Adventures in hiking…

Archive for April, 2013

Hiking in the Dark – Why Would You?

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A campfire is a a neat way to end a night hike.

Do you remember the first time you hiked in the dark?   Was it unplanned?    Many, if not most of our day hikes end up at dusk or near dark – mainly because we frequently start late.  We do it to avoid crowds on our local/regional day hikes.  Having done a few backcountry trips, I can tell you that we try to finish before dark.   However, there was this one backcountry trip……

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Dusk provides some of the best hiking.

The allure of the Appalachian trail was enough for me to fly out to the east coast from sunny San Diego.  While hiking the entire A.T. is a dream, my friend and I would settle for a 7-8 day section hike.  Decidedly, we would make this interesting and hike one of the hardest sections of the trail-The Maine 100 Mile Wilderness.  In previous blogs, I’ve written how it was the one of my greatest challenges.  This section of the trail was unforgiving.   At 12 miles per day, we could easily make it out in time.  A miscalculation of the terrain caused us to fall behind schedule. Well, my friend was doing fine.  At half my age and a Marine, he was like a darn gazelle on the African plain.    We had to make it out by a certain day to meet family and for me to catch a flight home.  Anyhow, by the end of the first day, I experienced night hiking with a full, no – overloaded backpack.

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As the sun sets over the Maine Wilderness, the darkness really envelopes you.

I learned many things on that trip.  Mainly, if you bite off more than you can chew on a backcountry trip, you just suck it up and go with it.  The first night hike wasn’t extreme by any means, just different.  As night fell, I broke out the headlamp and concentrated on the trail beneath my feet, occasionally looking up front for my friend – who must have had  built-in night vision, because he wasn’t using a headlamp.  I was starting to think that the government must have put night vision implants in their Marines, but as I would learn later, your eyes will adjust to the dark with pretty good acuity.  Fortunately, after a couple of hours we stumbled on an empty campsite and settled in using our headlamps.  Sleep came quickly after a long day on the trail.

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Thanks Lord for amazing sunsets. We could hear a moose close by.

With each passing day and night, the novelty of nocturnal trekking wore off and at times became drudgery.  Much of the trail in the Maine Wilderness is composed of obstacles.  For the duration of the 100 miles, every other step seemed like I was stepping on a tree root.  Navigating a trail made of  roots with the 40lb pack was tough.  Even with my acquired “trail legs”,  the root jumping ritual gets old quickly.  By the way, the A.T. is fairly well-marked with the white blazes on the trees or rocks every 100-200 ft.  – during the day that is.  At night, the supposedly bright blazes  get absorbed by the darkness.  Often, my partner would hike ahead to find a campsite and I would trudge along through the darkest forest east of the Mississippi.  I was usually so tired, that I didn’t give the darkness much thought.  Thinking back, it was probably downright spooky.  In Maine, the forest canopy is so thick that you don’t see many stars at night.  Sometimes, the trail is only 2-3 ft. wide and the forest so thick and dark that it seemed to close in on me.

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Try doing this in the dark. This is one of the reasons the A.T. in Maine is one of the toughest sections.

Did I mention that a good portion of the A.T. in Maine is built out of logs and cut lumber?  The trail is often surrounded by water and much of it passes through creeks, streams and swamps.  The “bridges”, many of them built by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, provide a way to navigate these watery areas.  At night, the bridges seem narrow, loose and rickety.  One slip and you could end up knee-deep in muck.  Looking back, I can’t say that it was enjoyable.  Fortunately, the swamps in Maine are not home to anacondas or gators.  But, as you make your way over these logs late at night, don’t let your imagination wander too far.  Occasionally, I  would stop and scan the swamp with my headlamp, hoping that I would not see a pair of green eyes looking back at me.

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Our first river crossing at night. My friend’s headlamp about 100 ft. away, midstream.

On one night, I was in a particularly thick part of the forest near Joe-Mary Lake and lost the trail.  My friend was probably 15 minutes or so ahead of me scouting out the campsite as usual.  For a minute, panic set in as I couldn’t see the next blaze.   I gathered my wits and focused on what appeared to be the trail and scanned the trees and rocks with my headlamp.   A faint blaze appeared 50 ft. ahead on a tree.  Was it a blaze or a faded piece of bark?  Eventually, the trail became more apparent and 20 minutes later, I would find my friend setting up our home for the evening.

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The campfire would often draw curious forest creatures, mostly deer.

Summertime brings out the bugs on the trail and they love lights.  One night, we were taking a break on a boulder and we had our lamps on.   We scanned the area around us and saw something moving about 20 ft. away.  Suddenly, it flew at us and thumped my friend in the head, me in the chest.  It was the largest iridescent moth ever.  It continued to dive bomb us and we would run away screaming until we realized that we just needed to turn our lights off.  After sneaking away in the dark, we would turn our headlamps on hoping that Mothra was long gone.  As the adrenaline faded, we continued to be hounded by smaller moths until we made camp.

