Monday, August 31, 2020

Mount Defiance (Snoqualmie Pass)

The Cascades rise over Lake Kulla Kulla
11 miles round trip, 3600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The view of sparkling lakes and an array of craggy peaks makes Mount Defiance one of the better hikes along the immensely popular I-90 corridor in Washington State's Cascade Range. Reached by just a one hour drive from Seattle, this well-loved hike uses a long and at times steep ascent to visit pretty Mason Lake and then deliver views of Mount Rainier, the peaks and lakes of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and the Puget Sound lowlands. This can be an enjoyable workout and the views at the summit are excellent, but be sure to come at a time when the trail won't be overrun by the residents of the Puget Sound metropolis.

I've hiked Mount Defiance at two different points during summer: once on a cloudy June weekend and again on a clear August weekday. My advice: never come here on a summer weekend, regardless of the weather. The trailhead's proximity to the Puget Sound area makes this hike far too popular on weekends: even early in the morning on a cloudy day we had to park along the road a half mile from the trailhead because there were so many hikers. I came alone on my August weekday hike: from Seattle, I took I-90 exit 45, turning left on Forest Service Road 9030 and following this unpaved road 3.5 miles to the Ira Spring Trailhead. The gravel road was a bit bumpy with some sizeable potholes but is usually manageable by two-wheel drive sedans. There is a large parking lot at the trailhead, but it typically fills up on weekends, so cars will often park alongside the road for up to a mile leading out from the trailhead. If you can only come on a summer weekend in late morning, I'm just have to say that I'm not sure hiking Defiance is worth dealing with crowds like that.

From the trailhead, the Ira Spring Trail sets off as a continuation of the gravel logging road that I drove to the trailhead. After heading west for a fifth of a mile, the trail made a sharp switchback to the east and continued ascending through the forest at a moderate grade. At 0.75 miles, the trail crossed a footbridge over Mason Creek, which drains Mason Lake far above; from the bridge, there was an excellent view of McClellan Butte, a sharp peak across the South Fork Snoqualmie valley that was named for George McClellan, an inaccurate surveyor and mediocre Civil War Union general who unsuccessfully challenged Lincoln for the presidency in 1864.

The Ira Spring Trail- named after a legendary Washington hiker and photographer who cofounded the Washington Trails Association- continued following the old logging road for another half mile past the Mason Creek bridge before diverting off onto a much steeper single track, 1.2 miles from the trailhead. This single track trail began an aggressive ascent through the forest, passing through a few avalanche chutes that provided some views of I-90 below and the peaks across the valley. After ascending through a set of switchbacks, the Ira Spring Trail finally started to break out into the open at 2.7 miles from the trailhead. Coming out onto a massive talus slope, I had views of Mount Defiance rising above to the west, with Mount Rainier now looming above the ridges to the south. McClellan Butte and Mount Washington rose above snaking I-90 below, which led out past the Issaquah Alps to the Puget Sound lowlands. The Olympic Mountains were visible on the western horizon. In June, these slopes are usually bursting with blooms of beargrass.

Mount Defiance from the Ira Spring Trail
McClellan Butte rises over I-90
The Ira Spring Trail passed a steep spur trail for Bandera Mountain at the end of the second switchback in the talus slope; Bandera Mountain is another enjoyable but crowded summit hike in the area and can be reached by a 1000-foot climb in just over a half mile from this junction. The Ira Spring Trail continued with a moderate ascent through the talus slope to cross a ridgeline, after it which it reentered the forest and began to descend, dropping 100 feet en route to the outlet of Mason Lake at 3.5 miles from the trailhead. After crossing the outlet of the lake, some side paths led down to the lakeshore, which is popular with backpackers on weekends but was fairly quiet midweek. Bandera Mountain rose to the southeast above the lake. Mason Lake came after about 2200 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead, a little under two-thirds of the total elevation gain of this hike.

Mason Lake
The trail is a little bit hard to follow after leaving the outlet of Mason Lake. While signs here point out the main trail to distinguish it from the maze of social paths around Mason Lake, it's still easy to lose. The key thing here is to watch out for the junction between the trail to Mount Defiance and that to Rainbow and Island Lakes. At the junction, take the left fork to head towards Mount Defiance. This trail made an initial ascent before flattening out briefly on a forested ridge. Partial views through the forest revealed that I was hiking on a ridge between two lakes: Little Mason Lake on one side and the large, gem-like Lake Kulla Kulla on the other side.

At the end of this brief, flat respite from climbing, the trail entered another stretch of aggressive ascent, tackling the slopes of Mount Defiance itself this time with a sustained uphill push through the forest. A number of short switchbacks assisted in this uphill stretch before the trail rounded the southeast ridge of the mountain. The trail ascended along the ridge until it began wandering onto the southern slopes of Mount Defiance, flattening out as it exited the forest and came out onto meadow-covered mountainsides. The ensuing stretch of trail was one of the most enjoyable stretches of the hike: a single-track, generally flat meander through beautiful subalpine meadows with views of Mount Rainier to the south and the other I-90 peaks all around. Looking back, I spotted Mason Lake nestled under Bandera Mountain as well as the farther, lookout-capped rocky summit of Granite Mountain.

