1oo Days of National Parks: Day 33 – Wall of Hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park

It’s such a profoundly unique experience to walk through the winding trails below the rim of Bryce Canyon and weave amongst the towering hoodoos that make up the Park’s iconic amphitheater. The alien landscape is one of the most affecting sights in any park, with its towering sandstone spires reaching toward impossibly blue skies, the few trees and plants along the slopes fighting for existence in the harshness of the high desert.

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Wall of Hoodoos

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It’s such a profoundly unique experience to walk through the winding trails below the rim of Bryce Canyon and weave amongst the towering hoodoos that make up the Park’s iconic amphitheater.  The alien landscape is one of the most affecting sights in any park, with its towering sandstone spires reaching toward impossibly blue skies, the few trees and plants along the slopes fighting for existence in the harshness of the high desert.

Continue reading “1oo Days of National Parks: Day 33 – Wall of Hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park”

Donner Pass Tunnel – Truckee, CA

Donner Pass Train Tunnels

Just a short distance away from the Pacific Crest Trail at Donner Pass, near Truckee, California, extends a massive abandoned train tunnel. Dating from the time of the gold rush in the late 1800’s, the tunnels now stand completely empty, extending for several miles from Truckee up to the summit of Donner Pass.

Donner Pass Train Tunnels

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Just a short distance away from the Pacific Crest Trail at Donner Pass, near Truckee, California, extends a massive abandoned train tunnel.  Dating from the time of the gold rush in the late 1800’s, the tunnels now stand completely empty, extending for several miles from Truckee up to the summit of Donner Pass.

Continue reading “Donner Pass Tunnel – Truckee, CA”

ITT – Intensive Trail Therapy: Flapjack Lakes

One of the most frustrating things about being diagnosed with a stress fracture in my lower leg has been the fact that it’s not that bad of an injury.  While painful for the first two weeks, to the point where I couldn’t walk or even raise and lower my foot, my leg has felt pretty healthy since mid-June for day-to-day, normal use.  Of course, the PCT is not normal use.

Given that my recovery was happening in Washington, I opeted to reverse course and head south from the Canadian border three weeks after my initial diagnosis.  I was excited to get back out to the trail, albeit under different conditions from where I left it, but the call of the hike was pulling me out there.  Unfortunately it was too soon.
The details of my three day hike up to Canada and back from Hart’s Pass in North Cascades National Park are for a later post, but the aftermath of the hike left me hobbled for another week, my lower leg still in pain though there had been none for a week prior, and now my feet, and knees aching from compensating for that pain.  I was a mess, and terribly defeated.  I returned to Olympia and my parent’s house lost and ready to give up entirely.  I had no idea how to get back to where I was before my disasterous week in the Sierras.

I still wanted to hike.  My three days in the Cascades had inspired me more than anywhere before to photograph the beauty out there, but my body wasn’t cooperating.  I needed a plan to get back.  I needed to find a way to be sure the pain wouldn’t derail me again.

A week later I was feeling good again, but was wary.  In the month I’d been off trail I’d seen several other hikers forced to leave from injury, including my friend Eric, one of the Warrior Hikers who I’d grown close to since leaving Campo.  Eric had hurt his knee coming into Tahoe, and had himself been forced to return to Olympia to recover at his house not two blocks from where I was staying with my parents.  People were dropping like flies off the trail, but I was determined not to be away for ever.  I needed to get back out.

It was Eric who introduced me to the term ITT, Intensive Trail Therapy.  Looking to heal as he hiked, Eric’s plan was to rest until he felt better then use the physicality of the trail to work himself back into hiking condition.  I liked the sound of it.

