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Monday, February 3rd, 2020

Range of Canyons

Monday, February 3rd, 2020: Sky Islands, Trips.

Burned Ridge

With deep snow preventing access to my favorite local trails, I was desperate for something at lower elevation that would still give me a good workout. Around here, lower elevation mostly means further south, in the basin-and-range province where low desert basins surround isolated mountain ranges that rise anywhere from 2,000′ to 6,000′ above.

I’d visited the biggest of these southern ranges briefly when I first moved to this region, but I’d avoided it ever since because it’s world famous, developed for tourism, and sometimes crowded, despite its remoteness from cities.

But further research led me to an excellent amateur website providing information on hiking trails. Dozens of trails are listed, with conditions, distances, elevations, step-by-step descriptions, and topo maps – but thankfully, no photos. The more I studied, the more it seemed that, at least in winter, there might be some great opportunities to get away from the crowds and gain significant mileage and elevation, but without getting mired in deep snow.

This range gets up close to 10,000 feet on its crest, but many trails start at around 5,000′ – as opposed to my local trails which start anywhere between 6,500′ and 8,500′. At this latitude, north slopes hold deep snow at 8,000′ and above. So in the southern range, I’d have many options that could gain me 3,000′ without hitting deep snow.

It was a longer drive than my local hikes – an hour and a half just to get to the entrance of the range, and farther to the trailheads. But if I got up early on Sunday, I could hit the trail in late morning and still have 7 hours of light.

After turning off the Interstate onto the state road south, I began to notice that every third license plate I passed was Mexican. This highway leads north from a major border crossing. The Mexican drivers were all exercising caution, driving below the speed limit.

This range, like my home range in the Mojave Desert, is distinguished by its complex topography, with long canyons on all sides that lead up into broad interior basins that are hidden from the outside. Approaching from the northeast, I drove the paved road into the northeast basin, where most of the development is. I slowed down to pass the small settlement of vacation homes in the canyon’s mouth, then drove even more slowly along the rushing snowmelt creek between towering cliffs and pinnacles, along a narrow, forested floodplain dotted with sycamores, campgrounds, more vacation homes, and small, abandoned barns and pastures from pioneer days.

Despite the descriptions in the trail guide, I had a little trouble finding the trailhead – it wasn’t marked, but there was a wide spot beside the road just big enough for a small vehicle like mine, and after pulling over, I could barely see a trail sign partially hidden among gambel oak on the slope above.

The trail began by meandering gradually upwards across a rolling rocky upland shaded by a beautiful open forest of oak and juniper, interspersed with meadows of bunchgrass, beargrass, and yucca. Then it began climbing a steep ridge, where a small sign marked the wilderness area boundary. Most of the crest of the range lies within federal wilderness.

The trail climbed first the south side, then the north side of the ridge, where I began to encounter small patches of snow. The view started out good and just got better. I love snow, and despite trying to avoid it on the trail, I really enjoyed spotting distant snow-covered north slopes from this vantage point. And I saw plenty of birds, including two golden eagles.

Finally, climbing between a group of large granite boulders, I emerged onto a flat saddle five miles and 2,500′ above the trailhead. Much of the forest above this point was destroyed in a 2011 wildfire, but the web guide said this trail has been cleared for another couple of miles, so I planned to go as far as possible while still leaving enough time to get back to the vehicle before full dark.

Past the saddle, the trail climbed a fully exposed, badly burnt slope that continued to the crest. Much of this slope consisted of fine talus at the angle of repose, on which a slip would mean a fall of hundreds of feet to your certain death. The trail was good and the views exhilarating, but I was drenched in sweat here under full sunlight, and after less than a mile I decided to turn back.

Whereas the ascent had been fairly easy, loose rock on the trail made the descent exhausting for my problem ankle. I’d brought camping gear, but I was so filthy I couldn’t imagine going to bed without a shower. And there was still frost in the campgrounds along the creek, so I’d be making camp in the cold and dark, and waking to frost on my sleeping bag. I got back to the vehicle just before closing time at the tiny cafe and lodge at the mouth of the canyon, so I stopped there, got a room, and had an excellent burrito.

In the morning, I checked out the two tent-only campgrounds up the canyon, for future reference. Unfortunately, though the locations were beautiful, the campsites were right next to each other and none of them was designed for privacy. And I still need to get a tent…

The entire highway north was staked out by the state police that morning, and I was pulled over for driving 67 in a 60 mph zone. The trooper let me go without a warning when he found out I’d been hiking in the mountains.

