Category Archives: Bucket List

Alaska the Easy Way


Not bad for foothills.  Tokosha Mountains, AK.

My first trip to Alaska didn’t last nearly long enough.  That said, my wife planned a heck of a trip in a tight time window.  We flew late at night from Portland to Anchorage.  After a few hours sleep, we ate breakfast at a nearby café which included reindeer sausage.  Yep.  Soon enough we had a rental car and headed north.  Talkeetna, here we come.  As soon as we passed the city limits, mountains loomed to the north and east. The forests were not as dense as those I am accustomed to in Oregon and Washington.  The hemlocks and spruces were lovely, but on the small side.  No matter.  The scale of the land itself was cause for celebration. We stopped at a few different spots and saw stunning vistas.  Mountains, lakes, wildlife and cute towns.  I envisioned a hundred hikes on that two hour drive.

We arrived in Talkeetna a bit earlier than expected, and I moved up a flightseeing trip as a result.  Twist my arm.  Ten of us flew in a small plane courtesy of Talkeetna Air Taxi north to the Alaska Range.   From the braided Susitna River to the Ruth Glacier and a fly by of big peaks, I was in heaven.  We landed high on a glacier and gawked for fifteen minutes.  Immaculate snowy peaks with massive cliffs were everywhere. The weather was perfect for us, if a bit warm for alpinists.  For a mountain lover, this was almost a surreal experience, a bucket list trip to be sure.

Back in Talkeetna, Denise and I grubbed at Denali Brewing’s patio on a warm evening. They had a nice beer selection and great food.  Mostly I remember the peanut butter pie.  After exploring the town a bit more, including some unique street vendors, we retired to our room in the quaint Roadhouse. A nap was in order, but shortly after 11 p.m., we got up and headed out in search of the Aurora Borealis.  We found it nearby. My photos are not great, but I include one for reference.  Interestingly, there is a firm in Talkeetna that offers lesson on how to take photos the northern photos. Next time I will bring a better camera and take that lesson.

Not bad for one day.  Look for more photos soon, including some of spectacular  hiking in Denali National Park.  Happy hiking.



Pacific Crest Trail Tease


I have intermittently dreamed about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail since I read Eric Ryback’s book about the trail when I was in high school.  Naturally, life has taken random twists and turns, I’ve done a lot other cool things, from climbing cliffs and bungee jumping to getting married on a mountain to becoming a firefighter and publishing my writing.  At my age, I’m not sure I can press pause on my life for five months it would require.  Perhaps one day…  Here is a tease I stumbled on today in which a hiker took a second-long video every day on the journey, which is compressed to a three-minute video.  I’ve seen another version of this, where a man took a selfie every mile on the trail.  It was interesting to see his face change, but I wanted to see the scenery more.  This clip does that. Enjoy–especially those of you about to embark on the trail.  If you can’t follow my link (and sorry about the ad), here’s the full URL:

Crossing the Joshua Tree Desert Divide

As I recall, people use Ocotillo for fences in southern Arizona

Ocotillo and yucca in the southern part of the park

Vacations are funny creatures.   They are so jam packed with fun activities, it seems as though they will never end.  Then…poof!  You are home.  Visiting Joshua Tree National Park was like that.   After wonderful short hikes at Hidden Valley and Barker Dam, we’d had a pleasant drive to Key’s Point, the highest spot in the park.  Our next destination was uncertain.

Skull Rock-- need I say more?

Guess what it’s called…

I had no agenda in particular, but I knew we had miles to go before we slept.   We didn’t have time for  more significant hikes.  Still, there was a vast range of desert sights to enjoy.  Skull Rock sounded interesting, so we stopped there.  And what do you know, close to the road, there was a rock with concavities which, when seen from a certain angle, lent it the appearance of a skull.  An alien skull, perhaps, but a skull nonetheless.   Fellow touristas were scrambling around the base of it, posing for silly photos.  Not me.  I am too dignified for that.   Oh, wait…

Goofing around beside Skull Rock

Once in a while I pull out the goofball tourist card

Denise and I wandered around the Skull Rock area with Jackie Chan, finding cool rocks to climb on and bumping into dead end spots from which we couldn’t continue.  It was a seemingly endless maze of rocks and sandy troughs with scrubby desert flora.  Navigation was a challenge, but from any high point we could see the road. I could have stayed there for hours, happily getting lost in the afternoon shadows.

