Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Smith Rock State Park: Wolf Tree Trail

Smith Rock State Park
Wolf Tree Trail

The famous Smith Rock State Park. A local favorite. A climbers dream. A place I'd never been, until now. It was a sunny Saturday morning and we chose a less popular path, Wolf Tree Trail. The trail follows The Crooked River and quickly drops into a delightful juniper/ponderosa pine woodland. The masses don't seem to go this way. Except for the sound of the rushing water it was quiet. Close-up views of the giant rocks that make this place famous parallel the trail (for a close-up of the climbing, bring your binoculars). 

Crooked River
While short and easy, Wolf Tree Trail does offer some options for extending your hike. I recommend the short Burma Road Trail. While steep and exposed, the views at the top are jaw-dropping. From there, connect to the 7.5 mile Summit Loop for a walk around the entire park, or turn around to head back to the trailhead.

Smith Rock State Park
Descent from Burma Road
The Wolf Tree Trail, with The Burma Road side trip, is an easy three mile in-and-out. For me it felt like a teaser. Although satisfied with the views, I found myself wanting more as I climbed back out of The Chute to the parking lot. It's a small park. An ambitious hiker could hit every trail in a weekend trip. I'll put that on my "to-do" list.

Smith Rock State Park
Talus slope

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Budget Gear Review: Etekcity Backpacking Stove

Etekcity Backpacking stove at Mt. Lemmon, AZ
The Dirt:

Etekcity Backpacking Sove

What is it? Canister style backpacking stove

Fuel Type: Isopro

Comes with: Stove, plastic case, attached Piezo ignition

Weight: 4.8 oz.

Size: 3.5 X 1.8 X 2.3 inches

Materials: Stainless steel and aluminum

The Etekcity Backpacking stove is a lightweight canister stove that sells for a ridiculously low price on Amazon. In fact, that's why I'm writing this review... Let me explain. Just over a year ago, a customer came to my store looking for a backpacking stove. After I gave him a brief explanation of the stoves we carry and the differences between them, I recommended the MSR PocketRocket. He stared at the price-tag looking perturbed for a moment, then looked at me quizzically and asked, "Why should I spend $40 on this stove when I can get one on Amazon for $10?" I didn't know how to respond at the time since I had no idea which stove he was talking about. Instead I just mumbled something about brand name, materials and construction. Feeling ignorant and unprepared, I went home that night, and in the Amazon search bar typed, "ten dollar backpacking stove," and promptly purchased the first stove on the list, the Etekcity Backpacking Stove. I would have an answer the next time a customer asked me that question.

Palm of my hand
Out of the box, the first thing that struck me was the size. Indeed, the Etekcity stove is smaller than the vast majority of canister stoves on the market. Credit the stowable pot support arms that fold down and swivel around the stove to stack on top of each other like a deck of cards. It makes for a small, very portable package. The drawback with that portability is all those joints and swivels add weight. 4.8 ounces (believe it or not) is heavier than most name brand stoves in the same class. But for ten bucks, who can complain about an ounce or two? 

The biggest problem I have with stowable arms is durability. Simply put, the more complex the device, the larger the chance the device will fail. In fact, the first time I used the stove one of the arms jammed. I couldn't get it folded without a lot of force, which, in freezing temps hurt my fingers like a SOB. It turned out that the upper portion of one of the arms bent, which prevented it from folding along the joint. It's not just the arms either. This stove feels fragile. Arms bend too easy. The Piezo ignition switch feels like it's barely on. Luckily it comes with a case. You'll need it to protect the stove while backpacking.

Top of the arms fold in to make for easy stowing.

In ideal conditions the Etekcity stove performs as well as any canister stove in its class. On warm days with no wind It routinely made 3 minute boil times. When conditions aren't ideal however is when this stove really falls short. Usually I don't put too much credence in boil times. I often ask people "what's the hurry?" There are instances however where getting an early start is imperative, and in such cases a fast boil time is important. Case in point: Last winter hunting in the Sonoran desert. I brought the Etekcity stove, and my mate brought an MSR PocketRocket. We were up every morning before light, and literally everyday we had to wait on my stove to boil water. It was frustrating for both of us. In near freezing temps with a bit of wind it took my stove three times longer to boil water for coffee then his PocketRocket. Let me tell you, waiting 15 minutes for a cup of coffee at 5:30 in the morning, for five days straight, sucked.

