Category Archives: Tourism

Turkey tourism 2: Bryce

North to main Bryce from below Bryce Point

North to main Bryce from below Bryce Point


After participating in the time-honored American tradition of eating way too much for Thanksgiving, including no fewer than four species of animal, I decided to go for a long trail run in Bryce while the others did a shorter hike. The obvious Bryce run is the Under-the-Rim Trail, a 23-mile route from Rainbow Point at the south end of the park to Bryce Point near the middle. However, with a late Spanish start from Cannonville, the extra driving time to drop me off at the south end would significantly limit the others’ day, so I instead did a 20-mile, 4900-foot meander starting at Fairyland Point and visiting most of the best parts of the park. This was probably more scenic than Under-the-Rim, and while it was crowded in places, I was rarely unable to run, and the trails were wide, smooth, and well-graded. Somewhat to my surprise, Bryce turns out to be a wonderful place for trail-running, making it a fun one-day park.

More good running

More good running

I hiked the initial descent with the others, crossing occasional stretches of hard-packed snow on shaded northern slopes during the descent from Fairyland Point. The park’s southern end is about 1500′ lower than the north, and the snow had all but disappeared by the time we reached the base of the rock formations around 7200′. I took off jogging after about half an hour, stopping to zip the legs off my pants about 10 minutes later, and stripping down to just a t-shirt after the first hour. I think the temperature stayed around 35-45 degrees, so while I was slightly cold in the shade or wind, I was mostly comfortable in summer clothing for the rest of the run.

Queen's Garden trail

Queen’s Garden trail

I cruised the generally downhill rollers to the Tower Bridge turnoff, took a short side-trip to this underwhelming feature, then ground out the climb back to the rim at 8000′ near Sunset Point. While the Fairyland Loop was uncrowded, the descent to the Queen’s Garden was a bit of human chaos. It wasn’t a solid mass, though, so I had fun dodging and weaving, launching around the banked switchbacks and startling a few tourists. The Queen’s Garden trail was built in Zion style, with tunnels blasted through what seemed like an unnecessary number of mudstone fins. This is probably the most scenery-dense part of the park, and I stopped frequently for photos of various Bryce-y things.

Climb to Bryce Point

Climb to Bryce Point

From Queen’s Garden, I continued along the base of the formations on the gradually-climbing east side of the Peekaboo Loop, then began a more sustained ascent to 8300′ Bryce Point. To my surprise, I was still fresh enough to jog the entire climb. I milled around a bit with the tourists while deciding what to do next: it was around noon, and I had agreed to fetch the car from Fairyland Point and meet the others at the Lodge at 2:30. I figured that I could do the 4-mile out-and-back to the Hat Shop, then return via the other side of Peekaboo Loop and Wall Street, thus visiting all of Bryce’s “good stuff” in one fell swoop.

Hat Shop

Hat Shop

Bombing the 1000-foot descent along the start of the Under-the-Rim Trail, I passed two other runners wearing a disturbing amount of fancy logo-encrusted Lycra (“all Euro-tarded out,” as Mike put it). I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Hat Shop, but I was glad I made the detour. It turned out to be a collect of a couple dozen caprock hoodoos, some with impressively large and overhung boulders on top. After stopping to take some pictures and eat a bit more, I steeled myself for the climb back to the rim. I was definitely slowing down by this point, and had to walk some of the steeper parts of the climb.

Double-arch fin along Peekaboo

Double-arch fin along Peekaboo

I returned almost to Bryce Point, then physically and mentally recovered as I bombed back down the snowy trail to Peekaboo Loop. The western part of the loop is longer than the eastern part, and contains much more up-and-down. I ran what I could, hiked some of the steeper bits, and distracted myself by gawking at the scenery, including a couple of impressive arches.

Wall Street

Wall Street

I felt sluggish as I returned to the Navajo Loop junction, so I walked some perfectly runnable terrain while eating the last of my food, then continued toward Wall Street at a slightly pathetic jog. I passed Mike and the Armada a few minutes from the junction, stopping to chat briefly before turning on the gas so they wouldn’t have to wait too long before I came back with the car. The climb up Wall Street was the only part of the trail where the crowds actually got in my way, but I was feeling worked by this point, so I didn’t mind the delay.

