Day Hiking – Backcountry Sights Photos and stories from the outdoors Sun, 19 May 2019 23:48:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Day Hiking – Backcountry Sights 32 32 123251974 Haleakalā Summit Loop Sun, 20 Jan 2019 00:40:32 +0000 The trail continues to twist and turn between the numerous sandy cones, eventually descending into a large valley full of strange, twisted rocks. It looks very alien; Mars-like, perhaps. The lava doesn't even look solid, like some strange extrusion from a 3D printer. The path makes a beeline through these curious formations; I pause a few times to examine them more closely and then hurry to catch up with Brian and Diane.

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A recent business trip for a conference brought me and several of my friends to Maui. Naturally, we stuck around for a few days after the conference to snorkel, watch whales, sip cocktails on the beach, drive the Road to Hāna, and hike! I was most excited to explore the summit district in Haleakalā National Park, a desolate, volcanic wilderness located at the summit of the 10,000-foot Haleakalā volcano, so Brian, Diane, and I spent an entire day hiking through the area.

Trip Planning

Specs: 16.3 mi | +/- 3700′

Route – Park at the Pā Ka’oao (White Hill) visitor center; the Keonehe’ehe’e (Sliding Sands) trail begins at the southeast corner of the parking lot. Follow the Keonehe’ehe’e trail down into the Haleakala Wilderness area. Once on the valley floor, you have plenty of trails to choose from and can string them together to form loops of various lengths. My friends and I hiked to the junction just west of ‘Oilipu’u and then returned along the Halemau’u trail. Be warned: you have to climb 2,500 feet from the valley floor back to the summit to return to your car (at nearly 10,000’). Give yourself plenty of time to complete these strenuous final miles.

Permits & Regulations – No permits are needed for day hiking, but overnight trips require a permit. As always, follow leave no trace principles: pack out your trash (this includes toilet paper)!

Resources – The national park website is a great resource with lots of information; that should be your first stop to learn about the park. For navigation, I recommend the National Geographic topographic map which includes the locations of all campsites and trail mileages.

A Volcanic Wilderness

Jan. 19, 2019 | 16.3 mi | +/- 3700′ | View on Map

The United States government is not currently funded. During previous “government shutdowns,” the national parks have closed to the public; without any funding to clean the restrooms or protect visitors’ safety, it’s easy to see why. For whatever reason, this shutdown is different and Haleakalā National Park remains open, albeit unstaffed. A single ranger is restocking the restrooms at the Pā Ka’oao visitor center when Diane, Brian, and I arrive. The chilly air on the 10,000-foot summit is a dramatic change from the warm, sunny Maui beaches where we’ve spent the past several days. Thankfully, it’s also super sunny on the mountain, not raining or storming like the weather forecast for today has been predicting. Of course, it may rain or storm on the island below… we seem to be several thousand feet above the clouds up here!

After admiring the views from the Pu’u Ula’ula overlook, we shoulder our backpacks and locate the Keonehe’ehe’e (Sliding Sands) trailhead at the southern corner of the Pā Ka’oao visitor center parking lot. The sandy trail winds around a small hill and then reaches the edge of the “crater.” The massive valley isn’t really a crater – Haleakalā didn’t blow its top off like St. Helens – but the desolate, lava-filled landscape certainly looks like a crater. A few other hikers are winding their way down the trail below us, tiny compared to the vast landscape. We admire the views for a moment or two and then begin our own descent.

haleakala sliding sands trail
Maui is well known for its tropical climate, but the top of Haleakala is a slightly different story; it’s chilly up here!

Despite its nickname, the “sliding sands” trail is very stable and easy to speed down. Ribbons of red, orange, and dark gray sand form large, sweeping curves below the trail, giving the illusion of motion. We descend lower into the valley and the sun climbs higher in the sky; wearing a jacket becomes uncomfortable so we stuff them into our packs. Further down the trail, we run into a few friends and hike with them to a rocky overlook with nice views of the colorful valley.

While the valley is certainly dominated by sand and stone, there are plenty of hearty plants living their lives here. The Haleakalā Silversword is the most famous; this yucca-like plant is endemic to the Hawaiian islands (it grows nowhere else) and can live for up to 90 years! At the end of its life, the silversword produces a tall column of flowers, the seeds of which are soon scattered by the wind. We spot plenty of silversword plants along the way, but none in bloom.

The descent to the valley floor takes several hours to complete. From the trailhead this morning, the drop didn’t look all that large, but a glance at the map reveals that the valley is over 2,500 feet lower than the visitor center! In the back of our minds we’re all aware that we’ll have to climb up that slope on the way back, but for now there are too many exciting things to see and explore!

haleakala lava flows
The different colored stone seems to flow down the valley

Around noon, we stop for lunch in the shade of a large bush. Although I’m very warm from the hours of hiking to this point, the shade proves chilly, a reminder that we’re still far above sea level. We all enjoy grocery store sandwiches and some more indulgent snacks; Brian has a bag of animal crackers, Diane has a bag of Nutter Butters, and I packed chocolate covered raisins. There’s nothing like hiking all day to earn some high-calorie treats!

After lunch, we continue along the trail, working further into the valley. We stride through fields of dead ferns and prickly grass for a while, with the valley’s southern walls nearby on our right. There seems to be some water dripping down those steep slopes, but it doesn’t reach the trail or any of the thousands of dead ferns. At some point that moisture must flow down here, though, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many plants.

A little further down the trail, we reach the Kapalaoa Cabin, with luxurious amenities like running water provided by a tank tucked into the slope above. The cabin is locked, but the outhouse is open! After using the facilities, we debate about whether to continue down the trail or turn back. There is supposed to be a north-south trail here that links up with trails on the other side of the valley; ideally, we would like to return on that side to see some different scenery. However, the link trail is nowhere to be seen and we’re about half-way through our allotted hiking time (we have a flight deadline to meet). Further complicating the decision, the valley ahead of us is covered in mist and promises new and exciting scenery…

As retracing our steps is the least attractive option, we decide to continue down the valley, just a little further. Past the cabin, the wide, flat, gravel trail transitions into a winding, twisting path between massive piles of twisted lava rock. A short while later, we reach a flatter plain of the dark rock interspersed with bright green bushes. The icing on the cake is a view of Mauna Kea, a volcano on Hawaii, poking through the sea of clouds. By this time, we’ve talked ourselves into hiking to the next junction, even if it does mean we cut our evening deadline a little close.

I think I speak for all three of us when I say that hurrying to fit in a few extra miles to reach the Halemau’u Trail at ‘O’ilipu’u is worth the effort. Here on the eastern side of the valley, clouds flow up and over the mountains walls, bringing much-needed moisture. The ground is practically spongy, a stark contrast to the sharp, twisted lava flows just a few hundred yards away.

From the junction, we follow the Halemau’u Trail east, back toward the trailhead some 8 miles distant. The lush vegetation continues for a while, and we even hear birds chirping in the scrubby trees! A pair of Nēnē startle as we wind up a small hill, honking as they fly away. These Hawaiian geese look remarkably like Canadian geese even though the Nēnē is endemic to the Hawaiian islands.

Perhaps my favorite sight of the hike is the juxtaposition of a “new” lava flow, characterized by barren, naked, black rock, with the grassy, heavily-vegetated earth nearby. How much younger is the lava flow than the surrounding land? 10,000 years younger? 100,000 years? It’s incredible that we can see such a stark contrast between the two. As none of us are geologists, we continue up the trail without any answers to these questions.

haleakala lava geology
How much younger is the lava flow than the grass-covered earth nearby? 10,000 years? 100,000 years?

Further up the valley, the vegetation gives way to truly desolate wilderness. A few tiny tufts of grass dot the sandy slopes of the cinder cones that once spewed lava into the valley, but that’s all the life we can see. Between two of these cinder cones, we pass a deep pit encircled in wire fencing; a sign declares that this “bottomless pit” is 65 feet deep… seems a tad shallow for “bottomless.”

A little later, we reach an area with incredibly colorful sand nicknamed “Pele’s Paint Pot.” With red, purple, orange, and yellow sand streaked across the cinder cone slopes, the name fits. As we wind between the cones, we’re afforded a few of the visitor center perched high above the valley, glittering in the late afternoon sun. It looks so far away, but experience tells me that a few hours of walking is all it takes to cover the distance.

The trail continues to twist and turn between the numerous sandy cones, eventually descending into a large valley full of strange, twisted rocks. It looks very alien; Mars-like, perhaps. The lava doesn’t even look solid, like some strange extrusion from a 3D printer. The path makes a beeline through these curious formations; I pause a few times to examine them more closely and then hurry to catch up with Brian and Diane.

At last, we reach the bush where we ate lunch, a sign that it’s time to begin climbing. Although the trail isn’t particularly steep, the ascent is long and difficult. The vertical difference of 2,500 feet is nothing to be scoffed at, particularly after already hiking 12+ miles. The thinning air as we climb to 10,000 feet only adds to the struggle.

The sun dips below the valley rim during our climb, casting long shadows across the volcanic landscape. Curiously, we pass a fair number of people descending into the valley as we climb out. One couple, dressed in t-shirts and blue jeans, naively asks for directions to Pele’s Paint Pot. Since they don’t seem at all prepared to night-hike, I mumble something about being able to see colorful sand from a nearby switchback and continue trudging toward the top.

Haleakala valley shadows
As the sun sinks below the valley wall, long shadows obscure the landscape

As luck would have it, Brian, Diane, and I reach the top of the mountain just as the sun is setting. We delay our departure for a few minutes to watch the show, shivering in the cold mountain air. As soon as the sun has dipped below the clouds, we race back to the car drive back down the mountain, leaving the strange volcanic wilderness behind

haleakala sunset
We pause to watch the sunset before leaving Haleakalā’s summit

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Day Hikes on the Road to Hāna Fri, 18 Jan 2019 13:02:45 +0000 Further up the trail, we cross a ravine full of deep pools and small cascades. On the opposite side of the ravine, we enter a bamboo forest. The bamboo stocks tower some 40 or 50 feet above the trail, blocking out most of the afternoon sunlight. I've never seen bamboo so tall, or so much of the stuff; our walk through the bamboo forest covers the better part of a mile!

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One of the most famous attractions on Maui is “the road to Hāna,” a narrow, winding route along the north-eastern shore of the island. After spending a day hiking atop Haleakalā, a few friends and I set out to drive this famous highway, making a few stops along the way to do some day hiking and see roadside attractions.

hawaii maui sunset
I could get used to sunsets like this…

Trip Planning

Many tourists travel the road to Hāna as an out-and-back trip, driving from Kahalui to Hāna along the north-eastern coast. However, the road continues from Hāna across the southern coast before winding back northward to Kahalui. Rumors abound that the southern route requires four-wheel drive, that the road is full of massive holes, and that rental companies will fine you if they discover you’ve taken their vehicle there. My friends and I gave it a shot anyway and discovered that none of the rumors are true. The road is certainly narrow, winding, and bumpy, but nothing a Hyundai Elantra can’t handle, and not much different than other sections from the north-eastern side. Additionally, the southern route was the most beautiful section of the entire drive! Take a leap of faith and venture around the full loop; it’s worth seeing.

road to hana map
The road to Hana is a long, but beautiful drive.

Besides hiking, which I’ll get to in a moment, one of the most interesting features of the drive is the abundance of waterfalls. Some of the falls drop from high cliffs, while others splash over more modest ledges. I’ve been spoiled by the abundant epic cascades in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and didn’t find any of these waterfalls particularly awe-inspiring, but they do complement the tropical ecosystem well.

