Tuesday, April 26, 2011

House Mountain Shield Volcano, Sedona, Arizona

Distance: 10.1 miles (16.2 km)
Elevation: 3,990 - 5,126 feet (1,215 - 1,563 m)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time of Year: October to May

View of Caldera Rim of House Mountain Shield Volcano

Located about halfway between Sedona and Cottonwood, is the House Mountain Shield Volcano. It erupted approximately 15 million years ago right along the edge of the Mogollon Rim (the geophysical boundary of the Colorado Plateau). Its lava flows actually preserved the edges of the rim, allowing geologists to estimate the rate of recession of the rim. Today, the Mogollon Rim is some 8-10 miles away, on the other side of Sedona, and thus it has been determined that it is eroding back at a rate of 1 foot every 600 years. That may sound slow, but actually that is amazingly rapidly in geologic time, especially since the rim is some 2,000 feet high!

From the summit of House Mountain, there are spectacular views of the Sedona Red Rock Country, Mogollon Rim, San Francisco Peaks, Verde Valley, and the Verde Rim/Black Hills. To reach the trailhead, drive south from Sedona to the Village of Oak Creek. Follow Verde Valley School Road to the west until the pavement ends. Continue on the dirt road a short ways until you see the first major left. This is FS9892 and there will be a sign that says Turkey Creek Trail. Follow this very rough dirt road about 1/2 mile to the parking area.

The lush green of grass and cottonwoods at Turkey Creek Tank

The trail starts out crossing the typical red rocks of the Schnebly Hill Formation. This limey sand and mudstone formed as rivers from the ancestral Rockies and Appalachians deposited their silt on the flat floodplains and estuaries of the ancient sea. The trail is pretty easy until reaching a grassy meadow and then approach the cottonwoods of Turkey Creek Tank. This tank is filled in and dried up, but cottonwoods and willows indicate the soils are moist where a spring once flowed. Turkey Creek itself is nothing more than a rocky dry wash.

Climbing up to the rim of the caldera

From the tank, the trail goes over several rolling hills and then heads up into an amphitheater. At the back of the amphitheater, the trail begins to climb steeply up the cliff face toward the dark gray rim above. The dark gray rocks you see above are the volcanic lavas from the volcano.

View across the caldera to the summit of House Mountain

After several switchbacks, you end up at the edge of the rim of the caldera at an elevation of 4,630 feet, nearly 650 feet above where you started. From the outer edge of the rim, you see panoramic views of Sedona and the Mogollon Rim. Inside the rim, you can look down into the juniper-covered caldera and across to the rocky summit of House Mountain. At this stage, you have come 3.2 miles. Most people end their hike here by doing a quick scramble up to the rocky outcrops to the left for lunch and then return back the way they came.

Climbing up through the cactus off trail

But, for those more adventurous souls, follow the ATV track that starts at the rim's edge straight ahead as it first follows the eastern edge of the caldera and then drops down into it. You will see lots of signs of cattle activity in this area. The ATV track will drop into the caldera and then will climb up on the other side, following a dry creek bed. As it reaches the opposite rim of the caldera, you will pass a small cattle pond and then emerge onto a saddle with your first views out toward the Verde Valley. Here, there is a Forest Service road marker indicating a "road" heading off to the left (east), as well as, the ATV track that heads down the other side of the mountain.

On the rim of the caldera near the summit

This is where the hike gets really tricky. To reach the summit of House Mountain, you will need to go off track, going straight up the cactus-covered slopes to your right. The rocks are very loose and you will need to weave your way between the large and densely packed prickly-pears as you scale the hill. But, once you reach the top of the hill, you have 360 degree panoramic views in all directions.

The Mogollon Rim with the San Francisco Peaks beyond

The first hill is a false summit, as when you reach its rounded top you will see a rocky formation just a bit further. That is the true summit of House Mountain, and it is so named because it superficially looks like a house on top of the mountain from Cottonwood.

View down into the Verde Valley with Woodchute Mountain beyond

From the summit area, you can look across Sedona to the Mogollon Rim, with the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks rising above it. To the northwest, you can see Bill Williams Mountain, which is the westernmost (and oldest) of the volcanoes in the San Francisco Volcanic Field. To the east, you can see the broad volcanic plains near Mormon Lake, as well as, the canyons that deeply cut into the rim, such as Wet Beaver Creek. To the southeast, you can see several cinder cones rising above the Mogollon Rim, with 8,000 foot Baker Butter the largest of them.

