Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and Me - Part One

I'll let you in on a secret.... I love to hike.  Seriously.  If you have spent any time at all reading my posts here you might have picked up on that, but my passion for hiking is actually more of an obsession. In recent years my life has been dominated by a need to make miles on foot, and accordingly I have consistently logged 50+ miles per week in all seasons and all conditions.  It's my thing.

So it should come as no surprise to learn that the Pacific Crest Trail has been on my bucket list for a while now - actually 33 years.  At the tender age of 23 I first heard of this thing called the PCT and despite having no actual backpacking experience decided that launching myself into a six month adventure was just what I needed.

I bought the gear, the guidebooks, and devoured whatever information I could about the newest National Scenic Trail (the other being the long established Appalachian Trail in the East).  A local newspaper published a story featuring a man who was hiking the PCT over a period of several years, taking the 2,651 mile journey and dividing it up into more manageable chunks of around 500 miles each summer.

Of course I looked him up in the phone book (remember those?) and out of the blue called him and asked if we could meet to answer some of my questions.  He readily agreed and gave me his home address and although I did not know it at the time that was a turning point in my life, but not the one I had imagined.

The individual in the article was named Dick, and he was quite an interesting guy.  At 70 years of age he was running marathons and trekking long distances each summer.  He was happy to answer my questions and offer tips to make my journey easier.  He was very easy to talk to and we spoke for several hours.  Before we parted company he mentioned he had an upcoming backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon in several weeks, and that one of the participants had to cancel.  He wondered if I might be interested in going along, and I of course thought it was a splendid idea.

That summer I went to the Grand Canyon with Dick, his friends and grandson, and began a lifelong love affair with that amazing and spectacular landscape.  Sadly, I did not hike the Pacific Crest Trail that year, or the next year, or any year after that.  The reasons were many and don't matter all that much, but in retrospect I'm sure I wasn't ready for such a monumental challenge.

Fast forward to now.  For over 30 years I kept thinking someday I would actually hike the PCT, and for a variety of reasons this year was it.  I want to share some of the experience and some things I learned. This will unfold over several posts, and instead of being a travelogue like many previous entries, I want to try and give readers a sense of what it is like to live out of a backpack for weeks on end, and offer thoughts and ideas of just what this was all about for me.


The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is one of several National Scenic Trails designed to preserve long distance routes that traverse areas of particular natural beauty.  The idea of the trail surfaced in the 1920's and over the ensuing decades eventually coalesced into the route we have today.  This was accomplished over many years as devoted advocates and sponsors worked tirelessly with land managers and property owners to develop a seamless trail.

The  PCT was granted official recognition by Congress in 1968.  The route attempts to follow as much as possible the higher terrain found along a north - south line that travels the length of California and into Oregon and Washington.  The terminus at either end are the international borders of Mexico and Canada.

The trail is listed officially as 2,651 miles in length, but every year slight modifications occur due to reroutes or closures in the event of fires or other environmental issues.  54% of the trail is located in Federally designated wilderness areas, and it visits several National Parks including Kings Canyon/Sequoia, Yosemite, and North Cascades.  It reaches a high point of 13,200 feet above sea level in the High Sierras at Forester Pass, and hits a low of 180 feet at the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon/Washington border.

The topography is incredibly diverse as you might imagine, as the trail travels through 16 degrees of latitude along the way, and environments range from Mojave desert to sub-alpine forests and just about everything in between.  The elevation changes encountered along the length of the trail are the equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest 17 times from sea level, with a significant amount of that occurring in the southern and central sections of California.

In the southern reaches, challenges involve primarily water or the lack thereof, and long stretches of shadeless terrain as the trail climbs and descends isolated mountain ranges punctuated by broad desert valleys. Once the path reaches the typically well watered High Sierras in central California, hikers often must contend with problems involving snow covered passes and crossing cold, swift flowing creeks and rivers fed by melting snow.

Northern California is characterized by heavily forested sections and evidence of ongoing volcanic activity, with mountains and valleys dominated by summits like Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen.  When the trail crosses into Oregon, the elevation changes become less pronounced as the path continues a relatively level trajectory until descending into the Columbia River Gorge at the Washington border.  Along the way views of more volcanic mountains like Mt. Hood, Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Mt. Mazama (Crater Lake) and many others dominate the skyline.

Crater Lake in summer - Photo courtesy of NPS.gov
Once the path crosses into Washington the character of the trail reflects the rugged nature of the North Cascades, with many high passes and ridges and frequent descents into river valleys.  This is likely to be the wettest section as well, since the mountain ranges lie directly in the path of storms that occur throughout the year, and snowfields and small glaciers abound in the northern half of the state.  There are also some impressive summits reaching lofty heights including Mt Adams and Mt. Rainier, which tops out at 14,410 feet.

