Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Iron Mountain Trail, Poway, San Diego Country, CA

Distance: 5.8 miles round trip (9.4 km)
Elevation: 1,615 - 2,680 feet (492 - 817 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: September - May

Located in northern San Diego County, just east of the City of Poway, is a beautiful hike in the dry chaparral habitat called Iron Mountain. This 2680 foot peak in the foothills of the Mountain Empire, offers spectacular 360 degree panoramic views of all of San Diego County and out all the way to Mexico and the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles. It's a quick, steep climb to the summit, but the views are well worth it. In addition, the aromatic scents of sage, wildflowers, and chaparral make you almost forget about the traffic of Southern California. Well almost, as this hike is very popular and crowded with the locals.

To get to the trailhead, head to the City of Poway on I-15 and then take the Poway Road Exit. Drive through the city and out of town to the east until coming to the intersection with CA-67. The Iron Mountain Trailhead is located at the Park-and-Ride right on the eastside of the junction. It is a large parking lot and well signed. There is no fee to park here. The trail begins on a wide fire road heading straight toward the ridge, with the actual summit obvious to the right of the trail. Be aware that this trail is entirely exposed to the sun, which might be very pleasant in the mild weather of winter, but could be scorching over 100 degrees come summer.

The trail will branch shortly into two segments, but whichever one you take does not matter, since they rejoin about 1/2 mile later. If you take the right one, you will get more shade in the morning sun than the most exposed left branch. The trails head through the lower chaparral vegetation type known as "sage scrub". The silvery coastal sage and Artemsia both have very aromatic leaves. 

View of Cuyamaca Peak (right) from the saddle

After the trails reconverge, the route climbs up to a saddle and trail junction. The Ellie Lane trail heads off to the left, while the Iron Mountain Trail stays to the right. From this saddle, you get your first views of the Laguna Mountains and Cuyamaca Peak to the east, while the Pacific Ocean is visible to the west.

A view to the southwest toward San Diego

The trail skirts along the eastern slope of Iron Mountain, climbing slowly at first, but then the switchbacks begin. The trail is rocky and begins to steepen, but is not particularly difficult. The views are growing ever expansive to the east. After a ways, the trail reaches another saddle, giving you the next opportunity to see the ocean. Then, begins the steepest part of the trail, as a relentless series of switchbacks head up the northern face of the mountain. 

Downtown San Diego and the Coronado Islands

As you look up, you keep thinking you are almost at the top, but it is higher than you think. Nonetheless, once you reach the summit, the 360 degree views make this climb well worth it. From the summit, you can see Downtown San Diego to the southwest, with the Coronado Islands of Mexico offshore beyond them. You can see El Cajon to the south and the Laguna Mountains to the southeast.

Lake Poway

Lake Poway sits down below you to the southeast and Cuyamaca Peak rises as the highest mountain to the east. Further north, you can make our Volcan Mountain near Julian, the Santa Rosa Mountains beyond that, and Mount San Jacinto way off to the northeast. Palomar Mountain dominates the view to the north, with its broad rounded summit ridge blocking most of the view of anything beyond that. But, if you look carefully, you can make out parts of the San Gabriel Mountains 100 miles to the north.

Panoramic View of the Mountain Empire

The curve of the coastline and a couple of the Channel Islands are visible offshore to the northwest. Directly to the west is Torrey Pines, while slightly southwest of that is Mount Soledad and La Jolla. After your have taken in your fill of the views of southern California, retrace your steps back.

Palomar Mountain to the north

Monday, November 18, 2013

House on Fire Ruin, Mule Canyon, Utah

Distance: 3 miles roundtrip (4.8 km)
Elevation: 5,965 - 6,005 feet (1819 - 1830 m)
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: Anytime (watch for ice in winter and flash floods and extreme heat in summer)

Mule Canyon Pueblo - 0.2 miles from the road to the canyon itself

Located within Mule Canyon on the Grand Gulch Plateau, about 19 west of Blanding, UT on UT-95 is the House on Fire Ruins. Famous for its flaming red stratified rocks on the roof about the structure, the ruins are also located in a beautifully sculpted redrock canyon just above the seemingly monotonous juniper woodlands on the mesa top. Mule Canyon also contains several over ruins and petroglyph panels within the next 4 miles or so of the canyon, indicating this was obviously an important site for the ancient Puebloan peoples. On of these sites is found on the rim top, right off the highway.

