Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Grand Canyon: Corridor Trails - Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens and Out.

Leaving Bright Angel Camp
Another world exists at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I've never felt so wild as I did in that place, despite the people. It's the place that does it too. The canyon itself. Its unfathomable enormity. Its abysmal depths. You recognize it from the top, but you don't feel it until you reach the bottom, and look back in wonderment at where you came from. The only way out is up. Way up. Nearly 5000 feet through some of the most rugged landscape on earth. Leaving Bright Angel camp on day four was bittersweet. The prospect of exploring new country is thrilling, but the planned climb to Indian Gardens meant that our trip was nearing an end.

Following the Colorado River
The Colorado River stokes my imagination more than an other river I've seen. Paralleling its banks, I imagined what it would have been like for the early river runners. Imagine running the Colorado through the canyon without any notion at all of what would be around the next bend. Talk about a heart pounder! Leaving the river we came to a seesaw of steep switchbacks as we climbed higher and higher. We passed a mule train of tourists bound for Phantom. We passed a group of foreigners attempting a rim-to-river-to-rim in one day. It's a feat that the park service highly discourages. They weren't wearing backpacks, and each carried a plastic water bottle in their hand. We warned them about the heat and lack of water. To us backpackers they seemed ill-prepared for such an undertaking. Of course, they didn't speak a lick of english and just looked at us with smiles on their faces as we warned them to turn back. "Ok" they said, nodding up and down and grinning foolishly. They kept going.


Flattening out on the approach to Indian Gardens
The terrain flattened as we approached Indian Gardens. Cottonwood trees and shade appeared. So did the mule deer. We saw them everywhere. On the trail. Near the trail. Lots of does, but not a single buck. As a bow hunter, I was struck by the differences of this game animal's behavior within the boundaries of the park, and deer I encounter elsewhere. We passed within a couple feet from some feeding trailside, and they never spooked.

Indian Gardens
Mule deer at Indian Gardens
Indian Gardens turned out to be my favorite camp site. It certainly had the best views. We had the place to ourselves (more or less), and were treated to an amazing sunset. From Indian Gardens at night, you can see lights from the buildings on the south rim. The deer were everywhere at camp too. They fed all around us without a care in the world.

First snow
Next morning we got an early start and climbed out of the canyon. The snow and ice were still present near the top, so we again had to don microspikes. As we neared the rim the amount of day hikers increased dramatically. We saw tourists in dress shoes hiking across ice on narrow trails that, if you slipped, could result in falls of hundreds of feet. Their nonchalant attitudes made it appear as if they had no idea they were courting death. 

The rim in sight,

Almost out,
I'm afraid now that this will be my last Grand Canyon adventure ever. I have a four day backpack in Paria Canyon on the horizon, and after that I will be relocating to Bend, Oregon. I'm excited to have a new state to explore, but I'll sure miss the desert.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Grand Canyon: Corridor Trails - Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Camp & Ribbon Falls

Phantom Ranch is a funny place. In the middle of seemingly nowhere, at the bottom of an inconceivably huge canyon lies this little slice of civilization. There are a smattering of buildings; lodges for the ecotourist, cabins for park rangers and other staff, and of course, Phantom Ranch itself, which is more or less a cantina. We awoke on day two to the thunder of power tools and earth movers shattering that tranquil sound of the awakening desert. I wondered how the small bulldozer got there, since the only way in is by foot, boat or beast of burden. I supposed it could have came by boat, or maybe lowered by helicopter. I hung my soaked sleeping bag on a bear hang pole (see previous post) and took care of my camp. We watched the masses depart during breakfast, leaving Phantom for destination's unknown. It didn't really feel like backpacking in that place. Too many people. Too many amenities. 

Grand Canyon National Park
Ellen in "The Box".
 After a late start we left Phantom enroute to Cottonwood Camp below the north rim. Soon after departure, we entered an area on the North Kaibab Trail called "The Box". The Box is a narrow canyon flanked by towering vertical cliffs. It is notorious for being an inferno in the summer months, although in winter it was chilly since the giant rock walls prevent the sun from reaching the bottom most of the day. To me it felt like a slot canyon. The danger of falling rocks weighed on my mind the entire way through. Especially after seeing rocks fall on the adjacent wall across the creek, and climbing over various rock piles that blocked the trail as we hiked through. 

