Saturday, April 29, 2017

Veach Gap

Bend in the Shenandoah River, with Dickey Ridge and Compton Peak rising in the distance
7 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, small trailhead parking lot, no fee for access

Veach Gap is one of the more enjoyable day hikes at the northern end of Massanutten Mountain, requiring just a little effort to reach a sweeping view of Page Valley and the wide meanders of the South Fork Shenandoah River. Equally impressive are the exposed geologic folds of the Massanutten synclinorium seen along the way; in a state where most geologic features are buried beneath layers of soil and sediment, this is a rare chance to see the bones of Massanutten Mountain. Although the hike is called Veach Gap, the destination is actually the ridgeline of the eastern ridge of Massanutten Mountain; the trail passes through Veach Gap, a water gap through one of the Massanutten Mountain's parallel ridges, in the first mile of the hike. The trail is rocky at times but is generally not too difficult, as the 1100 feet of elevation gain are very evenly spread out over the course of the trail.

I hiked this trail with a geologist friend who I had known since elementary school; we left Fredericksburg early morning and followed US 17 north past Opal and Warrenton to its junction with I-66 near Great Meadow. We then followed I-66 west to exit 6. The weather was overcast and still a little drizzly when we left Fredericksburg in the morning, but the clouds cleared up as we passed through Manassas Gap and by the time we were near Front Royal we were out in the sun. Leaving I-66 at exit 6, we followed US 340 south towards Front Royal, crossing the North Fork Shenandoah bridge and then turning right onto VA Route 55 and following it towards Strasburg. We continued west on Route 55 until we came to the turnoff for Fort Valley Road; here we made a left turn and followed the narrow road to the foot of Massanutten Mountain. Fort Valley Road then followed the narrow, wild water gap which Passage Creek has cut into the mountain through the northern end of the mountain and into Fort Valley. We then proceeded south into Fort Valley for about 10 miles, turning left onto Veach Gap Road (Route 774). We followed Veach Gap Road across a small, narrow bridge and continued along the road for a mile as it turned to gravel; we parked at the unmarked trailhead, where two roads branched off and the right road widened into a small parking area.

The trail started by following the road just downhill from the parking area, heading east. The old road led through the forest; the trees were all small enough that it was clear nothing here was remotely near old growth. The trail ascended slightly as it approached the foot of Massanutten Mountain; as the trail began to enter the narrow water breach of Veach Gap, it began to follow Mill Run, a small stream that had carved this gap into the mountain.

Mill Run flows through Veach Gap
The trail was soon sandwiched between the two mountain walls rising on either side of the gap. At the center of the gap, about a mile from the trailhead, the trail crossed Mill Run- be sure to watch for blazes on the other side of the stream here to stay on the trail.

Near the stream crossing, I found signs of life in the otherwise barren winter landscape: a puffball fungus sprouted out of the forest floor near the trail.
Just a few hundred feet past the crossing of Mill Run, my friend and I came to an exposed fold of the mountain. The Ridge and Valley Appalachians- of which Massanutten Mountain is a part- are a series of parallel folded mountains. Imagine laying a sheet of paper on a flat surface, then pushing in on the sheet from opposite ends. The paper bulges up and out- sometimes in a series of parallel folds. Compressive plate tectonic regimes created a similar effect in the Ridge and Valley Appalachians. Here at Veach Gap, one of the folds of the mountains was exposed, providing remarkable evidence of the mountain's formation history.

Fold in the Massanutten synclinorium
Continuining onward, we hiked through Veach Gap and into the valley on the far side. The trail came to an intersection with the Massanutten/Tuscarora Trail, blazed orange for the Massanutten and blue for the Tuscarora. We took the left fork at this intersection, heading north up a valley. The blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail is a little-known sibling of the Appalachian Trail that offers an alternate route through the Valley and Ridge from Shenandoah up to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Also near the trail intersection, we found an abandoned shack that was likely once a stream gauge station for Mill Run.

The next two miles of the hike were uneventful as we followed the hollow of Mill Run up towards the stream's source; unfortunately, the trail was removed from the bottom of the hollow and never really followed the run itself. There were occasional views through the trees of the ridge to our east, the trail tread was often rocky, and at one point we passed a nice campsite, but there was little else to comment on.

At about three miles into the hike, the trail reached the head of the hollow and made a turn and began climbing up the other side of the hollow. Even here, as the hike entered its final ascent, the grades were not too difficult. At a switchback, we had some partially obscured views to the southwest of Veach Gap, Fort Valley, and the western ridge of Massanutten Mountain.

View of Fort Valley and Massanutten Mountain from the trail
After the switchback, the trail continued a steady but not difficult ascent until it reached the ridge. Following the ridgeline, we could see the exposed layers of the Massanutten Mountain syncline at many points. The trail tread was quite rocky along the ridgetop.

One tree along the ridge had an impressive collection of fungi growing on its trunk.