Family shadow portrait: Jackie Chan, moi, and Denise

Family shadow portrait: Jackie Chan, moi, and Denise

Alas, we needed to move on.  The drive trended downhill soon after we turned towards the south entrance of the park.  Major rock outcroppings became rarer, but the views extended further.  It was a stupendous shift between the immediacy of rock piles near Skull Rock and vastness of views stretching dozens of miles across a desert without roads.  My eyes shifted from focusing on a handhold right in front of me to ridges ten miles away.

My lovely bride and Jackie

My lovely bride and Jackie

The Joshua Trees disappeared, but now we saw cholla and ocotillo dotting the landscape.  We had made the transition to the Colorado Desert, a sub-region of the greater Sonoran Desert.  It reminded me of the brief period in my dreaming early adulthood when I lived on a ranch in Arizona, wanting to be a cowboy.  I’d got more than a few barbs in my skin through curiosity then.  Not this time.  We found pullouts designed to look at the views and plant life.  The pleasures of these spots were very different than those at the mazes of rocks above but equally enthralling.

The cholla forest and a slice of eternity behind it

The cholla forest and a slice of eternity behind it

It looks soft until you get up close and painful

It looks soft until you get up close and painful

The wide open spaces were gorgeous, punctuated with occasional rock piles or bumpy ridges alongside smooth looking plains.  We surmised that the smooth part had been the bottom of the ocean in another geological era.  A few times, we got out of the car a few times to stretch our legs and soak up the solitude.  In this part of the park, cars might pass on the road every five minutes or so, but there was nobody else around.

A different angle of the cholla forest

A different angle of the cholla forest

Eventually the dramatic scenery tailed off as we approached the southern entrance to the park.  A couple motorcycle riders sped around us, stopped roadside, then sped around us again ten minutes later.  I can’t help but think they missed some of the beauty of this desert world by focusing on the mundane pleasure of speed.  Maybe I am just getting old, but I wish I had missed nothing.  Joshua Tree National Park is an amazing place, and I hope I am lucky enough to return, perhaps with climbing gear and a tent, perhaps with a four wheel drive rig to check out some side roads with mining history.  So many places to go!  Our drive back to Palm Desert was filled with smiles.

The gorgeous waning light of a perfect day

The gorgeous waning light of a perfect day

I highly recommend a trip to Joshua Tree.   If you visit, carry plenty of water.

Bullet the Blue Sky Over Joshua Tree (and a whole lotta rocks going on)

Driving in to the park. My tree forest...

Driving in to the park. “My” tree forest…

Since I first heard of Joshua Tree National Park in the eighties, I have wanted to visit there.  Well, duh, it’s my name, I love to climb rocks, and U2 was one of my favorite bands in the mid 80s when they came out with their breakthrough Joshua Tree CD.  It seemed a destination carved in the stars.  Why it took me decades to get there is one of the many mysteries of my life, but I finally went there last week with my wife and our dog, Jackie Chan.  I was not disappointed.

Love the scraggly tree atop the gorgeous rocks beneath the blue sky

Love the scraggly tree atop the gorgeous rocks beneath the blue sky

J Tree, as many climbers call it, features the boundary of two great deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran.  The first is relatively high in elevation and features the park’s namesake trees.  We approached from the north after gaining a significant amount of elevation on the road through Yucca Valley.  I wanted to smile when I started seeing Joshua Trees, AKA yucca brevifolia.  The rocks were not yet dramatic, but finally the outcroppings popped up more and more often until their rounded granite domes and crags seemed ubiquitous.  We stopped at a picnic area for a first taste of the rocks, and then we made our way to the famed Hidden Valley area, so named because supposed rustlers a century ago or more would hide their stolen beasts amid the chaotic jumble of rock which would deter most people from finding them.

Denise and Jackie walking in the Hidden Valley

Denise and Jackie walking in the Hidden Valley

We started seeing climbers carefully scaling a few of the crags, rope snaking upwards, and I was nostalgic for my climbing days.  Scrambling sans rope on a small boulder is fun, but it does not produce the same thrill as climbing a vertical face 80 feet high.  Ah, well.  The trail was a loop winding around the interior of the so-called valley.  After a while, it became very difficult to orient myself.  There were hundreds if not thousands of house sized rocks to pass.  Luckily, the path was easy to follow, and the sun was out, gloriously warm.  I was actually surprised at how few climbers we saw, but I guess it’s an odd time of year for some people.  March through May might be prime time.

