Sunday, May 31, 2020

House on Fire

House on Fire granary
2 miles round trip, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no parking fee

Carved into Cedar Mesa, an archaeological wonderland in Utah's Bears Ears National Monument, Mule Canyon holds a number of Ancestral Puebloan ruins including the House on Fire granary. Cedar Mesa was once a thriving community of Ancestral Puebloans, who built residences and storage space along the walls of the many canyons carved into the mesa. While the scale of individual ruins here are dwarfed by the cities built at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, the ruins of Cedar Mesa are a window into the everyday life of Ancestral Puebloans. This hike visits the House on Fire granary, a small set of storage structures in Mule Canyon. While the structures are small and not particularly impressive, their picturesque setting at the base of an overhanging cliff makes this a pleasant and easy hike to experience a slice of why Cedar Mesa is worth preserving. This area is not particularly developed for tourism, so signage is poor; it's important to know where you're going before heading out.

I hiked to House on Fire during a November road trip to the Utah Canyonlands with my mother. House on Fire is a bit removed from the standard tourist routes around Moab, making it a much quieter alternative than hiking near Arches or Canyonlands. From Moab, it's a bit of drive south along US Route 191 through Monticello to Blanding; after passing through the town of Blanding, we turned right onto Utah Route 95, which took us west through Butler Wash and across Comb Ridge to Cedar Mesa. After climbing onto Cedar Mesa, the road crosses Mule Canyon by a bridge; soon after this bridge and just past Milepost 101, an unmarked gravel road heads off to the right. We took this gravel road, following it briefly as it descended into Mule Canyon. The road crosses Mule Canyon on a raised ridge; this is the trailhead. We parked along the side of the road here and then descended down a path on the north side of the road that dropped us down to the floor of Mule Canyon.

The canyon was initially quite wide, its grassy floor surrounded on both sides by low sandstone walls. The grade was flat over the entire course of the hike except for brief uphills to reach the granary itself at the end and to return to the road. Juniper and pine dotted the canyon.

Mule Canyon
As we hiked through the canyon, the walls of the canyon narrowed, bringing the trail into the wash. The hike was extremely quiet: we saw no one else, our only companions being deer browsing in the canyon.

Deer in Mule Canyon
The trail was straightforward, simply following the twists and turns of the bottom of the canyon. A mile from the trailhead, the canyon made a sharp bend to the north at the foot of impressive sandstone cliffs on the north side of the trail. Looking up, we spotted the House on Fire granary at the base of the cliff.

House on Fire granary

The trail turned here and made its way up the slickrock to the granaries themselves. With just five grain storage compartments, this site is far from the scale of the most impressive cities and cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. The granaries do not even have roofs as they're built into the space beneath a rocky overhang. The sandstone patterns leading away from the entrances of these granaries, however, glow orange in afternoon lighting, appearing almost as streaks of fire emerging from the structures: hence the name.

This is an important archaeological site that can only be visited today because generations before us have not destroyed it; do not deface or alter or remove anything from this site.

Ancestral Puebloan granaries
Ancestral Puebloans built a civilization in the Four Corners region about a thousand years ago. Their key architectural achievements are at New Mexico's Chaco Canyon and Colorado's Mesa Verde, where their impressive masonry skills helped raise cities in the desert and on the sides of the cliffs. This culture was influential on Cedar Mesa: the masonry techniques used at the larger archaeological sites were also used here, although Cedar Mesa's sites mostly consist of smaller communities. There is a great density of former Puebloan communities on Cedar Mesa, many of which consisted of living quarters, kivas in which the Puebloan people held ceremonies, granaries for storing food, and middens that served as the rubbish heaps near these communities. At House on Fire, it's only possible to see granaries, but there are many more ruins both further down Mule Canyon and above the canyon rim on Cedar Mesa.

Cedar Mesa- along with the two hearts of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon- were abandoned by their inhabitants around 800 years ago. The descendants of this civilization- the Pueblo natives of today- mainly live along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, with the Hopi and the Zuni being two of the last outposts of these people in the deserts of the Colorado Plateau. Changing climate or invaders might have been among the reason they left their Cedar Mesa homes; today, the landscape of southeast Utah is significant to the Ute, Navajo, and the Pueblos of the Hopi and the Zuni. Together, these tribes pushed the federal government to protect Cedar Mesa and the lands near the Bears Ears Buttes just west of Blanding. In 2016, President Barack Obama designated over a million acres of this landscape as Bears Ears National Monument, giving firmer federal protections to the House on Fire and thousands of other Ancestral Puebloan ruins on Cedar Mesa. After taking office, President Donald Trump's administration moved to shrink this national monument, ultimately reducing the preserved area down to about 200,000 acres. The new borders of this national monument still include House on Fire but now exclude many of the other canyons on Cedar Mesa that hold the region's archaeological treasure trove.

