Monday, September 30, 2013

Granite Mountain

Prescott National Forrest

Prescott National Forest is an area that I've never been too, so when I was invited for a hike up Granite Mountain in the Granite Mountain Wilderness, I jumped at the chance. Granite Mountain of course is the home of The Granite Mountain Hotshots, part of the Prescott Fire Department who tragically lost 19 members fighting the Yarnell Hill fire last summer.

A month before the Yarnell Hill fire, The Granite Mountain Hotshots fought a blaze closer to home. The Doce fire in Prescott National Forest burned 6,767 acres before it was contained, mostly in the Granite Mountain Wilderness. This hike would take us through the burn, and from the top of Granite Mountain give us a birds-eye view of the devastation. 

Burnt signpost at Blair Pass
This hike starts out in a classic juniper-pine woodland following a dry creek-bed from the trailhead near Granite Basin Lake. We followed the easy trail under the shadows of big Ponderosa Pines and huge Alligator Junipers. Peaceful, green and pretty, this area teemed with birds, squirrels, insects, and other wildlife. About a mile in signs of fire become visible on the hillsides, with burnt shrubs and melted prickly pear cactus. By the time we reached Blair Pass the terrain had become scorched and desolate. The ground plants were mostly gone, and the leafless black trees provided no relief from the hot sun. 

The ascent up Granite Mountain was hot without the shade producing trees, but we made do resting behind some of the many giant granite boulders that litter the mountain. Some of these rocks were the size of houses, and I couldn't help but wonder what geologic processes brought them there, since glaciation did not occur at these elevations, and it seemed too high for them to be carried by water... But I'm no geologist, so what do I know?

Eventually the trail wound around the northwest face of the mountain, revealing the charred remains of a large ponderosa pine grove. My hiking partner Dave mentioned that this area was previously lush and green, but now it just resembles a graveyard of towering black tombstones in a field of ash and dirt. In this area we had our only close encounter with some local wildlife, in the form of a Desert Tarantula. After my last encounter with a tarantula I read that they were very docile and easy to handle, so I decided to test the theory. I ran my pointer finger down its abdomen to pet it like I would one of my step-daughters rats. Well that's all it took to piss him off, and he immediately reared up its front legs and bared its fangs. So much for docile. He looked way too eager to sink his giant poisonous fangs into my hand if I handled him, so I figured the smart thing to do was just leave him alone.

Granite Mountain

Dave looking out over the burn zone
The top of Granite Mountain opens up into a large bowl-like depression surrounded by huge rock formations on all sides. In this depression stood the remains of another pine grove, but the fire damage here was not as bad, and the ground plants were well on the road to recovery. Eventually the trail brought us out to the south facing slope of the mountain. A little scrambling brought us as close to the summit as we dared, since the last 50 feet is a sheer wall of granite. I'm not too worried about peak-bagging, so I was content with how far we made it, and the beautiful view of Prescott and the surrounding mountains we had.

Looking out over the forest, I couldn't help but think about the firefighters who died, and those that still risk their lives to preserve what little remains of America's wild places. I read once that in the late 1800's, in the heyday of western settlement, some of those who would potentially gain monetarily from deforested land (ranchers, developers, etc), would often light forest fires on purpose. I cant help but think how ironic it is that we sacrifice so much now to preserve what was once taken for granted... How sad it is that we die to save what we once destroyed.

Me looking out over Granite Basin Lake and Prescott in the distance.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Horton Loop

Mogollon Rim
View south from The Highline Trail.

Rim country can be such odd country below the rim. Something I notice every time I visit. Last weekend's overnighter was no different. We started in the shade of towering ponderosas and gnarly alligator junipers on the Derrick Trail heading North/East. The ground was dry and the vegetation sparse, like if you had to go off trail for any reason, it wouldn't be terribly hard to do. But the scenery changed, and by the time we reached The Highline Trail the forest looked quite a bit different. 

Alligator Lizard
Alligator Lizard

Its like we entered some kind of transition zone. Now the forest was a mix of pines, junipers, and more of the plants you might associate with desert areas like manzanita and agave. In this area we came upon two Arizona Alligator Lizards duking it out in the middle of the trail. Amidst all the biting and squirming and teeth baring, I'm pretty sure it was just a male and a female making ready to get busy (if you know what I mean). I felt bad disturbing the festivities, but it was really awesome to see. It was the first time I had ever seen an Alligator Lizard in my life, and they are just gorgeous looking lizards. We ended up seeing quite a few lizards in this zone, including some really small Short-Horned Lizards that were about the size of a matchbox. They are very skittish at that size, which surprised me because the big ones I've seen are so calm.