The summit rocks

To the south, you can look down into the village of Cornville directly below, Camp Verde to the southeast, Cottonwood in the distance to the southwest, and Mingus Mountain and the Verde Rim rising high above the valley.

View of the Mogollon Rim with Baker Butte Cinder Cone (right)
Wet Beaver Canyon cuts deep into the rim below

After taking in the view, be prepared for a very slick descent down, as the volcanic rocks are like walking on marbles. You will return exactly the way you came. Rumor has it that there is another way back down going on the otherside of the caldera, but I did not see it.

Hiking back down into the red rock

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Distance: 3 mi (5 km) round trip
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation: 8,000 – 7,700 ft (2,440 – 2,348 m)
Season: July to October

Lassen Peak - one of the largest volcanic domes in the world
If you are at Lassen Volcanic National Park and are looking for a neat little trail to do while visiting the park, then Bumpass Hell is the place to go. There are sulfur vents, mud pots, and boiling hot springs just a little ways from the main cone of the volcano. It's like a mini-Yellowstone.

Lake Helen in early August

Approximately 350,000 years ago, a large stratovolcano called Mount Tehama suffered a catastrophic eruption and formed a large caldera. About 27,000 years ago, a large volcanic plug began to rise up along the edge of this caldera. It eventually formed the 10,000 foot Lassen Peak, which is one of the largest volcanic domes on Earth.

Volcanic bombs from the 1917 eruption along the trail

Lassen Peak last erupted in 1917 and other than Mount Saint Helens, was the last volcano to erupt in the lower 48 states. Bumpass Hell represents an area of heat release on the outer areas of the caldera. This trail is an easy 3 mile (5 km) round trip and is only a 300 foot descent down to the sulfurous basin. These thermal waters are the result of snow and rain percolating through the ground down to the hot magma chamber that remains under the dormant Lassen volcano.

There is a boardwalk in the thermal area for you to explore all of the different pools and mudpots. You should most definitely stay on this boardwalk because the ground is brittle in the area due to the effects of the highly acidic water on the rock and thus you would risk breaking through and sinking your legs into scaulding hot mud.

Just return the way you came. Although, you could extend this hike by going an additional 1.7 miles to Cold Boiling Lake, where bubbles of volcanic gasses rise up from the mud along the edges of the lake.
The boardwalk at Bumpass Hell

Monday, April 18, 2011

Roan Highlands, Pisgah-Cherokee National Forest, North Carolina

Distance: 5.1 miles roundtrip (8.2 km) - Add ~3 miles to Yellow Mountain
Elevation: 5,512 - 6,189 feet (1680 - 1887 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: April to October

Located along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the Roan Highlands contains the largest expanse of "balds" in the entire Appalachian range. Balds are openings in the forest along ridges and mountain tops that are very similar in structure and species composition to alpine zones. Along this stretch of the Appalachian Trail, it is an opportunity to finally emerge from the continuous forest canopy into an area of spectacular views of the southern Appalachian landscape.

Carver's Gap

To reach the Roan Highlands, take NC-261 up from Bakersville, NC or TN-143 up from the village of Roan Mountain, TN. The parking area is at Carver's Gap right at the state boundary at 5500 feet in elevation. At the parking area, you will notice that it is open and grassy on the eastside, while the western slopes of Roan Mountain are completely covered in red spruce forest.

Inside a red spruce stand

Red spruce and Fraser fir are the dominate species of the highest elevation forests of the southern Appalachians aboive 5,000 feet. Their evergreen nature allows them to survive and even do photosynthesis in the harsh icy conditions on these ridgetops. Fraser fir is most closely related to Balsam fir which lives in the boreal forests far to the north, while red spruce lives all the way up north into Canada.

Edge of forest and bald

However, the balds are the most fascinating feature of this landscape. Yet, are not true alpine areas. In fact, the scientifically predicted elevation for treeline in the southern Appalachians would be nearly 8,000 feet. But, of course there are no mountains in the eastern U.S. that come anywhere close to that!

View into Roan Valley from Jane Bald

From Carver's Gap, the trail will cross into a patch of these spruce on the way up to the first bald area, known as Round Bald. You will arrive at this first little summit area at 3/4th of a mile. Then the trail drops into a bit of a saddle before climbing up to Jane Bald, which is at 5,800 feet. The view from this spot is outstanding.

