Zion Traverse, UT, USA
25 May 2019
HIKING DISTANCE: 37.5 Miles
VERTICAL: +2,890' / -4,620'
TIME: 13 Hours 50 Minutes
Of course the original plan was to tackle the Zion Traverse in all its 48 mile glory; however, the East Rim Trail from the Weeping Wall was closed due to rockfall. While we were tempted to slip past the closure, we also recognize that closures aren't always put in place to protect hikers. Sometimes they're put in place to protect the trail. And given the popularity of Zion, we didn't want to set a bad example. Instead we opted to cap our traverse with a climb up Angel's Landing, which was a stunning way to finish a rad walk.
I loved sharing this experience and notice that I tend to push really hard and go really long when I'm on my own, but when I'm with someone my whole mindset shifts. I think I'm just psyched for the company and not really paying attention to pace. I feel more present with my trekking partner and with my surroundings. I take more breaks, look up more frequently, and generally feel more full. Tom is an old friend from my Open Sky days, and I felt deeply connected during our many diverse conversations today. One of the things that I most value in our friendship is the way he challenges me. He's not afraid to disagree and has a welcoming way of engaging healthy debate. We should all be so lucky to have such a friend.
I don't have too much to say about the traverse itself. From Lee Pass, it took longer to reach the classic Zion views than I thought it would, but the ponderosa pine forests we walked through were pretty in their own right. From Angel's Landing, it looked like the climb up the East Rim Trail would've featured sensational views of the main canyon. I'm not sure whether I'll come back to tackle the full traverse, but I know I'll be back when the East Rim Trail finally re-opens. Tom and I also talked about returning to tackle some classic slots this fall, which I'm sure to be giddy about all summer long. Zion is a truly special place. If you haven't been, I highly recommend it. The experience is worth battling the crowds.
THE WAVE, UT, USA
27 November 2018
HIKING DISTANCE: 8+ Miles
TIME: 8 Hours 55 Minutes
I titled this post "The Wave", but I'm really going to be talking about North Coyote Buttes as a whole. I also recommend that if you're in the area and are unable to get permits for the Buttes that you consider exploring White Pocket. The former is a world-famous site and requires a permit that is notoriously difficult to get while the latter is considerably more difficult to get to but requires no permit at all.
Mallory and I attended two drawings for Wave permits. The first time we went was the day after Thanksgiving. We thought we'd have a better chance because it was the day after a major holiday and because they draw for three days on Fridays. The visitor center isn't open on weekends, so they draw for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday on Friday. That meant that instead of 10 permits, there were 30 permits available. We liked our odds until we saw the full overflow parking. The way it works is that each party submits a single application with each member's name listed on it. One application per party. If you cheat, you're disqualified. Well there were 145 applications representing 398 hopefuls, which tied the all-time record for applicants in a single drawing. Ten individual permits are awarded per day, so if a party of six is drawn, then another party of six. The second party of six can only send four members. If they're unwilling to do that, then they pass and those four permits remain available. Friday was a shitshow. I really had no desire to deal with that fiasco more than a few times. We went in yesterday and were pleasantly surprised to find just 34 applications representing a reasonable 70 people. Though there were only 10 permits available yesterday, our odds were considerably higher, nevermind that the process was far less stressful. We were the first number drawn, and that was that. Since they always do the drawing for the following day, we had the rest of yesterday to research the area and come up with our game plan.
There wasn't much point to getting a pre-dawn start, since the best light at Coyote Buttes North tends to be better between late morning and late afternoon. We car camped in Kanab last night and enjoyed a cup of coffee and indoor plumbing before heading for the trailhead. We began the short trek a few minutes after 0900. It seems that everyone talks about The Wave, but there is so much more to the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Don't get me wrong, The Wave was my favorite part. I'm just saying that there are many other beautiful features to explore, and they're worth the extra effort.
The hike out to the Wave is something like three miles, and it's a pretty in walk in and of itself. The Wave was the first major feature that we came to, and we spent as much time there as we could before more hikers arrived. It's a relatively small space, so it becomes crowded quickly as more and more of the twenty permit holders show up. From there, we sought out The Alcove, Melody Arch, and Second Wave. Ended up spending the entire day out there. Came back to The Wave for some soft evening light before hiking out as dark set in. It was amazing. What a special place. (I also highly recommend visiting Flame Arch, which is near the parking area at Wire Pass but does not require a permit!)