Driving the road to Hāna is an all-day affair, particularly if you stop to see the sights (which you totally should). Get an early morning start from Kahului and follow the signs toward Hāna. At first, the road makes a beeline through the dry, open fields on the western slopes of Haleakalā. A little farther east the ecology quickly changes to lush, green, misty forests. Soon, the road narrows and you begin crossing the first of many one-lane (“oh-nay lah-nay”, Collin jokes) bridges. Stay alert as you wind your way along the coast; there are ample opportunities for head-on collisions, which would surely ruin your tropical vacation.

Wai’ānapapa State Park

Jan. 18, 2019

One of the first stops we make along the road to Hāna is Wai’ānapapa State Park, home to black sand beaches and dramatic volcanic seascapes. We find a parking spot, tumble out of the car, and head for the ocean. A short walk delivers us to a black sand beach, a novelty for all of us! The “sand” is much coarser than your average beach; much of the shoreline is comprised of smooth, black pebbles that glisten in the sun and feel warm underfoot.

The trail that lead us from the parking lot to the beach continues along the coast for several miles. We pick our way through the volcanic rock, still wearing sandals, and admire several more small coves with black sand beaches. It’s a hike unlike any I’ve taken before. The colors are incredible; the sapphire-blue surf, the pitch black lava rock, and the brilliant-green plants that make their home among the rocks all contrast dramatically.

Before leaving the park, we wander over to a trail with a view of some “sea stacks,” rock formations that jut vertically out of the water. They look sharp and dangerous; the sea hasn’t smoothed them into sand yet. We don’t stay much longer; it’s lunch time and we’re all hungry, so we return to the highway and continue on to the city of Hāna.

wai'anapanapa state park sea stacks
The sea hasn’t eroded these volcanic rocks quite yet

Pīpīwai Trail

Jan 18, 2019 | 3.3 mi | +/- 1200′ | View on Map

After eating some delicious fish from a food truck in Hāna, we continue down the Hāna Highway to Kīpahulu District of Haleakalā National Park. Due to the ongoing government shutdown, we’re not required to pay the park entrance fee and there are no other permit requirements. After parking, we locate the Pīpīwai trailhead and begin climbing uphill toward Haleakalā. The trail isn’t particularly steep, but the warm, humid air leaves me sweatier than I’m used to being in January.

pipiwai trail ohe'o gulch
Collin, Diane, and Brian pose at spot overlooking Ohe’o Gulch

We pass lots of other hikers on our way up the trail, passing through tall, waving grass, and then dense, dim forests. One of the highlights of the first half of the hike is a massive banyan tree, a collection of roots and branches without any sort of trunk. Seriously, every branch seems to grow its own roots, some dropping straight down to the ground far from the tree’s central spire.

Further up the trail, we cross a ravine full of deep pools and small cascades. On the opposite side of the ravine, we enter a bamboo forest. The bamboo stocks tower some 40 or 50 feet above the trail, blocking out most of the afternoon sunlight. I’ve never seen bamboo so tall, or so much of the stuff; our walk through the bamboo forest covers the better part of a mile!

At the end of the trail we reach Waimoku Falls, an enormously tall waterfall dropping from a notch in the cliff face. Despite the recent rainstorms, there is very little water flowing over the falls. An informational sign near the trail depicts the falls during a flash flood; it would be exciting to see that kind of power, but probably also moderately unsafe.

After admiring the falls for a few minutes, we return down the trail. On the way back, near a spot overlooking Ohe’o Gulch, we spot a brilliant double rainbow with supernumerary bands. Ever since I saw my first supernumerary rainbow in Humphrey’s Basin in the Sierra Nevada, I’ve been noticing them more often: once on the Sierra High Route, and now here! Between the four of us, there is much exclaiming and many pictures taken. It’s a great concluding highlight to the hike, which ends a short distance later at the trailhead parking lot.

pipiwai trail rainbow
A brilliant double rainbow stretches over Ohe’o Gulch

Rather than return to civilization the same way we arrived, we continue driving west along the Hāna Highway, winding along the southern coast of Maui. Sunset is less than an hour away, and the golden light bathing the island is nothing short of spectacular! During a particularly amazing portion of the drive, we weave along a narrow, pot-holed strip of pavement that hugs the edge of a cliff, perched precariously above the crashing waves. It’s perhaps one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen on the island, but there’s nowhere to stop the car, so we admire on-the-go.

After navigating the sea-side cliffs, the road climbs further inland and we find ourselves cruising through grassy pastures, bumping over cattle guards every couple of miles. Everyone is anxious to find a spot to pull off the road and admire the scenery, but the narrow, twisting route offers few opportunities. We finally locate a safe spot to stop and pull off the road for a few minutes. As an added bonus, there’s a church nearby that is framed by yet another rainbow! In the background, the clouds surrounding Haleakalā turn pink, purple, and blue.

A little further down the road, we pull over again and watch the sun set. The rolling hills, golden grass, and distant sea make for an awesome evening vista. Once the sun has sunk below the horizon, we pile back into the car to complete the drive back to civilization, hot food, and refreshing drinks.

road to hana highway sunset
The Hāna Highway twists through the foothills of Haleakala, winding toward the sunset

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Autumn Day Hikes in the German Alps Thu, 06 Dec 2018 23:46:21 +0000 The path to the top soon appears as we reach the base of the cliffs. A set of stairs constructed from logs and back-filled gravel between two of the stone escarpments provide an easy route to the top. As soon as I reach the top I'm instantly distracted by the incredible vista that has appeared on the other side of the ridge. Multiple lines of craggy, snow-dusted mountains stretch across the horizon, their peaks hidden in the clouds. The long, tedious climb up the ski runs and gravel roads is well-worth this reward!

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I recently had the opportunity to travel to Germany for a conference with my friend and coworker, Robert. We took advantage of the university-funded airfare and scheduled a few “personal days” after the conference to explore. Since Robert and I both enjoy hiking, we visited Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a location described as “a hiker’s paradise in any season,” and spent two solid days in the nearby German Alps. We completed a rigorous loop route that includes Höllental Canyon, spent a few hours atop Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitze, and took a leisurely stroll around Eibsee Lake.

Trip Planning

I discovered several interesting routes by searching for hikes near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. While visiting, I discovered that the Ehrwalder Almbahn website has some great brochures; my favorite is the Summer 2018 brochure since it lists several great “tours”, i.e., hiking routes. There is also a hiking page with some popular destinations, route descriptions, and elevation profiles. Finally, you can explore the area yourself by viewing the TF Outdoors, OpenCycleMap, and OpenStreetMap layers on CalTopo.

Regardless of your planning tools, be warned: many of the hiking routes and trails in this area are exposed and should only be attempted if you are experienced and equipped with the right gear. Do your homework! I was surprised to find that several routes I was considering require glacier-crossing gear (crampons, ice-axe) and/or rock-climbing gear (helmet, harness, carabiners).

Höllental Loop

7 Oct. 2018 | 20.0 km | +/- 1730 m | View on Map

It’s a gray, subdued day in the German Alps; the overcast skies block out the sun that might otherwise warm the cool morning air. It’s not exactly the kind of day I was hoping for on my first day in the Alps, but there’s nothing I can do about it except enjoy the scenery as it is. With sandwiches and snacks from a nearby gas station stuffed into our backpacks, Robert and I stare up at the mountains above the Kruezeckbahnhof, wondering where the hike will take us. It isn’t immediately clear where the trail is; there are no signs for the Höllental loop. However, with a little help from the Gaia GPS app, we soon locate a small, paved road that appears to be the beginning of the route.

The pavement doesn’t last long and the road transitions to gravel. Normally I would prefer the gravel but the path climbs so steeply that the loose rock threatens to slip beneath my feet. Robert and I are soon out of breath. We take frequent breaks as we wind up the switchbacks beneath the ski lift and are particularly grateful for the few benches along the path! Occasionally, we cross a ski run and catch a glimpse of the grassy meadows surrounding Garmisch-Partenkirchen below. It’s really not a very impressive sight, although I do find the little barns scattered throughout the fields rather quaint.

A few bits of scenery catch my eye along the way and offer a much-needed distraction from the steep climb. A small creek gurgling down the hillside reminds me that we’re out in nature, despite the well-traveled gravel road we’re trudging up and the well-manicured ski runs all around. I particularly love the canopy of golden leaves above the creek; the trees back home in Indiana haven’t even begun to change color yet. Further up the mountain, Robert and I pass a large pond. While certainly man-made (perhaps to feed the snow machines?), the reflections of the mountains and trees in the turquoise water are nice.

I check the Gaia GPS app frequently on the way up the mountain; multiple roads, ski runs, and trails crisscross the mountainside, and I have no other map to consult. Upon reaching a small ski hut, we discover that our planned route is blocked by caution tape with warnings about fallen rock. I suppose the plethora of paths is a good thing after all. Robert and I make a short detour and then cut back across the mountain to our original route. Although the detour is short, leaving the planned route awakens the little voice in my head prompting me to take more detours, to leave the wide gravel road. We soon reach a trail – an actual trail with dirt and roots and rocks – that climbs up to the top of the ridge. The temptation to see what’s on the other side of this hill we’ve been climbing is too much to resist. Besides, the detour appears short on the map!

alps trail autumn
We finally reach an actual trail through the woods!

Leaving the wide service road for the narrow trail improves my mood considerably. The trail is also noticeably less steep, which Robert and I are both thankful for. We stroll through pines and more brightly-colored deciduous trees, pass another gurgling creek, and wind our way up some properly graded switchbacks. After a few minutes on this pleasant trail, we catch sight of a wall of cliffs ahead; I expect that we’ll wrap around them and ascend the mountain on a shallower, unseen slope. However, the trail shows no sign of contouring around the cliffs and continues to lead straight toward them.

The path to the top soon appears as we reach the base of the cliffs. A set of stairs constructed from logs and back-filled gravel between two of the stone escarpments provide an easy route to the top. As soon as I reach the top I’m instantly distracted by the incredible vista that has appeared on the other side of the ridge. Multiple lines of craggy, snow-dusted mountains stretch across the horizon, their peaks hidden in the clouds. The long, tedious climb up the ski runs and gravel roads is well-worth this reward!

alps vista
This incredible view more than makes up for the long, tedious hike to Kruezeck Summit

While I’m ogling the epic view and snapping pictures, Robert explores the summit we’ve reached. He finds the summit cross a few meters from the trail, perched on a small stone outcropping next to a gut-twisting drop of several hundred meters. Despite the drop-off, or maybe because of the drop-off and the spectacular views it provides, we both take a photo with the summit marker.

While we’re relaxing at the summit, another peak catches my eye. It is also dusted with snow, and a few isolated wisps of cloud drift in front of the imposing facade. I later learn that the peak is named “Alpspitze.”

alps alpspitze
One of my favorite views from the entire Hollental Loop: the formidable Alpspitze summit block

After resting for a few minutes and soaking in the views, we continue along the trail, which now descends along the ridgeline toward the Kreuzeckhaus. It’s an easy walk, particularly since we’re descending for the first time today. We make a brief pit stop at the Kruezeckhaus to use the bathroom (it’s a fully-equipped restaurant!) and glance jealously at the stream of people that have skipped the steep climb up the mountain and are emerging from the nearby tram station.

From the Kruezeckhouse, we follow a wide path along the ridge for a while until we reach a small trail that contours around the northern face of the mountain. I’m happy to leave the gravel road behind and enjoy feeling more immersed in nature. As we wander along the path, we get a few glimpses of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, now far below us. The view is certainly more impressive from here than it was from the ski slopes.

alps garmisch partenkirchen
While winding along the side of the mountain, we’re treated to some nice views of Garmisch-Partenkirchen

A short while later, Robert and I reach a junction. Our planned route continues to contour around the mountain and will soon descend into Höllental canyon. Reluctant to leave these lofty heights, I suggest taking another detour, this time up to the nearby Osterfelderkopf peak. It should only add one or two kilometers to the total route distance and will give us some more time up on the ridgeline with those epic views. Of course, we’ll have to gain a good bit of altitude… Further complicating things is our obligation to pick up my parents from the Munich airport this evening. I don’t want to leave them stranded in Munich after their long day of travel from the US, but how often do I have the opportunity to hike in the Alps? In the end, we decide to take the detour and bet that we’ll be able to reach Munich on time.

alps hiking
One last push to Osterfelderkopf!

