Category Archives: Tourism

Escape from the Lower 48

Doing it my way


Reaching the place you want to be is always one of the most brutal parts of international travel. Airports are invariably dehumanizing, airlines indifferent to their customers, airplanes crowded and late. Foreign transit has unfamiliar rules you learn only by making time-consuming mistakes. And this increasing strangeness is met with increasing sleep deprivation, so that by the end you find yourself trying to read a bus schedule or check into a hotel in a foreign language when your brain is barely working well enough to do so in your own. The misery of the ordeal is yet another reason to stay as long as possible.

This trip began at 2:00 AM in Denver, when I woke an hour too early and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was already packed, so I puttered around and ate “breakfast,” or whatever you call the last meal before extended transportation hell at a time that will soon be “dinner.”

I drove to some long-term parking near the airport, dragged my boxed bike out of the car, and shoved it onto the shuttle, where it annoyed the driver and most of the other passengers. There was a family with a confused baby, a professional woman, and some Asian tourists politely masked (I had forgotten mine in the rush). Once at the airport, I dragged the box around for awhile until I found the right counter, then had to open it and add the smallest, heaviest, least threatening items to my carry-on to avoid the $100 overweight baggage fee. Thus burdened, I wound my way through security, which fulfilled my dream of being groped by a rent-a-cop despite having pre-check status and no metal objects. At least the flight was on time and I had a window seat, so I could watch the sunrise, some interesting clouds, and a lot of cornfields on my way to DC. The guy next to me emitted more farts than words, but the plane’s HEPA filters took care of that fairly quickly.

Expecting at least one flight to be late, I had a long layover scheduled in DC. All of the accessible lounges were in other terminals, and the airport requires more walking than most, so I would get some exercise between bouts of sitting. I met an interesting Canadian couple in the Turkish lounge. I talked to him because he was taking dozens of photos of a Lego couple in front of the window. Expecting this to be some hashtag-desperate play for Instagram fame, I was overjoyed to hear that he was just practicing with his camera, and that the Legos were a way to put a subject in his photos without turning them into selfies. Very Canadian. He and his partner had both left jobs in Nunavut to travel the world, and this was the first leg of theirs journey.

After talking with the Canadians for awhile, I left to proceed to my gate, only to learn that my flight was delayed by an hour, which soon became three. I guess an engine had fallen off to original plane or something, because the eventually located a replacement and pulled it around. Fortunately and uncharacteristically, the new plane was both fader and bigger than the old one, so I had two window seats to myself, and we hit ground speeds over 600 MPH. Also, flying directly over New York City at night, I got to watch a dozens of small fireworks displays from 20,000 feet.

This flight was shorter and farther south than my last one from Seattle to Dublin, so it got dark and I had no Greenland to see. I may have slept an hour or so, but the double seat was just a bit too small to get comfortable, and others had taken the middle rows. I was half-awake as I went through Swiss customs, but they didn’t ask me any questions. The surveillance state seems more overt than in the States: my European cell plan required a photo of my passport, and the airport Wi-Fi demanded a scan of my boarding pass. Of course, in the States the government simply buys this information from a private data broker.

Because of the late flight, I only made it as far as Grenoble on transit, where I finally turned my bike from an awkward box to a useful machine. I booked the closest cheap hotel to shower, organize my gear, and try to sleep for some normal hours. Things started to look better at the Carrefour, where I picked up a baguette ($1), a half-pound of Camembert ($1.30), and other sundries. In my search for cheap, dense, durable local calories, I went for a bag of pain chocolat and a large chocolate bar. I will need to carry multiple days of calories in a daypack at times, and it looks like chocolate bars and perhaps sausage may fill that role.

A half-day of trains and buses later, I finally got going under my own power at the turnoff to Ailefroide, riding about ten miles up a wooded valley to a cute town that happens to be a bouldering destination. I must have passed 100 cyclists on the climb, a few even going my way, and none passed me, so I was feeling pretty good despite my heavy and awkwardly-loaded bike. I checked into the campground, then headed into town to forage and find a way to make my load more stable. The weather looks good for the forecast window, so there’s no good reason not to get this thing started.

Bend area cycling

McKenzie Pass at peak snow


The greater Bend area has a wide variety of cycling, which I have been exploring based on recommendations, maps, and Strava segments. For pavement, there are many flat country roads in the plains to the east, hillier options to the west and south, and a couple of major paved climbs. For gravel and graded dirt, there are miles of National Forest roads of all types, as in much of the area between Lassen and Hood. Finally, there is a range of single-track, from the smooth trails north of Sisters to the bro-friendly manufactured downhill trails off the Mount Bachelor. However both roads and trails are in a transitional state now, and though the volcanic soil does not become terrible mud, the snowline can be sudden, and varies quite a bit based on aspect and rain shadow. Unfortunately, this same volcanic soil also turns into chain-destroying grit and powder that becomes progressively deeper over the dry summer.

McKenzie Pass

McKenzie Pass hut view


McKenzie Pass is an historic route over the Cascade crest near Sisters, south of the current Santiam Pass, between Mount Washington and North Sister. A similar route was used by Natives, with the road built as a toll road in the late 1800s and becoming public shortly thereafter. The pass features a stone lookout tower, built by the CCC and Forest Service back when they did that sort of thing. It is semi-famous among cyclists for being plowed but closed to cars in the late spring, at which point it is bordered by huge snowbanks. The local bike shop in Sisters, Eurosports, even has a pass conditions page and sells jerseys.

I have ridden the east side twice now, a steady, gentle climb of about 2000 feet from town, once in some unfortunate rain and the other time with clear skies on a weekend, dodging other cyclists on my way down. I was hoping to ride the whole pass, dropping 3000 feet to the junction with Highway 20 on the other side, but that is still being plowed as of May 23, and may not be clear in time. Since the pass is a short ride by itself, I added on a side-trip both times. The first time, I followed the good dirt forest road to Trout Creek Butte, which has an old lookout. Though the Butte is higher than the Pass, it is in the rain shadow, so the road was almost entirely dry to the summit. The second time, I tacked on some of paved Forest Road 11 near Black Butte, returning to town via Indian Ford Road.

Newberry Volcano

Newberry roads


The Newberry Volcanic Area, which I have written about previously, has a plethora of dirt roads and trails in addition to the main crater and highpoint. Many of these seem to be popular with OHVs, though, which churn the surface and make it unpleasantly soft for cycling. However, the major roads are more for cars, and therefore remain passable. The main area around the highpoint receives more precipitation than the surrounding area, which caused problems for me when a loop I intended ventured a bit too high. I ultimately exited to Highway 97 near La Pine, which has wide, safe shoulders but too many semis and speeding cars with loud A/T tires. The dirt roads north and east of the caldera are drier and quieter, but can be washboarded, loose, and dusty.