BUCKSKIN GULCH, UT, USA
18 September 2018
HIKING DISTANCE: 21 Miles
VERTICAL: +180' / -760'
TIME: 13 Hours 32 Minutes
Buckskin Gulch has long been on my life list. I think I saw an article about it somewhere like five years ago, and it has stuck with me since then. I'd even looked into it a few times over the years, but the logistics are a little challenging and I just didn't have the skillset or experience to feel confident tackling the trip. After re-focusing on desert adventures this summer, I was feeling plenty prepared to tackle this (mostly) non-technical slot. My girlfriend, Mallory, drove out from Denver and we coordinated the car shuttle. We left my car at the White House trailhead where we picked it up at the end of our hike. I was surprised that my little Camry was able to get all the way out to Wire Pass to pick up Mallory's Jeep, but I figured if it didn't make it, we could just walk the road back up to Wire Pass. After our long day, we were both grateful that the extra miles weren't necessary.
I must've had some food that didn't agree with me last night, because- well, just because. Some details are better-left undescribed. These are those.
Mallory and I had a pretty leisurely morning by my standards. Normally I'd get up and get shreddin', but we had coffee and generally moseyed as we prepped our gear for the day. We started walking a few minutes before 0700. It was a nice change of pace, and I was happy to follow her lead. Really been enjoying sharing this journey with her.
We didn't realize at the start of our trip that Wire Pass is a shared trailhead with another popular (and highly regulated) feature in the North Coyote Buttes. Mallory and I were following footprints near Wire Pass, assuming they would take us to Buckskin. Instead we caught up to some other hikers and were told that we were in the wrong place, that we could get a huge fine, that we didn't have the proper permit, and on and on like this. I just smiled and thought to myself: "The wave isn't the only cool thing out here; it's just the only thing you saw on your Instagram feed." Instead I just told her that we were heading toward Buckskin Gulch. She quickly replied, "They said the water is up to 15 feet. Hope you're ready to swim." I just smiled and said "Hm. Well, we'll just go have a look." Of course, there were no fifteen foot deep crossings anywhere along the route. I learned a long time ago that these kinds of reports are unreliable and to just go and have a look for myself.
Although to be fair, this woman wasn't totally off point. Mallory and I had followed the prevailing footprints, which were leading us toward The Wave. Rather than backtrack, we just headed cross-country and picked our way down along the steep walls of Wire Canyon. It was an adventure to kick off our adventure.
Buckskin is epic. It's mostly a walk through high-walled narrows. I felt anxious much of the day because the 100+ unavoidable water crossings ranged in depth from ankle to upper chest. And of course we never knew what lie ahead. I've ruined a couple cameras in water, so I'm pretty much always anxious when it's in play, and there was a lot of water in the early part of the hike with crossings every few hundred feet. They were relentless - some very deep and muddy. In fact, our trail runners were filled with mud and muck all dang day. Totally worth it, though. I'd considered leaving my camera at the car and only bringing my GoPro, but I would've been kicking myself the whole way if I had. The light improved throughout the day, and I got some incredible captures. There was only one crossing - at the very end of the day - where swimming was even a plausible choice, and it still wasn't necessary. (Mallory did most of the scouting at the endless muddy water crossings, and she did a fantastic job, once even finding a high spine that made one of the tougher crossings much more straightforward.) Glad I took the risk and always cognisent that luck played a role in the conditions of the day. I always come back to the idea that there's no point in having a nice camera if I'm not going to use it.
There were only two difficult obstacles throughout the 21 mile journey. The first was a well-documented boulder jam. Trail notes suggest a 50-foot rope to aid in downclimbing the Moki steps. Mallory and I were able to find a safer downclimb among the many jumbled boulders. The other tough obstacle was the near-swim after Buckskin merges with Paria Canyon. Otherwise it was really just a walk with some deep, muddy wading. There were maybe four or five crossings that were chest deep and a few dozen that were thigh-to-waist deep. One of the chest deep crossings also happened to be a disgusting stagnant cesspool of floating debris and who knows how many dead animals and diseases. That putrid crossing extended out of sight and around a corner, totaling nearly 50 yards. We briefly considered just turning around, but we'd already come so far.
The slot was surprisingly quiet. We expected to see others, or at least hear them, as we made our way along. But we didn't see anyone else until a pair of day hikers who had come in from White House Campground. Pretty incredible that we had the slot to ourselves for most of the day. Still can't believe this place. It was absolutely incredible. Couldn't be more stoked on our trip.