Bandera Mountain rising over Mason Lake from the high slopes of Mount Defiance
At 5.2 miles from the trailhead, after enjoying a third of a mile of hiking through open meadows, I arrived at the southwest ridge of Mount Defiance. Here, the summit trail headed uphill to the right along the ridge, leaving the idyllic stretch of trail that had come before. This summit trail was brutally steep and was perhaps the most challenging ascent in a hike that already packs plenty of elevation gain: following the ridge directly with no switchbacks, it ascended nearly 500 feet in just 0.3 miles. I threw myself into this final ascent, which was tiring but rewarded me with ever more impressive views, including the rocky ridge of Putrid Pete's Peak immediately to the west.

Putrid Pete's Peak and the Olympics rising over I-90
After this final uphill push, I found myself on the long summit of Mount Defiance. While there is no single point with a 360-degree view, due to both the length of the summit and trees that grow near the top, I was able to piece together most of the view by walking the length of the summit. The view to the north came first: gazing down the watershed of the Pratt River, I spotted the nearby cliffs of impressive Garfield Mountain, with the two North Cascade volcanoes, Mount Baker and Glacier Peak, just peeking above the horizon.

Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, and other Cascade peaks
Walking over to the west end of the summit, I came to the view for which Mount Defiance is best known: Lake Kulla Kulla and Mason Lake sparkling below, with the great peaks of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness arrayed in the distance. Peaks spotted earlier like Bandera and Granite were now joined by Hibox, Alta, Silver, Kaleetan, Chair, Lemah, and Chimney Rock. In the distance rose the greatest peak of the Central Cascades: mighty Mount Stuart, the tallest non-volcanic peak in Washington State outside the North Cascades.

Lake Kulla Kulla and Mason Lake with the Snoqualmie Pass peaks
Kaleetan, Lemah, Stuart, and Hibox
To the south, Rainier showed off its magnificent north face, the steep Willis Wall. The Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers poured down its east facade. Mount Adams emerged in the distance to join the party; Mount Aix and Nelson Ridge, which are among the taller peaks in the southern Washington Cascades, stood out as well. The view was excellent; however, just about all of the I-90 peaks promise similarly beautiful views, though Mount Defiance is unique in offering such a pretty view of both Lake Kulla Kulla and Mason Lake from above.

Adams and Rainier
My stay at the summit was unfortunately quite brief: bugs quickly swarmed me, making it impossible for me to enjoy this view in peace, so I retreated slightly downhill to a less buggy spot to enjoy views of Rainier and eat my lunch before returning to the trailhead. I encountered severe bug swarms during both of my visits to this summit, so keep that in mind if you choose to hike here.

If you're looking for a hike with excellent views and a hefty workout that's just an hour from Seattle, Mount Defiance fits the bill; just know that on any given summer weekend, perhaps a thousand other households in the area will have the same idea. It can be an enjoyable hike when crowds are thin but I'd avoid coming here on any weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Whether you're visiting or live in the Pacific Northwest, there are many far less crowded options that are equally or more scenic that would be a better fit for a summer weekend hike.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Index Town Wall

Mount Baring rises above the foggy Skykomish Valley
2.6 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, a very steep trail
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no pass required

The steep, narrow, and challenging hike up to the top of Index Town Wall in Washington State's Cascade Range rewards hikers with beautiful views of steep, dramatic mountains rising above the Skykomish River Valley. Just over an hour's drive from Seattle and low enough in elevation that it's often snow-free even mid-winter, Index Town Wall was one of my favorite off-season hikes in the Pacific Northwest to stay in shape, avoid snow, avoid a long drive, avoid crowds, and still enjoy some outstanding views. If Index Town Wall sounds too good to be true, it's because the trail up the wall is one of the roughest and more strenuous trails in a state known for them: not an officially maintained trail, it's actually a climbers' path used to access the many climbing spots on this huge cliff just outside the town of Index. But if you can deal with the challenges of this hike, you'll find a true gem here.

I've hiked Index Town Wall many times, usually coming during the winter and spring when higher-elevation hikes are snowed in but the Index Town Wall is often still snow-free. From Seattle, I follow Highway 522 (Lake City Way) northeast to Monroe, where I then take US Highway 2 east past Gold Bar. Shortly after Highway 2 enters the mountains and crosses the South Fork Skykomish River by bridge, I turn left onto the Index-Galena Road, following it a mile to the town of Index itself. I enter town by crossing the bridge on 5th Street, turning left at Index Ave and then following it west as it merges with Ave A. The road parallels the North Fork Skykomish River and reaches the unmarked trailhead parking lot a half mile after leaving town. There is a reasonable sized parking lot to the right of the road here: there are often plenty of climbers parked out here, but there's no signage to indicate that you're at the right trailhead.

The trail departed from the west side of the trailhead parking area, climbing quickly to meet a set of railroad tracks. I crossed the tracks and then dropped down to follow the trail on the north side of the tracks, which led to the right (east). The trail followed the railroad for 200 meters along the base of the towering lower Town Wall, where I've frequently seen rock climbers, before dropping a bit as it headed left towards the base of the wall. This slightly wider stretch of trail brought me to a sealed tunnel at the base of the wall; this tunnel was once used by the University of Washington Physics Department. The relatively flat 0.3 miles that brought me to this tunnel was the easiest stretch of the hike; the climbers' trail to the top of the wall departed from here.

