Friday, March 17, 2017

Observation Point

Great White Throne, Angels Landing, and Zion Canyon from Observation Point
8 miles round trip, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Zion National Park entrance fee required, Zion Canyon shuttle to trailhead

Observation Point is aptly named: the promontory juts over 2000 feet above the floor of Utah's Zion Canyon, delivering a bird's eye view of the many great cliffs of this sandstone cathedral. Observation Point is one of two hikes that brings hikers to lofty viewpoints of Zion Canyon, but provides a slightly tamer experience than nearby Angels Landing and the extreme exposure thrills encountered on the rock scramble to that summit. Instead, this hike packs in more variety, visiting not only a scenic viewpoint but also a narrow, hanging slot canyon bordered by thousand-foot overhanging rock walls. Although this trail is longer, requires more elevaiton gain, and involves more stream crossings than Angels Landing, Observation Point is arguably the easier and more accessible hike of the two for visitors weighing a decision on which hike to do.

Hikers should be aware that when the wash in Echo Canyon is flowing, the trail navigates a section that requires either hiking directly through the wash or multiple stream crossings; water levels will vary depending on conditions upstream but were shin deep during my hike. It is also important to note that flash floods may occur in Echo Canyon during storms, so hikers should avoid this trail when heavy precipitation is predicted.

From March to October, Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles except to those with reservations for Zion Lodge. A shuttle bus runs from the park visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava, making nine stops along the way including one at Weeping Rock, where the Observation Trail starts; although this may sound inconvenient the shuttle bus has frequent service and moves reasonably fast and will save you a lot of time that you'd otherwise spend looking for parking in this incredbily popular park. The road is generally open to cars during the winter and the trailhead has parking for about 10 cars, but will occasionally be closed to cars and only open to buses on some winter weekends.

I visited on a bright blue February weekend day when enough visitors came to the park that the road was closed. I parked at the visitor center and hopped on the park shuttle bus. I rode the bus for about half an hour to Weeping Rock, which was the 7th out of 9 stops on the shuttle route. After hopping off the bus, I walked the short distance to the Weeping Rock parking lot and the trailhead for the hike.

From the parking lot, the Weeping Rock Trail led off to the left along a wash while the Observation Point Trail instead headed to the right. I followed the paved Observation Point Trail as it began an immediate ascent up a set of switchbacks.

Snowmelt from the higher elevations of the park fed the waters of the wash in Echo Canyon, creating a seasonal waterfall with a drop of at least three hundred feet at the point where the hanging canyon met the main Zion Canyon. The flow of the waterfall at Weeping Rock is a useful indicator of the water level in Echo Canyon: if flow is torrential, Echo Canyon is probably impassable and Observation Point unreachable.

Observation Point and waterfall at Weeping Rock
A series of switchbacks along the paved trail brought me higher and higher up, yielding continually broadening views of Zion Canyon. The stern rock monuments of Angels Landing and Cathedral Mountain stood across the canyon while the Virgin River curled in a wide bend around the Organ. Observation Point and the Great White Throne rose almost vertically from the vantage point of the trail.

Angels Landing, the Organ, and Cathedral Mountain
About three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, the trail for Hidden Canyon branched off to the right from the main Observation Point Trail and ascended via an aggressive set of switchbacks into the extremely narrow and, true to its name, hidden hanging canyon sandwiched between the Great White Throne and Cable Mountain. I stayed on the Observation Point Trail, which continued climbing via switchbacks until it made a turn into the narrow confines of Echo Canyon.

The trail here was blasted into the side of the canyon, first following the canyon walls high above the stream below, which flowed through a narrow slot canyon. As I continued through the canyon, the overhanging walls of Cable Mountain loomed larger and larger before me. A few hundred meters further on, the trail came to the level of the stream and made a sharp turn at the base of Cable Mountain. Here, the top of the cliff of Cable Mountain was vertically above the position of the trail. Shortly afterwards, the trail crossed the stream at a crossing with good stones for rock-hopping.

