Category Archives: Desert
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.
On a whim, my wife and I drove over the Cascades last night to go camping along the banks of the Deschutes River. There were no crowds, and we managed to stumble into a good campsite at the city park in Maupin, the epicenter of Deschutes rafting. After gawking at a close to full moon, we crashed. In the morning, we had a very satisfying breakfast at Henry’s, then headed downriver for some adventures. Because the ecosystems here are so different than those around Portland, it always feels like a vacation.
Something about sagebrush, rimrock, and blue skies engergized me. We popped out of the car at many spots, including one where D. and I first camped together in 1996. It brought back good memories, and Jackie Chan kept bringing back the ball we chucked. Sherar’s Falls was a sight to behold. The fishing platforms Native American constructed over the whitewater were crazy. There were also wooden ladders going right down the volcanic rock to the water. Eventually we left the river and headed back towards a main road, but it had been a great little adventure.
Sadly, all vacations come to an end. After saying goodbyes to friends with whom I felt closer now, it was time for Denise and I to leave Palm Desert. We picked the highway headed through the mountains to Idyllwild, where we would rendezvous with another old friend and former firefighting comrade, Scott. The drive was dramatic in the beginning as we wound through many tight turns to climb out of the desert and move into the cooler pine forests of the San Jacinto Mountains.
As it turns out, Idyllwild is a classic cute mountain town filled with log cabins and faux Swiss chalets. We had a great lunch with Scott, who had just officially become a firefighter in Idyllwild. Denise wanted to get some computer work done, so she found a great cafe, while Scott pointed me towards a trailhead before returning to the fire station. I drove uphill and found a trail with little trouble. Unfortunately, once I was up there I realized that I didn’t have the correct parking pass. I just hoped I wouldn’t get a ticket, and I headed up, feeling the elevation as I started up hill. Idyllwild itself is a hair over a mile high, so the trail must have started about 6000 feet. It had been many months since I’d hiked at that altitude. I know it’s not that high in the greater scheme of things, but I was huffing and puffing fairly hard at first. It is as though I need to warm my engine up, and then I can hike all day.
As soon as I embarked on the trail, I saw a sign mentioning a wilderness permit. One more omission. On Mount Hood, you can self issue a permit at the trailhead or wilderness boundary, but I found no place to do that. In less than an hour, I met a ranger. Rejected! I needed to go back to the ranger station to get a permit. “This is one of the most heavily traveled forests…” Blah blah blah. I hate bureaucracy, even as I know it may be necessary. Thus I turned around. It was enough.
Idyllwild was a cute town. I was disappointed we couldn’t find a room for the night. It was a holiday weekend, so vacancies were rare. Onward. I pointed straight for Ontario, where it was still challenging finding a room. Vacation was effectively over, but it had been a good one.
P.S. This is the first time I’ve tried these photo galleries. Let me know what you think. Cheers. –JB
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.
The Palm Springs aerial tramway is reminiscent of the tram I rode outside Albuquerque, New Mexico last summer. Both gain a lot of elevation in a hurry, transporting passengers from the desert to a subalpine ecosystem. The Palm Springs tram wins the innovation contest, because its cab spins two complete revolutions during the ten minute trip up Chino Canyon. Thus each passenger can effectively see in all directions.
At the upper end of the tram, there is a lodge with a restaurant and bar, a mini movie theatre, viewing decks, and access to wilderness trails. We soon had a group of folks traipsing around the mountainside on a loop trail. Interpretive signs dotted the path. I learned that the bark of a Jeffrey Pine smells like vanilla (some people say butterscotch). Who knew?
Our path led us from a pleasant meadow through pine forests forest to cliff’s edge on five occasions. The views ranged from great to spectacular. Ridges and canyons plunged more than a mile to the vast desert plains where across the Coachella Valley we could see the Salton Sea.
I felt at home in the mountain environment, and I could have stayed there for days, hiking off into the wilderness and peakbagging in perfect weather. Mount San Jacinto, one of the tallest peaks in Southern California, is nearby. The only concern is water. Signs on the highway below don’t tell drivers to be safe. They tell drivers to conserve water. I can’t help but wonder what will happen for Southern California residents if the drought continues.
Our loop skirted the edge of the massive escarpment looking down onto the desert. I loved popping up to various viewpoints amid the rocks with slightly different views of desert, crags, and canyons. It was also interesting to see the streets and land plot geometry of the dry cities in the brown world below. Our group met back at the lodge on top of the tram for round of Bloody Marys. Not bad at all.
The tram isn’t a freebie. For two of us, we spent $47 and change for our tickets, but the experience was worthwhile. Being able to make that quick trip to a completely different ecosystem was amazing. If I returned, I would love to explore the area for a few more hours and climb a peak. I hear there is a trail all the way back down to the desert that’s about 18 miles. Anybody want to join me? 🙂
When my wife and I drove to Bob Hope’s old stomping grounds in Palm Springs, I arranged to meet my friend Evan for a hike. I knew it would be a far cry from anything in the Northwest due to the combination of precipitation that needs to be measured over years, and the abundance of palm trees.
When we arrived at the parking lot which serves as trailhead for Murray Canyon and Andreas Canyon, it felt like I was on the set of The Flintstones. The palm trees just seemed like something out of another era in botanical history when trees had beards.