Window along the rim

Window along the rim

Once on the rim, I managed decent speed on the rolling but generally downhill commute back from Sunset to Fairyland Point. I had expected this section to be a dull forest run, but it stayed close enough to the rim to have consistently nice views of the nearby hoodoos and some more distant red cliffs to the northeast. I reached the Lodge at 2:30 as promised, then spent the rest of the day shuffling around like a tourist near Rainbow Point. At over 9000′, the southern end of the mesa offered expansive views of the Escalante plateau 2000′ below. It was also much snowier than the rest of the park, and I was barely warm enough in the shade with all my clothes.

Southern Utah food options are usually grim, but we found what looked like a decent pizza place in Tropic. It was clearly the only choice around, as there was a steady crowd the whole time we waited to have our order taken, waited for the food, and waited still more for the bill. Southern Utah: come for the scenery, lower your expectations for everything else.

Turkey tourism 1: Zion

Down-canyon from Observation

Down-canyon from Observation


Mike was spending Thanksgiving in southern Utah with a small contingent of the Spanish Armada, and had some extra room in the car. I had already seen most of the planned route, but trips with Mike and the Armada are usually good fun, so I found myself fighting sleep across the Big Res Tuesday night, en route to Page, Arizona. There is probably some scenery along the way, including Shiprock, but other than sunset on some familiar terrain during the first hour, we saw almost nothing other than the huge and well-lit smokestacks of the Navajo Generation Station, a glowing symbol of our coal-powered future.

Important information (photo by Lidia)

Important information (photo by Lidia)

As usual, I was awake well before the others, and took a first trip through the hotel’s well-stocked breakfast bar before settling in to read and wait for the others to emerge. After a second, “social” breakfast and a sort-of Spanish lesson, we rolled out late for Zion. The park was filling up in anticipation of the holiday weekend, but the crowds were not yet overwhelming as we parked down the road from the Observation Point trailhead.

Slot below Observation

Slot below Observation

We contemplated the fact that falling off cliffs can result in injury or death, then headed up the switchbacks blasted in the sandstone. Zion was developed in the 1920s and 1930s, when man felt the need to assert his dominion over nature, and its roads and trails were constructed using quantities of dynamite and chain that would be unthinkable today.

Exposed, blasted trail

Exposed, blasted trail

The route from the valley to Observation Point was probably somewhere between difficult and impossible in the 1800s, but is now essentially an exposed sidewalk. While it is easy walking, the exposure does get to some people: Linda was unfortunately overcome just below the rim, so only Lidia and I reached the end of the trail. We hung out with a half-dozen others for awhile, taking pictures and fending off the over-friendly chipmunks, then headed back to meet the others near the end of the short November day. We found our hotel in Hurricane, then found semi-decent and only slightly depressing food at some kind of Mormon Chipotle.

Approaching Kinesava

Approaching Kinesava

After considering several plans for Thanksgiving, the Armada dropped Mike and I off at the start of the Chinle “trail” in Springdale, then drove on to do Angel’s Landing while we headed for Mount Kinesava. There is a large dirt parking lot on Anasazi Way just off the main highway, but the useless trail dumps you right back on the road, and is probably longer. We passed some fancy houses, then found the “trail” continuing as a gated road to a water tank where it disappears. Still, Kinesava is hard to miss, so we headed in the right direction and soon found a faint, intermittently-cairned use trail through the sparse desert brush and junipers.

Kinesava semi-exposed traverse

Kinesava semi-exposed traverse

The route follows a slide through the lower cliff-band, then heads up more steep dirt and rubble to a fairly obvious left-to-right ramp leading to the plain between Kinesava and the higher West Temple. The ramp is mostly steep dirt, but there is one semi-exposed section, some third class, and a short but apparently unavoidable fourth class corner near the top. None of it slowed us down much, and we soon emerged on the grassy plain northeast of the summit.

West Temple from Kinesava

West Temple from Kinesava

Neither of us remembered the route description for this last part, but a line straight up the middle of the summit blob looked doable and mostly brush-free. The final climb turned out to be a mixture of easy steep desert stuff and enjoyable class 3 slabs, similar to North Guardian Angel. I managed not to get dropped by Mike, and we were soon enjoying the impressive 360-degree summit view. To the north, the West Temple looked both intimidating and tempting. We had neither the time nor the information to try it, but it turns out that there is a devious route to the summit with only one pitch of 5.6-5.7; now I know what to scramble the next time I’m in the area.

NW to Guardian Angels

NW to Guardian Angels

There are apparently some petroglyphs on the summit plateau, but this was a Mike hike, so there would be no sight-seeing. We retraced our route nearly to the Park boundary, then headed cross-country for a road closer to the entrance, crossing about 100 feet of private property near the end and jogging a bit of “private road.” Our road spit us out right next to the southernmost Springdale shuttle stop just as a shuttle pulled away. Rather than wait, we jogged a mile or so up the road before catching the next shuttle at another of the closely-spaced stops. Then I had an hour or so to nap and listen to the foreign tourists before the Armada returned (successful), and we were on to the next.