But first I needed to test myself physically, to determine whether my body could even stand up to the rigors of day hiking, let alone distance hiking.  My parents live an hour from Olympic National Park, one of my favorite places to hike, so I picked a trail not far from their house, a 15 mile out and back hike up to Flapjack Lakes, off the Staircase section of the Olympics, an area I’ve become very familiar with over the years, and a longtime nemesis of mine.
In 2012 I attempted my first distance hike up the North Fork Skokomish Trail, and was soundly beaten by the mountain on the way up.  I’d made it 18 miles into the trail when I gave up and turned around, and was so exhausted and beaten up by the experience I hardly moved for two days after.  The reasons for turning back: too much weight, snow, and pain in my knees.  These seem to be recurring problems for me.
Flapjack Lakes had long been on my list of destinations, though I’d always thought of it as an overnight hike.  Though only 7.5 miles from trailhead to lake, the Olympics have a way of exaggerating distances, whether through poorly maintained trails, high elevation gains, or weather, 10 miles seems like 20 in those mountains.  My choice of this 15 mile trail, however, was based on my confidence, or hubris, that that distance had been my minimum on the PCT, and I was hiking during the height of summer in Washington, when the weather was warm, the days long, and the trails abundant with berries (a deciding factor for me, for sure).
I set out at 11:30 from the Staircase ranger station, along the mostly level trail for about 3.5 miles til I reached the junction to the flapjack trailhead.  I felt good, strong, fast.  I passed day hikers and blew past them, and felt no small amount of pride at being a stronger hiker than when I’d hiked this section in the past.  The fact that these other hikers were old women and small children meant nothing to me, I was a strong hiker, damn it!

It took me an hour and a half to reach the junction, well ahead of my PCT pace, but I had no weight on my back beyond my tripod and camera, so I didn’t read too much into it.  I turned up the hill, and was immediately confronted by the Olympics I knew and loved.  The trail climbed up several hundred feet right off the bat, up long switchbacks that drained my enthusiasm quickly.  Combined with the increasingly rocky, root-strewn nature of the trail, and I was starting to question my decision to hike up to the lakes, still some 4 miles away.

Thankfully the trail leveled out for a time, but not for long, and soon I found myself climbing one of the worst sections of trail I’d ever attempted.  To call some parts of it a trail would be generous, as I clambored over rocks and roots, and generally hated my life.  Oh there were highlights, a bridge crossing Madeline Creek, bumblebees on lupines, a waterfall that I spent far too much time (nearly an hour) shooting pictures of, but the trail was pounding my legs, and I still hadn’t reached the difficult section of the trail.

After the water the trail rose precipitously, in some sections seeming to shoot almost straight up the mountainside.  I rolled my ankles and twisted my knees, and just when I thought I’d overdone it…the trail leveled out and I was rewarded with the most glorious possible reward.  Huge salmon berries, the size of my thumb and subtly sweet on my tongue, lined the trail, and I gorged myself on all I could find.  They were delicious, and though I was sore, and tired, I felt buoyed, pushed to get up to the lakes which couldn’t be far away.

Sure enough, I reached the twin bodies of the Flapjack Lakes around 4:30, after another half mile from the berry patch, and was rewarded with an amazing view of the Gladys Divide, a craggy mountain spur along the southeast section of the Olympics, and took pictures along the lakes edge while eating mountain huckleberries straight off the bush.  It was peaceful and very rewarding.

I left the lakes at 5:30 and started my descent, and was pounded by the impact of my feet down the trail.  Everything ached and hurt, my feet felt ruined, my knees like jello, and my muscles were tight and burning, and I was regretting my life.

I pushed on, though, the thought of a burger pushing me onward.  All I wanted was to get to my car and to find somewhere where I could find a greasy, delicious burger and a milkshake to fill my belly.  It’s the simple motivations that often work best.

By the time I reached the North Fork Trail, I was exhausted, and it took me another two hours to reach my car, seemingly far longer than it had taken to get up just eight hours earlier.  I passed two hikers on their way to the lakes as I descended, and felt sorry for the poor bastards and their 50+ pound backpacks.  I tried to warn them about what they were getting into, but they didn’t listen.  Such foolish pride…
I reached my car and collapsed in the driver’s seat, taking off my boots and stretching my aching feet.  I was not ready for the PCT yet, my body was still not cooperating, but I figured out some important things about the causes for my pain.  My boots, heavy waterproof Merrell’s, duplicates of the ones that had carried me from Campo to Kennedy Meadows, had so little cushioning that impacts (like those that had caused my stress fracture in the first place), sent shocks of pain straight into my legs.  Also, my lower leg was perhaps the only thing that didn’t hurt, a signal that maybe the stress fracture had healed in the week since I’d retreated from the North Cascades.
As I drove back and pulled into Five Guys for a well-deserved burger (with everything, naturally, and cajun fries), I knew I wasn’t ready, but found myself encouraged that maybe, just maybe, I could make adjustments to get me back on the trail in the not too distant future.

