Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Mount Marcy

The Great Range, Giant Mountain, and the Green Mountains from Mount Marcy
15 miles round trip, 3500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Gravel road to trailhead, Adirondak Loj parking fee required

Mount Marcy is the highest point in both the Adirondack Mountains and New York State, its slopes cradling the headwaters of the Hudson River. The fifteen mile round trip hike to its summit is challenging and long but ends with vast views of the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains of Vermont from the roof of New York. Surrounded by the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, Marcy is a popular hike due to its height status but the views justify dealing with both other hikers and the relentlessly rocky and tough trail to reach the summit. There are multiple routes to reach the summit of Marcy; the Van Hoevenberg Trail approach from Adirondak Loj is the easiest and shortest route and the one that I'll describe here, though the hike is still neither easy nor short. Although the Adirondacks are renowned for their fall foliage, Marcy is deep in the High Peaks region that is dominated by conifers; look at lower elevations to find a good hike for fall colors.

I hiked Mount Marcy during an early October trip to the Adirondacks to see the fall colors. The trailhead for Mount Marcy is close to Lake Placid, one of the key towns with services at the heart of Adirondack Park. The trailhead is about is about 2.5 hours driving from both Montreal and Albany. From Lake Placid, I reached the trailhead at Adirondak Loj by taking New York Route 73 (Sentinel Road) south past the Olympic ski jumping complex to North Elba. 3.5 miles out from Lake Placid, I turned right (south) onto the Adirondack Loj Road, which was marked by a hanging wooden sign for South Meadows and Adirondak Loj. I drove Adirondack Loj Road to its terminus at Adirondak Loj by Heart Lake; the end of this road was unpaved and a bit bumpy. There was a parking fee to enter the Adirondak Loj parking lot; rates are variable based on time of day and Adirondack Mountain Club membership and can be found here. After passing the gate, roads branched off to both the left and right; Adirondak Loj is on the right, while the multiple parking lots for the Van Hoevenberg Trailhead was off to the left. Although there is plenty of parking here, the trails emanating from this trailhead are extremely popular and the parking lot typically fills by 8 AM in summer and fall, so come early.

Although I parked at the Van Hoevenberg Trailhead, I walked across to Adirondak Loj to see Heart Lake before starting the hike. Having arrived early in the morning with the sun still waiting to rise, I enjoyed the peaceful sight of pre-dawn mist rising off of the lake with colorful autumn forests in the backdrop.

Heart Lake
I headed over to the southern most prong of the four parking lots at the Van Hoevenberg Trailhead to start my hike on the Van Hoevenberg Trail. The single-track trail headed into deciduous forest that was showing off pretty fall colors at the start of October. The trail is easy to follow throughout but just in case you struggle with the route there are round blue "Foot Trail" markers nailed to trees to guide the way. The trail stayed fairly flat, crossing MacIntyre Brook and then paralleling it for a while to reach a junction with the Algonquin Trail, which broke off to the right, ascending the MacIntyre Range to access Wright and Algonquin Peaks. I took the left fork here to stay on the Van Hoevenberg Trail, which remained fairly flat for another 1.2 miles in the forest before reaching the site of the old Marcy Dam and Marcy Dam Pond. The wooden dam was built to hold back a pond here by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s but the dam was damaged and the pond drained in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011. Marcy Brook now flows unimpeded through the area, although the silty plain that was formerly Marcy Dam Pond still offers nice views of the surrounding High Peaks, with some pretty fall foliage here.

Marcy Brook from the old Marcy Dam site
While the trail once crossed over the dam, it now followed Marcy Brook briefly downstream to a bridge, crossing the brook and then following an old roadbed on the other side back to the east end of the dam. On the east side of the dam, at 2.4 miles from the trailhead, the trail passed a trail register and came to the Marcy Dam backcountry campground and the junction with the trail to Avalanche Pass. I stayed on the Van Hoevenberg Trail, taking the left fork to start the journey along Phelps Brook up to Mount Marcy. 

Once the trail entered the Phelps Brook drainage, the flat and easy hiking of the first part of the hike ended. After crossing a bridge over Phelps Brook, the trail began a steady ascent along the north (left) bank of the stream. The brook tumbled over rocky terrain here as it descended through chutes and small waterfalls and was quite scenic as it flowed through a forest of mixed conifers and deciduous trees displaying peak fall color. While this was pretty, the trail unfortunately became quite rocky as well, making it slightly unpleasant to hike.

Rushing waters of Phelps Brook
Fall foliage along Phelps Brook
Phelps Brook
The Phelps Mountain Trail branched off to the left about a mile after I left the Marcy Dam campground; I stayed on the Van Hoevenberg Trail. Shortly after, the trail crossed the Phelps Brook and then began an aggressive ascent. Separating from the winter ski trail, the Van Hoevenberg Trail peeled off to the right to begin a less linear but still very direct ascent along the slopes of T.R. Mountain. There's a legend- probably untrue- that Teddy Roosevelt, at the time vice president, was hiking Mount Marcy when President McKinley was assasinated (Roosevelt was in the Adirondacks, though).

This steep ascent ended after about 600 feet of uphill as the trail passed through a saddle between T.R. Mountain and Table Top Mountain. Shortly after passing the saddle, the trail crossed Marcy Brook and came to the side trail for Indian Falls, 4.5 miles from the trailhead. I took the short spur to the right here to reach the top of Indian Falls, an area of exposed rock along Marcy Brook with views of the MacIntyre Range. It's not possible to see the actual drop of Indian Falls safely, but seeing the majestic pyramid of Algonquin Peak while taking a break here was still quite nice.