Miscellaneous Sangre de Cristo photos

I don’t normally do photo-only posts, but here are some highlights from a couple of uninteresting days with interesting scenery.

Three Fingers

Three Fingers from wrong side, lookout at right

Three Fingers from wrong side, lookout at right


Three Fingers is home to perhaps the most impressive surviving fire lookout in the United States. Its construction required blasting the top off the mountain, blasting a trail, and constructing a temporary tram to move building materials up the final cliffs. Reaching it requires crossing a bit of the Queest Alb glacier, then climbing three wooden ladders to the summit pinnacle; the trail below can be covered by steep snowfields well into July. The Forest Service was planning to burn the lookout down to avoid liability, but a group of volunteers offered to maintain it, and it is now open to the public as a sort-of museum and also a place for up to two people to sleep.

After hanging out with Luke in Edmonds, I drove up the Mountain Loop, found the subtly-signed Green Mountain road, and drove about 8 potholed miles to what I thought was the road closure, where I crashed next to a couple of other cars. According to the National Forest website, the road was washed out just beyond this point, leaving about 10 miles of road to bike or run to reach the old trailhead. I set my alarm to make sure I had time for the anticipated road misery, then gave in to my accumulated fatigue.

In the morning, I saw that the boulders blocking the bridge had been partly removed, and both the bridge and the road beyond seemed to be in good shape. As Frank Underwood said, “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” Running a perfectly drivable road is the epitome of useless pain, and there was no “road closed” sign, so I happily drove another 7-8 miles to an actual washout much closer to the trail. While I was too cautious to even attempt to drive through, an overzealous couple had apparently tried the night before, and were now camping in their high-centered vehicle in the rut. I established that they had food and water, and that there was no way I could pull them out with my car, then said I’d be back in the afternoon and took off up the road at a fast walk.

View back to Goat Flat

View back to Goat Flat

About a half-hour later — much sooner than I had expected — I was at the old trailhead, where the stream/trail leaves the excellent road to climb gradually east and north. The trail was fairly standard Cascades fare, with slick roots and wet brush, but fewer uncut blowdowns than one would expect on a trail so far from vehicular access. I reached the Meadow Mountain trail junction without incident, catching occasional glimpses of Three Fingers in clearings. Above this, a large tree has exploded all over the trail and hidden it for 50 yards, but the route is otherwise easy to follow, and I was soon at the Goat Flats camping area, where I saw two tents and one camper heading toward a supposed outhouse.

Route above Goat Flat

Route above Goat Flat

Above the camping area, the trail follows the ridge a short ways, then ducks sneakily into the woods on the south side to traverse around the rocky, serrated ridge. I unfortunately was not paying enough attention, and instead took a likely-seeming goat-path up the ridge and around its north side. This involved some steep snow, third class rock, and one armpit-deep fall through into a moat. Fortunately humans are designed so their arms naturally catch them when this happens, so there was no damage. I eventually realized that the goats had a different goal than I did, scrambled to a gap on the ridge, and descended a loose chute back to the old boot-pack on the south side.

Spot the cabin

Spot the cabin

The trail became unavoidably treacherous near the final notch, where it crosses a steep northeast slope. It looked like there might have been some built-up retaining walls back in the day, and the lookouts probably shoveled this section, but it was now a steep snow-slope with a bad runout. I picked my way across, downclimbed some 4th class rock past an old fixed line, and regained the trail where it crosses back south to easy terrain. More easy switchbacks led up into the clouds.

View down ladders

View down ladders

I almost did not find the summit, as there are several sub-fingers of the south Finger, the lookout is nearly hidden from below, and I could not quite see the tops of the sub-fingers from the snow below. I eventually climbed one pillar, waited for a partial clearing, and spied the lookout back to my south. I was tempted to free-climb the summit without using the ladders, but they were in the way of the best route and the rock was wet, so I clambered carefully up two old wooden ladders, made a couple scrambling moves, then climbed up the third to top out on the sloping slab “front porch,” where a massive gym-class rope led to near the front door.

So tempted...

So tempted…

The building and its contents seemed to be in reasonable shape, especially considering its winter conditions. I checked out the contents for awhile, resisted my urge to eat the old canned fish (I was out of food), then made my way back. I passed one man hiking in, like me was surprised at the “open” road, who informed me that the poor couple was still stuck. The clouds stayed where they were, a few hundred feet below the peaks, so there was not much to see on the hungry jog back to the car.