Almost immediately after leaving the trail junction, we begin another steep ascent, although it isn’t nearly as steep as the ski slopes we climbed this morning! Still, Robert and I are soon sweating and breathing heavily as we climb toward Osterfelderkopf. It’s a hard climb but not terribly long, and the sun emerges to cheer us up while we’re struggling toward the peak. After completing the climb, we join lots of other day hikers lounging around the summit and take a much-needed lunch break. A few hungry birds flit around us, hoping for handouts; they’re mistaken if they think they’re getting any of my food!

An expansive view of the surrounding mountains from Osterfelderkopf

After eating, we sign the summit logbook and admire some more of those incredible views. Alpspitze towers directly above us, so close that I can make out the summit cross. I watch a few adventurers wearing climbing helmets and harnesses hike along a trail that signs call the “Summit Adventure Trail.” The name of the trail alone is enough to stir my imagination, but we certainly don’t have time to check it out today. Next time, I suppose…

alps hollentorkopf summit log
We have to sign the summit logbook, of course!

From Osterfelderkopf, we climb a little higher, following the Summit Adventure Trail for a short distance, and then fork off onto the Rindersteig, the trail that will lead us into Höllental Canyon. We soon arrive at the top of the ridge and are treated to yet another awesome view, this time of Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, and the Höllentelferner glacier. Our path descends rapidly down a scree-filled chute, although the trail itself is well-packed and features more of the stairs we encountered earlier near Kruezeck peak.

As we exit the chute, we’re afforded much wider views of the valley and the endless switchbacks before us. Perhaps this detour is going to cost us a little more time than I anticipated… There’s not much we can do about it now except to descend as quickly as we safely can. We make short work of the steps and are soon zipping across the switchbacks. Along the way, we pass several gorgeous displays of autumnal color; I stop long enough to take a few photos, then continue down the zig-zagging trail.

After what feels like a very long time, Robert and I reach the canyon floor. A small restaurant (the Höllentalangerhütte) serving delicious-looking snacks and even better-looking beer catches my eye and I regret our rush; I would enjoy stopping for an hour to have a snack and a drink while soaking in the mountain views. Who knew there were so many full-service amenities in the Alps? Next time, I promise myself, I’ll plan for a few indulgent stops.

Past the restaurant, we begin the final leg of the hike: the descent through Höllental Canyon. The path winds deeper and deeper into the gorge, following Hammersbach Creek. Near the restaurant, the creek is tiny, but it grows larger and louder with every new tributary. We’re soon crunching along a rocky trail beside a small chasm through which the creek roars. A crumbling aqueduct, presumably once used to deliver water from the mountains to the valley below, parallels the creek.

A few more minutes of hiking bring Robert and me to one of the most unique features I’ve ever encountered while hiking: a tunnel blasted straight into the canyon wall. A few lights illuminate the interior and a sign posted next to the tunnel gives some information about the passage, but neither Robert nor I know nearly enough German to understand what it says. From the looks of things, the trail used to wind through the canyon on a narrow ledge, but that way is fenced off.

With no other option, we descend into the dimly-lit tunnel. Windows cut into the walls provide periodic views of the canyon itself, but it’s hard to see much due to the many twists and turns. Throughout the entire tunnel, water drips from the ceiling onto my hair and shoulders, but this is only a mild discomfort and is well worth the experience of hiking through this man-made cave! A few ledges between cliff faces supply some “outside” moments along the way with awesome views of the creek and even a spectacular waterfall dropping down into the canyon!

alps hollental canyon waterfall
The trail tunnels through the cliffs of Hollental Canyon

After half an hour traversing the canyon, we emerge into a wider valley full of light and trees. A short distance past the tunnel is a sturdy gate and yet another small restaurant. A young man at the gate informs us that we owe 5 euros to pass through, which might seem ridiculous until you consider the amount of work that must be required to maintain these tunnels and bridges. The roaring creek seems angry enough today, but it’s October, a low-water time of year; I can’t imagine the volume and ferocity of the creek at peak snowmelt in June or July!

After handing over 5 euros each, Robert and I pass through the gate and speed down another series of switchbacks. We’re definitely behind schedule to pick up my parents at this point, so we don’t spend much time admiring the scenery and instead focus on walking quickly. A light drizzle falls as we trek through the trees, enough water to notice but not enough to be uncomfortable.

alps river valley autumn foliage
After emerging from the canyon, we descend through the trees toward Garmisch-Partenkirchen

By the time we reach Hammersbach, a small village at the mouth of the canyon, the drizzle has faded away and the clouds are beginning to clear. We stop at a hotel on the main road and make use of their Wifi to update my parents on our delayed schedule before continuing on. Past the village, we walk down a wide, paved path that cuts through cattle pastures. The cows themselves seem utterly unconcerned with our presence, their cowbells tolling loudly as we stride past.

garmisch partenkirchen cow
The last leg of our loop route leads us through some pastures full of cattle, the bells on their necks tolling gently as they graze.

Only a few minutes later, Robert and I arrive back at the parking lot just below the Alpspitzbahn station where we parked this morning. Low-hanging clouds obscure the top of the lift, which we also hiked past a few hours ago. In retrospect, it may have been worthwhile to pay the lift fee to ride up into the mountains; I would have appreciated more time up there next to the peaks. On the other hand, completing the difficult climb ourselves gives us a sense of accomplishment. We earned those views!

alps tram
In retrospect, taking the tram would have been a nice alternative to hiking up the steep ski runs.

Zugspitze Views

9 Oct. 2018

A few days later, Robert and I return to the mountains with my dad, Steve, and step-mom, Paula, for some more hiking. Well, hiking is perhaps too athletic a word for our trip to Zugspitze. Rather than hike 2000m from the valley to the summit, we take the tram up. It’s an exciting ride with some incredible views of the mountain along the way.

alps zugspitze
During a drive through Austria, we pull over to admire this spectacular view of Zugspitze

As incredible as the scenery is on the way up, the views from the observation decks at the summit are nothing short of spectacular! To the north, Bavaria is covered in clouds, although Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the nearby villages are enjoying the sunshine. The Alps stretch as far as the eye can see in every other direction.

I particularly enjoy staring down the canyon Robert and I hiked through yesterday. We’re much closer to the Höllentalferner glacier here, but most of it is hidden behind the ridges that lead up to the summit.

While wandering around the various observations decks, we discover a short route that leads out to the true summit, marked by a shiny golden cross. Some of the route is covered in snow, but cables provide sturdy hand-holds along the entire path and iron rungs in the stone make it easy for just about anyone to clamber up to the summit.

zugspitze summit cross
Our destination: the summit cross

This kind of cable-assisted climbing route is called a via ferrata, Italian for “iron path.” A via feratta generally offers hikers and climbers some safety on exposed routes and allows less-experienced adventurers to visit locations that would otherwise be accessible only to rock climbers. To fully take advantage of the via ferrata, you wear some kind of harness and secure yourself to the cables via a pair of carabiners. Of course, we don’t have harnesses or carabiners, but the exposure isn’t great and the route doesn’t look very difficult, so Steve, Robert, and I give it a try.

A much more cautious grandfather and his grandson, both decked out with harnesses, navigate the route in front of us. It’s a bit slow going as they move their clips from one cable to the next, but I appreciate their precautions, particularly during the sections that are slippery from the snow and ice. Following several minutes of careful climbing, we reach the summit cross and pose while Paula snaps a photo. We take a few moments to look around from the highest spot in Germany and then return to the via ferrata and make our way back to the Zugspitze observation decks.

Back on solid ground, we sit for a while and enjoy some hot drinks and tasty cakes from one of the restaurants. It’s hard to beat a relaxing morning like this up on top of the world!

Eibsee Lake Loop

9 Oct. 2018 | 7.0 km | +/- 450 km | View on Map

Later in the day, Steve, Paula, Robert, and I visit Eibsee Lake. We got a good look at it from 3000m this morning, but it’s nice to actually visit and see it up close. The sheer beauty of the lake catches me off guard; usually, the most beautiful spots are far from the parking lot! The crystal-clear water reminds of the Sierra Nevada mountain lakes I love so much, and the mountains towering above the opposite shore are absolutely incredible.

alps eibsee lake
Across Eibsee Lake, a tram line ferries passengers up to Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitze

After enjoying some lunch at a restaurant on the water, we find the trail that loops around Eibsee Lake and begin to walk. Much of the forest is shaded by the dense trees, but the few deciduous trees scattered among the pines glow fiery shades of red and orange! The path is smooth and easy to walk along, so one’s mind and eyes are free to wander; in short, it’s the perfect spot for an afternoon hike.

eibsee lake woodland
The afternoon sun peaks through the trees on the forested trail that circumnavigates Eibsee Lake

We’re in no particular hurry, and we take our time circumnavigating the lake, stopping at several look-out spots along the way. The sun dips lower and lower until the lake lies in shadow and only the surrounding mountains remain lit, their warm reflections blurry in the rippled water. As we walk, we snack on some crunchy discs of granola, seeds, and honey we bought at a local bakery this morning. They’re sort of like granola bars, but much, much tastier.

alps eibsee lake
As the sun sinks below the horizon, only the surrounding mountains and a few wispy clouds remain lit

By the time we’ve completed the loop, we’re all tired and ready for some relaxation, which works out well since we have a 90-minute drive ahead of us to reach Munich. Robert and I fly out tomorrow to return to the US and “real life.” I’m glad we got to experience a small slice of the German Alps up close, and I hope to come back soon!

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Mount Wilson Via Chantry Flat Sun, 17 Jun 2018 10:00:25 +0000 As I hike further into the canyon, the cabins thin out and the forest takes over. A small creek gurgles near the winding trail, filling the air with the sounds of water spilling over and between the rocks. Many shade-loving plants carpet the canyon floor, adding to the vibrant greenery. It's a wonderful contrast to the hot, dusty trails I'm used to hiking in the Los Angeles area.

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Mount Wilson is a prominent landmark above Pasadena, with a large collection of telecommunication towers and telescope scattered across the summit. The observatory there hosts lecture series, concerts, and other events throughout the year, and there are several small museums at which you can learn about the observatory’s history and some of the work completed there. In addition to being an operational observatory, Mount Wilson is a popular hiking spot. In my opinion, the summit isn’t really a destination so much as an excuse to hike the more scenic trails that lead there, which range from wide fire roads to single-track paths wandering through forested canyons. A trip to the summit makes a great day hike, with a round-trip distance over 10 miles. However, you can piece together the trails in all sorts of different ways to increase that mileage or to construct a shorter loop through the beautiful canyons below the summit.

Trip Planning

There are many trails that lead to the summit of Mount Wilson. I chose to follow Jeff Hester’s advice over at to hike a loop from Chantry Flat to the summit via the Sturtevant Trail and complete the return journey along the Manzanita and Lower Winter Creek Trails. I relied on the Gaia GPS app for this hike with the relevant USGS tiles downloaded before the trip. If you’re looking for a paper map, this printable version is great for keeping the trails straight. You can also build your own topographical map over at

No permit is required to hike in this area, but an Adventure Pass (or equivalent agency permit) is required to park at the Chantry Flat trailhead. Additionally, you likely need to arrive early int he day to find a spot in the lot. However, note that the road to Chantry Flat is only open from 6AM to 8PM; outside these hours, a gate near the bottom of Santa Anita Canyon is locked and you will not be able to drive in.

