Sunday, December 21, 2008

Solstice hike

I did do some hiking this weekend. I should have gone for a hike on Saturday while the weather was nice. I wanted to, but with the holidays and some other activity garnering my time, I decided that I might attempt to get a hike in today (Sunday 12/21). The weather report was showing strong possibility of afternoon showers, but many times I still go out and hike early enough to get done before the rains get here. This strategy failed me today, so I got a little wet, but I’m always prepared for that. It didn’t rain hard at all, and I had tree cover and a rain jacket. Sometimes hiking in the wet is fun. It’s good for the senses.

I went to El Corte de Madera OSP. Usually a haven for bonsai-insane mountain bikers. The trails are multi-use, and I’ve seen them come charging down the steep, very rocky and rough Manzanita Trail, and Fir Trail, bounding over rocks, getting air, brakes squealing, tires skidding, groping for grip on the dust and dirt, and flying at speed, without a prayer of stopping if something was in the way. I’ve learned to be alert here. I was thinking there wouldn’t be many bikers with the weather being a threat, and I was almost right. I did encounter bikers even in the rain, but very friendly an affable were all of them. I didn’t see any other hikers. Really the majority of the cyclists are great folks just out for their brand of outdoor experience, but a few are the bonsai type.

It’s been colder lately as evidenced by the frosty vegetation, and few pines which had frozen sap dripping down the side of their trunks. The recent rains had conditioned the trails into a nice dust-free semi-hardpack type surface with very little mud. The lichens and mosses are really brilliant green hues right now. Somehow the moisture brings out much more color. Even some of the fall colors are still around in areas with lots of deciduous trees. Big Leaf Maples along the Steam Donkey Trail are still shedding yellow and reddish leaves. There is no level ground at El Corte. Every section has its own elevation gain and loss. This is what the fire fighters call “Billy-goat country”. The terrain is so complex it’s hard to remember from visit to visit which trails are up or down. You gotta’ love a workout. No long range views today, and cut the hike short because of the rain.

One trail note: The Giant Salamander Trail and the El Corte de Madera Creek Trail are both closed for restoration work until spring 2009.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Park Advocacy Day 2009

You Californians may remember last year there was a big push to reduce the State’s looming budget deficit by imposing an across the board cut in all State departmental budgets. When this push began, the State Parks Department had formulated a proposal for reducing their operating costs by closing 48 State parks, and eliminating life guards from 16 State beaches, and submitted it to the Governor. This plan was their best determined solution intended to keep the same funding in place for the remaining parks.

This was not the end of the story however. You may also remember that there was a great public outcry over this proposal which spawned a rallying of forces. It generated a groundswell of opposition from various naturalist and outdoor advocate groups, and spurred a letter writing campaign that populated electronic mail boxes in Sacramento. It also stimulated a lot of fresh thinking about exactly what the real importance and true value of our parks and wild spaces really consist of. Also about how the closure of parks would impact State and local revenues apart from the operating costs alone. Alternative solutions to closure were postulated and counter proposed, and after months of intense discussion, debate, and negotiation, eventually the State legislature relented on the closure plan. Click here to read the California State Parks Foundation 2008 talking points.

Most people don’t realize that it is possible to not only have better ideas than the government’s rather short sighted thinking, but also a voice through which to express those thoughts and ideas. In March of 2009 the California State Parks Foundation will sponsor their 7th annual Park Advocacy Day. This is a fantastic opportunity for anyone who believes they have some good positive input to join with others participating in meetings with actual policymakers in Sacramento to discuss important issues related to parks. You only need to register. Even if you cannot go, or don’t want to attend, you can still check out their website for ideas on how you can advocate for parks yourself, and to stay informed.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving Week

With the arrival of Thanksgiving week it seems that the south bay weather has finally begun transitioning from a dryer and balmier than normal early fall into the cooler temps and moist air of late fall. Certainly the scant appropriation of rain over this fall season has been welcome, and hopefully this recent trend will be the signal of more to come lest we endure deepening drought conditions. Hopefully, when and if sufficient rains do materialize to fall from our bay area skies, this time we will not be blighted by some self-professed oracle at some newspaper ringing a clarion call to the over-burgeoning populous of silly-con valley that it’s time to throw off the burdensome shackles of conservation and immediately return to the careless wasting of public resources. That’s one letter I will definitely make time for should it begin to look like we may get out of this mess. I am equally hopeful that falling gasoline prices will not be misinterpreted by the masses in such a way as to lessen the resolve toward reducing foreign oil dependency. We desperately need to continue the momentum gained from the last round of predatory price manipulation, notwithstanding whatever may or may not become of our ailing economy. But I will not digress further.

Having some vacation time to use up, I decided to take Thanksgiving week off utilizing the holidays to stretch the time. My agenda for this little respite would naturally include some stay-cation hiking, with Sue cooperating as possible. Off season hiking in the bay area is something I always look forward to. Having the cooler temps means I can get by carrying a lot less water for one thing. It usually also means that the trails are less crowded, with many trail users apparently opting to stay indoors. But generally, as long as you have some nice versatile gear, the climate here should not be much of a bother. We are truly blessed if you will. Why waste it? Heck, the worst day here is still a cake walk compared to many areas of the country. When fall has finally brought it’s full manifestation we start getting a lot of fog, haze, and overcast, at least as superficially observed from the valley floor. But often times, those who are willing to leave the comfort of their indoor environment and head up into the surrounding mountains are treated to a different experience. Usually, upon early rising, it’s difficult to tell exactly what weather condition is actually in place, official weather reports notwithstanding. On countless occasions I have either hiked upward, or driven upward, to find that the weather on top of the ridges, and on the crests of hills and mountains, is in stark contrast to the murk and mire of low lying blankets of fog. What might look like overcast from the valley is actually quite clear, sunny, and warm higher up. And this can happen even in the middle of winter. It’s best to be prepared for otherwise, but you certainly can’t tell without actually venturing out. We experienced this type of climate variance on three different hikes during Thanksgiving week. What better to be thankful for than wild space preservation, and what better way to spend the holidays?