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The peacefulness of the night was slowly ushered in.

By the 6th or 7th night, we would be putting in 12+ hour days and able to hike well into the darkness without headlamps.  You really do gain confidence and your eyes seem to gather in every bit of light possible.   We even braved a river crossing at night.  Fortunately, the water was only to our knees so it wasn’t too bad.

Near the end of this trip, I was a seasoned night hiker.  Did I enjoy it? No, not really, it was done out of necessity. On the A.T., the “green tunnel” really makes the night seem darker.  I never realized how pitch black it gets in the woods.  I think it comes from just being a city dweller.   However, many thru-hikers absolutely enjoy night hiking and can knock down some serious mileage.  Is it risky? Yes, you just have to know what the acceptable risk is.

Some tips for night hiking, based on my limited experience:

– Have a backup headlamp or flashlight, plus spare batteries

– Know the terrain and assess the risks of hiking in the dark.

– Water crossings at night can be dangerous.  Have an idea how deep the water is.  Always loosen or unbuckle your backpack straps.

– If you lose the trail, stop and gather your wits.  No need to panic.  GPS works in the dark too.

– Don’t let your imagination wander too far.  You probably aren’t surrounded by alligators.

– When moths attack, turn off your light

I will do night hiking again, perhaps next time it will be under the wide open sky of the John Muir Trail. 🙂  Hike your own hike my friends, and don’t forget the headlamp.

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Some fun with light photography. My first try at writing my name.


Day Hiking the California Peninsular Mountain Range

Spitler Peak Trail in the fall.

We are coming up on three years since we’ve started day hiking in Southern California.  What originally started as a way to get in better shape has morphed into a love of the outdoors and appreciation for an awesome creation.

It is a blessing to live in an area surrounded by “hike-able” terrain. Between San Diego, Riverside,  and San Bernardino counties,  there are hundreds of trails to choose from.  From coastal strolls to desert jaunts and a trek into the mountains, we just about have it all out here. No doubt, we live in one of the wackiest and most heavily taxed states in the union.  A couple of  reasons people tolerate the craziness out here is the abundance of outdoor activities and the ability to get away from it all.

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The Peninsular Range of mountains in southern California runs  north-south.  From the San Jacinto’s to Baja California, they provide fantastic ocean and desert views.  The trails encompassing the Laguna Mountains in the south are sub-alpine with areas of chaparral.  They are often arid, with stiff, cold desert winds in the winter and hot, dry breezes in the summer.  The famous Pacific Crest Trail winds its’ way through the Peninsular Range from Campo down by the Mexican border to Mount San Jacinto in the north.  We’ve hiked a good bit of the PCT through here, 10 miles at a time.  I’ve even thought about becoming a trail angel to the PCT thru-hikers one year.

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Northern Peninsular Range

The wildlife on the trails down here is sometimes sparse, but encounters are more frequent in the early morning hours and before dusk.  Deer are abundant as are wild turkeys and a host of reptiles.  Once the temps hit the 70’s, we occasionally run across two types of serpents – the Pacific and Diamondback rattlers.  Often sunning across or along the trail, they usually slither away, but sometimes need a little encouragement from a hiking pole.   Rarely will we find one coiled and ready to strike, but it has happened.   Woodpeckers are the most common woodland bird and the California Quail is the ground dweller that we most often see – and hear.   Red tail hawks frequently ride the afternoon drafts in their search for prey.  Huge white owls are an occasional sight in the deserts after the sun goes down.  We have yet to encounter a big cat on the trail, but we have seen a young mountain lion while driving out of San Jacinto.   Skunks, bobcats and a host of vermin travel the same trails that the humans do.

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A hawk on the hunt for vermin.

Hiking season is year round with summer hikes around 8-9,000 ft. and winter hikes at lower altitudes.  On one trip, we passed through a 106 deg desert climate and finished out at the snow-covered summit with temps in the 60’s.   Wind is usually a factor and its effects are  significant wind chills and increased dehydration.  It’s usually the reason we layer our clothing too.  Often, we are peeling layers off and putting them back on to stay comfortable.  We have been blessed with amazing weather but usually check the forecast before heading out.

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Marion Mountain Trail in the San Jacinto Wilderness

Our favorite trails are up in the San Jacinto area, the granite peaks provide majestic views, the Jeffrey pines provide ample shade for the rest breaks that you’ll need as you climb the 2-3000 ft. elevation changes, with the average hike above 6,000 ft.   If you seek solitude, hit the trail later in the day and you will run across few bipeds on your hike.  Bring a headlamp, and you will be rewarded with interesting descents through the forest as the sun drops behind adjacent peaks.  Many of the trails are comprised  of scree from decomposed granite and are slippery.  Trekking poles are  invaluable tools and have saved us from many a tumble.  Even more important, the poles are knee savers.   They will probably make  nice spears too.