On the North Kaibab Trail
 Eventually the Box opened up to sunshine and views of the snow-covered north rim. The experience was quite different than the day before because we barely saw anyone. I think we encountered only one other hiker in the Box. Between the Box and Cottonwood Camp we ran into a group of three researchers who were studying the health of native fish in Bright Angel Creek. They actually lived down there during the winter. What a sweet gig!

Climbing to Cottonwood Camp
 We made camp in a huge group site under some cottonwoods in an otherwise empty Cottonwood Camp. Luckily my sleeping bag was completely dry. Determined to stay dry and warm, I stuffed my pad inside the bivy, thinking that by sleeping on instead of in it, I could still benefit from the heat reflecting properties and not wake up drenched. I was soon lulled to sleep by the pleasing sound of the creek and a slight breeze.

Heading south on North Kaibab. 
 Day 3 began with the silence and solitude one would expect from a backcountry locale in an immense wilderness like the Grand Canyon. Our plan was to return to Phantom Ranch through the Box, with a detour at Ribbon Falls. Ribbon Falls reminded me a lot of Leona Falls in the Cascades, except that in the Cascades, I had Leona Falls to myself. There were probably 20 or more people milling about Ribbon Falls when we arrived, and more arriving by the minute. Again I marveled at the amount of people so deep in the backcountry. It's a sight I had never seen before. No doubt the mule trains from the south rim, and the guide services running the river bring people to this area that wouldn't normally be here. And it's cool. I'm not complaining. If I couldn't do it myself, I would probably ride a mule too. 

Grand Canyon National Park
From behind Ribbon Falls

We reached Phantom Ranch in time to see a large herd of mule deer milling about Bright Angel Creek. The sun was setting and I just stood and watched them as long as I could. Watching animals in the wild is always such an amazing experience. It's like a window to a new world and new relationships that few people really get to see. I wondered: Where did they come from? Where are they going? Who is the leader? How many have died this year so far? Are any pregnant? Did they get cold at night? No matter how tough we humans think we are, we ain't shit compared to a wild animal, who every night sleeps in the dirt and the mud. Who has to find food and water. Who has to walk everywhere they go. Who has to constantly be on alert for other animals that want to take what they have. As it turns out, this would not be our only encounter with mule-deer on this trip... to be continued.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Grand Canyon: Corridor Trails - South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch

The Grand Canyon is incredible. Its enormity inconceivable. Like my last Grand Canyon adventure, I stood on the south rim beholding the great expanse and thought "I can't believe I'm going in there." Over the years I've read plenty of creative adjectives by outdoor writers trying to describe the majesty of a place. The Grand Canyon is the one place where all adjectives fall short, yet every adjective used to describe it is true. 

Descending South Kaibab
We got an early start. The bus that left the backcountry office at 7 am was packed full of tourists. At the trailhead we donned microspikes while a cow elk fed in some junipers not 20 yards away. The trail was a mix of snow and ice, so the microspikes were a must. The Grand Canyon is not a place you want to fall. The views were spectacular from the start. Especially up high, as both rims were covered in snow. The Canyon can spoil a hiker with views real quick. Huge monolithic rock formations and giant cliffs everywhere you look. 

Leaving the snow behind.

This hike was very different then my previous trip on the Royal Arch loop. In Royal Arch we saw perhaps five people in five days of hiking. On the South Kaibab we saw several dozen on the first day alone. Apparently the traffic is even thicker during the shoulder seasons. We passed guided tours, day hikers, pack trains of mules, trail runners, rangers, and even maintenance crews working on the trail.

By the time we reached the river (and 4860 ft lower than we started) the crowds had thinned out and we were ready to camp. Our permit was for Bright Angel campground, which is just up the trail from Phantom Ranch. We managed to drop our packs and run into Phantom Ranch for a couple beers before the 4:30 closing time. It's weird to see so much civilization at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and although I had mixed feelings about it, I sure enjoyed the ice cold beers after a long day of hiking.