I offered the couple a ride into town, but they preferred to wait for a tow, so I took their information and headed into Granite Falls to find the nearest towing company. Unfortunately someone else had come before me, the authorities had been made aware of the unfortunate situation, and they were not pleased, as the road had seemingly been “opened” by some locals with a winch. I probably missed an unpleasant encounter with The Law by about an hour, while the others at the “upper trailhead” probably got a dose of blue fury and unjust but non-disputable fines. So… I lucked out and got that done without road-running. Unfortunately, the rest of you will have to park lower down.

Squamish-y things

Good scenery and bad posture

Good scenery and bad posture


[All photos by Renée.]

With the snowpack and my own motivation not quite in condition for Serious Business in the Cascades, I took advantage of an opportunity to both climb and interact with civilization up in Squamish, where Renée and a couple of her friends were doing things with ropes and gear. In addition to getting in some roped climbing practice, I hoped to tag a couple of local peaks. After another typically unpleasant encounter with a Canadian border guard, I pulled into the Stawamus Chief parking lot early enough to chat with Renée and MJ before it got dark, and easily found parking in the “day use” lot on a weekday. I had been worried about being deported or sent to the Snow Mexican juzgado for sleeping there, but plenty of other climbers were already blatantly camped, so I figured I would have time to make a getaway if things turned bad.

Forced smile after P1 of Calculus Direct

Forced smile after P1 of Calculus Direct

First up was Calculus Crack (direct 5.9 start), a 5-ish pitch route on the Apron. After waiting for a couple of groups ahead of us, MJ led the first pitch, up a corner and out above the forest canopy. While it did not look too steep, the rock was much slicker than at Index, and I embarassingly could hardly follow the pitch. I was almost discouraged enough to be lowered off and walk home, but the rest was only 5.8, and was supposedly more sticky where the rock received more sun.

Calculus Crack P3

Calculus Crack P3

Climbing as a team of three on two ropes was a bit of a nuisance, but we were fast enough to have to wait again at the top of the second pitch. The rest of the climb was less slick and easy enough for me to actually enjoy it. The “top” was actually an exit ledge partway up the huge face, and walls beckoned above and to either side. I am not a climber, but I understood why people spend weeks camped at the base, following different paths up this maze of routes.

With the two waits, we did not have enough time to do another long route, so we instead headed over to Smoke Bluffs, a forest maze surrounding single-pitch crags facing different directions and with different levels of tree-cover. With this variety, it would be possible to find comfortable temperatures at most times during the climbing season, and the approach trails were well-maintained and -signed enough not to confuse a newcomer. I followed a fun and sometimes painful 5.9 hand-crack, then we all retreated to the friends’ house for fancy dinner. This mode of existence was neither temperamentally nor financially sustainable for me, but I could put up with it for a couple of days.

Flailing at Cheakamus

Flailing at Cheakamus

The next day we headed up to Cheakamus Canyon for some bolted face climbs with great views of the Tantalus range. I much preferred this area, with face climbing on predictably sticky rock on which routes I could actually climb were steep enough for falling not to hurt. I managed to lead a few things, and toproped some 5.10s less embarrassingly than I had feared. Still, by the end of the day a mixture of failure and lack of sleep had reduced my desire to crag; it was time for more typical activities.

After another late night, it was off to do some hill-running. Renée and I started with a sort-of loop over the Chief’s three summits, leading through hordes of tourists on some familiar and more unfamiliar trail. The “climber’s route” off the back of the first summit, with its hand-chain and rebar ladders, is easy to miss from the top, but well worth finding. The route is too steep to involve much running, but I didn’t mind saving my knees.

I had lunch in the climbers’ lot, then caught up on sleep for a couple of hours in the back of my car before heading over to the tram to run the Sea to Sky trail. There had been a race the previous weekend, and I wanted to see how close I could come to the winning time. At about 3600 ft/hr, it looked approachable on paper: I had managed similar speeds around Jackson, even when not fully rested. However, the actual trail had numerous flat sections and downhills, several of which were rooty and technical. The course record was actually set by someone capable of near-world-class ascent rates, and I did about how I should have expected: 25% off the CR at 57 minutes bottom-to-top. Hills don’t lie.

Non-peak-bagging activities

Since this site is about peak-bagging, and I spent some time mostly not doing that recently, I haven’t had much to write. This was due to a mixture of bad weather and time spent on “self-improvement” in one sense or another; the line from Fight Club comes to mind, though I think I have been making at least slightly better use of my time.