The rare Gray's Lily

So, where did they balds come from? It is somewhat of a mystery, but it appears that a combination of fire history and grazing by bsion (and then later cattle). Yes, bison were common in the Appalachians until the arrival of settlers in the 1700's. It is thought that these areas are relicts of the Ice Age, when tundra plants colonized them and then they remained open due to periodic lightning-induced fires and seasonal grazing by migrating herbivores. One species endemic to these balds is the Gray's Lily, which can be seen along the trail.

Round Bald Summit

From Jane Bald, the trail drops again about 100 feet before climbing over 500 feet to the summit of the largest open stretch called Grassy Ridge Bald. At 1.9 miles from the trailhead, the Appalachian Trail actually veers left and follows the side of the ridge, while a side trail stays right and heads up to the rocky summit of Grassy Ridge Bald. From the nearly 6200 foot summit, the views are truly panoramic.

More balds on the ridgetops...Yellow Mountain Bald is lower left

As for why these balds persist, one thing is clear, once bison and elk were exterminated and then cattle removed when the areas came under protection, the balds all across the regions began to quickly be reclaimed by forests. Thus, today many of the balds are maintained by the NPS or USFS through prescribed burns, mowing, and prescribed cattle-grazing.

View of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in Eastern North America, in distance

From Grassy Ridge Bald, you can see Grandfather Mountain to the north and Mount Mitchell (the highest peak in eastern North America at 6,684 feet) and the Black Mountains to the south. We also saw another bald on the next ridge over (Yellow Mountain) and decided to see if we could get to it. So, we backtracked to the Appalachian Trail and following it further north. The trail unexpectedly descended quite some ways down below the spruce forest and back into deciduous stands. We passed an AT shelter and then began climbing up the slope again.

The bald on Yellow Mountain is becoming overgrown

As we approached the bald, we noticed it was heavily overgrown with thistles, biars, and small tress. I guess Yellow Mountain is an example of what will happen to these historic balds if they are not managed and maintained. As there were no further views, we turned around and headed back to Carver's Gap.

Grandfather Mountain rises off in the distance
So, if you are looking for the most outstanding views anywhere along the entire Appalachian Trail, then Roan Highlands is the place to go. As a westerner, used to spectacular views from alpine meadows, I considered myself to have seen the best the AT has to offer.

The view of the entire route from Grassy Ridge Bald
(Round Bald in center, Jane Bald to lower right, Roan Mountain upper left)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Elk Mountain to Deer Park, Olympic National Park, Washington

Distance: 7.4 miles one-way (11.9 km)
Elevation: 4,400-6,610 feet (1340 - 2015 m)
Difficulty one-way: Moderately strenuous for full-one way
Difficulty halfway in-and-out: Moderately Easy from Obstruction Point
Time of Year: July to October

Elk Mountain and Obstruction Point

One of the most accessible alpine areas of the Olympic Mountains is Elk Mountain, the long ridge that towers over Port Angeles and the Dungeness Valley. It offers not only spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains, but also north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Vancouver Island, the San Juan Islands, and Mount Baker in the Cascades. The first half of this trail from Obstruction Point is fairly easy, so you may choose to go halfway out onto Elk Mountain and then just return the way you came. Or, if you can arrange for two vehicles, perhaps swapping keys halfway, and do the entire 7.4 mile one-way route to Deer Park.

View of Mount Olympus above Lilian Ridge from Elk Mountain

To get to Obstruction Point, drive on Hurricane Ridge Road up from Port Angeles to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. Look for the dirt road heading off to the left at the entrance of the parking lot. This is Obstruction Point Road, which is a bumpy 8-mile trip to the trailhead. Upon arriving at the trailhead, look for the trail heading to the left to Deer Park.

Olympic marmot grazing amongst alpine wildflowers

The first 1/2 mile is the toughest part, as you descend and skirt the edge of the headwall of Badger Valley. This is a segment that tends to hold onto a bank of snow well into summer. Thus, it often is impassible (even when the rest of the trail is completely melted out) well into summer or at least requires great caution. You should ask about the trail condition status at the visitor center before starting out.