Mugollon Rim
Mogollon Rim

Eventually the Highline portion of this trip levels out a little bit, and some nice views of the rim and the mountains to the south open up. 


As the trail drops toward Horton Spring the ecology changed again to one more of a purely coniferous nature. Ferns carpet the ground in spots, and lichens grow on the pine trees. I know I've mentioned this before in other blogs about my trips to the rim, but it really reminds me of the Cascades at times.

Descent to Horton Spring

As we neared Horton Spring I could hear the sound of running water and a giant smile spread across my face. Every time I'm hiking parallel to a creek, or nearing a crossing of one, it reminds of the northwest. I rarely ever hear moving water in the woods down here in Arizona, so when I do, I just really appreciate it. Like wind, water makes such a soothing sound, and I love to sleep near it if I can. In fact, that's exactly what we did Saturday night. We camped not far from the mouth of Horton Spring where fresh (and delicious) water gushed right from the side of the Mogollon Rim. 

Horton Spring
Horton Spring

We followed Horton Creek all the way out the next morning. It made for a relaxing stroll, especially because the wind and the clouds kept the temps nice and cool. Overall, it was a great (albeit short) trip with some good company. This was my 3rd (I think) trip with the Arizona Backpacking Club, but everyone this time around was new to me. It didn't matter. It never does with backpackers. We all seem to get along pretty easily... Until next time.

Horton Creek
John looking down at Horton Creek

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Budget Gear Review: High Sierra Swerve

High Sierra Swerve
High Sierra Swerve

Since I returned to school recently, I was in the market for a new backpack. At first I thought I could use my REI Flash 30 daypack, but a couple test runs didn't go so well. I realized I needed something else. Something without a belt, with multiple pockets for some semblance of organization, and a safe spot to put my laptop. Perhaps more importantly, I didn't want to spend an exorbitant amount of money since I already owned 4 backpacks. I just couldn't justify spending top dollar on another pack.

Like most of my budget buys, I found this pack on The $35.50 price tag was really attractive, as was the hundreds of overwhelmingly positive reviews. The problem I've found with Amazon over the years, is that the overall star rating (based off average user reviews) can be misleading. People write reviews after one use, or immediately upon receiving the product. Although I always take the star rating with a grain of salt, I decided to purchase this pack because I liked the look, the design, the price, and the fact that it was made by High Sierra, a brand that I had heard good things about.

In this particular case, I found the positive reviews for the High Sierra Swerve to be mostly accurate, even taking into account the low price. I purchased the black/black/black design (I know, I'm lame) but there are plenty of fashionable designs and color schemes to choose from. The pack is made from a fabric called Duralite, which feels more rugged and coarse than the smooth nylon/polyester materials that I'm used to seeing on most higher-end packs. The material just feels tough, like if you snagged it on something sharp it wouldn't rip.

Laptop compartment w/folder sleeve.
The pack seems well made and durable. Indeed, this pack has seen heavy use since my purchase, including 2 semesters of college, and two long road trips over the summer where the pack was routinely jammed into tight spaces, sat on, buried by other luggage, and abused by children. So far its holding up great with no loose stitching, tears, or discoloration of any kind.

The High Sierra Swerve is good for school, work, travel, or day-tripping around town, but is clearly not made for hiking. It has plenty of compartments for organizing your stuff. I particularly like the small zippered top pocket which is perfect for my car-keys, MP3 player, and flash drive. The laptop sleeve is well padded and easy to reach, and my 15.6" HP Pavilion fits securely and safely (so far) inside. That being said, I find the number of zippered compartments to be overkill, especially when it takes me unzipping and searching 3 or 4 compartments just to find what I'm looking for. Out of the 5 zippered compartments the Swerve has, I generally just use 3 for everyday use. That's just me. I can imagine that some of you reading this review would consider all those compartments a bonus.

Top pocket. Great place to stash your phone during class.
It would be really hard to actually fill this pack to capacity, as it just seems deceptively huge. Its like a black-hole that swallows everything that gets too close. High Sierra lists the capacity at 1914 cubic inches (about 31 liters), but I think all the pockets and compartments just make it seem bigger than it is.

I do have a couple complaints that prevent me from being as generous as the customer reviewers on Amazon.

My biggest gripe is that when loaded full with school books and supplies (cuz' that's mainly what I use it for) the pack becomes very uncomfortable. Specifically, the back-padding (also made of Duralite) has a tendency to grab my shirt and pull it up as I walk, so that the padding rubs directly on the skin of my lower back, which can cause a burning sensation that can last for a good hour. Last semester when I had 3 big books, and my pack was really heavy, I was constantly having to reach behind my back and pull my shirt down as I walked around campus. It hasn't been an issue this semester because I'm using e-books, so the pack is much lighter, but last semester it drove me nuts. 