The view from the trailhead above the canyon

To access the site, drive on UT-95 to the Mule Canyon Pueblo BLM site. Here there are the remains of the foundations of several rooms and a large restored kiva site. However, to get down into the canyon itself to see the House on Fire Ruins, backtrack east on UT-95 0.2 miles and look for a dirt road branching off to the left. Follow this road down to the "bridge" crossing Mule Canyon. The trail begins to the west here. There is a fee of $2 per person to access this site.

The trail descends into the canyon and is easy to follow up the dry creek bed. There are beautiful slickrock formations along the way for the next 1.5 miles. After about 20 minutes of hiking, start looking up to the right side of the canyon and you will see three structures tucked under the large overhanging boulder.

Located within the structures are old packrat middens filled with rat droppings and thick dark smoke scars on the roof. The structures are so short, it is really hard to imagine people living within these structures. One wonders how much time they actually spent in these, perhaps only to lay down and sleep at night in the winter. The site, like many in this region, is on the south-facing slope, which means they would get the warm winter sun to warm up, while being in the shadows when the sun is high in the sky in summer.

Packrat droppings and plant materials on the floor and smoke scars on the roof
If the lighting is right, the ceiling appears to be a flaming glow of red off the roof. If not, then it is just drab layers of sedimentary rock. Some of the most brilliant images on the internet are surely heavily altered using photoshop. But, whatever the lighting, its certainly a beautiful site in an amazing canyon.

You can continue down the canyon to see another three more structures over the next four miles. But, if you need to hit the road to see more sites along the way, such as the Fallen Rock Ruins  in Road Canyon, then this is a good place to turn back and head 1.5 miles back to the trailhead.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fallen Roof Ruin, Road Canyon, Grand Gulch Plateau, UT

Distance: 2.6 miles roundtrip (4.2 km)
Elevation: 6,390 - 6,220 feet (1,948 - 1,896 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Anytime (watch for ice in winter and extreme heat or flash floods in summer)

The Fallen Roof Ruin is one of the premier examples of a small Puebloan ruin not located within a national park. It is remote, but relatively easy to access. It is almost perfectly preserved and even contains dozens of 700+ year old corn cobs on the floor of one of its rooms. If you visit the site, please respect this archaeological wonder and do not touch the structure or disturb any of the artifacts. Any slight bump could permanently damage this structure, disrespecting the work of these ancient people and damaging it for future generations to see.

You can access this site by taking UT-261 up from Mexican Hat or down from Natural Bridges National Monument. Near mile post 20, look for a sign for Cigarette Spring Road on the east side of the highway. Turn here and set your odometer. Drive 0.9 miles to the sign in station. The fee was $2 per person when we were there. Drive to the 3.4 mile mark (2.5 miles past the sign in station) and look for a road pulling off to the left in the brush. If you are driving too quickly, it is easy to miss. Drive about 200 feet to the end of this road where there is a large parking area. Cigarette Spring Road is narrow and brushy, so look out for oncoming cars. It is also sandy in places with occasional ruts, but usually doable for cars in good weather.

From the parking area, there is a small brown sign that says trail. The trail is easy to follow for the next 0.3 miles across the pinyon-juniper landscape and then comes out onto the rim of Road Canyon. Here, the trail drops steeply down the side. It can be hard to follow down 170 feet to the bottom, but it does have cairns to lead the way. Upon reaching the canyon bottom, turn right (following the cairns) and follow the dry creek bed down the canyon.

The trail has a tendency to weave in and across the creek bed attempting to avoid riparian brush, rock jumbles, or debris piles. But, the route is easy to follow and cairned most of the way. After about 15-20 minutes, the canyon opens up into a wide area where another side drainage joins it. Here, if you look up to the left, are three large boulders perched on the alluvium with black desert varnish. If you hop up the slope and look onto the nearly horizontal surface of one of them, you will see a number of very old and faded petroglyphs. Petroglyphs at canyon intersections is a common feature in this region, probably signifying this as a significant site of travel.

Continuing down the canyon, the canyon walls narrow and shortly thereafter, you should catch a glimpse of the ruins about 70 feet up the slope to the left. Although the slope is steep, it is pretty easy to scramble up with adequate footwear. Once at the ruins, you will see why it is called Fallen Roof Ruin. A large slab of the alcove ceiling came tumbling down and shattered into a dozen or so large chunks of flattened rocks.

There are three main rooms and the one furthest to the right contains the numerous corn cobs. It is hard to see them in the darkness, but if you have a camera with a flash, that'll catch them.