Almost all of the 1300 feet elevation gain of this hike came in the next four-fifths of a mile. Here, a narrow path led into the forest, quickly embarking on a steep and narrow uphill climb. The trail tackled the climb in three segments, with two brief respites at ledges between the major cliffs of the wall. Although there is no substantial exposure here, as the trail remains in the forest, the terrain is extremely steep, so it's important to be cautious. Hiking poles would be helpful here. 

Blue diamonds on trees marked the way up. The trail is generally easy to follow, although at one point, below the second ledge, the trail splits from a well-trodden dead-end path; a painted arrow on rock at this junction indicates that hikers should stay left, but many head to the right as the main trail appears to head in that direction. If you do end up on the wrong path, you'll realize when you arrive at a flat forested ledge where the trail dies out; follow social paths through the forest to the left and you'll rejoin the main trail.

At times, the trail is steep enough that you may want to use your hands. The intense climb finally started to level out after a particularly rocky section of trail; past here, the terrain became slightly less steep as I approached the top of the Town Wall. The last part of the ascent was still steep, though far less so than the most aggressive climb encountered earlier. The trail leveled out and then joined an old logging road. In winter and spring, this old roadbed is frequently a stream, as winter rains co-opt it to flow downhill. The final tenth of a mile followed this logging road until coming to an airy, open ledge at the top of the Index Town Wall.

Gunn, Merchant, and Baring over the town of Index
Standing 1300 feet above the floor of the Skykomish River valley, I've enjoyed many spectacular views of the dramatic mountains that welcome hikers to the Highway 2 corridor. The peaks surrounding Index are some of the more dramatic in the Cascades and Index Town Wall provides an excellent view of all of these sharp, rocky summits. Gunn and Merchant Peaks have high rocky pinnacles that are coated in snow during winter and spring. The north face of double-peaked Baring Mountain is an extremely dramatic vertical drop, one that qualifies Baring Mountain as being one of the steepest mountains in Washington State. That's saying a lot, once you consider the ruggedness of the mountains deeper in the North Cascades! None of these peaks are particularly tall by Washington State standards- they top out at just over 6000 feet- but the vertical relief from the Skykomish River, which is just 500 feet above sea level, is extremely impressive. It never ceases to amaze me that such beautiful and dramatic mountains are just over an hour from Seattle, yet still draw less traffic than the more pedestrian peaks lining I-90.

To the south is another dramatic giant: Mount Index, with the soaring cliffs of its magnificent north face. The cliffs of Mount Persis lay further to the west; Persis would in itself be an impressive summit anywhere else, but here it is overshadowed by its magnificently vertical neighbors. Thousand foot-tall Bridal Veil Falls plunge down the lower slopes of Mount Index, fed by Lake Serene and the frequent winter avalanches down Index's sheer north face. The forks of the Skykomish River joined below at the foot of Mount Index, the North Fork doing so after flowing by the small grid of the town of Index. While other Index area hikes- notably, Heybrook Ridge and Heybrook Lookout- may offer parts of this view, none offers a view quite so complete and quite so commanding as this high climbing cliff opposite those great peaks.

Index and Persis, Bridal Veil Falls flowing
One of my favorite memories from Index Town Wall came from a hike with inversion layer fog filling the valley below. After driving under overcast skies all the way from Seattle, I hiked to the top of the Town Wall on a January day and found this impressive view of peaks rising above a lake of fog in the valley. This was a long time favorite hike of mine; it is beautiful, it is close to Seattle, and I could hike it at nearly any time of year. It's absolutely not a hike for novices, but if you've hiked plenty in the Northwest and are up for a challenging, steep climb, you can enjoy this absolute gem of a hike as well.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Borel Hill Loop

Russian Ridge wildflowers rising above the Pescadero Creek redwood forests
5 miles loop, 850 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but very windy road to trailhead, no parking fee

There are sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay Area from the meadow-covered summit of Borel Hill, the high point of Russian Ridge in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. This is an enjoyable hike year-round for the constant open views from Russian Ridge but the area is particularly beautiful each spring when the meadows of the preserve puts on the most spectacular wildflower show in the Bay Area. The wildflowers typically peak in May, when blooms of California poppies and dandelions carpet the slopes of the ridge; the grassy slopes here are attractively green in winter and spring before the blooms, as well. This is a relatively easy hike that combines a ridge walk with a meander through meadow-covered slopes and oak forests. Come early or on a weekend as the preserve is a popular hike for Silicon Valley residents.

I've visited Russian Ridge a number of times now; the most memorable of those visits was a mid-May hike to see the incredible wildflower blooms. Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is just outside Palo Alto and is most easily accessed from other parts of the Bay Area via I-280. Unfortunately, the drive up Page Mill Road to reach this trailhead is one of the windiest roads in the Bay Area, packing over 100 turns in a little over 5 miles. To reach the trailhead, exit I-280 onto Page Mill Road in Palo Alto and then follow Page Mill Road south into the Santa Cruz Mountains. The road becomes progressively more windy and narrow as it climbs up a ridge of Black Mountain until it finally intersects with Skyline Blvd; at the junction, continue straight, with Page Mill Road becoming Alpine Road here. The main parking area for Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is on the north (right) side of Alpine Road immediately past the intersection with Skyline Blvd. If parking is full here, there is an alternate access point for the midway point of the hike a mile north along Skyline Blvd.