Day 22 – Big Bear and Beyond

It was a dusty, windy dirt road that led up to the trail from Big Bear, and it took some time for Susan and I to make it to the trailhead, though I found I would’ve given anything for it to last a little longer.  I was saying goodbye again to her, and had already said goodbye to my family, and was once more setting out into the solitude of the trail.  It was surprisingly hard, but I was also looking forward to the sights to come.
I had spent the three days off with my family and Susan, going out to dinner, looking over my photos for the first time in three weeks, going to dinner and watching movies, and generally enjoying myself.  Though I’d taken time off in Idyllwild, this was my first real experience stepping away from the trail for a time.
My parents had rented a hotel room near Big Bear Lake, the resort town on the west end of it’s namesake, and, being a few days ahead of schedule, I found myself enjoying the restful atmosphere the town had to offer.  After San Jacinto, Susan and I had agreed to meet the following weekend to attempt a summit of Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California, and a longtime goal for both of us.  On the way up to Big Bear I’d been laughed at many times by other hikers for hiking on my day off, but I didn’t care, it was a chance to hang out with Susan for another day, it was worth it.
My dad, excited to be caring for Smeagol, had taken to carrying the little guy in a mesh pocket hung from a cord around his neck, where his body heat helped keep the mouse comfortable.  He fed my little hitchhiker milk from a small syringe, and doted on her (as he soon deduced) endlessly.  Smeagol went everywhere with us, to dinner, to the store, to the movie theater.  I was happy because she was saved, as I’d hoped she would be upon getting her to my Dad.

Hiker hunger had set in upon getting to Big Bear, or more accurately the day before I arrived.  There is a profound need to eat copious amounts of fatty, greasy, not at all healthy food when one hikes for any great length of time, and I found myself burying my face in huge bacony burgers, buffalo chicken calzones, breakfast pastries, ice cream, and any number of things that ordinary people try to eat in moderation.  There was a scale in the bathroom of our hotel and I’d lost 12 pounds since my arrival at Campo, the calorie sucking hike was doing its work, and I was starving.
On my second day in town I ran into Stacey and her friend Just Jules, a hiker from New Zealand who I immediately gravitated toward.  Having lived in Wellington for a year, I find myself immediately drawn toward the kiwi accent, or even the chance of talking about the islands.  I need to go back one day, for certain, but that’s a future adventure.  Stacey was happy to see me again, as we’d only briefly talked in Idyllwild on my day off there before going our separate ways.  She’d come down San Jacinto the day after I left Ziggy and the Bear’s, and found herself trapped by the oppressive heatwave that I’d fortunately just missed.  Temperatures in the Palm Desert were hitting 105, and with no shade and little water for large sections of that trail, I could see why it had proved too daunting for many a hiker.  Over a dozen hikers had left the trail from Ziggy and the Bear’s, and Stacey and Jules had taken the offer of a ride from Legend, a Trail Angel I’d yet to meet, and bypassed the 50 miles up the mountain to spare themselves the pain.  I didn’t blame them, and as we sat eating ice cream and discussing life and the trail, it all seemed to have worked out well for us.
Susan arrived early on Saturday morning, and I was beyond excited to see her again, though it’d only been a week.  We hopped in the car when she arrived and grabbed a quick breakfast before making our way down to the start of the San Gorgonio trail, a large, waterless canyon that sat at the base of the nearly 12,000 foot peak.  There were signs all around warning of a need for a special backcountry permit to access the summit, which we did not have, but we persevered, climbing out of the wash for nearly a mile of rock strewn switchbacks, which left both of our legs burning.  We were sore, and neither of us were particularly enjoying the process, so when we came upon a ranger at the National Forest boundary, who asked us pointedly to see our permits, we politely apologized and reversed course, no harm, no foul.  The summit would be there another day.
So my third day in Big Bear was spent exploring with Susan, and it was wonderful.  We had lunch with Mama Goose, newly arrived in town, and my parents came to join us.  We grabbed fudge at the local fudge shop (a real gem of a place, and one I’ll be revisiting for sure), and explored the surrounding mountains by car.  Susan and I are suckers for abandoned places, so when we discovered an abandoned boy scout camp, we were excited to explore it, wandering a sage-covered meadow, laying in the grass of an archery range looking for shapes in clouds, and generally enjoying each others company.  We met my parents for dinner and spent the night joking and telling stories (mostly at my expense), and it was lovely.
But all good things must end, and I found myself stepping out of her car, fully laden pack on my back once more, kissing her goodbye and fighting tears that didn’t want to be held back.  We said goodbye, under the assumption that we’d see each other again in three weeks, and I set out, putting some distance between us before I was slammed by a wave of emotion I’d not expected.  It’s hard saying goodbye to people you love, even for a time, and Big Bear had reminded me of that love, of it’s presence and the reasons for it, and now I was alone once more.
The trail was easy, thankfully, and I turned my attention on putting in miles in the 7 hours I had left before dark.  I hiked through the pines of the mountains to the north of Big Bear Lake, looking down on the water and town I’d just left.  There were wildflowers in abundance along the trail, and lizards everywhere, and soon I was happy to be back out and walking.

