Friday, September 30, 2011

Point Lost

Panorama of "Point Lost"
I was perusing Every Trail last Friday evening trying to decide where I might satisfy my wander lust the following morning, when I happened across a guide posted by username alpharomero on a hike he did to Butano Ridge in Pescadero Creek. It caught my attention because the track log showed usage of a trail head that I didn’t even know existed, along a road that I had not even heard of before called Wurr Road. It was interesting to discover that there was some nook or cranny that I hadn’t been to before in this place. But what really peaked my interest was the mention of a side trip to a viewpoint to the ocean from Butano Ridge. Every time I’ve hiked Butano Ridge, I have always lamented that the property lines do not allow access to long range views to the south and west, which I always speculated would include Pacific Ocean views. The last time I hiked there, I even did a post here called “The Windowless Ridge”, in which I characterized the hike as one that must be a journey rather than a goal. Meaning, in the context of that post, that there wasn’t any really special point that seemed like the highlight feature of the hike. However, after reading alpharomero’s guide, it seemed apparent that my characterization was not completely correct. And having vaguely remembered that I did see a trail sign up there that said there was a possible ocean view by hiking further north on the ridge loop trail, I decided I had to go back and seek out this obscure place that I have since renamed "Point Lost", to find out what I had missed.

Natural tar deposits in Tarwater Creek
The guide posted by alpharomero uses a route along Old Haul Road. Old Haul is an old logging road which I usually try to avoid. Old roads often seem boring, and in Pescadero Creek, the single tracks pass right through the most beautiful areas, while routes like Old Haul, being more utilitarian in their original purpose, tend to bypass them. I will always pick a single track trail over a fire road or logging road whenever practical. My usual route for hiking Butano Ridge begins in Portola State Park, but I wasn’t really keen on burning a state park pass, or 10 bucks, for access to Portola when the hike takes place mostly in Pescadero Creek. So I used this occasion to devise a semi loop route using the Camp Pomponio Road trail head. This route uses some of the really nice thickly wooded trails in Pescadero Creek to get me to the northern leg of the Butano Ridge loop trail. I would then hike up to seek out this mysterious overlook as an out-and-back, and return by hiking up the other side of the Tarwater loop to get back to my parked car. There wasn’t really much point to this exercise, except for the fact that I love to hike, and needed to get outside for the day.

I hadn’t thought about it until I had already turned onto Alpine road and could see lots of low fog was blanketing the ocean. Sometimes the fog will clear out by midday, and other times it hangs like a cheap suit the whole day. As I began, I knew that I might not actually see anything from Point Lost at all except for a sprawling carpet of murky oceanic fog, but I was already committed, and really wanted to hike. Did I mention that I really just like to hike? So I headed across the road to the northern part of the Tarwater loop at about 1000 feet, descending down into the canyon, and all the way to Tarwater creek at 374 feet. By the time you reach the creek bottom, you have passed through the grassy meadows and oak woodlands, and are now in thick conifer habitat. This creek was named for the natural tar deposits that seep up from underground making the waters look like the victim of an oil spill. All the rocks and soil along the banks are coated with the stuff.

After crossing the creek on the half-missing footbridge, I made my way to the Canyon Trail. This section of the Canyon Trail is very thickly wooded with a tall canopy overhead. Along here are some of the most interesting tree specimens in the park. Remnants of legacy logging abound, but there are some old growth trees left, and the always amaze me. There is something almost spiritual about old growth trees, especially redwoods like these. One of the trees along here has the most massive widow-maker burl I have ever seen. The ground is covered with sorrel, and the air is moist and crisp, and scented with the aroma of redwood bark.

Tall redwoods
Turning on Bear Ridge Trail I began climbing back up to about 957 feet before descending again to the junction with Pomponio Trail. Turning there, descending further to Shaw trail camp. With no one at the camp, I hiked on, dropping down all the way to Pescadero Creek at 251 feet, where you have to make a crossing. Not anticipating much water this time of year, I had not brought my trekking poles. I can usually make good use of them when I have to make crossings by using the rocks and logs. I hadn't anticipated it, but this year had been a very wet year and the creek was still flowing a good six inches deep, so the poles would have been welcome . I was able to use some fallen wood and made it across getting my boots only marginally wet, but not wet enough to seep through the GoreTex. Hiking on I made my way up to the Butano Ridge Trail after crossing Old Haul Road.