First good look at the Colorado River
Our camp spot was tiny so we pitched our tents practically on top of eachother. Instead of a tent, I was using my tarp. I had been concerned about being cold at night since all I had was a 30 degree bag, and the temps were supposed to dip into the mid-20's, so I had brought a bivy to pair with my bag and sleeping bag liner. I went to bed with all my clothes on and had a restless night's sleep. Not only was bag not warm enough but the pad I used had a low R-Value and I could literally feel the cold seeping through the pad at night. When I finally crawled out of bed around 9 am the next morning, my down sleeping bag was soaking wet from condensation. I knew that condensation would be an issue with the bivy, but I didn't realize just how bad it would actually be... To be continued.

Our camp at Bright Angel Camp
Bright Angel Creek

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Bloody Basin Coues Deer Hunt

Coues deer country
Picking Bloody Basin for our archery hunt was an easy decision. Although close to Phoenix as the crow flies, the poorly maintained forest roads and rugged country keep the masses away. Plus, Bloody Basin is classic coues country: high desert creosote scrub lands with plenty of juniper, mesquite, palo verde and prickly pear cactus. Bloody Basin is vast but the people are few. After last year's failed mule deer hunt in the Cave Creek region of Tonto National Forest, we resolved to do plenty of scouting this time around. Our scouts in Bloody Basin revealed lots of deer. Glassing opportunities abound in Bloody Basin, and we spotted groups of coues bucks on multiple occasions. One such group was a bachelor herd of around 5 or 6 young bucks. We spotted them bedding and feeding on the same hillside on multiple occasions. It was this group that would be the focus of our hunt.

From our camp at Red Creek we reached a position to glass the hillside at first light. We immediately spotted two coues does feeding near the same spot where we spotted the bachelor herd in our scouts. Since it was now the height of the rut, we assumed that the bachelor herd would be split up, which seemed to be the case since we never saw any herds with more than one buck. We watched the does for most of the morning, and when they were bedded, decided to take a closer look. They were bedded on a hill just below a ridgeline. This ridgeline would prove to be the focal point of our hunt for 4 of our 5 days in Bloody Basin. The topography at this location was challenging because on the ridge was a mesa that could realistically only be accessed from two sides due to the giant cliffs that surrounded it.

Red Creek camp
Early afternoon on the first day we spotted a large buck chasing a group of does at the base of our hill. It was the first time I've ever got to see a rutting buck, and I felt like I was part of something special having the privilege to witness it. We were chomping at the bit and the day was disappearing. We decided to put on a stalk. The wind was in our favor as Jim and I split up to find the buck. I climbed to the base of the hill while he stayed low, in the hopes that one of us would be in a blocking position if the buck spooked. I put on my best desert ninja impression. I walked carefully and deliberately. I glassed often. Jim spooked a doe. The sun set behind the mountains. We returned to camp.

 Day 2 was more of the same, minus the buck. We spotted a doe at first light feeding in the same spot we stalked the buck the night before. Thinking that maybe the buck was near but bedded down, we crept to about 130 yards from the wary doe. She eventually bedded behind a prickly pear in a thicket of juniper. We were in great position hiding amongst some junipers on an adjacent rise, and we watched her undetected from pretty close. I could have sat there watching her all day.

Next morning the buck we were after skylined himself on the ridge at first light. Wasting no time we scampered up the backside like we had on day one. We were moving quietly and the wind was in our favor as we passed some old ruins from a time when Indians hunted these lands. I felt like we had a real chance of getting that buck. Unfortunately we rounded a bend and found our route blocked by a herd of grazing cattle. Since they weren't moving and our day was wasting away, we decided to just walk calmly by them. The huge cliff that I mentioned previously prevented us from taking a more circuitous route. As soon as the cattle saw us moving toward them they spooked. There were probably only ten of them, but they thundered up that hill straight toward the area we spotted the buck. We were too committed to the stalk to just give up so we continued moving forward, but inside I felt like the buck was long gone... and it was.

