Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Waihee Ridge

Waihee Ridge Trail amidst the West Maui Mountains
4.5 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, steep and muddy in places
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no parking fee necessary

Hawaii's Waihee Ridge offers views both deep into the lush rainforests of the West Maui Mountains and out into the Pacific Ocean. This lovely half-day hike is one of the best ways to experience the tropical forests and mountains of West Maui and is just a short drive from the island's main population center. 

This hike is best done early in the morning. Why, you might ask, should you have to wake up at an ungodly early hour when you're on vacation on Maui? First, clouds build on the windward side of the West Maui Mountains throughout the day, so early morning is your best shot at actually seeing the summits of this range and having clear views on the trail. Secondly, this is a popular hike: the main parking lot for this hike often fills by around 9 AM and latecomers will have to walk another mile each way from the overflow parking lot with 400 feet of additional elevation gain. 

Additionally, this is a real hike- so come prepared for one! Expect to encounter mud, steep slopes, bugs, and other natural obstacles that you would encounter in a precipitation-heavy mountain range. I was surprised by the extraordinary number of unprepared hikers on this trail: just because this is Hawaii doesn't mean you can hit the trail in sandals and carry no water. Hiking poles really help on this trail in the steep and muddy stretches.

The trailhead is a short drive from Kahului, the largest town on Maui. Visitors staying in Lahaina, Kaanapali, or Kapalua might look at a map and think that the shortest way to this trailhead is over the northwest coast of the island on the Kahekili Highway, but you should avoid this route unless you have a stomach for adventure and excellent driving skills, as the Kahekili Highway is one of the most difficult and dangerous driving experiences on Maui and will take a few hours to drive.

From Kahului, we followed the Kahului Beach Road north from the center of town and then turned right onto Waiehu Beach Road, which we followed for just over a mile before turning right again onto Highway 340 north, the Kahekili Highway. We followed the Kahekili Highway north from Kahului/Wailuku until the yellow dividing line ended at Mendes Ranch; here, just as the road narrowed, we immediately turned left. There was a sign on the left side of the Kahekili Highway that indicated that the turnoff was for the Waihee Ridge Trail but it's easy to miss. The lower parking lot for the hike was here right after the turnoff, in a gravel lot to the right of the road heading up to the Waihee Ridge Trailhead; if you arrive late in the morning, you'll have to park down here. As we came fairly early, we continued driving uphill on this road for a mile to the Waihee Ridge Trailhead, where there was parking for about 50 cars. The final mile of driving was on a windy and narrow road with only enough room for one way traffic, but there are pull outs and there's not much traffic here. There was still parking around 9 AM but the upper lot was full and the lower lot half full when we returned at noon.

From the trailhead, we headed up a paved concrete pathway that made its way uphill through open pastures. Grazing cows stared at us as we hiked uphill through this fairly steep stretch of trail; the paved trail ended at 0.2 miles after about 150 feet of uphill just below a large water tank. Here, a dirt path split off to the left of the paved trail; a sign indicated that we should take the dirt path to continue on the Waihee Ridge Trail. The dirt path continued a fairly aggressive ascent through the open pasture, delivering wonderful views of the grasslands below that stretched to the blue waters of the Pacific.

View through grazing fields to the Pacific Ocean near the trailhead
The trail then entered a tropical rainforest. Waihee Ridge lies on the windward side of the West Maui Mountains. As a result, clouds and moisture from the Pacific accumulate here almost every day of the year. The heart of the West Maui Mountains record up to 400 inches of rain a year; Waihee Ridge, on the edge of the range, receives less, but nonetheless gets plenty of precipitation each year. The abundant rain supports incredibly lush forests on these mountainsides.  

Hiking through tropical forests
The trail ascended steadily through the forest and reached a viewpoint at a break in the trees at 0.7 miles. Here, we had our first views of the lush, tropical slopes of the West Maui Mountains. The highest peaks of this range had already been engulfed in the day's clouds, but we were still impressed by the incredible greenery and enjoyed a nice view of Makamakaole Falls dropping down a canyon to the northwest.