Leaving the north side of the parking lot, the Ridge Trail began by paralleling Skyline Blvd before peeling to the left as it ascended through open grasslands to the spine of Russian Ridge. On the ridge, the trail widened as it followed the path of a former service road. The Ridge Trail is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, an ambitious long-distance trail currently still being developed that will run 550 miles along the crest of the ranges surrounding San Francisco Bay when complete. The trail passed underneath some power lines as it gradually ascended along the ridge, coming to a junction with a connector trail to the Ancient Oaks Trail after a half mile.

Wildflowers started near the trailhead but the most impressive show during my May visit was along the top of Russian Ridge just east of Borel Hill itself. At this trail junction a half mile from the parking area, the grassy slopes of the ridge were completely coated in blooming California poppies and dandelions. As I continued east along the Ridge Trail towards Borel Hill, the show only improved, mixing in lupine and other purple flowers into the already showy displays of yellow and orange.

Poppies bloom at Russian Ridge
Russian Ridge wildflowers
Grand views began opening up as I ascended the ridge: nearby views of Black Mountain across the Stevens Creek watershed and farther views to the south of Mount Umunhum and Loma Prieta, the tallest peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains, would have kept me entertained even absent the wildflowers. At 0.7 miles from the trailhead, I came to a second junction: the service road kept going straight towards the summit of Borel Hill, while the Ridge Trail became a single-track path that peeled off to the left. I decided to summit Borel Hill first, taking the service road straight and then quickly heading off to the right on an unmarked but well-trod trail that ascended a bit more to reach the top of Borel Hill, the high point of Russian Ridge.

View from Borel Hill to Umunhum and Loma Prieta
Standing at the top of Borel Hill, there was a sweeping view of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the San Francisco Bay Area. On a clear day, there are views north along the length of the Peninsula to the San Francisco skyline, which is capped with the new Salesforce Tower. Mount Tamalpais rises above San Francisco to the west, while on very clear days the multi-humped summit of Mount St. Helena can be seen rising far to the north of the Bay at the head of Napa Valley. The Dumbarton, San Mateo, and Bay Bridges cross San Franicsco Bay below, while local landmarks like Palo Alto's University Ave business district, the Stanford campus, the hills of the Stanford Dish, and the NASA Ames Research Center are easily identifiable. Mount Diablo rises to the north and Mission Peak rises to the east, the start of a high ridge in the Diablo Range that culminates in tall Mount Hamilton, which is capped by the white domes of the Lick Observatory. On rare, extremely clear winter days, I've been able to see out the gap between Mission Peak and Pleasanton Ridge to Brushy Peak near Livermore and the snowy Sierra Nevada across Central Valley, over 150 miles away.

Mission Peak and the Bay from Russian Ridge
Mount Tam rises above the San Francisco skyline and the Peninsula
Stanford campus and Palo Alto behind the hills at the Stanford Dish
It's possible to just do a 1.5-mile round trip hike to the summit of Borel Hill, but it's far more interesting to continue onward for a longer loop on Russian Ridge, which packs in more ridge walking while escaping the more crowded parts of the preserve. It's possible to continue east along the ridge either on the service road that led to Borel Hill's summit or on the single-track Ridge Trail; both are scenic, with views of the Bay Area from the service road and views of Mindego Hill and the forested valley of Pescadero Creek from the single-track Ridge Trail. Ultimately, I prefer the Ridge Trail as it is a bit quieter and has a wilder feel.

Backtracking to the point where the Ridge Trail split off, I took the single-track option at the fork this time and ignored the split for the Bo Gimbal Trail. The Ridge Trail contoured the slopes of Russian Ridge just slightly below the ridgeline itself, providing beautiful views of grassy Mindego Hill to the east and the rolling landscape of grassy hills and forest near La Honda.

Mindego Hill
After a half mile, the Ridge Trail dropped down to a saddle near a second access point on Skyline Blvd, about 1.3 miles from the trailhead. I continued on the Ridge Trail past the junction with the Charquin Trail: here, the trail returned to the old service road, following it along the south side of the open ridge with continued open views of the grassy hills in the area and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Two miles from the trailhead, I came to another junction: the Ridge Trail headed off to the right, the Hawk Ridge Trail began dropping downhill to the left, and the trail straight ahead led to a dead-end viewpoint with a bench. I visited the viewpoint briefly, which complemented the views of the La Honda hills that I had been enjoying for the last mile of the hike with a glimpse of the San Francisco skyline to the north.

Returning to the four-way junction, I took the Hawk Ridge Trail, which began descending gradually while traversing the slopes on the southern side of Russian Ridge. The single track trail through green, grassy hillsides here with views of redwood-covered Butano Ridge in the distance and Mindego Hill nearby were very enjoyable, especially as there were few hikers in this corner of the preserve.