Mount Wilson Loop

June 17, 2018 | 13.5 mi | +4200′ / -4200′ | View on Map

I arrive at Chantry Flat on a Sunday morning at 6:30. It’s a cool, overcast day and, thanks to the early hour, the parking lot isn’t full yet. The hike begins on a steeply descending paved road that levels off at the bottom of Santa Anita Canyon. After crossing a sturdy bridge, I start up the Sturtevant Trail, an unpaved, rocky road that winds through the canyon. I pass dozens of small houses along the way; some are boarded up and appear abandoned while others appear well-maintained. I later learn that these cabins are mostly privately owned, and some can be rented!

santa anita canyon houses cabins

The Santa Anita Canyon is full of small houses and cabins

Large concrete dams of sorts are also interspersed throughout the canyon. In general, the upstream sides are completely filled with soil; the dams aren’t holding the water back, they’re containing the earth to prevent erosion. The dams themselves are constructed from “Lincoln-Log” type blocks stacked one on top of another, with sloppy concrete caps sealing the top and loose rock filling the gaps between “logs.”

santa anita canyon dams erosion

Santa Anita Canyon is also full of these concrete “Lincoln-log” structures that prevent the soil from washing away during spring floods

As I hike further into the canyon, the cabins thin out and the forest takes over. A small creek gurgles near the winding trail, filling the air with the sounds of water spilling over and between the rocks. Many shade-loving plants carpet the canyon floor, adding to the vibrant greenery. It’s a wonderful contrast to the hot, dusty trails I’m used to hiking in the Los Angeles area.

mount wilson trail creek

The trail follows a gurgling creek for a while and the air is filled with the lovely sounds of the water spilling over and between the rocks

After an enjoyable walk along the creek, I reach a set of switchbacks and being to climb more quickly. A few holes in the trees provide a glimpse of the surrounding landscape, much of which is shrouded in low-hanging clouds. I’m hopeful that the summit will lie above the clouds and have epic views of nearby peaks poking through a cotton ball carpet. For now, though, the world is a bit dreary due to the overcast sky. Best to keep climbing!

mount wilson clouds

As I climb higher, I approach the bottom of the cloud ceiling

As I continue up the Sturtevant Trail, I pass Spruce Grove, a pleasant little Forest Service campground nestled between the steep canyon walls. Higher still, I pass Sturtevant Camp with its rentable cabins and mess hall. I spy a few folks stirring around the camp, but don’t stop to chat. Past the old resort, the trail climbs more aggressively and I notice that distant trees are obscured in mist; I must be in the cloud now! It’s a tough climb and the trail is pretty steep, but the cool, wet air is pleasant and I enjoy the atmospheric scenery.

mount wilson mist fog trail

Up at higher altitudes, the forest is shrouded in fog from the low-hanging clouds

After many switchbacks and much huffing and puffing, I break through the clouds just before reaching the summit. Mount Wilson seems to be right at the top of the clouds, so there aren’t really any views to be had, but I’m happy to feel the sun’s warm rays! I wander through a maze of telescopes and service roads, stopping in at a few small museums to learn more about the Mount Wilson observatory on my way over to the Cosmic Cafe. It’s quite chilly, so I buy a bowl of hot oatmeal at the cafe to warm up. I don’t stick around after finishing the food; it’s cold and I want to get moving again!

mount wilson observatory

The Mount Wilson Observatory, with its many telescopes, lies at the summit. And look – no clouds!

It takes me a few minutes, but I eventually locate the Mount Wilson toll road, the next “trail” on this loop, and begin the downhill portion of the hike. Many of the large telescope components were transported to the summit via this wide, gravel road during the construction of the Mount Wilson observatory. After crunching along the road for a few minutes, I reach the Manzanita Trail and return to a nice single-track path. It’s a steep descent with dozens of switchbacks and lots of hikers making their way toward the top. Up-hill travelers have the right of way, so I pause to let each group pass. As I descend back into the cloud layer, my hands grow cold – a strange feeling since it’s been very warm in LA this week!

mount wilson mist forest

As I descend the mountain, I find myself amidst the clouds once more

dew drop flower

The water in the air condenses into tiny dew drops on these flowers

I break through the clouds just above the junction to Hoegee’s Camp (another Forest Service site) and quickly notice the warmer, drier air. Thankfully, the knee-destroying switchbacks also end at the junction, although the descent continues. I choose to follow Lower Winter Creek trail to enjoy some more stream-side hiking.

mount wilson trail green forest

I return to warmer, drier air below the clouds

After few pleasant miles, I find myself back at the sturdy footbridge I crossed this morning. The final challenge is the short, but steep, climb back up the paved road to Chantry Flat. To be honest, I prefer hiking up the steep slope; at least it’s easy on the knees. The trailhead parking lot is completely full, with cars crawling slowly through, searching departing hikers. I disappoint a man hoping to steal my parking spot when I drop off my gear and – instead of driving away – walk over to the pack store to grab lunch and listen to some live music. A hearty veggie burger and folksy guitar melodies are the perfect end to this wonderful day hike.

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Mount San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) Loop Fri, 08 Jun 2018 11:00:01 +0000 I’ve been meaning to summit Mount San Antonio for a while now, so when I learned the trek is doable in a single day I planned a trip for the weekend. Mount San Antonio, usually called “Mount Baldy”, is the tallest mountain in Los Angeles (as defined by the boundaries of LA county) with a […]

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I’ve been meaning to summit Mount San Antonio for a while now, so when I learned the trek is doable in a single day I planned a trip for the weekend. Mount San Antonio, usually called “Mount Baldy”, is the tallest mountain in Los Angeles (as defined by the boundaries of LA county) with a lofty summit 10,069 feet above sea level. Reaching the top doesn’t require any technical skill, just some stamina, a few snacks, and a couple liters of water.

Trip Planning

The hike to the summit of Mount San Antonio is a popular weekend adventure, so plan to arrive at the trailhead relatively early in the morning or on a weekday. We began our hike from the Manker Flat trailhead at 8 AM on a Friday morning and had no trouble finding a parking space. Parking at the trailhead requires an Adventure Pass, but no other permits are required for this trip. As always, bring plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, etc., and keep in mind that the summit lies far above sea level; the air is thin and dry up there!

As far as maps go, I recommend the Tom Harrison Cucamonga Wilderness topo.

Mount San Antonio Loop

June 8, 2018 | 10 mi | +3900’/-3900′ | View on Map

Amanda, Coco, and I arrive at the Manker Flat trailhead and meet Kim, John, and Sebastian. It’s a cool morning, perfect weather for a hike to the summit of Mount San Antonio! The trailhead lies at about 6,000 feet, so we’ve got a 4000-foot climb ahead of us and begin hiking right away to take advantage of the shaded trail. Well, “trail” is perhaps the wrong word; the first several miles of this hike follow a dusty gravel road. While it isn’t the most exciting route, the road is well-graded and we quickly put miles and altitude behind us.

Further up the mountain, we pass a ski lift and spot a few people riding it to the top. The lift doesn’t remain running for long though; it must be a shortcut for the lodge workers in the morning. That being said, I have read about hikers taking the lift up to Baldy Notch, but it doesn’t seem like an option today. Besides, we’re here to earn the summit!

mount san antonio road walk

The group walks up the wide road to Baldy Notch

We cross under the lift a few times during the ascent to Baldy Notch, a saddle between peaks with a small lodge, some ski-rental shacks, and more lifts to ferry winter sportspeople further up into the mountains.

From Baldy Notch, we turn east and continue up a gravel road for another mile or so. After passing the top of another ski lift, we reach the Devil’s Backbone trail, a winding path that follows the narrow western spur of Mount Hardwood. The ground drops steeply away on either side of the trail, adding a sense of exposure to the hike though there’s no real risk of falling; you’d have to swan-dive off the trail to really put yourself in harm’s way.

mount san antonio devils backbone

The Devils Backbone trail is a very literal ridge walk

In addition to the sheer mountainsides, our route becomes very steep and slippery with loose shale. To make the ascent that much more difficult, we’re beginning to notice the thin air up here at 8,500′. Not only is it harder to catch your breath, but lactic acid seems to build up more quickly than usual; my legs are on fire as we climb!

After several miles of nicely graded switchbacks, we begin a steep ascent on the Devils Backbone

We pause several times on our way up the mountain to breathe before tackling the next stretch. Although there aren’t many trees up here, we take advantage of the shade we can find and enjoy the soft, cool breeze blowing over the ridge.

Since Mount San Antonio is the tallest mountain around, we’re afforded spectacular views of the surrounding landscape as we climb higher and higher. To the west, San Bernardino and endless grids of streets fade into the smog. On the opposite side of the ridge lies the high desert and the tiny twin ribbons of I-15 with toy-sized cars buzzing along. To the south, a few distant peaks poke through the layers of haze; these are the San Bernardino Mountains, the highest of which is Mount San Gorgonio.

mount san antonio chaparral

The gravel slopes are dotted with a patchwork of chaparral

mount san antonio hiking

It’s not easy going on this loose rock, but at least the views are nice!

mount san antonio vista view

The group admires the views while taking a quick break on the way up to the summit

After much huffing and puffing, we reach the summit and join a few other hikers relaxing there. It’s about noon, so we break out snacks and entertain ourselves by watching the local chipmunk population dart in and out of their rocky houses to steal our crumbs. It’s surprisingly hot on the summit – the breeze we enjoyed on the way up seems to have died out.

Mount San Antonio Summit

Coco, Sebastian, Kim, Amanda, John, and myself with the summit marker

After snacking and resting for a while, we ask a fellow hiker to snap our photo with the summit marker and then begin our trek back to the trailhead. Rather than take the same route back, we make our way to the Mount San Antonio Ski Hut along a trail that skirts the Baldy Bowl. The afternoon heat is in full force but is bearable since the descent doesn’t require much cardiovascular effort.

mount san antonio jeffrey pines

The Jeffrey pines tower over John and Coco

What the descent does require is careful footing; the first mile is incredibly steep and loose, and several of us fall flat on our butts on the way down. Thankfully, after that steep initial descent, the trail levels out a bit and has the decency to follow switchbacks. Further down the mountain, we walk through a small grove of towering Jeffrey pines. I think they’re always huge; I never notice any small ones, just the giants.

At lower altitudes, the yucca plants catch my eye with their tall, flowering stems protruding above the chapparal and small trees. Their beauty and greenery is a stark contrast to the otherwise dusty desert landscape. I’m also impressed by their size; the main yucca “bush” is a few feet tall, with needle-like leaves protruding in every direction from the ground. This particular variety also sports a central stem (which I believe grows annually) that can reach heights of 10 – 20 feet!

The rest of the hike passes quickly; the descent is only half the distance of the trek to the summit. We’re all hot, sweaty, and hungry by the time we reach the trailhead parking lot. So, to finish off a fantastic day of hiking, we drive off in pursuit of tasty Mexican food; we’ve certainly earned a few plates of tacos!

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Mount Lowe via the Sam Merrill Trail Sun, 03 Jun 2018 10:00:47 +0000 The Sam Merrill trail is a popular route for Altadena and Pasadena residents. From the trailhead, a short 2.5-mile walk delivers a hiker to Echo Mountain; walk another 2.5 miles further into the mountains and you reach Inspiration Point, a covered seating area with great views of Los Angeles. Having hiked up to Echo Mountain and Inspiration Point a few years ago, I decided to walk a bit further today and visit the summit of Mount Lowe. With a total distance of 13 miles and an elevation change of 4000 feet, this loop is a great day hike!