After retracing our steps to the trailhead, we drove just a little further west on Utah Highway 95 to the Mule Canyon ruins roadside exhibit. This Ancestral Puebloan settlement is on Cedar Mesa, just above where the House on Fire sits down below in Mule Canyon. The site consisted of a small set of apartments linked to a restored kiva; from here, there were views to the Abajo Mountains by Monticello.

Mule Canyon Ruin
On our way back to Blanding, we watched the sun set over the impressive sandstone wall of Comb Ridge, an impressive line of sandstone cliffs running just east of Cedar Mesa. Luckily, this natural feature is still protected by a national monument designation.

Comb Ridge
Comb Ridge
This is a short and easy hike to a nice Ancestral Puebloan site with no crowds. The signage is poor for reaching this trailhead, but anyone who does their homework can explore this corner of Cedar Mesa to check out this picturesque ruin. If you've been curious over the political fight over Bears Ears' future, here's a good place to start to learn about and explore this remarkable landscape.

Peshastin Pinnacles

The Stuart Range and the Peshastin Pinnacles
1 mile loop, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

Peshastin Pinnacles- a set of rock formations rising above the Wenatchee River outside the town of Cashmere on the eastern side of the Cascades in Washington State- is perhaps best known for its climbing, but it's also a nice spot to stop by for a leg-stretcher hike for anyone passing by this area. A few trails wind through these sandstone slabs, mainly providing access to climbing areas, but these trails can be combined to make a pretty loop with views of the pinnacles themselves, the Stuart Range, and the valley of the Wenatchee River. There are a number of loops that can be assembled with the trail network here and I'll describe an easier hike on a lower loop through the pinnacles.

I explored Peshastin Pinnacles on the way back from a road trip to the Selkirks. Hikers from the Puget Sound region can reach the park by taking US Highway 2 east across Stevens Pass and past Leavenworth and Peshastin and then turning north (left) onto Dryden Road between Dryden and Cashmere. Dryden Road heads north through some orchards and then makes a broad bend to the left; the parking area for the Peshastin Pinnacles is just a little farther down to the right. There trailhead lot was quite big and was fairly empty on an October Saturday afternoon.

From the parking area, a wide gravel path led uphill to a gate; here, the wide path ended at an intersection with two narrower dirt paths. I chose to hike a clockwise loop and took the left fork here, which headed west and wrapped around the base of the pinnacles. The trail provided nice views of the orchards and filling the valley; nearby Wenatchee is the self-proclaimed Apple Capital of the World. A few peaks of the Stuart Range were visible to the west as well. The trail turned to the north and began ascending as it made its way to the base of a large sandstone slab. There is a network of unmarked trails here: the trail going ahead climbed via short switchbacks alongside the nearby rock pinnacle, while I ended up taking the trail that turned sharply to the right, climbing as it headed south along the outer slopes of the mountain.

Peshastin Pinnacles
This trail made a short and stiff uphill climb as it ascended towards a small ridge; the trail was a bit narrow in places. The views improved dramatically, with many Stuart Range peaks continuing to dominate the view to the west while the notable peak of Cashmere Mountain appeared. The scenery was quite pretty with fall colors in the valley below.

Stuart Range and the Wenatchee River
A set of power lines run through Peshastin Pinnacles State Park and unfortunately they mar the view a little here; to get a slightly better view, I took a short detour path on the left, which climbed steeply over a short stretch to provide views of a small pine tree growing out of a nearby pinnacle; the scenery was oddly remniscent of the rocky peaks of China's Huangshan. Below, the Wenatchee River made a bend as it flowed into the town of Cashmere.

Pinnacle rises over Wenatchee River and the town of Cashmere
Leaving the ridge, the trail began to descend, passing another unmarked trail junction with a path that led steeply uphill. The trail continued to stay in the open here, providing lovely views of the surrounding mountains and of the rocks that make up the Peshastin Pinnacles.

Pinnacles with Cashmere Mountain
A final descent via switchbacks returned me to the base of the mountain but gave some beautiful views of the nearby town of Cashmere and the many orchards along the Wenatchee River. The fall colors in the Wenatchee Valley were stunning. At the base of the mountain, I turned right and found myself back at the start of the loop.