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Clark Dry Lake bed near the Santa Rosa Mtns.

The easy to moderate trails in the Laguna Mountains are like casual strolls and make for a nice getaway from the suburbs.  Take a lunch and enjoy watching the waterfowl at Big Laguna Lake and be on the lookout for the foxes as they seek out the field mice in the meadows.  They’re watching you from a distance, but you can usually get a good photo with a zoom lens. This area is the best for an easy hike with mountains on one side and the desert on the other.  The colors at sunset are beautiful.

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Mount Laguna Recreation Area.

All in all, the Peninsular Range offers some of the best day hikes, all within 90 minutes of San Diego.  We are constantly on the lookout for those obscure trails less traveled and are often rewarded with solitude, awesome scenery and a decent workout.  Wherever you are my friends, just venture out and explore.


Anza Borrego – Calcite Mine and a Slot Canyon

Rock Formation - Calcite Mine

A desert landscape is one of the most beautiful sights that one will ever see.  The openness and feeling of adventure while backpacking the vast Colorado Desert  can be an amazing experience.  Wait a minute, Colorado Desert?  I thought you were talking about Anza-Borrego!  Actually, the Colorado Desert is part of the larger Sonoran Desert – over 7 million acres with some of the most unique plant and animal life ever.  Anza-Borrego is the name given to the state park that encompasses 3 California counties and is the second largest state park in the U.S.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colorado_Desert, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anza-Borrego_Desert_State_Park)

In our opinion, the best time to hike here is during wildflower blooms in the spring.  However,  a winter day hike provides mild temps and relatively stable weather.  Winter is the rainy season is southern California, so you have to keep an eye out on the forecast to avoid dangerous flash flood conditions.   If you ever have the opportunity to hike near the palm oasis at the state park headquarters, you will see the results of a previous flash flood.  Palms over 4 feet wide were uprooted and washed away, boulders the size of cars were rolled around and thoughts of the great flood mentioned in the book of Genesis came to mind.

On this day, we would venture out approximately 20 miles east of the town of Borrego Springs on SR-22 to hike the Calcite Mine Trail.  We parked on the north side of SR-22  and walked to the trailhead that was about 100 yds. away.  You can actually park most vehicles in a dirt area by the trailhead.  At times, a popular area for jeeps and dirtbikes, the road up to the old mine is a challenge for a good driver in an off-road vehicle.  We would only see one vehicle coming down from the mine.

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The landscape here was so different from the area around Coyote Mountain to the west; that’s one of the things that we love about this desert.  The sandstone cliffs appear to be carved out of the ground by a majestic artist.  As the sun shifts and passes in and out of the clouds, the colors constantly change.  The contrast of the land with the sky and Salton Sea to the east present a palette for the amateur artist.

The Calcite Mine Trail, is an approximate 4 miles round trip.  It is an easy-moderate hike up the jeep trail and the elevation gain is around 500 ft.  Not much shade here, so hope for a cloudy day, bring lots of water, sunscreen and a nice hat.  As we made our way up the rocky road/trail, we scrambled up the side to peer down into one of many slot canyons.  Oh yeah, we just gotta check that out on the way down!

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If you’re thinking that the calcite mine is intact, you will be disappointed.  Filled in long ago, there are barely traces that it even existed.  There are shards and chunks of calcite, but like most other parks it is illegal to collect souvenirs.  An interesting mineral, it was actually used in Norden bombsight manufactured during WWII.  It’s quite possible that the bombsight used on the Enola Gay had calcite from this mine.  We would have lunch near the old mine marker, on a sandstone outcropping.  As is our new tradition, we would have hot tea.

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Having fun on the sandstone cliffs.

We enjoyed the solitude and the panoramic views from our lunch spot and began our way down to the slot canyon.  It was exciting to enter the canyon as the sandstone walls rose to over 75 ft.  Mary mentioned that this was not a good place to be during an earthquake.  Within a week of hiking this canyon, a 4.5 quake would hit near Anza, about 15-20 miles from here.  I checked the skies for signs of rain.  A storm to our north could bring flash floods that would make our fate like the dinosaurs of old.

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Mary really enjoyed navigating the narrow canyon.

We made our way down, the walls closing in and the path as little as several inches wide.  It was fun and one of the most unique experiences to date.  We would stop to examine the cliffs and formations carved from repeated water flows.  Sometimes, we would have to jump 5 feet or so to the next level.

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I was trying not to get my foot stuck. The slot canyons are not for the claustrophobic.