Some sort of polypore growing on a tree
Ridgetop trail at the turnoff for the main viewpoint
The main viewpoint of the hike came near the end of the hike along the ridge: a small, unmarked spur headed off to the right from the trail and led to a ledge with a good view of the Page Valley. The Blue Ridge Mountains- here, the peaks of Shenandoah National Park's North District- lay across the valley from us, with Skyline Drive visible as it cut its way up Dickey Ridge towards Compton Peak and Mount Marshall. The many-humped summit of Hogback was visible further to the south. In the valley below, the South Fork Shenandoah River meandered through enormous snaking bends, with at least five of its wide turns visible from this viewpoint.

The Blue Ridge rises above the bends in the South Fork Shenandoah River
To the north, we spotted the town of Front Royal at the foot of Dickey Ridge. Farther north, we could see the smaller ridges that composed the Blue Ridge north of Manassas Gap; the view of the Valley continued north, too, past the point where the North and South Fork Shenandoah Rivers converged.

Front Royal
After enjoying the view, we continued a little further along the trail, reaching a second viewpoint with a campsite and a fire pit. The view here was equally as enjoyable, with a bit less visible to the north and a bit more visible to the south. We were disappointed, however, to find that campers who had been at the site the night before had failed to fully put out their fire before leaving. Don't do this! Extinguish your embers before you leave a campsite!

On our return hike, odd weather returned and it hailed briefly as we made a quick return to the trailhead. All in all, this is a recommendable hike: the views from the top are good and the geology en route is interesting.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Legacy of the Antiquities Act

Looting at Chaco Canyon's Pueblo Bonito spurred Edgar Lee Hewett to call for the passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act
In 1901, Richard and Marietta Wetherill filed for a homestead in the forgotten, barren landscape of New Mexico's Chaco Canyon. Their claim covered some low, dusty sandstone cliffs, a saltbrush-choked wash, and the single most significant archaeological site in the United States. Instead of farming his homestead claim, Richard Wetherill set up a trading post that sold stolen artifacts from Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, two great houses that formed the heart of the Ancestral Pueblo civilization.

Between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries, the Ancestral Pueblo had built the equivalent of a city in the canyon, complete with houses five stories tall containing hundreds of rooms and communal worship areas, or kivas, that could hold hundreds. The people of Chaco completed hundreds of miles of roads leading out from the canyon to points across the Four Corners area and traded with societies as far away as what is today Mexico. Through their intimate knowledge of the skies, Chaco astronomers recorded supernovas and Chaco architects aligned their sturdily built masonry buildings with the cardinal directions. By the fourteenth century, a variety of factors, potentially including a changing climate and the arrival of hostile neighbors, had driven the Ancestral Pueblo people from the canyon, leaving behind their stunning architecture and achievements.

Wetherill had come to Chaco Canyon from Colorado's Mesa Verde; as the first European American settler to report the existence of Mesa Verde's spectacular Cliff Palace, Wetherill took the work of excavating the site into his own hands. He partnered with Gustaf Nordenskiold, a Swedish scholar passing through Colorado, to explore and document Mesa Verde's abandoned cliff dwellings. While Nordenskiold helped instruct Wetherill how to properly excavate and document the site, he also decided to load a boxcar full of artifacts from the excavation and send it back to Europe. The looters that followed had fewer academic qualifications for conducting archaelogical digs but were no less greedy in ransacking the extraordinary cultural heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

In the late 1890s, Wetherill participated in an excavation at Chaco with the Hyde Expedition, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and led by the New York archaeologist George Pepper. While the group's work was undoubtedly academic in intent, culturally significant artifacts from the Chaco great houses still found their way out of the canyon and into the hands of private collectors around the country. This infuriated Edgar Lee Hewett, the president of the New Mexico Normal School (today the New Mexico Highlands University), who saw the need for federal protection to preserve the former dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people throughout the Southwest. Despite a scant background in archaeology and anthropology, Hewett was fascinated by the dwellings found on New Mexico's Pajarito Plateau and by the evidence of a civilization at Chaco. In 1902, Hewett introduced the preservation-minded Iowa congressman John Lacey to some of the archaeological sites in the Southwest, which convinced Lacey of the necessity of a process to protect these sites.

Legislative efforts to prevent plunder at Southwestern archaeological sites had started a few years earlier, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had helped draft a bill that would limit archaeological excavations to qualified academic institutions. In the following years, numerous bills with similar intent were introduced to Congress but none were passed. Hewett's vision, however, was broader than simply placing restrictions on who could conduct archaeological digs: in 1905, Hewett drafted a bill that would grant the executive branch the power to set aside land of scientific or historic interest for preservation. Lacey, the Chairman of the Committee on Public Lands, introduced the bill to the Fifty-ninth Congress as HR 11016 in January of 1906; in June, the House and Senate passed the bill without much debate and President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law on June 8, 1906. The passage of the act was not noteworthy at the time; I've not been able to find any mention of it in the New York Times' archives.