*So* not worth it.

*So* not worth it.

Better use of a gray day.

Better use of a gray day.

There has been sport climbing, most of it wet, some also featuring slug hazards. There has been fire lookout tourism, a fine thing to do when brush and rocks are too wet to deal with. There has been (mis)use of beater bikes, always a favorite past-time. There has even been some “social” hiking and climbing, which is probably a good psychological counterweight for the solo majority of my summer.

About the only peak-bagging-related thing from the period was a successful early-season speed-run of the Grand. I was nowhere near Andy Anderson’s FKT, of course: he is one of the best mountain runners in the world, and I am not. However, I was pleased with my time, which was very close to my estimate: 4h02 Ranch-to-Ranch, and 2h36 Ranch-to-summit. That puts me about 25% off the record both up and down, which is about what I should expect.

I had hypothesized that the glissades on an early-season attempt might make the descent relatively faster, but this seems not to be the case: though I took only about 11 minutes from the Lower Saddle to the Meadows, I lost time picking my way down the partly-iced-over summit knob and down the awkward snow between upper and lower saddles. Conditions were about as good as I could expect for this time of year, with an Exum-installed bootpack between Lower and Upper Saddles making crampons unnecessary. I spent about 6 minutes total on crampon transitions and 3 minutes enjoying the summit on a perfect day, and probably lost a few minutes in either direction coming from the Ranch instead of Lupine Meadows. Altogether, in dry conditions I could probably shave 10 minutes or a bit more off the ascent: 6 minutes of transitions, faster scrambling from the Lower Saddle up, and a light waist pack instead of a ~5-lb pack. I might not go too much slower on the way down, but even the thought of doing that to my knees makes me cringe.

So anyways, back to more familiar programming.

Maple Canyon

Maple Canyon from above

Maple Canyon from above


Maple Canyon is a climbing area in central Utah featuring mostly single-pitch sport climbs on solid conglomerate rock. This means that routes are steep for their grade: 5.9-10a is near-vertical, while 5.12 is massively overhung. Maple also has good cheap camping, is high enough to be cooler than the surrounding desert, and is much less dirtbag-hostile than the hellish sprawl of greater Salt Lake City. We were both pretty worn down, so we ended up spending an afternoon and the better part of the next day hauling jugs and clipping bolts.

Rapping off Haji Tower

Rapping off Haji Tower

After some extracurricular four-wheeling, we returned to the main climbing area to climb Haji Rock, one of the few multi-pitch routes in the area. Renée got most of the real climbing on the first and third pitches, while I “led” the lame but necessary second pitch, which consisted of a step-across, a few easy moves, a search for the bolts, and much time pulling up the remainder of the 70m rope. I was happy to follow the third pitch, a short, overhanging 5.9 to the top of the Haji’s head. After signing the register, one free-hanging and one bouncing rap took us back to our packs.

We finished off the evening in the Zen Garden area, trying out a 5.9 and some 5.10s, and I confirmed that I am basically a 5.9 climber these days. That’s better than I have any right to expect given how little I climb, but kind of pathetic for the amount of time I spend in the mountains. So it goes.

Maples near Orangutan Wall

Maples near Orangutan Wall

Having sampled the right fork our first day, we moved over to the left for the second. Though there had been sounds of manly exertion echoing in the canyon the previous day, the area had not been at all crowded, and the pleasant lack of waiting continued. We found a next of 8s, 9s, and 10s on Orangutan Wall, and worked them from easiest to hardest, alternately belaying from the Maples’ shade and roasting on the sunny wall. My forearms were failing by early afternoon, but I felt I had done enough steep, crimpy climbing to improve at least a little.

We decided to have dinner in Salt Lake before parting ways, and after a startling reminder that speed limits go to 80 in Utah (i.e. everyone drives at least 85), cheap Mexican food was procured. I headed northeast to the forests of western Wyoming, while Renée hoped to run errands and crash in town. With the help of my usual drive-time mix of vile energy drinks and beef jerky, I made it to a nice dirt road off a pass a couple hours south of Jackson. Renée was less fortunate, learning to her dismay that the normally camping-friendly Walmart does not allow overnight parking in metro SLC. I swear that place gets worse every time I visit…

Nankoweap hiking

Rooms with a view

Rooms with a view


After more uncharacteristic but not unwelcome water-adjacent activities, we were off to the Grand Canyon for what turned out to be two fairly intense days. The first part of the plan was to backpack the Nankoweap Trail, a less-used and challenging route from the North Rim to the Colorado northeast of the main canyon. I had first become aware of this trail while researching last year’s trip down the Tanner Trail to the Little Colorado. I was interested in seeing it both because it passes through a new-to-me part of the canyon, and because it is the northern part of an old horse-stealing route leading up the Tanner and on south to Mexico. Renée gamely played along.