Lava Butte

Some history


Lava Butte is the perfect reddish cone to the west of 97 south of Bend. It is a deluxe Oregon peak: not only does it have a lookout, road, and cell service, but the road is paved and closed to cars, the lookout is manned and has an enclosed interpretive center beneath it, and the cell service is provided from somewhere else instead of unsightly nearby towers. In addition to its own recent lava field, Lava Butte has panoramic views of larger volcanoes in all directions, from Jefferson and possibly Hood around through the Sister and Diamond to Paulina. There are, of course, ridiculous Strava records both up and down the road, with which I did not try to compete.

Swimming in the P-trap

I do it for the views


“Peak-ness” is like pornography: as Potter Stewart said, you know it when you see it. The Matterhorn and Rainier are clearly peaks; so are North Maroon and Mount Morrison, rising above Maroon and Convict Lakes. Impressive though it is, Castleton Tower is not. Shiprock? It’s hard to say. While a peak is intuitively a notable highpoint, trying to quantify that intuition is not easy. Elevation alone is clearly not enough: the town of Leadville lies above most of Washington State, but the North Cascades are far more peak-like than the talus mounds of the Sawatch. Other measures include isolation (distance to the nearest higher thing), prominence (rise above the connection to that thing), and combinations of those two. Then there are even more elaborate ones like Reduced Spire Measure, the integral of angle from the summit to all surrounding points.

Watching the definition of a seemingly-simple concept spiral into endless complexity is a delight to philosophers, but seems overdone for something trivial like peak-bagging. When it comes to lesser peaks in unfamiliar areas, I find prominence sufficient: it favors large solitary mountains and range highpoints. Unfortunately it has the weakness of favoring volcanoes and small ranges, i.e. Oregon and Nevada, so chasing prominence leads to what one could call the “P-trap.”

After Shastina, I found myself faced with an extended period of bad weather in the northwest, and therefore took a dive into the P-trap of northern California and southern Oregon. This area at least has trees, so it’s not as grim as Nevada, and many prominent peaks have roads leading to antennas and/or fire lookouts on their summits, making them attractive bike-and-hikes. Here are some of the summits I scaled in this brief effort to improve my “P-index.”

Black Butte

Black Butte is Shasta’s mini-me, a basalt cone next to the highway to its west. It is a nightmare of loose volcanic talus, but fortunately it had a lookout, and therefore a trail. Only the concrete foundation remains of the former, and the latter is slowly being reclaimed by the rubble, but it is still an improvement over the peak’s original state, making it a good short objective. As I ascended, I watched Shasta being swallowed by clouds, grateful that I had skied (most of) it the day before. It was cold and windy on top, so I did not stay long before hobbling and jogging back to the car.

Goosenest

Goosenest is another old volcano north of Shasta on the way to Klamath Falls. It would ordinarily be a good bike-n-hike from the pavement, but it was afternoon and raining off and on by the time I reached it, and I did not want to get my bike dirty and did not have enough daylight. I was worried about the dirt forest roads, but they were well-packed and not yet saturated, so my sorry vehicle had no trouble reaching an intersection a few miles from the summit. From there, I took the direct route, hike-jogging a road to an old quarry on the south side, then following a trail from there to the summit. The upper trail had some big snowdrifts, and it was snowing with no visibility on the summit, but it was worth just as many peak points. I jogged the descent, then continued to Klamath Falls.

Stukel

Lying well on the rain shadow side of Oregon, Stukel is another classic Oregon ride to radio towers. To make it a bit more challenging, I started from town, taking the canal bike path to a rail trail heading east of the city. The rail trail continues remarkably far out of town, but I turned south on some farm roads, then located the gravel road to the summit. This was challengingly steep at first, and I barely managed to keep my rear wheel from spinning out while toiling up in my lowest gear. Fortunately the grade eased beyond the first couple switchbacks, and I had an easier time the rest of the way to the summit. I once again had a magnificent view of clouds where Shasta and McLoughlin should have been, with clearer skies to the south and east.

Hogback

Hogback is Klamath Falls’ Atalaya, a “workout peak” with 1500-2000 feet of elevation gain and many routes leading to its summit. It was a good target for a morning of miserable weather. After looking around for awhile behind a closed and gated church, I took the wrong path for a bit before getting on the direct route to the summit, an unofficial trail that is relentlessly steep at first. I crossed the road from the other side, tagged the lookout, then quickly retreated in a storm of ice pellets. If I lived in Klamath, I would no doubt put in dozens of laps and loops on this peak.

Walker

Walker is another lookout and comms tower, east of the highway between Klamath and Bend. It would normally be a moderate ride, but snow turned the last couple miles into a hike. I biked from the highway, taking a well-maintained main road to the turnoff, then following the lookout road until the snow became too continuous to make pushing the bike worthwhile. This road had some interesting rubber water bars, which were several inches high, but just flexible enough to make it almost unnecessary to bunny-hop them. I checked out the lookout and its outbuildings, examined the weather stalled on the Cascade crest to the west, then returned to my bike for an unpleasant, hand-freezing descent.

Odell

Odell Butte is a near-perfect cone near Crescent Lake. I had been hoping to ride the road to the Oregon standard lookout and antennas, but the storm arrived in earnest the night before, so I ran it from the car, about 6 miles each way. The snow began as a dusting, which gradually turned into moderate postholing, with a large old drift blocking vehicles at the “road closed to tourists” sign just below the top. I got a brief view of Crescent Lake on the way down, but was mostly in the clouds, with only the nearby rime-covered trees for distraction. I turned up the speed a bit on the final, more runnable road, and enjoyed some time at an actual running pace; it had been too long.

What to do around Susanville

Hold my beer…


I have passed through Susanville a number of times commuting between the Sierra and points north, and my impression has been: (1) at least it has a Walmart, and (2) keep going for cheaper gas. For reasons too mundane and pathetic to detail, I found myself spending a few days nearby recently. It remains a desert redneck hub, too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and fertile ground for “F*ck B*den — not my president” signs to grow. But it also has a wealth of good cycling in the shoulder season, from paved backroads, to dirt forest roads, to a couple of long rail trails. I don’t think I could live here, but like many parts of drive-through country, it has redeeming features if you take the time to look.

Bizz Johnson trail

Bizz Johnson trail

The Bizz Johnson trail is a 25-mile rail trail following the Susan River west from Susanville, with two short tunnels and many bridges. Parts were destroyed by recent fires and floods, but the first 7.5 miles are undamaged, and the rest is being repaired. I was in town too early for the western parts, which are still a mixture of snow and mud, but was able to follow parallel forest roads to the end at Mason Station, then loop back on Highway 36. Once the country to the west melts out, there are apparently many other roads and trails that can be combined with the Bizz Johnson to make long loops. But as in Oregon, there is a strong rain shadow despite a lack of notable mountains, so peaks above 7000 feet east of town were dry even as forest to the west had patchy snow at 5500 feet.