The heart of the new law was a sentence that would reshape the course of American public land policy:
"That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected."           
Although generally unknown to today's public, the Antiquities Act has since become a monumental piece of legislation and perhaps the single most important land preservation act in American history. One key line of the legislation grants the President of the United States unilateral power to preserve federal land as a national monument, provided that the protected area is historically or scientifically important. National monuments have strict regulations against removing any natural or cultural objects; this regulation was essential for protecting the archaeological sites of the Southwest. Additionally, resource extraction is prohibited in national monuments, although recent monument designations have allowed for existing mining claims and grazing leases to be grandfathered in.

Within a year of the act's passage, Theodore Roosevelt designated Chaco Canyon National Monument, providing federal protection of the canyon's rich archaeological resources and ending the looting of the ancient pueblos. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson designated Bandelier National Monument on the Pajarito Plateau to protect the tuff cave dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo that were near and dear to Hewett's heart. Over the next century, the Antiquities Act was invoked many times to protect Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites throughout the Southwest- it is because of this act that remote cliff dwellings such as Keet Seel and the White House Ruin are today preserved in Navajo and Canyon de Chelly National Monuments. Aztec Ruins, Chimney Rock, Hovenweep, Wupatki, Tuzigoot, and Canyon of the Ancients are only some of the many national monuments designated using the act that today preserve a piece of the Southwest's cultural heritage.

Alcove House, one of the Ancestral Pueblo dwellings on the Pajarito Plateau, was protected in Bandelier National Monument by Woodrow Wilson's invocation of the Antiquities Act
While the first few national monuments were quite small in scope- Devils Tower and Montezuma Castle National Monuments cover just hundreds of acres- Theodore Roosevelt soon took a much broader reading of the powers granted by the act. The act calls for preservation of the "smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be projected"; in cases where entire ecosystems are of scientific interest, the president is endowed the power to set aside many millions of acres as a single national monument. Roosevelt twice chose to exercise this power, creating a national monument covering some 800,000 acres at the Grand Canyon and setting aside over a million acres of rain forest and alpine mountains on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. These designations are squarely within the spirit and intent of the original act: what use is it to preserve just 640 acres of the Grand Canyon?

Seastacks rise offshore along the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park, originally protected as Mount Olympus National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1909
Thirty of America's 59 national parks originated as national monuments established through executive action under the Antiquities Act. These 30 parks are today home to some of the most cherished landscapes on the continent, including the soaring sandstone walls of Zion, the wave-battered wilderness coast of Olympic, the pointed peaks of the Teton Range rising above Jackson Hole, the thousand-square mile glaciers of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias, and the yawning depths of the Grand Canyon. In many of these cases, decisive executive action through the Antiquities Act was necessary to preserve landscapes under imminent threat of development or destruction.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are only one of many geological wonders at Death Valley, which was protected through executive authority granted by the Antiquities Act in 1933.
The California Channel Islands were designated a national monument long before gaining full national park status
National monuments that retain their original designation protect cultural and natural landscapes that are just as significant as those of their better known park brethren. President Clinton's bold designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah was enormously unpopular in the state at the time, but has over time brought attention to an unmatched landscape of slickrock canyons that is home to the cross-bedded red sandstone of the Wave and provides tourist dollars to nearby communities. Devil's Tower, Theodore Roosevelt's first national monument designation, protects a basalt monolith rising a thousand feet out of the Great Plains. Hanford Reach National Monument, also established by Clinton, protects the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the United States and a desolate but beautiful landscape of sand dunes and sagebrush.

The Columbia River flows through Hanford Reach National Monument, established under the Antiquities Act in 2000 by Bill Clinton
Many opponents of the law question the utility of the act and its undemocratic nature. If a piece of land is so worth preserving, they argue, is it not better for it to be protected by an act of Congress? Congressional delegations from western states- Utah in particular- have long argued that the Antiquities Act is little short of tyranny, abrogating the need to consider local input for public land policy. Similar arguments have decried national monument designations as job killers that destroy economic opportunities for resource extraction in largely rural areas.

A key rationale for the Antiquities Act is the understanding that many natural and cultural resources, once destroyed or altered, can never be recovered. If the great houses of Chaco Canyon were torn down for their sandstone bricks or if the Grand Canyon were dammed for hydropower, reversing the effects of these actions would be difficult to impossible. Thus, a process for quick action to preserve lands needing protection is critical to save elements of this nation's cultural and natural heritage. Waiting for Congress to act can take far too long, as proponents of preserving the Grand Canyon found out in the early twentieth century.

Few if any Americans would challenge the idea that the Grand Canyon is a national treasure worth preserving for future generations. Over ten miles wide, a mile deep, and two hundred miles long, the Grand Canyon is an extraordinary testament to the power of erosion. Yet when Benjamin Harrison, then a senator, first drafted a bill for protecting the canyon as the nation's second national park in 1882, he was rebuffed by Congress; in fact, it took a full 37 years for Congress to finally approve the idea, establishing Grand Canyon National Park in 1919.