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The Sam Merrill trail is a popular route for Altadena and Pasadena residents. From the trailhead, a short 2.5-mile walk delivers a hiker to Echo Mountain; walk another 2.5 miles further into the mountains and you reach Inspiration Point, a covered seating area with great views of Los Angeles. Having hiked up to Echo Mountain and Inspiration Point a few years ago, I decided to walk a bit further today and visit the summit of Mount Lowe. With a total distance of 13 miles and an elevation change of 4000 feet, this loop is a great day hike!

Trip Planning

Bring plenty of water and sunscreen, for there is little shade on this hike. You don’t need any kind of permit and ample free street parking is available at the trailhead. I don’t have a map recommendation for this area; you may find the Tom Harrison maps useful, but the trail signage is fantastic and navigation is straightforward without a map.

Mount Lowe Loop

June 3, 2018 | 13 mi | +4000’/-4000′ | View On Map

I begin my hike at about 7 AM at the Sam Merrill trailhead. Even at this early hour on a Sunday morning, I pass dozens of hikers on the way up to Echo Mountain. Thankfully, the crowds thin out significantly past Echo Mountain and I find myself alone on Castle Canyon trail, only passing a handful of people during the steep 2-mile climb to Inspiration Point. It’s a nice cool morning; the sun hasn’t quite made it over the mountains so the trail still lies in shade. As I gain altitude, I begin to notice more and more wildflowers and every once in a while I catch a whiff of mountain air loaded with the scent of the numerous blossoms.

The Castle Canyon trail switches back many times as it climbs from Echo Mountain to Inspiration Point, and, at the corners of the switchbacks, I’m frequently afforded sweeping views of Los Angeles. The higher you hike, the better the views get.

mt lowe hike view

Some mountains in the foreground, Los Angeles in the background

If you hike to Echo Mountain, you’ll enjoy grand views of Altadena, Pasadena, and the LA skyline as well as the LA smog. Once you reach Inspiration Point, Echo Mountain becomes part of the view: a tiny cluster of crumbling foundations on a distant ridge. Inspiration Point is marked by a sort of pavilion with a few relics from the Mount Lowe railroad and a dozen “sighting tubes” that guide a viewer’s gaze to the location or landmark printed on the tube.

inspiration point

A view of Pasadena, Glendale, Los Angeles, and more from Inspiration Point

Inspiration Point marks the end of the shade on this particular hike. The sun has risen higher into the sky and there are hardly any trees or higher ridges to shade the trail. I crunch along the Mount Lowe fire road for a few minutes until I reach the Mount Lowe East Trail, a narrow path covered in mountain bike tracks that climbs higher into the mountains. Many use trails split off from the main trail and I take a wrong turn, only realizing my mistake after I reach the top of a steep gravel wash, panting from the exertion. The use trails all link back up – I’m not lost – but lesson learned: When in doubt, take the shallow trail.

mount lowe trail

As I climb higher, Inspiration Point becomes part of the view

The views of LA continue to improve as I climb higher and higher; Inspiration Point becomes a small spec of red shingles next to the blazing-white fire road in a sea of green shrubs. In addition to the more impressive views, the wildflowers are more prolific at these higher altitudes. While my nose enjoys the sweet smell, my ears treated to the soft hum of hundreds of bees pollinating the flowers and the rhythmic crunch-crunch-crunch of my shoes on the dusty trail.

mount lowe summit

A lone bench and curious pipe structure at the summit of Mount Lowe

A short while later, I reach the intersection of the Mount Lowe East and West trails and turn toward the summit. At the peak, I find a rusty bench, an old hitching post, and some sort of pipe structure. A metal box lying on the bench contains the summit log, and I enjoy reading what others have written. There are lots of inspirational messages, a few braggadocious (and probably fictional) claims of sexual exploits on the bench, and some impressive pen drawings of the scenery. Speaking of the scenery, the nearby peaks are beautiful in a rugged sort of way: dusty stone carpeted with greenery. Well, greenery for now; it will all fade to various shades of brown later in the summer.

mount lowe view san gabriel mountains

Mt. Disappointment (left) and Mt. San Gabriel (right)

While the views are impressive in magnitude, they’re not the same as those magnificent high-altitude vistas in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with alpine lakes and snow-clad peaks. Sometimes you have to accept the fact that the vistas will consist only of dusty desert peaks and smoggy Los Angeles. But there are other senses to satisfy; the olfactory experience is phenomenal today, and it is wonderfully quiet up here at the top of the world. Well, not quite the top of the world. San Gabriel Peak, just one ridgeline over, is 500 feet taller than Mount Lowe. I briefly consider taking a detour to see what its summit is like but decide against it after evaluating my water supply. I only have one liter left and my return journey is already 6.5 miles long; best to save San Gabriel for another (maybe cooler) day.

angeles national forest

A few fire-scarred trees and, beyond, the desert landscape of Angeles National Forest

To mix things up a bit on the return trip, I take the Mount Lowe West Trail down. It’s more overgrown than the East Trail but seems to be the preferred route judging by the occassional sighting tube along the switchbacks. A century ago, a narrow-gauge railroad ferried visitors from Altadena to the foot of Mount Lowe; they could then reach the summit via foot or horseback. I assume the sighting tubes are left over from those tourist-centered days. Once you’ve hiked in these mountains, read the story of the Mount Lowe Railway; it’s fascinating!

The Mount Lowe East Trail ends at the fire road. I follow the road past whats left of “Ye Alpine Tavern” (spoiler alert: not much) and then hike along the Sam Merrill trail for several more miles, descending a few thousand feet to the trailhead. After the knee-destroying, hot, dusty descent, I’m tired and I head home for some ice cream and an afternoon nap.

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Acadia National Park Day Hikes Mon, 28 May 2018 19:30:32 +0000 Over two million visitors travel to Acadia National Park each year to visit the patchwork of islands, mountains, and seaside villages. The 47,000+ acres of conserved land are mostly forested, offering plenty of shade in the summer and beautiful color in the autumn. I visited in late May with a group of friends, just before the summer season kicked off on Memorial Day. Here are the highlights from our hikes along some of the park's most iconic trails.

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Over two million visitors travel to Acadia National Park each year to visit the patchwork of islands, mountains, and seaside villages. The 47,000+ acres of conserved land are mostly forested, offering plenty of shade in the summer and beautiful color in the autumn. I visited in late May with a group of friends, just before the summer season kicked off on Memorial Day. Here are the highlights from our hikes along some of the park’s most iconic trails.

Trip Planning

May 24 – 28, 2018

Perhaps the most difficult logistics problem in visiting a popular national park is coordinating accommodations. We booked our hotel rooms months in advance and there were few vacancies when we arrived. However, I did notice that many of the campgrounds had open spots, at least at this early time of the year. As backcountry/distributed camping is not permitted in the park, you must either camp in a frontcountry site or otherwise reserve housing in one of the nearby towns.

Once you’ve nailed down your accommodations, you’ll need to purchase a park permit, which is valid for one vehicle for seven days; separate permits for hiking are not required. The main artery through Acadia, Park Loop Road, becomes congested quite quickly during the busy summer season. To avoid parking headaches, ride the Island Explorer bus that operates between late June and early October.

There are several map options for Acadia National Park. First, the map printed by the National Park Service themselves is quite good, though not tear-resistant or water-proof. I personally recommend the Map Adventures trail map; there is also a National Geographic map available.

Jordan Pond Loop

5.7 mi | +1800′ / -1800′ | View on Map

On our first day at Acadia, Robert, Kenza, Juan and I visit a ranger to acquire a park permit and to get some hiking advice. The ranger enthusiastically recommends a route near Jordan Pond and Sargent Mountain. Her description of breathtaking vistas captures our imagination, so we accept her guidance and, after buying the entrance permit, drive straight to the Jordan Pond Nature Trail parking area.

Almost immediately after leaving the parking lot, we encounter fantastic views from the southern shore of Jordan Pond. The crystal clear (and very cold) water, tree-clad mountains, warm sunshine, and puffy clouds drifting overhead are enough to convince all of us that the ranger was right: this is a great area to hike!

acadia day hiking jordan pond bubbbles

Our first day of hiking brings us to this beautiful place: Jordan Pond, with the “Bubbles” in the distance

Across the “pond” (it’s definitely a lake… I’m not sure why “pond” is the classification here) we spy two rounded peaks called The Bubbles. These landforms, like much of the Acadia landscape, are the result of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, a large glacier that existed from about 85,000 to 11,000 years ago [source]. The Bubbles themselves are an example of a glacial formation called a roche moutonée, with smooth, gradual slopes on the upstream (north) side and sheer cliffs on the downstream (south) side.

Though it’s not in the itinerary suggested by the ranger, we decide to climb South Bubble. The initial approach from the lakeshore is a rugged class II scramble up a field of microwave-sized boulders left over from the glacier. After huffing and puffing up the steep slopes for a few hundred feet, we arrive at more solid cliff-faces with some class III (use your hands and feet) clambering required to reach the top. It’s an exhilarating route but we’re all relieved to reach the summit and rest for a few minutes while admiring the views of Jordan Pond.

jordan pond acadia day hiking

A view of Jordan Pond from the summit of South Bubble

After our heart rates return to normal, we explore the top of South Bubble. A large glacial erratic, appropriately named “Bubble Rock” lies perched on the edge of a cliff and is a popular tourist attraction. In my opinion, the foliage is the most interesting sight from the top: the mountains are completely covered in a blanket of greenery, with colors ranging from neon-green aspen and birch leaves to a more subdued palette of fir and spruce needles. This biodiversity is largely a result of the 1947 forest fire that burned much of the national park. “Spruce and fir that reigned before the fire have given way to sun-loving trees, such as birch and aspen. But these deciduous trees are short-lived. As they grow and begin to shade out the forest floor, they provide a nursery for the shade-loving spruce and fir that may eventually reclaim the territory [source].”

acadia day hiking foliage

Looking the other way, the many shades of green in the foliage catch my eye

After admiring the views a little longer, we continue on our way and descend South Bubble via a different, slightly safer class-II route. Careful footing is still required; a layer of fallen leaves atop another boulder field make for a slippery slope. On the shore of Jordan Pond once more, we cross the inlet stream via a sun-bleached wooden bridge and enjoy a few hundred yards of flat trail. The easy walking doesn’t last long, however, and we soon find ourselves climbing more boulders toward Sargent Mountain. Although this ascent is less technical than the approach to South Bubble, it’s still a fun puzzle to navigate the granite walls.

The final third of a mile to the Sargent Mountain summit reminds me of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Like those western peaks, the mountains here in Acadia are solid granite. The gently-rounded summit block looks very much like Yosemite, with slabs of granite dominating the landscape and scrubby bushes and trees growing where they can amidst the rock. Since most of the vegetation and nearly all of the impressionable soil is absent here, cairns mark the way. Thankful for a smoother road, we wander up granite slabs until we reach the summit, marked by a wooden post anchored in a pile of loose rock. It’s high time for lunch, so we pass around a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a bag of apples and munch away. Although the sun is shining, a steady wind soon chills the entire group and we re-don our jackets to stay warm.

maine acadia national park lakes

The view from Sargent Mountain: Some of these bodies of water are bays or sounds, others are ponds (or lakes?)… there are so many!

Sufficiently fed and rapidly getting colder, we snap a few photos with the summit sign and begin hiking again to regain some internal heat. The descent from Sargent Mountain along the south ridge trail yields some of the best views of the entire hike. The smooth granite foreground and island-dotted seascape background combine for a truly impressive vista.

acadia day hiking landscape

Pink cadillac granite, green spruce trees, and half a dozen islands; what a view!

