Sunday, August 30, 2009

Prato Rosso, Parco Nazionale della Abruzzo, Italy

Distance: 15.2 km (9.4 mi)
Elevation: 1275-1970 m (4182 - 6461 ft)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Season: May-October

Inside the heart of the Parco Nazionale della Abruzzo in Central Italy is a wonderful town called Pescasseroli. From town look for a sign for Prato Rosso to the right. After crossing the bridge, take a left at the T-intersection and the road will soon turn to dirt (there is no sign at this turn). Follow the dirt road slowly uphill until reaching a chain link fenced area with a no car entry sign (red and white circle). Park here and begin walking up the road.

The road begins by entering a narrow notch in the rock, with beautiful large beech trees and interesting limestone formations, including boulders, grottos, and overhangs. Continue up the road through forests and occasional clearings, passing trail access for the A6 and A9, as well as, numerous smaller routes labeled with blue/white blazes that are not shown on any maps.

After about 3 km, you will read a small building on the left called refugio di Prato Rosso. Here, a dirt track will depart from the right and is labeled A4. Follow this track as it climbs up from the back of the valley toward the steep ridge. This track will continue for the next 1.4 km until reaching the beginning of the subalpine zone located at 1730 m.

Here you reach a T-intersection with another faint track. Stay right and follow the track as it heads towards a notch and alpine meadows above. Soon the view opens up into a spectacular alpine basin, with steep rocky slopes surrounding you in all directions. Continue following the track all the way to the back of the basin. Way-trails branch off in several places, but continue to the back of the valley and then follow the trail as it climbs up to the saddle at the top of the ridge.

Upon reaching the saddle, the view opens up across the expansive views most of the Abruzzi range and several valleys. If you turn right and follow the slope up to the summit, the views expand even further, taking in including Monte della Corte and Monte Marsicano, as well as, the nearby Majella range to the east.

Below the summit, it is possible to follow the ridgeline above and parallel to the way you came up. The view down into the basin you came up is incredible. Approximately 2/3 of the way back, a trail drops down the slope contouring the steep slopes until you reach the bottom of the basin once again. From here, retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Friday, August 28, 2009

West Rim Trail, Zion National Park, UT

Distance: 10 mi (16.2 km) round trip
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 4300 - 6800 feet (1305 - 2075 m)
Season: March - November

Zion National Park may be our most favorite national park in the United States. That is saying alot considering I have been to 148 of them. While it may not be as large as many, Zion is just difficult to match in terms of incredible granduer, variety of ecosystems, interesting geology, and accessibility and approachability. While Zion Canyon may be 2000 feet deep, it just feels more inviting and doable than something like the Grand Canyon. It is also possible to visit both the rim areas and the canyon bottom in all seasons.

We love Zion so much that when we taught in Page, AZ for one year, we visited Zion a total of eight times. And, we love the West Rim trail so much, that we hiked it four of our visits. So, I am intimately familiar with this trail and love to share it with visitors.

To start the trail, park at the Zion Visitor Center and take the shuttle to The Grotto. From here, follow the trail across the Virgin River and then turn right. The trail initially starts parallel to the river and then begins climbing through a series of steep switchbacks along the cliff face toward Angel's Landing above. After climbing about 400 feet in elevation, the trail will turn into a cool narrow slot called Refrigerator Canyon.

The section of the trail levels out, offering a respite from the sun and the sweat of climbing. In this cool canyon, white firs, Douglas firs, and ponderosa pines find refuge from the hot summer sun. At the back of the canyon, the trail takes a sharp right and then begins a series of amazingly steep and tight switchbacks called Walter's Wiggles.

At the top of the Wiggles, you will meet the trail intersection with Angels Landing. Angels Landing is a narrow finger of rock that juts out nearly 1000 feet above the canyon below. It has chains in places to help you hold onto the extremely narrow trail, so that you do not fall off into the canyon. It is not for the faint of heart, that is for sure. It will take an additional 30 minutes or so to get to the top of Angels Landing.