The establishment of the park was opposed by Arizona ranchers, prospectors, and tour operators. Ralph Henry Cameron was a champion of those who wanted the Grand Canyon to remain in private hands. As a businessman, he exploited the resources of the canyon and as a politician, he fought to prevent the preservation of what is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cameron operated a copper mine in the Grand Canyon and agreed with other local prospectors that the potential mineral wealth of the canyon was too valuable to allow a park to be established. Yet Cameron was not shy about trying to fleece tourists as well: as visitors began to trickle into the area, having heard of the canyon's wonders, Cameron opened a trail into the canyon and charged tourists a toll to hike down. Cameron also expressed interest in building dams to harness hydroelectric power from the canyon, though he never initiated any work on that idea. Cameron's constant opposition to the park helped delay its establishment; however, in 1908, Theodore Roosevelt, impatient with Congressional inaction on the Grand Canyon, declared much of the canyon to be a national monument.

The canyon's national monument designation paused resource exploitation, softened opposition to the park idea, and led to a national park designation a little over a decade later. The monument designation also launched the first major challenge to the Antiquities Act: Cameron sued the government, claiming that Roosevelt's broad reading of the Antiquities Act was invalid. In 1920, the Supreme Court vindicated Roosevelt, stating definitively that the Grand Canyon was "an object of scientific interest" and that the national monument designation fell within the powers granted in the Antiquities Act.

Without broad executive authority to declare national monuments, it's unclear that the Grand Canyon would be preserved in its current form today. Waiting decades for congressional action to confer national park status is not a feasible mechanism for protecting irreplacable landscapes. Local opposition should not disqualify land preservation: areas rich in natural resources attract those who would seek the short-term economic gains of developing those resources, so it is unsurprising when those residents then oppose attempts to curb resource exploitation. When managing public lands, these short-term local economic gains must be weighed against the utility that preservation would offer to the whole nation. It is difficult to argue that the personal financial gains of any mineral prospectors in the Grand Canyon would have been worth sacrificing a landscape that has inspired awe and wonder in tens of millions of Americans and been the subject of groundbreaking geological studies.

The argument that national monument designations are purely job killers has little merit. Few states have been as openly hostile towards the Antiquities Act as the state of Utah; yet Utah records $8 billion in tourist revenue annually, driven mainly by visitation to its five spectacular national parks. Four of those parks- Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Arches- were first protected as national monuments under the Antiquities Act and today draw millions of visitors from every corner of the world.

The sandstone walls of Zion Canyon were first protected in Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909
Arguments that national monument designations are locking away much of federal land from resource extraction are also misleading. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages nearly 250 million acres of land in the western states; just 30 million of those acres are currently preserved as wilderness or in national monuments. Over 150 million acres of BLM land are leased for livestock grazing and 63,000 oil and gas wells operate on this federal land. There is little evidence to argue that national monument designations on the scale of a million acres to preserve significant natural and cultural landscapes somehow represent a federal scheme to stamp out rural livelihoods. Additionally, in recent monument designations, the Department of Interior has worked to minimize impacts on key extractive industries. The newly designated Bears Ears National Monument, established by President Barack Obama to preserve a rich cultural landscape of thousands of Ancestral Puebloan dwellings and petroglyphs and a unique corner of the Utah canyonlands, was drawn with boundaries that specifically excluded a known uranium deposit. This balancing act allows local economies based on mining to continue operating while still saving most of this beautiful landscape. National monument designation now allows the federal government to protect the Ancestral Puebloan sites at Bears Ears, which have been subject to looting in recent years.

Yet this compromise has not stopped the Utah congressional delegation from mounting an attack on both Bears Ears National Monument and the Antiquities Act more broadly. Utah politicians point out the widespread unpopularity of the national monument designation in their state as evidence that the monument should be overturned. It is for these exact situations that the Antiquities Act is necessary. By nearly any measure, the landscape of the San Juan Basin is of historic and scientific interest: ask any archaeologist still discovering cliff dwellings in remote canyons on Cedar Mesa or paleontologists unearthing dinosaur bones from the Triassic near the Colorado River. These attributes of Bears Ears make it a landscape that can contribute to both scientific knowledge and recreational enjoyment, which likely outweighs the fairly meager utility gained by ranchers grazing the spare grass on its mesas.

I've yet to visit Bears Ears- here's an introduction to the new monument from Patagonia

After a series of national monument designations by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, western states are on the offensive, trying to convince President Donald Trump and Congress to repeal or reform the Antiquities Act. Calls for reform always include stipulations that national monument designations first receive local and state approval. However, as covered with the case of the Grand Canyon and as seen in case studies of national monument designation of beloved landscapes such as Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Kenai Fjords in Alaska, getting local approval for land preservation would mean no land preservation at all. Neither the prospectors in the Grand Canyon nor the ranchers of Jackson Hole agreed to voluntarily cease their activities for the creation of a park, so a reworded Antiquities Act would have been powerless to protect these irreplacable landscapes. To be an effective tool, the Antiquities Act must remain worded as is.