Cashmere from the Peshastin Pinnacles
This is a short hike that is a nice add-on if you're doing another shorter hike in the area on a day trip or if you're passing through on a road trip; the trail is easily accessible from the US Highway 2 and makes for an enjoyable and brief detour.

Wallace Falls

Middle Wallace Falls
5.5 miles round trip, 1450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

Wallace Falls is a good hike during the rainy, gloomy times of year around Seattle; the three tiers of the waterfall are all quite beautiful and are accessed by a hike through lush Pacific Northwest forest. This is a popular hike due to its proximity to the Seattle metro area and may become very crowded in nicer weather, so I'd urge you to come when the weather is drearier and the fairweather hikers are home. Winter and spring also mean heavier flow rate which make for more impressive cascades at Wallace Falls.

I've done this hike a number of times, often choosing it as a gentle workout when the days are short and the weather is a little rainy or if there's heavy snow on trails at higher elevations. Wallace Falls State Park is a short drive from Seattle, Bellevue, or Everett, as it's just at the very edge of the Snohomish County suburbs on US Route 2. From Seattle, I usually reach Wallace Falls by following Highway 522 (Lake City Way/Bothell Way) northeast to Monroe and then taking US Route 2 east to Gold Bar. At Gold Bar, I turn left onto 1st Street, which has a sign indicating that it's the turn for Wallace Falls State Park. I then follow 1st Street three block across a bridge and make a right turn at May Creek Road, which is also signed for Wallace Falls State Park. At a fork in the road, I take the left fork, which again is indicated by a state parks sign; when the yellow dividing lines end, I take the left fork which leads uphill to a large parking lot for the state park. A Discover Pass is required to park here.

From the parking lot, a wide gravel road heads east through a power line clearing to start the hike. On nice days, Mount Index is visible amidst the power lines. After a third of a mile, the trail made a wide turn to the left and entered the forest. Here, the Woody Trail- the park's most highly trafficked trail- broke off to the right from the wider gravel trail. I took the Woody Trail, which quickly led to the banks of the Wallace River. This trail lived up to its name, threading through beautifully lush Pacific Northwest rainforest; although much of the forest here is second-growth, the trees are are still enchanting when coated with ferns and moss.

Wallace River
Shortly after starting the Woody Trail, I arrived at a spur trail to Small Falls. This is a short detour, but it's not particularly worthwhile; Small Falls is indeed the correct name here and this waterfall is far less impressive than the three major waterfalls on the Wallace River for which the park is named.

Continuing on, the trail followed the Wallace River for a stretch before making a short ascent and staying higher above the river. A half mile into the Woody Trail, I passed an intersection for a connector trail that led to the Railroad Grade, a wider gravel path paralleling the Woody Trail; I stayed on the Woody Trail, which was always within sight of the river and was substantially more scenic.

Another half mile of hiking and some uphill followed by downhill brought me to the bridge crossing over the North Fork Wallace River and the intersection with the Greg Ball Trail, which follows the North Fork Wallace River upstream all the way to Wallace Lake, a pretty destination on its own. The confluence of the North Fork and the main trunk of the Wallace River was just downstream of the bridge. This was such a relaxing sight: two rushing mountain streams flowing together in a verdant, moody rainforest.

Wallace River at the bridge
After crossing the bridge, the trail began to climb, packing about 800 feet of elevation gain into the last mile of the hike. An initial short ascent followed by a gentler stretch brought me to the first of three major waterfalls on the Wallace River. Lower Wallace Falls is the smallest of the three drops but is still very pretty, with the river cascading over rocky terrain before plunging in a final drop down to a pretty pool. The lower falls are somewhat lengthy and I had to descend slightly from the main trail to see the entirety of this waterfall.

Lower Wallace Falls
Leaving the lower falls, the trail was gentle for a short stretch before resuming its climb, embarking on a switchback ascent. The end of one of these switchbacks provided the park's most magnificent view: Middle Wallace Falls leaping down a ciff into a rocky but forested gorge. The main drop of Middle Wallace Falls is about 260 feet (the combined falls of the Wallace River drop about 900 feet), which is the tallest of all the drops in the park and one of the prettier waterfalls in Washington State. Wallace Falls has a bit of a horsetail shape and is best in higher flow, meaning that the scenery here is usually prettier on drearier winter days than it is on hot, dry, and sunny summer days. Winter is also a beautiful time to visit; variable weather conditions create beautifully icy scenery in the gorge below the falls.