So much for water: Barker Dam

Yes, there is water behind Barker Dam, but the dark bathtub ring shows how much higher it once was

After leaving Hidden Valley, we drove nearby to the Barker Dam trail, where locals augmented a natural water source with a dam to save water for their cattle in the early 20th century.  The trail was similar to Hidden Valley, but more wide open in spots.  On the return leg, we encountered a rock with petroglyphs.  Unfortunately, some movie studio geniuses marred the images by painting over them to make them more visible.

The petroglyph rock.  Can you see them?

The petroglyph rock. Can you see them?

At this point, we had done enough hiking for while, and I thought driving to Key’s Point, the highest point in the park, would be a nice change of pace.  On the way up, we saw some great stands of Joshua Trees.

On the way to Key's Point

Somewhere between the Barker Dam trailhead and the road to Key’s Point

The golden rocks faded away.  The land sloped upward.  On top, there was a big parking lot with a dozen or more vehicles.  The views from the short paved path were stunning.  Rumpled brown ridges fell away in all directions to the low desert and the Salton Sea beyond.  Dozens of people milled about, gawking and talking, pointing at views and posing for photos.

Looking over a wrinkle world from Key's Point

Looking over a wrinkled world from Key’s Point

We drove away from Key’s Point, already amazed the by scale of Joshua Tree.  I could spend days here hiking and scrambling and working on a tan.  Unfortunately, that was not in the cards for this trip, but we weren’t done yet.  There would be more to come.  Tune in next time for more images and tales about Joshua Tree National Park.

Looking towards Salton Sea, you can almost see forever

Looking towards Salton Sea, you can almost see forever

Hiking to Pittock Mansion and a Whole Lotta Love

In between rounds at the Waterfront Blues Festival, I needed a decent hike, but I had little time, which was frustrating.   I always have the fantasy of trekking in Nepal or circumnavigating Mont Blanc, but most of my hikes are local and casual.  So it goes.  Yesterday, I opted to start in Lower Macleay Park, as I have done in the past, seeking what passes for elevation gain inside Portland city limits.

Beginning of the Balch Creek Trail

Beginning of the Balch Creek Trail

By the time I had cruised three quarters of a mile along Balch Creek and joined the Wildwood Trail, I’d passed 25-35 people.  This is not the trail for solitude on a weekend.   Normally I would avoid it on a weekend, but it is close, pretty, and still offers a challenge.

Glad I don't have allergies around this much cottonwood fluff

Glad I don’t have allergies around this much cottonwood fluff

Little cliff completely covered in moss along Balch Creek

Little cliff completely covered in moss along Balch Creek

The Wildwood Trail climbs in half a mile to the Audubon Sanctuary on Cornell Road, then continues toward Pittock Mansion.   There are a couple of trail junctions, including one which called to mind my recent trip to Maryland.

Jackie Chan at the new Cumberland Gap

Jackie Chan at the new Cumberland Gap: go west, young pup

Many people were walking and running in the forested hills, over many switchbacks.  Running shoes were definitely the footwear of choice.   With few exceptions, the trail is very smooth and make for easy walking, although effort is required. All told, there is around almost 900 feet of elevation gain. Not bad for inside the city limits.

Steeper than it looks.  Quite a few switchbacks

Steeper than it looks. Quite a few switchbacks

The Pittock Mansion is a unique destination for the top of an ascent.   It is a great old building, and there are spectacular views to the east.   Should you desire, you can drive up and pay for guided tours through the mansion, learning a chunk of Portland history.  I took a quick look at the building and turned around.

The Pittock Mansion

The Pittock Mansion

Here’s a fun bit of trivia:  Henry Pittock, for whom the mansion is named, and who was an avid outdoorsman besides being publisher of The Oregonian, is credited by most with the first ascent of Mount Hood, on July 11, 1857.   I think my hike just got more credibility.

On the descent, I veered onto the Upper Macleay Trail to make a bit of a loop.   It was pleasant, but offered little to recommend it over the Wildwood Trail.  I made good time back to the Cornell Road crossing and then to the bottom of Balch Creek Canyon, where the crowd increased.