If you plan to get to the very top of the West Rim, then stay left. The trail will continue to slowly climb. There will be an amazing observation point to the right that offers views of the Zion Narrows below and up the Virgin River canyon above that. The trail will climb until reaching a plateau of sorts and then briefly descends into a wooded basin known as Little Siberia at the base of Majestic Mountain. Here, the forests became thicker and dry streambeds are lined with beautiful bigtooth maples, box elder, ash, gambel oak, and other deciduous trees which add glorious color to the park in autumn.

The trail will continue moving west toward the white sandstone headwall above, gaining elevation all along the way. At the back of the basin, the trail takes a sharp right and then climbs along the very side of this sheer sandstone cliff. To the west, the 10,000 foot Pine Valley Mountains become visible. To the north, the views now open up to include the Pink Cliffs of the Virgin Rim at the headwaters of the Virgin River near Cedar Breaks.

The trail climbs until reaching the top of the Horse Pasture Plateau at nearly 7000 feet. From the top of the plateau, the views seem to go on forever, but the canyon bottom is not visible. There is a muddy spring at the top called Cabin Spring. The trail continues from here along the top of the plateau to Lava Point in another 9 miles. But, now that you have reached the summit of the West Rim, it is time to head back. Although the constant descent can be tough on the knees, the nice thing about the return is that you can see all of the canyons and cliffs you could not see behind you on the ascent.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Distance: 8.6 miles (14.0 km) roundtrip
Elevation: 10,300-13,140 ft (3140-4007 m)
Difficultly: Moderately Strenuous
Season: June-October

At over 13,140 feet, Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park is the highest sky island of the Basin and Range province that sprawls from eastern Oregon across Nevada down to Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas. The cause of this amazing geological phenomenon found no where else on Earth at this scale is still being debated by geologists. What is clear is that North America is stretching apart in this region and the stretching is still spreading west into the Sierras and east into the Rockies.

One of the best places to really experience the great ecological diversity that occurs due to these basins and ranges is at Great Basin National Park in southeastern Nevada. Hundreds of miles from any major city, the skies here are clear and clean, the stars abundant, and the panoramas vast.

Due to the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms, it is best to start this hike early in the morning. So, to put yourself in the best position, you should camp at Wheeler Peak Campground near the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Then, in the morning drive to the Summit Trailhead Parking lot.

The trail starts in aspens and pines and slowly climbs though this forest, with openings in the forest providing spectacular views of the peaks above. Hike about 1mile until reaching the an intersection. To the left, the trail will take you to the beautiful glacial tarn of Stella Lake in 0.2 miles. It is well worth this little side trip.

After returning to the intersection, follow the trail to the right with the sign for Wheeler Peak. The trail then begins climing more steeply up through some nice alpine meadows full of wildflower, with scattered limber pine and Englemann spruce. As you head onto the boulder field along the ridgeline the trail gets steeper and stepper. You will now follow the ridgeline toward the summit.

At about 3 miles, the trail reaches a relatively flat section at about 12,000 feet which offers amazing views for a hundred miles or more across the Basin and Range province. Below you is the broad Spring Valley and you can see some crop circles from farmers some 7000 feet below.

The summit remains above almost close enough to touch. In this area, there are some rock shelters built up to protect the sometimes strong winds blowing across this section. This is a great place to have lunch.

If clouds are building on the summit or the winds are too strong, this is a great place to turn back. However, if the conditions remain calm and sunny, then the last, steep 1 mile segment will take you to the summit for even more broad views including down the glacial cirque below where the last glacier in the Great Basin remains. Be careful of strong winds at the summit, because there are steep dropoffs on all sides. Once you are done admiring the view, in what feels like one of the most remote places on the continent, return the way you came back to the trailhead.

In a future edition of Hikemasters, I will detail the amazing Bristlecone Pine trail which takes up you through a stand of thousands of year old Bristlecone Pines into that deep glacial cirque you saw below and right up to this last relict glacier that sits in this deeply shaded notch in the mountain.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Distance: 4.8 miles (7.8 km) roundtrip
Elevation: 5650-6850 ft (1722-2088 m)
Time: 2-3 Hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Season: late February - May and September - early November
(May be too hot in summer and icy in winter)

Big Bend National Park is one of the most remote national parks in the lower 48. Some 8 hours drive from San Antonio and 6 hours from El Paso, it requires some effort to get there. But, Big Bend offers visitors some unbelievable scenary, cool mountain breezes, and the Rio Grande carves its way through two massive canyons. If you want solitude, then Big Bend is the place to go, since it is one of the largest, yet least visited major parks in the country.