After enjoying the site, just backtrack the way you came. Be prepared to deal with icy slick spots on the descent down and along the canyon bottom in winter. In summer, be prepared for near 100 degree temperatures and the risk of flash floods from summer monsoon rains. In summer, it is best to start very early in the morning. The best seasons to go are late spring and autumn. And remember to respect the site and not touch anything.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Flume Trail, Fossil Springs Wilderness, Coconino NF, AZ

Distance: 8.1 miles roundtrip (13.1 km)
Elevation: 3,765 - 4,350 feet (1,148 - 1,326 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: September - May (avoid heat and crowds of summer)

Fossil Creek is one of the true gems of Central Arizona. At its source, at the base of the Mogollon Rim emerges from the ground some 20,000 gallons of water per minute. Instantly, the arid pinyon-juniper forest gives way to a lush riparian stand of deciduous trees including cottonwoods, box-elder, Arizona walnut, Arizona ash, and Arizona sycamores. The water is rich in calcium carbonate, which gives the water a turquoise hue and encases whatever falls into it in travertine, thus giving the name Fossil Springs. In the heat of the summer, or even fall for that matter, these cool waters invite one to take a dip after a hot 4 mile hike to the springs. It isn't easy to get here and the crowds can be thick in summer with swimmers at the easy-access pools. But, in October and November it offers a spectacular array of fall colors for the eye to behold.

A view of the Fossil Creek Wilderness and Mogollon Rim from near Strawberry

This area once had a 100-year old flume that transported water from the springs to an APS hydroelectric powerplant. This meant that most of the creekbed was dry, with scattered pools emerging from ground water that escaped the pumps of the flume. However, in 2008, APS decided that the small amount of electricity did not justify the environmental damage of redirecting the flow and disassembled the powerplant and flume, allowing the creek to flow free once more. In addition, all non-native fish were removed from the creek and native fish like headwater chubs were reintroduced. In 2009, Fossil Creek became a National Wild and Scenic River.

The crossing at the trailhead

The old way to access Fossil Creek was from the town of Strawberry, but that road washed out and probably won't reopen until 2015 at the earliest. Currently, the only way to go is to take Fossil Creek Road (FR708) from AZ-260 just east of Camp Verde. The road is 15 bumpy miles long to reach the creek, but it offers beautiful views of the Verde Rim. Watch out for hunters driving too fast and leaving you with clouds of dust in the fall. After crossing the Fossil Creek bridge, continue for another mile until arriving at the parking area of the trailhead just before the closed gate.

The trail starts off by crossing the creek on a wide-shallow section that used to be the road to the old housing area when this was a powerplant and housing area. The trail then follows the old flume road up the slope paralleling the creek, gradually gaining about 600 feet in elevation. From high up on the arid slopes, you can see the lush green riparian strip below and patches of open water or waterfalls are visible between the trees.

Looking down into the canyon

With this route being on a south-facing slope and temperatures at this elevation routinely rising above 90 degrees in summer, I would not recommend doing this trail in summer. In addition, they often close the access road to the trailhead due to the huge numbers of people arriving to swim in the pools further downstream. However, it is plenty warm in spring and fall for this hike.

This is what the old flume looked like when we visited 10 years ago.
It's gone now!

In places you can see where the old flume ran, as old post-supports and eroded slopes are visible. But, for the most part, the signs it was ever there are gone. Along the way, there are a number of side canyons that have beautiful old sycamores and box-elder coming down the slopes and some much needed shade on a hot day. As you approach the final 1 mile, you will definitely be looking forward to the 72 degree waters and shade of the riparian forest when you reach the bottom.

A sycamore along the edge of the riparian forest

Upon reaching the headwaters, there is an old diversion dam that had completely filled with sediment such that it is now a waterfall. Then, just a few hundred feet further upsteam, you reach the springs and then the bare rocky intermittent stretches of the creek above that. Look on the edges of the creek and you will see "fossilized" leaves that have been coated in calcium carbonate, and small travertine dams and falls anyplace a branch or log fell into the creek and minerals began depositing on it.

The springs with its numerous little travertine dams

At many of the open pools, you will see schools of headwater and roundtailed chub swimming around where you once would see non-native predatory fish like trout before. You may also get to see endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs and canyon treefrogs leaping into the water.

The native chubs are back

Watch for a myriad of butterfly species coating the banks of the river, plus numerous damselflies and dragonflies doing their dance across the water looking for prey or mates. You will want to stay for hours at this marvel of nature, swimming, relaxing, enjoying the soothing sounds of the riffles, or listening to the dozens of bird species that make this desert oasis their home.