MacIntyre Range from the top of Indian Falls
Returning to the Van Hoevenberg Trail, I embarked on another uphill climb. Although not particularly steep, the trail here was even rougher than before- indeed, I found this to be one of the rougher trails that I've tackled! At many points, the trail was just a field of medium-sized boulders, requiring balance while being quite hard on my knees and feet; at other points, the trail was smooth, wet rock inclines. Often, I had to trudge through a muddy mess or deal with a gushing stream flowing straight down the trail. The heavy rains on the days previous to my hike certainly didn't help, but this was definitely still a very rough and rocky trail. I've done plenty of hikes with four to five thousand feet of elevation gain in the West but dealing with this uneven and punishing terrain on Mount Marcy was far more tiring.

Muddy, rough trail
Rocky, wet trail
Rocky, wet trail
At 5.6 miles, the trail switched to a gentler grade as it reached the top of a ridge, although it remained quite rocky, wet, and rough. The dense conifer forest surrounding the trail was becoming shorter the higher that I ascended, marking my transition into progressively harsher mountain conditions. At 6.3 miles, I passed an intersection with the Hopkins Trail, an alternate path for accessing Mount Marcy from Keene Valley. I took the right fork at the junction to stay on the trail to Mount Marcy. Continuing to ascend, I passed a clearing a little afterwards that delivered my first good view of Mount Marcy along the hike. The summit was still a good 700 feet or so above me but at least I could now see the alpine and rocky mound that is the top of New York State.

Mount Marcy
Continuing uphill, I passed a non-apparent junction with the Phelps Trail at 6.9 miles from the trailhead. The Phelps Trail also leads up from Keene Valley and connects Mount Marcy with nearby Mount Haystack and the Great Range Traverse, one of the classic hikes of the Adirondacks. After passing the junction with the Phelps Trail, the trail opened up, using wooden planks to cross marshy alpine clearings. The conifers here had shrunk to person-size and were reaching the limit of their elevation range. Mount Marcy, my goal for the day, appeared in front of the trail, now just over a half mile away and 500 feet higher.

Entering the alpine zone on Mount Marcy
After an ascent through forest that finally shrank to nothing, the trail emerged onto massive rock outcrops that delivered the first sweeping views of the hike. After hours of hiking, I was finally rewarded with views of the Adirondack High Peaks. Most prominent here was Mount Haystack, a rugged, rocky peak that is the third highest peak in New York State. To the west, views of the great MacIntyre Range had returned.

Haystack from the final ascent
MacIntyre Range views along the final ascent
From this outcrop, the remainder of the ascent was out in the open, crossing open rock while climbing steeply until, at 7.5 miles from the trailhead, I reached the broad, alpine summit at 5344 feet above sea level, the second highest state high point in the Northeast after Mount Washington. After such a tough hike up, I was glad that I could finally enjoy a long break at the height of the Adirondacks.  

View of the final ascent with the Great Range, Haystack, and Dix Mountain
The views at the summit were simply stunning, a 360-degree panorama of the Adirondacks from the heart of the range. As the tallest peak in New York State, Mount Marcy is also the tallest of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks, which includes all of the Adirondack peaks above 4000 feet and then some. Many of those High Peaks, all clad in dark green conifer coats with bald, rocky heads, could be seen from their highest member. Nearby Mount Haystack towered over Panther Gorge, a fierce, wild, and rocky ravine between that peak and Mount Marcy. To the north of Mount Haystack was the Great Range- one of the most spectacular ridges of the Adirondacks that included Gothics Peak and Saddleback Mountain. Farther east were Dix Mountain and Giant Mountain, very prominent members of the High Peaks slightly separated from the core High Peaks. The sharp peak of Whiteface Mountain stuck out to the north, rising over the bright fall foliage near Lake Placid. The great McIntyre Range- which includes Iroquois Peak, Wright Peak, and the state's second tallest mountain, Algonquin Peak- rose to the west.  

Much of the Adirondacks were visible; many of the peaks further out were sporting the spectacular fall colors for which the range is well known. Many lakes were visible as well: Boreas Pond was visible to the south, while many lakes and ponds were visible to the southeast, where a maze of hills rose around the Lake George part of the Adirondacks. Lake Tear of the Clouds lay directly south of Mount Marcy, an unremarkable looking tiny pond that is actually the quite remarkable headwaters of one of America's great rivers, the Hudson. Blue Mountain was visible to the southwest, a lone higher peak amongst the gentler hills that generally characterize the western Adirondacks. The Green Mountains rose as an impressive mountain wall to the east in Vermont: Mount Mansfield and Camels Hump were both easily recognizable across the state line. The nearby High Peaks blocked out any view of Lake Champlain.

At the summit, a view of Mount Mansfield and Camels Hump in Vermont
View to Boreas Pond and the southern Adirondacks
View north to Lake Placid and Whiteface Mountain
MacIntyre Range and the western Adirondacks
Ridge upon ridge to the southeast, the Green Mountains in the distance
Fall color in Keene Valley
The Adirondack Mountains are actually the eroded remants of an uplifted dome on the edge of the Canadian Shield and are distinct from the Appalachian Mountains. The rocky streaks that run down mountain slopes, the ancient jointed intrusive igenous rock underlying it all are clues from this view that this range is different from others on the East Coast. While the Appalachians are already a fairly old mountain range, having formed in the Alleghenian Orogeny over 250 million years ago, the rock of the Canadian Shield, the core of the North American continent, are well over a billion years old.