Middle Wallace Falls
Ice at the Middle Falls
The switchbacks tackling the ascent over Middle Wallace Falls are the hike's most intense climb, though even here the uphill is quite reasonable. Switchbacks through open second-growth forest eventually led to the top of the falls. A viewpoint allows you to see the Wallace River start its plunge down the Middle Falls; there are also supposed to be nice views out into the Skykomish River Valley and Gold Bar, but as I usually come on overcast days I've only seen clouds from here.

The trail leveled out a bit after passing the top of the Middle Falls but soon yet another uphill climb started, ending as I arrived at the top of the hike. Here, at Upper Wallace Falls, the Wallace River makes two drops totaling about 100 feet separated by a pretty pool in a rocky gorge. When I came in winter, freezing temperatures had turned the falls' mist into thin ice formations coating the rock of the gorge. While the trail continued uphill from here and connects to Wallace Lake, I turned around at the upper falls and retraced my steps on the Woody Trail.

Upper Wallace Falls
Icy Upper Falls
More experienced hikers who have written off Wallace Falls due to this park's popularity should revisit when the weather is suboptimal to enjoy the park's most beautiful time with minimal crowds. Less experienced hikers convinced they can only have a good time outdoors when it is sunny and hot should visit Wallace Falls in the rainy season to learn otherwise. Yes, Wallace Falls is popular, but it's really quite pretty if you can come when water flow isn't low and crowds aren't too thick.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Murphy Point

Green River flowing through the Canyonlands below Murphy Point
3.6 miles round trip, 150 feet round trip
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canyonlands National Park entrance fee required

The easy hike out to Murphy Point in Utah's Canyonlands National Park ends at a stunning viewpoint over the maze of canyons carved out by the Green River. This is an easy and enjoyable hike that ends with a view that includes a gooseneck along the Green River and recommended for visitors who have a whole day or more in the Island in the Sky District; however, visitors with less time will find that the views of the Canyonlands from the many roadside viewpoints are still excellent, even though none offer quite as good a view of the Green River itself.

I hiked out to Murphy Point during a trip to the Moab area with my mother. This was the longest hike of our day at Island in the Sky, which mostly consisted of very short hikes and stops at roadside viewpoints. From Moab, we took US Route 191 north to the left turnoff for Canyonlands National Park's Island in the Sky District. We followed this road into the park past the visitor center, continuing straight at the junction with the Upheaval Dome Road. We made the turnoff on the right for the Murphy Trailhead to arrive at the start of the hike.

From the trailhead, the wide dirt trail cut across flat grasslands covering the mesa top of Island in the Sky. Looking back to the east, there were views over the grasslands to the peaks of the La Sal Mountains. The trail descended very gently and reached a junction after a half mile. The Murphy Point Trail heade right, while the trail descending to the White Rim led to the left. We took the right fork to continue towards Murphy Point.

La Sal Mountains rising over grasslands of Island in the Sky
The terrain changed after we passed the junction: the trail emerged onto a low crest of a protruding part of the mesa, which was dotted with juniper and pinyon pine. Some nice views emerged as the cliffs of Island in the Sky became visible, along with Junction Butte and the Abajo Mountains to the south.

Junction Butte and Island in the Sky

The trail descended gently along this crest, punctuated by a short and low-grade uphill, as it headed west along the protruding arm of Island in the Sky towards Murphy Point. The path dropped across a varying terrain of slickrock and sand and eventually arrived along the rim of Island in the Sky. Here were the first good canyon views of the hike, showcasing the canyonlands to the north: the great, flat plain of Soda Springs Basin extended between Murphy Point and Candlestick Tower to the north, broken only by one narrow canyon sliced into the White Rim. A number of Navajo Sandstone outcrops rose above the Kayenta Sandstone defining the Island in the Sky mesa, the last remnants of a geological formation that has otherwise been fully eroded in the park.

Island in the Sky
The trail then leaves the rim again and enters its last stretch, which oddly enough cuts to the south and then abruptly ends at the southwest edge of Murphy Point. The view here is of course very beautiful, encompassing Junction Butte, the Maze, and the Needles, but it doesn't overlook the great bend of the Green River, which is what everyone hikes out here to see. The best overlook here is a little further on past the end of the trail.