Waterfall and tropical lushness in the West Maui Mountains
At 0.8 miles, the trail reached the ridgeline of Waihee Ridge and began following the crest of the ridge to the west. Soon, we reached the top of a small knob in the ridge, where we found the views for which this trail is known. To the west lay the tropical, wild heart of the West Maui Mountains, a steep and rugged mountain range that has been cut out of an extinct shield volcano. Even though Pu'u Kukui, the high summit of this range, was shrouded in clouds, the rich green ridges extending from the core of the range displaying magnificently eroded fluted ridges made this a spectacular view. Tropical forests filled the canyon of the Waihee River far below us. Looking to the southeast, we could see back to the town of Kahului, nestled along a bay between the West Maui Mountains and the sloped but imposing form of Haleakala.

Haleakala and Kahului
West Maui Mountains

Hikers looking for a short outing can turn back at this point for a hike of just about 2 miles round trip as the views remain similar over the remainder of the hike; however, hiking further is quite rewarding, especially if the weather remains nice. Choosing to continue onwards, we followed the trail west along the ridge through a flatter stretch out in the open. Here, the forest had been traded out for surroundings of dense and vividly green bushes and ferns. The farther that we hiked up the ridge, the more that views opened up: soon, we had more views out to the Pacific and could see nearby houses, farms, and coastal bluffs.

View of the Pacific from Waihee Ridge
At the 1.2 mile mark, the ridge steepened and the trail transitioned to a much more aggressive grade as well. The next 0.4 miles made up the steepest stretch of the hike. Here, the trail tackled Waihee Ridge directly, ascending the steep dirt trail along the ridge that had turned to mud in many places due to the nearly-daily precipitation. Hiking poles were quite useful here; we saw many visitors struggling with the terrain here, with some visitors who were wearing flip flops slipping in the mud. Luckily, the trail remained out in the open here and we were rewarded with more excellent views of the West Maui Mountains. 

Sunlight and clouds in the West Maui Mountains
However, those views soon came to an end for us as the steep Waihee Ridge Trail brought us into the clouds. Our continued ascent brought us into a landscape that was lush but had zero visibility. Unfortunately, we finished out the hike in these conditions. The trail flattened out briefly around the 1.7 mile mark and crossed through a boggy area where the trail was extremely muddy; it then ascended again via switchbacks for a final half mile and ended at a 2560-foot summit along the ridge. On a clear day or when cloud cover is higher, I am sure the views of the ocean, the West Maui Mountains, and Haleakala from the top are amazing, but on the day of our visit, we could only see the mist. When you visit a landscape that receives 400 inches of rain annually, the probability for cloudy weather during your visit will be quite high.

Ascending the Waihee Ridge Trail into the clouds
Although we had no mountain views, we did spot a number of large spiders that had spun huge and intricate webs along this trail. While many visitors probably won't relish these arachnids, I was impressed by both the quantity and the size of the spiders we spotted; the spiders we spotted here were far larger than the house spiders of temperate regions of the contiguous states.

No views, but a huge spider
Although we didn't get to enjoy the views from the top of the hike, I still thought that Waihee Ridge was a worthwhile hike. There aren't many official trails in the West Maui Mountains, so many visitors will find that this is the most straightforward way of exploring this lush, tropical mountain range. Come early to increase your chance of seeing the beautiful views from Waihee Ridge before the arrival of daily cloud cover.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles
0.5 miles loop, 80 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Rough gravel road to trailhead, no entrance fee

The otherworldly tufa towers of the Trona Pinnacles rise out of the Searles Dry Lake in the middle of California's Mojave Desert and have stood in for extraterrestrial landscapes in many Hollywood movies, including Planet of the Apes and Star Trek. Quite far from any of California's major metropolitan areas, the pinnacles are closest to the mining town of Trona, from which the pinnacles take their name, and the town of Ridgecrest outside the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Center. While the pinnacles can be seen from a driving tour, this short ramble through the heart of the pinnacles will allow visitors to see these odd geological formations close up and escape the hordes of campervans and tents that dot the outskirts of the formation. 