I had a good deal of company on the summit; on a weekday in fall, I shared these great views with over 30 other hikers. Despite the lack of solitude and despite the tiring, tough, and rocky route to reach the summit, I enjoyed the hike and reveled in the expansive views across the Adirondacks. I haven't hiked enough of the Adirondacks to tell you that you should put this hike at the top of your list, but at the very least this is a hike that will challenge and reward you greatly and give you bragging rights for reaching a state high point.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Cobble Lookout (Adirondacks)

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2.5 miles round trip, 350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee, limited parking

Cobble Lookout is an easy, family-friendly hike to a sweeping view of the upper Ausable River Valley in New York State's Adirondack Park. The trail to this pretty viewpoint is relatively new and although this hike is being gradually discovered by tourists, it is still a little quieter than the loved-to-death High Peaks of the range just to the south. When I hiked to Cobble Lookout during a late September trip to the Adirondacks, I found amazing fall colors from this viewpoint. This is a good short hike if you're visiting the Adirondacks but you're not looking for anything intense or if you just need a leg stretcher on your way to or from Lake Placid.

Cobble Lookout is just up the hill from the town of Wilmington in the Adirondacks, a short drive from Lake Placid, which is one of the tourist hubs in the range. The trailhead is about 2 hours from Montreal and 2.5 hours from Albany. From Lake Placid, I followed New York Route 86 east, passing High Falls Gorge and the Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort and then arriving in Wilmington. In Wilmington, I turned left onto Route 431- the Whiteface Memorial Highway- and followed it 3 miles uphill. Just before arriving at the toll gate for the Whiteface Mountain Highway, I turned right onto Gillespie Drive and followed it 0.3 miles to the trailhead for Cobble Lookout, which was on the right (north) side of the road. A wooden sign indicated that this was the start of the hike. Parking was on the gravel shoulder along the road. This is becoming a fairly popular hike so parking can be difficult to find here.

The trail is marked by round, blue "Foot Trail" medallions that are nailed to trees along the route. From the trailhead, the trail delved directly into forest, initially following a wide path- probably an old roadbed- through second-growth forest. After a couple hundred of meters, the markers led me onto a single track trail that was just a bit rougher, with some stone steps and skirting some rocks, as I continued through the forest. The day was overcast but there was still plenty of light streaming into the forest, illuminating the green, yellow, orange, and red foliage around me.

Autumn forest along the trail to Cobble Lookout
The trail initially ascended gently but later switched to a gentle descent through the forest, crossing streams on short wooden bridges. After just over 25 minutes of hiking, the trail emerged onto a large, southerly facing rock outcrop: Cobble Lookout. Stepping out to onto the outcrop, I found an explosion of fall colors across my view of the Adirondacks. Across the valley from me was Whiteface Mountain, the fifth tallest peak in the state of New York. Its high summit was cloaked in clouds that day, the main reason I chose to skip driving the Toll Road. Whiteface Mountain is home to one of the best known ski resorts in the Northeast, which hosted ski competitions during the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.

Whiteface Mountain
The trees below Cobble Lookout and across on Whiteface Mountain were displaying magnificent fall colors. While the view that I saw at Cobble Lookout was very pretty but not necessarily remarkable, the fall foliage here was outstanding- these were perhaps the most colorful mountainsides I've seen (and I grew up visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains every fall!). The dark green of conifers contrasted with the light green of deciduous trees that hadn't turned color yet, which in turn contrasted with the yellows, oranges, and reds of trees getting ready to shed their leaves. There's much more orange and red in the Adirondacks than in the Blue Ridge, where fall color is generally dominated by yellow and brown. Peak color at Cobble Lookout will be at about the same time or just after the High Peaks during most years- usually late September or very early October.

Fall foliage from Cobble Lookout
While the view here did not encompass the heart of the Adirondack High Peaks, I still saw a beautiful array of mountains before me. The Sentinel Range and Jay Mountain lay across the upper Ausable Valley. Giant Mountain should've been visible to the south but its summit was in the clouds. Below, the town of Wilmington with its prominently visible church spire was nestled amidst the forest near the Ausable River. 

Wilmington and the Adirondacks in fall color
The views at the main outcrop were excellent, but I had to share the experience with a rotating cast of other hikers. A social path continues east along the outcrop, leading to a few spots on the far end of Cobble Lookout that still had nice views but were far quieter. One of these viewpoints gave me a wider view to the northeast, with even more extensive colorful forests stretching down the Ausable Valley towards Lake Champlain.

View from Cobble Lookout
This was a short and easy hike with a big payoff not far from Lake Placid. I really enjoyed this hike and recommend it if you're looking for a less intense hike that still packs in great views in the Adirondacks.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Mount Mansfield from Toll Road

Camels Hump and the Green Mountains from Mount Mansfield
2.8 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, minor rock scrambling
Access: Gravel road to trailhead, toll required

The tallest peak in the Green Mountains and the state of Vermont, 4393-foot Mount Mansfield has a distinct profile that with some imagination seems to resemble the face of a person in repose. The easiest way to reach the summit of this Northeast icon is a stunning alpine ridge walk and scramble through boreal forest and tundra from the Mount Mansfield Toll Road. This hike is only accessible in summer and fall and traverses the most extensive area of alpine tundra in Vermont. Although this approach is less than a mile and a half each way with just a moderate amount of elevation gain, the scrambling necessary to reach this summit as well as the stunning views over the rest of Vermont and Lake Champlain and out to New York and New Hampshire means that most hikers will take an hour to reach the summit, or Chin of Mount Mansfield, from the trailhead at the end of the Toll Road near the mountain's Nose.

