Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblos

San Francisco Peaks rise behind the Box Canyon Pueblo
0.5 miles round trip, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Wupatki National Monument Entrance Fee required

This very short and very easy stroll visits three picturesque pueblos in Arizona's Wupatki National Monument. It's a good way to see structures built by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the area and has only a fraction of the visitors of the larger Wupatki Pueblo in the same national monument. Lomaki Pueblo offers a chance to wander through a pueblo, including a rare opportunity to pass through two T-shaped doors. Views of the nearby San Francisco Peaks make this an overall enjoyable way to spend a half hour or so. The park's proximity to US 89 and the Grand Canyon makes this a good stop on the way to more famous sights on the Colorado Plateau.

I visited Wupatki National Monument after a trip to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Whether coming from Flagstaff or the Grand Canyon, one approaches Wupatki on Highway 89 either heading north or south, respectively. About 25 miles north of Flagstaff or 12 miles south of Gray Mountain, there is a turnoff to the east for Arizona Highway 395 heading towards Wupatki; I took this turnoff and followed it east for four miles into Wupatki National Monument. I took the turnoff to the left (north) for Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblos, which quickly came to a parking lot for this hike.

The trail is extremely straightforward: the mostly flat path winds for a quarter mile through the desert out to Lomaki Pueblo, passing two structures on either side of a small box canyon along the way. Side trails lead up to both of the small pueblos next to the canyon. All three pueblos are clearly within sight of each other. Lomaki Pueblo is the largest of the three structures, although it too is a small pueblo of just a handful of rooms. Impressively, all three of these structures have not been reconstructed; they have only been stabilized to prevent further deterioration. This means that the beautiful masonry of all three pueblos is original.

Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblos
These pueblos lie on the southwest edge of the area inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloan culture; indeed, the societies that inhabited these structures show influences of both the Ancestral Puebloans to the north and the Sinagua to the south. Although these structures are clearly similar to and influence by the Pueblo architecture at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, there are notable differences: pueblos in Wupatki do not have kivas, circular ceremonial rooms that are a distinguishing cultural characteristic of the Ancestral Puebloans. Instead, Wupatki Pueblo, which lies some distance east of Lomaki Pueblo, has a ballcourt, which ties it by cultural influence to the Sinagua and the civilizations of Mesoamerica. However, the structures at Wupatki retain many characteristics of Ancestral Puebloan architecture: notably, Lomaki Pueblo has two T-shaped doors. As the pueblos here can be explored, Lomaki offers a rare experience to walk through the T-shaped doors and explore inner rooms of a pueblo.

Lomaki Pueblo
Like the Box Canyon Pueblo, Lomaki sits at the edge of a small box canyon. It's likely that the inhabitants of these pueblos built check dams in the canyon to store water; the wash might have been used for agriculture as well, to plant the corn, beans, and squash central to diets of pre-contact Americans.

T-shaped door in Lomaki Pueblo
The southwest horizon from Lomaki Pueblo featured the snowy summits of the San Francisco Peaks and other volcanoes of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The San Francisco Peaks, capped by Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona, were the most dominant peaks in the scene; these mountains are actually the remnants of an ancient stratovolcano, which has since collapsed. O'Leary Peak was a separate high peak to the east of the San Francisco Peaks and Sunset Crater, a cinder cone, stood east (to the left) of O'Leary Peak. The Citadel Pueblo was visible below the silhouette of O'Leary Peak.

Sunset Crater, O'Leary Peak, and the San Francisco Peaks
In fact, a number of pueblos were visible atop nearby mesas as I surveyed the landscape. The most notable of these was undoubtedly the Citadel, a closely pueblo right off the main road in Wupatki that I visited after leaving Lomaki Pueblo. The density of pueblos in this area is remarkable, a reminder that the landscape of the Colorado Plateau was not so much a wilderness as much as it was an inhabited, human landscape during the heyday of Ancestral Puebloan civilization.

The Citadel
The Wupatki area was populated in the eleventh century; competing explanations for why people chose to settle in such a desolate location both involve nearby Sunset Crater, which erupted around that time. It is possible that the Wupatki area was settled by people escaping lands to the south that were devestated by the eruption; or it's possible that the eruption actually attracted immigrants from elsewhere, as cinders and ash from the Sunset Crater eruption improved water retention in nearby soils, improving agriculture.

