Sunday, June 24, 2012

Watson Lake - Granite Dells Loop, Prescott, Arizona

Distance: 1.8 miles (2.9 km)
Elevation: 5,100-5,200 feet (1555 - 1585 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Any Time (avoid heat of mid-summer and icy conditions in winter)

The Granite Dells area near Prescott, AZ is a beautiful area of smooth granite formations, lush green riparian ecosystems, and stunning vistas just outside of the city of Prescott in the Central Highlands. This easy hike through these features makes this a perfect place to stretch your legs a little if you happen to be in town. Half of the trail goes directly over the granite formation, until you reach Watson Lake Dam, and then it returns following the stream in a riparian forest canyon along the "Flume Trail". In addition, very nearby there is a city park along a reservoir called Watson Lake that offers camping for out-of-towners.

To access this trail, take Hwy-89 north out of Prescott and look for Granite Dells Road to the right. Drive down this for 0.3 miles to a parking area to the right in-and-amongst the granite boulders. The trail starts out in a narrow notch in the rocks before emerging into an open area that crosses between the yards of two homes. Then, shortly thereafter the trail branches with the right fork heading upslope. Take this turn to the right.

The trail wanders over and across beautiful granite formations, as it heads south toward Watson Lake. Off to the west you will see 7626 foot Granite Mountain rising above the landscape. This is located in a national forest wilderness area and will be the feature of a future hike description soon. Look for a variety of high desert plants along this hike including the beautiful red flowers of the claret cup cactus, as well as, yucca, scrub live oak, and pinyon pines.

Eventually, you will get your first glimpse of the dam and reservoir. If you camp at Watson Lake Park, you will have other opportunities to boulder-hop near it's shores. Soon thereafter you will descend down to the creek bottom and end up at the base of the dam.

Here, water plunges out of an opening in the middle of the dam filling the canyon bottom with the water that sustains a lush riparian strip of cottonwoods, sycamores, ash, and willows. The trail turns and heads downstream on the left side of the creek. But, there is a side trail that crosses the creek and ascends the otherside called "Over-The-Hill Trail" for obvious reasons. It climbs out of the canyon and over the hill to the otherside for additional views of the surrounding landscape. By using other nearby trails such as sections of the Lakeshore Trail, Peavine Trail, and Storm Ranch Road, it is possible to make a larger loop. But, to take it easy, just continue downstream on the Flume Trail.

After a brief climb over a large rocky section, the Flume Trail leisurely follows the canyon a dozen meters above the stream, at the edge of the lush riparian forest. The trail will eventually reconnect with the main trail at the junction you noticed earlier and you can just follow this back to the car.

Be aware that despite hiking at over 5,000 feet the temperatures routinely exceed 90 degrees in summer and ice or snow can cover the shadowy areas in winter. The best time of year to hike in this region are during the dry and warm periods from March to May and in spectacularly beautiful October when the leaves are changing colors!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Uncle Tom's Trail/South Rim Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone NP, WY

Distance: 3.0 miles round trip to Artist Point (1 mile just down into the canyon)
Elevation: 7,700 - 7,200 feet elevation (2345 - 2195 meters)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Time of Year: April - November

Like Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, and the Norris Geyser Basin, one of the must see locations in Yellowstone National Park, is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This 1000 foot deep canyon of yellow volcanic deposits is what gave Yellowstone it's name. Most people stop at view points on the north rim of the canyon for the stunning views. But, if you really want to get into the heart of what this canyon is about, then the Uncle Tom's Trail down into the canyon is the trail to do.

Sign at beginning of Uncle Tom's Trail

While not terribly long, the trail leading from the Upper Falls on the south rim of the canyon down to Artist's Point, with a side trip some 500 feet down into the canyon, is both stunning and moderately strenuous. On the other hand, our four year old made the trip down and up without much effort, so these ratings are all relative. To access it, just drive south a couple of miles from the Canyon Village looking for signs for the South Rim and Artist Point and park at the Upper Falls overlook.

Only 302 stairs left

The first view you will get is at the Upper Falls, which are 109 feet high. They formed where a more resistant lava flow meets up with the weaker and altered rhyolite layers. From here, walk down the trail following the canyon a short ways until it begins descending and then you encounter a junction in the trail. Turn left and follow Uncle Tom's trail downslope.

The trail descends some 500 feet, using 328 steps to near the bottom of the canyon. It is certainly steep and because the stairs were built hanging out away from the rock face, can give vertigo to those leery of heights. But, it is 6 feet wide with railings on both sides, so it is certainly a safe descent. At the bottom of the stairs you encounter a large platform for viewing the 308 foot Lower Falls, as well as, down the canyon.

The vegetation along this route consists of hardly subalpine firs and lodgepole pines emerging from the cliff walls, as well as, numerous wildflowers. At the bottom, view is truly spectacular. Of course, you will also need to ascend 500 foot back up. So, take it easy and rest as often as needed. Just be respectful not to block the route for others making the trek up and back.

Once you reach the top, you may want to continue another mile down the canyon to Artist Point for a spectacular view down the length of the 20-mile long canyon. To head there and back adds 2 miles to the approximately 1 mile total distance you traveled on Uncle Tom's Trail.