Near where we spotted the buck from the valley to the left.
Jim glassing from the ruins on day 3
 That turned out to be the closest we ever got. Day 4 was spent glassing from sun-up to sun-down without seeing anything but a couple red tailed hawks circling overhead. Our buck was seemingly spooked for good. The morning of day 5 we switched locations all together. We had glassed 4 bucks scouting this new location and caught a 3x3 in a game cam (the other 900 plus photos were all cattle), so we were reasonably confident we would see some deer. The new location was farther south, and the terrain radically different and vastly more difficult to hunt. Catclaw (also called "wait-a-minute bush") covered this area. If you've never ran into catclaw in the desert before, count yourself lucky. It is one vicious plant. It was so thick that it literally stopped us in our tracks on more than one painful occasion. It ripped our clothes and our skin, and made any attempt at stealth impossible. Where there wasn't an obscene amount of catclaw, it was instead thickets of scrub oak, which really aren't any better. Surprisingly, we spooked a bedded buck from about 15 yards away. It shot like a dart across a field of catclaw bounding over the thorny vines like some kind of desert acrobat. That buck literally covered 100 yards in the blink of an eye. It stopped on a catlaw covered hill and hid behind a prickly pear. We glassed it for a few minutes while trying to formulate a plan. Because of the dense catclaw and scrub oak, by the time we reached the hill that buck was long gone.
Jim and I on the last day. It's hard to tell but all those bushes behind us are the dreaded catclaw.
Even though we came up empty handed, we certainly didn't come out empty headed. I felt like I learned a ton about hunting on this trip. If you follow my blog, you'll know that this is only my second hunt ever. From what I've read, hunting coues deer with a bow is considered one of the most difficult hunts in the world. Maybe I was little too ambitious in planning this trip, but frankly, I still feel like I could have got one. I feel like I have what it takes. More than anything, it's about putting in the time, which is what I just don't have a lot of. This may be my last coues deer hunt ever as I am moving to Oregon in the Spring. That little whitetail taught me a lot in those 5 days, and I hope to carry on the knowledge... By the way. In 5 days of hunting in Bloody Basin we saw a grand total of 3 people, and none of them were hunters. We had the place to ourselves.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Mecca Hills: Painted Canyon Ladder Hike

Entering Painted Canyon
 Jutting upward from the San Andreas Fault just across I-10 south of Joshua Tree National Park is the incredible Mecca Hills. These hills are some of the most unique geologic rock formations I've ever seen. In fact, driving through them reminded me of a set from the original Star Trek. I almost expected to spot a Gorn on one of the jagged hillsides who would (of course) promptly hurl a giant boulder at our car, because that's what Gorns do. The Mecca Hills are beyond barren. There is little plant life and no sign of water. It's the kind of place you really don't want to be stuck in.
Looking for the slot canyon entrance.
Despite the remote feel of the locale, the trailhead at Painted Canyon was packed full of vehicles, and in typical southwest style strewn with trash and broken bottles. We were immediately barricaded on both sides by towering rock walls as we started the hike. I tried my best to ignore all the graffiti littering the walls as we hiked in deeper. We were looking for a slot canyon known as "The Ladder Hike" that existed somewhere within the larger canyon, but lacking a very detailed map, we weren't sure of its exact location. Eventually we reached an arrow on the ground built from stones that pointed to a mass of boulders that evidently led to the slot canyon. If we hadn't seen the crude marker on the ground we would have passed unknowingly by, as the junction lacked any signage and took some scrambling to reach. 

The walls closed in around us. Once we made the slot canyon the entire hike changed. Some places light didn't reach. Others we had to slide through narrow rock passages. Ladders placed throughout the canyon created a really unique hiking experience as we dropped deeper inside. Although I had a great time, I felt quite uneasy at times in that little canyon. A rock slide from the top could easily have trapped us. We had anticipated a view of the Sultan Sea once we reached high ground, but rain clouds moving in from the distance convinced us to turn around and cut our hike short. Flash floods are dangerous, and in that little slot canyon there is virtually no way out.
Greg descending a ladder deeper into the canyon,

Mecca Hills

Saturday, November 28, 2015

#OptOutside: Needle Rock Beach

Needle Rock Beach
 I had four helpings of Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey was so moist and golden brown that I couldn't help myself. The sweet potato casserole was delicious. Friday I felt flat. I was ready to spend the day on the couch, watching old Christmas movies, and eating leftover pumpkin pie. Sarah got the family motivated, despite my reluctance to move, and soon we were packed in the car headed for the Verde River.