A glacial cirque on Elk Mountain

After passing this initial tricky section, the trail gradually climbs up the side of Elk Mountain, with spectacular views all around. This section of the park is among the driest in the region due to the rainshadow effect. Thus, the slopes are primarily covered in rocky scree, with isolated patches of wildflowers and grasses. As you follow the ridgeline, there are views of Grand Valley, The Needles, Mount Olympus, as well as, across the Dungeness Valley and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

View of Elk Mountain from Maiden Peak

The trail continues quite easily for about 3 miles until it reaches a steep, slick descent down to a saddle called "Roaring Winds". If you only have one vehicle and need to return to Obstruction Point, this is the best place to turn around. However, if you have traded keys with someone and plan to hike all the way through to Deer Park, then the trail will climb back up from Roaring Winds towards Maiden Peak.

If you are continuing on, you will climb steadily along the south-face of the ridge toward Maiden Peak. The trail can be narrow, slick with scree, and quite exposed in places. Also, since there is no shade, be prepared with a good hat and sunscreen.

From the summit of Maiden Peak, you get a fabulous view of Blue Mountain, Deer Park, and the northern Puget Sound beyond. Heavily glaciated Mount Baker towers above and if the air is really clear, a white line of snow-capped peaks of the British Columbia Coast Range can be seen to the north beyond the San Juan Islands.

View of Blue Mountain and Deer Park from Maiden Peak
Mount Baker beyond

View of the Needles from Maiden Peak

After Maiden Peak, the trail begins to descend back into the forest. Since this is one of the drier regions of the park, in addition to subalpine fir, you will enter stands of lodgepole pine and Alaska yellow cedar. There are some really nice openings in places absolutely choke full of white avalanche lilies in late June and into July. The trail will descend nearly 2,000 feet until beginning the final ascent back up to Deer Park.

Subalpine forests near Deer Park

Near Deer Park, you will notice a large section of burned trees from a fire in 1988. This fire burned through fire adapted lodgepole pines and the regeneration has begun. While lightning is not very common in Western Washington, it occurs enough to cause small fires nearly every year in the park. Most do not get as large as this one did.

Avalanche lilies near Deer Park

Once arriving at Deer Park, you may want to take the little 1/2 mile drive up to the summit of Blue Mountain. From the top of this 6,000 foot peak, the driest place in Olympic National Park, you can look down onto the Dungeness Valley and Sequim. Here, the rainshadow produces a place that gets only 15" of precipitation per year, as compared to 150" at the Hoh Rainforest just 40 miles away as the crow flies. Sticking out of the valley is the Dungeness Spit, a 5.5 mile long sand bar which is the largest in the United States. It is a national wildlife refuge with a lighthouse near the tip and it would make for another worthy hike sometime.

View of the Dungeness Valley from Blue Mountain

Then, just drive down the Deer Park road 22 miles back to Port Angeles where you can meet your other party for a celebration dinner on the waterfront.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Grand Valley-Badger Valley Loop, Olympic National Park, Washington

Distance: 9.8 miles (15.9 km) or 13.6 miles (21.9 km) if you go up to Grand Pass
Elevation: 4030-6450 feet (1230 - 1965 m)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time of Year: late-July to early October

The upper basin of Grand Valley

The hike from Obstruction Point to Grand Pass may be the most spectacular alpine hike in all of the Olympic Mountains. I do not say this lightly, as there are many amazing spots in this 900,000 acre wilderness. But, it is hard to find the amazing combination of panoramic views, wildflowers, glacial features, and transitions between ecosystems as you can on this loop. While the window to do this hike is short, due to the heavy snowpacks, and it is definitely a very long strenuous day hike, it is well worth it to try it at least once.

View of Mount Olympus from Obstruction Point

To get to the trailhead, take the Hurricane Ridge Road up from Port Angeles. Upon reaching the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, look for a dirt road leaving to the right from the beginning of the parking area. This is the Obstruction Point Road and it travels for 8 bumpy miles to the Obstruction Point Trailhead. It generally does not open before July 1st because of heavy snowpacks. Check with the rangers to find out the snow conditions on the trail, as Grand Pass might not even be accessible before late-July. Once you are at the trailhead, you can choose the route to the left or right to begin this loop. Due to better lighting on the mountains in the morning, I always recommend to start to the right on the top of Lilian Ridge, despite most guidebooks saying start left toward Badger Valley.

View down into Badger Valley from Lilian Ridge with glacial tarn lakes

The initial view you will see from the ridgeline is Lilian Valley directly below to the right and the heavily glaciated Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in the range at 7,995 feet off to the due west. Down below to the left (east) are a number of glacial tarn lakes as you look down into Badger Valley.