Hawks Ridge Trail
The Hawks Ridge Trail descended about 300 feet in 0.6 miles before joining up with the Alder Spring Trail, a dirt road that dead-ended to the right. I headed left at this junction to continue hiking east along the lower slopes of Russian Ridge. While hiking at the base of this grassy slope, I spotted a number of turkey vultures congregating on a rocky outcrop up the hill, an interesting sight.

Turkey vultures
I came to a junction with the Charquin Trail at the three-mile mark of the hike. Here, I took the right fork, which continued to contour along the lower slopes of the ridge. Soon, the trail entered an oak forest and then came to a junction with the Ancient Oaks Trail at 3.3 miles. I left the Charquin Trail, taking the left fork and following the Ancient Oaks Trail as it began ascending along a ridge. The trail swung out onto a clearing on a ridge and then followed the ridge through an attractive forest of impressive oaks as it packed in one of the longest sustained ascents of the hike, climbing over 250 feet between the Charquin Trail and the junction with the Bo Gimbal Trail a half mile later. I stayed to the right on the Ancient Oaks Trail at the Bo Gimbal intersection; the following 0.3 miles of trail returned to the open grassy slopes for which Russian Ridge is known.

Ancient Oaks Trail
At 4.2 miles, the Ancient Oaks Trail intersected with a dirt service road; while the Ancient Oaks Trail headed off to the right to descend to the Mindego Hill Trailhead, I took the service road to the left. This dirt road followed the contours of the hill, with forest to the right of the trail and open grassy slopes to the left. After passing a bench with views of Umunhum and Loma Prieta to the southeast, the trail crossed a wildflower-strewn slope to rejoin with the Ridge Trail, just a half mile from the trailhead. I followed the Ridge Trail downhill to conclude my thoroughly enjoyable half day at Russian Ridge.

In season, this is a remarkable wildflower hike with blooms carpeting the grasslands that line the spine of Russian Ridge. All Bay Area hikers should try to see these gorgeous flower blooms, when Russian Ridge is at its best. At other times of year, the wide-reaching views still make this an enjoyable hike just a short- albeit windy- drive from Silicon Valley.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Hat Point

The Seven Devils rise over Hells Canyon
0.5 miles loop, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Narrow, steep, rough unpaved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

At Hat Point Overlook in northeastern Oregon, the ground drops away 6000 feet to the Snake River, which continues to carve out North America's deepest gorge: Hells Canyon. The hike to reach this view is short, just a half mile loop that visits a picnic shelter before climbing the steps up a very tall fire lookout tower. The price of this view isn't the hike but the long, steep, narrow drive through the Imnaha Canyon necessary to reach this point. But the payoffs- views of the towering Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho, the Snake River below, and the Wallowa Mountains to the west- are worth the effort it'll take to drive here.

I visited Hat Point during a September road trip to the Wallowas. After spending the morning near Wallowa Lake, I left Joseph for Hat Point in the afternoon. It's important to budget a lot of time for this drive: although you can reach Imnaha from Joseph in just over a half hour, expect to spend an hour and a half driving the 23 rough miles to Hat Point from Imnaha. From Joseph, I took Highway 350 east, which cut across the serene Wallowa Valley before dropping into the deep Imnaha Canyon, arriving at the village of Imnaha 30 miles later. Here, after crossing the bridge over the Imnaha River, I stayed straight on the road past the post office and the general store and started out on the Hat Point Road. Signs warned me of the rough road ahead: take note. 

The paved road quickly transistioned to dirt as the road slowly began ascending above the Imnaha River Canyon for the first mile. It wasn't until turning east into a side canyon that the fun began. The road soon began ascending at a very steep grade, climbing aggressively as it traversed the high and open slopes of the canyon. The road here was steep, rocky, and narrow, with dramatic drop-offs to the canyon below to the south. This was certainly one of the more challenging stretches of road I've driven. The steep grade leveled out as the trail reentered forest, but the last 17 miles of the drive to Hat Point Overlook remained bumpy and rocky, taking the good part of an hour. Along the way, I stopped to admire Imnaha Canyon from Granny View and marveled at my first view of the Seven Devils rising above Hells Canyon shortly after following a great north bend in the road. Twenty-one miles past Imnaha, I arrived at the turnoff for Hat Point Overlook; I turned right here and followed this gravel road two final miles to the parking area near the lookout. 

Imnaha Canyon from Granny View
Hells Canyon
While some visitors might just walk the short paved path up to the lookout, I found it far more rewarding to walk to the rim of the canyon via a series of short, unsigned trails. Starting off on the main path to the lookout, I left the paved trail at the end of the first switchback, following a well-trod path south to reach a jeep track heading east. I followed this track east to reach a number of picnic shelters close to the rim of the canyon. The Hat Point Fire Lookout, an 82-foot tall fire lookout- one of the tallest I've ever seen- rose high above the burnt forest in this area.