Lupine blooms on a mountainside in Kenai Fjords National Park, which was first protected as a national monument when Jimmy Carter exercised the power of the Antiquities Act to protect a sweeping portion of Alaska public lands.
President Trump has taken this skeptical view of the Antiquities Act a step further, ordering a review of national monuments exceeding 100,000 acres established under the act by Obama, President George W. Bush, and Clinton dating back to the establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The intent of this move is clear: the current administration plans to cut the size of existing national monuments established in the last two decades.

There is little precedent to understand the potential fallout of rollbacks in national monuments by the executive branch. Congress can act to strip national monument status, as happened at Fossil Cycad National Monument in South Dakota, where park mismanagement allowed vandals to remove all the fossils. Woodrow Wilson also unilaterally cut over half a million acres off of Mount Olympus National Monument in 1915 by executive action, a move that was unchallenged at the time. What is clear, however, is that both of these cases of national monument diminishment were tragic losses of scientifically important landscapes.

The slickrock canyons of the Escalante, the cliff dwellings of Cedar Mesa, the high peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains- these landscapes, all protected in national monuments and now potentially up for reconsideration, are all worthy of federal protection. Their future status is uncertain; if those opposed to the Antiquities Act have their way, it is not out of the question that these lands may be opened up to mining or drilling leases by the BLM or that they may be returned to the states, a transfer that is generally correlated with increased resource extraction on public lands. These lands are part of an extraordinary cultural and natural heritage that belong to all of us. The thrill of gazing up at vertical walls of a slot canyon carved into the sandstone, the sense of wonder at peoples who built a great civilization in the desert, the dusk colors of the sunset view from the San Gabriels, the awe that arises upon seeing a fossil of an organism that lived 100 million years ago- all of these belong to you and to me and to every American who comes after us, because of the Antiquities Act.

Don't let the Antiquities Act die. Save the best tool there is for saving this country's extraordinary cultural and natural heritage. Convince Congress and the president to hold onto the act that gave the Grand Canyon to the public. Defend Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and every other national monument: call your congressperson, or call one from Utah. Better yet, call the governor of Utah or tweet at Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke and tell them how excited you are to hike to the Wave in Escalante or explore the House on Fire ruin in Bears Ears. Then lace up your boots and go. Explore the land that belongs to you. Discover for yourself the legacy of the Antiquities Act. Commit to saving these lands for every generation that will come after us.

Sunset view from San Gabriel Peak in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, protected by Barack Obama using the authority of the Antiquities Act in 2014.
Addendum: Despite this generally glowing overview of the Antiquities Act, I am aware of the role that land preservation policy has historically played in exacerbating inequality for indigenous peoples and for rural residents that depend on using the land for their livelihood. However, current approaches for applying the Antiquities Act now try to address both issues: the Bears Ears designation involved input from five Four Corners tribes and compromises with companies mining uranium in the San Juan Basin. Ultimately, I believe that preservation outcomes under the Antiquities Act have been a net positive for this nation, but I am open to conversations on how to further improve economic outcomes for local communities without diluting the power of the act.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Boulder River

Feature Show Falls plunges into the Boulder River
8.5 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain (or 2.5 miles round trip to Feature Show Falls)
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Bumpy gravel road with many potholes to trailhead, no pass required

The Boulder River tumbles through an unbelievably verdant forest and past numerous cascading waterfalls on its descent from the soaring ramparts of Whitehorse Mountain and Three Fingers, two of the most distinctive Cascade peaks visible from the Puget Sound lowlands in Washington State. While this hike into the Boulder River Wilderness neither ascends those peaks nor even offers views of them, it does trace the watery path of the Boulder River itself. The highlight of this hike is Feature Show Falls, surely one of the prettiest waterfalls in the Cascade Range, which leaps directly off rocky canyon walls down into Boulder River. The waterfalls come early in the hike: the latter end of the trail follows the Boulder River to a riverside collection of campsites. While the full hike is enjoyable, many hikers may prefer just the 2.5 mile round trip journey from the trailhead out to Feature Show Falls and back.

I hiked this trail on a rainy April Sunday with two friends, leaving Seattle midmorning and taking I-5 north to Arlington. From Arlington, we followed Washington Highway 530 east past Oso to milepost 41, where we turned right on the reasonably well-signed turnoff for the Boulder River Trailhead. From here, we drove four miles up a bumpy, pothole-filled gravel road to the trailhead, where parking was a bit limited. Potholes were copious and large enough that a vehicle with some clearance would have been prefereable, although we ended up making it to the end in a Mini Cooper. Although in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, as of spring 2017 no Northwest Forest Pass was required for trailhead parking.

From the trailhead, we started off along a wide former logging road, quickly passing an information board and a trail register. The first three-quarter miles of the hike were along this fairly wide former road, along which we made a gentle uphill ascent. After rounding the side of a ridge, the trail narrowed and began to drop downhill, approaching the Boulder River, which was now visible far below. A little over a mile into the hike, the trail began to approach the river more closely and arrived at a meager, dripping cascade down the rock face on the south side of the canyon. A spur trail led to a closer view of the tiny falls.