From the creek up to the top of Butano Ridge, the trail climbs up to 1672 feet over 2.5 miles. Not really a butt kicker, but definitely enough to work off what ever you had for breakfast. The recovering redwood forest is thick enough to keep you in the shade the whole time whatever the weather, and you won’t see any more water for awhile. When you reach the junction at the top, the trail tees with a fire road, and there is a trail sign indicating a view point in 1 mile to the north with the park boundary another mile after that. The mysterious Point Lost was at hand. If you were to turn left the fire road would take you along the ridge to the other side of the loop trail where you can’t see anything but no trespassing signs to the west. Almost immediately the fire road begins turning into a washboard type trail. Descending steeply down, then back up, then down again and back up. You finally arrive at the view point reaching 1720 feet.Check out my track log for the profile.

The Old Tree
After seeing the view from this the overlook, that’s when I decided that I would officially name the place “Point Lost”. I named it that for the fact that I had missed it all these years, and for the stunning view to the formless milky white void stretching to infinity, and the mist that was drifting inward, indicating that the fog was actually heading in, not breaking up. It was only about 11:30, so fog moving in at that hour is quite unusual, but hey, it’s the Pacific. True ramblers are having a good time almost whatever the circumstances, even when you can’t see a freakin’ thing at the viewpoint. I completed the hike by descending back down the Butano Ridge Trail back to Shaw trail camp. Hiking the other direction on Pomponio Trail, I found my way to the other part of the Tarwater loop trail and back up to the trail head. This section of the Tarwater trail is worth checking out because about half way up, it has one of the more amazing redwood trees in the whole Santa Cruz Mountain region. It’s simply called “The Old Tree” and it is massive and ancient. If you have been to Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove and seen the tree called Grizzly Giant, this tree will remind you of it, albeit a smaller, slightly less awsome version. The Grizzly Giant has massive upper limbs that jut outward at almost 90 degrees. Then bending upward, each limb supports a growth structure that dwarfs the size of a normal tree by itself. This tree is a coast redwood, and is not as huge as that, and doesn’t have as many limbs, but it’s awesome enough to bring out the images of the last time you visited “The Griz” while hiking Mariposa Grove. When I got back to my car, my trip odometer read 17.4 miles with total ascent of 3625 feet.

Click here to see my track log at Every Trail
Click here to see my photos on flickr

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Gastineau Peak

View to Juneau from the Mt Roberts Trail
There are some absolutely fabulous trails near Alaska’s panhandle boroughs. From late spring to early fall there are actually more tourists in this region than residents. Not that I ever like to think of myself as a tourist, but in this case, it’s appropriate. I’ve never been anywhere else before where you can find such dramatic and pristine landscapes within walking distance from a town. In our local area where we live, we have a great many trails to choose from, and I never get tired of getting outside to spend the day at some wild space preserve or another. But if you really want to experience awesome inspiring scenery, and have a world class hiking experience, you really need to get away for awhile. At the very least, you would need to drive for hours just to get clear of the sprawling anthill that is the bay area metropolis. However, in Juneau, for example, you can be walking down a city street past shops, restaurants, hotels, homes, etc; hang a right, and climb a flight of stairs; and there is a trail head heading up into the temperate rainforest at the base of the steep alpine terrain of the mountains that loom above the city. In this neighborhood, the wilderness areas begin right at the doorstep of the largest center of human habitation for hundreds of miles. It’s enough to make you want to miss your ship, and stay lost until your money runs out.

Snowy peaks
There are quite a few choices, but the hike we decided on was the same hike we had done back on 2008. We were hoping for clearer weather than we had last time because we had never made it to the summit of Mt Roberts, but the conditions were about the same. There was still packed in snow along the narrow ridge heading up into the low clouds. I would not have wanted to try it without crampons and an ice axe, so we still have never made the summit. But even without setting out for Mt Roberts, we had the most amazing day. The other fork to Gastineau Peak is a really gorgeous hike.