It's important that your backpacking stove is reliable. It needs to work, even on a shitty day. It needs to work when it's dirty and wet. Testing the Etekcity stove in my backyard one day, I discovered that it had gotten wet from being left outside under a tree dripping water from melting snow. Although entirely accidental, I thought it would be a perfect time to fire the stove up, because after all, sometimes in the field stuff gets wet. The full results of the test are in the video below, but in a nutshell, the stove failed miserably. The stove was totally fouled by water to the point that fuel would not reach the burner. The water wouldn't drain. It took me around an hour to finally get the stove working, and even then the Piezo ignition switch was worthless. Just for comparison purposes, I left my PocketRocket in the same place, for the same amount of time. Although just as wet, the PocketRocket fired up immediately.

In this case you get what you pay for. After a year with the Etekcity stove my conclusion is that it is not reliable or durable. Frankly, I'm not sure it would survive a season of regular use backpacking. After the poor performance my first trip out with it, I was too scared to take it backpacking. Yes, in ideal conditions it boils with the best of them. If you only backpack short trips in sunny weather and you're flat broke, then maybe consider the Etekcity Backpacking Stove. If you buy it, rip the Piezo ignition switch off and save yourself a little weight and a lot of future headaches. Everyone else, spend a few more dollars and buy something actually made for the outdoors.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Oregon Badlands Wilderness: Flatiron Rock

 In the midst of the worst winter central Oregon has seen in 25 years, finding a place to recreate can be a bit of a challenge. Mainly because unplowed roads promise misery for the unprepared driver. I don't want to join the ranks of the many snowbound vehicles I have seen on forest roads in the last couple weeks. So I head to the Badlands. Flatiron Rock trailhead is literally just off the highway. I don't have to navigate any treacherous forest road to get there. I just make a left from U.S. Route 20, and boom, I'm in the parking lot.

Ancient Juniper
A couple route options exist from Flatiron Rock trailhead. We combined Flatiron Trail with Ancient Juniper Trail to form a 7 mile lollipop loop. The scenery in the Badlands doesn't really change, no matter what part of the wilderness you're in. It's relatively flat and covered in old gnarly Junipers (some over 1000 years old), but Ancient Juniper trail had some of the biggest Junipers that I've seen in the wilderness. Some were old and dying and others lush and green. We noticed several were cut with saws, including the Juniper in the photo above. It looked like someone cut a V into it with a chainsaw and then just walked away.

 Flatiron Rock is much more discreet than its neighbor Badlands Rock to the east. It doesn't stab upward like Badlands does. Nevertheless, the views from the top are almost just as impressive. From the northwest corner of the rock the cascade range was clearly visible as far north as Hood. I've heard that Flatiron Rock hides a lot of little caves and crevices ripe for exploration, but the amount of snow made finding such places impossible. 

Views of the cascade range.

As usual in the Badlands, we didn't see many people. We also didn't hear any birds... like at all. It's weird because if you read my blog regularly you may recall that I'm constantly remarking about the huge number of birds I see and hear in the Badlands. In fact, since my last visit I've read that the Badlands and surrounding desert host over 100 different species of bird. Today however, I didn't hear a peep. Maybe they were all hunkered down trying to stay warm. 

Hike out

Monday, January 23, 2017

China Hat: Bessie Butte

China Hat is a spot that I've been wanting to explore since moving to Bend last summer. I've heard people talk about it a lot, seemingly because China Hat hosts any activity under the sun (and moon), including hiking, caving, camping, snowmobiling, skiing, shooting, hunting and unfortunately even dumping. The drive is easy from Bend. From my place I can be on China Hat road in 5 minutes. The drive out to Bessie Butte will depend on the road conditions, but is generally around 10 minutes upon reaching China Hat Road (in winter it can be sketchy because the road is not plowed). This ease of access is one reason this area is so popular. The other reason is that it seems far less regulated than other national forest lands in the area.

Three Sisters in the background.
In a land formed by lava and dominated by buttes, Bessie Butte is not one of the tallest. It does however stick out like a sore thumb due to a fire a few years back that really thinned out the plant life immediately surrounding it. Because of this, from the road Bessie Butte appears much larger than the surrounding buttes. We had the trail to ourselves as we made our ascent in freezing temperatures and a bitter wind. I was immediately struck by the absolutely eye-popping views. Even in winter the 1.5 mile hike to the top was easy. On this day we didn't need snowshoes or traction devices, but sunglasses and a beanie were a must. But those views!! It was a perfectly clear sunny day and those Cascades were majestic.

Almost to the top.
At the top the views were even better. Mount Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Jefferson and even Hood were all clearly visible. Literally, on that fine day, we could see as far as the eye could see in any direction. It was totally awesome, and one of the best views I've had in Bend thus far. 