Kings Peak, UT, USA
09 September 2018
HIKING DISTANCE: 41 Miles
VERTICAL: +/- 6,580'
TIME: 21 Hours 53 Minutes
I'd had my eye on Kings Peak since I moved out to Utah for a summer job back in May. With that job nearing an end, I started tracking the weather in the Uintas. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Utah high country. I was actively considering hiking the entire Kings-Emmons ridge, which is 14 miles long and the longest continuous ridge in Utah. The Uinta thirteeners are notorious for long approaches and for this reason are often tackled as overnight backpacking trips rather than day hikes. If you're reading this, then you know how I love challenge hikes, so the 45-ish mile round trip Kings-Emmons Traverse was brutally appealing. The round trip distance from the trailhead to the Kings Peak summit via the Yellowstone Creek Trail is about 41 miles. I (foolishly) figured that a few extra ridge miles wouldn't make a significant difference. Six and one-half dozen, I reasoned. Wrong.
This is the kinda project that I would historically just decide I wanted to tackle, then hop off the couch and...go for a walk. However, I'm painfully out of shape following four months behind a desk. And while I understood this, there was also a part of me that didn't want to believe it's as bad as it is. Still, I planned three trips: (1) the Kings-Emmons; (2) half of the Kings-Emmons bailing at Trail Rider Peak; and (3) an out-and-back assault on Kings Peak. I really thought I could do option one, especially given my willingness to hike unfathomable hours. The thought that I wouldn't at least traverse half of the ridge really wasn't one I'd entertained seriously.
I set out from the Swift Creek Campground a few minutes after 1a beneath a sky full of brilliantly shining stars. I'd gotten just three hours of sleep and fully expected that I'd be walking for at least the next 24 hours, and likely more than that. Kings Peak stands over 13,500 feet above sea level with a prominence in excess of 6,000 vertical feet, making it one of 57 so-called "ultra prominent" peaks in the lower 48. I haven't climbed a major peak since I completed the Colorado 14ers two years ago. Then there's the technical nature of the traverse. The Uintas are cliffy and crumbling. I've done plenty of sketchy climbs, but not sustained like that for 14 miles. All of that and the long approach made for a helluva'n ambitious climb. Probably shoulda shown more reverence from the outset.
The Yellowstone Creek Trail is highly underrated because it just follows the gorge through trees until a few short miles below the climb to Andersons Saddle and up to Kings Peak. But since I'd be walking in the middle of the night, I couldn't care less. In fact, hiking through the forest meant warmer temps and protection from the wind. It also meant more likelihood of overnight wildlife encounters, which isn't really my favorite thing given some past late-night experiences, but that's part of the deal on a project like this one. And of course I saw some eyes here and some eyes there, but I just reminded myself that they're (probably) harmless deer.
I thought I could gain the summit in seven hours; it took me over nine. Ok, I thought, option two it is. I took a half hour lunch break sharing the summit with a handful of others before pressing on toward South Kings Peak. I could see the first bit of the traverse ahead, and it wasn't particularly inviting, but it wasn't even 11a, so I reasoned that I had some time. I planned to cruise to South Kings, then over to Painter Boy, and finally onto Trail Rider before dropping down the southwest running ridge toward Bluebell Pass to tie into the Swift Creek Trail and follow it back to my car.
It seemed so easy in my head, but the tallus/boulder slope from Kings to South Kings proved a difficult task as my legs were shot, my lungs were burning, and the altitude had sapped my energy. The boulders were constantly shifting under my feet, and I was having trouble following a safe route across the steep, loose slope. It took me over an hour to go three quarters of a mile. No way I could finish option two before dark, and I definitely didn't want to be descending a sketchy slope cross-country by headlamp. I knew I wouldn't get beyond South Kings before turning around, but I figured I'd at least tag it since it was right in front of me. Then it happened: I realized that I didn't really care about South Kings other than the fact that I'd already begun the traverse. This was a classic case of summit fever. Once I realized that, it was easy to give it up and head back the way I'd come. The failed extra had added a mile and a half and about five hundred feet of vertical beyond the specs listed in the post header. Eh, no big deal.
I took an hour long nap before traversing the upper slopes of Kings Peak to regain the Yellowstone Creek Trail at Anderson Saddle. Then I spent another hour at the saddle on the phone with my girlfriend. Amazing where you can get service these days. Did you know that you can get full LTE service from the Mt. Whitney summit? Ridiculous.
Finally I was back on terra firma. The Yellowstone Creek Trail begins at the saddle and would take me all the way back to my car. Cruiser miles compared to the ridgeline. But the hour was late, my legs and muscles were sore, and the altitude had already taken a toll. I knew I was in for a rough exit, but nothing to be done about it but walk as swiftly as I could, so off I went. Of course the pain of those past early-season fourteeners had faded from my memory, leaving only the bliss of summit bids and gorgeous views. Today was a brutal reminder of what it took to get those views.