Just below the trailhead

Just below the trailhead

The trailhead is at the end of a long dirt road following the National Park boundary east, drivable at fairly high speeds even late at night. This being National Forest land, there was ample free camping at the trailhead (i.e. enough for 3-4 parties). We got a leisurely start, eating a decent breakfast and packing various camp-stuff before taking the rolling trail along the forest boundary down toward Saddle Mountain.

Supai traverse

Supai traverse

Where the trail joins another from the north, it crosses into the park and descends steeply south, then contours along the Supai layer to Marion Point. Like most Grand Canyon trails, its course is constrained by breaks in the white Coconino and red-painted gray Redwall cliffs. In this case, the breaks dictate a long and at times semi-exposed traverse to the saddle west of Tilted Mesa. As this traverse is south-facing and dry, I had packed an extra gallon of water to leave at some appropriate-seeming place. My knee was not altogether happy with the extra eight pounds, so I dropped the water at the saddle, a mere 2500 feet down the canyon.

Flora (century plant)

Flora (century plant)

Along the traverse, we had met a couple hiking out, each party surprised to see the other in this little-used corner of the park, and they mentioned making camp at Nankoweap Creek rather than the Colorado. This sounded like a good idea to me, as it would both make the hike out shorter, and justify my caching the water so high up. Below Tilted Mesa, the trail descends southeast across a loose, steep slope, passing through the Redwall via a rubble-pile before continuing to something like the Tonto Plateau. Unlike in the main east-west canyon that most visitors see, where the rock strata are flat and parallel, the layers here are tilted and confusing, with the same rock appearing at different elevations to the south, and across the river to the east. There were also flora and fauna.

Fauna (collared lizard)

Fauna (collared lizard)

Below the Redwall and Muav, the trail enters a scorched desert hellscape, crossing spiny brush, cactus, and sharp rock on its way toward the cottonwoods suggesting some kind of watercourse. Though these water sources are often buried, we found Nankoweap Creek to be 3 feet of swiftly-flowing, though warm and not especially tasty, water. After a break in the shade, we crossed to find a popular-looking camping area, where we ditched most of our gear before continuing downstream toward the river and some rumored ruins.

Nankoweap Canyon

Nankoweap Canyon

The river was farther away than I thought, around endless bends in the lower canyon. Though we found occasional cairns and bits of trail, most of the route was a boulder-hop along one or the other side of the creek. Most of the way down, we found a superior source of water: a virtual spigot of a spring coming from an overhanging rock just above the creek. I quickly topped off my bladder, diluting the Nankoweap-y taste of the contents to an acceptable level.

Rafter beach

Rafter beach

The stream meets the river in a nasty locust- and mesquite-soaked delta, but a trail leads up and south, crossing over a low ridge before descending to two beaches popular with rafters. Just past the ridge, a well-built trail leads from one of these beaches to the cliff dwelling; both even appear on the USGS topo. Though we had the ruins to ourselves for the moment, two parties of rafters were disembarking on the beaches, while more streamed by along the river. As we later learned, this is a well-known landmark and popular stopping-point for those visiting the canyon by raft.

Lintel technology

Lintel technology

Ruin-wise-speaking, we had visited Nankoweap and Grand Gulch in the wrong order: buildings that might have impressed me a few days ago seemed mundane compared to what I had recently seen. Still, it was interesting to note the different levels of lintel technology in adjacent dwellings, with some individuals having a better grasp than others of this important building technique. The inhabitants seemed not to have mastered arches; then again, given the abundant flagstone-like rock, they had no need.

Seeing a herd of rafters approaching, we beat a hasty retreat, passing a line of people in mediocre hiking shape on our return. Having time to kill, we headed to the less crowded-looking of the two beaches, planning to rinse off in the river. However, with high clouds directly above, the air and water were too cool for more than a brief foot-rinse.

Sunset looking south

Sunset looking south

As we photographed (me, easy) and painted (her, less so) the surroundings, a couple of the rafters approached to chat. Our different frames of reference made talking about the canyon difficult: where they dealt in miles along the river, I thought in trailheads. The raft-folk seemed friendly enough, even offering dinner and use of their “groover,” and I was tempted to laze around for a few hours, partake of their board, and try to interact with humans before shuffling back to camp. Renée was not so inclined, and I soon found my self psyched about her plan to hike back out the same evening. Doing so somehow seemed truer to my nature, and I could probably use the fortifying hours of evening headlamp time.

