Category Archives: Climbing
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.
Yesterday was gray and damp, and I didn’t have any great ambitions for a hike. Instead, I opted to explore an area where I used to rock climb on the flank of Portland’s Rocky Butte. As documented last year, a trail scales the butte in conjunction with the road, but I had no intention of climbing to the open summit with the cyclists and viewseeking drivers. I parked near the upper end of the trail and dropped into the forest as the trail cut through a gap in the crags.
The path flattens as it nears the noisy I-205, and I was somewhat surprised to see a number of tents dotting the area. A makeshift branch fence surrounded one camp. A pickup bedliner was used as a roof by another. How things change. The city is known to have a homeless problem, like many other cities. But for whom is it really a problem? These people live from hand to mouth in areas developers can’t yet touch and make massive profits. There is more trash in the woods than there used to be, but even when I came here to top rope routes in high school, there was graffiti and the occasional smashed beer bottle or three. I continued walking, wishing there were easy answers.
The cliffs are often dirty and covered in moss and the like, yet there are stretches that are very pretty, where there are climbs like Bird of Paradise, White Rabbit, and Blackberry Jam, that seemed like testpieces when I was 18. After navigating the slippery, mossy boulders beneath the crags, I found all of those climbs and more. Good memories. Climbers still use the butte, but probably not as much with the advent of indoor gyms and the development of the climbs in other nearby areas. Rain spattered the area as I wandered, but beneath the trees, it barely affected me. I only had to be exceedingly careful as I clambered over the rocks. Very slick going. Urban hiking can be a mixed bag. After seeing the homeless camps, and thinking about the twists and turns of my own life, I found myself with plenty to think about as I hiked back up hill to the car. It may have been just what I needed.
Smith Rock is one of those places where one’s attention is drawn to a few spots, while missing many of the gems in the park. Famous as a rock climbing destination for decades, Smith is a place touched by outdoor magic. It’s why I moved to nearby Bend when I was 19. That stay didn’t last long, but over the years, I continued visiting Smith regularly until the past decade. When I drove to the park last Saturday, I wanted a different experience. I went not as a climber but a simple hiker who likes to avoid the crowds. And crowds there were. Parking was a minor adventure. The regular lots were full before 10 a.m. Of course, it was the first really nice day in weeks, which happened to coincide with the beginning of Oregon’s spring break. Once I got my parking spot and bought a day pass, I geared up and hiked to the river crossing below the massive Picnic Lunch Wall. Unlike most people, I turned upstream at the junction there. I was headed toward Staender Ridge and the Marsupial Crags. It was a part of the park I’d never visited.
The cliffs are stupendous, and while not all crags are appealing for climbers, the overall setting is stunning. Partway up the ridge, there was the dry gulch of an old canal stemming from the 1940s. Above that, the Marsupial Crags beckoned a few climbers. They certainly looked worthy of the longer approach hike. I continued up the road to the saddle, and found myself sweating. It was fascinating to skirt behind cliffs I’d seen so many times from below, now looking way down on the popular climbing areas. Everything seemed less consequential from that height.
Leaving the saddle, I took the Summit Trail along the backside of the cliffs, heading west. Memories of youthful climbing exploits washed over my mind as I soaked in the views of distant peaks. The South Sister, Middle Sister, Mount Jefferson. There had been so many memorable climbs at Smith itself, including the time I broke my leg. Now my joints creak when I hike a stiff hill. All around me, amazing cliffs, crags, and spires in a variety of hues. I could have gawked for hours. The trail descends in switchbacks through sage and juniper draped slopes, crossing through private land as the grade tapered, then turned to parallel the Crooked River, heading back upstream. In moments, the famous Monkey Face was visible-okay, the back of the monkey’s head.