I visited the Trona Pinnacles at sunrise during a November trip to Death Valley National Park. From the center of Ridgecrest, I took California Highway 178 east for 17 miles through the Mojave Desert and turned right onto the Pinnacles Road; a BLM sign for Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark marked the turnoff. I turned onto this gravel road and then bore right at the first junction; I followed the Pinnacles Road for the next six miles, crossing the Trona Railway and then descending down a steep, bumpy slope at the very end to reach the Trona Pinnacles. The road was in bad shape with potholes and deep tracks left by cars that plowed through when the road was wet, especially in the early part of the drive; later on, the road became quite rocky. I handled the road fine in a 2WD sedan but I could see this road requiring higher clearance if it deteriorates further. A dirt road encircled the Pinnacles and was enjoyable to drive; to reach the trailhead, I turned right upon reaching the loop and then pulled out into a large dirt parking area on the inner side of the loop.

Trona Pinnacles from the approach road
There was not really much of a formal trail through these 50-to-100-foot tall pinnacles, just a network of social paths. Leaving the parking area, I followed these social paths through the pinnacles, approaching some of them close up and getting a better overview of the area as I climbed up to the bases of these tufa towers. This spot in the Mojave Desert was ringed by mountains: Telescope Peak, a soaring summit in the Panamint Range, rose to the north, while the Argus and Slate Ranges bound the nearby basin. While there were numerous tents pitched on the land surrounding the pinnacles and plenty of cars and campervans parked on the outskirts of the pinnacles, the area at the heart of the formation was thankfully not overrun.

Telescope Peak rises above the Trona Pinnacles
How did these remarkable rock pinnacles end up in the middle of the Mojave Desert? The answer lies to the north where one can spot the coal-fired power plant and mining operations associated with the town of Trona. The borax operations of Trona mine the mineral-rich evaporite basin of the Searles Dry Lake. In previous ice ages, the desert basins of the endorheic Great Basin were once filled with lakes; the Trona Pinnacles were once at the bottom of ancient Searles Lake. These pinnacles are tufa towers, forming in a similar manner to the better known tufa formations at Mono Lake. Mineral-rich springs bubbling into Searles Lake resulted in chemical reactions that deposited these calcium carbonate towers above the springs. As the waters of Searles Lake receded, the Trona Pinnacles were exposed to the desert.

Trona Pinnacles
Tufa towers
I enjoyed a half-hour of wandering through this remarkable landscape and drove the loop around the outskirts of the pinnacles before continuing on my way to Death Valley National Park. The Trona Pinnacles are a bizarre and beautiful sight and while it might not be worth driving out here for the pinnacles alone, they make for a nice stop for visitors going to Ridgecrest or who are on their way to Death Valley.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Hagen Canyon

Red rock walls of Hagen Canyon
1.2 miles loop, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The Hagen Canyon Nature Trail visits some of the most colorful and bizarre rock formations in California's Red Rock Canyon State Park. Located in the El Paso Mountains at the junction of the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert, Red Rock Canyon State Park is home to colorful cliffs and badlands in a desert landscape dotted with Joshua trees. Its quintessentially western landscapes were used as backdrops in a number of Hollywood westerns, including Stagecoach and The Big Country. Although it lacks the drama of the red rock landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, it is still a beautiful and worthwhile stop for travelers on their way up to Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra. The trail through Hagen Canyon is short but is packed with scenery and has plenty of options for additional exploring. Colors in the canyon may be a bit washed out in midday lighting; morning probably provides the best lighting as most of the canyon's formations are in shadow during the late afternoon.