We began by walking out of town on Basin Road to the lower trail head of the Mt Roberts Trail. Many people skip this section by taking the tram from the harbor area up to the Visitor’s center located about 1750 feet up the mountain. There are some nice view points up there, and some short nature trails. You can even have a meal at the restaurant and enjoy the nature center up there before heading back down. The tram tickets have gone up in price to $27. Hikers have another option though. You can pay $10 for a down only pass on the tram. Or if you make a purchase at the gift shop, you can use your receipt as a down only pass. The lower trail has some steep and muddy sections, but hikers are more likely to enjoy the rain forest hike more than wimping out on the tram.

Rainbow in Silverbow Basin
When you reach the visitor’s center there will be lots of people around, but the tram can only bring a limited number people. As you continue to hike up the trail, the crowds thin out, and before long, a trail signs indicates that you are entering the wilderness area. Above the tree line, the terrain opens up, and the trail gets steeper and a little rougher. The open terrain supports lots of plants, grasses, wild flowers, and wildlife. At this time, many of the hillsides were covered in white bunchberry (ground dogwood) blossoms. There was also lots of purple lupine and yellow cinquefoil. The higher you hike, the better the views. On a clear enough day you will enjoy the most amazing views. The visual panorama takes your breath away. Gorgeous textured green mountain sides flowing into deep basin valleys with lingering white snow fields adding lots of contrast, and lots of gentle peaks, some of which are literally reaching into the clouds. Far below to the west is Gastineau channel, and across its depth are distant peaks and islands along the inside passage. The Chilkoot range to the north and layers of peaks in all directions highlight the glacial carved landscape. Lots of small animals are scurrying around, and we got buzzed by several bald eagles. The trail junction to Mt Roberts was too snowbound, so we headed for Gastineau Peak at about 3460 feet. When you get there you can sit and gaze into Silverbow Basin which has a mining history, many cascade waterfalls, several avalanches, and on this trip we got treated to a really nice rainbow. We spent some time on the peak before the skies started drizzling rain. We donned our GoLite umbrellas and headed down, taking advantage of the down only free ride on the tram for our patronage of the gift shop to purchase some nice waterproof over-gloves. I would highly recommend this trail if you happen to be in Juneau.

Click here to see my photos on flickr
Click here to see my trip report and GPS track on Every Trail

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Devil's Punchbowl

Peaks and clouds
It’s been quite awhile since I’ve gotten any blog entries done. I suppose the most common excuse for not posting regular blog entries is being too busy, and that really is part of it. It’s been hard to devote time to blogging lately, so I hope no one minds that I will be doing some back posting of some of the more interesting hikes I’ve done the past few months. A couple of the more memorable hikes I’ve done this year were during our Alaska cruise during the first week of July. We really don’t do a lot of cruising. For us it’s mostly a family thing, but we really had a great time doing the 10 day cruise even though it may not be the most environmentally sensitive way to take a vacation. But, I’m sure we can atone by the way we live our lives the rest the year.

We had a day to spend in the borough of Skagway, AK which is situated within a secluded inlet called Lynn Channel along the inside passage of Alaska’s panhandle. This area was home to the Tlingit people for untold generations. When gold was discovered in the Klondike region of the Yukon, this place became an important passageway from the sea up through White Pass into the Yukon, and the Chilkoot Trail. During the height of the Klondike gold rush the population of the area grew to 30,000 people, mostly prospectors, and a colorful and sometimes infamous history ensued. Today the full time population of the borough is 862 by the last census. During the tourist season those numbers double, and they are host to over 900,000 visitors, mostly from cruise ships.