If it wasn't for the extra time I spent climbing beyond Kings, I would've made it out shortly after dark. Instead I walked until 11p. And for the last half dozen miles, all I could think was how annoyed I felt that I was still walking. I kept thinking over and over again that I should have just turned around at the Kings Peak summit, that I could be done walking already if I had. But then I remembered the bull moose that I spooked at dusk on my way out. The way he disappeared into the woods and snorted at me as I passed. (It was cool despite my anxiety that September marks the beginning of the rutting season, which typically means heightened aggression in male ungulates. Fortunately he let me pass without incident.) And it's those little things that I might have missed were it not for my misguided ambition. As much as I feel like pushing toward South Kings without ultimately topping out was a waste of time, it's all part of the experience. Like how there are choices I've made in my life that I'm not proud of and moments that I wish I hadn't had to endure, but all of those things have made me who I am. And I couldn't change my guilt or my pain without also changing my heart and my soul. And why would I wanna do that?
Kalalau Trail, HI, USA
09 November 2017
HIKING DISTANCE: 22 Miles
VERTICAL: +/- 5,080'
TIME: 16 Hours 22 Minutes
Caught my flight from the Big Island yesterday morning and managed to trim four hours off of my connection in Honolulu by snagging a seat on an earlier flight, so I arrived on Kauai around 11a yesterday. I utilized the public bus system, which allowed me to get directly from the airport all the way out to Hanalei for just $2.50, which put me within 8 miles of the Kalalau trailhead. Way better option than hitching, I thought. Affordable, reliable, low-risk. I arrived in Hanalei by 2p, so I got some lunch and charged my electronics for a few hours before setting out for the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park.
I had planned to just road walk with my thumb out, but I realized pretty quickly that that plan wasn't going to work. There is absolutely no shoulder for most of the 7.5 miles from the edge of town to the trailhead. And there are significant stretches where the road is cut into a sheer roadside slope with a sheer drop-off to the beach on the opposite side. Hardly an ideal road walk scenario, but I wasn't in the mood to just sit by the side of a pullout with my thumb out, so I walked quickly and deliberately the whole length, switching from one side of the road to the other in order to maintain a clear line of sight for traffic. The road walk itself was more dangerous than most of my actual adventures have been. Nevertheless, I arrived at the beach safe and sound around 7p. Setup camp, ate dinner, climbed into bed, and set my alarm for 430a. I was filled with excitement and anticipation.
My alarm was hardly necessary this morning, because I slept so poorly last night. There were headlights and headlamps that disturbed me a few times throughout the night. But mostly it was the humidity and the bugs- mosquitoes and sand flies chewing on me all night long. Perils of not carrying a bug net for my tarp shelter. Really gotta get one before I travel abroad. It's one thing to deal with the bugs for a night, or even a week, but a full-on thru hike? That would be miserable. Finally got out of bed around 4a and hit the trail by 5a under the light of a half moon. I was glad to be moving, leaving the swarming pests behind me. The plan was to stop at a sweet overlook and wait for sunrise to catch some golden hour light on the Napali Coastline. There were some pretty spots along the way, but the dream views - the stuff you see online when you google the Kalalau or the Napali Coast - don't come until about the last two miles of the 11-mile trek into Kalalau Valley. Up to that point, it's just a pretty walk through coastal valleys and thick vegetation. Dime-a-dozen kinda walk by Hawai'i standards. Once the views open up, though, they just get better and better until you arrive. That's the part of the trip that sets the Kalalau apart.
I arrived at Kalalau Beach by 1030a with a companion in tow. There were four or five big dogs at Hanakapi'ai Valley who were all barking at me as I forded the creek at like a quarter to 6a this morning. Guess some folks had illegally camped there last night. One of the dogs, some sort of pitbull mix, started following me after I crossed. I couldn't get her to turn around; she followed me all the way to the Kalalau Valley. She stayed right by my side, barely an arm's length from me at any given point. It didn't take long for me to fall in love. She was tugging at my heart strings. She's an anxious, sweet, beautiful little thing. I'd started entertaining the idea of keeping her if no one claimed her by the time I got back to the trailhead, but there is no way I could manage that with all of my travels and career plans the next 8 or 10 years. Fortunately she found another family while we were down at Kalalau. Really gonna miss that little nugget.
Kalalau Beach was stunning, and there were barely a dozen people there. Totally worth the trip. I spent over six hours there- reading, swimming, and napping. I probably wouldn't have stayed so long except that I was hoping to catch some better light on the way out. (You know I like photos better than sentences.) I never quite got the photos I'd imagined, because the sun set forward of the coastline and not over the ocean as I'd hoped, but I managed to capture some cool shots anyways. There is something really special about looking down on the Napali Coast from the top of Red Hill, the folded ridges reaching skyward and the big blue stretching northward as far as the eye can see. What a scene. I doubt if any conditions would've allowed me to capture that kinda magic.