Cable Mountain rises over Echo Canyon
Immediately after the crossing, the trail suddenly died out in a narrow section of the canyon. Here, only two options were viable: wading through the stream itself, or making two successive crossings to reach the slightly less steep banks of the other side and then do a bit of acrobatic rock hopping to return to the trail. Neither option was particularly pleasant; I opted to stay dry and made the rather tricky stream crossings here. In dry weather during the summer, hikers likely won't need to deal with water in the wash and can walk along the bottom of the wash without getting wet; however, this part of the hike is potentially deadly during storms when flash floods may rip through the narrow extremes of the canyon.

Echo Canyon
Past the most difficult section of the hike, the trail began to ascend along the north side of Echo Canyon. Here, the the trail was once again blasted into the Navajo Sandstone making up the side of the canyon. The extremely steep and sheer walls of Zion Canyon are likely the reason why so few trails connect the top and bottom of the canyons: all trails and roads connecting the two have required some element of blasting into the canyon walls, something not even required at Yosemite, where there at least occasional gaps in the otherwise vertical cliffs around the Valley. Below the trail, the stream running through Echo Canyon continued to downcut through a slot canyon many times taller than it was wide.

Trail through Echo Canyon
Exiting the narrowest section of the canyon, the trail began climbing higher and higher above the stream, at one point crossing a bridge over a side canyon as it made its way into the higher reaches of Echo Canyon.

Upper Echo Canyon
The vegetation halfway up the canyon was different from that at the bottom of the canyon: manzanita was common at this mid-level elevation. This manzanita-dominated shrubbery was also quite different from the sagebrush that covered the landscape atop the mesas.

Manzanita along the trail
At the two-mile mark, the trail reached a branch point between the Observation Point Trail and the East Rim Trail, with the less-travelled East Rim Trail heading off to the right into the reaches of upper Echo Canyon. I stayed on the Observation Point Trail, which started a long switchback climb up the upper portion of the White Cliffs. This stretch of trail featured nice views to the east of the more open terrain of the upper part of Echo Canyon.

Echo Canyon
After an extended switchback ascent blasted into an east-facing slope, the trail straightened out and began heading west. Making a turn around a ridge, the trail swung back into the main canyon with a tremendous and jaw-dropping view of Cable Mountain, the Great White Throne, and the Virgin River flowing along the floor of Zion Canyon.

View of Zion Canyon during final climb
From here on, there were nearly continuous views of Zion Canyon. The trail leveled out after reaching the top of the layer of Navajo Sandstone that defined the canyon walls, with one section of trail hugging the canyon rim as I hiked through a narrow bench between the Navajo Sandstone and Temple Cap formations. After passing a hillock defined by a Temple Cap layer, the trail came out onto a flat mesa top. The trail flattened out about a mile prior to reaching Observation Point.

Atop the mesa near Observation Point
Once atop the mesa, the trail stayed slightly north of the rim of Echo Canyon as it made its way towards the promontory of Observation Point. At the junction with the East Mesa Trail, I took the left fork to stay on the trail to Observation Point. Finally, four miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the spectacular rock ledges of the hike's destination.

This spot on the canyon rim offered a nearly perfect vantage point south down the main trunk of Zion Canyon. The park road and the Virgin River both snaked along the wide bottom of the canyon, while the impressive rocks of the Great White Throne, Angels Landing, the Watchman, and the Sentinel that towered above the canyon floor were at eye-level. The full length of the remarkable narrow fin of Angels Landing was discernable from this perspective.

Great White Throne and Zion Canyon from Observation Point
A few rocks on the western edge of Observation Point offered somewhat limited views to the north as well of the narrowing canyon, while those on the eastern side of the viewpoint overlooked Echo Canyon. The many switchbacks along the early part of the trail were visible far below.

View north towards Temple of Sinawava
Although it's not Angels Landing or the Narrows, Observation Point is still one of the more popular hikes in Zion: I saw about a hundred or so hikers on the trail over the course of the day. The good views from the top and the intimate passage through Echo Canyon make this a worthwhile hike in a visit to the park.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Iceberg Lake

Iceberg Lake
10 miles, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; this hike would be an easy-moderate if not for the distance
Access: Paved but poorly maintained road to trailhead; Glacier National Park entrance fee

Iceberg Lake is exactly what the name suggests: a gem of a lake in Glacier National Park's Many Glacier region that is studded with startlingly blue icebergs early each summer. The lake is set in a deep cirque, bordered on three sides by the rugged cliffs of the Continental Divide. In winter, avalanches roaring down the walls of Iceberg Peak build deep snowdrifts on the shores of Iceberg Lake; these snowdrifts consolidate into ice over the course of the winter and spring. When summer finally arrives and the lake thaws, the built-up ice at the foot of Iceberg Peak calves a steady stream of blue ice into the lake. Even in poor weather, the lake is a magical place where one can sit and watch the random walks of various icebergs through the lake. The hike to the lake is quite straightforward: despite being a longer 10 miles round trip, the grades on the trail are relatively gentle and there are no major obstacles en route.