Mt. Rainier - photo courtesy of NPS.gov

Beyond simply covering a very long distance especially to those on foot, the trail offers challenges that vary from day to day, and a hiker's experience will be influenced by a variety of factors that can greatly increase the difficulty of the journey.


The reasons for attempting a through hike of the PCT are likely to be as different as the people who are doing it.  For many, the idea of the physical and mental challenge (and whether you're up to it) may be the reason.  For some, it could simply be the desire to see and experience some beautiful scenery up close and personal.  Others may be seeking answers to personal questions or perhaps hoping that the time spent in quiet reflection will provide insight into what direction the next steps in life should be.

I met many hikers in my time on trail, and "why?" was a common question among participants.  As I thought about my own reasons for doing it, I realized that my "why?" was not as straightforward as seeking answers, or testing myself against the rigors of trail life, or even just to experience the landscape in an intimate way.  Although I can't really give any meaningful insight into my motivations or what brought others to make the effort, I believe most people really just wanted to do something amazing with their life.

Logistics and Planning

When I first envisioned tackling this grand adventure many years ago, the conventional wisdom was that planning and organizing the trip should take almost as much time as actually doing the hike.  This was in part in response to the fact that in those days few people were actually attempting a through hike, and resources along the route were scarce and undeveloped.  Over time that has changed dramatically, and now it is possible to make the effort with far less forethought.

That said there are still many things to consider and plan for, and personal experience has led me to the conclusion that a thoughtful approach will result in a far better outcome.  Of course everyone is different and there will be those who plan the trip in exquisite detail while others will truly "wing it", but my next attempt will be much better organized with greater attention to details that I had not considered before.

In this day and age of unlimited (and unfiltered) information it is possible to find all kinds of advice and anecdotes about every aspect of the hike, from gear, to food, to technique and everything under the sun.  To the unwary the amount of material out there is truly daunting, and to use a popular metaphor can seem like drinking from a fire hose, but in my opinion the absolute best place to start is with the Pacific Crest Trail Association.  This non-profit organization offers an amazing variety of information and resources to individuals who want to experience the PCT, and serves as the official permit issuing agency for through hikers.

In the next part of this series I will detail some of my preparations, including my methodology for resupply, gear choices, and training.  In the meantime I hope you visit PCTA.org and start dreaming of your own adventure.  Happy Trails!

Friday, April 28, 2017

The BIG (Mostly) Yellow Rock

When I first heard of the place called Yellow Rock, I was not expecting to find a massive sandstone monolith rising from an already spectacular formation known as the Cockscomb (which in geologically correct terms is called the East Kaibab Monocline).

Located in what is arguably one of the most diverse and scenic landscapes on the Colorado Plateau, the Cockscomb is a textbook illustration of various faults, folds, and uplifts that interrupt the normally "tranquil" sequence of sedimentary layers found throughout the region.

Yellow Rock is a singular manifestation of Navajo sandstone, nearly 1/2 miles across and several hundred feet in elevation.  While mostly yellowish in hue, the stone is striped and swirled with multiple shades of red, purple, orange, and white.  The "staining" of the rock by chemicals such as iron and manganese does not always follow the bedding plane of the rock, resulting in wonderfully abstract patterns.

While not as popular (yet) as other nearby places such as White Pocket or the Wave, more photographers and slickrock enthusiasts are making their way to this relatively remote landmark for pictures and exploration.  In my humble opinion, there is more to see in this one area than either of the aforementioned locations, and there are certainly less hassles (no permits or difficult drives through deep sand) to get here.  Having said that, there is some effort involved.

Cottonwood Canyon and the Cockscomb
I won't give specific driving instructions here, since there are guidebooks and online resources that provide detailed information.  I will say that making the trip involves traveling the fairly well known Cottonwood Canyon Road, one of only three routes bisecting the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument.

This 46 mile dirt road is usually maintained, although conditions can vary greatly from season to season, and I'll repeat my frequent refrain about NEVER using a Utah backroad when rain or snow is in the forecast.  Check current conditions with one of several BLM field offices located around the Monument before heading out.

Anyone visiting the area needs to be aware of environmental hazards, specifically weather.  Summer temperatures regularly approach and sometimes exceed 100 degrees, and water is scarce. Thunderstorms are common from July to September, and lightning can be a significant threat along the higher terrain.

Flash floods can happen without warning, and rock near the edge is frequently fragile and unstable.  Cell phones almost never work out here - this is truly wilderness, and help can be hours away if something happens.  Be prepared for the unexpected, and use appropriate caution.