Green River Canyonlands and Candlestick Tower
From the end of the trail, we turned north (sharply to the right, almost back in the direction we came from) and followed faint social paths across the mesa until reaching the westernmost edge of Murphy Point. Here was the true viewpoint: below us lay the winding Green River, which forms a dramatic gooseneck as it wraps around a rock structure of the White Rim Formation known as Turks Head. Kayenta Sandstone walls defined the opposite wall of the Green River Canyonlands with Cleopatra's Chair, a notable block of Navajo Sandstone, sticking out above the opposite rim. The Henry Mountains were visible even further in the distance, a range so remote that they were the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to be named.

Green River below Murphy Point
This view encompasses the heart of the Canyonlands. The Needles District was visible to the south and the Maze was visible to the west: this is one of the few spots where casual visitors can observe the labyrinthine canyon complexes of the Maze, which remains one of the most remote and wild landscapes in the United States. Gazing towards the Maze, I spotted a small number of dark-colored buttes rising above that landscape that seem to be the Chocolate Drops, a notable set of rock towers in that part of the park. Access to the Maze District is a full day's drive on 4WD high clearance roads from Moab and there are few hiking trails; the canyons are said to be as confusing and disorienting as their name suggests.

View over the White Rim to the Maze
There was a gentle uphill on the return. Overall, this was an easy and excellent hike leading to a beautiful view of the Canyonlands and in particular of the Green River.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Omak Balancing Rock

Omak Balancing Rock
1 mile round trip, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate due to very steep section; bring poles!
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no parking lot and no fees

Washington State's rarely-visited Okanogan Highland hides a quirky geological oddity: a large boulder perfectly balanced on a much smaller base rock. A short drive from the town of Omak on the Colville Indian Reservation, the Omak Balancing Rock is a fun stop, although not necessarily a spectacular destination. A coincidence created by a previous ice age, this rock can be reached by a very short hike that also packs in some nice views of Omak Lake. Although the path is short, the final uphill stretch is quite steep- use appropriate footwear or hiking gear.

I visited the Omak Balancing Rock during a drive across Washington State on Highway 20. From downtown Omak, I took Highway 155 east and turned left onto the Columbia River Road at the edge of town. I followed the Columbia River Road south for 12 miles, tracing high above the west shore of Omak Lake until I came to the lake's southern end, where I made a left turn onto Omak Lake Road, a gravel road that led downhill. I followed Omak Lake Road down to a large left turn in the road, where I pulled off and parked along the road. The balancing rock was visible just uphill. There are no signs marking the trailhead.

From the Omak Lake Road, I followed the dirt Jeep trail that led in the direction of the Balancing Rock. Most of the hike ascended very gently through dry grasslands, with nice views looking back towards Omak Lake as sunrise approached.

Balancing Rock from a distance
Reaching the bottom of a hill just below the Balancing Rock, the trail then embarked on a short but very steep uphill climb, ascending directly along a slippery and eroded path up to the rock. The rock itself is fenced off with wire, but I was still able to approach a few feet away from it.

The Omak Balancing Rock is a glacial erratic, resulting from a geological coincidence during Ice Age floods in the past. The landscape of Eastern Washington has been dramatically shaped by the floods that swept the Columbia Basin after the failure of ice dams that formed large glacial lakes in Montana. As the ice dams collapsed, floodwaters greater than the flow of all the world's rivers combined swept over the Columbia Basin. The waters carried ice rafts calved from glaciers, some of which were embedded with large rocks. These rocks were then deposited wherever the ice rafts were stranded. Omak Balancing Rock likely resulted from such a scenario and has balanced perfectly on the small underlying pedestal stone.

Omak Balancing Rock
Looking back to the north, I watched the day's first light fall on the Okanogan Highlands. Far off, I could the snowy peaks of the Okanogan Mountains past the north end of Omak Lake.

Sunrise over Omak Lake
This is a short hike and the Balancing Rock is fun to see- if you're nearby, it's worth the short detour.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Gooseneck Trail (Canyonlands NP)

Colorado River cutting through the Canyonlands
0.8 mile round trip, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: 4WD high clearance road access to trailhead, Canyonlands National Park entrance fee required

A short walk off the car-eating 4WD White Rim Road in Utah's Canyonlands National Park is one of the most spectacular viewpoints along the length of the Colorado River's extensive canyonlands. At the end of the Gooseneck Trail lies a viewpoint over a sweeping bend in the mighty but peaceful Colorado River, surrounded by soaring desert walls and buttes. Only approachable by very rough 4WD high clearance vehicle roads, this overlook sees only a fraction of the visitors that crowd Deadhorse Point State Park or the Canyonlands Island in the Sky above. The hike is short and the drive is long, but if you have an appropriate car to handle these roads you shouldn't miss it. Come around dawn or dusk to experience this absolutely superlative landscape in dramatic golden lighting.