Iceberg Lake and the entirety of Glacier National Park are grizzly country. While I did not encounter any grizzly bears on my hike, grizzlies are often spotted in the Many Glacier area. Most grizzly encounters are resolved when bears leave the scene to avoid confrontation, but grizzlies can be extremely dangerous as well. You should come prepared with bear spray; if possible, avoid hiking alone and stick to hiking on trails during the higher traffic daylight hours. Few visitors have problematic grizzly encounters, but serious incidents do happen: just a week prior to my visit to the park, a grizzly bear killed a cyclist near the western side of the park.

I first heard of Iceberg Lake while flipping through National Geographic's Guide to the National Parks when I was in middle school; the idea of a lake set in a stony cirque filled with glowing blue ice captured my imagination. A decade and a half later, I finally found myself back in Glacier National Park, 22 years after Glacier National Park became the first national park I visited as a kid. While I planned visits to more famous destinations on this trip, such as Granite Park Chalet and Crypt Lake, I knew I couldn't come this far and not see Iceberg Lake. So on the last day of my stay in Glacier, despite ominous clouds that signaled the impending threat of rain, I set out from Many Glacier in search of the Promised Lake.

The trailhead for Iceberg Lake is behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in the Many Glacier section of Montana's Glacier National Park. Glacier National Park is a long way from any major city, so presumably you know your way to Many Glacier if you've taken the time to travel this far. The actual trailhead starts from the loop around the motel rooms behind the main building of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, but parking there is limited so I encourage you to park instead in the main parking lot in front of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. From the Motor Inn, signs direct hikers along the road among the Motor Inn motel units to the actual trailhead. Two trails departed from this trailhead: the one leading left headed towards Swiftcurrent Pass, while the trail to the right headed towards Iceberg and Ptarmigan Lakes. I started on the trail to the right.

The trail started in the forest but soon passed through some semi-open spaces with meadows interspersed with woods. After a little bit of uphill climbing, I came to a trail intersection 0.3 miles uphill from the trailhead. The right fork led towards Swiftcurrent Lake, so I took the left fork instead, which aimed for Iceberg and Ptarmigan Lakes.

For a little more than the next mile, the trail traversed meadow-filled slopes above the forested floor of the valley of Wilbur Creek. Although clouds obscured the summits of the Continental Divide, there were still good views of the fin of Mount Wilbur, the spires of the Ptarmigan Wall, and the ridgeline connecting Grinnell Point to Mount Grinnell.

Mount Wilbur and Ptarmigan Wall
These meadows were dotted with a mixture of wildflowers found on the Great Plains and those found in alpine meadows. The plentiful fleabane here seemed similar to those found on the meadows along Lake Sherburne and at Two Dog Flats near St. Mary's, while paintbrush was a transplant from higher elevation meadows. The elevation gain was very gentle throughout this stretch of the hike, making it both scenic and easy.

Trailside wildflowers
The trail reentered the forest for the next mile, maintaining a mild uphill grade. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail approached Ptarmigan Creek and I heard the roar to Ptarmigan Falls, where the creek dropped down into a gorge cut into the sedimentary layers of the mountain. There were unfortunately no good viewpoints of the falls, but there was a nice spot to view the clear, tumbling waters of Ptarmigan Creek just upriver of the falls.

Ptarmigan Creek
The trail crossed a bridge over the creek and came to the last trail junction of the hike: here, the trails to Iceberg and Ptarmigan Lakes separated. I took the left fork to stay on the route to Iceberg Lake.