Fredonyer Peak

Fredonyer summit

There are no fewer than four mountains named Fredonyer in the area, as well as some other features. All are named for Atlas Fredonyer, an early settler with an unsettling biography. This is the highest one, with a lookout and antenna nest on top, accessed by a rough dirt road off Highway 139 between Susanville and Eagle Lake. The road is hard to spot, an unsigned turn on the long descent to the lake. Another, more obvious road apparently also leads to the peak, but crosses aggressive private property near the bottom. Riding the peak from camp north of town, it came out to just under fifty miles round-trip. Though the day was fairly pleasant lower down, the summit was uncomfortably windy, leaving me with cold, stiff hands for the rough descent and much of the paved ride back south.

Eagle Lake

No need to share this time of year

For some reason, this region features many large lakes. The most famous and arguably scenic is Tahoe, but others include Pyramid, Honey, Alkai, Goose, and Eagle. From Susanville, there is a 60-mile paved loop around Eagle Lake via Highway 139 to its east and Eagle Lake Road (A1) to its west. Even the highway part of this loop is not too busy, and the Eagle Lake Road is almost deserted before the campground along the lake are open for the summer. This makes for a wonderful, quiet, rolling long ride, only slightly spoiled by the pavement cracks on A1, causing vicious jolts every few seconds for what seems like hours.

Shaffer Mountain

Susanville from Shaffer

This is another peak with an antenna nest, and therefore a road to the top, climbing about 2000 feet in seven miles at a steady grade. The upper parts can be frustratingly rock and loose, but not nearly as bad as the Fredonyer road. This would be a long ride from town, but it was a good short objective from the highway, suitable for a day with miles to travel and errands to run. Not only is it an efficient workout, but Shaffer has 2000 feet of prominence, making it worth multiple Peakbagger Points.

Glenwood and Mogollon

Nope!


While I have been traveling and getting out more than I do in a normal winter in the Lower 48, I have unfortunately been writing less. Though I do not plan to abandon the blog, I expect this new sporadic schedule to continue.

The greater Gila is a largely undeveloped area of mixed piñon-juniper and ponderosa forest in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. While much of it lies within the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses of New Mexico, they are surrounded by a vast area of non-wilderness (i.e. bikeable) National Forest. With elevations ranging from around 5000 to over 10,000 feet, there is only a narrow springtime window in which the lowlands are cool enough and the highlands are relatively snow-free.

We had been carrying a tandem and bike trailer around on my car for weeks, at a significant cost in both hassle and gas, and it was finally time to use both. My friend Mike had laid out an ambitious 350-mile tour through the Gila, north from Silver City, then west to Alpine and down scenic Highway 191 in Arizona, which we hoped to complete in a bit over a week, including some time for hikes. The forest roads on the northeast part of the loop climb as high as 9,000 feet, though, so while the lowlands around Morenci would be too hot (and windy!) for pleasant touring, some sections remained impassable due to snow and mud. We therefore saw only small parts of what would have been an excellent loop.

New catwalk

Our plan was to leave the car at the Glenwood Ranger Station, then bike the paved road up through the ghost town of Mogollon and continue on dirt forest roads to Beaverhead Ranger Station. The helpful woman at the Station, however, informed us that fire crews had recently been turned around on that road due to lingering snow. Since minor snowdrifts that block a truck are often avoidable on a bike, we remained slightly optimistic. However it was too late in the day to sensibly start, so we instead took a side trip to the nearby Catwalk.

Better alternative

The Catwalk in its current form is a sturdy metal structure extending less than a mile up the box canyon of Whitewater Creek, popular among tourists visiting the Silver City area. It was longer and more impressive in its earlier forms, first as a slapdash wooden affair built by miners in the late 1800s, then wooden and metal replacements built by the CCC in the 1930s and Forest Service in the 1960s. We started on the modern structure, but were soon driven down to the river by the crowds of children and lumbering gawkers. It was actually much more fun below the catwalk, as I was able to hop from rock to rock, while Leonie splashed up the shallow stream.

Rockslide damage

Somehow missing a trail closure sign, we continued past the crowds, finding remnants of several old routes up-canyon, all destroyed by rockslides and flash floods. There is no way to build a long-lasting trail up a box canyon with crumbling sides, but the trail has at various times followed the creek all the way to its source near Whitewater Baldy, the Gila highpoint. This area contains (or contained) a rich network of trails connecting the western lowlands at 5000 feet to a highline trail closer to 10,000, but fire, erosion, disuse, and lack of maintenance have left them in an uncertain state. As tempted as we were to backpack these trails, we retreated and decided instead to try riding up through Mogollon as far as we could along our original tour route.

Mogollon ore carts

We spent a decent night in the Ranger Station parking lot; the ranger who approached us in the morning was more bemused than upset by our choice of campsite, and invited us to the annual dutch oven bakeoff that afternoon. We slowly assembled food and water for a single day, then headed north of town on the highway before turning right on the dead-end road to Mogollon. While there are a few summer homes there, and perhaps even a permanent resident or two, it is mostly a tourist destination in normal years, or a well-maintained cluster of abandoned buildings in COVID times.

This is the good stuff

After climbing 2000 feet from Glenwood, the road descends 500 to Mogollon before turning to dirt. We stopped to take a few photos among the abandoned buildings and equipment, then continued uphill, climbing another 2500 feet to Silver Creek Divide at just over 9000 feet. The road maintained a consistent grade that was pleasant on the tandem alone, but would have been painful with a loaded trailer. It was mostly snow-free and dry to the divide, though its route along the creek meant we had no views and no visual cues of when the climb was done. We met a few cars, including a an ambitious Mini Cooper from Florida, but mostly had the area to ourselves.

At the Divide, we regrettably elected to miss the cookoff, instead continuing along the high traverse, with expansive views to the north. Unfortunately this north-facing slope held much more snow and tire-sucking mud, so we soon gave up, settling for some trail mix before returning through Mogollon and back to town. It seemed both too early up high, and too late down low, to complete our original tour. We were not done with the Gila, though: the mid-elevation roads between Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings offered a suitable and seasonable consolation prize.

Santa Barbara tour: Big Caliente

Relaxing?


My peak-bagging had put us behind Steve’s itinerary, leaving us a mostly downhill half-day from Big Caliente hot springs, or a full day from various other possible camps. The hot springs were a side trip of several miles out of our intended loop, but supposedly worth the visit, offering a better experience than neighboring Little Caliente. We decided to at least try the springs, then choose whether or not to continue depending on quality and crowding.

More dirt…

The unfriendly couple were only slightly better in the morning, perhaps still resenting having to share their “private” campground. This complicated our start, as my tissue paper Thermarest had predictably sprung a leak; such is the way of “ultralight” gear. Once the picnic/operating table was available, we set about trying to repair it, following the manual in the repair kit. The preferred way to fix a long tear is to heat an adhesive packet, then quickly spread it around the hole and apply a nylon patch. This supposedly both works in the field and lasts, but the glue would not liquefy after several minutes in boiling water just above sea level. We eventually slapped on an inferior self-adhesive patch, saw that it apparently held, and got on with our day.

