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.

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.