The Lost Mine Trail at Big Bend National Park is one of the best overview trails in the park. This trail provides visitors with a reasonably short trail with spectacular panoramas of the Chihuahuan desert, across the Chisos mountains, and gives you close up views of a Mexican sky island montane ecosystem.

The Lost Mine Trail begins at a trailhead just a mile before the Chisos Basin visitor center. The trail starts out through a montane woodland of species generally only found in Mexico, but whose range just crosses the border in Big Bend and perhaps a couple of other mountains in West Texas. These include Mexican pinyon pine, and the weeping juniper, and the red peeling bark of the Texas madrone. In the case of the first two, the Chisos are the only place in the U.S. to see them. Other common species on this trail include Alligator juniper, evergreen sumac, and a variety of scrubby oak species, including Emory oak and Chisos red oak. In the understory are agave, yucca, sotol, and cactus species.

The trail steadily climbs along the side of the ridge and then reaches the ridgetop at about one mile. From here, the first of the spectacular views open up. At this panoramic point, you can see down the Juniper canyon across the entire southern portion of the park. You can also look across to Emory Peak (the highest in the park) and behind to the sheer cliffs of Casa Grande.

From this point, the trail heads over toward the ridge to the left, beginning a series of switchbacks as it climbs higher and higher. If you leave in the morning, this section will still be in the shade of the ridge and will be cooler. It is here that several nice specimens of Texas madrone can be found. Eventually after several steep switchbacks, the trail reaches the top of Lost Mine Ridge. Follow the trail along the ridgetop until reaching a rocky point where the trail ends at above 6800 feet elevation.

At the end of the trail, look down into the canyon on the left and you can see a number of large Arizona pines, which look very much like the closely related Ponderosa pine. This is Pine Canyon and those pines are relicts of the ice age when the climate was considerably cooler. Only the shade provided by the canyon keeps it cool and moist enough for them to survive.

Across the other side of Juniper Canyon on the upper slopes of Emory Peak, a mature forest of pines grows and if you have binoculars, you can even see some Rocky Mountain Douglas firs growing on the shady slopes. At over 7000 feet, it is the only place these trees can grow for nearly 250 miles to the north in the Guadalupe Mountains, although they are found in the Sierra del Carmen 40 miles east in Mexico.

From this spectacular setting, you can look across the desert and truly feel the remoteness of the place. Once you have soaked it all in, head back the way you came.

Through the winter, other trails in Big Bend will be featured, as well as, the sky islands at Guadalupe National Park.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Marmot Pass, Buckhorn Wilderness, Olympic NF

Distance: 10.6 miles (17.2 km) Round Trip
Time: 5-6 Hours
Difficulty: Moderately Difficult
Season: Late June - Late October

While I did this trail a few years ago and loved it. I returned today and while the meadows were past peak, the views of the Olympic range and Puget Sound were outstanding! Marmot Pass contains what may be the most outstanding alpine meadows in the Pacific Northwest. That is a bold statement to be sure. But, you try it in Late June through July!

The trail starts along the Big Quilcene river in an beautiful old-growth forest full of hemlocks, Douglas fir, and Pacific silver fir. To get there, take the Penny Creek Road, just a half mile south of Quilcene. Follow the signs for Quilcene Trail all along the way. The road is mostly pavement for the 14 miles to the trailhead, but it is very narrow, so watch for oncoming traffic. At the trailhead, take the upper Quilcene trail uphill rather than the Lower Quilcene downhill.

The trail steadily climbs for 2 miles through this old-growth forest paralleling the river. Slowly, the trees become thinner and patches open up providing views across the valley at the vertical cliffs of pillow basalts uplifted from the ocean floor as the Olympic Mountains rose.

As you climb above the trees, the first alpine wildflowers are found on steep rocky scree slopes. These sunny slopes provide nice views up the valley. The trail passes in and out of the trees as it steadily climbs. This trail will eventually climb to over 6000 feet, so realize that the climb will continue.