The hike started out casually across the sandy desert, skirting low hills. In all directions we had views of rugged, barren mountains and hills in varying shades of brown. Not the sort of place to be in August. Indeed, if it were hotter, the trail would not have been too pleasant, but 80 degrees in the sun felt fantastic to me. Plenty of people were walking, mostly coming back. Many seemed around retirement age and sported hats and wore sensible light hiking shoes.
After a mile or so, the trail dropped into a canyon entrance that looked like a green daub from a paintbrush splashed across the landscape. With tall palms lining a pleasant stream, it was a veritable oasis. Silt piled up on the banks suggested flooding in recent years. We followed the path upstream, crossing the stream a dozen or more times in the canyon’s winding course, hopping rocks, checking out the amazing cliffs and ridges that loomed above us.
At one point, the trail rose fairly sharply over rock, then descended almost as steeply in an area that was quite exposed, meaning a slip on the ball-bearing-like dusty gravel would send one plummeting to injury or worse.
The reward was the tighter upper canyon. As it got narrower, there were a few spots where the trail went multiple ways, but it all funneled toward a series of small waterfalls, beyond which the way was impassable without technical gear. In the shade of the steep walls, the temperature was very pleasant. We poked around, sipped some water, snapped some photos, and enjoyed the setting.
This is a great hike, and I felt bad for a couple women who stopped short where the trail got steep. In some places a handrail of sorts might be installed, but that generally detracts from the experience for me. A little scrambling in a couple spots lets you see more of the waterfalls. I would endorse this hike with a big fat thumbs up.
If you go, know that Murray Canyon is part of the Indian Canyons complex just outside Palm Springs. There is a $9 entrance fee per person.
My recent vacation in New Mexico was combined with a work trip for my wife. Leaving Albuquerque, we took a longer but more interesting route south and east. We couldn’t take a picture of the “Very Large Array” of radio telescopes (Featured in book/movie Contact), as it was 50 miles off the highway. But the site of the first nuclear detonation was a bonus, if a bit depressing. The drive was boring for a long way until we neared Capitan, where the landscape got greener as we gained elevation.
Capitan offered a Smokey the Bear museum, but we simply took a quick look around the gift shop. Apparently Smokey the Bear was already an advertising concept, when a real black bear cub was orphaned in a fire here. in 1950. After attaining some celebrity, Smokey was later shipped off to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. to amuse onlookers and eat bon bons.
The next town, Lincoln, was more famous for the carnage that emerged from a power struggle between rival factions. Henry McCarty, aka William Bonney, later known as Billy the Kid, happened to be on one side. It was a bloody time of back and forth revenge killings. In 2013, the town is remarkably quiet, but there are lots of great interpretive signs to peruse. Again, we opted not to pay for the museum. So much to do, so little time!
From Lincoln, we powered straight through to Roswell, and hour away, where it was a bit warmer. Did I mention it was hot? Okay, Roswell was baking. Of course, it was a dry heat. Still, we were thankful for air conditioning.
The next day, while Denise worked, I headed for water. Jackie Chan and I drove east of Roswell to Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. I didn’t know what to expect, and ended up doing a nice little driving tour around multiple lakes. At one point we got out and walked, but it was soon too hot for much walking, even before noon, and Jackie was a bit under the weather.
I did enjoy the bit of walking we did. The trail took us away from the lakes in a forbidding landscape. I saw few birds, but appreciated the plant life.
Before leaving town the next day we hit the UFO Museum. It had some cheese factor to its displays, to be sure, but it also offered food for thought. What if aliens did land near Roswell in 1947? Would that change our world today? Fun things to consider, but it was time to leave and return to Oregon
Petroglyph National Monument is a low key destination. It lies on the western edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a visitors center and four separate areas to explore: Rinconada Canyon, Boca Negra Canyon, Piedras Maracadas, and Volcanoes. The latter does not actually have any petroglyphs, but hey, three volcanoes!
Rinconada Canyon, with a parking lot just off Unser Blvd NW a couple miles north of I-40, seemed the most convenient spot for a walkabout. There is a decent bathroom at the parking lot, and a barrier prevented vehicles from going on the trail. Right away, the heat makes itself known, as if to say, “Hello, pale people from the north; I will toast you now.” We slather on sunscreen and tote water. I wish I had a hat.
The canyon is really more of a vee-shaped plain, gently sloping, with ramparts on the outer edge of the vee covered in basalt boulders. Cacti and sage and broken glass dot the flatter land. Apparently locals formerly used Rinconada Canyon for target shooting before the area was protected.
Denise and Jackie Chan the wonderdog do an about face after about half a mile when they realizes the pictures are mostly similar same, and it’s getting bloody hot. I can’t blame them, but I soldier on for a bit. One smart hiker carries an umbrella as sun shield. There is certainly no respite from the sun, and there is no water on the trail.
The trail hugs the right slope near the rocks. Petroglyphs seem to come in clumps on large rocks in little alcoves at the base of the canyon walls.. Mostly the images are simple and relatively small, such as dessert-plate sized birds, human faces, and deer. Scientists do not know exactly what all if the petroglyphs mean, but it is interesting to speculate.
Rinconada Canyon offers a harsh landscape for hikers, but one worth visiting for its geologic and human history. Consider going in the cooler hours of the day.