Just beyond this first spur trail, we heard the roar of water ahead; just a few steps further, the silvery strands of Feature Show Falls came into view. A creek plunging down the canyon wall on the south side of the river fanned out into as it leaped over 150 feet down the rocky wall defining the falls. Feature Show Falls is unique: it's a rare waterfall that occurs at the confluence of two streams.

Feature Show Falls
We followed a rough social trail down to the base of the falls and watched the water flow down over the moss-covered cliff. Although less than a third of the way to the end of the trail, this spot was the undoubted highlight of the hike: while many Pacific Northwest waterfalls may outperform Feature Show Falls in flow rate, height, width, or natural setting, few tumble as gracefully as these falls.

Feature Show Falls
Continuing on, we reached a second pretty waterfall a little over a mile and half into the hike. This waterfall lacked the charisma of Feature Show Falls, but it too was a rare example of waterfall-as-confluence. Here, too, we followed a spur trail down from the main trail for closer and less obstructed views of the waterfall. This waterfall is the last major scenic highlight of the hike: for hikers uninterested in the more subtle scenery found by following the rest of the trail through old growth forest and along the river, this is a good place to turn around.

Last waterfall along the trail
Past the second waterfall, the trail became narrower and muddier. Occasional ascents and descents brought the trail further or closer to the river, with occasional views of the forested but still snow-covered nearby ridges of the Boulder River Wilderness at higher points along the trail. Although net elevation gain on this hike is not high, there is substantially more cumulative elevation gain due to the many short stretches of ups and downs on the trail. Many of the Douglas firs in this old growth forest were massive: one trailside tree reached at least six feet in diameter. Big trees also meant big blowdowns: at multiple points, the hiking the trail involved climbing over large fallen logs. Although the trail handled one stream crossing via a log bridge, we had to rock hop through multiple other stream crossings. Additionally, one section of trail was a little overgrown: although it appeared that recent trailwork had cleared some underbrush, the trail corridor through the vegetation was still very narrow.

At times, the trail approached close to the river, providing nice views of the glacier-fed stream rushing through tight, rocky canyons and splitting around large boulders in the river. The milky color of the river is due in part to the source of the water- while much of the spring runoff was from snowmelt, a portion of the flow comes from the glaciers on Whitehorse Mountain and Three Fingers. Glacial runoff carries fine glacial silt that results in a milky complexion downstream.

Boulder River
A little over four miles from the trailhead, the trail ended as it came to a set of campsites at the side of the river. Here, the valley was wider and the river flowed a little more leisurely that it did downstream near the waterfalls. We ate lunch on the riverbank and turned back to return to the trailhead as a heavy rain approached.

Boulder River at the trail's end

Monday, April 17, 2017

Kolob Arch

Kolob Arch
14 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, many stream crossings necessary when Timber Creek is flowing
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Zion National Park entrance fee required

As of 2017, Kolob Arch is the sixth longest natural arch in the world and the second longest on the continent, second only in North America to Landscape Arch on the other side of Utah. This massive sandstone arch is hidden deep in the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park and is only accessible by a long day hike or an overnight backpack. This is the longest day hike in this more secluded corner of Zion National Park. The arch is impressive and the red rock scenery of the Kolob Canyons along the way is beautiful. However, the state of Utah has more picturesque arches that are more easily accessible, the Zion Canyon section of Zion National Park has scenery that is more uniquely stunning, and the length of this hike requires a full-day time investment. While Kolob Arch was a rewarding hike for me and will likely be rewarding for other hikers who choose to visit it, I wouldn't place it at the top of the list of must-do hikes in Utah for visitors arriving from outside the state.

I hiked to Kolob Arch on a trip to Zion National Park, arriving at the Kolobs Canyon section of the park after leaving Las Vegas with a rental car that morning. Kolobs Canyon is removed from the main Zion Canyon area of the park; it's accessible directly off I-15 north of St. George, Utah. I reached the Kolobs Canyon area by taking I-15 north from Las Vegas past St. George to exit 40 in Utah, then turning right (heading east) once I came off the freeway ramp to head towards Kolob Canyons. I checked in show my park pass at the visitor center before driving three and a half miles up the Kolob Canyons Road to the Lee Pass Trailhead. Parking was on the east side of the road, just south of the pass itself; the trailhead was about 50 meters north along the road from the parking lot.

The trail began by following a low ridge leading out from Lee Pass. The trail undulated through both elevation gain and loss, although the net change through this section was a descent as the ridge dropped gradually towards the valley of Timber Creek. Stunning views of the Kolob finger canyons were frequent on the left (east) side of the trail: I had glimpses into the recesses of some of these cuts into the Navajo Sandstone. The finger canyons are so named as these short canyons resemble finger-like projections into the massif of sandstone.

Kolob Canyons
Ahead of the trail were good views of Timber Top Mountain, a large cliff over 8000 feet in elevation. The trail itself was muddy in many spots, as snow from a storm earlier the week had just melted, turning the red dirt into a sticky mess.