I hiked this trail during a November visit to Moab with my mother. There are two approaches to reach this trailhead and we ended up covering them both. The first is to descend the Shafer Canyon Road, a switchbacking 4WD road from the Canyonlands Island in the Sky District; the other is to take the long, dusty, and bumpy 4WD Potash Road from Moab along the Colorado River. These two can be combined with the US 191/Hwy 313 approach to Island in the Sky to form a driving loop, which I highly recommend if you have a vehicle suitable for driving it and the experience to tackle it.

From Moab, we took US Route 191 north to the left turnoff for Canyonlands National Park's Island in the Sky District. We followed this road into the park and spent the day in the Island in the Sky District; in the afternoon, we left via the Shafer Canyon Road, which leaves from the east side of the main park road just north of the visitor center. The Shafer Canyon Road is an absolutely spectacular and hair-raising driving descent down a canyon via a narrow, switchbacking, cliff-hugging 4WD dirt road. We drove slowly to manage the difficult road and to enjoy the awesome scenery and took our time to reach the junction of the Shafer Canyon Road with Potash Road and White Rim Road. Here, we headed straight and took White Rim Road, a long 4WD road that explores much of a middle layer of the Canyonlands- the White Rim- surrounding Island in the Sky. We followed White Rim Road for about two miles until we reached the trailhead for the Gooseneck Trail, which was marked with a sign by the road. There was enough room near the road by the trailhead to pull off and park.

Shafer Canyon 4WD Road
If you're arriving from Moab via Potash Road, simply take US Route 191 north from Moab across the Colorado River, turn left onto Potash Road, follow that road until it meets White Rim Road, and then arrive at the trailhead two miles after that.

From the trailhead, the trail starts in red dirt but soon moved onto the hard sandstone that defines the White Rim Formation of the Canyonlands. The trail winded through open, rocky terrain punctuated with low desert shrubs that offered plenty of views of the high-walled canyon cathedral around us. The soaring buttes and ramparts of Island in the Sky towered above. Cairns led us across the rock with a gentle ascent until we reached the rim of the canyon.

Buttes of the Utah Canyonlands
The Colorado River wrapped around a beautiful, curving bend beneath us, perhaps the most famous gooseneck of the Colorado after Arizona's Horseshoe Bend. Another sky mesa rose in the distance on the other side of the canyon and the La Sal Mountains were visible even farther back. We were all alone, experiencing an overwhelming sense of awe in this unbelieveable landscape by ourselves. Beneath us, we realized that the rock layers underlying the White Rim Formation were eroding faster, leaving mushroom-like rock sculptures under the cap rocks of the White Rim Formation, the sort of bizarre and otherworldly shapes that become commonplace on the Colorado Plateau.

Colorado River Gooseneck

La Sal Mountains rising over the Colorado River and the Utah Canyonlands
What more can I say? The Colorado Plateau is one of the most unique landscapes in the world and this overlook over the Colorado River is one of the great views of the Colorado Plateau. The scenery here rivals that of the Grand Canyon.

Ridley Scott thought so as well when shooting Thelma and Louise, choosing a viewpoint along Potash Road just further upstream along the gooseneck from this overlook as the setting of the movie's dramatic final scene, when the two women drive into what's billed as the Grand Canyon. After my mom and I finished soaking in the amazing views at the end of the Gooseneck Trail, we drove back to Moab via the Potash Road, stopping at the Gooseneck Overlook along the road to take a last glance at the stunning canyons of the Colorado as the sun set.

Colorado River views along Potash Road
The hiking to reach this viewpoint is easy but the driving is hard; it's worth it for some of the most incredible scenery of the Utah Canyonlands.

Mickinnick Trail

Cabinet Mountains rise over Lake Pend Oreille and Sandpoint
7 miles round trip, 2400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, free parking

Just outside the town of Sandpoint, the Mickinnick Trail provides beautiful views of Lake Pend Oreille in the Idaho Panhandle from atop a mountainside of the Selkirk Range. I haven't explored quite enough of the Pend Oreille region to compare this hike to others nearby, but I did enjoy this hike quite a bit and found the views over Idaho's largest lake to be fabulous. Autumn is a nice time to see the color of the western larches down in the valley below, although there are very few larches on this trail itself.