In fact, the worst part of this hike is the 4 mile hike back in the heat of the sun, looking down on those inviting waters 400 feet below and wishing you did not have to trek back. But, there is one last saving grace. You have to cross the creek again at the trailhead, which will give you once last chance to splash around and cool off before you begin the bumpy drive back to civilization.

One last look down onto the waters before trekking back

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mount Elden Loop via Brookbank and Sunset Trails, Coconino NF, AZ

Distance: 8.45 miles or 10.65 with Summit Spur (13.6 km or 17.1 km)
Elevation: 7,700 - 8,935 feet
or 9,300 feet with Summit Spur (2,347 - 2,724 or 2,835 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: Anytime, but watch out for ice in winter and thunderstorms in summer

A view to the east from Sunset Park viewpoint

When visiting the Flagstaff area, the Dry Lakes Hills and Mount Elden will be obvious landmarks rising above the city to the north and east. These side vents of the larger San Francisco Peaks rise 1000-2000 feet above the surrounding Coconino Plateau. While many people will do the straight up-and-back climb to the radio towers on top of Mount Elden from the trailhead off US-89 near the Flagstaff Mall, there is a much more gradual, and scenic, loop route that will take you through dense mixed-conifer forests, montane meadows, old-growth ponderosa pine stands, and up to spectacular scenic viewpoints some 2000 feet above Flagstaff. Whether you are a Flagstaff native or visiting from out of town, this loop will give you a great overview of the area.

An old-growth mixed conifer forest

The way to access this loop is to drive north out of town on Hwy 180, as if you were headed to the Grand Canyon. Then, after passing the Museum of Northern Arizona, turn right at the next light, called Schultz Pass Road. Drive down the road until it makes a Y, where Schultz Pass road continues to the left and Mount Elden lookout road stays right. Keep right and follow the road as it passes mini-horse ranches and turns to dirt. Follow the road up, passing the Rocky Ridge Trailhead and then 0.2 miles further park at a small pull-out on the left for Brookbank Trail.

A red-tailed hawk takes flight

The Brookbank Trail ascends gradually through a mixed-conifer forest of white fir, Douglas fir, white pine, and Ponderosa pines. The trail will reach the edge of an open meadow, where you can access the Dry Lake Hills on left. After 1.0 miles the trail reaches the junction with Little Gnarly Trail that descends down to Schultz Pass. Turn right and continue on the Brookbank Trail as it heads around the northslope of the hill, offering spectacular views of the San Francisco Peaks.

Climbing up the slopes of Little Elden Mountain toward Sunset Park

After about 1.5 miles, the trail will cross a flat saddle and then straddle the southside of another hill offering views across the drainage toward the densely forested north-facing slope of Mount Elden. Then at 3.2 miles, the trail reaches the junction with the Sunset Trail. To the left, the trail heads to Schultz Tank. Stay right and the trail will descend down through a beautiful old-growth Ponderosa pine stand, with open grassy meadows filled with wildflowers.

Old-growth ponderosa pine meadows

At the bottom of the slope, you will come across the closed trail for Little Bear/Little Elden, which is blocked off due to damage associated with the catastrophic Schultz Fire of 2010. The forest here is maintained in its historic open canopy state by prescribed burns. The trail will then head up the north-face of Little Elden Mountain toward Sunset Park. After a steep rocky stretch, a spectacular view opens up at the top of the ridge to the east. Here, Sunset Crater, the cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, and the neighborhoods of Doney Park become visible. The landscape is mostly devoid of trees due to the 1977 fire that scorched Mount Elden and removed all of the top soil. Scientists estimate it may take 1000 years for the forests to be fully restored here.

Looking out at Little Elden Mountain and the return of aspens from the 1977 Radio Fire

Following the ridgetop, the trail will head toward Sunset Park, where there is a parking area from the Elden Lookout Road that continues up the mountain toward the radio towers. At this stage, you can either descend down the Lower Oldham Trail 2.0 miles through dense forests back to the trailhead, or you could continue straight toward Mount Elden Summit, should you desire to extend your hike.

A view across Flagstaff from Mount Elden Summit

The trails up the slope for about 3/4th of a mile through forest and then into open steep meadows until reaching the radio tower access road again on a flat plateau area. Here, the final stretch to the summit is obvious to the towers. Or, you can stay to the right and head up the short slope to a view out across Flagstaff, with the grassy Turkey Park below. In fact, you can wander around toward Devil's Head Summit with additional radio towers visible. The views extend out across the entire Mogollon Rim region, with Oak Creek Canyon and Mingus Mountain visible in the far distance.