Timber Top Mountain
A little over a mile into the hike, the trail reached the bottom of the canyon as the ridge it had been following ended. At the base of the canyon, views of the finger canyons were much more limited, although large cliffs directly bordering on the Timber Creek were still visible from the trail. The trail crossed a stream and then climbed up to a small riparian meadow lined with cottonwoods and bushes.

Meadows along Timber Creek
Through the next mile, the trail stayed at the bottom of the canyon, crossing Timber Creek a total of 25 times. During the summer, the wash of Timber Creek is likely dry and the large number of crossings is likely not a big deal; however, during snowmelt and storms, higher flow in Timber Creek can make the sheer number of crossings a huge hassle, even if individual crossings are not difficult. When factoring the stream crossings necessary along the spur trail to Kolob Arch at the end of the hike, there are close to 60 total stream crossings in the 14-mile round trip journey when streams are flowing.

Timber Creek
Shuntavi Butte, a satellite peak of Timber Top Mountain, was one of the more impressive rock walls along the trail, rising almost directly from the wash of Timber Creek.

Navajo Sandstone of the Kolob Canyons
After the final creek crossing, the trail stayed to the east of Timber Creek and then began a steady climb up to the top of a low ridge. At the top of the ridge, I caught a nice view of some of the cliffs of the Kolob Canyons to the south.

Kolob Canyons
After crossing the low ridge about 3.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail turned east and began a gentle descent towards the La Verkin Creek canyon. Although the trail was mostly in the trees here, occasionally tree cover would break for long enough to yield views of the burnt red rock rising on either side of the canyon ahead.

La Verkin Creek Canyon
At about 4.5 miles, the trail descended to meet La Verkin Creek. For the next two miles, the trail roughly followed this stream upcanyon through many riparian meadows past great red sandstone walls. The trail here was often sandy, likely due to occasional flooding of La Verkin Creek.

La Verkin Creek
The rock walls that enclosed the La Verkin Creek canyon on both sides were cut into Navajo Sandstone, the defining rock of the White Cliffs of the Grand Staircase of Zion National Park. This sandstone formed from deposition of ancient sand dunes. The landscape that is today Zion was once a massive dunefield where accumulating sand and iron-bearing hematite formed a thick, red layer of sandstone. The origin of this rock in dunefields is responsible for the extensive crossbedding found throughout the formation.

Spires of Navajo Sandstone in La Verkin Creek canyon
At times, the trail followed the creek very closely- at one point, I hiked along a set of ledges next to La Verkin Creek in order to circle around a rockfall pile of collapsed sandstone on the north side of the canyon. The trail passed multiple campsites here and was generally easy and pleasant hiking except for stretches that were excessively sandy.

La Verkin Creek
6.5 miles into the hike, I arrived at the junction with the spur trail for Kolob Arch. I took the spur, which headed off to the left into a narrow canyon. Here, the trail shrunk down to a barely visible path: I had to scramble over rocks at multiple points. After a difficult half mile of pushing up the canyon, I came to a sign for Kolob Arch indicating that I was at the end of the maintained trail. Unfortunately, the arch was just barely visible from here through the tree cover. I followed a use path a little further, scrambling up a steep slope and following it to a ledge on a canyon wall that provided a more clear view up to the arch.

Kolob Arch
Kolob Arch looks fairly small from the viewpoint: after all, I stood at the bottom of the canyon while the arch span was composed of sandstone at the top of the canyon. It's also not the most impressive looking arch, as the span is just barely separated from the sandstone wall behind it. However, this arch is enough to be the sixth longest in the world and at one point in time a contender for first, competing with Landscape Arch for that honor before the discoveries of multiple longer spans in southern China. To the left of the arch, an arch-shaped alcove suggested an earlier evolutionary stage of arch formation.

By the time I started to head back, it was late in the day; dusk had set by the time I returned to the creek crossings on Timber Creek. The final stretch of the hike is uphill, so it's important to leave enough energy for a steady but long ascent at the end of a 14-mile hike. I finished the last two miles of the hike in darkness; by the time I returned to the car, the night sky had been splattered with many thousands of stars. While on the way back, I remembered that I had seen a mountain lion warning sign at the visitor center just that morning and cursed myself for not getting out earlier and for going on such long hikes alone; ultimately, I made it back without any misfortune. I drove off to nearby Cedar City for chile rellenos and a good night's sleep.

Sauer Mountain

The Enchantment Peaks from Sauer Mountain
6 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead; trailhead parking on private land, no access fee

Sauer Mountain is an inconspicuous forested ridge that rises just to the east of the town of Leavenworth, Washington State's cute but tacky take on a Bavarian village. There are many nearby peaks that offer much better views and more enjoyable hiking: in fact, both Stuart Lake and the Enchantments, which offer breathtaking views of mountain lake and jagged granite peaks, are accessible from Icicle Creek Road just out of Leavenworth. However, Sauer Mountain, a dwarf compared to the nearby high peaks of the Stuart Range, has the advantage of melting out earlier in the year, making it a perfect spring hike while nearby alpine terrain is still snowbound. Spring wildflowers are an added bonus for hikers who choose this low-key but enjoyable hike.