Flowers near the Audubon Sanctuary

Flowers near the Audubon Sanctuary

I was happy to return to the car, and soon, drove to the Blues Festival for the closing night.  My wife and I love going each year, and this year we brought our pup into the fest.   This year’s festival, while not without controversy for a couple reasons, was as good as any in recent memory.   Try this variety and talent on for size: Nikki Hill, Robert Randolph, Mavis Staples, Chubby Carrier, and Taj Mahal.  And that’s just one day.

D and Jackie with earmuff--Robert Randolph was loud!

D and Jackie with earmuffs–Robert Randolph was loud!

There was also some guy named Robert Plant singing a ditty about a whole lot of love.  He did many familiar songs, including a great cover of “Spoonful,”  and some Zeppelin songs were reworked with more of a world music feel.  Amazingly, Plant still has the magic.  After seeing Eric Burdon a couple nights earlier singing “It’s My Life” and “House of the Rising Sun”, and now hearing Plant sing “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Whole Lotta Love”, I ticked off a bucket list item without planning on it.  What a weekend.

The man himself

The man himself

Waiting out the weather by creating a bucket list

Life has been hectic, and I haven’t been hiking or posting as much as I’d like.  After a few weeks of nice weather, and good timing, luck ran out.   The end of the school year is always a tad goofy, and family visiting to celebrate a graduation made our days completely filled for a week or so.

Urban hiking

Mother in front of the beautiful fountain at Peninsula Park

The weather is now entirely disagreeable for outdoor adventures.  So I think once again of small recent outdoor moments to savor, but I also must  dream big. I greatly admire my fellow blogger  Lesley Carter and her dedication to an annual bucket list.  I’m not quite sure how she pulls it off, but there’s no time like the present to set my own goals and try to follow suit.

Less than bucket list worthy, but still nice: Peninsula Park

Not exactly the PCT, but a good leg-stretching section of path

Hence a brief Bucket List:

Climb Mount Rainier.  I’ve climbed Mount Hood eight times, but its not the same.  I first attempted Rainier as a teenager, but got sick and wimped out.   The next year I was in great shape and raring to go, but our group was slow and it was warm.  We didn’t trust the snow bridges on the glacier and we turned back.

Hike a long section of the Pacific Crest Trail.  I probably first set foot on the PCT when I was 12 or 13, but I have never hiked a long distance on it.  I ready Eric Ryback’s book about it when I was in high school.  It’s about time I did my own trip.

Raft the Grand Canyon with my family.   Whitewater is something I’ve always loved but have rarely indulged in recent years. Next summer, Mom!

Hike the entire Wildwood Trail.  This trail in Portland’s Forest Park is dozens of wooded miles long.   It’s another path I’ve hiked on since I was very young, but it’s about time I link all the sections.

Revive my harmonica skills.  This is the ultimate musical instrument for hiking trips, since it’s pocket sized.   It’s time to really learn those scales and play more advanced tunes than “You Are My Sunshine” or a butchered “Scotland the Brave”.

Completing Cycle Oregon.  I once thought about riding across the nation, but this seems a bit more feasible.

Building my blog. A vague goal, to be sure, but it would be nice if the energy I invest here reached a more sizable audience.  Tell your friends!

I have other ideas for mountains to climb and sacred spots to visit and skills to learn, but that’s a nice start. If readers have list worthy ideas, drop me a line.

Bucket List Worthy: Matterhorn and Sacagawea

For hikers, the Wallowa Mountains are one of the most stunning areas in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s a land of rocky 9000 foot peaks, emerald lakes, and long lush river valleys dotted with meadows.  I went there in August for some peakbagging and camped at Ice Lake after bagging a minor peak my first day.

View from Ice Lake. Note the different sections of rock. Gray granite, red volcanic rock, and whitish limestone

My sights were set on the two highest peaks in the area, Sacagawea and Matterhorn, which are connected by a narrow ridge.   I’d read on Summitpost about the traverse between the peaks, and it sounded amazing.  The route was almost completely above treeline, would involve scrambling, and there would be spectacular views.  For me, it might be a bucket-list-worthy adventure.

I woke early and set out, my legs a bit leaden as I climbed away from the lake.  I needed coffee, but I plodded onward and upward without it, the Matterhorn’s massive slopes of white limestone enticing me, juxtaposed with a reddish rock apparently volcanic in nature.  Amazing stuff.