The question of why the Ancestral Puebloans left their houses is asked everywhere pueblos are abandoned in the Southwest. As with the other pueblos at Chaco and Mesa Verde, it's not clear here; a changing climate or the arrival of nomadic tribes might have had an effect. While it's not clear why they left, it appears that today's Hopi are among the descendants of those who used to live in this landscape: Hopi histories hold that their ancestors migrated to their current home in the mesas of the Painted Desert from Wupatki, the Verde Valley, and other areas of abandoned pueblos.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Wilcox Ridge

The Athabasca Glacier spills out from the Columbia Icefield
6.5 miles round trip, 1450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canadian National Parks pass required

The Columbia Icefield is the greatest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies and is surely among the more accessible icefields of its size. Wilcox Ridge vies with nearby Parker Ridge for the trail-accessible spot with the best view of the Columbia Icefield; I've hiked both and I'm more particular towards Wilcox Ridge. From the viewpoint at the end of the trail on the shoulder of Wilcox Peak, there is a sweeping viewshed that encompasses the Athabasca and Dome Glaciers flowing off the Columbia Icefield, the barren tundra scenery beyond Wilcox Pass, and the stately peaks that border the Saskatchewan River Valley. This is a relatively easy hike considering the incredible scenic rewards and should be at the top of the list of any hiker traveling the Icefields Parkway through Alberta's Jasper National Park.

I did this hike on the first day of a four day trip to the Canadian Rockies. With four days to visit four parks, I decided to pick a single highlight hike in each park for my September trip; for Jasper, I chose to hike Wilcox Ridge. I drove to the trailhead directly that morning from the Calgary Airport; after following Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway) west past Banff and Lake Louise, I took the exit for Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway, to drive north to Jasper National Park. The Wilcox Ridge hike is at the very southern reaches of Jasper National Park; I came to the trailhead shortly after entering the park at Sunwapta Pass. The trailhead was at the entrance of the Wilcox Creek Campground, which is on the east side of the Icefields Parkway (on the right if you're heading north).

Trailhead parking was pretty crowded: this is a popular hike! Leaving the trailhead, the trail began an immediate ascent through the forest. The trail ascended steadily along the well-maintained trail through a forest coated with a recent dusting of snow.

Wilcox Pass Trail in the forest
After just under a mile of hiking through the forest, the trail emerged into a small clearing for its first views. To the north, the lip of the Columbia Icefield was visible just above the ridges of Snow Dome and Mount Kitchener and the Dome Glacier poured off the largest icefield of the Canadian Rockies. Below, the Icefields Parkway ran through the meadows of Sunwapta Pass.

Dome Glacier pouring off the Columbia Icefield
The trail briefly reentered the trees before emerging again into open meadows. This time, the Athabasca Glacier came into view as well, spilling off the Columbia Icefield and filling a broad valley.

Athabasca and Dome Glaciers and the Icefield Centre
The trail passed a set of red Adirondack chairs. These chairs are a recent addition to the Canadian national parks: after debuting the red chairs a couple of years ago to popular acclaim in Newfoundland's Gros Morne National Park, Parks Canada has expanded the program and installed chairs throughout the park system. For many hikers, these chairs, a mile from the trailhead with a good view of the Athabasca Glacier and its icefalls and moraines, is a sufficient turnaround point. From here, I could spot the road used by Brewster Snocoaches to take tourists out onto the Athabasca Glacier. As perhaps the most accessible glacier in North America, the Athabasca Glacier is a rare spot where tourists can ride buses onto a glacier and walk around.

Athabasca Glacier, Snocoach visible
While many hikers hung out near the chairs, satisfied with the scenery at this point, I chose to continue on to Wilcox Pass and Wilcox Ridge. The trail continued climbing past the chairs, albeit at a gentler grade, and the open views of Mount Athabasca and Mount Andromeda across the valley made the ascent feel much easier.

Mount Athabasca
Soon, the trees thinned out entirely and the trail was traversing an open alpine landscape. Views were stark and beautiful with fresh snow capping the surrounding peaks. As the trail began to parallel a small ravine, the Athabasca Glacier disappeared behind a nearby ridge, but views to the south past Sunwapta Pass into the Saskatchewan River Valley became increasingly impressive. The patterns in the fresh snow accentuated the sedimentary layers forming the Rocky Mountains.

Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, and the Athabasca Glacier
View towards the Saskatchewan River Valley
A mile and a half of ascent through the open meadows brought me to Wilcox Pass. Through this uphill stretch, the rocky summit of Wilcox Peak filled the view in front of the trail.

Wilcox Peak
Wilcox Pass is an extremely broad, flat mountain pass; maps show that a lake fills part of the wide, flat pass, but I didn't end up spotting any significant body of water. Wilcox Peak rose to the northwest of the pass, while an alpine tundrascape of snowcapped peaks rose to the northeast. I crossed a stream at the pass that was meandering through the flat meadows, with views back towards Hilda Peak, Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, and the Andromeda Glacier. The Athabasca Glacier itself was not visible at the pass. While the pass makes a nice destination and the views to the north are quite unique, if you've made it this far you might as well go all the way to the end of the trail at Wilcox Ridge.

Wilcox Pass
At the pass, a sign indicated the Wilcox Ridge trail breaking off to the west. I followed this trail, which was narrower and less well defined than the Wilcox Pass Trail. Cairns marked the route towards the ridge. The trail began to climb up from the pass towards the top of the ridge emanating southeast from the summit of Wilcox Peak. As I climbed out of the pass, views to the north improved; there was something hauntingly beautiful about the tundra-like landscape to the north defined by the blue of the sky, the yellow of the meadows, the white of fresh snow, and the gray of rocky peaks.

Alpine landscape of Wilcox Pass
The trail was at turns muddy and rocky as it made its way towards the ridge. After an initial ascent, I realized that the ridge was not a single layer, but rather a series of parallel ridges defined by layers of sedimentary rock. The viewpoint of the Athabasca Glacier was on the southwesternmost of the parallel ridges; I followed the cairns across the alpine landscape up and down each of the parallel ridges. The views in this landscape were spectacular: even though the Athabasca Glacier was still not fully in view, the panorama along the trail encompassed Nigel Peak to the east, the Sunwapta River Valley to the south, Hilda Peak, Mount Athabasca, and Mount Andromeda to the southwest and Wilcox Peak to the northwest.

Nigel Peak and the view south down the Saskatchewan Valley
About three-quarters of a mile from Wilcox Pass, I reached the end of the trail, at a viewpoint high above the valley holding the headwaters of the Athabasca River. The mighty Athabasca Glacier flowed out from the Columbia Icefield directly across from where I stood.

Athabasca and Dome Glaciers pouring off the Columbia Icefield, viewed from Wilcox Ridge
The Columbia Icefield is the largest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies. Astride a triple divide, the Columbia Icefield feeds rivers that flow into the Pacific, the Arctic, and the Hudson Bay. It is the headwaters of the great river of the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia. The Saskatchewan River just to the south near Parker Ridge is the headwaters of the Saskatchewan River, which itself is the primary inflow of Lake Winnipeg and thus the main source of the Nelson River, which flows into the Hudson Bay. The Athabasca Glacier is the source of the Athabasca Glacier, which feeds into Lake Athabasca and is part of the larger Mackenzie River watershed, the second largest watershed in North America that drains much of northern Canada into the Arctic Ocean.

Athabasca Glacier and Mount Andromeda
The large parking lot of the Icefield Centre and the Icefield Chalet lay directly below the ridge. Across the Icefields Parkway, the green waters of Sunwapta Lake sparkled in the sunlight. I first visited the Athabasca Glacier in 2001 on a trip with my family; we did many of the touristy activities at the glacier on that visit. I returned, briefly, in 2011, before this most recent visit. Through the three visits, the glacier had visibly retreated. At the start of the 20th century, the Athabasca Glacier flowed all the way to the foot of Wilcox Ridge. It has since retreated a mile up the valley, thinning out as winter snows continuously failed to replenish the existing ice. The impact of a changing climate was obvious here; it was sad to see such a mighty river of ice beat such a constant retreat over time.

Looking south across Sunwapta Pass along the Icefields Parkway
The views at Wilcox Ridge were stunning and required only a moderate effot to reach, making this an excellent hike even though the trail doesn't wander too far from the Icefields Parkway and the civilization of the Icefield Centre. I highly recommend this hike as a way to experience the Canadian Rockies' most famous river of ice, the ultra-touristy but still dazzling Athabasca Glacier.