The San Francisco Peaks rise above Turkey Park

Once you've explored the Mount Elden summit area, just get on the access road and follow it down back to Sunset Park. Then, follow the Upper Oldham Trail back down the steep slopes through dense forest back to the Brookbank Trailhead and your car to have completed the loop.

Get an early start in summer to avoid afternoon monsoon thunderstorms

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Teide Volcano Caldera Loop, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

Distance: 6.5 miles (10.5 km)
Elevation: 7,050 - 7,400 feet (2,150 - 2,255 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Anytime

The island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, just off the coast is North Africa is a magical place. While heavily visited by tourists from Northern Europe, there is a reason why. It's mild climate, diversity of ecosystems, and amazing scenery make it well worth the visit. If you are interested in biogeography, then this is your place, with numerous endemic species who have been isolated from the mainland for millenia. I'll do a series on places to visit on Tenerife in the next couple of week. Today, I'll start with a hike at the base of Teide Volcano.

Teide summit cone with icy chunks on the lava flows
Teide Volcano is 12,197 feet above sea level and 24,600 feet above the ocean floor, making it the largest volcano in the world outside of Hawaii. When most people visit the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands and head up onto the Teide Volcano, they usually do two things. Either they just do a drive through of the caldera, or they get on the cable car to ride it up to the 11,660 foot elevation of the terminal station. Getting to the summit requires an additional hike up and a special use permit, as it is very limited access. We too planned to take the cable car up. But, high winds and icy conditions closed the cable car for the day. Thus, we decided to go for a hike inside the caldera instead.

Fog rolling up from the outer slopes of the caldera

To access the caldera and trails, you can either drive up from Puerto de la Cruz (the way we accessed) or from Vilaflor (the way we exited the national park). Then, once in the caldera, you can park at the Parador Hotel Las CaƱadas or at the pullout just below the cable car station called the Teleferico. Either spot will connect you to the loop. The loop is actually two different trails that connect together, #19 and #16.

Brooms and subalpine vegetation in the caldera
At these subalpine elevations, the climate is dry and can either be very hot or very cold. The elevation is such that moisture from the ocean condenses at lower elevations resulting in a fog-belt that supports the Canary Island Pine forests. But, these clouds do not reach much higher, resulting in desert-like conditions above. As you hike, you will see scattered brooms and small shrubs, but not much else.

The endemic Echium wildpretii grow on the volcanic rocks only in this caldera

The trail from the Parador hotel follows an old dirt track up toward the edge of the caldera. You will see large stalked rosettes of Echium growing on the the rocky outcrops. Like many subalpine plants in tropical regions, it has taken on a classic stalked rosette form. When it flowers, a huge plume of bright pink flowers will climb up to 1-2 meters high. This is just one of the several species of endemic Echiums that live in the Canary Islands that evolved in isolation over millions of years. They are familiar to many gardeners, as a number of species in this genus are grown as ornamentals.

Flowers of Echium wildpretii
The trail from the Parador will weave through a number of rocky formations, past some high volcanic dikes, and then descend down to connect with trail #16 just past a few old shacks. Here you will swing left and follow the track straight for the Teide peak. Along the way you will enter a small canyon, where the endemic Canary island lizard species can be seen scrambling among the rocks.

The endemic Tenerife lizard (Gallotia galloti)
This trail will then enter a dry wash and emerge eventually at the main road crossing the park, with the cable car station visible above. Just as you reach the road, turn left and follow the Trail #16 as it parallels the road through a desolate desert-like landscape along the base of a volcanic cone. You will be able to see the Parador Hotel in the distance, so just keep following this track toward it.

Volcanic dikes, resistant to erosion, emerge above the caldera
If the clouds remain below the lip of the caldera, the Los Roques del Teide will be visible ahead. The remnant of a volcanic dikes. But, it is always possible that the fog will rise up and into the caldera, obscuring the views, but also cooling you down in the hot sun of the mid-day.

Along the trail in the caldera...La Canada ridge beyond
Soon you will return to your vehicle. If the weather permits, you can ride the Teleferico up to over 11,000 feet for a view out across the entire island. But, it is also possible that high winds or icy conditions will make that not possible. Keep checking out the website for additional places to visit on the island of Tenerife.

Los Roques del Teide

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