful. Its certainly not the grand adventure of summiting Rainier or Whitney though a pleasant enough trip anyways. 

Thank you to the gracious landowners who allow hikers like me to get to the summit!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Searching for Crested Saguaros, the Desert's Four-Leaf Clover

Yes, its a thing.

Have you ever traveled somewhere and discovered a strikingly bizarre local tradition that you later embraced? I suppose that's the best way I could describe the search for crested Saguaros. Saguaro Cacti forever bear the image of deserts around the world even though they only occur in a narrow range throughout Arizona and Sonora with a few specimens in extreme eastern California. Why Saguaros became the stand in for desert scenery rather than far more common cacti is beyond me. I've traveled extensively across the Mojave, Chihuahuan and Great Basin deserts in the past though the Sonoran Desert of Arizona/Mexico I had missed. 

As part of my tour of Southeastern Arizona, I had spent most my time in the sky islands but my last days were spent in the Tuscon Area and Saguaro National Park. Life is abundant and flourishing in the Sonoran desert which has been called one of the lushest deserts on earth. Though plants are spread apart, it is not the sandy expanse that most think of when it comes to deserts. Spashes of green and ribbons of colorful rocks were far more common. 

Now, in the right biome, Saguaros are a common sighting. Leave it only to Midwesterners like me to be captivated enough to be snapping hundreds of pictures. But even a thoroughly ingrained local will take notice of the Crested Saguaro.  These mutant cacti are the four-leaf clovers of the desert, with less than 1,500 documented in Arizona and only about 25 in Saguaro National Park. 

To be sure, one can easily find a crested Saguaro on the side of the road in the east unit of the National Park. Additionally, the Sonoran Desert Museum has a finely cultivated example. With enough googling, you could probably find exact directions to many crested saguaros. But where's the fun in that? I wanted to "discover" my own.

Now, it is easy to get lost in the desert so I would not recommend you set out without abundant water, food, a map, compass and GPS for starters. There are no statistics on the number of people hurt per year searching for crested saguaros but I presume this could be a dangerous activity if necessary precautions are not taken. Wandering off trail in the national park is permitted though be careful to practice leave no trace ethics. 

I happened to visit in the late spring which was after the Ocotillos had bloomed but right in the middle of Saguaro Blooming season. Great bunches of white flowers burst from these stately green cacti creating an artistic visage. Other cacti were blooming with yellow and red flowers adding a rare level of vibrancy to the hike. Though I was sucessful, I wouldn't have minded if all I saw were some blooming cacti.

Like most of these types of stories, I wandered for hours without finding what I was looking for. Of course, 15 minutes from the parking lot, I finally spotted the gnarly outline of a crested saguaro. Finally! I spent a half an hour taking photographs and enjoying the accomplishment. When I finally did make it back to the car, I could literally see it in the distance from my windshield. Oh well!

In the weird but established world of Crested Saguaro hunting, this specimen is neither impressive nor noteworthy but it's pretty good for my first trip. Maybe I'll come across a more infamous crown in the future. Its a lovely oddity to come across, regardless of the height or size!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Hiking Chircahua National Monument, Heart of Rocks Loop

Arizona's answer to Utah's Bryce Canyon

Frequently talked about, seldom visited- that's the best impression I had prior to visiting Chiricahua National Park. Pictures of precariously balanced rocks frequently gloss publications on Arizona hikes though the park sees less than 50,000 visitors in a year. Despite having a very similar appeal to Bryce and the Grand Canyon, this national monument will forever be overshadowed by its more famous neighbors. To me, this is a perfect reason to pay it a visit. 

Getting there is actually not too difficult as it is about 2 hours from Tuscon and only 35 minutes away from Interstate 10 at Wilcox, AZ. Roads are very well maintained along the way and inside the park. Several loop hikes exist-

I found there were abundant hiking opportunities and actually wished I had more than a day to spend in the park. My goal was to see the was to see the Heart of Rocks loop which is where the most well known features of the park can be seen. The loop actually remains far (comparatively) from a parking lot, necessitating about an 8 mile round trip hike with lots of steep grades. Not surprisingly the national park service offers a shuttle transporting the hiker from the visitor's center to the Massai Point trailhead so that the hiker can make a one way trip which is all downhill back to the parking area. I decided to simply park at Massai point and simply enjoy a 10 mile hike.