Friday, February 2, 2018

O'Leary Lookout

Sunset Crater from O'Leary Peak
10 miles round trip, 2050 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

O'Leary Lookout offers a view, both expansive and intimate, of the Painted Desert and the San Francisco Volcanic Field of northern Arizona. The peak offers a chance to peer down into nearby Sunset Crater with beautiful views of the snowcapped San Francisco Peaks and faraway views of the Grand Canyon and Navajo Mountain. Although the trail itself may be boring, following a gravel road still used by the Forest Service to access the lookout, the views along the trail and at the summit more than justify O'Leary as a worthy destination. This is a hearty northern Arizona hike that allows you to enjoy the non-Grand Canyon features of this part of the state.

I hiked up to O'Leary Lookout on a pleasant winter day during a year with remarkably little snow in the Flagstaff area. Hoping to catch early morning light on the landscape of the Colorado Plateau and the Painted Desert, I chose to hike this trail very early, starting over an hour before sunrise; this meant that I was up and back down the mountain by 11 AM. I drove to the trailhead from Flagstaff in the dark; I followed US 89 north out of Flagstaff. After driving up the first major hill north of Flagstaff, I turned right onto Route 395, following signs for Sunset Crater National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. I followed this road two miles to reach Bonito Park, a wide, grassy meadow with views of Sunset Crater ahead and the San Francisco Peaks to the west. At the eastern end of the Bonito Park, I took the turnoff for the O'Leary Campground on the left (north) side of the road. I followed this road to a point where it made a sharp left turn into the campground; here, I went straight and parked in a small parking area next to a locked gate. As the trailhead is in Coconino National Forest rather than Sunset Crater National Monument, no entrance fee is required to hike here.

As I hiked up in the dark, I'll describe sights that I saw on my descent. The first mile of the trail- which was really a road- was essentially flat, with a slight bit of elevation loss in the very beginning as the trail approached the Bonito Lava Flow. Shortly after leaving the trailhead, the trail began to parallel the edge of the Bonito Lava Flow. Even 900 years after the eruption of Sunset Crater, the lava flow is able to support only some vegetation: while some trees have sprouted up in the dense field of a'a lava. The lava flow boundary was abrupt; on one side, ponderosa pines grew in ash-dense soils, on the other side, fragmented, hardened black lava stifled most vegetation from sprouting.

Sunset Crater, Bonito Lava Flow
The two summits of O'Leary Peak rose ahead, with the fire lookout prominently sticking out on the mountain's south summit. O'Leary Peak, like all of the nearby peaks, is of volcanic origin, with the same geological origins as the other cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. However, unlike Sunset Crater, which is a cinder cone, and Mount Humphreys, which is a remnant of a stratovolcano, O'Leary Peak is a lava dome- it's made up mainly of viscous lava that piled up to form a mountain.

O'Leary Peak
After a mile of flat hiking, the trail began to ascend as it reached the foot of O'Leary Peak. The initial ascent was direct, with no switchbacks, but as the slope of O'Leary Peak became steeper, the trail/road began using switchbacks for the ascent. The wide trail was easy to follow and grades along the trail, with the exception of the very end, were generally reasonable as the road is still used by Forest Service employees to access the fire lookout at the summit. At 2.3 miles from the trailhead, the trail made a switchback to the east just downhill from a saddle.

At this point, the road emerged into the first views of the hike. Sunset Crater and a number of other small volcanic cones were visible across the mostly-desolate flat plain of the Bonito Lava Flow.

Sunset Crater and the Bonito Lava Flow from the trail
The eastward switchback was the longest switchback of the hike, at over a mile long; over the course of this switchback, the trail recorded a fairly substantial elevation gain, though all at a reasonable grade. At the end of the switchback, the trail arrived at a high saddle between O'Leary Peak and Darton Dome. Along this switchback, good views of the San Francisco Peaks emerged to the west. From this vantage point, I was able to gaze directly into the Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks. This valley is actually a caldera- the San Francisco Peaks are the remnant of what used to be a massive stratovolcano. The northeast face of the mountain eventually collapsed in an eruption likely similar but larger than the eruption at Mount St. Helens in 1980. Arizona's highest peaks- Mount Humphreys and Mount Agassiz- are simply high points along the caldera of what was once a much greater volcano.