Hat Point Fire Lookout
This picnic shelter trail led out to a spectacular platform viewpoint from which I could gaze into the depths of the canyon. Standing atop the basalt rim of the canyon, I gazed down past layers of basalt some thousands of feet thick to the winding Snake River some 6000 feet below. The scale here is nearly impossible to comprehend: each of the basalt layers on the canyon walls were tens to hundreds of feet thick and the Snake River, which looked small enough to ford, is actually 200 feet wide at this point in the canyon. The basalt layers on the canyon's rim were laid down by massive flood basalt eruptions in the Columbia Basin in the past 16 million years; multiple frequent volcanic events unleashed massive amounts of less viscous lava that flowed across much of the inland Northwest, each volcanic event leaving down yet another layer of basalt across the landscape. The Snake River has since cut through the entire history of those flood basalt events: this is one of the few places where the full geological history of the Columbia River Basalts is exposed, from the most recent layers at the top to the basalts abutting the basement rocks of the Wallowa terranes far below.

The Snake River flows through the depths of Hells Canyon
Leaving this viewpoint, I followed a single-track path up towards the lookout; this path met the paved path just below the lookout itself. I climbed the stairs of the lookout up to the observation deck 60 feet above the ground and started enjoying the views here first, but the fire watcher in the cabin at the top soon invited me up to enjoy the view from the top of this 82-foot tall structure. The views from here are surely some of the best in the Hells Canyon area: the Wallowas rose to the west and I had a commanding view of He Devil Mountain rising almost 8000 feet directly from the depths of Hells Canyon, an astonishing vertical drop that makes Hells Canyon the deepest gorge in North America. The Seven Devils Mountains are across the river in Idaho and are the westernmost range of the Rocky Mountains in this region.

Seven Devils from the Lookout Tower
Smoke from a small fire near Wallowa Valley wafted up in the west. The Hat Point Fire Lookout is still an active lookout today: I chatted with the fire watcher, who stayed up in the cabin all summer and spent his days looking out for smoke on the horizon. The fire watcher lived in Zillah, Washington but spent his summers out here, monitoring for wildfires each year until the first heavy rains of the fall relieved him of his duty.

The Wallowas from Hells Canyon
After enjoying the early evening views here, I descended the long staircase of the lookout tower and then followed the gentle paved path back down to the trailhead. I did not return down the most challenging stretch of the drive until after dark and was thankful that no other cars were driving up the narrowest, steepest stretch of the road.

This is a wild, remote, and absolutely beautiful part of the country. While the deepest canyon in America may still lack the wow factor of the Grand Canyon, Hells Canyon is an astonishing landscape worth visiting. Hat Point was by far the most commanding viewpoint of this great canyon during my visit; if you put up with the long and difficult approach road, you'll be rewarded with solitary views of vastness.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Five Palms (Anza Borrego)

Five Palms Oasis
0.3 miles round trip, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Sandy, rocky 4WD road to trailhead, no entrance fee

The remote Arroyo Salado is in one of the hottest and driest parts of southern California's Anza Borrego Desert State Park, so it's a surprise to see a small cluster of fan palms growing atop a hot, barren ridge here. The drive to Five Palms is far more work than the hike, but exploring this oasis and nearby Seventeen Palms in Arroyo Salado is an interesting way to appreciate the badlands and desert at the heart of California's largest state park. After heavy winter rains, wildflower blooms along the drive in- including blooms of the rare desert lily- can make this an even more rewarding spot to visit.

I visited Five Palms in Arroyo Salado during a February visit to Anza Borrego with my mom to see the superbloom. Arroyo Salaodo is not too far from Borrego Springs, the town at the heart of the park, but a 4WD vehicle is absolutely necessary to reach the trailhead. From Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs, we headed east on Palm Canyon Drive, which then became Peg Leg Road and then the Borrego-Salton Seaway. Sixteen miles from Christmas Circle, the Borrego-Salton Seaway passed through Ella Wash; the turnoff for Arroyo Salado, marked by a small roadside sign indicating "Arroyo Salado Camp," came right after.

This sandy 4WD road cut through some hills and quickly dropped to the wash of Arroyo Salado, following the sandy base of this canyon down into the Borrego Badlands. While driving this road, we spotted some nice patches of wildflowers that were part of that February's superbloom; most special were the rare blooming desert lilies that we spotted amongst the purple sand verbena on the side of the wash.

Desert Lily in Arroyo Salado
We drove 3.6 miles down Arroyo Salado before arriving at the turnoff for Seventeen Palms, an initial stop on this drive. The turn for Seventeen Palms was not marked, but there was a clearly well-traveled fork to the right here, which we followed for 300 meters up a small canyon to a parking area marked with stones. From here, we walked a hundred meters over to Seventeen Palms Oasis, a collection of fan palms (now numbering greater than 17) growing in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. We found a little bit of water and greenery near the palms, quite a rare sight in the desert; we also found an old barrel that served as an informal desert post office, where passerbys in the past would leave messages.

Seventeen Palms Oasis
Returning to the main wash of Arroyo Salado, we drove south another 200 meters before coming to the turnoff on the right for Five Palms in a distributary wash. We followed this sandy road into the badlands and soon arrived at the unmarked trailhead for Five Palms, obvious because a small collection of palms rose to the right of the road from the badlands. 