Mansfield's profile is easily recognizable and its height means that it is visible from many places in Vermont and around Lake Champlain. The peak rises above the Vermont town of Stowe, an all-season resort town known particularly for its ski runs on Mansfield's slopes and for being the Vermont home of the Von Trapps after the musical Austrian family immigrated to the United States. While views of Mansfield are beautiful from many angles, I personally found that my favorite view of the peak was from the AM Foster Covered Bridge near Cabot. 

Mount Mansfield from the AM Foster Covered Bridge
You'll have to shell out a little bit to reach the trailhead, but it's worth it to hike this spectacular ridgeline approach. Anna and I hiked Mansfield during an early September visit to Vermont, when there were just hints of the fall color that would arrive later that month. Stowe is the closest town to Mansfield; Montpelier and Burlington are towns that are short distance away. The trailhead is 2.5 hours from Montreal and 3.5 hours from Boston. The Mount Mansfield Auto Toll Road is managed by the Stowe Mountain Resort; RVs and trailers are not allowed and you can find information about the rates for the road here. From Stowe, we followed Vermont Highway 108 northwest for 6 miles until we came to the sign for the Toll Road on the left side of the road. We turned left here, paid the toll, and followed the gravel Toll Road 4.5 miles uphill, passing by the ski runs of the Stowe Mountain Resort. There were some nice views of Mansfield on the drive up the Toll Road. The road ended at the parking lot outside the Mansfield Visitor Center along the crest of the Green Mountains.

The entire length of the hike follows the Long Trail, a 272-mile long-distance trail along the spine of the Green Mountains traversing Vermont from south to north. The Long Trail is the granddaddy of long-distance trails in the United States: it's the very first such trail established and inspired later efforts to create the Appalachian Trail. The tundra along this stretch of the Long Trail is unique and rare in the Northeast, so white rope along the length of the hike to the top of Mansfield delineates the trail to prevent hikers from damaging this fragile habitat. The trail lies within Mount Mansfield State Forest rather than Green Mountains National Forest, which encompasses most of the rest of the range.

From the visitor center, we took the Long Trail to the right (heading north), which delved into a thick forest of miniature conifers and quickly crossed a gravel road that continued up to the communications towers on top of the Nose of Mount Mansfield. The trail continued through this thick dwarf forest, with wooden planks helping navigate through some marshy ground. After three hundred meters, the trail emerged onto exposed rock on the ridge and for the most of the rest of the length of the hike stayed on outcrops that were mixed into the ridgetop environment of boreal forest and the low shrub of the tundra. As soon as we were out on the rocks, views started opening up: we could see back south to the impressive cliffs of the Nose and the nearby communications towers.

Mount Mansfield Trail winds along the ridge from the Nose
Views along the early stretch of the hike were generally to the west, especially as there were still many clouds floating around the Green Mountains. Only a few more low ridges and a wide, forested plain dotted with occasional farms separated us from Lake Champlain, the massive lake filling the wide valley between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks that drains north to the St. Lawrence River. It is the largest lake in the Northeast outside the Great Lakes and fills the northernmost section of the Great Valley, the extensive Appalachian valley system that includes Shenandoah Valley in the backyard of this blog's home area.

Beyond Lake Champlain, we could see the Adirondacks, the roof of New York State. Despite their proximity to the Appalachians, the Adirondacks are actually a separate mountain chain, forming from an eroded protrusion of the Canadian Shield, which itself is bedrock the core of the North American continent. The Adirondacks peak at Mount Marcy, which at 5344 feet tall is a thousand feet above the height of the Green Mountains.

Lake Champlain
The trail was consistently rocky and went through a series of ups and downs over small bumps on the ridge as we traveled north towards the Chin. There were a number of junctions with other trails, including the Cliff Trail up from the Cliff House at the top of the gondola and ski area, but at each junction we stayed on the Long Trail and continued following the ridge. Along with the white rope that defined the route, white blazes painted on the rock directed us towards the summit.

As we progressed steadily uphill through the rocky terrain, the Chin of Mount Mansfield- the mountain's true summit- rose before us, a rocky knob rising above the stunted conifers of the boreal forest. The final ascent began after passing by the junction with the Cliff Trail in a saddle. From here, the trail maintained a steady uphill grade that steepened at the end as we approached the summit, climbing over 300 feet in 0.3 miles in a rocky scramble to the roof of Vermont.

Summit ridge of Mount Mansfield, looking towards the Chin
From the broad summit area, there were amazing, 360-degree views. The Long Trail continued to the north but we stopped here, finding a nice corner of the outcrop on which to sit down and enjoy the view. Recent rains had deposited puddles into the crevices on the summit outcrop. Summit views were initially clouded over but started to clear up after a while. A volunteer from the Green Mountain Club dispensed information about the summit and helped the hikers at the top avoid trampling the fragile alpine vegetation. 

The view to the south along the ridge of Mount Mansfield and along the spine of the Green Mountains was perhaps the most raw and visually stunning aspect of the view. The great cliffs along the eastern face of the mountains were fully visible here, making clear the incredible vertical relief of this mountain above Stowe and the valley below. The cliffs continued all the way to the Nose of Mansfield- in the distance, we could see our starting point at the visitor center. The Green Mountains continued south past the Nose, most notably rising up to the sharp summit of Camels Hump, the state's third highest peak.

