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.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Joshua Tree National Park: The Maze

Searching for the trail in The Maze
 Joshua Tree National Park is known as a climber's park. The rocks are big, easily accessible and there are plenty to choose from. Our visit to Joshua Tree was a mission of discovery, and that meant throwing on our packs, topping off water bottles, and hitting the trails. Our first stop was a trail called "The Maze". Peculiarly, it wasn't listed on our map. We stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center beforehand where a Park Ranger drew an "X" on our map. "We don't advertise the Maze," said the ranger. Apparently too many people get lost there.

Still looking for The Maze trail.
 We reached what we thought was the parking area the ranger directed us to, and set out toward rock formations in the distance. We weren't sure if we were in the right place, because although The Maze is an official park trail, there is no official trailhead or signage of any kind. When we reached the rock formation I turned around and took a bearing with my compass to the van to be safe. The Maze, like the rest of Joshua Tree, is a desert. And like the Sonoran Desert that I'm used to, trails can be hard to find because the ground is covered in sand everywhere. We picked a direction we thought looked good, and ventured on.

Looking for a trail
I was a little hesitant charging off trail in a place called the Maze. Route finding was challenging because the entire area is covered in huge boulders and rock formations that looked like literal mounds of piled rock. Between these rock piles were dozens of dried washes that could easily be confused for trails. The landscape was otherworldly. In fact, it reminded me of Mars (minus the plant life of course). Coming from Phoenix, much of the plant life was familiar. There were plenty of cacti and agave. But it's the bizarre Joshua Tree that really made it feel strange. The animal life was plentiful as well. We saw a coyote, a jackrabbit, a tarantula, and sheep tracks in a wash. Eventually we reached a high point with great views of the area where we finally spotted a trail. 

The Maze
Joshua Tree
 The trail we found led us to a sign that told us we were on the Maze Loop trail. It began by following a dry creekbed through lush desert vegetation. We wound around boulders and over saddles on rocky hills. The trail eventually took us high enough to give us some picturesque views of the park. The rocky landscape stretched to the horizon, and stirred my imagination and desire for exploration.

Finally on the trail.
 As the sun sunk low on the horizon we began to wonder if we had lost the trail. We hadn't seen any other hikers since we started, and the footprints in the sand that we had been using as directional ques were gone. In the distance we spotted a truck and realized that we had unwittingly looped back to the road. My compass told me that we were way south of where we parked the van, so we left the trail (which we weren't sure was a trail anyway) and parallelled the road back to where we started.

Back to the van off trail.
I'm not sure how long this hike is supposed to be, but we guessed that we had done 6 or 7 miles. Probably half of that distance was off trail. The landscape was beautiful and the hike was moderate as far as the difficulty is concerned. The toughest part was just figuring out which way to go. During the hike we only saw 4 people, which turned out to be the least amount of people (by far) we saw in the park during our whole trip. For me it was an amazing introduction to Joshua Tree National Park, and I couldn't wait for more.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sugarloaf Mountain Scout

No water in Cave Creek
 With archery deer season a month away I've been itching to get outside for some scouting. I returned to the spot in Tonto where I put a stalk on a large mule deer buck last season. There's so many places here that I want to explore, and Sugarloaf Mountain has been on the top of the list. This time of year the desert is so nice. The heat is a shadow of its summer self. This area is a favorite of mine, partly because of its location to my house, but also because Cave Creek provides a reliable source of water in the desert, which is a rarity. So, I was shocked when I reached the creek and found it bone dry. The usual clear flowing water replaced with a bed of sand and dry cracked mud. I've been here over 20 times in the last 3 years, and I've never seen it dry. 

Coyote or lion?
 The dry creek bed offered me a rare chance to experience the area's wildlife in a whole new way. I saw dozens of tracks dried in the mud as I abandoned the trail and walked north in the creek as it wound further into the mountains. I spotted plenty of bird and rodent tracks, but no deer. I also saw what I originally took to be lion tracks, I was sure they were lion as I followed them along the bed, but after I got home and studied the photos I now believe they belong to a large coyote.

Garter Snake
I slowed down as I reached the approach to Sugarloaf where I saw the buck last season. It's hard to be quiet in the desert, and my footfalls were crunchy on the loose rocks. I almost stepped on a snake that was crossing the ground in front of me. I love seeing any kind of wildlife in the desert, so even a common garter snake will cause me to pause and just watch for awhile. Climbing up a nearby mountain was slow going, The country here is rough and rocky, and full of all manner of cacti. My pace was slow as I navigated the terrain, while trying to stay quiet and watch for rattlesnakes. Finally I reached a good spot with views of the valleys and hillsides surrounding Sugarloaf. I sat on my pack and glassed the day away with my new binoculars. I picked up a set of 10x42 Alpen Wings to replace my old Bushnells. They looked great in the store, but out in the field they just don't seem to be as good as I hoped. 