We parked on the side of the wash and then walked up a short ravine and up a small ridge to the palms. Although called Five Palms, there are just four California fan palms growing at this spot now. There is no surface water here, but groundwater must approach the surface here to support this small grove of palms in the middle of an otherwise barren desert: it is so inhospitable in this part of the Borrego Badlands that even creosote and ocotillo are far and few. The spot is remarkable in how these plants survive in such dry and hot terrain.

Five Palms
Walking to the crest of the ridge just beyond the palms, we found an excellent view of the heart of the Borrego Badlands. These colorful, sun-baked, eroded hills stretched on for miles to the west, with high desert mountains rising behind them. To the east, we could see over Arroyo Salado to the outer limits of the Borrego Badlands; the Orocopia Mountains, which rose in the distance, were actually on the far side of the Salton Sea.

Borrego Badlands
Borrego Badlands
Although this isn't too much of a hike, visiting Seventeen Palms and Five Palms in Arroyo Salado was a nice way to see oases in one of the harshest environments of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. The views of the badlands here were enjoyable as well; while this isn't a must for visitors to the park, those who have time to check out Five Palms will find it to be an enjoyable and detour.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Wind Caves (Anza Borrego)

Carrizo Badlands from the hill above the Wind Caves
1.2 miles loop, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Rough 4WD road to trailhead, no entrance fee

Wind Caves is a short hike to some fascinatingly eroded rocks that offer sweeping views over the desert, mountains, and badlands of southern California's Anza Borrego Desert State Park. This short hike is one of the most scenic destinations in this desert state park located two hours from San Diego; however, reaching the trailhead requires a 4WD vehicle to drive the sandy Split Mountain Road. This is a remote destination that sees few visitors: do this hike to enjoy the solitude and views that make Anza Borrego Desert State Park so special.

I visited Wind Caves with my mother during a February trip to Anza Borrego to see the superbloom. Wind Caves is a bit of a drive from Borrego Springs, a town in the heart of the park. From Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs, we followed Borrego Springs Road south to its junction with Highway 78. We then followed Highway 78 east six and a half miles to the town of Ocotillo Wells, where we turned right onto Split Mountain Road. We followed the paved Split Mountain Road for eight miles until the pavement ended. Here, the road forked: the left fork led to a mine, while the right fork headed towards Fish Creek Wash's deep cut through Split Mountain. This was the roughest stretch of the road: we followed the wash through the deep pass in the mountain, which was extremely dramatic with overhanging cliffs and beautiful anticlinal rocks. As we finally exited the canyon through Split Mountain and Fish Creek Wash widened up, we spotted a trail leading uphill to the left. We parked in the wash here (there's no defined parking) to start the hike up to Wind Caves.

The road through Split Mountain
The trail immediately embarked upon an uphill climb, making a short but steep ascent to reach a small plateau. A small summit rose ahead at the end of the ridge beyond the plateau, a flat stretch of desert ridgetop dotted with creosote and ocotillo. The trail widened out a bit as it crossed the plateau; at the far end, it began wrapping around the south side of the ridge, providing spectacular views of the deeply eroded Carrizo Badlands. Elephant Knees- a high badlands ridge rising over the jumble of gullies and the maze of ridges- stood out above this remarkable landscape, with the Laguna Mountains rising in the distance.

Elephant Knees and the Carrizo Badlands
The Sonoran Desert plants that make Anza Borrego such a fascinating landscape were on full display here: many barrel cacti and ocotillo dotted the mountainside, a weird combination of plant tentacles and spiny basketballs decorating this remote desert. In late February, the ocotillo were in full bloom, sporting rows of beautiful red flowers at the ends of each of their long spindly arms. Hummingbirds buzzed around, feeding off the plentiful nectar from each of the ocotillo blooms.

Barrel cactus
Ocotillo blooming, Whale Peak in the distance
Hummingbird feeding at a blooming ocotillo
As the trail wrapped around a ridge, the Wind Caves appeared before us: a collection of odd, eroded tunnels and caves in a number of rounded sandstone outcrops. The scene was otherworldly in late day lighting, seeming more like the abodes of dwarf aliens on some desert planet than Earth (incidentally, Tatooine scenes from the original Star Wars film were largely shot in the California desert!). We wandered over to the caves and began exploring: many were large enough to pop inside, though none were particularly deep.

View from inside a cave
We wandered through the caves for a while, exploring and squeezing through the sandstone passageways while enjoying the views of the Carrizo Badlands and nearby Whale Peak and the Vallecito Mountains.

Wind Caves
The formal trail ended here at the densest collection of sandstone wind caves just a half mile from the trailhead, but many social paths in the area provided opportunities for additional exploration. I decided to check out the low summit right above the Wind Caves: a well-worn social path led up to the ridge behind the sandstone cluster and then a ridgetop trail led west to the summit, about 100 feet in elevation above the caves below. From here, the views of the Carrizo badlands were even more impressive: mud hills rose above the intensely eroded badlands to the south and west, with the Laguna Mountains rising high above it all. Whale Peak rose to the west over the broad bottom of Fish Creek Wash. This was a spectacular badlands view, easily a match to the more famous Fonts Point view of the Borrego Badlands. 