After the long switchback, the trail/road continued ascending via switchbacks for another mile and a half to reach the summit. At this point, the sun rose and I caught beautiful sunrise lighting on the San Francisco Peaks.

Sunrise on the San Francisco Peaks
As the trail winded up the mountain, the north and main summit of O'Leary Peak came into view. After the trail reached a saddle between the peaks, it aimed for the south summit, which was only a few feet lower than the north summit. The final stretch of trail was very steep and featured metal grating over the road to provide more traction for trucks ascending to the lookout. At the end of the steep stretch, I arrived at the summit, which was topped by a tall fire lookout tower which stuck out above the tree line. The summit itself was mostly surrounded by trees.

O'Leary Lookout
The lookout cabin itself was closed when I visited, but by exploring around the summit and lookout area, I was able to piece together a panoramic view of the entire area. The best viewpoint was a few steps past the lookout atop a jumble of boulders facing the south. That spot provided a sweeping view of Sunset Crater and the San Francisco Peaks.

San Francisco Peaks from O'Leary Lookout
The San Francisco Peaks were initially named the Sierra Sin Agua by the Spanish for the dry climate in the area (Sin Agua translates to "without water"), ironic as nearby Hopi and Yavapai peoples found the mountains to be a rare lush spot in an otherwise harsh and dry landscape. The Sin Agua name was later applied to the precontact peoples who lived in the Flagstaff and Sedona areas who built elaborate pueblos that were abandoned by the time of European colonization.

To the south, I could look down into Sunset Crater. Snow coated the northern slopes of the crater and the morning sunlight kissed the cinder cone's colorful rim. John Wesley Powell, the legendary one-armed explorer of the Southwest, named the volcano for the red cinders near its summit crater. Sunset Crater was formed in one largely continuous burst of volcanic activity around AD 1080. Its formation was likely similar to that of Mexico's Paricutin: a volcanic vent spewing cinders and ash erupted from a previously peaceful spot, with a continuous eruption that eventually built up a cinder cone 1000 feet high. The eruption was accompanied by a lava flow of a'a lava from the vent that spilled to the west, filling a plain and creating the Bonito Lava Flow. Archaeologists have found evidence that the Sinagua people once inhabited this area; Sunset Crater's eruption forced their departure either south to Walnut Canyon or north to Wupatki.

Sunset Crater and the Bonito Lava Flow from O'Leary Peak
Sunset Crater is actually just the latest volcano to erupt in the San Francisco Volcanic Field, which contains some 600 volcanoes. Spread out on an east-west axis north of Flagstaff, the San Francisco Volcanic Field is likely the result of a subcrustal hotspot; activity in the field has appeared to migrate from west to east over the millions of years of activity in the field. The field is also responsible for the former stratovolcano at Humphreys Peak and for the field of cinder cones visible in all directions from the summit of O'Leary Peak. In fact, O'Leary Peak's lava dome is itself a creation of the San Francisco Volcanic Field as well.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon and cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field
The north rim of the Grand Canyon was also visible to the northwest past a line of especially shapely cinder cones. Navajo Mountain, a massive mountain in Utah near the Glen Canyon, was visible to the north past the canyons of the Little Colorado River. Doney Crater and the landscape of Wupatki was visible to the north as well, although I was unable to spot any of the pueblos despite my best efforts. To the east was the vast expanse of the Painted Desert, a mostly flat landscape punctuated by occasional buttes and canyons. To the southeast, past Sunset Crater, I spotted what appeared to be the circular rim of Meteor Crater, another incredible Arizona geological feature formed about 50,000 years ago by a meteorite impact.

Painted Desert
The popularity of this trail is unclear to me. On a nice but cold January morning (the temperature was 14 F outside when I began hiking), I saw one other hiker; Flagstaff is a very outdoorsy town and the views at O'Leary were nice so I'd be surprised if the peak is consistently overlooked. The trail is also mentioned occasionally in National Park Service literature at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, though I doubt few visitors to the monument would bother hiking up to O'Leary. In any case, as I had the summit to myself for an hour, it's clear that there are certainly times when one can find solitude on O'Leary Peak.