The trail embarked on a slightly more aggressive uphill climb through the forest in the next two-thirds mile past Ptarmigan Falls, although even here the grades were never too challenging. At this end of this uphill stretch, the trail emerged into alpine meadows on the south slopes of the Ptarmigan Wall and stayed out in the open for more or less the rest of the hike. Although I couldn't see the summits of the surrounding mountains, the alpine scenery here was still beautiful, with views of rocky ridges and forests down the Wilbur Creek Valley and of waterfalls tumbling down from the cirque below the headwall formed by Mount Wilbur, Iceberg Peak, and the Ptarmigan Wall.

Beargrass and Swiftcurrent Valley
Wildflowers dotted the meadows along the trail; two flowers were especially notable. Yellow columbine was in full bloom and the bulbous tops of blooming beargrass were large enough not only to be spotted along the trail, but also in the meadows across the valley.

Iceberg Lake Trail
Two miles past the trail junction at Ptarmigan Falls, the trail entered the cirque at the head of the Iceberg Creek valley and crossed a bridge over the creek.

Iceberg Creek flowing out from Iceberg Lake
Past Iceberg Creek, the trail continued through open meadows dotted with glacier lilies past a small tarn with beautiful blue-green water.

Small tarn before Iceberg Lake
After passing the tarn, the trail ascended briefly to the top of a low ridge, where Iceberg Lake finally came into view. The lake filled the back of a deep cirque, where stony headwalls rose nearly three thousand feet above the water, disappearing into the clouds. Ice hanging on the side of the cliff and along the lakeside fed scattered icebergs in the lake itself.

First view of Iceberg Lake
I followed the trail down to the lakeside and then took a walk west (to the right) along the shoreline. While most of the icebergs in the lake were concentrated on the far side, a few had floated across the lake and were beached in the shallow waters near the eastern shoreline of the lake. A number of small, black birds- perhaps they were swallows- were perched amongst the icebergs; from time to time, I saw them rapidly flying between bergs, their dark forms constrasting with the white and blue of the ice.

Iceberg Lake
At the time of the park's founding, the icebergs in Iceberg Lake were the result of actual glacial calving: a glacier at the head of the cirque shed ice into the lake from its terminus each summer. That glacier has since disappeared, leaving no permanent moving ice at the lake. The retreat of this glacier is not unique: Glacier National Park was home to 150 glaciers at its founding, but today just 25 remain. In fact, park climatologists have suggested that the remaining glaciers in the park may all vanish in the next two decades based on current retreat and warming trends. These glaciers are victims of climate change: changes in temperature and snowpack at Glacier National Park have made permanent icefields non-viable at this combination of altitude and latitude. The park founded for its magnificent glaciers will soon have none: even a best case scenario emissions reductions from international climate agreements will not sufficiently slow warming to prevent the remaining glaciers from becoming toast.

I walked to the far north end of the lake, where small icebergs congregated at the lake's outlet. From here, I had an excellent view along the impressive barrier of the Ptarmigan Wall. Even though the glaciers of this part of the Rockies are beating an unstoppable retreat, the geologic legacy they leave behind- one of aretes, horns, moraines, and cirques- remain an essential part of this beautiful, glacier-carved landscape.

Ptarmigan Wall
While I was at the lake, it began to rain somewhat heavily, a rain that continued for the rest of the time during my hike. I want to briefly address the issue of using an umbrella while hiking. Many hiking purists likely find umbrellas to be somehow morally objectionable or heinous; I have no such reservations. While appropriate rain gear (a waterproof jacket and rain pants) is absolutely critical for any sort of outdoor adventure, an umbrella can provide additional water protection that can leave a rain jacket as a second line of defense. Umbrellas are typically only useful when wind conditions are not too strong, a criterion satisfied by the weather on the day of my hike. I sat by the lakeshore under my umbrella, gazing at and appreciating the icebergs until a hungry stomach called me onto the trail back to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Along the way, my umbrella kept me dry amidst a steady stream of soaked hikers.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Angels Landing

Angels Landing
5 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; extreme exposure in final rock scramble
Access: Zion National Park entrance fee required, Zion Canyon shuttle to trailhead

The name "Angels Landing" occupies an almost hallowed place in American hiking. The hike/scramble route to the top of this precarious sandstone fin in the heart of Utah's Zion Canyon is one of the most celebrated trails on the continent for both its stunning views of Zion and for the spine-tingling thrills of the route itself. In the last half mile of the hike, steel chains guide a rock scramble along a narrow ridge with thousand-foot dropoffs on either side, leading to a lofty destination high above the Virgin River with nonpariel views of the great walls and cliffs of Navajo Sandstone carved out by the river below. This is a popular hike because it is an extraordinary hike; both for solitude and to ensure safety through the rock scramble sections, I recommend that you visit very early in the day to avoid the masses that ascend the rock during regular tourist hours.