I hiked Hagen Canyon during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. The nearest major town to Red Rock Canyon State Park is Mojave, just over 20 miles to the south. Whether arriving from Mojave, Lancaster, or Los Angeles, hikers coming from the south should take California Highway 14 north for 21 miles past the junction with CA Highway 58 to the left turn for the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center and Ricardo Campground. After making the left turn on Abbott Drive, make the turnoff to the left into the parking area for the Hagen Canyon Nature Trail immediately. Red Rock Canyon State Park does charge an entrance fee, but day use and camping fees are only charged at the Ricardo Campground and the parking area for Hagen Canyon is outside the fee zone.

A nice signboard at the trailhead gives an idea of what you can see along the hike in Hagen Canyon, highlighting three particular features: the Window, Camel Rock, and Turk's Turban. The best view of Turk's Turban, a massive leaning tower of red rock, is from the trailhead, as this formation lies just north of the actual trail.

Turk's Turban, visible near the trailhead
A massive wall of hoodoos dominated the view to the west of the trail as I started the hike, with many layers of harder redrock separating collections of more eroded rock pillars that had varied white, yellow, and red shades. The trail followed the foot of this wall with plenty of nice views; at a fifth of a mile into the hike, the trail came to the unmarked junction where the return leg of the loop rejoined the main trail. At this junction, the more obvious path was to head right and do the loop counterclockwise, so I did that. Shortly after passing the junction, a spur trail broke off to the right of the trail, leading up a collection of hoodoos at the base of the colorful wall. I took this short detour and headed uphill along the path, which brought me to The Window, one of the many unique rock forms along this trail. This slightly elevated vantage point also provided great views of the hall of hoodoos to both sides; the nearly vertical hoodoo-composed cliffs to the north were particularly impressive.

The Window
Red rock hoodoo wall
Returning to the main trail, I continued onwards, heading west along the foot of the hoodoo wall until the trail crossed a wash and then turned to the south. Here, the trail made a close approach to a few hoodoos capped with red sandstone, before the trail continued south to reach a second wash. While the main trail started to turn left here and head back east along the second wash, be on the lookout for a uniquely shaped yellow rock formation on the right side of the trail. Here, I spotted Camel Rock, one of Hagen Canyon's best known eroded features. I left the trail here and briefly headed up the wash to see this peculiar rock that indeed had the shape of a camel's head. It's possible to wander off-trail further up the wash to see more hoodoos if you desire. 

Camel Rock
I returned to the main trail, which began curving back to the east and heading back towards the trailhead at this point. There were still a few more geological wonders left: the south side of the canyon featured another wall of red rock hoodoos. A little further on, an intensely eroded hillside off to the right of the trail held a number of unusual rock formations, including an unnamed mushroom rock where a block of red sandstone was still balanced on an eroding base. While there were no formal trails leading over to these formations, there were extensive networks of social paths in the canyon that allow visitors to explore these rocks close up.

Red rock hoodoo walls
Mushroom rock
After passing this last set of badlands, the trail departed from the wash, breaking off to the left and crossing a low hill before joining up with the trail that I had followed on the way in. In this final segment of the loop, there were a number of yuccas and Joshua trees that dotted the desert landscape, a reminder that we were in the Mojave Desert. From here, I could also see across Highway 14 to the Red Cliffs, which were eroded from a particularly intensely colored band of rocks.

Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert of Red Rock Canyon State Park
Although this was a short hike, it was quite a bit of fun and I spent nearly two hours exploring this unusual landscape. I saw a handful of other visitors during my time in the canyon: although the canyon is fairly far from the Los Angeles metro area and other major cities, its location right next to a major highway does make it fairly popular. While I wouldn't push you to make a trip out to this corner of the Mojave Desert just for Hagen Canyon, I do think it's a worthwhile addition to any trip to the Mojave or the Eastern Sierra.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Owl Canyon

Colorful Owl Canyon
4.5 miles round trip, 700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, rock scrambling necessary in the upper canyon
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, no fee required

Owl Canyon is a narrow slot canyon displaying vivid colors and interesting rock forms in the middle of California's Mojave Desert. Protected in the Rainbow Basin Natural Area, the canyon makes for a fun and scenic half day of exploring. Casual hikers will be travel up the first mile of the canyon, while visitors are up to do some rock scrambling over a few dry falls can explore the most colorful heart of this canyon. Owl Canyon is best combined with a driving tour through Rainbow Basin and, unlike most other natural features in the Mojave Desert, it is usually accessible by 2WD vehicles without high clearance.