This area is among the driest of the entire park due to the rainshadow effect. So, while the coastal rainforests are getting 150+" of precipitation, Lilian Ridge is getting less than 30". So, as you hike along the wind-and-sun exposed top you will find the vegetation is sparse and low to the ground.

Alpine meadows on Lilian Ridge

After a mile or so, the trail will descend steeply down to into the Grand Valley, with Grand Lake visible below. The trail drops over 1,000 feet in elevation, and in these protected slopes there are more trees and shrubs. The primary subalpine tree species you will encounter are subalpine fir, mountain hemlock, Alaska yellow-cedar, and occassional Douglas firs.

Autumn Splendor: huckleberries and mountain ash in mid-September

Upon arriving at Grand Lake, note the trail branch. To the left is the trail following Grand Creek downslope that will loop you back up to the trailhead via Badger Valley. If you are doing the 9.8 mile loop, then just turn left here. This is what to do also, if the snowpack is too deep to access Grand Pass. If you want to go to the absolutely spectacular Grand Pass, then go right and you will return this way later on.

Grand Lake
If you are heading up to Grand Pass, you will soon encounter Moose Lake and then the smaller Gladys Lake further up Grand Valley. There are no moose in Olympic National Park and this lake was actually named after the Roosevelt elk. Although it is popular for people to camp at these lakes, I recommend you cruise by the lakes quickly, as they contain localized swarms of mosquitoes. 

Badger valley was actually named for the numerous endemic Olympic marmots

The trail will begin to ascend up above treeline again and onto the rocky scree slopes at the top of the basin. Bright yellow carpets of monkeyflower will coat the rocky slopes where seeps of water emerge to form Grand Creek.

Looking across the alpine meadows of Grand Valley
The trail will grow steeper and steeper as you climb up the back of the basin toward Grand Pass. Small islands of subalpine firs hold fast against the loose scree that prevents soils from accumulatingand and alpine meadows from developing. The climb from the lake to Grand Pass ascends about 1,300 feet.

Yellow monkeyflowers bloom along the edges of seeps and springs

Once you reach Grand Pass, look for a small waytrail leaving to the right to the top of the peak above. This peak is unofficially named Grandview Peak because of its spectacular 360-degree panorama. An amazing view of Mount Olympus rising up above rocky peaks and glacial tarns will stop you in your tracks, if you exhaustion hasn't already.

View of Mount Olympus from Grandview Peak

From Grandview Peak, you can also look over the edge of the high eastern peaks to see two of the Cascade volcanoes. Mount Baker is visible to the northwest, while Mount Rainier can be seen to the southwest. You have a strenuous trip ahead of you still, so do not rush from this magical place. Really soak in the view.

Mount Baker rising above the ridgeline

After lunch at the top, it is time to backtrack down the valley and to Grand Lake. From here, follow the trail as it descends an additional 1,000 feet following Grand Creek. At its lowest point, where it crosses Grand Creek at the base of Badger Valley, you have descended not only below the alpine meadows, but also the subalpine zone into an old-growth montane forest of Douglas fir and Pacific silver-fir. Large western hemlocks are also visible. Cross the log bridge and then begin the grueling ascent of almost 2,000 feet up the beautiful Badger Valley.

The forest next to Grand Creek at the lowest spot

As you climb out of the Grand Creek basin and into Badger Valley, the vegetation thins again, eventually coming out into beautiful grassy subalpine meadows with lots of wildflowers. The are no badgers in Olympic National Park. Instead, it was named after the endemic Olympic Marmots that live in this valley. This species of large ground squirrel is found in these mountains and no where else on Earth. While about the same size as badger, marmots eat plants and are not carnivorous members of the weasel family.

Grassy meadows of Badger Valley

The higher you go, the more easily you can see up to Obstruction Point and your final destination above.

Fall colors hit the Olympics already in mid-September

As you climb higher and higher, you will approach the long barren ridge of Elk Mountain (worthy of the next posted hike). The climb is steep and becomes slick and rocky in the final segment. But, once you have climbed out of Badger Valley and back up onto Obstruction Point, it has all been worth it again!

Grand and Badger Valleys from Elk Mountain

The image above shows the view of Badger Valley (foreground) and Grand Valley (middle) from the top of Elk Mountain. Grand Lake is visible in the center, Moose Lake further up the valley to the right, and Grand Pass in the far upper right corner. Lilian Ridge is on the far right and Obstruction point if off screen to the lower right. This image essentially shows you the entire loop.

The Needles from Lilian Ridge

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