Hiking along the river
 I couldn't figure out why it was called Needle Rock beach. There were no big rocks shaped like needles, though I could see Weaver's Needle from the road, stabbing upward from the rugged Superstitions. It reminded me of my backpacking trip there last December, and suddenly I wished I was back, camping in the shadow of the needle under a billion stars. The kids don't know it, but I am buying both of them backpacks for Christmas. It's all part of my plan to spark in them a love for backpacking and the outdoors. My hope is that nature is creating impressions on their brains that will forever connect being outside to fun and happiness. 

Fishing at the beach didn't go well, so we followed a faint trail on the river's edge. Riparian areas like this are so unique because the ecology on the river is so different than the surrounding desert. One minute you're walking under the shade of cottonwoods, and the next your surrounded by cacti on a sunswept hillside. 

My family.
 We found a secluded little spot about a half mile from the beach that looked suitable for camping. There was already a firepit and an area for a tent. The best part was that it was located at a spot on the river that was really deep and heavily wooded. I think I'll take the kids there on their first backpacking trip.

Although I've never shopped on Black Friday before, I think I'll make #optoutside an annual family tradition. It's important to teach our kids what is really important in life. Nature has real value. Family has lasting meaning.

Until next time....

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Joshua Tree National Park: 49 Palms Oasis

Stairs to 49 Palms
 After a night of beer swilling and cigar smoking around the campfire at Jumbo Rocks, Saturday dawned too soon for me. But I knew from past experience that nothing cures a hangover faster than a hard day's hiking. When we pulled the van into the 49 Palms Oasis trailhead, I knew this trip wouldn't be like the Maze. For starters there was a trailhead and a sign. There were also probably 20 vehicles parked there too. Today we would have company... Damn.

Descent into the Oasis
 This area of the park is quite different than where we camped at Jumbo Rocks. There are no Joshua Trees here. In fact, it reminded me of Squaw Peak in Phoenix. A lot of of rocks and creosote, and not much else. The lack of shade would have been a problem if we weren't already intimately familiar with desert hiking. I imagine it could be a problem for park visitors from parts further north. After a 300 foot climb we were rewarded with views of the city of Twentynine Palms, and a teaser of the fan palm oasis that was our goal. The lush green palm grove in the middle of brown barren desert looked so out of place. In Arizona, where I live, palms aren't native to the desert, so outside of the city you just don't see them.

Checking out the palms with my binos.
Approaching the oasis.
 When we reached the oasis we unintentionally crashed a midday Boy Scout party. There were 15 to 20 preteen boys and 5 adults. The boys were sprawled out on a huge boulder jabberjawing, while most of the adults were lazing about in the shade. Two of the adults were exploring the oasis past the signs that implored hikers not to travel any further because of the "sensitive ecological area." Apparently disregarding signage is a favorite pastime of some 49 Palms Oasis hikers as at least a half-dozen of the palms (that I saw) were covered with graffiti in the form of really bad carvings. Greg, Chad, Victor and I found a spot in the shade and talked about how cool the oasis was while snacking on beef jerky and gorp. For all of us, it was the first time seeing such an oasis, and I remarked to the guys how much fun it would be to overnight there. It was the only spot in three days at Joshua Tree that we saw water.

Hanging out at 49 Palms Oasis
Despite the traffic, 49 Palms Oasis was a cool little hike. I just wish it was about 5 miles longer to discourage the riffraff, and I don't mean the Boy Scouts. The  park rates this hike as "moderately strenuous", but for us it felt like a literal walk in the park. By the time we returned to the van at the trailhead the day was half over, and we were thinking of a place we passed on the road through the park called Hall of Horrors. Who wouldn't be intrigued by a name like that? Stay tuned.