We usually string together a visit to Mission Peak by including Monument Peak. It seems natural unless you’re just doing a quick little fitness hike. The two peaks are only about 2.2 miles apart, and two peaks are definitely better than one. The trail in between that passes behind Mount Allison is part of the BART. We usually do the hike from Ed Levin County Park, but this time we decided to begin the hike from Sunol Regional Wilderness. On this occation it was more a case of the fog partially clearing to a haze rather than finding different weather up high. Long range views were not so good but still a nice time. I was paying particular attention to rocks on this hike after remembering Tom Mangan’s post about mysterious stone walls on his Two Heel Drive hiking blog. His post was about some walls he saw in Ed Levin, but we spotted evidence of similar walls in the nearby area east of Mt Allison (photo at right). Some of them were quite long as though they could have been boundaries of some kind. Funny, but I had never paid them any mind before Tom pointed them out. I put some photo links below.

One of our favorite little secrets has been Rancho Canada Del Oro. At least it has seemed like that since it opened. We used to whimsically refer to the preserve as “our park”, but gradually this underutilized gem has been finding its way onto the radar screens of hikers more and more. There are new sections being added, and really nice new trail markers have been installed. The trail system also seamlessly connects with Calero County Park, making it possible to plan many different hiking route variations, or to map out a big killer loop. Foggy and grey when we started, we soon found sunny clearing weather up on the Bald Peaks trail. The view down to San Jose was totally obscured by low lying fog and muck the whole day. Better to be up where it’s nice, lingering on the peaks, and enjoying the trails almost entirely to ourselves.

Our final hike for the week took us to another of our close-by locations. Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve, hiking up to the summit of Mt El Sombroso by way of the Kennedy Trail. Cool, clammy, and appearing overcast from the trailhead at Kennedy Road, we hiked up to find that the entire region in all directions was totally mired in thick low level fog like an ocean of white foam. From what we could see we could have been hiking at 30,000 feet rather than 3000. We got some sunshine and some really interesting views of the lake of fog below. We could imagine ourselves hiking on some lost island in some trackless void of nebulous clouds. Layered clothing is the key to this time of year.

Click here to view my combined Thanksgiving Week photoset on flickr
Click here to view my Sierra Azul fall photoset from 2006
Click here to view my December 2006 Ed Levin to Mission Peak photoset

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Butano State Park

The first time I ever visited Butano State Park it was almost an accident. That is; at the time neither I nor my companions had ever heard of Butano, or realized that a state park even existed there. I won’t say how many years ago that was, but I was 17 then, and my friends and I were on a back packing trip exploring the fire road system of the Santa Cruz Mountains on an Easter break from high school. We were supposed to be camping in nearby Big Basin. At least that’s the story we gave our parents. After a few days of hiking, which included some brush busting, we thought we had stumbled into poison oak in the dark. Someone had heard that bathing in sea water could minimize poison oak rash. I don’t know if that’s really true, but we decided to head for the coast lest we break out and go crazy with itching. We pushed over a ridge top and found a dirt road which appeared to lead down toward the seacoast, and decided to follow it. We wound up in Butano.

The namesake of this park is somewhat of a mystery. I have heard that Butano is of Native American origin, pronounced "Boot-ah-no", meaning "a gathering place for friendly visits". However, this origin really cannot be verified. It is usually attributed to “Native American lore”, whosoever that may be. In the book "California Place names”, The Origin and Etymology of current Geographical names by Erwin G Gudde, other possibilities are presented. The book points out Spanish land grants of the 1830s and 1840s called “El Butano”. Translated directly into Spanish the word butano means “butane” (gas). Huh? The book also contains an obscure reference to some kind of drinking cup made from the horn of a bull. Also the recognition that “an Indian origin is possible but not established”. Confused yet? Me too, so enough of this meandering. Sounds like one big horn of bull to me. Don’t even get me started on Mt Diablo.

Most of the other hike write-ups that I have read focus on the trails within the canyon and along the creek. These trails are really nice, but you wouldn’t want to hike Butano expecting to see stately examples of old growth redwood. The forested areas here, while very pretty and peaceful, do not possess the same inspirational quality provided by some other bay area parks. Hiking the Butano Creek Trail is a great stroll in hot weather. The dense tree canopy, and riparian nature of the route, make it seem as though there were some immense air conditioner running somewhere. With the parks proximity to the ocean beaches, this would be a great place for a family campout. The interior of the park certainly facilitates that nicely. But there is another side to Butano. I love the ridgelines that surround the canyon just as much. On clear days, you don’t have to do much uphill to enjoy beautiful sweeping views along the long loop consisting of the Butano Fire Road and the Olmo Fire Road. The high point of the route is only just over 1700 feet, and you don’t get the same kind of roller coaster action like the horse trails of Big Basin just to the south. You can also combine some of the interior trails to make some interesting loop, or semi-loop hikes.