I hiked this trail during an October road trip to the Selkirks. The trailhead is on the the outskirts of Sandpoint, Idaho and is about 80 minutes driving from Spokane. From Sandpoint, I followed US Route 2/US Route 95 north to the Walmart just north of town and made a left turn onto the Schweitzer Cutoff Road here. I followed Schweitzer Cutoff Road until it intersected with Boyer Avenue just outside the Bonner County Jail and made a left turn; shortly after, I made a right turn onto Woodland Drive and followed it across the railroad tracks. I continued along Woodland Drive after it made a sharp bend to the right and followed it just north to the Mickinnick Trailhead on the left side of the road.

The trail's unusual name comes from Mick and Nicky Pleass, Sandpoint residents who donated land to the Forest Service to open up public access to this trail. The name also refers to the kinnikinnick- or bearberry- plant that grows in the region.

Leaving from the trailhead, I took the wide trail across a grassy field that gave me a glimpse of the mountain above, which was a mix of cliffs and forest. As the trail reentered the forest, it passed a stand of western larches that were the only such trees that I saw from close up on the hike.

Reaching the foot of the mountain, the trail cut to the north and began a switchbacking ascent up the slope. After a couple initial switchbacks, the trail arrived a small clearing at a half mile from the trailhead with a view to the east, the first viewpoint on the hike. Much of the view that could be seen higher up on the hike was visible here, although with a little less definition at this low elevation. A handful of nearby larches lit up the forest just below, while farther out open fields were mixed with forests and buildings in Sandpoint, with Lake Pend Oreille and the Cabinet Mountains beyond that.

Larches and the Cabinet Mountains from the first viewpoint
From this first viewpoint, the trail made a brief drop before embarking on a long switchback climb through the forest. Although there were no larches in this forest, some of the underbrush exhibited nice fall colors.

Trail through the forest
At around two miles into the hike, after numerous switchbacks, the trail passed an unmarked social path breaking off to the right from the end of a switchback that led out to a beautiful, open viewpoint atop a rocky part of the mountain slope. This was the widest and arguably most impressive viewpoint of the hike: from here, there was a sweeping view of Lake Pend Oreille and the town of Sandpoint below. The lake could be seen much more clearly than at the lower viewpoint, as could the many inlets along its shoreline. The Cabinet Mountains rose to the north of the lake. Looking more towards the north, I could also see along a stretch of the Cabinet Mountains, with the valley between the Selkirks and the Cabinet Mountains below dotted with farms, houses, and larches.

Rays of sunshine illuminating Lake Pend Oreille from the second viewpoint
View over Sandpoint to the Cabinet Mountains
After enjoying this viewpoint for a bit, I returned to the main trail, which continued climbing for a bit before cutting off towards the south. There was a nice viewpoint over Sandpoint and Lake Pend Oreille from the trail itself, but this view was not as broad as the viewpoint just earlier.

I continued to follow the trail on its sustained uphill climb. The switchbacks ended and the trail leveled out a bit as it approached a false summit around mile 3; the trail crossed this false summit and then dropped slightly through a saddle before making a final ascent to a nice viewpoint at the end of the trail. The trail's end was still far short of the summit of the mountain, stopping simply at a nice viewpoint on the east slope of the Selkirks.

Although this final view was not quite as wide as the view from the middle viewpoint, the additional elevation allowed me to further appreciate the size of Lake Pend Oreille. The lake is the largest in Idaho- in fact, the largest in the Pacific Northwest- and the 27th largest natural lake in the country. It's also the fifth deepest lake in the US, a fact that led the Navy to set up the Farragut Naval Training Center on the shores of this lake during World War II. The Navy still uses the lake for research today, as its depth gives it acoustic properties similar to the ocean. The lake also marks the spot where massive continental glaciers once dammed up the Clark Fork River, leading to the formation of Glacial Lake Missoula, which provided the waters for the massive floods that swept Eastern Washington to form the Channeled Scablands.

Lake Pend Oreille
This high viewpoint did provide more of a view to the south: I could see over the downtown area of Sandpoint and the Causeway that carries BNSF freight trains to the south. Gold and Blacktail Mountains were among the low, forested mountains across this arm of the lake; while it wasn't visible, the main body of the lake actually lies behind these nearby mountains. In the distance was the Bitterroot Range, a major arm of the Rockies that stretches along the Idaho-Montana border.