The dangers of Angels Landing should not be underestimated. Many hikers attempt to summit Angels Landing without sufficient water or appropriate footwear. Wear hiking boots. If you don't have shoes with good traction, realize that at multiple points along the trail, your solid footing will be the only thing preventing you from a freefall down to the Virgin River. At least fifteen hikers have died from falls on this trail; a solo hiker died after plunging off Angels Landing into Refrigerator Canyon less than a week after my visit. Hiking when there are fewer people on the fin also helps ensure safety: many parts of the rock scramble do not easily allow for two-way traffic, so it's much better to handle those parts of the hike without constantly battling a stream of hikers going the other direction. If you do not feel comfortable with rock scrambling or you have a strong fear of heights, it would be extremely foolish to try to venture past Scout Lookout towards the summit. Do not attempt to summit Angels Landing when conditions are wet or icy or when lightning is likely.

From March to October, Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles except to those with reservations for Zion Lodge. A shuttle bus runs from the park visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava, making nine stops along the way including one at the Grotto, where the Angels Landing Trail starts; although this may sound inconvenient the shuttle bus has frequent service and moves reasonably fast and will save you a lot of time that you'd otherwise spend looking for parking in this incredbily popular park. The road is generally open to cars during the winter and the trailhead has parking for over 50 cars, but will occasionally be closed to cars and only open to buses on some winter weekends.

I drove to the trailhead on an early Monday morning, taking the road north into the park from Springdale just as the first hints of light began arriving in the dawn skies. I drove up the canyon and parked at the Grotto and started up the trail before sunrise.

The trail started on the west side of the Grotto parking area. I immediately crossed a bridge spanning the Virgin River and came to a junction between the West Rim and Kayenta Trails. The Kayenta Trail headed southwest towards Emerald Pools, so I took the right fork for the flat West Rim Trail towards Angels Landing.

The next three-quarters of trail were fairly flat as I hiked along the winding Virgin River. Towering walls of Navajo Sandstone rose around me on all sides. The most impressive of these stone faces was Angels Landing itself, a great monolith rising in the middle of the canyon. Observation Point and the Great White Throne were other notable and impressive rock features nearby.

Angels Landing and Observation Point rise above the Virgin River
The Navajo Sandstone of the walls of canyon form the main component of the White Cliffs of the Grand Staircase, a geological wonder stretching across the multi-layered Colorado Plateau all the way to the Grand Canyon. The many sedimentary layers of the Grand Staircase were laid tens of millions of years ago when this landscape was partially or completely submerged by a sea that filled the interior of the North American continent. The red and white Navajo Sandstone formed from the lithification of great sand dunes.

Vegetation in the canyon- and in the park in general- was quite varied. Juniper lined the trail, patches of prickly pear were scattered across the canyon floor, and I found copious sagebrush at higher elevations. A few days earlier, I had noticed creosote growing in the park outside the canyon; the presence of both creosote and sagebrush highlighted the ecological transition zones present in the park between the creosote-covered Mojave Desert and the sagebrush lands of the Great Basin.

Prickly pear in Zion Canyon
After a half-mile of flat hiking along the Virgin River, the trail began a gradual ascent up the lower slopes of Cathedral Mountain with the help of some switchbacks. Ahead, the trail seemed to be approaching a hanging canyon separated from the main Zion Canyon by an impassable rock wall. It was initially unclear to me how the trail would overcome this serious obstacle. The solution, it turned out, was a path blasted into the wall, with sandstone overhanging the trail through the cliff. Views from this part of the hike were already quite impressive: looking south, I could see a line of sandstone mountains rising from the canyon floor, including the Watchman in the distance and the Great White Throne directly across the canyon.