On our last hike we began on the Jackson Flats Trail, hiking through the forests along the northern side of the canyon. We followed the Jackson past the Mill Ox cutoff and through to the un-named connector heading up to the Butano Fire Road. Hiking this trail uphill you transition from dense arboreal canopy into open ridge top terrain. It looks a lot like the area around Chalk Mountain. Arid and scrubby, with shale-like rocky soil. Here you exchange cool shady forest for exposure and view possibilities, and you trade the aroma of redwood and fir for sea air to keep you senses interested. This area is notorious for coastal fog, so take your chances on that score. The fire road loops around to an abandoned air strip in the northernmost and highest section of the park. Interesting views are provided out to sea in places, and down to the conifer habitat that rolls for miles. I always pack a small pair of binoculars for scenic viewing, or perhaps birding. After leaving the airstrip you are once again into the tree cover and soon arrive at the junction for the trail camp. Campsites can be reserved for backpackers here. In order to maintain our altitude, we bypassed this junction and continued on around to the Olmo Fire Road. The Olmo begins a gradual mostly downhill section leading back into open exposure again with views from the southern ridge top this time. We then turned on Doe Ridge Trail to get back under the trees once more. Loosing altitude gradually we then turned onto Goat Hill Trail and looped around to Butano Creek Trail and into the air conditioner. This is an excellent section for native plant lovers. These interior trails are vastly busier than the inviting quiet and solitude of the more remote sections. Here you get the groups of casual strollers talking up a storm, being heard by any form of wildlife for miles. In springtime, watch where you step lest you inadvertently murder countless newts and banana slugs. Below are some photo links.

Click here to see my photoset on flickr
Click here to see Dave's pictures (

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fall Creek

Sometimes a place can have special appeal when some aspect of your life has a connection to it in some way. There are many south bay trails which summon this kind of appeal for me, among them the Fall Creek unit of Henry Cowell State Park. When I first met my wife, she was living just off of Empire Grade Road, only walking distance from trail access to the top section of the park, which is technically in Bonny Doon. I have many fond memories of driving up and down Felton Empire Road to visit. I could probably drive it in my sleep. There was one time I practically got snowed in up there on a winter Sunday evening. And there were lots of times when we would take the inverse version of the Lost Empire hike by simply walking 5 minutes to the upper trailhead. On one occasion we thought we could get a hike in before supper, but wound up getting completely waterlogged in a downpour of biblical proportions. The many talks we had along those trails were priceless.

Fall Creek has no facilities of any kind beyond a rudimentary dirt parking lot and the trails themselves. It is far from isolated though, being in close proximity to the town of Felton. The lower parking lot is only about a mile from Highway 9, but easily missed if you’re not paying attention. The terrain consists of a green riparian canyon sweeping down the western slope of Ben Lomond Ridge flanked by minor ridgelines on either side. The park is thickly wooded making it an excellent summer hike. The diversity of plant life along the creek trail would keep any amateur naturalist busy all day. There are at least fifteen different species of ferns alone. Mostly second growth forest, the place has a history of quarrying lime. The ruins of the old kilns are still there, as is the old quarry, and along the creek are the scattered remains of a water powered barrel mill site. The trails themselves are the remnants of old wagons roads. Lime quarried from this site was used to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

There are lots of interesting little short hikes you can do here, but our favorite hiking route takes us almost around the entire park. Turning up the Ridge Trail along the western side takes you uphill along the adjacent ridge to the Truck Trail, and on up to the Big Ben Trail junction. You hike mostly uphill along these trails through diversely wooded sections with a few exposed sections, but its not killer steep. You won’t get any views, but it’s peaceful and pretty. From there the Big Ben trail leads downhill, moderately steeply, to a trail junction at the creek where there is no bridge. In high water it may be difficult to cross here. You have the option of turning onto the Fall Creek trail and heading back toward the parking lot, which is really the most scenic trail in the park. You can also visit the barrel mill site along this trail. After crossing the creek, the Big Ben Trail is moderately steep uphill with switchbacks all the way to the Big Ben Tree. A stately old growth redwood which has somehow survived for future generations to enjoy. Turning onto Lost Empire trail takes you back downhill through dense cool forests of redwood and fir. You can take the Kiln trail to go explore the lime kiln ruins, and see the old quarry. We often take the junction to hike back up the Fall Creek trail just because it’s so pretty, and to see the barrel mill site. Somehow the historical ruins always intrigue me. Below are links to my Fall Creek pictures and my brother-in-law Dave's from the same hike.

Click here to see my Fall Creek photoset on flickr
Click here to see Dave's Fall Creek pictures (

Alaska Highways

Roads are something we tend to take for granted here in the “lower 48”. We have such an elaborate labyrinth of highways and byways, we never have any reason to question the fact that we can get almost anywhere by road travel. Our writhing asphalt jungle is woven into the fabric of our culture. While many devout denizens of our concrete canyons embrace the premise of modern convenience and so called progress offered by all this sprawling development, I can’t help but feel as though we are almost choked by it. Resisting the temptation to digress here, my point is simply that a vacation road trip on Alaska’s highways can be a very rewarding of experience.

When it comes to construction, we have it easy down here. Of course in the lower 48 we don’t have permafrost to consider. Or a range of annual temperature change of up to 160 F or more depending on exactly where you are. Added to these climatic difficulties are muskeg swamps, dense forests, isolation, mountain passes, and glacial flows. During our Alaska trip last August, we had the opportunity to journey by motor coach across some of the 49th State’s most interesting routes. Some of them paved, and some not. Highways having adventuresome and colorful history, and which were nothing less than monumental construction projects. This was quite a contrast to the previous seven days spent mostly aboard cruise ship.