Jamison Reservoir

We continued down the Santa Ynez River, passing Jameson Lake, the highest of three reservoirs supplying drinking water to Santa Barbara. At the small caretaker house below the dam, the road finally became passable to normal vehicles again, and we made good time to the Pendola Guard Station. This was our most pleasant riding in awhile, descending gentle grades through a sparse oak forest along a broadening river valley. The Station was closed, but in good repair, with intact informational signs outside informing us that, among other things, the area is home to some of California’s condors. These giant vultures became extinct in the wild in 1987, and were subsequently bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild in 1991; I am old enough to remember hearing about both events on the evening news.

This being a holiday weekend and an accessible backcountry hot spring, we met a number of parties headed in both directions. These included two parties of light bike-packers going in and one coming out, more than I have probably seen in the rest of my travels in the United States. The modern way to camp on a mountain bike is to eschew panniers and load up the frame, bars, forks, and whatever else with small bags of ultralight gear. This allows for probably three days of food without wearing a backpack, and with a decent-handling bike, at the cost of only a few thousand dollars. Though I find it slightly tempting, I do not enjoy singletrack enough to invest beyond my cheap and capacious trailer.

Rules are flexible

We were concerned that the springs would be crowded, but we met two parties leaving, one consisting of ten or so young women and a bored-looking guy. Arriving at the most-developed pool, we saw the expected “no camping” signs, but hoped that we would have the place to ourselves, and could camp unmolested. It was only slightly after midday, but with hot water in the main pool and drinkable water in the creek nearby, we would probably not find a better place to camp. Not traveling ultralight, we had brought a couple of books apiece, and spent much of the afternoon reading and unconsciously dehydrating in the hot pool.

It turned out to be less than ideal, but still good enough to spend two nights without regretting it. With one more day of holiday weekend remaining, we shared the pool with a couple of other groups in the afternoon, and two more overnight. Fortunately everyone was more or less considerate in maintaining social distancing and not being too loud overnight. Unfortunately, though, the wind picked up in the evening as it had every night, and blew in unpredictable gusts all night. While the others hunkered in their tents, we set up camp in one of the nearby concrete bunkers or changing rooms. This had the advantage of being a large, flat space, but it channeled the wind more than blocking it. That, plus what turned out to be a failed patch job on my TissueRest, made for a long and sleepless night.

Santa Cruz: it doesn’t suck

The closest I get to surfing


Though I spent years on the California coast before Dr. Dirtbag, I never ventured north of Malibu or south of San Jose. That has changed this winter with my spending significant time in the Santa Cruz area. While I have not been peak-bagging, I spent plenty of time outdoors as I normally do in the winter, engaged in shorter local fitness activities. Santa Cruz is about the same size as Santa Fe and, because it is bounded by the ocean and mountains, anywhere in the city is close to the periphery. The local mountains are low and undramatic, but surprisingly good for staying fit, with 2000 or so feet of relief from the ocean.

The climate, while far from tropical, is strongly moderated by the Pacific Ocean, making it possible to get out year-round. It is damp, though, making temperatures feel much colder than they do in the desert. I run in tights and mitts in the low 40s here, while I would normally wear shorts and thin gloves. Cycling is particularly hard on my hands, and I find myself wearing something more like my cross-country ski gear. It is particularly damp and cold in the redwood groves that follow most drainages, and there is a frequent inversion and occasional fog in the San Lorenzo. One can quickly go from being comfortable in short sleeves in the sun, to being deeply chilled in a “majestic” (i.e. dank and drippy) forest.

Running

The local coast is lined by roads and trails above the sea cliff, and frequently by sandy beaches below, all of which make decent flat running. There is also a network of trails in the surrounding hills, connecting local parks to form a defensive green belt. (Santa Cruz, like Boulder, has set aside surrounding undeveloped land in an effort to freeze itself as its current residents prefer and avoid being swallowed by a larger neighboring city. As it is already separated from San Jose and the Bay Area by mountains, and connected by only a single winding freeway, Highway 17, it is better-situated than Boulder, which is naturally separated from Denver by only grass and cows. Both cities have predictably expensive housing and a slightly cartoonish feel.)

I no longer have the speed I did when I last lived near the Pacific in LA and trained for road races, and doubt I will regain it, but it has nevertheless been fun to work on my flat running form at sea level. Both form and fitness should translate to the mountains in limited ways, and higher-intensity running is an efficient way to get my necessary exercise. And in the highly unlikely event that I race another ultra, I will be well on my way to adapting to that type of muscular and joint stress.

Cycling

I have ridden or raced bikes off and on for most of my life. This has often meant riding a road bike in places where there are only a couple of rides, some of them grim. For example, my normal ride in Houston began with ten straight miles along a busy multi-lane road out of the city, and ended with the same in the opposite direction; at least, on the return, I could judge the day’s pollution by whether or not I could see the skyscrapers. I still rode around 200 miles per week, enough to stay reasonably fit but not to be much good as a racer.

In contrast, Santa Cruz is a road cyclist’s paradise: Highway 1 along the coast has broad bike lanes and bearable traffic, Highland and Summit Roads parallel it along the crest of the hills, and many small residential and rural roads connect them. Thus one can ride loops of various lengths and difficulties, beginning with a climb and ending with a descent to the coast and a return via the coast, usually with a tailwind when headed south. I have so far visited Eureka Canyon, Soquel-San Jose, Mountain Charlie, Hutchinson, Zayante, Bear Creek, and Empire Grade Roads, plus the various roads connecting to Empire including Felton-Empire, Alba, Jamison, and Pine Flat. While a couple of these side roads are popular two-lane highways, many are unmarked and little wider than an asphalt driveway. With generally polite drivers and many fellow roadies, the overall cyclist vibe reminds me a bit of the Alps, though without the high peaks.

There are also both a network of fire roads and extensive single-track in the hills, though I have explored them less on my gravel bike. I have ridden fire roads in Nicene Marks and Henry Cowell, and seen many expensive full-suspension bikes both being ridden and riding on the back of people’s pickup trucks in those places and along Highway 9. One seemingly popular area is a network of bandit trails on the upper UCSC campus, which has been taken over by cyclists in the students’ absence.

Kelso Dunes

Kelso Dunes


Our time was growing short, but we still had a long drive back to the coast, which we chose to break up with a visit to the Mojave Preserve. I had visited before to bag some desert peaks in 2012 or 2013, which I remember mostly for thrashing through oak-brush and getting a tick embedded in my armpit. It is also a step down, desert-wise, from the Sonora, with all of the nasty spiny things and none of the towering saguaros or organ pipe cacti. But the Preserve is a large and varied place; I think of it as occupying the triangle between Interstates 10 and 40 east of their junction Barstow, extending to Highway 95, but it is in fact an uneven blob lying mostly between the Interstates, between Zzyzx and the Nevada border. It is harsh country with only a handful of roads, but for some reason both east-west Interstates, and the Union Pacific and BNSF Railroads, all pass through nearby.