Once you are on the road, park your vehicle at the Brigham Plains road junction.  If you are planning on spending the night there are a few excellent camping spots just up the road to the east, around 1/4 mile or so.

Brigham Plains road marker
When you're ready, walk directly across the road to the west to find a faint trail heading for Cottonwood Wash.  There are several different paths as people pick their own way through the brush, but basically head for the wash and find a place to cross the very shallow stream.

Looking west towards the Cockscomb from the road

Cottonwood Wash
Once across the wash, look for a shallow canyon in the Cockscomb - it's the first one due south of the Lower Hackberry Canyon opening.  By now a more defined trail appears heading into the canyon.

Beginning of Yellow Rock trail
The path quickly begins a steep ascent of the slope to the right (north).  Wasting no time and not bothering with such refined constructions techniques like switchbacks, the trail climbs quickly to a narrow ridge connecting the outer canyon wall to the rim.

Up and more up

The good news is that the views more than compensate for the strenuous effort required to reach this point.  Take a few minutes to look across the valley, and soak in the panorama stretching to the north and south.

Brigham Plains road climbs steeply up the east rim

Looking north

...and to the south
The trail heads west, and the bulk of Yellow Rock soon appears over the horizon.  Cairns mark the path over slickrock sections, while the way is obvious through sand and soil areas.

The trail to Yellow Rock

Yellow Rock is not the only interesting formation

Cliffrose perfumes the air with heavenly scents

Altogether the hike out to Yellow Rock is about a mile, with the most challenging section being the swift climb at the beginning.  Once you reach the base, there is no trail, just unlimited slickrock scrambling.

Yellow Rock is larger than it first appears, and of course is fairly high as well.  Pick a line that allows you to explore the different features while climbing to the summit.  You'll probably want at least an hour or two to check out the various aspects and angles found all over the rock.  Here are some pictures of my visit:


The views from the top of Yellow Rock are pretty amazing as well.  One well known feature on the northern horizon is Castle Rock, a pinnacled dome of white Navajo sandstone.  Just on the northern edge of Yellow Rock you'll spot Lower Hackberry Canyon, where a nearly 20 mile long crevasse cuts into the Cockscomb.

Castle Rock
The southern end of Hackberry Canyon

To the south another canyon leads to the Paria Box, where the muddy and sluggish Paria River cuts through the Cockscomb.

After discovering the wonders of Yellow Rock proper, take some extra time and detour south towards the canyon there.  With some scrambling and off trail route finding there is much more to see.  Some examples:

Turtle Rock?

The Artist used the full palette here
While Yellow Rock may be the main attraction, in half a day of wandering I found more unusual and striking rock formations in a relatively small area than just about anywhere else I've seen.  And I have so much more I want to see on subsequent visits that I may have to live another 50 years to make it happen.  I'm working on it.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Sand Hills - Not Just Another Pretty Place

Although there is growing recognition of the features contained within and around the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, most people simply overlook the area as a whole because it is large, remote, and can be difficult to access.

Additionally, the few relatively well known places (The Wave and South Coyote Buttes) receive the majority of the attention but are subject to strict limitations on the number of daily visitors.

But what most people miss is literally the big picture.  The Paria Plateau (aka the Sand Hills) is big, and has a variety of beautiful and seldom seen sandstone formations scattered throughout the area.  The challenge of course is having a suitable vehicle to reach more isolated sections, and then having the time, ability, and desire to explore large ridges and bluffs on foot to discover these hidden gems.

The pictures here are from a day trip to an area known as Kid Pen Valley, named in reference to the early pioneer days when Mormon ranchers brought goats to the Plateau to graze on the semi-arid desert shrubs and grasses.  I spent several hours walking around a single outcropping of Navajo sandstone, and barely saw the half of it.

Rock pillars exist in abundance

Toadstools resulting from preferential erosion

Cross bedded sandstone twisted by soft sediment deformation and striking forms created by preferential erosion dominate the landscape.  Vibrant reddish orange colors resulting from iron and manganese saturated water percolating down through the sediments provide contrast and color, adding another dimension to the scene.

Cross bedded sandstone captures ancient dunes

Mineral rich waters seeped into sand layers from prehistoric seas

Moki marbles and iron rich concretions surround hardy plant life

Miniature arch

Getting permits to visit the Wave and South Coyote Buttes is difficult at best, but there are countless other alternatives available with comparable scenery.  Of course driving in the Sand Hills requires an appropriate vehicle and a willingness to explore off the beaten path.  For me that in and of itself is really what it's all about anyway.