View east from Bessie Butte summit.
The top of Bessie Butte is big. We saw a couple fire rings and I thought it would make an excellent spot to overnight. The views at dawn and dusk would be totally epic. We also saw a rock pile and a makeshift cross fashioned from twigs. The dogs took a keen interest and were trying to overturn rocks to get at whatever was underneath. I guessed the grave contained someone's pet, but who knows. Regardless, I cant think of a better place to be buried. Shoot, I'd like to be buried there.

Grave on Bessie Butte
The hike was short and easy, but the views make it absolutely worth it. Weather permitting, I would like to get out to China Hat again and explore more. There are a handful of caves I want to check out, and of course, never ending buttes. There are some drawbacks about recreating in China Hat. For starters, there are a lot of forest roads, and therefore a lot of offroad style vehicles that make a lot of noise. Also, apparently China Hat is the premier local spot for shooting. We heard plenty of gunfire and saw people parked off the side of the road just shooting into the forest. Hiking in an area that people use to shoot can be a little unnerving, especially when you see people not being responsible about it. Also, in my experience, areas that see high amounts of recreational shooting also see high amounts of trash from shooting, like spent casings, shot-up bottles and cans, and remnants of clay pigeons. Didn't see any of that first hand in China Hat, and hopefully I never do.

Bessie Butte descent.

Clarifying place names - "China Hat" is an area of the Deschutes National Forest just south of Bend, Oregon. The specifics of location are difficult to define because China Hat is not the official name. Rather, it's the name given to the area by locals. If a local says, "I'm going hiking in China Hat," they are referring to a large geographical area with undefined borders. China Hat is named after the best road that runs roughly north/south through the area, China Hat Road, which is in turn named after China Hat Butte. China Hat Road and China Hat Butte are defined places found on a map or Google search. China Hat is not. Unofficially, China Hat is bordered by Bend to the north, Highway 97 on the west, and Newberry National Volcanic Monument south and west. The eastern boundary is even more challenging to define, but I'll say that if you reach Horse Ridge Natural Area, you've gone too far. If you feel this description is incomplete or inaccurate, please feel free to send me an email with your thoughts.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Oregon Badlands Wilderness: Badlands Rock

Old Juniper on the Badlands Rock Trail

The Oregon Badlands Wilderness is quickly becoming my "go to" spot for hiking and exploration. Access is less than 30 minutes from town, yet the crowds are nonexistent. My original plan for this day was to check out Tumalo Falls, but when I arrived vehicles lined the road leading to the trailhead and people poured from them with snowshoes and nordic skis. It was so crowded that I immediately turned around and headed for the Badlands. Solitude is a big part of why I like the outdoors, and nothing outside turns me off faster than crowds.

An hour later I'm in the Badlands. The hike was usual Badlands fare; flat terrain, Junipers aplenty and all the solitude a man could want. Unlike my first foray into this wilderness, Badlands Rock Trail occasionally opens up to views of the surrounding hills. The Junipers here are more sparse. The country just feels more open. I'm struck by the sheer number of birds I see and hear in this wilderness. I'm accompanied by birdsong everywhere I go. 

From atop Badlands Rock
I was surprised by the size of Badlands Rock when it finally came into view near the 2.5 mile mark. I wasn't expecting it to be so big, and was overcome with the urge to climb it. The scramble was a bit tricky due to ice and snow, but the view from the top has to be the best in the entire Oregon Badlands. 

Unnamed hiker on top of Badlands Rock

More views.
From Badlands Rock, one has two options for longer loop hikes. I went west on Castle Trail which had not been used since the most recent snowfall. Breaking trail was slow going. By the time I reached The Castle (halfway between Badlands Rock and The Flatiron) I felt like I was on a race against time to beat the setting sun, so I retraced my steps back to the trailhead and made it just in time. This area definitely deserves so more exploration. I like the idea of backpacking here, but being a relatively new wilderness, and playing second fiddle to the cascades, I have not seen nor heard of any backcountry campsites... Until next time.

Breaking trail

Monday, November 28, 2016

#OptOutside Cougar Hot Springs Debacle

Cougar Reservoir

Another holiday season upon us, another chance to escape the madness by opting outside on Black Friday... Or so I thought. This year our family decided to laze the day away in Cougar Hot Springs. A popular destination nestled high in the cascades off the bank of Cougar Reservoir. The views during the two hour drive up from Bend were amazing, and by the time we pulled off the highway we were all antsy to be out of the car and exploring. But it wasn't meant to be. At the hot springs at least.