Sunset on Sheep Corral

Leonie is more of a desert person than I, having scrambled and backpacked in the Mojave on multiple occasions, and suggested visiting the Kelso Dunes and some granite blobs at the south end of the park, which we eventually figured out were called the Sheep Corral. After a tedious drive up 95 to Quartzite and along 40, we got off at the Kelbaker Road near the Granite Mountains, and found the Sheep Corral road with only a bit of exploration. The area is a field of batholiths similar to Joshua Tree, which start off above ground near mountains, but are mostly below the surface down in the plain, exposed in a maze of washes. The best camp spot was occupied by someone who seemed to be there for the long term, with gallons of water and a large propane tank, so we parked just outside, then set out to explore.

Screwing around on rock

We were hoping to find scrambling like in the Buttermilks or rock-piles near Twentynine Palms, in which one can make up a class 3-5.easy route. However, much of the “rock” we found could barely be called such, decomposing and exfoliating granite desperately wanting to become kitty litter. We found a bit of sketchy scrambling on some of the darker orange blobs, which had been weathered or baked into climbable condition, but were mostly disappointed and frustrated. At one point Leonie took out her frustration by pulling plate-sized pieces off an exfoliating blob and throwing them to the ground, where they completely disintegrated.

I used to be okay at this

Toward the end of the day we finally found some decent rock where we should have known to look all along: next to the washes, where sporadic flooding had dug out the sand and, of course, cleaned off the loose rock. We lacked the daylight to explore, but now knew where to go if we returned. The long-term resident turned out to be a climbing steward at Joshua Tree who was quarantining after a close Coronavirus contact, who was familiar enough with the Sheep Corral to know its potential. I wanted to stay and talk to him longer, as he had lived out of his car and traveled the Mountain West for several years, but it quickly became unpleasantly cold once the sun set. After dinner, we dragged some bedding down to a sheltered place in a wash to look at the stars. Though there is some light pollution from I-40, Barstow, and probably Las Vegas, this is still a relatively good place from which to observe the night sky.

Hiking up to jump off dune

The next day we set out to climb the Kelso Dunes, which collect north of the Granite Mountains. Though they are not as high as Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes (650 vs. 750 feet), and are no longer growing, they are still impressive and, more importantly, have an entry in the Peakbagger database, so I get points for them. We got to the trailhead before all but one other party, so we had the “trail” mostly to ourselves. The sand was just warm enough to hike barefoot, and the climb is not too long or tedious if one follows the ridges. Along the way we experimented with the “singing sand”, a type of resonance that occurs on the leeward side of Kelso and some other dunes. One necessary component seems to be large areas of sand sitting right at the angle of repose, where one can trigger expansive sand “slab avalanches” by stomping on the edge of the dune or, sometimes, up to a foot or so back. This only works once on a slope, until the sand reaccumulates for an unknown period, so we were lucky that it worked along a ridge on the standard route.

Magnetite deposit

We lucked out and had the summit to ourselves for ten minutes before others started straggling up from the trailhead and campground. Most people only go to the highest dune, but the Kelso Dunes are expansive, with dunes nearly as high extending east, and lesser ones to the north. We made a loop over the eastern dunes, despoiling more virgin slopes to enjoy the resonance and jumping off their edges. One other interesting feature of the Kelso Dunes is their magnetite deposits. This iron oxide is heavier than silica sand, and collects to create striking black highlights on the surface of some dune aspects. We eventually wandered back to the car, then spent a bit more time in the Sheep Corral before continuing toward home.

Pinkley Peak

Smaller arch


Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is about as far south and down as Arizona goes, so it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up there eventually. It was established during Prohibition, when the state donated the land to the federal government so they would pave the road, making it easier for bootleggers to smuggle booze up from Mexico. Since then, it has gone on to protect the far northern reaches of the Sonoran desert, which lies mostly in eastern Baja and north-central Mexico. Though the most distinctive species is the organ pipe cactus, a bundle of five- to fifteen-foot-tall stalks several inches in diameter, the park’s lowlands are most notable for their dense forests of saguaros. Most of the park lacks roads and trails, but there are two scenic loops on either side of Highway 85, each with several short tourist trails, a few well-worn use trails to some landmarks, and some migrant trails with the usual detritus of Mexican tuna cans and candy wrappers.

Organ Pipe is known among peak-baggers for its two DPS peaks, Ajo and Kino, both of which seem to be the typical desert fare: a long march across an alluvial plain followed by a slog up rotten volcanic rock covered in spiky plants. Fortunately there are other things to see, including the flora and fauna (e.g. javelinas, occasional desert bighorns), some cool volcanic features and, arguably, an interesting visitor center. We checked out the latter, then headed across the street to the eastern scenic loop, intending to tag Ajo Peak.

Arch from TH

Partway around the loop, we were distracted by a striking pair of natural arches, one on top of the other. Unlike those in Arches National Park, which are carved from sandstone by wind erosion, these seem have formed from volcanic rhyolite and breccia (a.k.a. “choss”) via the universe’s natural trend toward greater entropy. The lower arch is around twenty feet high and fifty long, while the upper is twenty long, less than ten high, and only a foot or so thick at its thinnest point. Given the nature of the rock, this may become a single arch within my lifetime, but fortunately the upper arch is too difficult for most tourists to reach. There is an official trail up the wash toward the two, then a well-used social trail to the base of the lower one.

Sunset at campground

Since the sign said that the lower arch was only a mile or so away, we left our packs in the car in anticipation of a quick hike. We followed the official trail to its end at a sign warning about illegal immigrants, with graffiti urging people to “give them water!” There is a tension along this part of the border between enforcement — two checkpoints along Highway 85, and 500 Border Patrol agents since a ranger was killed in 2003 — and aid — official emergency call boxes topped by flashing blue lights, water stations, and no doubt volunteer water caches. With summer air temperatures well over 110 degrees, rugged terrain, and a long hike to civilization at Ajo, the crossing near Sonoyta seems dangerous, but it also seems popular judging by the empty water jugs and camp remnants.

Larger arch

The arch trail was steep but easy to follow, and we met another couple on their way down. The trail climbs abruptly to the ridge, then traverses and descends to the arch’s base, but peak-bagger that I am, I of course wanted to stand on top. We briefly explored the near end, but could not tell where the main arch began or ended from there, so after draining a fresh tinaja, we continued to the inside of the arch, then took a look at the far end. The south side looked unwise to climb, even with rock shoes, so I went around to explore the north side, sparing Leonie a probable waste of time.

Old piton

After a false start, I continued around to find a route that was no more than class four, and seemed to reach the top. I scrambled up to an intermediate plateau, then called for Leonie to join me, assuming with my usual optimism that the rest of the way would be no harder. One more slightly exposed traverse and scramble got us to the top of the main arch, where we found a sidewalk in the sky leading to the tiny upper one. I was tempted to walk across the mini-arch, but it was only a bit over a foot wide and less than that deep; it had probaly held for thousands of years, but it likely saw little foot traffic, and I would have been crushed (and possibly injured) if it collapsed under my weight. Instead we took turns hanging from it, then completed the loop by scrambling back to the trail side, passing an old piton along the way. The area appears to have a lot of climbing potential, and seeing hardware on such a minor and not-too-difficult route made me think that someone from nearby Tucson had explored it.