I left the beach around 5p and turned around frequently to capture as many angles and different compositions as I could. I was basically walking backwards for the first couple hours. Once twilight finally faded to black, I turned my headlamp on, put my head down, and hiked hard until I reached the trailhead. Made great time until I was about a mile from the end. That's about the time that it started raining, although the mud and slick roots suggested that it had been raining and I'd just walked into the weather. I took it slow during the final stretch as I carefully picked my way down the steep, slippery trail. Finally arrived at the trailhead a bit after 9p, completely wiped out.
I took refuge from the rain under an awning near the trailhead where I'd planned to nap for an hour. I'm soaked through with rain and sweat. The humidity is still thick in the air despite the rain, and it's plenty warm out, so the bugs haven't relented. So much for napping. It was still drizzling when I made up my mind to road walk another 5 miles to Pohakuopi'o, a lovely little roadside cove I discovered yesterday, to catch what I hope will be a sweet sunrise tomorrow morning. When I left, I really didn't know if I had it in me. But now I've arrived. It's after midnight, and I'm pooped. Still raining. Still buggy. This sunrise had better be worth it.
Dawson-Pitamakan Loop, MT, USA
20 August 2017
HIKING DISTANCE: 19 Miles
VERTICAL: +/- 2,935'
TIME: 5 Hours 57 Minutes
One of the very few loops in Glacier that doesn't include a road walk. And what a gem. The light wasn't ideal given the fires that are burning in the park. The haze created a cool warm effect, though- a natural smoke filter if you will. This is a hike I'd be stoked to do again, and hopefully will one day. Every step along the ridge walk was like skipping on the clouds. And the Pitamakan Overlook was absolutely unreal. I don't even know what else to say about it, so I'll just let the photos do the talking. Whoever you are, you should do it.
The Grand Loop, MT, USA
19 August 2017
HIKING DISTANCE: 33.5 Miles
VERTICAL: +/- 4,950'
TIME: 12 Hours 17 Minutes
This is one that's been on my life list for quite some time. Stoked to finally hit the trail early this morning. Given that the last time I hiked alone in Glacier National Park, I ran into a grizzly, I was hesitant to start before dawn. Instead, I got to the trailhead early and napped until twilight when I stepped into the chilly air and started the climb up Piegan Pass. Elated. Of course I was the only one out there, so I was singing aloud trying to avoid surprising any big wildlife that might- ya know, kill me. Piegan Pass was incredible, and I had it all to myself. Still can't believe how often this gorgeous pass is overlooked except that there are so many special places packed into this wonderful park. Bound to be a few under-appreciated nooks. And Piegan Pass above Siyeh Bend is one of those.
Next, the descent into Swiftcurrent Basin. Excited to climb a much more popular, and at least equally beautiful, pass. And of course, this is where the trail got busy. The views back into the Swiftcurrent Basin from the Continental Divide, there's a reason this place is so popular. And then at the start of the drop down the backside of the pass, the Granite Chalet is prominantly perched overlooking what feels like a neverending sprawl of forest and mountains. And looking out toward Logan Pass, I could see the steep climb up to the Garden Wall and the overlook above Grinnel Glacier. The freakin' trail may as well have been a ladder, it was so steep. And I may as well have been an inch worm making my way up it. I was totally spent and entertained the thought of skipping the climb, but quickly called that thought what it was- stupid. Effing sick overlook. Totally worth the extra couple hours. (Hahah, couple hours for a mile and a half side trip.) The rest of the hike was a fairly steady downhill except one fairly brief climb. The Highline Trail, the section of The Grand Loop that runs from the Granite Chalet to Logan Pass is stunning. The last half mile or so traces a sheer cliff above the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Absolutely incredible trail.
I think most folks would plan to hike this one clockwise starting at Logan Pass; however, I chose to hike it anti-clockwise because - naturally - I wanted to have good light. I don't mind doing a little extra work- miles, pounds, gain. It's just a challenge, right? Loved it. Well, all except the part where I approached Logan Pass in time to watch the last eastbound shuttle pull out of the parking lot. Seriously? Seriously?! Hahah, classic end to a great hike. At least the weather was on point! I'd hoped to avoid those last three road miles, but no such luck. After about 20 minutes of trying to hitch, I just sucked it up and started jogging. At least it was all downhill. Lost about 850 feet over those three miles. Pretty satisfying to finally be back at my car. Another epic hike ticked off my life list. I love this place. By far my favorite national park; worth all the traffic, all the crowds, all the...just, all. Public lands are our greatest national treasures.