To add a little more interest and bag another peak along our return journey, we hike over to Penobscot Mountain. The wind has only increased in ferocity, so we don’t stay long, preferring instead to keep moving and head for lower ground. The 360-degree views continue as we walk a mile down the southern ridge on Penobscot Mountain Trail, but come to an abrupt end when we turn east and descend several hundred feet along a cliff. The Spring Trail guides us back to the Jordan Pond House, from which the nature trail parking lot is only a short walk.

All in all, this loop is a fantastic hike for those not afraid to use their hands and clamber a bit. Both Sargent and Penobscot Mountain offer phenomenal views of the surrounding mountains and of the many islands that dot the sea south of the park.

Cadillac Mountain Loop

4.9 mi | +1500′ / -1500′ | View on Map

Cadillac Mountain, previously known as Mount Desert, is the tallest mountain in Acadia National Park and also happens to be the tallest mountain “along the eastern coast of the United States” (which must imply some maximum distance from the sea because many Appalachian peaks are several times higher). Thus, it is no surprise that this peak is one of the most popular spots in the park. The summit is accessible via a 3.5-mile road, but it’s much more enjoyable to hike up! Kenza and I make the trek one sunny morning beginning from the Kebow Brook Trailhead and hiking up the Cadillac North Ridge Trail. It’s not a particularly difficult walk, especially compared to the steep, rocky slopes we navigated to summit South Bubble and Sargent Mountain, but the 1500-foot elevation gain will still get your heart rate up. At the summit, Kenza and I join hundreds of other tourists wandering around the cadillac granite slabs for which the mountain is named (or renamed).

cadillac mountain summit

Kenza poses with the benchmark at the summit

To construct a loop route, we descend from Cadillac Mountain along the Gorge Path. Whereas the Cadillac North Ridge Trail is an easy class I/II hike, the Gorge Path introduces some class II/III terrain as it descends a steep four-tenths of a mile to a ravine between the Cadillac and Dorr mountains.

acadia national park

The gorge trail winds through a notch between Cadillac and Dorr Mountains

Within the ravine, we descend stone staircases along a tiny stream until we reach flatter ground and groves of birch and aspen trees.  From there, it’s an easy walk back to the trailhead.

acadia national park trees

Beautiful green foliage lines the trail

There are many other trails with access to Cadillac Mountain, some longer and some shorter than the route Kenza and I explored. Check out one of the maps linked above and plan your own loop!

Ocean View Loop

3.8 mi | +1000′ / -1000′ | View on Map

Perhaps the most iconic Acadia National Park landscape is the combination of mountains and seashore. As we’re not about to miss the iconic landscapes, Nick, Kenza and I spend an afternoon hiking along the coastline near the south-east corner of Mount Desert Island. Our route begins at the Gorham Mountain Trailhead, where there are about a dozen parking spots; we’re lucky to snag one on the holiday weekend.

acadia national park gorham trail

Nick wanders up the trail toward Gorham Mountain

For a half-mile or so, we wander along the Cadillac Cliffs and enjoy the sound of far-off bell bouys tolling in the waves. Much of the route is forested, providing welcome shade from the afternoon sun. At a few rocky sections of the trail, we take advantage of rebar handholds to climb particularly large rocks, adding a fun “hardcore” feeling to an otherwise nontechnical hike. Once past the cliffs, the walk is more straightforward and we soon reach Gorham Mountain. I enjoy photographing the pink granite and ever-interesting forest foliage.

Nick and Kenza, on the other hand, are full of energy and pose for a series of increasingly goofy photos with the summit post.

acadia day hiking gorham mountain

Nick and Kenza goof off in front of the summit sign

The next attraction on the Ocean Path loop is The Beehive: a small mountain with an infamously precarious climb to the top. To avoid deaths, the NPS (or some previous party) installed iron rungs in the stone for easy hand and footholds. Even with the man-made assistance, the trail is not for those with a fear of heights. We thoroughly enjoy the climb and stop to take several photos during the ascent.

acadia day hiking beehive

Nick and Kenza take advantage of the iron handholds to climb up to the Beehive

From the summit, we’re afforded great views up and down the coastline, which is mostly just a continuous sea of trees. Sand Beach, a rare exception to the rocky coastline, lies directly west of us at the head of Newport Cove.

After snapping a few photos at the summit sign, we descend from the Beehive via a gentler trail and walk over to Sand Beach. Just for kicks, we take off our shoes and walk out to the water. I gasp as a wave rolls in and submerges my feet; the water is frigid!  We stay in the water just long enough for a selfie and then hurry back up the shore to our waiting socks and shoes.

acadia day hiking sandy beach

The beach looks inviting, but the water is bone-chillingly cold

Following that refreshing foot icing, we walk back to the Gorham Mountain trailhead via the Ocean Path, a mostly paved trail running parallel to Park Loop Road. Along the way, we step off the path a few times to check out the waves and cliffs.

acadia day hiking coast

A view down the coastline on the ocean walk along Park Loop Road

While hiking to Gorham Mountain and the Beehive requires some scrambling, the Ocean Path is easily accessible to all ages; much of it is even wheelchair accessible. This loop is well worth a few hours of your day!

Acadia Mountain Loop

2.9 mi | +800′ / -800′ | View on Map

On our final day, Nick, Kenza, and I squeeze in a short morning hike to Acadia Mountain. The trailhead, located just off of route 102, only has a few parking spots so we end up parking a little further down the road. It’s a short, but enjoyable walk to the summit where we admire a sweeping view of Somes Sound and Greening Island.

acadia day hiking mountain

A nice short loop trail guides us to the top of Acadia Mountain

Our descent from Acadia Mountain (on the east side) is much more intense the ascent (on the west side). The east side has stairs; the west side is very large boulders to clamber over. After days’ of hiking and walking, we’re all a bit sore and the steep descent is hard on the knees.  From the bottom of the Acadia Mountain trail, we follow the Man O’ War Brook Fire Road back to the trailhead.

There are several other trails and peaks in the area worth visiting if you have more time, including some trails which skirt cliffs near the sound. Unfortunately, the cliff-side trails are closed in the spring to avoid disturbing Perigrin Falcons nesting there. If you visit later in the year, I expect you’ll find these trails to be incredible.

Although we didn’t see all of Acadia, we were able to visit many different landscapes and see a great deal of the scenery there. I hope to return again, perhaps when the trees are turning magnificent shades of red and orange. Have you been hiking in Acadia? Share your stories in the comments!

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McInnis Canyons NCA: Rattlesnake Arches Wed, 09 May 2018 12:00:16 +0000 As I round the bend, my boredom evaporates and I gape at the landscape in front of me: massive cliffs, ranging in color from tan to dark red, with the familiar smattering of dark green pines and junipers. On the opposing canyon walls, I spot a few arches and spires, dwarfed by the sheer size of Rattlesnake Canyon. It's an incredible vista, well worth the long walk.

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While researching hiking options near Colorado National Monument, I stumbled upon a few trail reports for the Rattlesnake Arches trail. Intrigued by the name, I investigated a little more and was soon sold on the hike. The Rattlesnake Arches trail visits arches (obviously), spires, and windows, and passes through rugged canyon backcountry. One source even claims that the arches in this area are the densest collection outside of Arches National Park! Those selling points, plus the wonderfully long 15-mile round trip distance, make this hike the perfect 1-day excursion.

Trip Planning

May 9, 2018 | 15.6 mi | +3000′ / -3000′ | View on Map

There are several trails that lead to the Rattlesnake Arches. The shortest hike is accessible by high-clearance vehicle from the south; it’s about an 8-mile offroad drive and then a 2-mile hike to see all of the arches. If, like me, you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle, you can hike in from the Pollock Bench trailhead (or others; there are many connecting trails). If you choose this option, you’re in for a 15-mile round trip hike but it is well worth it; the hike in is just as cool as the arches! A final option, at least on the map, is hiking in from Rattlesnake Canyon, assuming you can cross the Colorado River via canoe or kayak and then navigate/climb your way to the arches.

Although National Geographic prints a map of McInnis Canyons NCA, I found it to be too low-resolution to be of much use; it’s also missing the trail designations employed on the signs in the backcountry (e.g., “R1”, “P1”, etc.) and a few of the trails are not plotted. So, if you have the ability to print your own map, I would recommend this BLM map or these excellent maps from the Colorado Canyons Association (CCA). I found a stack of paper maps with the proper trail designations in the trailhead logbook box when I visited, though they lacked any topographical markings.

There are no reliable water sources along this trail, so pack what you need for the entire hike. I lugged along 3 liters on this trek (about 8 hours of walking) and drank the last drop as I was walking into the trailhead parking lot. This hike involves some class III/IV scrambling, so be prepared to use your hands a bit. This is an incredible desert and canyon hike – enjoy, and leave no trace!

Rattlesnake Arches

I arrive at the trailhead a few hours after sunrise. It’s an overcast day, which I appreciate – the temperature is much cooler without the sun beating down. I log my name into the trailhead log book and read the signage on the bulletin board: a few warnings about active mountain lions and a few statistics about this 15-mile hike with an elevation gain of 3000 feet. I’m a little surprised at that last factoid – how is the elevation gain that large? None of the hills around here have that much prominence…

The trail climbs steadily from the parking lot, winding between scrubby juniper trees with sagebrush and stiff tufts of grass interspersed between them. I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt and pants to keep the sun off, but, since it is cloudy and cool, they’re more effective as insulating layers at the moment. I soon find myself walking along the rim of a mesa with a precipitous 50-foot drop on one side and, beyond, some of the most incredible vistas I’ve ever seen: the green desert plains stretch out in front of me, meeting tan and red sandstone buttresses in the distance, which are in turn adorned with dark green junipers and pinyons. A trail threads through the landscape below, leading my eye toward the magnificent canyons on the horizon. I sure hope I’m headed that way!

mcinnis canyons landscape

The trail leads through vast plains of pinyon and juniper trees and then into those magnificent canyons

For a while, the path continues along the edge of the mesa, offering a steady stream of excellent views. However, the trail soon turns away from the welcoming canyon walls. I reach a trail intersection with simple trail designations: “P1” and “R1”. I assume that “R1” stands for the Rattlesnake Arches trail, and “P1” must represent the Pollock Bench trail – the National Geographic map I’m carrying doesn’t have these markings (though the CCA and BLM maps, linked above, do). I take the path marked “R1” and begin to descend, which surprises me; I thought I was climbing a few thousand feet? I pull out my phone to check with Gaia GPS, a fantastic backcountry navigation app. Sure enough, I’m still on the proper trail, so I continue on, hoping to turn back towards those canyons that are calling my name…

My disappointment doesn’t last long; after descending for a short while, the trail turns back to the northwest and leads me to the edge of another mesa. I have to look carefully to find the way forward; I can see the trail some 30 or 40 feet below, winding through the trees, but the descent is less clear. I thread my way along the edge of the mesa, then cut back along a smooth, inclined sandstone ledge. I’m wary of loose gravel scattered around the ledge and take care to maintain my footing. A slip here wouldn’t be deadly but it would hurt… probably a lot.

mcinnis canyons rattlesnake arches trail

While not quite as exciting as the previous vistas, this view is still pretty incredible!

After few minutes of careful foot placement, I find myself once again on a dirt path and look proudly back up at the mesa. I wasn’t anticipating this amount of creative route finding, but it sure is fun! I stride through more juniper and pinyon pines during the next two-thirds of a mile and reach a butte that reminds me of a steamboat; the sides are smooth, grooved sandstone and several “smokestacks” jut out along the edges.

mcinnis canyons rattlesnake arches trail

This formation reminds me of a steamboat with smokestacks and a smooth hull

Past steamboat rock, the trail turns south and makes a beeline for the grand canyon country I glimpsed earlier. Excited, I hurry forward, pausing only to capture a few photographs of the view.

mcinnis canyons rattlesnake arches trail

The trail turns back toward the magnificent canyons!