Angels Landing Trail
At the top of the cliff, the trail crossed a bridge and entered Refrigerator Canyon, about a mile from the trailhead. This narrow canyon has been cut between Cathedral Mountain and Angels Landing. The wash in Refrigerator Canyon was dry during my visit but presumably could flash flood during storms. The paved trail paralleled the wash through the cool and forested canyon.

Refrigerator Canyon
I noticed multiple small caves in the sandstone to the right of the trail. I was unsure whether these caves naturally formed in the Navajo Sandstone or whether they were created by blasting as part of constructing the trail, but either way I found them to be unexpectedly beautiful; the walls of the small caves seemed to give off their own light on that overcast morning.

Sandstone cave in Refrigerator Canyon
Towards the end of Refrigerator Canyon, the trail began to climb up the east wall of the canyon away from the wash. The grade here was fairly steep, becoming steeper as the trail made a few sharp switchbacks blasted into the rock face. As the trail rounded the fifth switchback, I found myself at the base of a series of extremely short, steep switchbacks blasted into the wall of Angels Landing. These were Walter's Wiggles: a set of twenty tight switchbacks set into the cliff that solve the problem of bringing a trail up the sheer walls of Angels Landing. The Wiggles are named after early Zion Park superintendent Walter Ruesch, who ordered the construction of the switchbacks so that visitors would have a way of accessing the views of Angels Landing. Impressively, Reusch designed these masonry-enforced switchbacks up the canyon walls without an engineering background. This is the steepest section of paved trail on this hike; while some trail guides describe this section of trail as being difficult, frequent hikers will find the grades of the Wiggles to be fairly standard fare.

Walter's Wiggles
Atop the Wiggles, the trail straightened out and soon arrived atop the narrow ridge connecting Angels Landing with the western wall of the canyon. The West Rim Trail split from the Angels Landing Trail here; two outhouses have been placed near the trail junction. A short metal railing marks the location of Scout Lookout, a viewpoint down into the canyon below and the turn-around point for many hikers who choose not to tackle the final scramble to Angels Landing.

Here, the Angels Landing Trail headed off to the south along the narrow ridge. A sign at the start of the scramble warned hikers of the risks ahead. The chains started right away, with the trail cut into the cliff face overlooking Refrigerator Canyon. The route was Class 3 scrambling, made substantially safer by the presence of the chains and footholds etched into the rock. However, the exposure on the route was still quite extreme and should be approached with much caution. It's particularly important to be patient with traffic at extremely narrow sections of trail: many areas are not wide enough to accomodate passing or two-way traffic.

Ridge scramble along Angels Landing
The trail emerged on an intermediate summit before the final climb that provided a jaw-dropping view of the fin of Angels Landing rising directly from the Virgin River below, with the towers of Zion's eastern wall rising across the canyon. Past this summit, the trail entered some of its most hair-raising segments, crossing a two-foot wide sandstone isthumus with drops of a thousand feet on both sides.

Ridge scramble on the way to Angels Landing
The final ascent was a constant scramble up the spine of the fin with constant views and continuous thrills from the precarious nature of the path itself.

Scramble route
It took me about half an hour to complete the half-mile rock scramble from Scout Lookout to the summit of Angels Landing- importantly, this time estimate came from a hike in which I ran into few other hikers and no traffic at chokepoints along the scramble.

Looking back along the fin of Angels Landing
Once atop the summit fin of Angels Landing, I followed the sandstone spine to its southern end and enjoyed views over the canyon. Observation Point and the Great White Throne lay directly across the canyon, with the Virgin River making two huge, sweeping bends around the Organ directly below. A temporary waterfall, fed by melting snow in the park's higher elevations, plunged hundreds of feet down the sandstone walls at Weeping Rock. Strong winds whipping through the canyon caused the waterfall to dance around and also made prolonged sitting at the summit of Angels Landing a somewhat cold affair.