We disembarked our ship in Whittier on Prince William Sound, and crossed over to Valdez by passenger catamaran where we began our motor tour. The first leg of our journey took us over the Richardson Highway, Alaska Route 4. This road runs from Valdez to Fairbanks over a total distance of 368 miles, but we didn’t plan to do the entire route. Our destination was a lodge near Copper Center on the outskirts of Wrangell St. Elias National Park. This route dates back to the days of pack trails and the Klondike gold rush of the 1800s. It was called the Valdez Trail then. The Alaska Road Commission began improving the trail into a wagon road beginning in 1910. During that time there was a series of roadhouses about 20 to 25 miles apart to take in travelers. Many modern roadhouses endure today. On a side note; I just finished a fascinating book chronicling the story of Frank Glaser, a man who among many other pursuits, owned one of those roadhouses during the early 1920s. It’s titled “Alaska’s Wolf Man” by Jim Rearden. A great read for its historical value including adventures along the Valdez Trail. The route roughly follows along the Lowe River in Keystone Canyon, and then climbs up to Thompson Pass, 2600 feet at the summit. Sights along the way, weather permitting, include glacial fed waterfalls, forests, sweeping vistas, the trans-Alaska pipeline, a mountain top glacier, and if you’re lucky, wildlife.

After our lodge stay our next destination was Denali National Park. The route we used would take us north on highway 4 up to Paxon, AK where we would then turn west onto Denali Highway, Alaska Route 8. Open to conventional vehicular travel only about 5 months of the year between mid-May to early October, the route is mostly unpaved even today. Completed in 1957 it was much more heavily traveled then as the principle route to Denali. But after the paved Route 3, the Parks Highway, was completed in 1971 from Anchorage to Fairbanks, this route became more of a secondary road. This is the route that appeals more to the nature and wilderness lovers. Very few facilities or services are to be found along the 135 mile stretch of road, but the pristine scenery to be enjoyed is a wonder to behold. Sights include the Maclaren River, Maclaren Glacier, scores of glacial fed streams and rivers, taiga and tundra, and an expansive vista of the Alaska Range. Truly the “road less traveled”, this is as close to a true wilderness experience you can ever get while riding in a motor vehicle. Below are links to lots of pictures both from myself and by brother-in-law Dave.

Click here to view my Prince William Sound/Richardson Highway photoset on flickr
Click here to view my Copper Center/Wrangell photoset on flickr
Click here to view my Denali Highway photoset on flickr
Click here to view Dave's Richardson highway pictures (
Click here to view Dave's Denali highway pictures (

Friday, November 14, 2008

Crusing Glacier Bay and College Fjord

Cruising is something I have not done very much of. My typical vacation excursions are usually nothing to get terribly excited about, even if they might be good for some garden variety hiking trip write-ups. I’m usually into keeping it simple. Just like on weekends, we usually just pick someplace that interests us, make reservations if necessary, and just spend some time touring around. Perhaps camping, certainly hiking, and whatever else seems like fun. Not an unplanned trip, but very unstructured. Little trips like this are important to us because being outdoors helps us recharge our mental batteries and energize the spirit. I would go crazy if I couldn’t go out and visit the planet. But this year we had different plans, sort of. We reserved two weeks in August to go along on a cruise tour to Alaska with 13 family members. If my wife and I were to plan our own trip to Alaska, we would be more inclined to travel by more conventional means, and explore specific areas that have interesting potential. This was a new experience for me.

One intriguing feature of this tour package was the opportunity for viewing glaciers, some of which would be inaccessible any other means except by sea or air. And with global warming increasingly imposing its ugly specter on the planet, it occurred to me that this would be an opportune time to do this tour while there still are some glaciers to see. Even today many of the great glaciers have receded alarmingly, while a few others have actually increased in size. You couldn’t convince me that human activity hasn’t contributed in a major way, or that we couldn’t make major changes to control it better, right now! But enough of that for now.

After departing Juneau, our next destination was Glacier Bay National Park, but only to cruise for a few hours. Covering 3.3 million acres of mostly designated wilderness, and including a national wildlife preserve covering an additional 57,000 acres, it would take a whole vacation to experience all that Glacier Bay has to offer. I couldn’t help imagining the sight of John Muir in a small dugout canoe, guided by Tlingit Indians, making their way into the waters of what is now a national park. That was his first visit in 1879, and by that time the glacial ice had retreated up into the bay 40 miles from where it was in 1794 when Captain George Vancouver and Joseph Whidbey of the HMS Discovery described Glacier Bay as “a compact sheet of ice as far as the eye could distinguish”. The ice has been receding ever since, but more rapidly in our modern age. And since the glacier has been retreating and removing its weight, the land is actually rising, in some places at a rate of over an inch per year. Glacier Bay has a maritime climate, heavily influenced by ocean currents. The result is mild winters and cool, moist summers while at sea level.

The weather while we were there was misty, grey, and overcast, with intermittent drizzle. Rain gear is always a good idea there, and we made good use of ours. We wouldn’t have had time to cruise all of the various avenues within the expansive park. We cruised up close to the Margerie glacier, and the Grand Pacific Glacier, while slowly moving past stately snow-capped mountains partially hidden in mist and fog. This is an awesome setting; the glacial ice revealing itself by its light bluish coloration. Glacial ice is much more dense than normal ice. The tremendous pressure created by the sheer weight of constantly increasing layers of snow and ice compresses upon itself until it refracts light in that distinctive bluish tint. The great walls of ice were towering even taller than the ship in places. It would have been great to have time to go ashore at the park headquarters, but alas on we went to the next days destination.

Prince William Sound has a secluded little area within it’s north-eastern region called College Fjord. Discovered during the 1899 Harriman Expedition, one side of the fjord has a collection of five tidewater glaciers, while the other side has many large valley glaciers, and lots of other permanent moving masses of ice, most of which were named after prominent colleges. E H Harriman had chartered the luxury steamship the George W. Elder for a scientific expedition primarily to study the flora and fauna of Alaska when he made the discovery. Today the fjord is primarily a cruise ship destination, because it would be nearly impossible to get here by land. It’s well worth seeing even if only for the scientific value, but more so for the first hand experience of one of natures most formative of ancient forces. Ice!