The side mesh pockets are too small, and wont fit anything bigger than a 16 oz water bottle. They are too narrow for anything bigger. Personally, I rarely ever buy bottled water which I consider wasteful and unnecessary. I usually use a Nalgene bottle for my daily hydration needs when I'm on the go, and a Nalgene bottle will not fit into these pockets. Maybe not a deal breaker for you, but If I was shopping for a backpack at the store and came across this pack, I would not have purchased it for this reason.

Lastly, the zippers can be stiff. They slide fairly smoothly in a straight line, but sometimes turning the corners can cause a zipper to stop in its tracks.

If you are on a budget, and need to haul a laptop around, I would consider the High Sierra Swerve backpack for your school and/or travel needs. Its sharp looking, well made, and will certainly get the job done for years to come. Just keep in mind, the back padding is uncomfortable when the pack is heavy, and you'll need to exercise a little patience with the zippers... 

High Sierra Swerve
High Sierra Swerve

Monday, September 16, 2013

Desert Walker

Teddy Bear Cholla
Teddy Bear Cholla

As the hiking season winds down in higher elevations, in the Sonoran Desert it's just beginning. I've managed to spend a significant amount of time wandering the desert in the last month or so, mainly in The Phoenix Mountain Preserve, but a little in South Mountain as well, and I thought I would just share some observations, and some of what I've learned.

Hiking in 100 degree heat with the sun beating beating down on you is hard, and the first thing I noticed early on was that everything you do in that heat is harder than normal. You have to be prepared for those extreme conditions, because something as routine as a steep climb can leave you feeling sick and spent. 

1) Acclimatize - The more you hike in the desert, the better you handle the heat. My first couple desert hikes left me feeling sick and slightly demoralized. If you plan on backpacking in the desert, I would recommend plenty of desert day hiking beforehand. Start small.

2) Temper Your Ambitions - Like I mentioned above, everything is harder in the heat. Expect routine distances and climbs to push your limits. What you can easily accomplish physically in milder climates will be a challenge in the desert. 

3) Bring More Water - Unless you've hiked in the desert in summer, it may be hard to imagine just how much you can sweat, and how thirsty you constantly feel. In the last month, routinely hiking in 100 degree heat, I've found that bringing double the water I normally bring is just enough. Last Saturday I finished 4 liters on a 7 mile hike. Trust me, you'll need to drink much more water than normal. Also keep in mind that water is really going to dictate where and how far you hike. If you bring 4 liters and notice that you've finished 2 already, then its time to turn around and head back to the car. 

4) Seek Shade - Heat stroke is a serious risk, and keeping your body from overheating is going to take effort on your part. If you come across shade, take your pack off and sit in it for a few minutes. Drink some water. Let your heart slow down. Let your body cool a little bit. I usually plan my breaks around shade instead of distances. I'll say to myself, "The next shade I come to, I'll take a short break". Trust me, it really helps taking a break in shade, versus taking a break in the sun, which can be totally miserable.

5) Bring Sun Protection - This one seems like a no-brainer. Keep sun screen in your pack. Wear a hat to keep the sun off your face. Wear a wide brimmed hat or drape a bandanna from the back of your hat to protect your neck. Wear polarized sunglasses. I have forgotten sun screen multiple times, and got burned for my stupidity. Now I keep a tube in my day pack at all times. 

6) Keep Track of the Forecast -. I like to use 100 degrees as a good mark of when to start and when to stop. If it's 100 in the morning when I plan to start then I stay home, because it will only get hotter. If it's 100 in late afternoon when I plan to start, then I'll go, because it will only get cooler. Hiking in 110-120 degree weather is dangerous, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but 100 is doable as long as its the peak temperature. You can beat the hottest times of the day by hiking near dusk and dawn.

So, those are just a few of the things I've learned in the last month. I'm not suggesting anybody run out to the desert and brave the heat, I'm just pointing out a few things I figured out, that really helped me. Desert hiking is a lot more doable in the winter months when the heat lingers in the 80's and water can be found in places dry during summer. I guess the smart thing to do is just wait for winter to hike in the desert, but living in Phoenix I basically have 3 options. Option 1: Don't hike. Option 2: Drive at least 2 hours north to escape the desert. Option 3: Hike in the desert. I have to take option 3 because I hike multiple times a week, and I cant make a 2 or 3 hour drive every time I want to hike. But hiking in the desert is doable. Just be smart and bring lots of water.

Sagebrush Lizard
Sagebrush Lizard

Friday, September 6, 2013

Do What With A Rock?

How far are you willing to go to cut weight from your pack?

... and why am I holding this rock?

Check out the full story on The Mountain Blog