If a 4-year old can make it, so can you

Other than the trek up to the summit of Mount Washburn, this is probably the most important day hike to do in Yellowstone, since most people just drive around the park and much of the park is otherwise monotonous lodgepole pine forests.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Chicken Creek Nature Loop, Fossil Butte Nat'l Monument, Wyoming

Distance: 1.5 miles (2.4 km)
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation: 7,500-7,800 feet (2285 - 2375 m)
Time of Year: Anytime (will be cold and icy in winter)

Fossil Butte National Monument, in southwestern Wyoming represents perhaps the world's greatest and best preserved fish fossils. The was the site of a huge and very stable lake some 50 million years ago. What is today a landscape of cold-desert sagebrush, was once a subtropical landscape of palms, warm weather trees, crocodiles, and fish only found in regions like Southeast Asia today.

50 million year old bat fossil showing they were essentially in their modern form by that point already

While remote, if you are ever traveling down I-80 through southern Wyoming or north to Yellowstone, it is worth the side-trip to see this amazing site. The visitor center is full of these fossils and has a great video showing how they extract these fossils of the laminate rocks on the butte.

Small fish here all died when oxygen conditions changed rapidly, then were buried by sediment

A 4-foot wide palm frond
In addition, there is a nice hiking trail that leads you through the sagebrush into an aspen glade in a drainage and up to an active quarry site where paleontologists are extracting fish fossils to this day. The Chicken Creek Nature Trail begins two miles up the road from the visitor center. The trail starts up along a sage brush slope along the sides of the aspen stand. At this elevation and in this dry landscape, the only trees are spindly aspens in the wettest drainages where seeps and springs occur. 

Beginning of the Chicken Creek Nature Loop
The trail climbs 300 feet up to the base of the exposed rock on the butte. At the top of the trail, there is a side trail. If the park is actively quarrying, the gate is open and you can go up and talk to the rangers or scientists doing the work. Otherwise, the gate will be closed to the public.

A volunteer working on extracting fossils
A view from the quarry site

From this high point, the view across the landscape of southwestern Wyoming is quite expansive. The trail then heads into and across the aspen stand into a lush green understory almost unimaginable in otherwise desolate Wyoming. Do be aware of mosquitoes who lurk in these woods, as there are a number of small stagnant pools in this drainage for them to breed in.

In the aspen stand

The trail will then descend down the slope on the otherside of the stand to the dirt road, which you walk down a few hundred feet more back to the parking area. You can also climb up the dirt road to the 8200 foot ridge summit for even more expansive views of the landscape.

As Fossil Butte was 50 million years ago

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Skyline Ridge, Wasatch Plateau, Manti-La Sal NF, Utah

Distance: As far as you want to go...
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation: 10,000-10,900 feet (3050 - 3325 meters)
Time of Year: Early June - Mid-October

Normally I post about hiking trails on this site. But, the Skyline Drive along the summit of the Wasatch Plateau in Central Utah is sort of an exception. Here is route that can be either driven or hiked. After climbing up the steep mountain road from Mayfield, UT, it was so beautiful at the top that we decided to just park the car and start walking up the road. It was mid-June and we did not see a single car on this entire route.

The Wasatch Plateau is not to be confused with the Wasatch Front rising high above Salt Lake City. Related geologically, it is not the steep rocky ridge rising directly out of the Great Salt Lake, but rather a flat-topped plateau of limestone and mudstones rising to the south of the Wasatch Front above the towns of Gunnison and Manti, UT in the middle Sevier River valley and Sanpete valley.

The road up from the parking spot

The easiest access for the best views would to drive up the Skyline Drive out of the town of Mayfield, UT. The road goes steeply up the escarpment passing aspen stands and open meadows along the way. There are a number of great meadows and small lakes along the way to stop at to relax or camp at before reaching the summit of the escarpment.

Wandering the aspen meadows on the way up the escarpment
(with Rosie the travelling kitty)

As the road approaches the split for the Ferron Reservoir, stay right and continue to the ridgetop. At the ridgetop, there is another branch with a road dropping down to the Duck Fork Reservoir. Stay left, drive to the top of the ridge and park here.

Road down to Duck Fork Reservoir

At this stage, you may begin your leisurely trek across the summit ridge for basically as far as you wish to go.  There may be some ATV's and other vehicles passing by, but they can be mostly avoided if you walk across the meadows instead a hundred feet off the road. Whether it gets more traffic later in the summer I don't know, but like I mentioned, we saw no other cars on our entire trip up there.

Wandering the subalpine meadows of the Wasatch Plateau

From the summit ridge, we could see the San Rafael Swell and the canyon country off to the east. We could look down into the Sanpete Valley some 6,000 feet below to the west. We could also see the southern end of the Wasatch Front, including Mount Nebo, to the north and the Fish Lake Mountains off to the south.

View across the 11,000 foot Wasatch Plateau

The vegetation at the top is mostly subalpine meadows with scattered clumps of subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce. The spruce, however, has been heavily impacted by long-term drought conditions and spruce ips beetles and has suffered severe dieback, leaving almost all of the living trees along the summit as firs.

Eventually you can decide to turn around whenever you like. What we did was that I turned around to go get the vehicle, while Linda and Hilina continued down the road even further. Then, I picked them up and we continued on the Skyline drive until we reached Snow Lake. Unfortunately, at that point, the road was blocked by a snow drift, so we were unable to continue the last few miles to the descent to Ephraim.

Exposed sedimentary strata as we descend down the Manti road

Thus, we had to backtrack a couple of miles to the Manti access road. This route down is extremely steep and very rough. It took a long time of very careful driving to manage the ruts and rocks on this way down. But, our Honda CRV did make it down alright. The route is certainly scenic, especially as we entered into the mixed aspen-conifer stands.

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