When we were there it was overcast, with a chilly wind, and intermittently drizzling. Less than optimal conditions for photos, but still nice enough to get good views. Actually the weather conditions gave the pictures a kind of moodiness that I enjoyed, and the air was crisp and clean. But the lack of direct sunlight could not conceal the brilliant yet delicate green hues of the surrounding mountain slopes. They contrasted dramatically with slightly turbid turquoise waters of the fjord. Sea otters were seen lounging and frolicking on small chunks of floating ice. Sea gulls also seemed to claim their own small bergs as resting and lounging points. They all seemed to wonder what this gigantic mass of metal is doing floating around in their backyard. The Harvard Glacier is largest of the tidewater glaciers with a width where it meets the water of over one mile. It is actually a confluence of several high mountain glacial flows that combine symmetrically at the bottom like some vast frozen freeway of ice. The incredible forces being exerted could scarcely be imagined. I would have really liked to get a aerial view. As you cruise up close to it you lose perspective, with your only remaining view being of a massive jagged wall of ice. Such strange and placid beauty concealing the awesome forces at work beneath. Below are links to pictures taken by myself and my brother-in-law Dave.
Click here to view my Glacier Bay photoset on flickr.
Click here to view Dave's Glacier Bay pictures (
Click here to view my College Fjord photoset on flickr.
Click here to view Dave's College Fjord pictures (

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Denali National Park; Taiga and Tundra Tour

Denali National Park is managed very differently than most national parks. Of course any national park is by definition, a public asset. Public access is what allows for their true value to be realized. But certainly there is a limit to how much access can be allowed at once, and about what the ultimate impact of that usage will be. The other aspect of protection of these assets by definition must be preservation. The magnificence of stately forests, or towering granite walls, majestic mountain ranges, the enormity of jagged gorges and raging rapids, could only have been created by awesome forces in nature. These are not theme parks! They are in fact treasures of natural wonder that need to be protected and managed as the delicate environments that they are.

This is a balancing act, because we all know that the general public does not have the necessary appreciation for these assets, or level of responsibility it takes to really manage them without being bound and restricted by a plethora of rules and regulations. While visiting parks like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone, the extent of development becomes all too obvious at times. The accompanying throngs of visitors have rendered these magnificent, irreplaceable, treasures into veritable centers of human culture. It’s as though our greatest natural wonders are being converted into profit centers of public amusement, rather than being preserved for their true intrinsic value. Of course I could beleaguer all of this into a great thesis with lots of quotes from everyone from John Muir to Edward Abbey. But that would be way beyond my theme in this post.

Denali, despite its vast area, still has only one mostly unpaved road into the interior of the preserve, and very few marked hiking trails or facilities. This park system and preserve exists largely because of the efforts of naturalist, hunter, and conservationalist Charles Sheldon, who traveled here with packer and guide Harry Karstens between 1906 and 1908. It was Sheldon who first observed that the Dall sheep that inhabit the high peaks of this region were in fact a unique species, although a close relative of the bighorn sheep. With that fact as a catalyst, Mt McKinley National Park was first commissioned in 1917 primarily as a wildlife preserve. The total area was more than tripled in 1980, and was renamed Denali. In 1972, due to the increasing visitation, the National Park Service created a bus system. This was done both to protect visitors, and to reduce threats to wildlife and the ecosystem. There are a limited number of permits which are granted by lottery to drive on the park road, mostly for camping reservations. If you are lucky enough to have a camping reservation you can hike in the interior at will, on your own recognizance, but there are no trails, and lots of wildlife. But for all others, you must utilize the park’s own eco-friendly tour bus system. I suppose you could backpack into the park if you had the proper level of preparedness for the terrain and weather, but that would also require a permit.

If you love to day hike this seems unusual, but it makes sense. The creatures that inhabit Denali are the landlords, not the public. Honestly, I’m not sure I would like to camp in such an active wildlife area anyway. As much as I cherish and respect nature, I wouldn’t care to take unnecessary risks. I might even be a bit of a “scaredy cat” where it comes to encounters with grizzly bears in the wild. So we went on the nearly full day long “Taiga and Tundra Tour”.

The buses used for this purpose are specially outfitted for using a special low sulfur fuel designed to protect the ecosystem. Although adequate, the coaches are not what you would call luxurious. They’re rather reminiscent of bouncy old school buses. The tour provides a box lunch, and makes it a point to collect all the trash. No food or drink is allowed off the bus at any time. The rules are very strict about this because it goes to protecting animals from receiving human food, not just about litter. Something they strongly preach at Yosemite, but seem lax at enforcing. Hard to do when there is a pizza parlor and a taco bar in the village. The bears in Yosemite Valley can afford to have very discriminating palettes. Funny, but at the same time a terrible shame and a disgrace.

We saw lots of wildlife on the tour, but the landscape is just as intriguing. The terrain here is defined as permafrost. That means that the ground is frozen all year long. The only trees and vegetation species that can survive here all have very shallow roots. I wouldn’t attempt to detail all of it without the help of a real naturalist, but I did take some pictures. Also my brother-in-law Dave was along, and he is a much more accomplished photographer than I am. I have provided links to both sets of pictures below. We were in late August which is the beginning of fall there. The colors were amazing. There is a haunting and lonely beauty out in the tundra this time of year. Whenever anyone spotted wildlife the driver would make it a point to stop to allow viewing and photos. The bus is outfitted with a hand held zooming video camera that allows the driver to display images on a series of monitors for long range viewing. Plus there is always someone who doesn’t see what everyone is looking at. This came in handy for viewing Dall Sheep high on the peaks. We saw quite a few of them, appearing as clusters of little white dots that appear to be moving. My little compact binoculars were barely adequate for viewing them. The drivers know all the best places to spot grizzlies too. They are found most frequently foraging along the riverbeds. The only major animal known to inhabit Denali that we never saw at all were wolves. It was a great trip, and a lot of fun.