I wound along the mostly level trail, slowly descending from the ridgeline.  A few miles in I passed the meadow Susan and I had found the day before, and was hit again by a wave of emotion, but I pushed it down and soldiered on.
The area north of Big Bear was marked by a series of large burn areas, from the all too frequent wildfires that hit the area.  Soon I was out of the trees and hiking down a barren and rocky hillside, catching my first glimpse of the San Gabriel mountains to the west, the mountains that stretched north of my home in Los Angeles, and was again confronted with a powerful emotional reaction.  In a week I’d be the closest to home I’d been in a month, it was exciting, and I was anxious to get there.  I descended into Little Bear Camp and used the surprisingly well maintained toilet there, a solar affair behind a wood plank wall, a luxury out on the trail, and continued on, until I got to the dirt road crossing near Holcomb Creek.
I had seen the truck parked at the road as I came down from the mountain into Little Bear Camp, a white pick-up that I presumed belonged to some local out for a day of hiking, off-roading, or hunting.  I found myself nervous as I approached it.  Though I had no reason to doubt the intentions of anybody on the trail, thoughts nevertheless sprang into my head of redneck shenanigans, and harassment from locals.  Whether it was due to some inborn prejudice (it was) or just general social anxiety from a month removed from society (it was), I was filled with a decidedly anxious feeling as I approached the dirt road.
Compounding my anxiety was the fact that I couldn’t see where the trail led after the road.  I stepped onto the well graded dirt and pulled out my phone, scanning the map and trying to judge where the trail picked up again.  The white truck was to my right, not 10 feet away, the driver sitting quietly watching me, the idiot hiker, lost and filled with nervousness.  As I looked at the trail, and my map, he rolled down his window.
“Looking for the trail?” he asked, and I said yes, nervously laughing off my lack of route-finding ability.
“It’s about a 100 yards up the road, past that fenceline and down along the creek.  Just walk up that way and you can’t miss it,” he said.
I thanked him and he smiled, starting to roll up his window again.  As he did I asked if he was out hiking.
“A little yeah, just got back to my car.  I was out saying goodbye to my dog.”  He said, stopping his window halfway up.
This was one of the heaviest hitting, and most beautiful moments I’d come across on the trail, and I offered my sympathies.  “How old was he?” I asked, knowing the pain of losing a pet, and having just helped Susan through her own loss not 6 months earlier.
“Fifteen, but he was strong til the end,” the man said, and continued.  “I’d bring him out here all the time, he loved hiking this section.  He’d always jump right out of the car and run straight into the creek, it’s really cold water, especially on days like this.  It’d take hours to get him out.”
I listened, entranced, as he finished.  “We buried him last week, but I kept his collar.  I figured it would be nice to leave a piece of him here in his favorite place.  I hung the collar on the fencepost next to the sign up there, you’ll see it when you hit the trail.”
I again offered condolences and thanked him for his help.  Not for the first time, nor for the last, were my preconceptions proven completely wrong upon talking with someone on the trail.  As I walked on, and past the collar, hanging from the trail sign as I stepped down away from the road, I was buoyed by the beauty of the moment, and it both lifted my spirits and opened my eyes to the sights on the trail ahead.
I followed the creek, past large, placid pools, dammed by beavers, it seemed, the cool dark water calling me.  I considered jumping in, but left it alone, instead filling my water bottles and pushing forward.  The sun was getting low, and I wanted to get a few more miles in before stopping.  There was a crossing not three miles ahead, and reaching it would set me up perfectly for a hike into Deep Creek the next day.
I walked through another burn area, big boulders dotting the landscape, and new manzanita and wildflower growth lining the trail to either side.  I stopped for some time by one manzanita, in full bloom and covered in bees, and took pictures far longer than I should have, but it was peaceful, and I felt inspired to capture the beauty of the moment.
The sun was almost down by the time I hit the crossing of Holcomb Creek, and I set up my hammock quickly before eating dinner.  It was disappointing to be back on trail rations, but there was nothing to be done for it.  I dressed for bed and climbed into my hammock, and went to sleep as the full moon rose over the small canyon.  It had been an eventful first day back on the trail, but I was happy to be back out.