It was a fun and productive day. I didn't spot any deer or see any sign other than a few old tracks. Certainly, I didn't see anything to make me believe that deer of any number are in the area. I didn't even find any scat. Before I cross the area off my list as a potential hunting location I think I need to spend the night out there so I can glass at dusk and dawn. Such a trip is at least a week away however, as I am heading to Joshua Tree for three days on Friday. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Gear Review: Yeti Rambler Colster

Fishing, and a cold beer.

 The Dirt:

What is it? Drink insulator (beer koozie).

Comes with: Koozie, sealing gasket, storage can.

Size: .35 liters. 4.8 X 3.1 inches.

Weight: 8.3 ounces

Price: $30.00 at REI

Let's face it. We all love the crisp refreshing taste of an ice cold beer cascading down our dry throats, especially around the campfire or on the lake. But don't you hate it when you set your beer down to do something, only to come back to find it warm and flat, and only a shadow of its former self? We've all been there. Choking down a warm beer isn't fun.

 Enter the Yeti Rambler Colster.

At first glance, paying $30.00 for a beer koozie seems like madness, but there is a perfectly good reason Yeti charges so much for their products. They are the best. In the outdoor community, Yeti coolers are overwhelmingly considered to be the best in the world. Their Rambler line of drink insulators are quickly gaining the same reputation.

Thanks to 18/8 inch stainless steel and double-walled vacuum insulation, the Colster keeps your beer ice cold for hours, even in the hottest conditions. For me, the Colster really shines when I'm on the lake fishing. In the Arizona desert, the lakes are overwhelmingly shadeless. Set your beer down for a few minutes and it's stew. With the Colster I can set down my beer and fish for an hour, and come back to a cold beer. There have been times where I've come back to my beer to find the stainless steel outer-wall of the Colster so hot I can barely touch it, but the beer inside still ice cold. Simply put, the Colster is an outdoor beer drinker's dream.

The Colster will fit both cans and bottles, but tall-boys and some long-necks wont fit. That isn't a big deal to me because I rarely bring glass into the outdoors, and most good beers don't come in tall-boys. The Colster also comes with a dummy can that looks just like a beer can, but can be opened for storage. I like to call it "the beer can stash". The problem is that I still haven't thought of anything to stash in there, so for me the beer can stash usually stays home.

Overall the Yeti Rambler Colster is a sweet little product if you like to enjoy the finer things in life. I would highly recommend it to any outdoor lover who drinks from cans (be it beer or soda), especially campers and fisherman.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Saguaro Lake Fishing

Jimbo on the hunt for a fishing hole.
 Shore-fishing. It's what I do. To find the good spots, you need to put in the miles. That's why I like it so much. It's a good mix between hiking and fishing. Yesterday at Saguaro Lake was a first for both Jim and I. A changeup from the usual location at Bartlett. Saguaro Lake is nestled in the foothills of the Superstitions, and is an absolutely beautiful location (as far as desert reservoirs go). There are plenty of fish there too, including the three main varieties of bass, which is what we were after.

I was feeling optimistic as we reached our first location. The bass were active. We could see them jumping from the water all around us. Since they were surfacing so much, we started off with topwater lures. We would cast to the same spot we saw them jump. Another angler passed by on the trail. He had caught an 8 pound bass with a popper. Our optimism increased.... But nothing took our baits. We decided to keep hiking. 

Jimbo in the water
 We reached a marshy cove where the water was so still, clear and shallow we could see the bass just sitting at the bottom. Our luck was about to change, or so we thought. We tried crankbaits, spinners, worms and frogs, but we couldn't even manage a bite. We watched our lures drift by big bass untouched. For 6 hours we fished. Determined not to leave empty handed. If it weren't for the small bluegill Jim caught as we were wrapping the day up, we would have been skunked. But I wonder, when your target are big bass, does catching a bluegill even count? Until next time.

Catch of the day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Destination: Superstition Mountains

Weavers Needle
Superstition Wilderness. Weavers Needle in the distance.
Arizona’s aptly named Superstition Mountains conjures up more tales of woe and images of yesteryear than any locale west of the Mississippi. It is a place mired in myth and legend… and history. In ancient times, the Hohokam and Salado peoples eked out a living in this desolate landscape, leaving behind haunting ruins carved from cliff walls, and impressive petroglyphs depicting the many desert animals that roam these mountains. During the “old west”, the few who settled here lived a harsh existence. Homesteaders like Elisha “Old Hermit” Reavis farmed and hunted in the eastern Superstitions until his body was found “half eaten by coyotes” in 1896. The Superstation’s real claim to fame however is the tale of the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine. Every year fortune seekers venture into the Superstitions hunting for the lost gold mine, and many have died in the desert sun, thirsty and hot… and broke.

The Superstitions (or “The Supes” as the locals say) isn’t just a great place to explore the past, it’s a great place to explore. From jagged volcanic peaks to haunted canyons, to the myriad of flora and fauna, the Supes have something for everyone, and at less than an hour drive from Phoenix, is easily accessible.