Eventually, we emerged from the slot canyon into Palm Wash, one of many that had its’ own ecosystem.  Other than birds, we would see mostly insects, beetles and huge colonies of ants.  One ant colony was carrying the blossoms from an adjacent bush to their queen.   Even in this sparse land, God sees fit for his creatures to survive.  We would encounter a few motorcyclists on their way back from exploring the nearby trails.

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This slot canyon opens up into a wash that goes on for miles.

As often is the case, I missed the turnoff if there even was one.  My GPS indicated that we were diverging from our original track to the mine.  A nearby cell tower was a good reference that indicated we were east of our goal.  We cut over a hill and headed west as the sun rapidly sank low in the horizon.  We were pushing 10 miles at this point, but the waypoint on my GPS indicated we were getting closer.  In my rush this morning, I didn’t print out a local map.  Duhh!   We were ok though, on day hikes, we tend to carry more than we need and are usually prepared in case we have to spend a night out.

The walkabout ended uneventfully and we chalked up another successful day in the wilderness.  I encourage you to get out my friends – regardless of where you live.  There is so much to see….


A Hike in the Snow – Spitler Peak

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Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil.  That and about 18″ of snow.

Distance as hiked: 9.6 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-4,900ft., Top of trail-7,000ft.

Temps: 35-50deg

Difficulty: moderate to strenuous.

http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sbnf/recreation/outdoorlearning/recarea/?recid=26509&actid=50

As a kid living in the northeast, I loved it when it snowed.  Enough of the white stuff meant a day off to play.   After you grow up and you have to shovel or scrape the ice off the car,  it isn’t so fun anymore.   Today, we would seek out a snowy trail south of the San Jacinto Wilderness.   I’ve been in this area a couple of other times and enjoyed the solitude and varied terrain.  We brought some friends with us today and I promised them a challenging hike with views of sub-alpine valleys and vast, arid Borrego Desert.

Within the past week, we’ve had our seasonal rains in San Diego County, so we hoped for a bit of snow above 5,000 ft. Just last weekend, we were on the beach roughing it in the RV.   The typical winter day near Oceanside was mid 60’s, great for walks on the shore watching the snowy plovers nesting.  Anyhow, there aren’t many places in this great country where you can go to the beach in shorts one day and hike in a foot of snow the next.

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Our friends asked if they should bring their gaiters and I’m glad I said yes.  The trailhead had about 6 inches of powdery snow which meant the higher elevations would definitely have more.   It was strange to see snow amongst the chaparral, cactus and agave.  The wind was gusting around 10-15 mph and the temps were around 45-50.  After a couple of miles of intermittent snow and dirt, the trail gradually changed to all snow.  Eventually, the only tracks were our own and the occasional cloven hooves of a deer.  As the trail wound its way toward Spitler Peak, the northern exposure provided us with increasing snow depths approaching 18 inches.  We probably could have used snow shoes at this point, but the powdery texture made it easy to follow the footprints of the first hiker.

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The chaparral gradually changed into mostly deciduous trees covered in a blanket of snow, which was falling on us.  The trees would continue their attack on us as the occasional gust would loosen clumps   As we neared the summit, the steepest part of the trail was also the deepest and the surroundings became more like an alpine wonderland.  We looked forward to the intersection of the Pacific Crest Trail where we would have lunch and some hot tea.

The 2,000 ft. of elevation gain was a challenge on any day.  Today, coupled with the snow it was slow going as the snow began to cling to our boots and gaiters.  Each step was a bit heavier, yep snowshoes would be good right about now.  We rounded the last switchback and the blue sky opened up as the trail marker for the PCT poked out through the rocks.  The desert vista to the east was beautiful as always.   Our shelter of trees gone, the wind chill made it feel like it was 30 degrees.

Lighting the small MSR Pocket Rocket stove proved to be difficult today.  The combination of wind, high altitude and low temps make these little stoves with the butane-propane a mediocre choice in these conditions.  Lesson learned-keep a small canister of fuel in my jacket to help the fuel condense.   The wind chill began to affect my dexterity too.   After 5 minutes or so, I finally got it lit, boiled our water and enjoyed a nice hot cup of Earl Grey.  It’s the little things…..

The trip down was much faster and a bit slippery.  The steady dose of sun created a frequent snow shower as we passed under the trees.  Mary put on some micro spikes and they really made a difference on the icy patches.

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As we descended through 5,500 ft, the trail became a mix of mud and slush.  I gave up my trekking poles so that my friends could have that extra “leg” on the way down.  I’ve developed some trail legs over the last few years and rarely stumble.  Besides, I’m short and don’t have far to fall.  The last couple of miles became a bit tedious as sloshed our way to the trailhead.  Fifteen minutes later, the Paradise Cafe  near the town of Anza awaited us with the promise of amazing baby-back ribs, flatiron steak and delicious burgers.  Yes, the best way to end an awesome hike is with a fantastic meal.