The views only get better and better as I tread along the sandy trail. In no time at all, I arrive at the edge of another canyon, again with some uncertainty as to the best route to reach the trail at the bottom. There appear to be several use trails along the rim, so I pick one and follow it downward. Mid-descent, I spot a few cairns and adjust my course toward them, using my hands nearly as much as my feet to clamber down to more level ground.

mcinnis canyons rattlesnake arches trail

The trail proceeds to the edge of the canyon and then… disappears, although I can see it again at the bottom. How do I get down?

A sign on the valley floor indicates that this is Pollock Canyon and points me south, uphill, along a narrow single-track trail. Cottonwoods line a dry, rocky creekbed, providing some shade from the feeble sunlight that makes it through the clouds overhead. Everything about this hike is excellent! The scenery is incredible, the route finding and climbing are fun, and the weather could hardly be better.

I don’t make it very far before the trail reaches another wall. It appears to be heading for the top of the canyon and once more becomes faint. Now thoroughly in a good mood, I thread my way up a few sandstone ledges, clamber over some rocks, and arrive at the top of Pollock Canyon. A use trail continues up the valley, but it will have to wait for some future hike; today I continue uphill to the Rattlesnake Arches.

The next several miles are less exhilarating than the previous miles, but that’s hardly an insult considering the excitement thus far! The trail gains elevation more steadily now, climbing toward the tiered mesas in the distance. I walk past a creek bed and pause when I notice animal tracks in the soft sand. One set of prints is decidedly cloven, probably a desert bighorn sheep, and the other looks like it belongs to a mountain lion. I wonder if the cougar ate the sheep? I’m suddenly very aware that I haven’t seen a single human being in the last few hours… Like most perceived risks in the wilderness, the chances that I’ll be attacked by (or even see) a mountain lion are slim to none. Still, it’s best to be alert.

rattlesnake arches trail

The trail begins to climb in earnest, finally fulfilling the trailhead prediction of a 3000-foot elevation gain

My mind is soon preoccupied with other stresses as the trail beings to climb in earnest, finally fulfilling the prediction of a multi-thousand-foot climb. I’m thankful again for the clouds obscuring the sun as I ascend the steep path. A series of switchbacks lead me to a bench between mesa tiers; to my left, a sheer stone wall that appears to be the highest point around and, to my right, expansive views of the Colorado River and the Grand Valley. I eye the cliff as I walk, wondering if I’ll be scrambling up any of the steep ramps that periodically approach the top.

The trail doesn’t head up any of the ramps, however, and instead circumnavigates the mesa. It’s not a terribly exciting walk, but it’s also not difficult either. The brush is tall and lush, overhanging the trail in many locations with invisible spider webs stretched between branches, seemingly always at face level. I continue on through junipers and sagebrush for a mile or two before reaching the point of the mesa, marked by a stone outcropping that looks remarkably like a baby elephant. As I round the bend, my boredom evaporates and I gape at the landscape in front of me: massive cliffs, ranging in color from tan to dark red, with the familiar smattering of dark green pines and junipers. On the opposing canyon walls, I spot a few archways and spires, dwarfed by the sheer size of Rattlesnake Canyon. It’s an incredible vista, well worth the long walk (although, let’s be honest: the hike in was a lot of fun)!

rattlesnake arches canyon

This view is at least as incredible as anything you’ll find in southern Utah, and I have it all to myself!

Now that I’ve reached the final mile or two of the hike, I’m content to slow down a bit so I find a nice spot with a view, take off my shoes and socks, and eat lunch while admiring the scenery. I can’t help but compare this red and green chasm to other monstrous canyons: Yosemite, Zion, the Grand Canyon. If you ask me, Rattlesnake Canyon is equally as impressive as any of those world-famous landmarks. It’s also so much less crowded due to its remote location, which is perhaps more important than the grandeur of the scenery; even the most majestic national park is uninspiring when you’re jostled about by crowds of noisy tourists brandishing selfie sticks.

rattlesnake arches canyon

More breathtaking views… just, wow!

Once I’ve eaten my lunch (peanut butter, tortillas, and dried mangos), I saunter on down the trail and check out the natural arch formations. Some are barely separate from the surrounding stone; “young arches” if you will. Others are more prominent,  bridging solitary stone towers. The nearby cliff faces are pockmarked with holes – birds, perhaps? Or pockets of softer stone that have eroded irregularly? I walk up to investigate and peer into a few but see no nests, droppings, or other signs of life.

The trail meaders for a mile or so, past half a dozen arches, all impressive, particularly when you consider how many of them there are in this tiny area! After admiring the final arch, I search for a way to connect the loop shown on my map. I’m not entirely sure it is a loop – the trail is marked by a dashed line, so it’s not immediately clear if the gap between my current location and a trail that appears to lead up over the mesa is a lack of trail or just another dash in the line (the trails do not connect; this is clear on the BLM and CCA maps).

rattlesnake arches

The final installation in the Rattlesnake Arches

I could retrace my steps, but I’d rather not. However, there don’t seem to be any routes to the top of the cliffs. Most of the stone is sheer, with some sections even arching out over the valley (a negative slope). There is one section with a positive slope – the final arch. I walk up to the base, take a look at the availability of foot- and hand-holds, and make up my mind to try climbing out. The exposure isn’t bad, nor is the wall vertical. I stow my camera and trekking poles in my backpack to free up my hands and begin the climb. It definitely looks scarier than it actually is. The sandstone is rough and easy to grip, with sufficient divots and knobs to grasp on the way up. [Other hikers have rated this route as between a 5.2 and 5.8 free climb; I would still stick this in class IV territory since the exposure isn’t high. That being said, I’m not a climbing expert.]

rattlesnake arches

A view *through* an arch!

In a few short minutes, I reach a flat bench underneath the arch and pause to take a few photos looking back through. After catching my breath, I continue climbing and quickly reach the top of the mesa. Only minutes after gaining the high ground, I meet two young hikers, the first humans I’ve seen all day! They’re also here to see the arches and, after exchanging a few pleasantries, we go our separate ways.

rattlesnake arches trail

The walk back passes more quickly; the scenery is familiar and my mind wanders…

I follow the same paths back toward the trailhead, descending the switchbacks and climbing through Pollock and other unnamed canyons. The clouds are beginning to melt away and the afternoon sun breaks through now and again. To make things hotter, I seem to be walking the same direction as the light breeze so there’s little airflow over my skin as I walk. My mind drifts from the trail to other topics: work, school, family… I proceed on autopilot until I reach the last intersection between the Rattlesnake Arches trail and the Pollock Bench trail – it’s a straight shot from here to the trailhead. I turn toward the trailhead and my car, take a few steps, and then stop. What if I kept hiking? It’s only 2PM, and I have a full liter of water and extra snacks in my bag… I look up the trail toward the hills, look back toward the trailhead, and make a decision: I’m going to keep hiking.

mcinnis canyons rattlesnake arches trail

Rather than continue back to the trailhead through the flat desert plains, I turn back toward the hills for another dose of canyon hiking

Flume Canyon Detour

I speed through endless junipers as I walk away from my car once more, heading for the towering red sandstone canyons in the distance. As I reach the intersection of “P1” and “F2”, I realize that I should have abandoned my return journey earlier and taken the western branch of the “P1” Pollock Bench trail – it winds along a mesa rim with endless views of the incredible canyon landscape, whereas the trail I’ve chosen (the eastern branch of P1) cuts through flat, juniper-filled plains with a distinct lack of awesome views. Oh well.

My impromptu second hike of the day follows a route through Flume Canyon; from the P1/F2 intersection, I follow F2 down into Flume Canyon and then take the lower branch of F1 to stay in the bottom of the canyon (hopefully in the shade) rather than hiking along the rim. At first, I wind through narrow drainages, avoiding piles of horse poop left on the sandy trail. After descending a series of hot, dusty switchbacks, I reach a muddy streambed and the shade of cottonwood trees. The trail continues to meander through narrow ravines for a while and I enjoy the shade and interesting terrain. However, in short order I find myself emerging from the narrows into a wider valley surrounded by towering red cliffs. What a glorious vista!

flume canyon mcinnis

Absolutely stunning. The sunshine is nice, but it’s getting awfully warm!

I don’t tarry too long out in the open, even if the views are incredible; the sun is out in full force and it’s downright hot! Pulling my hat down lower over my eyes, I hurry on down the valley to reach the shadier terrain of lower Flume Canyon. There, the sand occasionally gives way to smooth stone floors, some concave like amphitheaters surrounding puddles in which entire ecosystems are flourishing. Mostly, though, I walk along dry sand and enjoy the adventure of strolling through twisting stone passageways.

mcinnis canyons flume

I take the lower route through Flume Canyon and enjoy the scenic variety, like this smooth stone floor with a few remnant puddles from the most recent rainfall

An hour or two later, fresh out of snacks and water, I reach the mouth of Flume Canyon and my waiting car. Air conditioning will be nice, and I’m looking forward to a shower and “real food” in town. I’m a little disappointed to be leaving Colorado tomorrow, but I’ve had a blast during the few days I’ve spent here! If you’re ever passing through Grand Junction, remember to pull off the highway for a few hours and go for a hike. You won’t regret it.


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Colorado National Monument Day Hikes Tue, 08 May 2018 16:00:43 +0000 Located just a few miles off the interstate, Colorado National Monument boasts sweeping canyon vistas, impressive stone monoliths, and plenty of hiking options. A campground nestled among the juniper and pinyon pine trees is a few tenths of a mile from the most impressive views, and the Visitor Center offers similarly excellent access to incredible vistas. I spent a day visiting the various overlooks and hiking a few trails; I certainly didn't see everything and would love to return again to see more!

The post Colorado National Monument Day Hikes appeared first on Backcountry Sights.

I’ve driven through Grand Junction, Colorado, at least two or three times, but I hadn’t taken the time to stop and investigate the nearby Colorado National Monument until my most recent cross-country trip. Located just a few miles off the interstate (literally a 5-minute drive on a single road), the monument boasts sweeping canyon vistas, impressive stone spires, and plenty of hiking trails. A campground nestled among the juniper and pinyon pine trees is a few tenths of a mile from the most impressive views, and the Visitor Center offers similarly excellent access to incredible vistas. I spent a day visiting the various overlooks and hiking a few trails; I certainly didn’t see everything and would love to return to see more!

Trip Planning

While hiking and camping in Colorado National Monument are entirely possible, there are a few things to consider that you might safely ignore in more hospitable climates. This is a desert; there is little shade and little water. In fact, what water you can find is not potable, even with filtration, due to a high Selenium content. Thus, you must pack in or cache all the water you need for the duration of your trip. Backcountry camping is allowed in the canyons (subject to a few restrictions) with a free permit obtained from the rangers at the Visitor Center. You can also camp in the frontcountry at Saddlehorn Campground for a small fee of $20/night with access to clean water, flush toilets, and the excellent Canyon Rim Trail. For more information, check out the NPS website or give the rangers a call! Finally, National Geographic prints a detailed map of the monument; the same map also includes McInnis Canyons, Fruita, and Grand Junction.

Since I only had a day to spare from my road trip, I explored the park in two stages. First, I visited all of the overlooks via car and got a feel for what the different hiking options were like. Second, I stopped by to ask the rangers’ thoughts on hikes. They didn’t have any strong opinions, so I picked two hikes that seemed most interesting: Ute Canyon and Monument Valley.

