Sunday, September 30, 2012

Liberty Pass, Ruby Mountains, Humboldt NF, Nevada

Distance: 6.0 miles (10 km)
Elevation: 8,800 - 10,450 feet (2685 - 3186 m)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time of Year: June to October

The Ruby Mountains rise like a sentinel high above the desert valleys of the Great Basin. Located in a remote region of Northern Nevada, just south of Elko, most people have probably never heard of them. But, if you have driven I-80 between Salt Lake City and Reno, you probably did see them just off to the south. The Ruby Mountains rise to over 11,000 feet. Thus, even in this extremely arid region of the country, they are an oasis of alpine meadows, rushing streams, and spectacular glacially carved canyons.

At the trailhead

The hike to Liberty Pass is one of the true highlights of the Ruby Mountains. Located at the end of the famous Lamoille Canyon area, Liberty Pass offers spectacular vistas above the U-shaped valley that was carved by ice age glaciers. To access the trailhead, drive up the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Drive about 15 miles south of downtown Elko to the very end of the spectacular valley with its soaring cliff faces.

Hiking amongst the limber pines

The trail begins by crossing some alpine meadows full of wildflowers in summer. The trail crosses a brook a few times over wooden log bridges. The first 1.5 miles climbs steadily up through scattered stands of ancient limber pines. After about 30 minutes or so you will arrive at the first in the series of lake you will see on this trip. These three small, nearly interconnected ponds, are collectively called Dollar Lakes. The first two are quite marshy and shallow, while the third is the largest and most open.

Dollar Lake

At this point the trail begins to zigzag up a steeper slope as it heads for the next 1/2 mile to Lamoille Lake located at 9700 feet in elevation. It's crystal clear waters allow you to see the rock formations at the bottom of the lake. This is especially true as you climb vertically above the lake. 

Above Lamoille Lake

At this point the trail begins its most strenuous portion as it climbs up a near vertical slope above the lake. The trail is narrow and switches back-and-forth relentlessly for the next 500 vertical feet in elevation. The views become ever more expansive, especially as you begin to peer over the edge of the canyon walls to the outside of the Ruby Mountains. The Elko Valley begins to make an appearance.

Approaching Liberty Pass

As you continue to climb, you will see a narrow rocky saddle well above you. That is Liberty Pass. It may appear as though you will never be able to make it up there across that rugged terrain. But, the trail is nicely graded such that it is surprisingly not so difficult as it appears.

Arriving at Liberty Pass

Upon reaching Liberty Pass, you have incredible views out across the Ruby Mountains. Behind you, you can see the definite U-shape appearance of Lamoille Canyon. To the north, you can see out across Elko Valley. From the pass, the trail almost immediately descends down to Liberty Lake a couple hundred feet below. But, if stray off trail straight ahead you will arrive at a flat rocky outcropping with a spectacular view of the whole lake below you.

The View of Liberty Lake From Liberty Pass

After enjoying lunch at the pass, you just return the way you came. To me, going up is always easier than going down. The section from the pass back to Lamoille Lake is the hardest, as the loose rock and steep gradient does give your knees a pounding. But, after the lake, the rest of the trip down is pretty relaxing.

Looking down on Lamoille Canyon from Liberty Pass

The Ruby Mountains are truly an unexpected surprise in the middle of the boring Great Basin Desert. This oasis of streams, rugged mountains, and panoramic splendor is just what the body and mind need on a long trip across Nevada, whether going from Salt Lake to Reno on I-80, or as we did it, heading south on U.S. 95 back to Arizona. Oh, and if you are looking for a place to stay and want to avoid yet another Motel-6 or a casino, the Thomas Canyon Campground, halfway up Lamoille Canyon, is one of the most spectacular settings I have ever seen for setting up a tent.

After a long hike, we enjoyed the sunset at Thomas Canyon Campground

North Wilson Mountain, Sedona Area, Arizona

Distance: 10.0 miles round trip (16.1 km)
Elevation: 4,750-6,840 feet (1448 - 2085 m)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time of Year: March - November

A view from the summit of Wilson Mountain with Bill Williams Mountain visible in the distance

The North Wilson Mountain trail is one of the most diverse trails with some of the grandest views in Northern Arizona. You climb out of the famous Oak Creek Canyon, climb through areas of burned areas full of dense chaparral shrubs and expansive fields of wildflowers, shadowy forested canyons with maples and firs, open Ponderosa pine forests, pinyon-juniper savannas, and then a views back down 2,000 feet across all of these ecosystems.

Fire did not burn the cooler shady canyons where pines and firs remain alive

The trail begins at the Encinoso Picnic Area located off Highway 89A. Make sure you have a Federal Interagency Pass or Red Rock Pass when parking there. Trail begins climbing almost immediately. It heads up a draw that was burned about 6 years ago. There are a number of fallen logs and some brush that has grown over the trail. It doesn't look like the trail has been maintained in a few year. But, as you head further up the draw, you will come across some patches of live forest where the trees survived in the cooler north-facing slopes with fire scares on their trunks.

The trail then begins climbing steeply up the cliff. As you reach the summit of the first ridge, you will get your first spectacular views back down the length of Oak Creek Canyon. The trail then follows the ridgeline gradually climbing until reaching a flat mesa top.

On top of this first flat-topped mesa, you have passed phase one of this diverse trail. Phase two is an open mesa filled with thousands of wildflowers following the summer monsoon season. To the east, you will see Oak Creek Canyon below and the other rim across the canyon bright yellow in flowers. To the west, there is the other mesa located a few hundred feet higher up. The southern portion of this mesa is called South Wilson Mountain. This is the mountain visible from Downtown Sedona and at that summit there is a viewpoint back down onto Sedona. 

After crossing the first mesa, you will meet a trail intersection. If you head left, you will come to a viewpoint looking over east Sedona and up toward Schnebly Hill. If you head right (the sign directs you), you begin climbing the slope of the next mesa. As you rise above the first mesa, you can see expansive views across the Mogollon Rim and Mormon Mountain becomes obvious in the distance.

Yellow blooms of wildflowers tint the surface of the Mogollon Rim

Upon reaching the summit of the second mesa, you will head in and out of forests. If it is late summer, wildflowers will be plentiful. But, there will be more of them in the open areas that were burned in the 2006 Brins Mesa Fire. After heading up a slope you will encounter another trail intersection, which may be obscured by a large fallen tree, that will direct you to the "Sedona Overlook" located to the left. I recommend you take this 0.4 mile spur to get an incredible view from the summit of South Wilson Mountain across all of the Sedona Red Rock area and even out across the Verde Valley to Mingus Mountain. On a clear day, you can even see Granite Mountain and the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott.

Once you return to the intersection, continue right for 1.4 miles across open burned forest areas toward North Wilson Mountain. It will pass through an couple of closed forest sections, but most of it is open, offering glimpses of the landscape surrounding the mountain. Once you you reach the end of the trail, you will arrive at a cliff that drops nearly 2,000 feet straight down.

The trail will branch off to the left and right very close to the cliff edge. To the right, the view is one down the length of Oak Creek Canyon, with the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden visible in the distance.

Oak Creek Canyon with the San Francisco Peaks to the left and Mount Elden to the right

To the left, you will be able to see across almost all of the Secret Mountain Wilderness and backcountry areas of the Red Rocks region. Directly below you can see Vultee Arch (another must-do hike to be described later). Sit back, eat lunch, and enjoy the incredible splendor in the shade of large Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir on the rock edge. Then return the way you came.

Vultee Arch located almost 2,000 feet below North Wilson Mountain

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