Click here to view my flickr pix.
Click here to view Dave’s pictures (

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Cowell - Wilder Regional Trail

Henry Cowell State Park, near Felton, CA probably evokes images of families having picnics, casual strolls along the San Lorenzo River, crowds of kids clamoring to ride on the Roaring Camp Railroad, and generally lots of loud frolicking and gleeful commotion. By any account, a great public asset, but not really thought of as a place to do some serious hiking. The Fall Creek unit has some fantastic trails, but there’s no trail to connect with trails in the main park. There is however the Santa Cruz public greenbelt system directly adjacent to Cowell, and that provides some possibilities.

Actually if you get started early enough, you will likely be all but alone amongst the few regular trail runners and morning strollers. It’s very quiet. Just pick a nice place to park, and enjoy. The trails within Cowell are pretty and mostly shaded. You could begin on the river trail to hike along the waters edge. Or use the redwood loop to connect through to Rincon Road. I recommend doing that section as a semi-loop. Ricon Road connects with a trail system that although being there for many years, has at some point been re-named the Cowell – Wilder Regional Trail. This involves a nice forest hike up over and over a ridge and back down to the San Lorenzo River. There is no bridge or other constructed means of crossing the river. If you plan to hike this trail it’s best to carry some sandals for wading. Or take your chances the way I did it, by finding some rocks and using trekking poles to keep your balance. Most of the time the river does not allow this, but this time of year it’s possible, if not recommended. If you wanted, this is one of the few places in the Santa Cruz Mountains where you could actually take a swim. There are even a couple of beaches. Once on the other side you have another wooded climb up to the railroad tracks, and across Highway 9.

Once on the other side of the highway you have a choice to ramble on into Pogonip, or to turn up the U-Con trail into UCSC property to check out the trails there, or even to connect clear through to Wilder Ranch State Park, and on out to the coast. This could turn into a 25+ mile ramble if you’re feeling into that, or could be just a nice easy loop around Pogonip and back with time to linger around the river, or the redwoods.

One thing though; the trails within the greenbelt areas on the other side of the highway are mostly multi-use, so in good weather you will see a lot of mountain bikers. On our hike we saw at least 50 throughout the day. No joke! Portions of the trail are single track too, so you need to step to the side of the trail to allow them to pass. Most were very friendly, and thanked us for sharing the trail. I find that if the weather is not sunny, there is always a lot less bikers. They seem to be much more of a fair weather phenomenon, while many hikers are out for whatever the weather has to offer. Click here to see my flickr pix.

Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve

I hadn’t expected to hike Black Diamond Mines on Saturday (9/27/08), but that’s what I wound up doing. I had originally wanted to do a 4 peaks of Mt Diablo hike. I guess my second weekend in a row of hiking solo had me feeling my oats. It’s been awhile since I hiked at Mt Diablo, and I was thinking that the weather had begun to cool off. So, after fishing out my old map, off I went hoping for clear views.

When I arrived at The Mitchell Canyon trailhead, with exact change in hand believing I would be early, I was confused to see a parking lot full of cars, and people milling around all over the place. Turned out there was a garbage removal project underway that day. I flirted with the idea that I would join them, and spend the day helping with the trash. But I had driven too far for volunteerism. I needed a hike. I couldn’t find a regular parking place, so I went into the visitor’s center to ask whether my parking job was ok. They were fine with my parking, but while inside I noticed a map on the wall which showed a trailhead just down Clayton Road that provided a passage through to Black Diamond Mines from Clayton. I did not know this trail existed, and never having hiked BDM before, my interest was peaked. I didn’t feel like dealing with all the activity at Diablo. And it was becoming apparent that the day would be sunny and hot after all. A little too hot for trekking up all 4 of Diablo’s peaks anyway. So for the second week in a row, I changed by original plans.

The Cumberland Trail does not necessarily add to the experience of hiking Black Diamond Mines at all. The trail is unremarkable, not to mention uphill for 2.6 miles just to reach the preserve. That’s 5.2 miles added to the hike. But it is available if you would rather hike in from Clayton rather than drive all the way around to Pittsburg, or wherever else there may be trail access from the north or east. It’s really a dirt road with limited access for property owners. There are a few junctions which are not specifically marked. There are however closed gates, and nice “no trespassing” signs to mark the way not to go. Works either way. Along the way there are marginally interesting views of Mt Diablo’s North Peak, and the Sacramento River.

Having reached BDM, I was again confused to discover that Black Diamond Trail is actually a paved road, at least at this point. But I thought it couldn’t continue like that. Turning right and following the road uphill, I soon surmised that this was also an access road to the antenna farms I could see up on top. Having reached yet another gate with a “no trespassing” sign, I could see the trail veering off the pavement and continuing off to the left; a more natural surface was a welcome sight.