View of Carrizo Badlands and the Wind Caves from atop the hill
Returning to the main collection of Wind Caves, we chose to make our way back via a different path: another social path led to a small knoll on the southeastern side of the wind caves and then began traversing alongside the slope of the mountain, heading back towards the trailhead just downhill of the trail that had brought us in. This social path delivered more views of the Carrizo Badlands as well as unique view of the many, many tunnels and arches cut into the sandstone of the Wind Caves complex. As this social path wandered along the mountainside, we were able to see a couple of isolated sandstone outcrops, each of which also sported the eroded passageways and arches characteristic of these Wind Caves. After crossing through two small ravines, the social path climbed back onto the plateau that we crossed on our ascent and then rejoined the main trail; we made the final steep descent back to the trailhead from here.

Wind Caves
The Wind Caves of Anza Borrego Desert State Park are a beautiful and quiet destination, with interesting geological features to explore and vast views of silent badlands populated only by cacti, creosote, and ocotillo. If you have a 4WD vehicle during your visit to the park, this is a lovely spot to visit for stellar views and some fun exploration on a short and relatively easy hike.

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Slot (Anza Borrego)

The Slot at Anza Borrego
1.5 miles round trip, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Rough unpaved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The Slot- as its name suggests- is a narrow slot canyon carved into the desert of Southern California's Anza Borrego Desert State Park. While quite common on the Colorado Plateau in Utah and Arizona, such slot canyons are far more rare in the western reaches of the Sonoran Desert in California. The narrow and contorted passages of the canyon are a lot of fun to explore, providing opportunities for a bit of rock scrambling. The most spectacular part of the canyon is just a third of a mile long, but hikers can continue following the canyon as it widens up to enjoy some views of colorful badlands.

A quick word of warning: as this is a narrow slot canyon, you should only ever visit during good weather. If rain threatens or if there is rain in the forecast in the nearby mountains, skip this hike: this narrow canyon would be an unescapable trap during a flash flood.

I visited the Slot with my mother during a February trip to Anza Borrego to see the superbloom. The canyon is a short drive away from Borrego Springs, a town in the heart of the park. From Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs, we followed Borrego Springs Road south to its junction with Highway 78. We then followed Highway 78 east for a mile and a half, turning left onto the Buttes Pass Road (there is a small sign for this road on the left side of the highway). We followed this sandy road another mile to a junction, where we took the left fork for Borrego Mountain Wash; this road soon led to the unmarked trailhead for the Slot, a parking area at the rim of a canyon.

At the trailhead, there was a view of the canyon below with San Ysidro Mountain rising in the distance across Borrego Valley. While it was possible to appreciate that the canyon below was quite narrow in spots, this grand view placed more emphasis on the vast expanse of the desert and the ruggedness of the badlands of the canyon.

View of the Slot from above at the trailhead
From the trailhead, rather than descending directly down a steep slope to enter the canyon below, we followed the trail that headed off to the right, which descended fairly gently to the base of the Slot. At the bottom of the canyon, we followed it to the left, heading west into the heart of the Slot.

The canyon very quickly became very narrow. Vertical walls rose around us, forcing us into a passage that was at times just a little more than a foot wide. We had to contort our bodies at points or scramble up and down rocks to get through certain parts of the canyon, making this hike a fun adventure. While lacking the color of Utah's red rock slot canyons, Anza Borrego's Slot still impressed with the its many sedimentary layers and the simple narrowness of the canyon.

The Slot
At times, the canyon walls were narrow enough that boulders falling from above had simply become lodged into the Slot.

Boulder lodged above the Slot
The most spectacular stretch of the canyon came as we traversed a narrow but straight passageway. Above, a leaning pillar of rock spanned the canyon, supported by the walls of the other side of the canyon. The canyon was narrow enough that this rock pillar was able to impact the opposing wall softly rather than shatter and it has been able to remain standing. Passing beneath the pillar, it almost seems to be a natural arch; but studying it from a distance, it is clear that it is a toppled pillar rather than an eroded free-standing arch.

The leaning pillar of the Slot
After passing the leaning pillar, the canyon soon began to open up a bit. Although the bottom of the canyon was wider here, the walls of the canyon were still vertical and quite spectacular. Interesting eroded features were carved into the canyon walls, including at one point a dry waterfall where another wash must meet this one. 

The canyon opens up
As we continued down the canyon, the walls of the canyon became progressively less steep, eventually transitioning into colorful badlands. We followed the wash as it swung to the north and we ended our forward progress at the point where a steep 4WD road dropped into the wash from the west. From here, we had the option of following this 4WD road uphill and then returning along the Borrego Mountain Wash road, which follows the rim of the canyon. However, wanting to re-experience the wonders of the narrowest stretches of the Slot, we turned around and went back through the canyon again.

Badlands at the end of the hike
It's possible to shorten this hike by skipping the broader part of the canyon at the end and turning around as soon as the canyon begins to widen; doing so would reduce this to a 3/4 mile round trip hike.

We saw a number of other hikers during a short hike here: this is one of the more popular spots in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. As the passageways in the Slot are extremely narrow, there are spots where you'll have to allow others to pass. It's not a hike for social distancing during these Covid-19 times but when the time allows, this narrow slot canyon should be a part of any trip to Anza Borrego.