As I passed a series of minor cliffs, the views of Monkey Face improved, and I could hear a group of climbers hundreds of feet up as they negotiated the final pitch of a route. Right at the northwest base of the tower, the river trail intersected with the Misery Ridge Trail, and the crowds grew almost exponentially, a mix of climbers and tourists who didn’t even look prepared to hike. I sauntered past Mesa Verde wall and Spiderman Buttress to the notch where climbers cross the rocky ridge in a shortcut which bypasses a mile of trail where the river does a sharp bend, cliffs soaring above it. Scrambling over Asterisk Pass never bothered me when I was in my twenties, but now, years later, I had to hesitate before climbing over it. It is not for everyone. Once I crossed, I was looking at the heart of the Smith, the other crags that made it famous: the Christian Brothers, the Dihedrals, and Morning Glory Wall. Climbers were everywhere. I’d never seen such crowds. Call it sour grapes, but it took away a little bit of the mystique the place used to hold for me. Okay, not much. I had seen way too many cool things in a a few hours. But don’t listen to me. Just ask the climbers. Or the geese.
Even if I can’t do all the same things I did twenty years ago, Smith is an awesome place to visit. I recommend it to any Pacific Northwest visitors who love the outdoors. Get there early if the weather is nice, or plan on parking far away. I hope I’ll return soon.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
I highly recommend a trip to Joshua Tree. If you visit, carry plenty of water.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Castle Crags is an amazing area near Mount Shasta, one which should have great appeal to rock climbers. Why it isn’t more well known, I have no idea. Gorgeous stuff. The photos didn’t come out well due to the low light and lens damage due to a drop by a certain klutzy hiker.
We wandered for a while between 5:30 and 6 a.m. as I blasted from Portland down to the bay area to meet my wife. I had driven most of the night, and I needed to stretch my legs. Good choice. If you are interested in the area, take the exit for Castle Crags State Park a few miles south of Dunsmuir.
Stay tuned for more!
Dog Mountain is a near legendary hike in the Columbia River Gorge. If it is one tier down from Mount Defiance and Table Mountain on a list of training hikes for mountaineers, it may have more bang for the buck than any other peak in the gorge for its spectacular upper slopes, its tremendous views of the Cascades and the gorge that splits them, as well as the challenge of its trails.
The Dog Mountain hike isn’t an endurance fest, clocking in at less than seven miles round trip, but the uphill offers plenty of challenge. I got a very late start after dealing with some business, so I was surprised to see only a few other vehicles in the lot. According to high level research, no rain was in the forecast in Portland, but a lot of clouds were moving in uninvited. Quickly, Jackie Chan and I got on the move. The trail climbs immediately into a series of switchbacks, with a few nice views in a pleasant oak forest.
In a bit over half a mile, the trail splits. Challenging myself, I took the route marked “most difficult”. Silly monkey. There were no views now as the forest tightened up under heavy leaf and needle. The path is attractive, but sections where it climbs relentlessly make you forget about the lovely flora beside and above you.
A few raindrops found their way through the forest canopy to my arms. When the pitter patter on leaves got heavy (a lovely sound when you are sheltered) I huddled beneath a giant maple, staying dry. That gave us time to recharge metaphorical batteries with food and drink. Jackie was finicky: you can lead him to water, but….
Luckily the rain ceased and we started up another steep slope. I used the My Tracks app on my phone to keep track of my distance and elevation, which I rarely do, but I was curious especially about the elevation gain. It totaled about 2800 feet, which is very solid for a three and half mile hike, almost on a Mount Defiance pace.
I was very happy when the trails reconnected. Shortly thereafter, after another unofficial rain delay, we broke into the open, gradually traversing a massive open slope. Dog Mountain is famous for wildflowers, but it was a touch late in the season for the grand displays that must be here in May and June.
The trail splits again below the summit at a slight promontory. This time I made the right choice and stayed left. The views are so tremendous that I stop thinking about fatigue.
One hiker passed me at the end, where I was busy snapping pics (and yes, huffing and puffing). We saw no other people up high. The views were simply stunning, the world at our feet. Simple tremendous views lie in almost all directions.
The upper slopes offer tremendous views of the Columbia Gorge, looking both east and west, along with a tremendous frontal view of the Mount Defiance escarpment. To the north, there is a nice view of Mount Saint Helens. beyond some foothills.
I sat on a grassy hummock for some time, absorbing the splendor. It’s always bittersweet to leave such a perch. But the sun was moving down. Time to go.