To the east, the ski slopes of Mansfield led down to Stowe in the valley below. Across the valley were the forested, rounded peaks of the Worcester Range, while the many parallel ranges of Vermont stretched east from there. In the far distance I could see the outline of the high White Mountains in New Hampshire: the viewshed stretched to Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast at 6288 feet. To the north, the high crest of the Greens at Mount Mansfield transitioned to the lower, forested slopes of the Sterling Range on the other side of Smugglers Notch. The High Peaks of the Adirondacks rose to the west across island-dotted Lake Champlain.

Mount Mansfield
Worcester Range and Stowe from Mansfield
The Adirondacks rise above Lake Champlain
Northerly view from Mansfield's summit
This was a beautiful hike with nearly constant views to the top of Vermont with some fun rock scrambling along the ridge on the way. While purists may shun the easier approach from the Toll Road in favor of an ascent from the base with more elevation gain, most hikers will find that this open ridgeline approach is friendlier on both the knees and the eyes. A highly recommended hike in New England and the crowning hiking glory of the Stowe area.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Mono Lake County Park

Mono Craters and Sierra Nevada rise over Mono Lake
0.7 miles round trip, 70 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Mark Twain called Mono Lake- a large, salty, and alkaline body of water in the western Great Basin at the foot of the Sierra Nevada- the "Dead Sea of California," but if you access the lake on its north shore at Mono Lake County Park that descriptor might never come to mind. Mono Lake is an otherworldly and ethereal landscape of water in the desert, surrounded by bizarre rock pillars known as tufa, but at Mono Lake County Park, the landscape surrounding the tufa on the lakeshore is lush and packed with blooming wildflowers, grazing deer, and nesting birds. This secluded park is one of the best places to appreciate how this "Dead Sea" is actually teeming with life- and as a bonus, it has far fewer visitors than the more popular access points at South Tufa and Old Marina. 

Mono Lake is far from any major metropolitan area; the small town of Lee Vining on the lake's western shore is the closest place with services. I visited Mono Lake County Park during an August trip to Yosemite, although I've been to Mono Lake quite a few times, first visiting the area and falling for it in high school. From Lee Vining, I followed US Highway 395 north five miles and then turned right onto Cemetery Road shortly after passing Mono Inn. There were nice views overlooking the lake from Cemetery Road, which led down to the Mono Lake County Park on the right side of the road in less than a half mile. There's free parking at the park and there are clean and nice flush bathrooms here as well.

Black Point and Mono Lake County Park from Cemetery Road
The parking area of Mono Lake County Park makes it seem like a county park you might find anywhere else in America: flush bathrooms, picnic tables, a grassy lawn, a playground. Following the paved path down from the bathrooms, though, I quickly arrived at the start of a boardwalk that exited the manicured, grassy park and instead headed into the sagebrush landscape that defines the Great Basin. A sign here thanks the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for leasing this land to Mono County to build this park.

You might wonder: why does the LADWP own land along the shoreline of Mono Lake, over 300 miles from Los Angeles? At the start of the twentieth century, the expanding city of Los Angeles demanded increasing volumes of water, water that the arid mountains and desert of Southern California could not provide. Engineer William Mulholland, who led the predecessor agency to today's LADWP, looked to the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada- which naturally drains to the Central Valley and Great Basin- as a solution. Under Mulholland's direction, the LADWP constructed the Los Angeles Aqueduct along the Eastern Sierra, diverting the range's summer snowmelt to the growing City of Angels. An extension of the aqueduct started drawing from the creeks feeding Mono Lake in 1941. The land on which Mono Lake County Park is now established was among the tracts purchased by the LADWP to carry out this water diversion.

What would these water diversions mean for Mono Lake? Mono Lake is an endorheid lake- meaning it has no outlet- in the westernmost part of the Great Basin; while most of the other basins between the many mountain ranges of this area are dry seasonally or year-round, Mono Lake still exists only because of the steady source of snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada. The water diversions thus meant that the level of the lake quickly began dropping, as evaporative losses were no longer offset by snowmelt inflows. As I walked along boardwalk, passing a sign on the right indicating that I had entered the Mono Lake State Tufa Reserve, a small placard on the left indicated that I was passing the level of the lakeshore in 1941, just before the water diversions began.

As the water diversions continued, the lake level fell year after year, reaching a low of 42 feet below its 1941 level in the early 1990s. The saline waters of Mono Lake became saltier by the year and islands in the center of the lake that were nesting grounds for California gulls became connected to the mainland by falling water levels, leaving juvenile birds defenseless to coyotes and other predators. In response to this unfolding environmental catastrophe, activist David Gaines founded the Mono Lake Committee, which sued the LADWP to stop water diversions from the creeks feeding Mono Lake. Judges sided with the Mono Lake Committee and in 1994 the LADWP was ordered to release enough water into the lake to raise the water level 17 feet from its low point; the lake has now recovered by more than 7 feet. Frequent placards along the boardwalk marked the water level at different points in the 20th century as the lake shrunk, with one indicating the state-mandated level that the LADWP and the Mono Lake Committee are now striving for. 

The area around Mono Lake County Park is especially lush as this is where Dechambeau Creek flows into Mono Lake- hence the need for a boardwalk to preserve a rare slice of greenery in the desert. Wildflowers- including abundant paintbrush- bloomed in the recessional zone next to the boardwalk, fed by the waters of the creek. The high ridges of the Sierra Nevada rose to the west.

Wildflowers along the boardwalk
Throughout the 20th century, the falling level of the lake exposed more and more of the tufa formations that were once below the surface of the lake. These calcium carbonate pillars formed around underwater springs high in calcium that feed into Mono Lake's carbonate-rich waters. As the waters of the lake retreated, these tufa formations emerged from the lake; some were left high and dry on the recessional land. The boardwalk passed close to a small collection of these this tufa, which varied in color from chalk to grey; some looked like misshapen, bumpy smokestacks, while others exhibited flat grey caps. This hike doesn't offer as impressive an array of tufa as the formations found at the South Tufa area on the other side of the lake, but the small and scattered tufa towers here are still nice to see.