Rocky Peak

I never hike the same area two weeks in a row, but this turned out to be the exception. I got up on Sunday expecting to return to the “Spire”, but after reading more trail descriptions for the southern range, I decided to try another hike there, a long canyon walk that climbed to the crest. It looked like I might be able to get enough distance and elevation there before hitting deep snow.

But on entering the mountains again, I stopped to review the trail description, and realized that most of the elevation gain occurred at the very end of the trail, where it was in bad condition. So I made a snap decision to take the very first and most popular trail in the canyon, a peak trail I’d avoided in the past because of its popularity, because it lay completely outside the wilderness area, and because it led to the ruins of an old fire lookout. Despite everything, it promised me over 3,000′ of elevation gain.

On this first Sunday in February, I passed three people. An out of shape couple about my age, who didn’t make it very far and were frightened when I came up behind them, dragging my feet in the rocks to make noise. And an athletic-looking solo guy probably in his late 40s or early 50s returning from the peak, about midway up the trail. In contrast to last week’s ridge hike, I encountered few birds – most of them concentrated in the little groves of pine and fir in high north-facing drainages.

Despite having climbed farther and higher many times, I found the top third of the trail exhausting. But it was well-maintained, and it was one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever hiked. The cliffs above the upper part of the trail seemed impassable from below, but the trail designers cleverly found ways to wind around and between the many looming pinnacles. It was easy to get disoriented – it felt like something out of Lord of the Rings.

While working my way up short switchbacks and snacking on trail mix, I chipped a cusp off a molar, leaving sharp edges so I had to stop chewing on that side of my jaw. This happened last year – can’t tell if it was the same tooth – and my dentist patched it up, saying it might happen again. The old body’s just falling apart, piece by piece…

Finally, unexpectedly, after trudging in the shadow of the north slope for more than an hour, I emerged onto the crest, where a tiny wooden cabin stood, apparently a shed for tools and supplies for the old fire lookout. A little higher, an outhouse perched on the edge of a cliff. And higher still, a winding concrete-and-stone stairway led to the foundation of the lookout, which burned in a thunderstorm almost 30 years ago.

This peak stands isolated within the northeast basin of the range, so it provides a 360 degree view encompassing the desert basin to the north and the long snow-draped crest to the south. To the northeast, I could just barely see the mountains I hike near home, and peeking over a ridge to the northwest was the top of the other sky island I’ve explored, 80 miles away. I’d kept warm by walking fast on the way up, but there was a cool breeze here, and after signing the log, I put my sweater back on for the descent.

What a magical peak! The round-trip distance was just below 9 miles, so I knew I’d get back to the vehicle in time for another burrito at the cafe. But I wasn’t sure whether I’d feel like driving home in the dark. And I kept stopping on the way down for photos.

In the event, I did get a burrito, and I did drive home in the dark. There were no state troopers on the highway this time – in fact, hardly any traffic at all. Driving there and back in a day turned out to be perfectly viable. Stay tuned for more, coming soon!

Troop of Coatis

After studying the trail guide for these mountains, I’d made a short list of trails I thought would be good in winter – lower elevations – vs. summer – higher elevations. But on closer study of one of the “summer” trails, despite averaging more than a thousand feet higher than the trails I’d hiked so far, it appeared to mostly avoid northern slopes where the deep snow is found. And the guide said it had been completely cleared of logs and brush by volunteers last year. Plus, it offered an overlook of the 400′ waterfall I’d glimpsed on my first visit.

Conveniently ignoring my past experience – that above 8,000′, deep snow can also be found on east and west slopes – I decided to give this “summer” trail a try, here in the midst of winter.

Getting to the trailhead itself is a challenge for most folks – you have to climb a mile and a half up a high-clearance, 4wd-only road barely wide enough for a single vehicle. Most people are advised to park below and walk the road. Driving it was slow but fun in my Sidekick. It climbed through a beautiful riparian forest of sycamore, oak, and conifers alongside a rushing snowmelt creek, dappled with sunlight and shade.

The trail began in unburned but open pine forest, and quickly rose into burn scar where long-thorned locust saplings and the hand-high briars of wild roses grabbed my shirt and pants and scratched the backs of my hands. Crisscrossing a steep slope on long switchbacks, I trudged awkwardly up stretches of hard snow crust where I had to kick footholds with my stiff boots.

Clouds were closing in, and a cold wind came and went. An hour of hiking got me to the waterfall overlook. The waterfall was barely flowing – last week’s cold spell had turned it into a spooky ice sculpture. And the overlook was a narrow, precarious gap in the chaparral that only revealed the top section of the falls.