At the upper end of the basin, the real joy begins. Here, incredible wet meadows verdantly present their spectacular display of wildflowers.

At the pass, there are beautiful views of the Dungeness Valley and the Olympic mountains. While the pass offers great views already, from the pass there are a couple of choices that will provide even more spectacular views. To the left, there is a steep way trail to the top of the ridge offering views of Mount Constance, the Brothers, and the Puget Sound.

To the right, there is a steep climb to the top of an unnamed peak with unbelievable views of Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Seattle, as well as, the Dungeness Valley and Vancouver Island. It will take you about 90 minutes round trip to climb this peak.

Last warning, while the meadows and views make this trail worth it. Because you must return the way you came and you climbed some 3000 feet from the trailhead. Guess what, you have to take the pounding on your knees on the way down. I can tell you from experience that on the return, it feels like the trail will never end.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Ozette Coastal Wilderness Loop, Olympic National Park, Washington

Distance: 9.1 miles (14.6 km)
Time: 3-4 Hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Season: March to November, but watch for storms and high tides

The Ozette loop is probably one of the easiest 9-mile loops you can find, but provides for a diversity of scenary, ecosystems, and historical aspects that makes it one of our favorite trails in Olympic National Park. The loop provides opportunities to hike on a boardwalk across a coastal cedar swamp, through a bog containing carnivorous sundews, onto the rugged rocky coastline full of wonderful tidepools, and past ancient native petroglyphs on the rocks.

The trail begins at Lake Ozette in the northwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula, approximately 40 minutes from Sekiu. At the Lake Ozette Ranger Station is a parking area designated for hikers. From here there are two trails to choose from. One heads 3.0 miles to Cape Alava and the other 3.1 miles to Sand Point. You can choose either, but my recommendation is to head to Sand Point first.

Why Sand Point first? Two reasons; First, the sun will be behind you when you reach the coast, so it won't be in your eyes and the scenary is better lit. Secondly, it is easier to spot the petroglyphs from that direction.

The trail heads through a forest of western hemlock and western red cedar, with Sitka spruce and Douglas firs also present. In some of the soggier places the trail is on a boardwalk, while it does also go onto the ground as well. This area recieves more than 100 inches of rain per year, so you could consider it a rainforest. But, the trees are not nearly as big as at the Hoh or Quinault. The reasons are two fold; the grounds is actually too moist for trees to grow well and because much of the area was burned or logged in the 19th century. There are occassional clearings in the forest, where intreped pioneers tried to eek out a living with homesteads in the woods. Their attempts were not very successful, but their legacy remains.

After 3.1 miles, you will arrive at the Pacific Ocean at Sand Point. Sand Point is a large rock sticking into the ocean, protecting a strip of sand on each side. A climb to the top of the rock provides a great overview of the area. Look out into the kelp forests off shore for sea otters and a little further out for migrating Gray Whales.

From Sand Point turn north and head up the coast. If the tide is low, spectacular tide pools become abundant. Every number of creature is available for exploring, including crabs, 200 year old sea anemonies, magnificent ochre sea stars, gunnels and sculpins, several types of barnacles, and much more.

Approximately 2 miles up from Sand Point, you will come across a large rock formation jutting out into the ocean. As you approach it from the crescent-shaped sandy beach, start looking at the back of the rocks for the Wedding Rocks Petroglyphs. These shapes, which include whales, orca, human shapes, and even a european ship were carved into the rocks over several hundred years. Please do not touch these delicate and fantastic archaeological treasures.

After another mile, you will arrive at Cape Alava, the westernmost point of the continental United States. Just off shore is Ozette Island and if you look due north you can see Vancouver Island. It is here that the trail turns inland back toward the lake.

As you reenter the forest and onto the boardwalk, you will enter some large open bogs where the cedars struggle to survive. This is Ahlstrom's Prairie. It is here that a homestead was established, through burning and cutting away the already struggling brush. The trees have been very slow to reestablish themselves on this acidic nutrient-poor substrait. If you get down and look carefully in the sphagnum moss you can see the tiny carnivorous sundews with their tiny red droplets of death.

After 3 miles through forest and bog you will return to the lake parking lot with an adventure to remember!

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