Ute Canyon

May 8, 2018 | 8 mi | +1200′ / -1200′ | View on Map

One of several canyon-floor routes, the Ute Canyon Trail winds through groves of cottonwood trees and seemingly endless miles of junipers, all the while surrounded by towering red sandstone cliffs. You can reach the trail from three locations: the Ute Canyon trailhead, located near mile 13.5 on Rimrock Drive, or via the Lower or Upper Liberty Cap trailheads. I begin at the Ute Canyon trailhead because it has the most immediate access to the canyon, although that access is a half-mile of trail which descends a series of steep switchbacks from the rim to the floor.

Once at the valley floor, my first inclination is to hike up the canyon but, after only a hundred yards, I reach a thick wall of willows and decide to see what the trail looks like in the opposite direction. Thankfully, the down-canyon path is much clearer and soon I’m strolling down single-track. The National Geographic map labels this trail as “unimproved” which, frankly, seems perfect to me.

Almost immediately, I happen upon a small ditch of stagnant water. Selenium or not, I have no desire to drink any. A stand of nearby cottonwood trees, which frequently grow in close proximity to water, rustle gently in the morning breeze. The cottonwoods remind me of the canyons in Death Valley, where they also served as water markers, although those trees were dark autumnal colors and these are neon-green.

I meet a few other people on the trail: a middle-aged couple and, later, an older woman wearing a trail ambassador uniform. They must do a lot of hiking out here in sunny canyon country because all three are incredibly tan. The trail ambassador points out a few things to watch out for, including the fishhook cactus that is currently in bloom and collared lizards. I’ve seen plenty of small lizards darting away as I walk along, but no colorful reptiles that match the collared lizard description. However, now on the lookout, I spot a few sunning themselves on a rock further down the canyon.

By the time I reach the mouth of Ute Canyon, the sun is high in the sky and it’s beginning to get quite warm. I hurry back up the canyon, retracing my steps until I reach a grove of cottonwoods. I eat lunch and take a break in the shade before returning to the switchbacks and climbing out of the canyon.

Wedding Canyon – Monument Valley Loop

May 8, 2018 | 4.5 mi | +870′ / -870′ | View on Map

colorado national monument wedding canyon trail

The dirt track winds through the desert, eventually leading into Wedding Canyon and Monument Valley

Both the rangers at the Visitor Center and the trail ambassador I met in Ute Canyon recommended hiking the Monument Valley trail. The trail ambassador additionally recommended that I make it a loop hike, beginning on the Wedding Canyon trail and then returning via the Monument Valley trail. That seems like a great plan to me, so, after napping a bit through the afternoon heat, I hit the trail again!

The first section of the trail weaves through the desert, skirting the barbed-wire fence that borders the monument. The path soon turns into Wedding Canyon and climbs unforgivingly up steep, gravely inclines. I can see why the woman I met on the trail advised going up this trail instead of down; it’s much easier to climb than descend the loose gravel. An added benefit of hiking the loop in this direction is that I’ll have a grand view of the monuments during the warm evening light.

As I climb higher into the canyon, those grand views begin to materialize. The trail skirts the northern cliff and heads straight for Independence Monument, a lone spire isolated from the other canyon walls by the relentless forces of erosion. I soon reach the base of the monolith and spend a minute or two staring up at it. Apparently, this wall of rock is a popular climbing spot; so popular that the National Park Service has outlawed camping on top of the monument. Seems like a poor campsite – it’s got to be windy, and you’d have to repel all the way down to poop – but I can understand the appeal of being able to say you’d camped on top of the rock.

The lone spire of Independence Monument is a popular 4-pitch challenge for rock climbers

My path back to the trailhead follows the Monument Valley trail. A fellow hiker walking in the opposite direction warns me of a herd of bighorn sheep on the trail ahead. By the time I arrive, they’ve moved off the trail but are still grazing in the rocks nearby. There must be at least 20 or 30 of them, all munching on grass, seemingly unconcerned with the humans trekking past.

colorado national monument desert bighorn sheep

A ewe eyes me as I hike past

The remainder of the trail doesn’t present much additional interest. I hurry down stone steps, a much easier descent than the Wedding Canyon route offers, and hike past a dozen fancy houses built on the outside of the tall monument border fence. By the time I reach my car and return to camp, the sun has set and it’s time for bed.

Canyon Rim Trail

grand valley colorado river sunrise

Early morning light illuminates the Grand Valley and reflects in the serpentine Colorado River

Due to the proximity of my campsite to the Canyon Rim Trail, I visited this scenic path several times during the sunrise and sunset golden hours. The views are incredible, with several fantastic compositions that include the monuments and canyon walls. There are all kinds of places to sit and watch the light play across the stone, but be careful to avoid falling off the edge; the sand can be slippery, there are no fences, and it’s a very long, uninterrupted drop to the canyon floor.

Colorado National Monument is a fantastic hiking and photography spot. If you’re passing through Grand Junction, take a few hours to visit, hike, and admire the views. It is well worth your while!

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Shades State Park Sat, 02 Dec 2017 17:00:52 +0000 I struggle to make time for hiking during the academic school year. It seems like there is always something going on, and it’s easier to stay in town on the weekends and liesurely tick chores off of my to-do list than travel to a trail and go hiking. However, when the forecast predicted a December weekend […]

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I struggle to make time for hiking during the academic school year. It seems like there is always something going on, and it’s easier to stay in town on the weekends and liesurely tick chores off of my to-do list than travel to a trail and go hiking. However, when the forecast predicted a December weekend of sunshine and  temperatures in the upper 50’s, I experienced a rush of motivation and spent a Saturday exploring Shades State Park.

The area allegedly gets its name from the deep shadows that lie in the sandstone ravines beneath the thick forest canopy. This geology is very similar to that of Turkey Run State Park, but very different from what you might imagine Indiana is like! Many of the trails follow dry (or not so dry…) streambeds down through high-walled ravines to Sugar Creek. Hiking in this landscape is certain exciting!

shades state park map

Most of the interesting trails are densely packed into the ravines near Sugar Creek. The backpack trail takes off to the west to reach the backcountry campsite 2.5 miles away.


Shades Statek Park is located about 60 miles west-northwest of Indianapolis and includes 10 miles of hiking trails that range from easy forest paths to rugged scrambles through streambeds in the ravines. Between April and October, you can camp (both car and backcountry) in the park, and picnic areas with large shelters are available for reservation year-round. You’ll pay a $7 fee to enter the park if you’re an Indiana resident, or $9/car if you’re from out-of-state (rates info). The Indiana Department of Natural Resources website is a great resource where you can find more information about the park, reservations, and other activities.

Backpack Trail

December 2, 2017 | 5 mi | View on Map

The drive to Shades State Park is pleasant; I follow small state highways and county roads through open farmland, cheerful because of the abundant sunlight. In the midst of chronically developed Indiana farmland, Shades is a small natural oasis of thick trees. After driving through the front gate and picking up a map, I pull into the Hemlock parking lot, brining the total number of cars there to three. Although the weather is perfect for hiking, today’s warmth is unusual for December and I doubt many folks made plans to be outside today.

After collecting my backpack from the passenger seat, I make a beeline for the “Backpack Trail.” As a backpacking enthusiast, I’m curious to find out where it leads, although I already know a few details from the map I picked up at the park entrance. From the trailhead near the hemlock parking area, the path trends west away from the parking lot through typical Indiana woodlands. Perhaps a mile in, the backpacking trail intersects with the “Campground Loop Trail,” but don’t worry about getting lost; massive trail markers clearly indicate which path is which.

shades state park backpack trail

By far the longest path in the park, the Backpack Trail leads to a backcountry campsite.

Although most of the Backpack Trail is flat, there are several descents and climbs. Curiously, every altitude change of more than a few feet is accomplished via wooden stairs; there is not a single switchback on the trail. I wonder which costs more: repairing washed out trails or repairing collapsed stairs?

About an hour later, I reach the end of the trail and check out the campsites. Each has a fire pit and a picnic table surrounded by plenty of flat, open area for camping. A nearby set of pit latrines disqualifies this camping area as a true “backcountry campsite” in my opinion, but I wouldn’t mind popping out here on a free weekend every once in a while! The hike is short and, despite the civilized luxuries, is much more “wild” than car camping.

On my way back to the center of Shades State Park, I revel in the silence. I frequently go for walks in the woods near my apartment and am always a little frustrated by the constant noise of nearby cars and trucks. Out here, on the other hand, I can’t hear a single automobile. In fact, it is so quiet that I can hear powerlines humming as I crunch through the fallen leaves.

Ravine Trails

December 2, 2017 | ~5 mi | View on Map

At the bottom of a long flight of stairs, I leave the Backpack Trail and follow signs for trail #8. Calling this path a “trail” is rather generous; the only way to proceed forward is to walk through the creek. Luckily, the water is shallow and I don’t have any trouble keeping my feet dry as I hop between rocks and continue downstream. There are a few tricky spots where I struggle to avoid slipping on the carpet of fallen leaves, but in general I find the traverse through this ravine, Shawnee Canyon, pretty straightforward. The rock-hopping only makes the trek more exciting and fun!

kintz ravine shades state park

A warm afternoon in the Kintz Ravine in Shades State Park

Shawnee Canyon eventually empties out into Sugar Creek, a wide, slow-moving waterway lined with silver-barked sycamore trees. I pause for a few minutes to admire the scenery; the smooth water reflects the trees and whispy clouds perfectly. I follow trail #8 as it winds along the riverbank and then transition to trail #7 and begin climbing back uphill toward the parking lot.

sugar creek reflection shades state park

Silvery sycamore trees are reflected in the mirror-like waters of Sugar Creek

In an attempt to see as much of the park as possible without repeating sections of trail, my plan is to wind back and forth between the high ground near the parking lot and the lower elevations at Sugar Creek. Upon returning to the high ground, I continue on to trail #4 and hike down into the Frisz Ravine. The geology in this ravine is different than that in Shawnee Canyon; the walls are much steeper and the sandstone bedrock is exposed. The steep sandstone walls here show clear signs of erosion; I’m sure hiking through this ravine would be trickier if any water were flowing.

shades state park frisz ravine

Although there isn’t much water at the moment, the erosion makes it clear that this trail is frequently a stream bed.

I climb down several ladders, the tallest of which is probably 20 feet long, on my way down the ravine. The wooden rungs are silky smooth, but not slippery, from from the thousands of shoes and hands that have traversed them. Behind the ladders, the sandstone is worn away and I imagine being able to sit behind spring waterfalls when the water levels are higher.

ladder shades state park

One of several ladders that facilitates hiking through the ravines at Shades State Park.

During the next few hours, I continue hiking the other trails: #5, then #1, and finally over to #2. There are plenty of impressive sights, including some great views of Sugar Creek from Prospect Point. But none of them compare to the epic views in Pearl Ravine on trail #2. Whereas the other ravines are perhaps 20 – 30 feet deep, Pearl Ravine looks to be 50 or 60 feet deep! A thick layer of leaves carpets the ravine floor, obscuring the edges of a small creek that winds through. Dark green moss covers fallen trees, and bright afternoon sunlight accentuates the warm autumn colors.

pearl ravine shades state park

One of many beautiful spots in Shades State Park; this one on trail #2 in Pearl Ravine.

I climb happily through the ravine as it winds from Sugar Creek back to the ridgetops, pausing every once in a while to take photos. As much as I’m enjoying the beautiful scenery today, I’m looking forward to returning in other seasons to discover what they have to offer! Spring wildflowers, a blanket of snow, the thick, green summer canopy… there is so much left to see!

Due to time constraints today, I have to return to the car with a few trails left on my “to explore” list. I’ll be back, of course! Out of the few state parks I’ve had the opportunity to visit, Shades State Park is definitely one of my favorites. If you’re a hiking enthusiast or just need some fresh air, I would highly recommend a day trip to Shades (or Turkey Run) for some awesome canyon and ravine scenery!

Until next time, happy trails!

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