Continuing on, Black Diamond Trail rolls along grassy hillsides with some fairly interesting views. I took the junction down Manhattan Canyon Trail to the Somersville Townsite. They call it a townsite because there really isn’t any trace of the town left. Otherwise it would be a ghost town. I met some people who told me they were on their way to do a mine tour, and asked if I wanted to go along. By this time it was getting hot, and it sounded interesting, so I went along, paid the 3$ charge, did the 1 ½ hour tour. The fee was well worth it just to get out of the heat. In the mine shaft it was actually chilly. This was a 1930s era sand mine (cilia for glass), not an 1800s coal mine like the namesake of the preserve suggests. The coal mines are all closed up. I enjoyed the tour even though it wasted some time. I knew I really did not have enough time left to hike the majority of the preserve. I meandered along the Nortonville Trail past the cemetery and the Nortonville Townsite, and then turned up the Coal Canyon Trail. Rested in the shade a bit, and met some ladies who were locals. I Hiked and talked with them back to the Cumberland Trail to return to Clayton.

I will probably want to return here sometime in cooler weather to check out the eastern end of the preserve, and check out the views I heard about from the student ranger who led the mine tour. There are lots of other trails I did not have time to even consider. Click here to see my flickr pix.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mt Healy Trail; Denali National Park

John Muir was once asked a question something to the effect; If you had only one day to spend in Yosemite, what would you do? His first response, only half jokingly, was that he might not want to live. Only after being pressed for a serious answer did he then conclude that a hike up to the top of the falls of the Merced River would be his choice. I am reminded of this after having to choose what to do with only 2 days to spend in Denali National Park and Preserve.

Denali National Park is managed very differently than most national parks. Despite its vast area, there is still only one unpaved road into the interior of the preserve, and very few marked hiking trails or facilities. This park system and preserve exists largely because of the efforts of naturalist, hunter, and conservationalist Charles Sheldon, who traveled here with packer and guide Harry Karstens between 1906 and 1908. It was Sheldon who first observed that the Dall sheep that inhabit the high peaks of this region were in fact a unique species, although a close relative of the bighorn sheep. The park was first commissioned as Mt McKinley National Park in 1917 primarily as a wildlife preserve. The total area was more than tripled in 1980, and was renamed Denali. In 1972, due to the increasing visitation, the national park service created a bus system. This was done both to protect visitors, and to reduce threats to wildlife and the ecosystem. There are a limited number of permits which are granted by lottery to drive on the park road, mostly for camping reservations. If you are lucky enough to have a camping reservation you can hike in the interior at will, on your own recognizance, but there are no trails, and lots of wildlife. But for all others, you must utilize the park’s own eco-friendly tour bus system. Our “Taiga and Tundra Tour” was great, but I'll talk about that in another post.

The Mt Healy Trail begins in the taiga near the park visitor center and climbs up into the rocky ridges looming above. We had another nice day; very chilly in the morning, but mostly clear with marauding misty clouds of fog drifting through. The lower trail passes through very typical taiga, with lots of stunted black spruce, quaking aspen, dwarf willow, and some birch, and hemlock. The growing season is very short, and only trees having very shallow roots can survive here because of the permafrost. There were a few arctic hares and ground squirrels scurrying about. The lower trail is graded very well with a lot of switchbacks, but the higher you get, the steeper and rougher the trail becomes. A few areas were slippery because of water runoff. Above the tree line is mostly just rock and short dense vegetation, the diversity of which I could not even begin to properly identify without the help of a real naturalist. The fall season was just beginning in Denali so the color was everywhere. There is a link to my flickr pix at the end of the post.

When we got to the overlook we were treated with panoramic views out over the taiga, down to the Nenana River, around to the rocky ridges, and to the distant peaks partially shrouded in mist and fog. After savoring the vistas and the air, we couldn’t help but notice that the trail actually continues on up higher amongst the rocky peaks. We had some time, so we continued up climbing higher among the crags and rocks. As we looked up above our position there was a white dot that appeared to be moving. With binoculars we could see it was a Dall sheep grazing amongst the crags. I wanted to try to get pictures, so we continued up trying to be quiet, placid, and non-threatening, and got to within about 30 feet of the sheep. We could see at least one more sheep up further where we could not go. This one close by appeared to be a sub-adult male, and was not too concerned with us. It would look at us for a few moments and just walk off seemingly confident in it’s footing advantage. The wonder of seeing the Dall sheep up close was a bonus I did not expect on this hike. On our interior tour, they were literally just white dots high on the mountains. I’ve been hiking in the Sierras for years, and been to the Rockies and the Tetons a few times, but have never seen a bighorn in the wild.

The views were spectacular, and the fall colors were dazzling. I can assure you that my pictures will not do justice to it. We headed down about 11:00 am in order to be on time to catch a train to Fairbanks. I was not using my GPS, but I would estimate the hike was about a 9 to 10 mile round trip with roughly 3000 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead. Other wildlife sighted included, arctic ground squirrel, spruce grouse, and arctic hare (still brown this time of year). We found no evidence of larger mammals, although on the same morning, two young grizzlies were spotted foraging along the river very near the lodge. Click here to see my flickr pix.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Chalk Mountain; Big Basin

I was hiking solo this trip with Sue (my wife) away all weekend at a retreat. Not my thing, so why not do one of my old favorites hikes. Chalk Mountain in Big Basin State Park has always had some strange attraction for me. I enjoy having a good probability that I won’t see many other people all day. There are lots of south bay trails that are under utilized by the general public, even though they may offer unique beauty, great challenging hiking, and inviting solitude. Chalk Mountain is a destination that certainly fits those criteria.