View to the Causeway, Blacktail Mountain and the Bitterroots
I had the top of the trail to myself; I saw a couple of locals on the hike up and down, but most confined themselves to the lower stretches of the trail, turning around at the first or second viewpoints. It was such a luxury to enjoy the views of fjord-like Lake Pend Oreille in solitude.

Lake Pend Oreille
Upon finishing the hike, I entered Sandpoint for lunch and found it an absolutely beautiful and charming town. Originally a timber town, outdoor recreation now powers the town, with the ski resort at Schweitzer Mountain a major player in the local economy. Skiers who come visit the resort in winter and head up to the crest of the Selkirks can see similar views to the ones from the Mickinnick Trail.

I enjoyed this hike quite a lot. It's easily accessed from Sandpoint and although the climb is substantial, the grade is manageable. Hiking here made me eager to return and explore more of Idaho's Rockies. If you're in the area and have a half day or more, this is a good hike to appreciate the beauty of Lake Pend Oreille.

Cutthroat Lake

Cutthroat Lake
4 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

This is a short hike to a pretty lake in Washington State's North Cascades. In the fall, Cutthroat Lake is a good place to see alpine larches display their golden foliage. This is a decent hike in a beautiful part of the state, but it's not outstanding compared to the quality of scenery on other hikes nearby. I wouldn't make the trip this far out from Seattle for Cutthroat Lake alone, but it's a good hike if you're passing by along Highway 20 or if you want to tack on a hike if you've already come this far out for one of the other short nearby hikes like Blue Lake or Rainy Lake.

I did this hike at the start of a road trip to the Kettle Range and the Selkirks, stopping by Cutthroat Lake as I crossed the North Cascades on Highway 20. From Seattle, I took I-5 north to Arlington, then followed Highway 530 east through Darrington and then north to its junction with Highway 20. I followed Highway 20 east through North Cascades National Park and over Washington Pass, turning off for Cutthroat Lake on the left as Highway 20 descended towards Mazama. I followed the trailhead access road a mile up to its dead end at the Cutthroat Lake Trailhead. A fresh coat of snow had just fallen on the Cascades, making Silver Star look particularly impressive as I drove over Washington Pass.

Silver Star with fresh snow
Leaving from the parking area, the trail crossed Cutthroat Creek on a well-built bridge and then began a brief uphill climb, making one switchback. It then leveled out a bit as it headed up the valley along the north side of the creek, ascending at a steady and gentle grade. A couple of breaks in the forest here provided good views of the surrounding mountains, including Hinkhouse Peak to the left and Cutthroat Peak at the head of the valley. There were no larches along this initial stretch of trail but I could see alpine larches on the higher slopes of the mountains around me.

Larches and fresh snow on Hinkhouse Peak
Cutthroat Peak
As I was doing this hike in late October, I crossed the snow line as I made my way forward and gently uphill on this hike. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead, I reached a junction: the main trail continued heading forward towards Cutthroat Pass, a beautiful alpine destination with views of the North Cascades, while the spur trail for Cutthroat Lake broke off to the left. I took the spur for Cutthroat Lake, which quickly dropped down to Cutthroat Creek. A log bridge crossed the creek here but was now coated in snow; I donned my microspikes to cross the bridge and complete the rest of the hike.

Crossing Cutthroat Creek
After crossing Cutthroat Creek, the trail climbed over a small hill and finally entered a forest mixed with alpine larch. The great wall of Cutthroat Peak's north face rose ahead.

Forest approaching Cutthroat Lake
The lake had a marshy margin, so the trail did not approach the lakeshore closely. Nonetheless, the view at the end of the lake was quite peaceful: the golden color of alpine larches dotted the lakeshore and mighty Cutthroat Peak rose above.

Larches on the shore of Cutthroat Lake
I followed a social path heading counterclockwise around the lake and rockhopped across the outlet to reach the west shore. From here, there were nice views of Hinkhouse Peak's rocky pinnacles rising above the lake, cradling a forest of alpine larch in a cirque high on its slopes. A brief flash of sunlight illuminated the peak on this otherwise cloudy day.

Cutthroat Lake
I turned around and returned to the trailhead from here, making my way further down Highway 20 to Omak for the night. Overall, this was a nice and pleasant hike with beautiful mountains and larches, although it's quite similar to other nearby lake hikes (Blue LakeLake Ann, or Rainy Lake) and is a bit farther of a drive from Seattle.