We dumped and replaced our water at the spigot, shoved the camping gear back in our packs, and took off for the rim in cloudy, comfortable conditions. We reached the water cache surprisingly quickly, and I laughed at the absurdity of pouring out three of the quarts I had lugged all that way. I knew the Supai traverse would feel long on the way up, and doing the last two thirds by headlamp made it feel even longer, especially with no moon. However, I underestimated the long slog from Saddle Mountain to the trailhead; though it is all “along the rim,” it gains 1,200 feet over several rolling miles. We finally reached the cars at some ungodly time near midnight, where I diligently resumed my sleep deprivation training.

Grand Gulch

Up-canyon from Split Level

Up-canyon from Split Level

I am not usually much of a desert or ruins person. However, both are necessary parts of any visit to the southwest, and I found them much more tolerable when combined with a trail run. Renée had picked out a path through Grand Gulch going in Bullet and out Todie Canyons, which she claimed was “about 16 miles of mostly runnable trail” (it actually turned out to be 25-ish miles with plenty of bushwhacking and sand-slogging). The route would visit 10 or so ruins and pictographs of various shapes and sizes.

Sunrise on buttes

Sunrise on buttes

We lazed around our campsite in Valley of the Gods — the BLM version of Monument Valley — then drove up the improbable Moki Dugway and through a herd of cattle, set up the car shuttle, and got started running around mid-morning. The trail down Bullet Canyon was well-used and clear, and we passed a few backpackers heading out as we descended. At the first major ruin area, we wasted a bunch of time trying to find a “perfect kiva” before giving up and visiting the more obvious cliff-dwelling guarded by a weird ghost-face. Like many of the other dwellings we visited, it consisted of a well-built lower layer of living quarters, and a more primitive upper one, used perhaps for storage or defense. Sheltered by the overhanging canyon wall, and preserved in the desert air, the buildings’ stick-and-mud construction had survived six centuries surprisingly well.

Corn impression on granary

Corn impression on granary

After passing a granary helpfully labeled with a corn impression, we blew right past the intersection with Grand Gulch, hidden in a mass of cottonwoods, greenery, and use trails leading to campsites. We went most of a mile downstream before realizing our error, but I did not mind at the time, since I was still feeling fresh, and I got to catch a young bullsnake along the way. Returning to the junction, we found that the trail up the Gulch was not nearly as running-friendly as the one down Bullet Canyon. It alternated between bush-whacking through the overgrown sides and following the dry, sandy wash. Neither was particularly fast, and we alternated between abusing our shins on the brush and slogging along in the soft sand.

The Green Mask

The Green Mask

Much canyon later, we found a bit of flagging and followed the short detour leading to the Green Mask Ruin. There we found a couple of backpackers relaxing in the shade, perhaps refilling their water from the supposed spring farther up. Parts of the cave roof had collapsed, destroying most of the structures, but this ruin had the most impressive petroglyphs, from several periods of occupation, including the eponymous green mask. It also had an ammo can with a short history lesson and a summit register, which I dutifully signed.

Split-level

Split-level

Back in the main draw, we passed a few more ruins, but having become either “ruin snobs” or too hot and tired, we only visited the ones closest to the trail. However the last major site, the Split Level Ruin, was worth taking some time to appreciate (it also had the all-important summit register). Though not as sheltered as the first ruin in Bullet Canyon, it was still in good shape, with substantial portions of the buildings’ roofs intact. We tiptoed around the town dump (useful to archaeologists), and peered into the various structures, then picked grass seeds from our socks and went into “let’s get this over with” mode for the slog up to and out Todie Canyon. After a brief scramble near the canyon rim, we had only a final bit of blessedly non-brushy desert slogging to reach my car. There I sensibly sat in the shade and drank water, while Renée performed some kind of stretching ritual. After a fancy dinner at the Bullet trailhead, we made late-night drive back through the cattle and down the Dugway to find the closest reasonable camping in Valley of the Gods and think of easier things to do on the morrow.

La Malinche

View down route

View down route


La Malinche (or Malintzin) is a 14,600′ volcano between Orizaba and Iztaccíhuatl, named for Hernán Cortés’s Nahua mistress and translator. With a “low” trailhead around 10,000′, it is a considerably harder hike than Nevado de Toluca, despite being 700′ lower. However, because it lacks distracting lakes and sub-peaks, most people who visit aim for the summit via a relentlessly-steep 4-mile trail.

