Sunday, January 13, 2008

08Jan12 – Donner Summit

We arrived at Donner summit on Friday, the night after a horrific freezing rain storm. This storm had come on the heels of two other storm systems that had deposited over 7 feet of fresh snow at this elevation. The mountains were covered with a bullet proof glaze of ice on top of a rapidly consolidating blanket of “Sierra cement”. Ahhh – just the right conditions for a delightful ski tour.

We spent Friday exploring an atypically quiet corner of Donner pass – a left over piece of back country sandwiched by Boreal Ski resort and Donner Ski ranch. We parked at the Norden snow park permit area – at the very end of the road and followed map and compass along the lake dotted rim of terrain that buffers the development near Donner summit from the plummet down to Donner lake. It was quiet, and beautiful, and very very slippery.

We stayed at the rustic Rainbow Lodge – near Rainbow road off of Rt. 80. This lodge was built in the 20’s with hand hewn lumber and granite blocks. Much of the charm and character remains in this steep roofed sturdy building by the banks of the frozen Yuba river. The rooms are small, with shared baths down the hall – but if you close your eyes to the electric lights, you can imagine the visitors here long ago carried by horse and early automobiles. The lobby and restaurant have posted a very interesting collection of vintage photographs of the early recreational days in this region. The prices are reasonable and include a great hearty breakfast with the room prices.

Saturday we opted for a trail pass at Royal Gorge Nordic center, parked at the far end near the Ice Lakes Lodge, and ventured out to Point Moria where we got a marvelous view of Snow peak and the rapidly retreating storm system. We saw two funnel clouds form, the dissipate. As is our usual style, we ventured off trail and followed some of the older, but abandoned trails at this end of the trail system, following the old Sterling Canyon trail, and traveling back country to the summit of Mt Rowtin (Lola’s look-out) thus avoiding the overly packed and somewhat icy trail. From there, we got great views of the east face of Mt. Lincoln (SugarBowl) and I hope to use this photo for planning a spring time decent along the south west ridge.

Sunday, we ventured backcountry right behind the Rainbow lodge and climbed south and east, over the Union Pacific train tracks in search of the abandoned “Rainbow Lodge Interconnect trail”. What a treat this area presented with absolutely no other people, and wonderful ski touring terrain. The heavy snowfall had covered most of the stream crossings, and two days of temperatures above freezing had softened the surface to a consistent corn. Our hope was to climb to a view of Devil’s Peak, but after a few hours, we settled for a sunny meadow above tree line with vast vistas to the south and west. We stumbled onto a long ago abandoned piece of marked trail that led us to Lake Loch Levin where a sign proudly pronounced – this is the end of the marked trail. Duh! From there we took our compass heading and followed the rolling terrain 2 ½ hours back down into and through the forest back to the lodge.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

07Dec28 Death Valley National Park

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We leave the Mojave Desert and cross the Pinto Mountains, Sheep Hole Mountains, Clipper Mountains, traverse along the Avawatz Mountains and the Kingston range, cross more than one dry lake bed, and finally drop into Death Valley. We’ve traveled up the eastern side of southern California and successfully avoided all interstates and stayed out of the reach of the LA Basin and its far reaching crowds.

We hike the Golden Canyon to Gower Gulch trail – excellent introduction to the park – just south of Furnace Creek on the Bad Water road. We stretched this 4 mile loop hike into an all day enterprise – with lots of explorations into side canyons and a leisurely lunch siesta on the pass just below Zabrinskie Point. The Golden Canyon trail leads you up out of the badlands into a mud canyon, then up the slopes of Zabrinskie Point, then down again following another drainage with a totally different look and feel.

We explored two abandoned (and fairly shallow ) mines along the banks of Gower Gulch. The floor was sand, but the ceilings glistened from the reflection of our flashlight beams on the quartz and other crystalline rocks in the thick veins. What ever the miners were looking for is gone, but the aura and mystery of the enterprise remains. The mud caked canyon bottoms and walls are a testament to the depth and furry of the rainstorm run-off that annually carves each of these canyons just a little bit deeper.

The best campgrounds are at Furnace creek – in the oasis or across the highway – up high at the Texas Spring tents only site. A simple camper fits in easily here as long as you don’t use your generator. The campsite at Stovepipe Wells is to be avoided. Emigrant and Wildrose are more remote and are preferable as long as you plan your itinerary to take advantage of the terrain near those more outlying campsites.
Nights are in the low 20’s but our plumbing systems keep working if we keep the camper at 50 degrees during the night.

Great hike into Fall Canyon. Drive to Titus Canyon trail head – 2 miles up gravel road off the Scotty’s Castle Road 15 miles north of Stovepipe wells. Park at the mouth of the Titus Canyon, but follow the nondescript trail, marked simply by a hiker icon besides the outhouse – not into Titus Canyon, but across the alluvial fan adjacent to the road and up into the next canyon to the north – Fall Canyon.