Ajo from Pinkley

Organ Pipe is far away from anything else, so it made sense to spend multiple days there. The natural thing for me to do would be to climb Ajo, which we had not had time to do after the unexpected arch diversion, but that would involve repeating the same 20-mile dirt “scenic” drive, so we looked around for something else and settled on Pinkley Peak, in the opposite direction from the visitor center. The friendly ranger there had suggested a loop up the peak and along the ridge to Dripping Springs, returning along another one-way scenic road, advice that seemed to reflect her enthusiasm, overconfidence in our abilities, and lack of experience.

Arch on Pinkley

Pinkley rises like a constellation of spiny plants in the firmament of volcanic choss northwest of the visitor center. While a few dedicated peak-baggers climb it from the end of the two-way dirt road, not enough do so to create a use trail or even a line of cairns, so we parked at the picnic area, then took off on what seemed like a plausible line up a wash toward its summit ridge. The ranger had noted correctly that cross-country travel in the Sonoran desert is easy across flat ground, and rough in the washes, but all parts of the hillsides seem similarly difficult. The ravines are still brush-choked, but the ridges are often rotten, sometimes cliffy, and frequently covered in dense cholla and catclaw. They are also confusing, since the slow erosion seems to create complex and unintuitive topography.

Smuggler solar panel

Passing some interesting geode-like rocks embedded in breccia, we eventually reached the summit ridge, where we were met with more solid rock and some difficulties. We passed one step via class 3 terrain to the right, another via an angled chimney-ramp, then traversed left to avoid a false summit. In returning to the summit ridge, we found the day’s only solid rock, some dark class 3-4 slabs. To my surprise, we had continued to find occasional Mexican tuna cans along the way, and found a camping cave just below the summit, with some foul bedding, a solar panel, and an antenna attached to a yucca. With a clear line of sight to Sonoyta, and probably somewhere in Arizona, this peak seems to have at one point been an observation post for smugglers of people or contraband. There was of course no register, and no comfortable seat amidst the volcanic choss and desert flora, so we stayed only long enough to eat an avocado before descending.

I had downloaded a GPX track with my summit cell service, hoping it would lead us to a better route, but sadly this was not the case. The descent route was different in its particulars, but essentially the same as the ascent, a mixture of choss, short cliffs, and spiny plants. All sensible routes on Pinkley seem to be moderately unpleasant, and will remain so until the peak-baggers and smugglers get together to make a trail. Until then, this peak will never become a desert classic.

Grand Gulch

They were a small people


[This is longer than my usual reports because I camped out for a change, and if it feels a bit more polished and researched, that is because my co-conspirator Leonie is a Real Writer, and kindly offered to collaborate. — ed.]

Grand Gulch drains most of the west side of Cedar Mesa, a wooded plateau southeast of Moab about 6500 feet above sea level. Running roughly east to west for 50 miles, from Kane Gulch to the San Juan River, the canyon floor ranges from 5500 to 5100 feet and is often wide, sandy and boulder-strewn. Leonie and I hiked from Bullet Canyon to Collins Spring, a distance of about 30 miles, though her Fitbit reckoned we covered almost double that navigating the twists of the canyon floor and scrambling up cliffs to sit with every ruin and pictograph we could find.

The central part of the gulch features sheer 800-foot cliffs of Cedar Mesa sandstone, the remnants of beach from the Permian era. Fossils from the sea floor during this era, about 250 million years ago, display a diverse and thriving marine system, then a swath of corpses. The planet’s third and most catastrophic mass extinction wiped out over 95% of marine life and 70% of terrestrial life; land-based ecosystems took 30 million years to recover. No one is sure what caused this mass extinction, but global warming and ocean acidification certainly contributed. We are currently in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, but this time we know exactly whom to blame.

Day 1

Big Pouroff “spring”

I wanted to tell her that her tears were wasted water, but neither of us could stop laughing. Our second “reliable water source” in three days was a seven-foot-deep pool of black sludge, its oily surface occasionally disturbed by bubbles from the chemical reactions in its depths. Once the laughter faded, we agreed that we had enough water to last the rest of the trip. This water could be saved for someone more desperate.

Grand Gulch was not on my agenda when I left California to escape the fires and smoke. I am a mountain person, drawn to open views and sharp, easily-catalogued summits, and the Gulch is a uniformly narrow and shallow canyon in a piñon-and-juniper desert plain. However it was conveniently located, and while my previous visit made planning easy, much of it was still new to me. Leonie and I drove over to Collins Gulch to set up a car shuttle, threw a couple gallons of water and what seemed like a few days’ food in our packs, and returned to Bullet Canyon to begin the hike. Ten minutes in, we reached the first spring, a patch of moss under an overhang with an icicle and a thin trickle of water. This did not bode well for the supposedly reliable water sources farther in, so late in a dry year. We dropped our packs, returned to the car to chug as much as we could, then resumed where we had left off.

This first part was familiar from my previous trip, when Renee and I had used Bullet Canyon to visit the northeast part of Grand Gulch on a long run. It is also popular, as the first ruins are close enough to the trailhead for most people to visit them in a day. But the terrain is largely slickrock and sand, where trails do not form, so I still had to pay attention as we alternately followed the wash and bypassed steeper sections to one side or the other. The ruins are also well-hidden on shelves above the valley floor, so despite my having visited both before, we barely found Jailhose Ruin, and I wasted plenty of time and energy failing to find Perfect Kiva.

Where most people turn right at the Grand Gulch junction, we turned left, heading downstream toward the San Juan River. We were just over seven miles from our other car, but covering that distance would take a good part of three days. A seasonal stream has cut the Gulch into a nearly-flat sandstone plateau, so it meanders constantly, and its sides are mostly sheer. Once you enter, you are committed to following its twists and turns, either through deep sand in the wash, or cactus and tamarisk on either side. I could not decide which was least bad, and every time I changed my mind we were forced to slog up and down high banks of loose dirt. As the sun set in our narrow strip of sky, the cold abruptly set in, and we found a sandstone bench above the brush and pooling frigid air to camp. I always struggle with the cold, short days this time of year, particularly while backpacking, and the canyon only made them colder and shorter. On the bright side, we had barely touched our water, so we could survive the next two days with no springs and only a bit of thirst.

Grand Gulch probably has some of the best stargazing in the country. Though it is not particularly high at only around 5000 feet, the air is dry and unpolluted. The nearest town, Mexican Hat, is over twenty miles away, barely inhabited, and hidden in the San Juan River canyon. We were visiting at a particularly opportune time, near both the new moon and the peak of the Leonid meteor showers. Anticipating this, I had brought my “real” camera to practice my night photography, so I was disappointed and annoyed at myself when I found that the cold had drained the battery. So much for my plan to while away the long hours between when it is too dark to hike and a socially-acceptable bedtime. Fortunately we had shooting stars to watch, and Leonie shares my insomnia and is an endless source of crazy stories, so I did not waste my evening with dark thoughts and depressing political podcasts.