View across the channel
After perusing all the available trail descriptions and maps, we decided to hike to a place called Devil’s Punchbowl, by way of Upper Dewey Lake. The trail head is only walking distance from the harbor, right alongside the tracks used by the White Pass rail line that runs between Whitehorse, Alberta and Skagway, AK, along the historic Klondike gold rush route. The trail begins by immediately climbing up some switchbacks through the thick tree cover of the coastal alpine forest in order to gain the top of the first little ridge line. After a moderate climb, just on the other side of the first ridge is Lower Dewey Lake. The climb is only about 600 feet, and about 1.7 miles. The lower lake has a network of trails that follow the banks and go to other places, including a glacial fed waterfall which I wish we could have had time for. The lower lake also serves as a reservoir for the residents. It’s a really nice area for some casual time. At the north end of the lake is the trail to Upper Dewey Lake, and it is here that the hike becomes a bit strenuous, as hikers embark on a fairly relentless uphill.

Cascading melt water
The upper lake trail follows close by a beautiful cascading creek with some good viewing areas to see the rapidly flowing, churning, waters coursing steeply downhill. The creek is flowing from the upper lake into the lower lake, and you can hear the rushing waters echoing through the forest in the background even when you cannot see it from the trail. The terrain is thickly wooded with mostly tall Sitka spruce, with a mixture of hemlock and alder, and a thick green understory. The trail climbs higher using many switchbacks, with some sections being steep enough to cause you to be careful of your footing. The surface has lots of loose and embedded rock and shallow tree roots, and many sections have erosion damage. You don’t get very much in the way of long range views until you get to the top, but the trail is very picturesque and fragrant, with interesting plants, flowers, and lichens.

Upper Dewey Lake
As you get close to the upper lake, the views begin to open up somewhat out across the sea channel to the surrounding mountains covered in lingering snow. Some of the peaks look green and inviting, while other areas are rugged and foreboding. The trail brought us around some beautiful marshy muskeg meadows lined with wild flowers and singing streams of water feeding the cascading creek we had just followed up. At about 3100 feet, after climbing up a natural rocky embankment, there is the upper lake with a large ragged conical peak looming behind like a sentinel. To the north are more jagged rough peaks with rock taluses streaming down their slopes. The upper lake collects the snow melt water from these peaks, which then flows down to lower Dewey Lake. There are two cabins at the upper lake. One is quite nice as backcountry cabins go, although sparse, and is available by reservation. The other is further away along the shore and is available on a first come first served basis. The latter cabin is really just a log shack with a wood stove and some bunk platforms, and is permeated with the odor of wood smoke from poor ventilation. I could hardly stand to be inside it. We had passed one couple who had been staying in the reserved cabin the past 2 nights, and were on their way out. Other than that there was no one up there, and we had the whole high country lake to ourselves. The setting is pristine and beautiful, and very reminiscent of one of the Yosemite high country lakes. The weather was a bit murky which made it lousy for photos, but I did my best.

Devil's Punchbowl
To the south is a rocky moraine that leads up higher. The trail to Devil’s Punchbowl is a bit obscure at this point. It’s almost a scramble, as you climb up the rocky moraine amongst really strange plant species and little wild flowers peeking out from the deposited soils. Following the cairns, and being careful of footing, as I climbed higher and finally lifted my head I was struck by the views. Expansive view opportunities open up along here, and the vista is dramatic and gorgeous. Well above the trees you get a perfectly clear open view down to Lynn channel, and across to the majestic snow covered high peaks on the other side. At one point you have a perfect view down to Skagway and the ships docked at the harbor. Behind you are looming jagged peaks that have an almost sinister barren look. The trail soon breaks out to a more level and smooth grassy surface, and hiking up and over the top of the route you can finally see the little high lake called Devil’s Punchbowl. Studying the profile of the rough mountainsides behind it, it’s easy to see that the snow collects on the sides of the peaks and melts down into this little lake, and down further into upper Dewey Lake where is collects with an even greater melt water runoff, flowing down the cascading creeks to lower Dewey Lake. The punchbowl itself isn’t much to see, but the hike to get there is quite simply breathtaking. Our total elevation gain was about 3700 feet, with a distance of about 8.5 miles round trip. We saw a lot more hikers going down, but for a good long time, we had the whole place to ourselves, and it was truly marvelous. My photos will not do it justice. Sorry, I do not have a track log because I accidently deleted it, but you can click here to see my pictures on flickr.