With sunrise over the hoodoos, I was totally alone and had a national treasure to myself. The stately formations cast etherial shadows along the canyon walls, creating an almost haunted look. Like clouds, each had a peculiar but almost deliberate looking visage which played to the imagination. Some looked like faces, others looked like something more abstract. The most obvious ones were named such as Mushroom Rock-

I wandered along. The trail weeves in and out of the hoodoos and only when I was way down below the canyon rim did I realize how massive the spires were. The one above towers the height of a 5 story building. My neck began to hurt with all the upward gazing. 

Following the map above, I kept along the perimeter of the loop, hiking in a clockwise direction. Inspriation point was a 1 mile detour to a lovely vista- I'd recommend it if you have the energy. After about 2 hours of leaving the trailhead, I made it to the heart of rocks loop.

This loop is about a mile though it took me at least an hour and a half. My camera was out every two seconds trying to capture the uniqueness of this wondrous destination. I made up my own names for the formations as I went along.

After the Heart of Rock Loop, the trail drops significantly in elevation and gets deep into Sarah Deming Canyon. The trail can either continue back to the Visitors Center or hook back east to the Massai Trailhead. I much preferred the latter option as it took me through Echo Canyon which was quite deep. Though this canyon doesn't have the hoodoos of the earlier hike, the trail winds through a vast section where it feels like you're walking under sky scrapers. Its a climactic end to the hike.

Though I didn't get a chance, Sugarloaf Mountain is a short but steep trail to one of the higher summits in the park. This 1 mile trail can be done in 45 minutes to 1 hour, I've been told. I missed the Natural Bridge Trail too which is a 4.8 mile round-trip hike.

Nearly the entire park is in wilderness area which means that numerous trips exist in the back-country without established routes- I would have liked to have done an overnight there as well. However the campsite is well maintained too and I enjoyed the company of the stars instead. Chiricahua NM sure is an underrated destination!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Hiking Mt Chiricahua, Arizona

Rising well over a vertical mile above the surrounding valleys, the Chiricahua Mountains are a beacon of hiking and wilderness in Southeastern Arizona. Hiking the summit is just one of many adventure

Though imposing in its profile, the hike up Mt Chiricahua makes it more of a gentle giant. It is fairly even in height to several other mountains in the area, at 9,759'. What is surprising is the extensive and fairly well maintained network of hiking trails that gets deep into the region- considerable when one looks at how far away the mountains are from any major center of population. For me, this summit would be my third “sky island” and held the best wildlife flower viewing of my entire trip

The Chiricahuas have a mega-diverse wildlife population. It is theoretically possible to see both jaguars and ocelots in this part of the state though sightings are exceedingly rare. Nonetheless, it speaks toward the phenomenally unique nature of the range where specials found hundreds of miles north and hundreds of miles south can be seen in the same environment.

The trail begins at an elevation of 8,400 ft at the end of the driveable portion of the forest service road. Forest Service Road 42 and 42D are both unpaved and relatively passable. They're fairly beaten in some sections, necessitating a slow drive though I did not have significant trouble with bottoming out in a rental car.

Leaving from the parking lot, the trail takes a generally steady and slow climb up to the summit, rounding several smaller subsidiary peaks and with minimal elevation loss. Therefore its a quite pleasant hike where the exposed ridgeline offers views of both lower valleys. In the time of the year I hiked it, alpine wildflowers were abundant and blossoming. 

Though the summit itself is forested and with only directional views, the ridgeline has almost continuous panoramas. This is partially due to a number of fires that have hit the region in the last few decades. Fires were once strictly managed during the middle and later half of the 20th century, resulting in overgrowth. When the inevitable fire did start, they burned much hotter and longer than those that happened prior to strict management- hence some of the parts of the range are completely defoliated- though they appear to be recovering. 

I really felt like this was somewhat of an effortless 10 miles- there's elevation gain and loss, to be sure. However it is gentle and hardly noticeable. I found the pockets of wildflowers at the cols to be as remarkable as the ridgelines

I encountered only a few other hikers from the Portal, Arizona area which is a small town nearly on the NM border. They were enthusiastic about their backyard mountains, proclaiming them to be one of the best hiking destinations in Arizona. They were also quite friendly and courteous, offering me ideas for future trips. Monte Vista, apparently was a nearby destination that many preferred over hiking the high point. Of course, I couldn't just travel all the way out here without visiting the top of the range.