Day 2

Side-stream panel


While our campsite was mostly well-chosen, on a flat, clean sandstone bench above the pool of cold air in the wash, it faced north, so the morning routine of hot breakfast wrapped in down took longer than usual. I would ordinarily chafe at wasting any portion of a short November day, but despite the previous day’s battles with sand and shrubbery, I remained confident that we had only a modest distance to cover in the next two days. We hoped to find water at Green Canyon, but thanks to our decision to tank up at the car, I thought we could finish with only mild dehydration.

Grand Gulch can be frustrating, but is never boring. The best route alternates between the central channel and the banks to either side, with each transition requiring a minor battle with a steep dirt-bank. In the channel, one’s search for pictographs, ruins, and water sources is hampered by the ten-foot-tall banks; on the sides, by the need to dodge cacti wriggle through brush. Thus the mind stays occupied, even while the route is dictated by the canyon walls.

Leonie’s map mentioned a “Totem Pole” ruin in this stretch, but we were focused on making forward progress, and my failure to find the Perfect Kiva the day before had accustomed me to the disappointment of not finding ruins. It therefore cheered me and gave me a bit of confidence to spot, though the head-high brush, a two-story building on a south-facing ledge. We dropped packs, thrashed up brush and dirt, then scrambled some easy slabs to reach the ledge’s accessible east side.

The building was in a strong defensive position, with sheer cliffs above and below and the ledge tapering away to the west. The eastern approach was guarded by a thick wall with a low door and five apparent arrow slits, suggesting frequent vicious and petty wars between the canyon’s settlements. The building itself was solidly-built, with regular layers of larger rocks alternating with mud and smaller stones. While enough of the second story’s floor had collapsed to allow one to look inside, most of the vegas were intact, blackened by smoke. The ceilings were low for us modern tall folk — everything from doors to handprints to corncobs is small — leading me to believe that the Basketweavers were stunted by their sere environment.

As we turned to head back to our packs, I was surprised to see a man making his way up to the eastern side of the ledge. He patiently waited outside the defensive wall until we exited, and I probably would have just said a few words and moved on, but Leonie is more outgoing, and the man proved more talkative than I had expected. Dana had been visiting the Gulch for forty years, and was paradoxically documenting it online while trying to protect it from the rising tourist tide. He also had a long and wide-ranging mountaineering career, but he was reticent like most such people, and we all had miles to cover.

Before parting, Dana gave us a map pointing out some archaeological features that did not appear on ours, and suggested a possible water source up Step Canyon. We quickly found the nearby Quail Panel, small but more colorful than most in the Canyon. I took some photos, learned the Quail Panel Dance, then took off up-canyon in search of the fabled water source. This side-trip turned out to be a discouraging waste of time. Perhaps there is no water, but more likely I am simply bad at finding it. After an hour or so spent looking under overhangs and below discolorations, the best I found was some vile moss-mud hybrid that I could perhaps drink from by pressing my t-shirt against it and wringing a few drops into my mouth.

Leonie ran into Dana while gawking at the panel and waiting for my fruitless water expedition. He told her that the blocky rectangular figures are over 2000 years old, painted by people well-intentioned whites call Basketmaker. The oldest remnants Europeans found in the canyon are intricately woven watertight brackets which date from that era. The stick figures are from a later group often called Pueblo, who lived in the canyon from about 1000 AD to the 12th or 13th or 14th century, depending on whose account you trust. Most of the structures we passed date from this period.

There are five modern native tribes that trace their ancestors to Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa- the Zuni, Hopi, Navajo and two groups of Ute. When Obama designated Bear’s Ears National Monument in 2016, he created a historic management partnership between federal and tribal agencies. Registers at some of the better known structures and panels offer tips on how to appreciate the sites with respect.

It turns out that hanging out by the panel was a better way to find water. Three NOLS instructors came by, and told us of a “good” pothole farther down-canyon. In typical NOLS fashion, they were on a ridiculously long backpack out-of-season through harsh terrain, descending another gulch to the San Juan, then somehow following that to the mouth of Grand Gulch before exiting via Bullet. Unusually, though, the instructors were keeping some distance from the students, who were supposed to figure things out for themselves. I am not sure how this worked, but imagined it involved spotting scopes and tranquilizer darts. Continuing on our way, we passed a couple groups of the students, instantly recognizable by their haggard young faces and absurdly large packs. As much as I respect NOLS, it is frustrating to watch it corrupt the minds of our youth with its slow-and-heavy style.

The promised oasis turned out to be a pool of stagnant water, roughly three by eight feet and a foot deep, sitting fifty feet above the canyon floor on the south side. Other than a few algae and some floating debris, it looked drinkable, though little like a “water source” to my mountaineer’s eyes, and nothing like a “spring.” We took turns forcing some water through my filter, mostly clogged by Chilean glacial silt, and boiling some for tea, a frustrating process for those used to dipping in alpine streams. However it was worth the effort, as it alleviated the persistent water anxiety and even gave us the option of taking another day. I had packed my food expecting to cover normal summer-length days, but since caloric needs are mostly a function of miles traveled, I could easily last another day.

By the end of two days in the canyon, I was developing a sense for where to find ruins and pictographs. The natives were smart, locating their dwellings and paintings on south- or east-facing ledges with overhangs, which would catch morning and winter sun, and be somewhat shaded in the summer. Thus I correctly predicted that another ledge was likely to contain something, and found some more pictographs not labeled on either map. Their ledge had partly collapsed though, so getting close required a bit of fourth class climbing — a bonus to me. My inner peak-bagger was frustrated by the constrained hike through a canyon, and each ruin was like a summit, this one requiring an interesting scramble.

A hurried search for a campsite before dark left us on a slightly worse ledge, west-facing and sloped toward the wash. Between the slow terrain and my fruitless side-trip for water, we had not covered much ground, but I was getting better at spotting ruins, and learning to lower my expectations about water. I ate my curry-flavored nutrient paste, then settled in for another night of conversation and insomnia beneath innumerable stars.

Day 3


Water anxiety was no longer a problem: thanks to the friendly NOLS instructors, we had found usable water the day before, and knew of a reliable source ahead at the Big Pouroff. Thus we were in no hurry to get started, and felt free to stop and explore at our leisure. This included both normal tourist visits to ruins and pictographs, and sillier delays like chimneying up behind a giant sandstone flake just because it was there. Like Zion and Red Rocks, parts of Grand Gulch can feel like an adult jungle gym for those inclined to scramble.

Dana had marked some pictographs near our camp, but after failing to find them in a few minutes’ search, we headed on down the wash. As we imperceptibly descended toward the San Juan River, and more tributaries fed into the main Gulch. The greater seasonal flow manifested itself indirectly: the channel widened and became less brushy, its deep sand replaced by compacted gravel, cracked mud, and worn sandstone, and occasional wet patches began to appear. Leonie found some water in the form of calf-deep, shoe-sucking mud hidden under leaves, and shortly thereafter found a vile pothole in which to wash it off.