As we entered Fall Canyon, the walls twist and rise to thousands of feet above our heads. At places the bottom narrows to 10 feet wide. Where the canyon is narrowest, the rock is the hardest – with sedimentary and other sand and mud stones giving way to granite. As the canyon narrow, the cobbles underfoot change size as well. The faster spring currents scouring the bottom cleaner the fast it goes. This season, the canyon is dry- but the geology and sediments tell a vivid tale.

I get the strong impression I am a fish headed up river. Although there is no water now, I am seeing the river’s bottom and banks as surely as the fish must. As I move easily though the air – and am only vaguely aware of it as a fluid I am passing through, so must the fish when passing through water. As the air is transparent to me, so must the water be to the fish. We skirt the faster outer bends of the river cutting corners to save distance from our hike – as the fish moving upstream must seek out slower current to ease their challenge. The walls are often deeply undercut at the bottom of the canyon walls. Even the mid-day sun rarely reaches this far into the slot. We wonder why it is so tiring to trudge along in the gravel, and soon realize we are also walking steadily up hill, a perception lost in the tumble and unworldly angles at which everything comes together here. After about 1.5 hours of distracted hiking we come to the first dry falls – an insurmountable 16’ smooth granite overfall with rounded walls too far apart for traditional jamb and crack climbing – even for my 6 foot frame. We backtrack down canyon and find an out of place pile of dissimilar colored rocks which upon more careful scrutiny are strategically piled again the wall to form a stepping stool to reach the first of 4 or five bucket holds which allow us to climb out of the river bottom through a crack in the rocks and up unto the steep bank above. A climber’s trail leads along the steep canyon wall above the gorge and bypasses the fall – and after climbing down a gravel littered sloping ledge we are back in the upper canyon now. The river bottom is even narrower here – with fish bowl smooth fine gravel sand as the only material underfoot. Every 10 feet the canyon swirls first left, then right, and ever upward reaching eventually to another dry falls we are told 4 miles further in. It is 1:30pm and I must turn around – but I make a commitment to start earlier next visit, and push my exploration even further into this mysterious and wonderful place.

We stay a night at Emigrant campsite – a small tents only, lightly developed patch off the highway on the way west out of Death Valley on the way to Panamint Springs, and then take an abbreviated hike on Wildrose peak just above the abandoned charcoal kilns. This area deserves a long full day hike as well. We dawdle about the kilns – all are in pretty good shape. The acoustics inside are too hard to resist and I take out the clarinet and play for a bit – for the birds, and the wind, and the magic of the place. Diane sits uphill and above the kilns and listens to the impromptu concert – with the eerie music sounding like it is rising from the bottom of a well. Here there is snow on the ground, and ice frozen beneath the larger pinions.

Click here for more details about Death Valley

07Dec25 – Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park

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We leave Christmas Day for the long drive to southern California. There are recent storms in the Sierras so we head down route 5 rather than over the mountains to 395. The San Joaquin Valley is fairly quiet as we cruise through mile after mile of irrigated farmland. South of Bakersfield, the valley’s true nature is expressed as irrigation ends and the farms peter out. The parched valley land creeps in at first from the edges, then takes over the vast landscape within 30 minutes of leaving Bakersfield. Now we are in the San Joaquin Valley the way the first settlers saw it…before the Sierra water was dammed and diverted into irrigation channels…before it became the major fruit basket for the United States. Ten hours driving from Oakland, including passing over Tehachapi pass and a major wind farm, we arrive in Joshua Tree National Park.

The desert is punctuated with the larger Joshua Tree plants and outcroppings of Monzo Granite – weathered to a rounded – river bottom look by hundreds of thousands of years of sand blasting by the seasonal winds.

We make several day hikes and explore the desert flora. Stayed at Jumbo Rocks campsite – well named for the geologic formations around which the campsites are threaded. We follow a nature trail and learn to identify Yucca, Joshua tree, creosote bush, pencil Kola, California Juniper, desert Oak. We see and identify a Silky Flycatcher (Phainopepla) and a California Thrasher. Two jack rabbits hop through our campsite early one morning.

The Joshua Tree roads would make good bike riding spring or fall – but there is no shoulder and a 6” curb.
The wind picks up and the temperature drops. We take a sunset hikes to nearby ridges to get better vistas of the surrounding desert.

The entire park angled on a long slope – starting up at a high elevation, and dropping steadily thousands of feet. The higher areas are located in the Mojave Desert, and then below 4,000 feet the vegetation dramatically changes moving into the adjoining Colorado Desert.
Check out the nature hike near Skull Rock.

We hike one day to a desert oasis called 49 palms. The 40 minute hike through rocky foothills brought us t the canyon concealing the small oasis. In this cleft in the mountainside is a small stream with a totally different ecosystem. There are 5 or 6 small pools surrounding by marsh grasses, cat tails, scotch broom and looming overhead are large palm trees.

Joshua Tree National Park - National Park Service