Tufa towers next to the boardwalk
The boardwalk ended in a marshy area by the lakeshore, where the viewing platform at the end of the trail was surrounded by tall grasses, about a hundred feet from the current shoreline of the lake. I arrived here late in the day, when the sun was hiding behind clouds that had built up on the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Scattered tufa towers dotted the shoreline and extended out into the lake. Black Point, a dark-colored plateau nearby, rose above the lake to the east, the result of an ancient underwater volcanic eruption. I also spotted, Paoha and Negit, two volcanic islands in the heart of the lake- one a light color, the other one dark. The Mono Craters rose to the south of the lake, a continuation of the volcanic chain that includes Black Point, Paoha, and Negit- this volcanic arc is associated with the Long Valley Caldera near Mammoth Lakes, a supervolcano that is one of the most closely monitored geologically active areas in the country. Paoha formed in eruptions just over 250 years ago, barely older than the Declaration of Independence.

Tufa rising above Mono Lake at the end of the boardwalk
In the distance to the south were the high ridges of the White Mountains, the tallest range of the entire Basin and Range. White Mountain Peak- at 14252 feet- is California's third tallest peak and was bathed in fiery alpenglow as sunset commenced. To the right of the Mono Craters were the jagged peaks of the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada.

Mono Lake is important not just for its role in California's water wars and its magnficent scenery: it is also an ecologically essential lake. The lake is the nesting ground for a majority of the California gulls in the state and is also a destination for migratory birds from all over the continent. The birds come for the lake's bountiful population of endemic brine shrimp, which crowd the lake's salty, alkaline, and fish-free waters by the trillions each summer. The only other visitor who I saw here was a birdwatcher from Minnesota, who pointed out Wilson's phalarope, American avocets, California gulls, and ospreys that were feeding in the lake and nesting on tufa formations. As the sun set, I watched as hundreds of birds flew by, swam along the lakeshore, and dined on the lake's brine shrimp harvest. The tall grasses near the boardwalk welcomed two deer for their evening meal.

Sunset on Mono Lake
If you haven't been to Mono Lake, you're probably better served visiting South Tufa to see Mono Lake at its showiest. But if you've been to South Tufa and want to see more of this otherwordly desert lake- or if your first or second or tenth visit wasn't enough and you know you need to return again to the vast open skies and tranquil waters and calling birds of Mono Lake- then the boardwalk at Mono Lake County Park is a wonderful short stroll to better understand this unique and moving landscape.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Mono Lake South Tufa

Tufa towers rise by the shore of Mono Lake
1 mile loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, National Forest fee required

The enchanting, tranquil waters of California's Mono Lake are tucked into a desert basin east of the high Sierra Nevada. The shores of this otherworldly lake are dotted with bizarre, contorted rock pillars known as tufa: the South Tufa area on the south shore of the lake is the best place to visit the lakeshore and see these calcium carbonate oddities. Mono Lake is an ecologically fascinating place with a harsh beauty, a keystone to many California ecosystems. I highly recommend that any American make a visit to this lake, especially if you're visiting nearby Yosemite National Park, as the rich ecological and historical complexities of this place make it a profoundly moving landscape. This hike visits some of the best scenery around Mono Lake in just one short mile of hiking amongst tufa towers.

Mono Lake is a long way from any major metropolitan area; Modesto and Reno might be the closest larger cities. The closest services to the South Tufa area are in the small town of Lee Vining, above the lake's western shore. From Lee Vining, I followed US Highway 395 south five miles and then turned left onto CA Highway 120, following it east for another five miles to the turnoff for Navy Beach and the South Tufa area. The paved road ended at a split between the roads to South Tufa and Navy Beach; I took the left fork, which led to the South Tufa parking area via a good gravel road. There was a large parking area at the end of the road; a $3 fee per person is necessary to park here, although if you have an America the Beautiful Pass or another federal lands recreation pass, that's valid for parking here as well. There's a row of vault toilets at the trailhead.

A quick note: at the time of publication, the South Tufa Area at Mono Lake had closed due to the Beach Fire, a lightning-sparked wildfire that started just two days after I visited. Damage to the tufa and the trail did not seem to be extensive, but it's likely that the South Tufa Area will be closed for the rest of 2020.

From the trailhead, a paved path led north on a barely noticeable downhill grade towards the lakeshore. Coming before sunrise, I was able to appreciate the intense color that the predawn sun painted on the clouds to the east as I walked through the sagebrush desert towards the lakeshore.