Days 15 and 16

Following our unfortunate and aborted attempt to summit San Jacinto the day before, Susan and I took the following morning to relax and enjoy ourselves, eating continental breakfast and laying in the hotel room, talking and enjoying each other’s company.  It felt good, it felt peaceful, it made me not want to return to the trail that afternoon.

We went to the store, and I bought my resupply for the coming hike to Big Bear.  I was due to meet my parents in three days near Big Bear Lake, where they were coming to spend time with me on the trail and get a taste of acting as trail angels.  I was looking forward to seeing them, but more importantly, I was eager to get into the mountains and away from the impending heat that was due to hit the Palm Desert in a few days time.

The storm from the previous day had passed almost without evidence, though the slopes of San Jacinto above Palm Springs were noticeably whiter than I’d seen them last.  A few clouds remained high above Gorgonio Pass and Cabazon, but largely the sky was clear and the wind blew clean.  We stopped for date shakes and In n Out burgers in Cabazon, I shuffled through my pack and figured out my resupply (I bought far more food than needed), and we picnicked underneath the infamous plaster dinosaurs alongside the freeway.

When it came time for me to return to the trail, and for Susan to return to LA, she drove me to the trail, and we said goodbye.  It was hard to do, even knowing we would see each other the following weekend for another summit attempt, this one up Mt. San Gorgonio, but I still had a difficult time as we hugged each other and she drove away.

Alone again on the trail, I walked the mile up to Ziggy and the Bear’s, a trail angel house that offered a place for weary hikers to stay before heading to Big Bear.  My pack, heavy with far too much food, pulled at my shoulders, and though I debated pushing further past the house, the chance for a nice place to stay proved too alluring.

Their house stands a short distance from the trail, the American flag whipping above their yard and PCT emblem on their backyard gate beckoning hikers to join them.  When I entered I saw a dozen other hikers already there, and introduced myself to Ziggy, who asked me to wash my hands and then join her at the picnic table on the back patio.  Once I’d done so, she gave me a gatorade and set to outlining the rules of staying at her house.  It was very orderly, unexpectedly so, but I appreciated it, even admired it.  Given the sheer number of hikers each year that came to camp in their yard, I was certain that so many rules were necessary to keep the house intact, and to enable Ziggy and the Bear to continue helping hikers down the line.

San Jacinto
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

Once I’d finished talking to Ziggy, I saw Rain Man, Dundee and Narwhal, and said hi to them.  They’d been caught in the storm the night before, and had horror stories to tell of hiding under rocks to get away from the rain, losing the trail, and dodging blocks of ice falling from overburdened tree limbs above.  They told me of the sisters from Portland, Rebecca and Marisa, who had, soaked to the bone and freezing, called search and rescue and spent the night in the nearby fire station.  There was talk of hikers lost on the mountain, day hikers, we were all told, not PCT hikers.  The sheriff even came by to ask us whether we’d seen one of them.  It was scary, and I was more and more certain, the more I heard, that Susan and I had made the right choice the night before.