As this hike follows the bottom of a narrow canyon, it is extremely dangerous when there is a threat of precipitation. Additionally, recent precipitation can make the roads in the Rainbow Basin area impassable. 

I hiked Owl Canyon during a November road trip through the Mojave Desert and the Eastern Sierra. Owl Canyon is about a two hour drive from Los Angeles and is an even shorter drive when coming from the Inland Empire or suburbs like Victorville. The closest town, Barstow, is right off I-15, partway between LA and Las Vegas, and is a 20-minute drive away from Owl Canyon and the Rainbow Basin Natural Area. To reach Owl Canyon, I left I-15 at exit 183 for Barstow Rd (Highway 247). I followed Barstow Rd north into town, turning left onto East Main St. at the T-intersection at the end of Barstow Rd. I followed East Main St. to the west for 3 blocks and then turned right onto 1st Ave, which I followed north over the bridge over the railroad depot. Shortly after crossing the bridge, I turned left onto Irwin Road and took it north for 6 miles; I then took the turnoff to the left for Fossil Bed Road. Fossil Bed Road was a good gravel road that I followed west for 3 miles to the turnoff for Rainbow Basin Natural Area. I made the right turn here and followed the road towards Rainbow Basin for 500 meters and then turned right again onto Owl Canyon Road, which I followed to its end at a small parking area just beyond Owl Canyon Campground.

From the trailhead, an obvious trail led up the canyon, first descending slightly and then entering the wash. Here, the canyon was fairly wide but already colorful. While the wash itself was bounded by steep, eroded cliffs a few meters high, the walls of the canyon itself were set apart here but had been eroded to expose underlying rock with a grayish-green tint.

The entrance of Owl Canyon
The trail proceeded up the wash. For the most part, there was no constructed trail through Owl Canyon: hikers just follow the dry streambed. However, at times, there were use paths that stuck to the alluvium above the streambed or that navigated around obstacles in the wash itself. The canyon narrowed as I hiked up it; the set apart walls dotted with Joshua Trees at the start soon began to converge and soon I was bound in by colorful, highly eroded walls.

Colors in Lower Owl Canyon
The lower part of the canyon was enjoyable but not particularly spectacular until I came to a cave carved into the side of the canyon at about three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead. The cave lay on the right side of the wash and was very obvious, as the entrance was tall enough to easily walk into. The cave- really a tunnel- was just deep enough to require a flashlight, which I used to navigate through its short passageways to emerge into another slot canyon on the other end. This side slot canyon was fairly short and did not take long to explore; afterwards, I made my way back through the cave and rejoined the main trunk of Owl Canyon.

Cave in the canyon wall
Past the cave, the canyon became increasingly dramatic. Soon, nearly vertical walls rose above a narrow passageway, forming a slot canyon.

Slot canyon
At one mile from the trailhead, I arrived at a dry fall. Here, a rocky barrier seemed to obstruct further travel up the canyon; indeed, this is where many visitors turn back. I scrambled up the rocks to the right of the dry fall to gain the top of the rocky ledge. After passing the initial dry fall, I took just a dozen steps before being confronted with another major dry fall. Using my hands and feet, I pulled myself up this second dryfall and unlocked access to the mysterious and beautiful upper canyon.

Dry fall
Above the second dry fall, the canyon remained narrow and slot-like. The colorful walls rose vertically above and centuries of erosion had carved out a small rock window in the canyon walls directly above the second dry fall.