Sunrise over the Mono Basin
As I followed the paved trail towards the current lakeshore, I walked on land that only decades ago was part of Mono Lake's lakebed. Mono Lake is an endorheic lake occupying one of the many basins of the Great Basin, meaning that it is a lake that does not drain to the sea. This lack of an outlet concentrates salts and minerals that flow down from streams draining the nearby Sierra Nevada- in fact, Mono Lake is over twice as salty as the ocean. The lake is one of two claiming to be the 'Dead Sea of California' (the other is the Salton Sea in the southern part of the state) due to its high salinity and desert setting. Many lakes once filled the depressions of the Great Basin, including the massive Lake Bonneville that once covered much of the eastern Great Basin in Utah; an increasingly arid climate and decreased snowpack has dried out most of the basins, so today most of the lakes left in the Great Basin abut either the Sierra Nevada in California or the Wasatch Range in Utah, which deliver enough snowmelt into these basins to offset evaporative losses from these desert lakes.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Los Angeles was a quickly growing city in southern California, but the arid conditions of the Los Angeles Basin made a city with a large population there unsustainable. City leaders, along with engineer William Mulholland, who led an agency that is today the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), looked to the Eastern Sierra for a solution. Under Mulholland's direction, the city of Los Angeles bought up land in the mountains above Owens Valley, diverting snowmelt into a newly constructed Los Angeles Aqueduct that carried water hundreds of miles from these mountains to the lawns and citrus groves of the newly booming metropolis. Owens Valley, which was once watered by the melting snows of the Sierra, became an arid wasteland. By the 1930s, Los Angeles was still growing and voracious for more water. The LADWP bought up land in the Sierra above Mono Lake and extended the Aqueduct. Starting in 1941, the agency began to divert most of the streams flowing into the Mono Basin. The lake level began to drop almost immediately.

Dropping lake levels had many effects; one was to expose the tufa formations that were once below the lake. These fragile rock pillars are made when underwater springs high in calcium feed into Mono Lake's carbonate-rich waters. Calcium carbonate pillars then form underwater around the springs. Mono Lake was once much larger during previous ice ages and more tufa towers can be found on dry land around the Mono Basin; but the retreat of the lakeshore following LADWP water diversions exposed a large collection of tufa towers that had been underwater prior to 1941.

Arriving at the lakeshore, I found the most extensive collection of tufa at Mono Lake. Some tufa were now fully on dry land, surrounded by sage that had grown in the intervening time since the beginning of the LADWP water diversions. Other tufa formations were on the lakeshore or in the lake itself. Each was a contorted, bumpy pillar of grey and white rock, the chimneys and towers of a silent rock city. The Sierra Nevada rose to the west of the lake, making a dramatic backdrop to the tufa formations here; Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs were particularly impressive, rough ridges towering over the far gentler terrain of the Mono Basin.

Tufa towers and the Sierra Nevada rise over Mono Lake
The ethereal mood of Mono Lake's waters is in part due to the lake's odd chemistry: this extremely alkaline lake has been noted to have a soapy feel. The high pH (around pH 10 at current lake levels) makes the lake inhospitable for fish, but the lake does support an enormous population of endemic brine shrimp. Look into the waters of the lake in summer and you may see dense concentrations of these shrimp: during warm months, the population of brine shrimp in the lake likely enters the trillions. These brine shrimp attract California gulls to the lake. Eighty percent of the state's gulls come to Mono Lake during the summer to nest on Negit, one of the two volcanic islands in the heart of the lake. The island's isolation from mainland predators make it an ideal place to nest, with the lake's brine shrimp providing a bountiful and reliable food source during nesting. Before they crowd the beaches of Santa Monica and San Francisco's Fisherman Wharf, most seagulls in California are born to the serene desert landscape of Mono Lake. The gulls are not Mono Lake's only avian visitors: migratory birds such as avocets and phalaropes come from across the continent to feed here seasonally.

Mono Lake South Tufa
The declining lake levels due to LADWP's water diversions began to threaten these nesting birds in the late twentieth century: as the lake levels dropped more than 42 feet in elevation, a land bridge formed between Negit and the mainland, bringing coyotes and other predators to the gulls' nesting grounds. In the 1970s, environmentalist David Gaines was alarmed by the effects of the water diversions on the lake's unique ecosystem; in 1978, he cofounded the Mono Lake Committee. Scientific research at the time found that the water diversions had halved the lake's volume since 1941 and were endangering a critically important ecosystem. Using these conclusions, Gaines and the Mono Lake Committee sued the LADWP in a series of cases that led to a 1994 ruling that required the LADWP to release enough water into Mono Lake to maintain its water level 17 feet above the low water level at the time of the ruling. A major victory for environmentalists and the lake's ecosystem, water releases have since brought the lake level up 7 feet from its low point in the 1990s.

Tufa in the lake
After the paved trail ended at the lakeshore, I followed a dirt path east across a small peninsula packed with tufa formations, enjoying views of the lake in all directions. Looking east, I saw the sun rising above a long stretch of beach on the lakeshore. This is Navy Beach: in the 1950s, the US Navy built a secret weapons testing facility here on the south shore of Mono Lake, establishing a small base here. The facility was short-lived, decommissioned and deconstructed in 1962.

From here, I followed a flat and slightly brushy trail back towards the parking lot through the sagebrush, passing by many more tufa formations before I arrived back at the trailhead.

Tufa towers
Mono Lake is an extraordinary landscape, an ethereal desert Dead Sea that supports abundant life and epitomizes the tension between nature and human demand for water in California. This short and easy hike can allow you to reflect on the remarkable natural and human history of this place while enjoying the most extensive and scenic collection of tufa at the lake.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Beckler Peak

Index, Baring, Merchant, and Gunn from Beckler Peak
7.5 miles round trip, 2250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Reasonable gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Beckler Peak delivers wide views of the many Cascade peaks along US Highway 2 in Washington State and it does so with a pleasant, moderately difficult trail on a trailhead that is a reasonable drive from Seattle. I've enjoyed revisiting this hike due to that excellent combination. Despite hitting the sweet spot when it comes to scenery, hiking effort, and driving effort, the hike to Beckler Peak, while deservedly popular, has not become an overcrowded mess like the hikes along the I-90 corridor. 