Durango to Molas Pass (CT), CO, USA
25 June 2017
HIKING DISTANCE: 74 Miles
VERTICAL: +15,600' / -11,710'
TIME: 34 Hours 8 Minutes
Normally I tackle challenge hikes like this on my own, but a few friends expressed interest in this little venture. Truth is, I was excited to bring 'em along. Haven't known too many folks who are into this kinda struggle fest. Spent yesterday getting them outfitted with food and gear as well as going over tips 'n tricks. Dropped Tom's car at Molas Pass this morning, then came back to meet Alex at the trailhead. Finally hit the trail around 940a. Not exactly an alpine start, as a few trailwork volunteers jokingly pointed out. We'd originally hoped to get going a little earlier, but it really didn't make any difference. We knew we were gonna be doing an overnight regardless. Timing was irrelevant.
The Colorado Trail is popular down toward Durango, especially with mountain bikers. And there were loads of them out there this morning. We were hiking uphill, and naturally, they were shredding downhill. A few times, a rider came screaming around a blind corner and we were ducking and diving to get out of the way. (If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a mountain bike.) The bike traffic thinned out significantly as we neared the end of our 6,500-foot climb to Kennebec Pass. We were about a mile below the pass when Alex told me and Tom that he was struggling with an injury. We all wanted him to continue, and the reality was that if he was pushing through pain at mile 20 that it would only get exponentially worse for the next 54 miles. And the trail was only going to get more remote moving forward, which would make evacuation longer and more difficult. We all knew that he couldn't continue and no one wanted to say it. In the end, he made the decision to call a friend for a pickup. Takes a lot of courage to do what we know we need to when it's at odds with what we want. Good call, Alex. Nothing but love and respect for you, brother. Missed you up there.
Kennebec Pass is where it really started to get good. Indian Trail Ridge was stunning, just miles and miles on the crest above the trees looking out over Sharkstooth and neighboring peaks. And all of this as the sun was setting. What a gorgeous alpine sunset which gave way to a wonderful overnight hike. The new moon and relatively clear skies allowed us to see what felt like every single star in the sky. Spent much of the overnight section in the trees, which was probably ten degrees warmer than the open ridge would've been. Really lucky timing overall. Just before the sun came up, Venus rose over a nearby ridge. It was so big and bright, I couldn't believe it was a celestial body. I was sure it was some kind of tower light. Sure enough, though, it continued to rise as we climbed to Blackhawk Pass. Couldn't have planned it any better.
Descending the backside of Blackhawk and the mile or two after was the sketchiest section of the whole hike. Up until then, we hadn't hit any significant snow. The snow there wasn't too bad, but the grade was steep and it was solid, icy. Would've appreciated traction, but we survived. Didn't seem to bother Tom at all- nerves of steel by comparison. I wasn't concerned about being seriously injured, but it would've been easy to sprain an ankle or break a leg in a fall. Not really my idea of fun, but worth the risk. Didn't hit the real snow until our last major descent from Rolling Mountain Pass. That same trail crew that teased us about our "alpine start" also assured us that we'd never make it with all of the snow and the dangerous swift water crossings. The snow was challenging in a few places, but the water crossings were all totally manageable. Those folks were so sure we'd never make it, that it wasn't safe. In reality, it was totally fine. Funny how everyone is an expert. When folks offer their perspective and guidance, it's important to remember that we all have different experiences and ultimately different risk tolerances. We took their warnings seriously, but we weren't willing to scrap our entire trip because they told us we couldn't do it. If it turned out to be too dangerous, we'd just turn around. No biggie.
The sun finally crested the ridge when we were topping out on Blackhawk Pass. We had something like 25 miles still to go. And from there on, we routinely overestimated our progress. Multiple times we came to a high point and were sure we'd hit Bolam Pass. In reality, we were looking for Bolam Pass Road at Centennial Lake, not a high point at all. Pretty demoralizing when we finally hit it and realized our miscalculation. We'd had 21 miles left for a long time before we actually had 21 miles left. Ugh, I was so annoyed. Just wanted to be done. My feet hurt and my back was sore. Took lots of breaks during the last dozen miles. Pretty slow progress for both of us, though it worked out well. When I got a second wind, Tom was struggling and vice versa. We were able to support each other really well through to the end. Finally finished around 745p, and we couldn't have been happier. All smiles. Met Alex for a celebratory dinner in Durango, and now- bed.