Observation Point, the Organ, and the bends of the Virgin River
Waterfall at Weeping Rock and the Observation Point Trail
My favorite part of the view was to the north: here, the canyon walls came closer and closer together until they almost appeared to meet north of the Temple of Sinawava. There, the Virgin River emerged from the Narrows, where the wide Zion Canyon becomes a slit just a few meters wide sliced into the Navajo Sandstone. The canyon is narrow where the river still slices through the Navajo formation: this tough rock can easily form vertical cliffs. However, the underlying Kayenta formation is much softer; when the Virgin River cuts into the Kayenta formation, it erodes it much more easily, which causes the collapse of Navajo sandstone blocks above the hollowed out Kayenta layers; this mechanism is responsible for Zion's unique combination of sheer walls and a wide river canyon south of Angels Landing.

The Virgin River exiting the Narrows
View down canyon from Angels Landing
Zion's steep cliffs and wide canyon floor are remniscent of another renowned national park. In many ways, Zion Canyon seemed like a sandstone Yosemite with fewer waterfalls. However, while Yosemite's distinct U-shape and steep walls were the result of glacial erosion, Zion's U-shape derives from its unique geology.

Great White Throne
By the time I started my descent, midday hikers were already setting out up the trail. Luckily, I managed to get back to Scout Lookout before the main pack of hikers reached the scramble. I passed well over fifty hikers on my way from Scout Lookout back to the parking lot; I was glad I didn't have to be on the chained section as the same time as all the other hikers that day. Setting out early on this classic and deservedly-renowned hike certainly paid off.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Goose Rock

Olympic Mountains and Whidbey Island shoreline from Goose Rock
3 miles loop, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

Goose Rock is the highest point on Washington State's Whidbey Island, making it a good location to survey the mountains and waterways in and around the Salish Sea. This hike visits the summit of Goose Rock in a loop around Deception Pass State Park. Goose Rock is a particularly good hike in the winter and spring months, as it's usually snow-free when the higher peaks of the Cascades and Olympics are snowbound. I combined this hike with a visit to the nearby Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, a unique floral display in the farms outside Mount Vernon each April.

I hiked this trail with my mom during one of her April visits to Seattle. We set out from Seattle early in the morning to beat the crowds at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, arriving at the opening hours of one of the two main tulip display gardens in the Skagit Valley near Mount Vernon. We spent the early part of the day exploring the Skagit Valley, dropping by La Conner for brunch after checking out the tulips. If you're heading over to the Goose Rock Trailhead at Deception Pass directly from Seattle, the most straightforward way is to follow I-5 north to exit 230 in Burlington, following Highway 20 west across the Swinomish Channel onto Fidalgo Island. At the branch point for Highway 20 just south of Anacortes, we took the left turn to follow Highway 20 towards Whidbey Island, then continued on that route until crossing the Deception Pass bridge. Soon after crossing the bridge, we took a turn on the right to enter Deception Pass State Park; once in the park, we made another right turn and followed the road to the parking lot at its end.

Tulips at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival
The trailhead is just uphill from Macs Cove. Two paths led out from the parking lot, the left branch heading down to the water and the right branch making its way uphill instead. We followed the trail on the right out of the parking lot. This trail quickly began gaining elevation as it climbed up and around the north side of a hill, with good views of Deception Pass and nearby islands just minutes from the parking area.

Deception Pass and Lighthouse Point
Immediately past the initial clearings on the trail came the Deception Pass Bridge. The trail passed beneath the bridge, with staircases ascending from the trail to pedestrian walkways on either side of the bridge. The Deception Pass Bridge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the construction boom funded by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal; the bridge, which is actually two separate spans connecting Pass Island to Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands. It's an impressive engineering statement, but today it is perhaps better loved for the excellent views of the Cascades and the San Juans from the bridge's pedestrian walkways. Visiting the top of the bridge requires slightly more elevation gain than reported in the hike description above.

Deception Pass Bridge
Deception Pass is the very narrow and turbulent waterway separating Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island and the Washington mainland. During British explorer George Vancouver's forays into the Salish Sea, his crew initially thought Whidbey Island to be a peninsula after earlier explorations of the Saratoga Passage. It was after exploring Deception Pass itself with small craft and coming to the realization that Skagit Bay connected out to the Salish Sea here that Vancouver bestowed the name "Deception" for the narrow strait's role in deceiving Vancouver about the area's true geography.

Soon after we passed under the bridge, we arrived at a junction for two trails, both of which eventually to the Goose Rock summit. We took the trail to the left, opting to take the longer route to the highest point on Whidbey Island.