Cougar Hot Springs parking lot
 The parking lot was overflowing with vehicles. They were packed so tight that several cars were in the road. The people that arrived early, and were parked in actual parking spots, were completely blocked in by the latecomers who just parked behind them. It was a total disaster. I found a spot near the parking lot on the shoulder of the road, but a forest service employee threatened me with a ticket if I stayed there. I drove up the road looking for alternative parking but found nothing. I circled back and waited patiently for someone to leave. Impatiently, my kids begged me to double-park next to someone, but I refused. After a half hour of waiting, there were now three vehicles just sitting on the side of the road waiting for people to leave the parking lot. Meanwhile the forest service employee perused the parking lot writing tickets. Finally, a man came sauntering up the trail toward the parking lot. He saw that his car was blocked in and threw a fit. He began yelling at the forest service employee. At this point we were all restless and irritable in the car, so I decided to abandon the hot springs despite the fact that we drove two hours to get there. It was totally demoralizing, especially for my kids.

Delta Camp nature trail
Determined to make the best of such a disappointing turn of events, we pulled into a closed campground we passed just to get out of the car and explore. Delta Campground was an awesome campsite surrounded by old growth rainforest and towering western red cedars. Here is the kind of forest that just looks ancient. The trees like sentinels. Something out of Lord of the Rings. We explored the campsite and short nature trail nearby. The dog went nuts. The kids ran and laughed and soaked their clothes in the dense foliage. It was fun, and the frustration of earlier in the day was forgotten.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Oregon Badlands Wilderness: Larry Chitwood Trail

Do you know what I love about Bend the most? I can drive 20 minutes out of town in nearly any direction, and be in the woods. Today I forsook the mighty Cascades and went east. East toward the desert, into the Badlands. The Oregon Badlands got mixed reviews from my coworkers at REI. Descriptions ranged from "beautiful" to "boring".  Being a self-proclaimed "desert rat" I had to check it out. 

Historical artifacts?
The Larry Chitwood Trail offers the closest access to any trail in the Badlands Wilderness, and my Silverado was the only vehicle at the trailhead. After hitting the trail, I was immediately impressed. The old Juniper scrubland baked in a golden glow from the rising sun really reminded me of the Mazaztal Wilderness in Arizona, and it was absolutely awesome. The only problem? Piles of rusted cans and broken glass. Apparently, Bureau of Land Management considers the trash some type of historical artifact. Some of it may even be remnants of The Oregon Trail (as in, "Go west young man"). 

High desert Juniper scrub lands.
Looking at the map, the Larry Chitwood Trail is kind of a lollypop figure-eight loop, and that's exactly how I intended to hike it. I started with the west loop. I was surprised almost immediately by the amount of deer tracks I saw. In fact, I spent about 5 hours jacking around in that little stretch of wilderness, and I saw more deer sign than I've ever seen in one place in my life. The ground is really soft sand, so literally everything leaves a print. Deer, coyote, cat, I saw it all. I realized pretty quickly that the Oregon Badlands Wilderness is crawling with critters. 

The west loop was kind of a bust. Most of its length it skirts private property, and at times the trail just inched a little too close for my taste. In fact, at one point a mangy old farm dog howled at me as I strolled by. It wasn't the dog that worried me. It was its owner. Luckily I was out of sight before anyone popped out of the doublewide gung-ho with a double-barrel.

The east loop was more my style. Deeper into the wilderness. Away from roads and farms and loud-ass power tools. All I heard was birds. A concerto of birds in fact. Celebrating an unseasonably warm November no doubt. The deer tracks became more frequent. I started to see scat. I even saw bear scat, which if the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is to be believed, bears are ... "absent from arid regions of central and southeastern Oregon." I've seen a lot of bear poop in my day, and I'm pretty sure this is it (see below).

Bear poo?
Overall it was a fun trip. I didn't see a single person other than myself. Just a lot of birds and animal tracks. If you're looking for solitude, the Oregon Badlands Wilderness is the ticket. If you're looking for views, go elsewhere (west young man). I will return for sure, but probably in the winter months when it's a bit colder. Maybe a backpacking trip is in the cards for me as well. The Badlands has no water that I know of, which surely assists in keeping the masses away, but coming from Phoenix that's something I'm used to.

A final note. There are dozens of unmarked trails in this area that aren't on the BLM map. Route finding can be challenging, especially if you take a wrong turn. It's best if you study the area from above beforehand to get an idea of the layout (google earth), and don't forget your map and compass!