Curiously, on the descent, I encountered multiple groups of hikers descending. I guess they didn’t want to get all the way to the top. The rest of the descent (I took the alternate route) was smooth. This is one of the more outstanding hikes to be had in the Pacific Northwest for an afternoon’s work. Highly recommended.
Note: remember money for the tolls at the Bridge of the Gods or the Hood River bridge.
Just south of the gates of The Grotto, a famed spiritual sanctuary nestled into the cliffs of Portland’s Rocky Butte is a trail which offers good access to rock climbing areas as well as to the open upper reaches of the butte popular with view mongers and cruise masters.
As a scrawny teenager and twenty-something rock climber, I spent many days on both the natural cliffs and the manmade rockwork on top of the butte.
Revisiting the area gave me has a curious feeling, especially when combined with remnants of indiscreet partying and graffiti, nouveau riche view homes installed in the last couple decades, and tourist hordes seeking the best views on Portland’s east side. The park loop on top is a classic place to cruise. Until recently, I’d never considered hiking all up the butte, until I discovered a trail which proceeds all the way up to the higher road.
Once I’d hiked past the base of all the climbing walls (there is a lot more rock than I remembered), the trail switchbacked sharply and climbed to the road above the cliffs, near Multnomah Bible College. There is a cute little rockwork underpass, which is rendered moot by the ability to reach the road fifty feet beyond.
From there the journey to the top is all road walking, but there is very little traffic, so I didn’t mind. I also got a very nice blackberry at one stopping point.
There are truly great views on top of Rocky Butte, ranging from Portland’s West Hills to the mighty Columbia River, Mounts St Helens and Hood, and more. Lovers were picnicking and smooching along the edge of the wall in Joseph Wood Hill Park up there, while one group of young men hooted and hollered as they climbed the stairs to the fortress-like viewpoint that is the centerpiece of the park.
This walk is not going to be on any anybody’s bucket list, but it was still pleasant to take a literal walk along memory lane, trying to recall which walls I’d climbed (Blackberry Jam, Bird of Paradise, The Toothpick). With hundreds of feet of elevation gain over a mile and half or so, burning calories is mandatory.
Need more? Scramble around on the low angle walls at the park on top, or wander around the tangential paths below the cliffs to get a closer look at climbing routes. There are worse ways to spend an hour on a sunny afternoon, and if you are still needing more, pay to go into The Grotto, ride their cool elevator, and enjoy their serene grounds.
Sugarloaf is a small mondadnock, or standalone peak amidst land that has eroded around it. It is not as dramatic as the eponymous Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, reportedly one of the most climbed peaks in the world. This peak has a different feel, due partly to some Civil War history in the area and partly due to a road that comes within a quarter mile of the summit at the lookout areas. While my wife was teaching a seminar an hour away, I took a morning to try some more Maryland hiking. I wasn’t disappointed.
Getting close to the top is not an issue, but the paths are still steep enough that they are not suited for somebody with bad knees or cheap flip flops.
A thorough trail system drapes over the upper half of the mountain. From the East Lookout area, with a nice lookout and picnic area, two trails duck into the woods. The Orange, or sunrise trail, heads towards the summit. A connector trail goes downhill towards the white trail, which is curving around the mountain’s eastern flank at this point. There are no views, but the woods are still lovely.
The white trail eventually connects with the blue trail, which does more climbing. From a broad notch near a nice rocky lookout, the red trail heads to the summit from the north .
Since I was visiting the nation’s capital, the combination of white, blue and red trails struck a nice chord. At times, the final climb seemed steep, but it was short enough that the sweat I broke mostly came from heat and humidity rather than exertion.
The summit area is wide, and there are a few great views, mostly to the south. A slow but steady stream of hikers passed over the top. I didn’t stay long.
On the way down, I noticed some rock climbers along a few cliff bands.
I descended the rock steps on the steepest trail, ending up near the western lookout.
Four tenths of a mile on pavement connect the two lookouts, making a nice loop a little under two miles.
The hiking at Sugarloaf Mountain is good, and the drive through the bucolic countryside is a bonus. Clearly, Maryland has some great hiking. Stay tuned for a write up on my next stop at the famed Paw Paw Tunnel with my wife and family.
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.
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.
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.