After two days of scrabbling up and down dirt-banks, thrashing through tamarisk, and plodding in sand, easy walking in the broad ravine was its own attraction. Our pace increased so much that we almost missed the “Big Man” panel featured on the tourist signs, had we not met an older couple hiking in to see it from the opposite direction. Rather than backpacking the canyon as we were, they were wisely dayhiking it from its tributaries to the east: Kane, Bullet, Government, and so on. We talked for awhile — as fellow travelers in the Western United States, we had seen many of the same places — then took off through the brush toward the indicated coordinates. I spotted a likely location for pictographs, a north-facing bench under a smooth overhang, and took off to investigate while the others waited.

My thrashy, slabby route was unsurprisingly the wrong way, and I discovered a well-traveled path just below the ledge. I had guessed correctly, finding the two large red figures, with the usual Basketweaver blocky bodies and spindly limbs, along with a few cruder white figures, many handprints, and either some fat abstract rodent or the severed head of a white girl with a ponytail. Leonie and the couple soon joined me, and we alternated posing for photos and signing the summit register (yay, I get points for this!). When the conversation stumbled into politics, I was relieved to learn that they were the kind of Montanans with whom I tend to agree. The northern Rockies states have a conservative and redneck reputation, but especially in Montana, I have found a strong current of wilderness conservation and defense of access to public lands. While the political divisions may be just as bitter as elsewhere, they are drawn on different lines than elsewhere, with hunters more closely allied with hikers and climbers.

We took a side trip near Polly’s Island to visit some handprints Dana had mentioned, but I was starting to succumb to archaeology fatigue. When I spotted a short wall on a ledge farther down-gulch, Leonie was content to hang out in the streambed while I thrashed up to take a closer look. A collapsed canyon wall on the right seemed to offer the most likely access, but while I found trails in the flat below, and an old cut branch higher up, the route did not seem to see much traffic. A final squeeze and exposed step landed me on the ledge. The walls were not much more impressive close up, and there were no pictographs, so I took a few quick photos and almost turned back.

Fortunately I decided to take a peek around the corner to the southwest, and saw that the ledge extended another couple hundred yards, sheltering a few more structures before disappearing into the blank canyon wall. I shouted to my companion that the side-trip was worth the effort, then waited for her to join me before exploring further. Though it was probably the largest settlement we saw, and seems easy to spot from below, the ruin did not appear on the map and lacked the usual BLM “please stay out” signs, and I found no recent footprints in the dirt along the ledge. We passed a well-preserved stick-and-mud wall and two- and three-unit “apartment complexes,” then stopped at the final round structure to absorb our surroundings.

Pictographs are worth recording, but I find it hard to relate to them. The stick figures and handprints show little skill, and the abstract paintings mean nothing unmoored from their culture. Buildings are another matter: the need for shelter is universal, and with limited labor and building materials, the ancient natives constructed structures I would find difficult to recreate myself. Sitting on that ledge, I could imagine the austere and circumscribed lives of an extended family living there, waking each morning to the same restricted view I saw. They would tend and gather their crops below, carefully manage their limited water, and trade or war with similar people a few miles up- or down-canyon.

Back in the present, it was time we looked to our own water, shelter, and forward progress. We dropped packs near the point of the Big Pouroff, a supposedly good water source, and I spent a half-hour following various game- and human-trails around a flat bend, peering under every discolored overhang and behind every cluster of greenish vegetation. I was expecting a mossy little oasis with a dripping seep, but instead found only more desert. Returning to our packs and the watercourse, we worked our way around a dryfall and found… well, the name “Big Pouroff” was accurate. Though dry now, the wide chute had once flowed into the largest pothole we had seen, still brimming with fetid scunge. While I tried to measure its depth without falling in and drowning, Leonie sat down to laugh uncontrollably.

This time we were determined to find a good camp-spot, flat and east-facing. We passed several other potholes, smaller and less vile than the Big Pouroff, but none seemed worth the effort given our adequate water. Toward dusk, I spotted a possible camping area high above the streambed inside a westward bend. Reaching it required some engaging class 4 sandstone slabs, and it was not entirely flat, but we would spend the night well out of the cold pool in the gulch, and feel the first sun after our last night.

Day 4

Summiting the narrows


Our unplanned fourth day was short, and the travel likely to remain easy, so we took our time packing up and scrambling back into the wash. The lower wash remained broad and smooth as expected, while the canyon walls twisted into sharper goosenecks, on their way toward wearing through and forming buttes, like Polly’s Island from the previous day. We passed one more ruin, with an intact kiva, a summit register, and dwellings on an inaccessible-looking shelf above. The information in the register box noted that using technical rock-climbing gear to reach ruins was illegal, which I of course took as a challenge to my scrambling ability. Reaching the shelf was no more than class 3, but the traverse to the buildings, on outward-sloping sandstone with little headroom, was more than I wanted to risk. I suspect that either the ledge has eroded, or the natives reached the dwelling via a ladder or the roofs of buildings below.

It was not even noon when we reached the junction with Collins Gulch, and the route back to Leonie’s car, so we dropped our packs to explore “The Narrows,” a feature labeled on our map. This turned out not to be a slot canyon like the Zion Narrows, but something more unusual, a gooseneck that had “recently” worn through to form an island. The new watercourse led through a gap no more than a dozen feet wide, with two logs jammed ten feet up. Being who I am, my first thought after “that’s cool” was “how do I stand on top of those?” I found two ways: a fourth class traverse from a side-canyon along a ledge on the right, and a more direct fifth class route up the right wall from below, mantling onto the log. Balancing across the lower log was heady but easy, since it was broad and stable. I posed for some photos on the summit block, then downclimbed back to the wash.

After failing to climb to the rim above the constriction, we returned to our packs and picked up the well-used trail up Collins. This was one of the settlers’ original routes into Grand Gulch, probably because it has a permanent spring at the top (though based on our experience, I am skeptical of both its permanence and its springiness). The route therefore follows an old developed trail, with spiked retaining walls in places and one section blasted into the cliff wall near the top. Despite its development and semi-regular use, the trail remains hard to follow in places, as it sensibly follows the wash where possible. This misled us into one dead-end, where we briefly wondered how mules had climbed a fifth-class sandstone step. The answer was that we had passed the point where an obvious trail left the wash.

Back on track, we climbed a ramp carved in the sandstone wall, passed through an old gate, and reemerged on Cedar Mesa, into a suddenly open sky and 360-degree distant horizon. The gulch where we had spent the past three days quickly disappeared in the undulating sandstone and spotted junipers. Unlike my familiar mountains, landmarks visible for tens of miles, Grand Gulch is a surprise, hidden in mere hundreds of yards. It must have been a cruel shock for early explorers, who had easily avoided the high and compact La Sals, Henries, and Abajos, to stumble upon this sprawling impasse. But in our modern world all terrain is known and mapped, all paths graded and paved. In only a couple of hours we had drive back around to Bullet Canyon to retrieve the other car, then down off the Mesa via the improbable Moki Dugway to spend a warmer night among the sandstone monuments to the south.