Again, the summit is somewhat anticlimactic so I didn't spend too much time at the top. Its an out and back trip, so I simply returned the same way I came. The wildflowers continues to provide as much enjoyment as the views.

After making it back to the parking lot, I drove down the windy mountain road and stayed the night in Chiricahua National Monument.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hiking Mt Miller, Arizona

Just a few miles north of the international boundary in Southeastern Arizona is the surprisingly tall peak of Mt Miller. Rising well above the appropriately named town of Sierra Vista, it is a great all day hike.
Near 9,000' and the turnoff for the summit
Miller Peak is a rarely hiked gem in southwestern Arizona that's frequently overlooked for the summits closer to Phoenix and Tuscon. At well over 9,000ft, this sky island has the characteristic ribbons of desert transitioning to pine forests as one ascends up the imposing ridge-line. It is 4 miles north of the international boundary. The total hiking distance is 10 miles as an out and back hike from Motezuma Pass.

I hiked this one to get out of the desert heat and was rewarded with temperatures in the 60s and outstanding views of the sky island environment. The nearby Coronado National Memorial serves as an excellent place for hiking and exploring as you make your way up to Motezuma pass. There's actually cave nearby that can be easily explored. 

The drive up to Montezuma Pass is paved up until the final 2.5 miles. From there it is a graded dirt road that is relatively maintained and I did not have too much difficulty with ascending it in a rental car. There was a mobile command post for Border Patrol at the pass though they did not trouble me in the slightest. Throughout the 2000s, undocumented crossings of the border at this point were quite common and a well know sighting on the hike. Border crossings are less frequent these days, probably more due to the changing sociopolitical landscape of North America. Nonetheless, Border Patrol may ask you to prove your citizenship (a license or passport will do). I was unperturbed either by the patrol or border crossers on this hike.

Savannahs and stubby trees dominate the initial ascent up Mt Miller. The views are absolutely phenomenal. Other than the view of Sierra Vista, to the east, there is very little to suggest any civilization. I encountered no other hikers on the ascent though a number of species of birds. I love the way a sky island hike exposes you to essentially several hundred miles of latitude as a consequence of elevation gain. Hence, species varied considerably as I ascended higher. Various patches of cactus blooms added further splashes of color to the Savannah.

Roughly 1 mile and perhaps close to 900 ft of elevation gain had passed before I entered into the official wilderness of the hike. A solitary sign noted the boundary though the entire area is engulfed in a de-facto wilderness. However the environment did noticeably change to thicker woodlands at the boundary.

From here the trail follows a narrow ridgeline almost entirely to the summit trail. Great gulfs exist on both side of the trail and I was able to have the rare view of the shoulder side of circling birds of prey. Obviously they were on the hunt though their effortless wafting upon unseen thermals made it look like they were just out for pleasure.

Thicker evergreen forests permeate the upper reaches of the summit trail. Lush and teeming with life, it seemed the cooler temperatures meant that animals could stay in the sun for a longer period of time. Normally the mid-morning and afternoon are the times when life is at a standstill in the desert though in the sky islands this was still a time for wildlife viewing. Evidence of whitetails and bears was everywhere though I only caught fleeing glances of a few bounding deer. The birds were numerous though, adding to the tranquility of the hike.

The Arizona Trail continues past the summit and the tip-top itself is just a 0.5 mile jog east. Several fires seemed to have troubled the area over the last few decades and though the hollowed out remains of the forest have a haunted look to them, the views open up expansively. The pinnacle itself was entirely denuded.

Nearly every major summit of Southeastern Arizona was plainly visible at the top. Cotton candy clouds provided a respite from the sun as I spent a full hour taking pictures and enjoying the cool mountain air. The register was signed by people all over the country though this time of year is signed only once or twice per week. I couldn’t see why more didn’t enjoy this hike though I was content to spend some time alone.

The way down is the same as the way up though the pleasure of the descent matched that of the earlier part of the day. Sunset colors are brilliantly accentuated from this high above the desert. I’m sure the stars are just as good. Back at Montezuma Pass, I clocked my hike as a little over 7 hours and a comfortable 2 mile an hour moving pace (with lots of picture stops!). 

I spent the night in Bisbee, which was about 40 minutes away. This odd town is the Southwest's answer to Berkeley or  Austin. This eccentric hamlet attracts all kinds of colorful characters, not the least of them being myself.