Of the many routes that can get you there, my favorite has always been the hike up from Waddell Beach, either out-and-back on the Westridge Trail, or doing a big loop around using Henry Creek Trail and the Westridge. These “horse trails” are more challenging than most of the trails designed for hiking. You get a lot of roller coaster action as the trails climb up and down continuously, and sometimes steeply, with sometimes slippery, rocky, terrain. Like many of the hikes at Henry Coe, this type of a hike can kick your butt, and would not be a good choice for a casual hike. Whitehouse Ridge Trail offers a short and easy route to get to Chalk Mountain for anyone interested in checking it out painlessly. There’s also the fire roads for a bike route too.

I decided to use a different route today. There are a few trails in Big Basin which are older trails that still exist today, but are no longer maintained. They do not appear on the current hiking maps. One of these old trails connects the end of the Sunset Trail with the Henry Creek horse trail by climbing straight up the ridge using switchbacks. A few people still use this trail as is evidenced by the crude markings seen along the way. Using this type of trail is not recommended for novices. I decided to use this trail as a connection to get to Chalk Mountain from park headquarters.

In the morning, while driving through Saratoga, I had to use a slight detour because there was a street festival in town this weekend. Ok, no problem. Then, when got to Big Basin and saw a sign posted indicating that a trail running group was using the park that day. The main section of the park is popular for this kind of activity. Oh well, I was early enough I thought I could get enough of a head start not to see any runners. Since they would use the Sunset Trail, I used the Skyline to the Sea Trail, transitioning over to the Sunset at Timms Creek Trail. From past experience I figured the fast runners would be past there by then, and I would beat the slow ones up to my cutoff. I guess it worked because I never saw any runners. Sometimes I amaze myself.

Overcast early on, the sun partially broke through for an appearance in the afternoon. Great ocean smells, and the sun showed itself just in time to get fairly good views from the summit. Chalks Road is a little better graded than the horse trails, but still a roller coaster, if a kinder, gentler, one. Also nice views all along down into the surrounding conifer habitat. Mostly exposed, it wouldn’t be a good choice in hot weather. There are sections that pass through redwood groves and stands of Douglas fir. Lots of scrubby pine trees, manzanita, and other short, resilient, vegetation. In spring this area is thick with bush poppies and chaparral pea.

On the way back, my previous luck turned. When I got to the junction of Sunset and Timms Creek there was a big mass of humanity there blocking the trail. About 15 or 20 people on a group hike, and wouldn’t let me by. I wound up getting caught up amongst them and had to listen to their talking all the way along to the next junction. What ever happened to trail etiquette? The Sunset and Skyline to the Sea are very popular trails and you have to expect this kind of thing during the peak season. An almost perfect day was kind of spoiled at the end. I guess the detour in Saratoga was an omen after all. Click here to see my flickr pix.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mt Roberts Trail; Juneau, Alaska

Juneau, Alaska

So many peaks – so little time. This was our lament upon leaving Juneau, Alaska. My wife and I could have easily lingered here for a week or more doing little more than hiking trails and drinking in the landscape. But alas, this was only a one-day port of call on our packaged tour. Thirteen of us on a family vacation to tour the inside passage, and two national parks. Sue and I love to hike most of all, but we got very little opportunity to do so while on this combined cruise and land tour. This hike was only a sampling of the offerings available should we decide to return to Juneau sometime without an itinerary, which I would be thrilled to do.

The city and borough of Juneau, situated on Alaska’s panhandle, has a total area larger than the states of Rhode Island, or Delaware, and nearly as large of both of them combined, with a population of only 30,711 by the last census. Juneau is the capital city of Alaska despite the fact that there are no roads or rail system leading here. The only access being by sea or air, the area is dominated by steep peaks ranging up to 4000 feet above the harbor.

The Mt. Roberts Trail normally begins by climbing a flight of stairs on a city street. Some of the areas on the outskirts of the city center are so steep that there are stairs leading between streets. A section of the lower trail was damaged by a recent rockslide, so there was a slight detour around using the unpaved Basin Road. This road provides access to the historic Perseverance Trail, and the Mt Juneau Trail, which climbs 3500 feet in only 2 miles, and links with many other tempting backcountry trails.

The lower trail begins within rainforest terrain, primarily spruce with some aspen, hemlock, and cottonwoods. They measure rainfall here in feet, not inches. The understory is dominated by the very leafy and thorny devil’s club, and lots of small fern species, moss and lichen. The trail is in good shape, and graded with switchbacks so it’s not wicked steep. Actually this entire section could be skipped by taking the tram up to a restaurant, bar, and gift shop located at 1760 feet. The round trip is 25$, but there is also a hiker option to ride the tram down only for 5 bucks. The summit is 4.5 miles and 3819 feet in elevation gain.

Once above the tree line, the views are simply breathtaking. Our ship docked very early in the morning and all aboard was at 8:00 PM. It was pure luck that we got a mostly clear day. It was foggy in the morning but later on it cleared, with intermittent patches of misty fog drifting through. The clearing pockets revealing snowy peaks in all directions, panoramic vistas, and a stunning view down to Gastineau channel and the city of Juneau. I wish I could bottle the smell of the crystal clean air. We were at the very end of the wildflower season, but there were still plenty enough around to complement the experience nicely. There are black bears in this area, but we never observed any evidence of them. We did see a lot of grey marmots, spruce grouse, and forest birds. There were still a few patches of snow on the highest trail sections, but nothing requiring special gear. We chose the option to take the tram down to save time because Sue really wanted to attend a talk/presentation and book signing by Libby Riddles, the first female to win the Iditarod dogsled race. But it was hard not to linger longer at the peak. This whole area is gorgeous and doesn’t get oppressively cold, but does get copious amounts of rain. Click here to view my flickr pix. My brother-in law Dave was on a similar hike the same day only they took the tram. Click here to view Dave's pictures (

Click here to read a follow-up post from our hike on the same trail in 2011.