I've hiked Beckler Peak a number of times, usually with friends as this hike is a big hit with most of the people who I've come with. My most recent visit was on an early May day, when the upper stretches of trail on the peak were still snow-covered. From Seattle, we followed Highway 522 (Lake City Way) northeast to Monroe, where we then took US Highway 2 east past Skykomish. After crossing the bridge over the Beckler River, we made a turnoff to the left onto FS RD 6066- watch out for the sign as the road itself can be a little hard to spot. Forest Service Road 6066 was a reasonable (some bumps and potholes) but narrow gravel road that ascended via switchbacks for seven miles to reach the Beckler Peak trailhead, shaving off 1600 feet of the elevation gain from US Highway 2.

The first 1.5 miles of the hike follow a former logging road, a continuation of the road that brough us to the trailhead. Ascending along a gentle grade through forest that had been logged a few times, this stretch of trail was fairly uneventful, only becoming a little steeper after a switchback after 1.2 miles. At a mile and a half, the trail split from the logging road, following a single track path instead. This single track soon came out into a recently logged area where the forest is still recovering: there were good views across the South Fork Skykomish Valley to the peaks of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the Foss River watershed.

First views from the trail
At 1.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail entered a lovely old growth forest, passing through a saddle before beginning the main ascent up Beckler Peak. The trail maintained a moderate grade as it made a 600-foot ascent with switchbacks through the forest to reach the ridge of Beckler Peak. The trail was exceedingly pleasant to hike: the trail in the forest has a perfect, soft dirt tread that is forgiving on the knees, with no rocks, roots, or other obstacles that can make trail travel unpleasant. In fact, it's difficult for me to think of another trail that has a trail surface as soft and pleasant as the Beckler Peak Trail: were hiking bucket lists based solely on the quality of the trail surface rather than scenery, I'm sure this hike would rank among the top in the Northwest. The ease of moving along the trail made the moderate amount of elevation gain on this hike feel even easier.

Trail through old-growth forest
Atop the ridge, the trail ascended gently through forest until reaching a series of small meadows. When I hiked in May, these clearings were still covered in deep snow; we donned microspikes here to tackle the final ascent that followed. In summer, these small clearings will likely be populated by blooming wildflowers and ripe berries.

Past the meadows, the trail began its final climb, covering the last 450 feet of elevation gain to the summit in 2/3 of a mile. After ascending via moderate switchbacks that became progressively tighter as we approached the summit, the trail ascended through a well-built stone staircase, one of the few spots along the trail that isn't immaculately rock-free.

Stone staircase near the summit
A few more steps brought us to the summit. The actual summit is not very large and can only accomodate a few groups at a time, although there's some room just below the summit where hikers can rest, albeit without the same views from the very top. There's a 360-degree view of the Cascades from here, although trees on the southeast side of the summit are growing taller every year and are gradually starting to eat at the view.

The western and northern aspects of the mountain drop away steeply from the summit, with an open, rocky slope separating the east peak, where we stood, from Beckler's rockier west peak. Beyond the west peak was the heart of the view from Beckler Peak: a glimpse of the steep, dramatic mountains that define the western entrance to the Cascades along the Highway 2 corridor. Mount Index, Baring Mountain, Merchant Peak, Gunn Peak, and Eagle Rock rose majestically to the west. This is a particularly good angle to study the north face of Baring Mountain, a sheer dropoff that makes Baring one of the steepest mountains in Washington State.

To the north were views of the North Cascades. Spire Mountain led our eyes over to the snowy Monte Cristo Range, one of the taller subranges in the area. Columbia Glacier and the bowl holding Blanca Lake were visible beneath Kyes and Columbia Peaks. Faraway Mount Baker poked its head out to the left of the Monte Cristo Range. Sloan Peak's sharp pinnacle jutted out on the right side of the range.

While much of the land to the north is protected in the new Wild Sky Wilderness, clear cut scars on the slopes rising above the Beckler River Valley reminded us that much of this land is still actively used for logging. We were still able to spot other Wild Sky peaks like Evergreen Mountain and Mount Fernow- although this Highway 2 Mount Fernow should not be mistaken for the Mount Fernow near Holden that is among the state's highest peaks. Glacier Peak reigned in the distance, its snowy ridges connecting on the east to the icy wall of the Dakobed Range, from which the sharp pinnacles of Tenpeak Mountain could be easily spotted.

Evergreen Mountain, Glacier Peak, Dakobed Range, and Mount Fernow
Mount Baker and the Monte Cristo Range
The views of the south were slightly obstructed by trees, but we could still see Mounts Daniel and Hinman, two icy giants in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Summit Chief, Overcoat, and other rocky spires in this range were also visible. The Chiwaukums formed an alpine wall to the east of Stevens Pass. Highway 2 ran below along the South Fork Skykomish River, the town of Skykomish visible on the river's banks. Power lines cut through the forest below, ferrying power generated from the dams along the Columbia River to the Puget Sound metropolis. Phelps Mountain towered over one indentation into the wall of peaks around the Skykomish Valley: this tributary valley led towards the Tolt River Watershed, a watershed placed entirely off-limits to the public (except, ironically, logging) for use as Seattle's water supply.

Alpine Lakes Wilderness peaks
The US Highway 2 corridor along the South Fork Skykomish River
This is a lovely hike that is just two hours driving from Seattle and boasts beautiful views. The well-graded, perfect dirt trail up to the summit combines with the views to make this a thoroughly enjoyable hike. While not among the state's highlight hikes, the many great attributes of this trail still make this a recommended hike, especially for Pacific Northwest residents looking for a good weekend hike with just moderate effort and moderate crowds.