For the next half mile, the trail traversed east along the forested slopes of Goose Rock, generally staying high above the waters of Deception Pass below. As the trail swung south at the eastern edge of the island, it also neared the shoreline, staying just above a rocky beach with views of the waters of Deception Pass. Here, we followed a spur trail down to the beach itself for nice views of Mount Baker.

Mount Baker from beach near trail
The trail continued along the east shore of the island, staying just above the beach. While the official trail never came down to the beach, numerous use paths led down to the water, so we made frequent side trips down to the beach for views of Mount Baker, the waters of Deception Pass, and Ben Ure Island, a private island just a stone's throw from the beach.

Ben Ure Island
After a third of a mile along the island's eastern shore, the trail began to climb away from the shoreline up a grassy slope. The meadows here were a lush green and filled with blooming spring lowland wildflowers.

Spring wildflowers bloom near the trail
The trail itself rounded the southeastern ridge of Goose Rock and came to open, grassy south-facing slopes above Cornet Bay. The scenery here seemed almost remniscent of New England with a tidy marina, a small village, and an evergreen forest reaching the shoreline of shimmering water. The southern shore of Cornet Bay lies outside Deception Pass State Park.

Cornet Bay
Numerous madronas lined the shoreline below the grassy slope. Madrone trees are quite common on Whidbey Island and throughout the San Juan Islands, which lie in the rainshadow of the Olympic Mountains and are generally drier than most other parts of Western Washington. Madronas are generally more drought tolerant than other trees in the Western Washington forests, making them suitable to the drier climates of the islands and Vancouver Island; while the Pacific madrone is found only on the west coast of the United States, related madrone varieties are able to survive in desert conditions such as those found in Texas's Big Bend. Madronas are notable for both their sinewy trunks and their peeling bark.

Madrona near the trail at Cornet Bay
The trail descended back down to the level of Cornet Bay before coming to a trail junction between a trail heading towards Cornet Bay and one headed up Goose Rock. Here, I took the right fork, which led to a switchback climb towards Goose Rock. The trail switchbacked continuously as it climbed over 480 feet from the waterside at Cornet Bay to the summit of Goose Rock. Along the way, the trail climbed from forest slopes to the more open and grassy upper reaches of Goose Rock while passing under a set of transmissions towers.

Two miles from the trailhead, we arrived at the top of Goose Rock. The summit was quite wide, with two rocky viewpoints spaced over a hundred meters apart. The first of these viewpoints had okay views of Cascade peaks to the east, including the always prominent Three Fingers.

The second, western rock outcrop had much better views. From here, we could look south over the waters of Cranberry Lake to the rolling green farmland of northern Whidbey Island and the planes taking off and landing at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The blue waters of the Salish Sea separated Whidbey Island form the Olympic Peninsula; the Olympic Mountains formed a wall on the horizon, with prominent peaks in the northeastern part of the range such as Mount Constance and Mount Townsend vaguely identifiable from this distance.

View south from Goose Rock
To the west was tiny Deception Island and then the many scattered islands of the San Juans. Although there are many hundreds of islands in the San Juans, the main island visible from Goose Rock is Lopez Island, the southeasternmost of the San Juans. The San Juans are geographically and geologically related to the Southern Gulf Islands in British Columbia; the distinction in naming is due mainly to their locations on separate sides of the maritime boundary here.

San Juan Islands from Goose Rock
After leaving the summit, the trail descended in a direct fashion down the northwest side of Goose Rock until it rejoined the trail that we had come up on at the base of the Deception Pass Bridge. From here, we followed the trail on which we had come back down to the parking area. Before returning to Seattle, we made a short detour from the trailhead down the other path leading from the parking area to the beach at Macs Cove. The beach here provided an excellent view of the narrow straits bounded on both side by rocky island slopes.

Deception Pass from Macs Cove
We watched the later day sunlight dance on the calm waters of the sea before returning to our car and then heading back to Seattle. Deception Pass State Park is a beautiful state park with some of the more impressive coastal scenery in the state; Goose Rock is a good, easy, and family-friendly hike to explore the highlights of this Washington State state park.

Sunlight on the water at Macs Cove