I set up my sleeping bag and fell asleep under the stars, eager to get back on the trail in the morning, hopeful to get out early enough to avoid the heat of the day.

I had no such luck.  Though I was up and packed early, I loitered at Ziggy and the Bear’s for close to an hour, chatting with people and thanking my hosts.  I ate an apple for breakfast, and drank orange juice, one of my chief cravings on the trail to that point, before setting out around 7:30 toward the Mesa Wind Farm.

This was one of the highlights of the trip going into it for me, a location I’d starred long before stepping foot on the trail.  Back in 2009, I shot my graduate thesis film under those very same windmills, and had often come back to them for photography purposes in the years since, not knowing that the PCT cut a path right through them.  It was an important place to me, but as I walked through them that morning, all I could think about was how hot it was, and how heavy my pack was.

I had packed too much food, I knew this, and as the elevation increased, and my will to continue decreased, I had to stop.  I crawled underneath a small bush and opened my pack, disgorging it of all my food.  I had set out with the intention of doing no-cook meals for the 3-4 days it would take me to reach Big Bear, both due to the presumed lack of water through this section, and the fact that my resupply box never made it to Idyllwild.  No-cook, I was finding, was significantly heavier than the dehydrated meals I’d been carrying to that point, with tortillas and cheese alone weighing over 2 lbs, and the homemade applesauce (raspberry honey, so tasty) that Susan had brought me probably weighed that much alone.  I’d doubled up on meals, I carried enough instant potatoes to feed me for a week, and snacks and candy that would last me close to two.  I’d overpacked, and I was now paying the price for it.

And so, sitting in the modicum of shade provided by the small juniper, I set to thinning out my load.  I ate a quart of applesauce, probably not the best idea, and half a pint of peanut butter.  I ate two Clif bars and an Epic Bar.  I shoveled trail mix into my mouth and when I couldn’t eat anymore, I put the rest of my food away and downed a half-liter of water.  All told I cut down about 3 lbs from my pack, but I didn’t feel at all good about my methods.

Out of the Wind Farm
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

As I tackled the next uphill, a thousand foot slope that felt like 4,000, I felt the fullness of my stomach, the nausea from overeating, the still significant weight pressing down on my shoulders, and the oppressive heat from the late-morning sun, all wearing me down.  When I reached the top, out of breath and exhausted, I realized, with immense sadness, that I’d only gone 3 miles to that point.  It was sad, no, it was depressing.  How was I going to make it to Big Bear?

Desert Hills
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

I pushed on, thankful for a downhill slope that lightened the strain on my aching knees and back.  The trail meandered through golden brown slopes and through a craggy ravine to the Whitewater River, and thankfully, to a flat stretch of trail that, though devoid of shade, at least enabled me to walk at an easy pace.  I stopped a few times, hoping to get another 5-6 miles in, but taking every opportunity for shade the meager foliage along the river offered.  I was hot, tired, beat up, and generally over the experience.

To Whitewater
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

I reached the crossing of the Whitewater and took off my boots, plunging them into the cold water, vestiges of the minimal winter snowmelt, and leaned back against my pack.  The water was soothing, calming, and my feet were thankful for the reprieve from the hot sand and rocks of the trail up to that point.  As I sat there, I met a German couple, section hiking for the second year in a row, intending to hike the trail for a month at a time until they finished.  We chatted and soon another hiker, KC, joined us, taking the opportunity to soak her own feet before making camp.  We chatted about the trail, about our reasons for being out there, our pasts and the cougar prints I’d found not five feet from where we sat.  It was lovely.

Whitewater River
print available at www.daturaphoto.com

Amidst the cool water, the good company, and the sinking sun, I decided to stop for the day, after only ten miles of hiking, and set up my sleeping bag for my first night of cowboy camping on the trail.  I gathered wood and built a large fire, and we all sat by it talking until it got too dark.  We turned in, the Germans to their tent, KC and I to our bags under the stars, and I fell asleep, once again thankful to be out on the trail.