I hiked this trail on a nice April weekend, one of the first weekends of truly clear weather after an abysmally rainy and gloomy Northwest winter. We set out from Seattle early in the day, taking about two and a half hours to follow US 2 east across Stevens Pass and past Leavenworth to the left-hand turnoff for the town of Peshastin. Crossing the Wenatchee River on the Peshastin Main Street Bridge, we made a few turns to stay on Main Street, passing through the tiny town. Main Street became North Road; about half a mile out of town, heading north on North Road, we turned right onto Anderson Canyon Road and followed that road uphill three-quarters of a mile to a marked trailhead parking lot on private land. A man who appeared to be the owner of the property directed parking and was selling bottles of local wine.

From the trailhead, we headed uphill on the marked trail. The initial terrain was very unconvential for a Washington state hike: as the trail passed through a tract of private property, we saw some intricately carved totem poles and figures of different animals. One sign welcomed visitors to the mountain.

Welcome to Sauer's Mountain!
Beyond the trailside art, we passed a vineyard before the trail left that more manicured landscape for the less developed slopes of Sauer Mountain. About a quarter of a mile into the hike, the trail came to an unmarked trail junction with a smaller trail making a sharp switchback from the main, wider trail; both of these trails lead to the same place, but we chose to hike the main trail straight ahead. This trail started a vigorous ascent up the grassy east side of the mountain.

Trail up Sauer Mountain
The spring wildflower bloom on Sauer Mountain had started after a lengthy and snowy winter. Balsamroot had just begun blooming on the grassy lower elevations of the mountain, along with fields of bell-like purple flowers that I didn't recognize.

Balsamroot at Sauer Mountain
As the trail rounded a bend and came onto the southern slopes of Sauer Mountain, beautiful views of the Cashmere Valley and the snowy Stuart Range opened up. Vineyards and apple orchards were spread out below in the valley of the Wenatchee River.

First views of the Stuart Range from the trail
Continuing further, we came to a second, marked trail junction: here, the trail to Sauer Mountain led to the right while the trail to a viewpoint led to the left. Once again, both trails eventually met up, although the trail to the right was more direct and involved less overall elevation gain. We took the viewpoint trail, which continued skirting the grassy southern slopes of the mountain.

After following the viewpoint trail for a bit, we came to a no trespassing sign indicating that the trail ahead passed onto private land. Fortunately, a use trail had been created that stayed on national forest land, so we followed this use trail as it climbed steadily up to the ridge of Sauer Mountain. From here forward, the trail was mostly forested as it followed the main north-south ridge of Sauer Mountain.

After passing over a small knob, this trail rejoined the other trail from the earlier fork, about a mile from the trailhead. We continued following the trail along the ridgeline, passing through small meadows of blooming glacier lilies.

Trailside wildflowers
In the next two miles, the trail stayed on the undulating ridgeline, with occasional short descents but generally maintaining an uphill climb. The ascent was often quite steep; I appreciated that the trail tread was dirt rather than rock, making the hike a little easier on our knees. Views occasionally opened up on either side of the ridge: Leavenworth was often visible to the west at the base of Icicle Ridge. At one spot with a gap in the trees, a sign pointed out that Glacier Peak was visible far to the northwest.

Icicle Ridge rises above Leavenworth
The final half mile was a sustained climb to the summit of Sauer Mountain. Through this climb, the top of mountain was visible ahead of us and there were frequent clearings to the east, opening up views of nearby ridges and the snowy Entiats across Cashmere Valley.

Cashmere Valley and the Entiat Mountains
The trail crossed a forestry road before making a final, steep push to the summit. The summit area was lightly forested, with tree cover at a low enough density that there were reasonably good views of the surrounding landscape. A wooden sign at the summit labelled some of the peaks in the view, pointing out the Enchantment peaks, Icicle Ridge, and Tumwater Mountain. Leavenworth lay at the foot of Icicle Ridge and Tumwater Mountain, at the mouth of the narrow Tumwater Canyon. The wildflower bloom had not yet reached the highest elevations of Sauer Mountain; we were still a few weeks too early for the great balsamroot bloom.

Enchantments, Icicle Ridge, and Leavenworth from Sauer Mountain
After eating lunch near the main clearing at the summit, we wandered slightly farther along the ridge to the true high point, where we found very nice views to the north of the North Cascades and Glacier Peak.

Glacier Peak and attendant North Cascades peaks
We returned the way we came until reaching the trail junction about one mile from the trailhead; this time, we chose to take the left fork for the shorter route down. We were serenaded on the final stretch with the calls of wild turkeys, the barking of the many dogs on the trail, and distant rumbles from tractors in Cashmere Valley. Although not a highlight in a state with many extraordinary hikes, Sauer Mountain was enjoyable and a good way to see some beautiful country when higher elevations are still snowbound. We met plenty of other hikers on the trail, likely due to the extremely nice weather and the hike's proximity to Leavenworth.