Trans Catalina Traverse, CA, USA
17 April 2017
HIKING DISTANCE: 48 Miles
VERTICAL: +/- 7,000'
TIME: 23 Hours 57 Minutes
This is a helluva sweet trek, and thankfully underrated. There were very few other trekkers on this route. Given the absolute lack of shade, it's not a trek I'd recommend trying to do in the summer season, but as a late spring trip, it was awesome.
Let's start with the logistics. I only had a two-day window, and I wanted to traverse the entire island. That's not too challenging in itself, but the ferry schedule complicated things a little bit. Actually, it dictated my trip. I didn't have too much time to work out transportation, so I was locked into the San Pedro port, because it's the only one that goes to both Avalon and Two Harbors. I took the earliest ferry I could out of San Pedro en route to Two Harbors, which didn't leave until 1230p yesterday. (Obviously I would've preferred an earlier start, but it worked out pretty well in the end.) From there, I hiked the nicely graded West End Road along the coast and out to Land's End, then turned around and retraced my route back to camp. I took a power nap in Two Harbors before waking up, packing, and hitting the Trans Catalina Trail toward Avalon. Earlier this evening, I caught my ferry out of Avalon and back to San Pedro. Sounds pretty simple.
Now at first I was pretty upset about not being able to get to Two Harbors until about 2p. But then I started looking more closely at the route. I figured I could be out of Two Harbors by around 3p, hike the West End Road out to Parson's Landing in time for some nice evening light, and then on to Land's End in time for sunset. I could night hike back with a clear sky and a little moonlight, catch a few hours sleep in my hammock, then head out pre-dawn to arrive at Little Harbor in time for some sweet morning light. From there, I'd follow the TCT and ultimately take the Hermit Gulch Trail bypass to shave a few miles off the route to town. And all that would give me plenty of time to finish the traverse and catch the late ferry out. A tall order, yes. And all the makings of a sweet trip.
And that's about how it all went. I arrived in Two Harbors a little before 2p, secured my camping permit, and headed over to the waterfront campground, which was situated a short quarter mile from the quaint resort town. I had reserved Site 6, thinking it would be cool to be near the water. Instead, I was setup right in front of the portapotties. Oops. At least I had a couple trees in my site that were prime for my hammock. It took me about 45 minutes to get dialed in camp, then I took the scenic route back to town so I could explore the campground a bit. The views from the upper sites were incredible and nearly unobstructed. I'd recommend reserving one of those, maybe sites 15 or 16.
Catalina Island is in the throes of a severe drought, and has been for quite some time now. I was concerned about how the drought might affect my experience out there. The truth is that the drought has serious impacts on the locals, but there were very few instances where I was personally affected as a tourist. There was potable water available in most camps and at many establishments. There were some exceptions, including camping at Parson's Landing where you would be required to pay for camping and pay an additional fee for a locker that includes wood as well as two and a half gallons of drinking water. Also some of the restaurants on the island don't provide free drinking water to customers, though bottled water is available for purchase at a reasonable price. If you do visit Catalina Island, please be respectful of that place and her people. Conserve their limited water resources.
If you've read about my other trips, you've probably figured out that I like to do things my own way. (No one ever accused me of being a purist.) I decided to break from the official Trans Catalina Trail in a few intentional ways. In fact, I hardly set foot on the TCT yesterday. Rather than endure a tedious and painful slog, as I've heard the TCT described on the western part of the island, I opted for the West End Road, a pleasantly graded, relatively flat route that traces the Pacific as it meanders in and out of coves and along cliffs. Absolutely gorgeous. I traced the West End Road out to Parson's Landing, which was the first highlight of the trip. If my schedule had allowed, I would've cowboy camped right there on that beautiful beach. The sun was hanging low in the sky, so instead I snapped some photos and moved along. I picked up the Trans Catalina Trail for much of the last push out to Land's End. I chose to skip Starlight Beach (the official western terminus of the TCT) in favor of Land's End. Though the sunset itself left much to be desired, the last mile or so to Land's End was crosscountry along a cool spine, and the views of the coast were sweet.
The night hike back to Two Harbors was lovely. Clear skies, bright half moon, light ocean breeze, not another human in sight, and a handful of Catalina Foxes to keep me company. (Did you know that the Catalina Fox has come back from the verge of extinction? Cute little fellas.) I also loved seeing the bright, twinkling city lights of SoCal just across the water. It's funny to think about those millions of people living their lives in the big city as I'm walking along in blissful solitude. I totally shredded the return trip to Two Harbors. It was after 11p before I got back, and my legs and back were feeling it. Still early season. I stopped to sit on the beach at Two Harbors before I continued on to the campground. Knowing I might never be back, I wanted to sit and appreciate this place. I loved sitting there, watching the sailboats shimmer in the moonlight as they rocked gently in sync with the mellow waves. Finally around midnight, I nestled into my hammock. Settling in was sweet bliss, but setting my alarm for four hours later was not.