Window in the wall of Owl Canyon
A short distance above the second dry fall, the canyon widened up into a particularly colorful landscape. Ahead, odd rock formations of varying colors rose above the desert wash. Over the next quarter mile, the trail passed through successive layers of red, orange, and teal colored rock, each of which displayed unique rock textures and shapes.

Entering the colorful upper canyon
Red walls of the canyon
Teal and red rock Owl Canyon
At just under a mile and a half from the trailhead, I entered an area of remarkably colored badlands. For me, this area was the absolute highlight of Owl Canyon: collections of teal, pink, and gray hoodoos rising around the wash. Both the forms and colors of the rocks here impressed and I lingered here for a while to appreciate this fantastic landscape.

Owl Canyon
Colors in Owl Canyon
Owl Canyon
Leaving the colorful badlands, I traveled further up the canyon, which continued to be spectacular. As I hiked under red rock cliffs and spires here, the wash started becoming quite rough again, with boulders strewn in the heart of the wash a number of dry falls to scramble around. While the terrain here was a bit difficult, anyone who can handle the earlier dry falls at the one mile mark can handle the terrain deeper in the canyon as well.

Approaching the upper end of the canyon
Rocky upper canyon
Towards the end of the canyon, a magnificent mountain of color rose to the left of the wash. Vivid bands of pink, teal, and burnt red rock cut across the exposed face of this hill. As I navigated around the base of this hill, I could see ahead that I was approaching the end of the main trunk of Owl Canyon.

Multicolored rocks in the upper canyon
At just under 2 miles from the trailhead, I reached a lone Joshua Tree that marked a major split in the wash. Here, the steep canyon walls faded away to the gentler slopes of the Mud Hills, which were less colorful but were adorned with characteristic Mojave Desert vegetation. Hikers only wishing to experience the canyon itself can turn back at the tree, but I chose to continue onward a bit, hiking up into the higher reaches of the Mud Hills to see some Joshua Trees and catch views of the surrounding desert. I took the right fork at the first Joshua Tree in the wash and followed it just slightly to a second fork. Here, a well-trodden path cut from the canyon up onto a ridge of the Mud Hills, leading towards the crest of the hills. I hopped on that path and began following it steeply uphill along the ridgeline. For hikers who choose to go this far, this is the only stretch of sustained elevation gain on this hike.

As I hiked up the ridge, the views of the surrounding desert and mountains progressively improved. I soon had views back down Owl Canyon and over the surrounding badlands of the Mud Hills. Joshua Tree- a yucca endemic to the Mojave Desert- grew on the slopes around the ridge and made the ascent more enjoyable.

Badlands and Joshua Trees above Owl Canyon
A sustained and very steep uphill eventually brought me sweeping views over colorful Owl Canyon and views that stretched out to the other mountains of the Mojave Desert near Barstow. In the distance, I could see across the entirety of the flat western Mojave Desert to the high ranges of the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains near Los Angeles.

Looking back down into Owl Canyon
After soaking in the views, I returned the way I came, enjoying my second pass through the vivid colors of Owl Canyon. Before heading back to Barstow, I ended my afternoon with a sunset tour on the Rainbow Basin Scenic Drive, the dirt road that visits the heart of this colorful desert landscape. The drive was a one-way dirt road that I was able to handle in a two-wheel drive standard clearance vehicle; the best viewpoint along the road was at a clearly marked pulloff and provided a stunning look at the multihued badlands carved out of the rock of the Mud Hills. Be sure to add this half-hour drive onto any visit to Owl Canyon.

Rainbow Basin
Owl Canyon and the associated Rainbow Basin Natural Area is a lovely spot to explore California's Mojave Desert. Unlike most other desert canyons in the Mojave Desert, Owl Canyon is actually accessible without a 4WD vehicle. While not exactly overlooked, the area is still a bit off the standard tourist track. The canyon's beautiful and colorful forms and the fun scrambling necessary to navigate this canyon both contribute to making this an excellent hike.