A limestone tongue interrupts the rusty hues of the Hurwal Divide. My final descent was just out of the picture to the left.

Two thirds of the way up, the rest of the route became clear, and I took time to rest.  As I sat, two people passed me.  I felt slow, old, and out of shape, even after a good summer of hiking.  The mountain was humbling me.  Soon, I was hiking diagonally up a steep reddish slope denuded of vegetation, a gulf opening up to my right.  Then I crested a ridge of sorts and got views to the south.  From there, it was a rocky scramble up limestone.

Looking past Matterhorn to Point 9775, the gendarme ridge, and Sacagawea

The man and woman who had passed me were standing on one of two summit points, so I joined them.  She had started from the Wallowa Lake trailhead at six a.m., hiking eleven or twelve miles with five thousand feet of elevation gain in under four hours.  Impressive. When I found out she was a Forest Service wilderness ranger, it all made sense.  After we exchanged pleasantries, the others headed down, while I sighted down the long ridge north toward Sacagawea.  The adventure really began here, where the trail ended.

As I descended, I found fist to football-sized rocks of a basaltic nature scattered like rust-colored sprinkles on the limestone.

Sam Cooke might sing, “Don’t know much about geology…”

There were also little limestone benches that almost seemed like sculptures.  Truly strange geology.

Funky limestone bench. Part of Eagle Cap and Needle Point in the background.

After bypassing a subpeak on the ridge, I wound my way through, around, and over various gendarmes on the ridge, steep drop offs on either side.   The going was more complicated than expected.  I had to choose my route and use my hands more than expected, so  I tucked my trekking poles behind my back and tried to think of myself as a mountain goat—okay, an aging one with a spare tire.   It worked.

Alien hiker shadow

Looking back toward Matterhorn from the gendarme ridge

One of the many gendarmes. Probably twenty five high. Sacagawea summit in background.

I cleared the gendarmes in fifty minutes and soon was atop Sacagawea’s rockpile summit, where the sublime view opens up to the north and the colorful slopes of Twin Peaks and Chief Joseph Mountain.  Where I’d felt old earlier, I was an ecstatic kid now.  It was not yet noon and I’d bagged my second peak of the day.  Woo hoo!

Sacagawea’s east ridge scramble lines right up with Chief Joseph Mountain

I signed the summit register, then relaxed on a perfect throne rock while I ate, drank, and contemplated my place in the universe.   And it was good.  I wondered if anybody would scale the East Ridge from the Thorp Creek Valley below, but nobody appeared.  In fact, I hadn’t felt such solitude in years.   I could have stayed up there for hours, but I also like to move, and move I did.

I wanted to vary my descent route so I could avoid re-climbing the Matterhorn summit block. Instead, I’d drop down the east ridge of Point 9775, then descend the massive scree slopes to the south.

Point 9775 on the right from Sacagawea. My descent would drop down the east ridge toward the dark  area on the left, then plunge off the backside.

Clambering over the gendarmes felt trickier in reverse, confirming that it was not for the inexperienced or those who fear heights.  I also found Point 9775 to be a fine summit, perched as it is between Matterhorn and Sacagawea, with great looks at Hurwal Divide to the east and Hurricane Divide to the west.

The descent from Point 9775. Compare with the third picture on this post (from the Matterhorn ascent).

The start of the descent was tricky, the surface constantly shifting from solid limestone to loose basalt chunks to ball-bearing scree over limestone, and finally a long slope of just sandy scree where I could move quickly.  Near the bottom, a flash of white caught my eye.  Mountain goats!  I tried to get close enough for good photos, but they kept moving, clambering from the wildflower basin onto a limestone crag.  It felt like the perfect ending to my adventure.

“We don’t need no stinking rope,” sayeth the goats.  Steeper than it looks.

I returned to my tent about two p.m., pleased with the day’s travels.  It seemed amazing that I’d covered so much ground, and it was all great hiking and challenging scrambling with stunning views.  I would recommend the off trail section of the route only for confident scramblers, while trail hikers can still bag Matterhorn by itself.  Either way, you can’t lose in the heart of the Wallowas.  My hunch was right.  These peaks definitely provide bucket-list worthy adventure, even for aging mountain goats.