The overlook was less than 2 miles from the trailhead. My target – should I be lucky enough to find my way clear of deep snow – was to hike to the end of this trail where it joined the Crest Trail, and from there make my way to the peak of the range, almost 2,000′ higher.

But my first challenge was a set of tight, steep switchbacks which climbed a steep north slope, and crossed patches of snow up to knee-deep, which were mostly crusty but occasionally gave way underfoot, toppling me sideways. The view was spectacular but my wishful thinking was fading fast.

Finally the trail crested another saddle and entered a partially-burned canyon. At first the way was level across a mostly open slope. But then I came to a maze of green branches, the crown of a seemingly healthy, mature Ponderosa pine than had fallen across the trail. And from there on, it got worse. Tree after living tree had toppled, just in the past few weeks, to make the trail virtually impassable.

Resolute, I climbed and crawled my way through for about a half mile, at which point I encountered a seemingly endless, intertwined pile of fallen trees. It was so extensive I couldn’t see a way to climb around it, so I gave up and turned back.

Why did all these living trees fall? After a bad fire, the soil is progressively destabilized as the roots of burned trees rot and crumble, soil and rocks erode without the support of soil biota and roots, and the dead snags fall. So the surviving trees lose much of their root support. Mature trees have grown as part of a fairly dense forest, losing their lower branches and becoming top-heavy, and without the collective windbreak of the trees that have died and fallen around them, the survivors are more isolated and vulnerable to the force and impact of wind. And inside the trees, invisible fungal infections can make both trunks and branches vulnerable to breakage. It’s a killer combo.

Cloud cover was now nearly complete – it looked like a storm was imminent – and the rising wind was harsh and cold. I made my way down at a steady pace, sinking and toppling occasionally in unstable snow. But before I left the snow behind, I heard voices, and crossing the next patch of snow I saw two people approaching.

The first was just a boy, barely out of his teens. I had spotted something at my feet and bent to turn over a tiny bird, smashed inexplicably into the snow. When I rose, I noticed the kid was wearing a fancy cowboy boot on one foot, and on the other, one of those open-toed plastic medical boots you get when you fracture your foot.

“Damn!” I exclaimed. “That’s hard core!”

He smiled and asked how much farther the overlook was, in a sweet country drawl. He said this was his first time – he used to hike these mountains from the other side. I told him there was an even better overlook higher up, but he shook his head, pointing to his partner who was struggling to catch up. “She’s from Florida. She’s not used to this.”

An underdressed woman who appeared twice his age, she caught up with us, looking down at my feet. “You’re wearing real hiking boots!” she muttered in dismay. I noticed she had on thin canvas sneakers. It reminded me of all the other times I’ve encountered woefully unprepared people out in nature.

I expected to find their vehicle near mine at the trailhead, but it wasn’t until I’d driven all the way to the main road that I saw it: a spotlessly clean late-model 4wd monster truck, lifted on huge off-road tires, with a Florida plate. Apparently the lady hadn’t been confident enough to actually take it on a 4wd road, or maybe she was afraid of getting it scratched. So they’d walked the road to the trailhead, adding 3 miles round-trip to their hike – no wonder she was dismayed.

Despite the letdown of the impassable trail, the payoff for my day’s labors finally arrived, just a short distance down the rough road from the trailhead, as I slowly approached a creek crossing. I suddenly spotted a small animal crouching to drink from the creek, stopped my vehicle, and realized it had to be a coati. I rolled down my window and scrabbled on the passenger seat for my camera. The coati was lithely bounding from stone to stone, ignoring me, and I shut off the engine and cranked up the emergency brake. Then I saw another farther up the bank. They were wandering back and forth, poking between the rocks, occasionally dipping to take a drink. I got my camera open and awkwardly leaned out the window to start shooting video, zooming in on them. Suddenly in the corner of my eye I sensed movement – more coatis were streaming down out of the forest above the road to my right.

When I glanced back, the original coatis had drifted left across the creek and were making their way up the opposite slope between the tall pines. The new coatis arrived at the creek and milled around drinking and foraging. There was a brief lull then more coatis streamed down from the right. I noticed the camera’s screen had turned black – it had shut itself off somehow. By the time I got it started again, a dozen coatis had crossed the creek and moved up the opposite slope, and more were moving down from the right. I figured at this point there’d been about 20 in the pack. The whole time, they completely ignored me and my vehicle – safety in numbers I guess.

Some were dark brown, others pale. At home I learned that females and their young move in packs called “troops,” numbering up to 25 individuals. They keep their tails raised so they’re more visible to others in the troop. They’re supposed make quite a noise as they root around in the dirt, but the tumbling creek drowned that out in my case.

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