Lost Dutchman State Park
Superstition Mountain in Lost Dutchman State Park
Check out Lost Dutchman State Park for easy car camping in classic Sonoran Desert terrain. Lots of big Saguaros at lower elevations. Trails from the campground provide easy access to the tallest peak in the range, Superstition Mountain (5059’). Feeling ambitious? Take the Siphon Draw Trail all the way to the Flatiron on top of Superstition Mountain. This ball-buster goes straight up the mountain, gaining nearly 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles, so you better be in shape. Much of the route is a scramble so expect to use your hands. The payoff? A jaw dropping 360 degree view of the Sonoran Desert. Feeling adventurous? Bring a tent and camp at the top.

The Superstition Wilderness boasts over 170 miles of trail within its 160,200 acres. With all that space, the Supes cater to a variety of experience levels. Want to explore the past? Overnight in a canyon near ancient cliff dwellings in Angel Basin, or sleep in the shade of apple trees after you explore the ruins of Reavis Ranch. Feeling ambitious? See them both on a 3-day 24-mile loop starting at Rogers Canyon Trail. Be sure to have a high clearance vehicle as the 17 mile boulder-strewn forest road to the trailhead is not maintained, and can be impassable after rain. Be sure not to disturb any historical sites and leave any artifacts you find alone.

Rock Climbing
With so many cliff-faces and rock-walls, the Supes is a playground for climbers. Try the iconic Weaver’s Needle. This famous peak plays a key role in the Lost Dutchman legend, as the shadow it casts at a certain time of the day is said to reveal the location of the lost goldmine. The 1,000 foot high rock column is a class 5.6, and will reward you with amazing views of the Superstition wilderness. If you’re looking for more variety, try the 300 foot Bark Canyon Wall. says it offers “some of the best multi-pitch climbing in the Phoenix area.” Just remember, bolting is strictly forbidden within the wilderness.

Backpacking in the Superstitions
Flora and Fauna
Expect to encounter a variety of cacti from the vicious jumping cholla to the iconic giant saguaro. These and other desert plants can make foot travel a challenge, but are beautiful when admired from a distance. Because of the variety of prickly plant life, hike in pants, even when it’s hot. You won’t see many trees except in the eastern Superstitions where cactus meets juniper and ponderosa pine. The area hosts a surprising variety of animal life as well. Expect to encounter several lizard species on the trail. If you’re lucky you might see a desert tarantula, which look scary but are very slow moving and therefore easy to admire. Watch out for rattlesnakes and scorpions, especially under rocks or in woodpiles. If you are really lucky you may see a Gila monster. These large lizards are extremely venomous but very slow, so don’t panic. Just take a photo and move on. Javelina are also common. These pig-like peccaries travel in herds but are usually bedded down during the day.

A Word of Caution
Water is extremely scarce in the Superstitions. Be sure to contact the ranger station for the latest water report before any hike. Shade is often hard to come by, so protect yourself from the sun and stay hydrated. Finally, DO NOT attempt to hike and/or backpack in the Superstitions during the summer months. YOU WILL DIE.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Back in the Woods

Enroute to a geocache.

Its been a long and brutal 6 months. If you follow my blog, you know that I have been dealing with a debilitating back injury since early this year. I couldn't hike or backpack. I could barely walk. Eventually I had to apply for short term disability at work. The ordeal was slow and painful. Most of all it was frustrating. I was sick of it. I AM sick of it. When all treatment methods failed, I finally opted for surgery. I am happy to report that I made the right decision. It has been nearly a month since my spinal discectomy and I feel better than ever. It still blows me away how great I feel. Now I just need to recover what I lost during my injury.

Raccoon tracks in the mud
 In the past few weeks I have been hiking a ton. I'm getting stronger everyday. I'm enjoying my time in nature more than I ever have. It can be depressing when you live for the woods, but are stuck in the house hurt... for weeks on end. Time slips away. I have been soaking up nature. Noticing everything. Appreciating all of it. In the desert I've seen lots of coyote tracks in my usual haunt. More than normal. I wonder why? After a rain last week I saw small birds snatching dragonflies out of mid-air. I've never seen that before. I saw two roadrunners in the Phoenix Mountains last week where I've never seen any before. In Oregon I saw a firenewt for the first time on a hike to Mirror Lake. In northern Arizona I saw raccoon tracks in the mud, and found fossils in some rocks. 

Halfdome 2
Not only do I feel great physically, I am also coming round mentally. It takes a toll on the mind being laid-up for so long. Luckily I have the most amazing woman on the planet by my side. I know that I could not have survived this summer without my Sarah. I appreciate her and everything she has done for me. I appreciate everyone who helped me: My brother-in-law Jim Ciomber for being the best friend a guy could ask for. My coworkers and managers at REI for their understanding and support.

 This winter in the desert I predict will be a great one. I can't wait to throw on my Crown VC and spend some nights in the backcountry. Physically, I'm not there yet... but I will be.