I awoke the same way I'd drifted to sleep: in a cloud of thick humidity. Dew had settled over my gear, and the light ocean breeze enveloped me as I packed up. I was hiking by 450a. The moon shone brightly as I walked. Still it took me an hour to find the trail heading east outta Two Harbors. I was feeling pretty annoyed. (Guess I wasn't too sharp following my four hour nap.) Once I did finally find it, I was totally cruisin'. The trail, an old road of some kind, climbed sharply out of town and up into the mountains. I gained probably 1,200 feet over just a couple miles. After about 45 minutes, I startled a bison who was lounging right in the middle of the road. Of course, he startled me right back when he stood up and squared off with me directly. I'm just a little fella, so I gave him a wide berth by trapsing through the tall, dewey grass adjacent to the road. I saw about a dozen more before I completed my hike, but the rest were all grazing on distant slopes.
When I finally gained the ridge crest, the road followed it directly, which was contrary to all I'd learned about trail design during my seasons as a trail crew leader. Of course, I reminded myself, it's not a trail. It's a road. The fog was thick this morning as I worked my way along the ridge. views of the ocean a thousand feet below were obscured, and I felt annoyed at my poor luck. But then, the fog started to clear as I neared Little Harbor. And those last few miles down to the water were my favorite of the whole trip, no doubt in part due to the early morning light that finally broke through. Perfect. I actually let out an audible sigh of relief as I captured photo after photo of my descent. I was filled with gratitude. Parson's Landing and Little Harbor were my favorite parts of the entire traverse.
The climb out of Little Harbor and up to the Airport in the Sky was formidable. It was another old road that climbed steeply up and up. The sun really started to come out as I neared the airport. The hike was pretty, and I continued to stop frequently to capture photos even as the midday heat grew more intense. I was making great time and started to take the trail for granted, which is how I ended up getting turned around at the airport. My mistakes could've been easily prevented if I had spent a minute or two referencing my map, but I couldn't be bothered to do that. At least not until I was convinced that I'd lost my way, and by then I'd added a mile or two to my day. Ah well, coulda been a lot worse. I finally got back on track and followed the TCT diligently through a series of steep ups and downs as I made my way along trail segments intertwined with old roads. Though the TCT utilizes many of these old road beds, it thankfully avoids the main thoroughfares, so there was very little vehicle traffic to contend with, and hardly any trekkers either. The miles from the airport to Avalon were hot and felt especially long. I took a short sitdown break under a tree at Blackjack Campground. The break was nice, but the campground left a lot to be desired. Frankly, I wouldn't care to spend the night there if I could avoid it. It was plain and didn't feel compelling to me in any way. And on top of that, I didn't see any potable water system, which I assume means that you have to pay an additional camping fee for a locker key that includes a couple gallons of bottled water. I wasn't upset when it was time to start walking again. To the contrary, I shredded the network of trails and roads all the way to the TCT split with the Hermit Gultch Trail.
This was a trail where I'd set the challenge goal of finishing the entire length in under 24 hours, including sleep. I was cutting it close as I left Blackjack, and I had no issues with staring at the ground while I powered through the next six and a half miles to the turnoff for the Hermit Gulch Trail, then pressing even harder down the steady descent to the Hermit Gulch Campground and on to the beach in Avalon. I was definitely moderately dehydrated and starting to bonk by the end of it, but it was a total blast. Second degree fun and all that. My guaranteed goal was 26 hours, because that's when they'd start loading the last ferry for the return trip to San Pedro. I had to make that goal; no wiggle room getting back for work on Wednesday. My bailout plan was to take the bus from the airport to the harbor. Fortunately it didn't come to that. As difficult as the last four hours were, they were also really pretty.
Since I finished before 3p, I had a couple hours to kill in Avalon before boarding the ferry. I stopped in at Scoops, a local ice cream parlor, and got a pistachio shake. Excellent decision. Next I took a dip in the Pacific to celebrate my photo finish. Then I went to a local seafood restaurant and ate fish 'n chips on the waterfront while I sipped on a glass of California white wine. I was marveling. There I sat in Avalon, enjoying fish and wine, feeling satisfied with the whole thing. Great planning, great flexibility, and great execution. Couldn't have done it better if I'd scouted the trip a hundred times. So much good luck on this little venture.