After two days doing essentially nothing on the beach in Veracruz, we were anxious to get back to the mountains, and Malinche was right on the way to the airport. Sensing an opportunity to fulfill my driving obligation in the least onerous way, I volunteered to drive the first stretch. After some boring driving through the coastal lowlands, we followed another amazing (and expensive) toll road that climbed another lush, steep valley via many bridges. Emerging north of Orizaba, the road crossed a dry, rolling plain on its way to Huamantla. Evidence of volcanic activity was all around us: to the south, Orizaba presented its northern, glaciated face; ahead loomed Malinche; and at several points the road crossed lava flows that were home to enormous Joshua trees. For some reason the trees only grew on the lava, yielding strangely abrupt transitions to grassland with sparse pines.

Upon reaching the plain, the road turned from a divided highway to a strange two-lane road with wide shoulders delimited by dashed white lines. Proper driving etiquette was terrifying at first, though I got used to it. When someone wanted to pass, they would simply pull out and do so. It was the responsibility of both the person they were passing and any oncoming cars to pull partly onto the shoulder and cede the center of the road. The system actually works quite well, and the constant attention it demands from all drivers probably keeps them focused on the road rather than their cell phones.

"Parking lot"

“Parking lot”

After some circling back and forth and a little wrong-way driving, we found the nicely-paved road to La Malinche National Park, which is gated just above a restaurant and haphazard parking among tall pine trees. Nearby, a family was enjoying a campfire, and several heavily-armed park rangers lounged next to their ATV. Cameron got a few minutes’ head start, expecting Mike and I to catch up, but he was evidently feeling fast at lower elevations, and beat us to the summit. The road continues well above the gate, and we followed it for a couple of switchbacks before turning onto the direct hikers’ trail. Mike for some reason decided to make a bit of an effort, so I got to suffer.

Steep climb above subpeak

Steep climb above subpeak

We met all sorts of people on the trail, from runners in Lycra to children to overweight middle-aged women. We even passed one of the park rangers, who had left his body armor behind but was still moving slowly in uniform and combat boots. After cutting switchbacks to the top of the road, the trail parallels a badly-eroded former trail, then heads straight up a steep slope of sand and grass to the ridge between the summit and a bump to its north. After passing a rock window on the ridge, it climbs haphazardly up large talus, ending in a short third-class scramble to a decent-sized summit area.

Malinche's east side

Malinche’s east side

We all ended up summiting in around 1h45, far slower than the 1h10 ascent record, but still a respectable 2600 ft/hr, joining a half-dozen people and an exhausted dog lounging among the rocks.
Summit dog

Summit dog

Mike and Cameron soon headed down, while I hung out for awhile to take in Malinche’s steep eastern side and Orizaba farther away, and to try to talk to the locals. Two of them were guides, an older man smoking a cigarette and a 17-year-old boy with slightly better English. Impressively, the boy had been guiding since he was 14, and had climbed all the local volcanoes multiple times.

Hikers' trail through trees

Hikers’ trail through trees

After exhausting their and my limited foreign language skills, I took off back down the mountain, moving as quickly as I could down the talus to reach the skiable sand. Unlike Orizaba, this sand descent was reasonably technical, with intermittent hard patches and rocks to avoid, so I passed Mike and Cameron before the trail entered the woods. The lower trail was steep enough to be an unpleasant run, but walking would have been slow and dull, so I pounded on down to the trailhead, reaching it in 44 minutes from the summit, once again far slower than the record.

A VW bus made its way slowly through the parking lot as I waited for the others, blasting ice cream truck music to announce its purpose. Having hours to kill before returning our rental car, and no desire to spend more time than necessary in Mexico City, we headed over to the restaurant for something like lunch. Without asking about prices, we ordered beers and chicken quesadillas, then realized that with our limited remaining cash, we might have to spend awhile washing dishes. Our worries were misplaced: the bill came out to all of $8, temping us to stick around and order more food.

Having cleverly done my driving in the morning, I let Cameron do the final stretch into Mexico City. It was mostly non-awful until the last five miles, where a teeming mass of cars and buses fought over lanes, swerving in and out of the frontage road between dividers while vendors walked boldly among the trapped cars. After some contortions to reach a gas station and refill the rental car, we dragged our bags over to the airport and settled in to kill time until our 5:30 AM flight. Unfortunately, even with a camping pad sleep is hard to find in a busy airport.