backpacking

...now browsing by tag

 
 

Backpacking a wilderness of rock

Monday, April 18th, 2016

“The upper Escalante Canyons, in the northeastern reaches of the monument, are distinctive: in addition to several major arches and natural bridges, vivid geological features are laid bare in narrow, serpentine canyons, where erosion has exposed sandstone and shale deposits in shades of red, maroon, chocolate, tan, gray, and white. Such diverse objects make the monument outstanding for purposes of geologic study.” – Presidential Proclamation 6920 (establishing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument), September 18, 1996


A wilderness of rock.  That’s what I imagined the historic Boulder Mail Trail would be when my dad and I set off to backpack it last month.  Indeed, to paraphrase Maynard Dixon, the upper Escalante Canyons expose the earth’s skeleton in a beautiful, if austere, way, exposing the earth’s skeleton.

The Boulder Mail Trail (which isn’t much of a trail at all), is the historic mail delivery route between the hamlets of Boulder and Escalante, Utah.  Highway 12, which now connects Boulder and Escalante, wasn’t paved until the 1970s, so the Mail Trail was the quickest route for quite some time.  All along the route, the old telegraph wire connecting these towns is also very obvious, although it’s fallen down in a few places.  The Mail Trail now lies almost entirely within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A couple of months ago, my dad asked if I wanted to go backpacking this spring, and of course I jumped at the chance.  A while back, I wrote a blog post about January trips with my dad, and I continue to feel really fortunate that my parents are both willing and able to be active.  It was our first backpacking trip together in many years, but it ended up being very fun, and just the right length for two old “geezers.”

For early spring, the weather was what one can expect on the Colorado Plateau: windy and cold.  Out of the wind in the sun, it was pleasant, but it was never too hot.  When we set off from the trailhead outside of Boulder, snow flurries were ducking in and out of the canyons on the Aquarius Plateau to the north, and looked like they might reach us within a few hours.  Dark skies to the west seemed to promise wet weather as well.  That’s better than boring blue skies, though, right?

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

The Mail Trail is more than just a walk across sandstone, as it crosses a few fairly large tributaries of the Escalante River.  The most significant of these is Death Hollow, which despite the name is known for being a fun backpacking trip in its own right (save for the poison ivy it is also well known for!) and is about halfway along the Mail Trail. Death Hollow is surprisingly lush (hence the poison ivy), and is a wonderful riparian habitat tucked neatly away into the desert. We ended up camping in the bottom of the canyon amongst giant ponderosa pines because the weather was just spunky enough that we didn’t want to get blown off the rim and into the night as we slept.  We ended up falling asleep early, and despite a small sprinkle of rain and major sandblasting from the wind, the storm never really developed.

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

The next morning, we hiked about a mile down Death Hollow before the route continued out the west side of the canyon, and towards Escalante.  We were able to see Escalante within a few hours, but it took much longer to wind our way down through the sandstone and back to the car we had parked at that end of the Mail Trail.  A quick run up to Boulder for the other car, and a beer (or two) at Hell’s Backbone Grill topped off the trip.

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

Despite the increased popularity of the Escalante area since President Clinton included it in his massive 1996 National Monument, the upper canyons of the Escalante River seem to be less visited than other more popular areas along the lower river.  It was nice to be able to experience a little bit of history, wilderness, and complete solitude for two days.  That said, solitude shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise–there isn’t a traffic signal for at least 100 miles from Escalante, and this is one of the most remote and rural places in the lower 48 states.  Combine that with world class scenery, and this wilderness of rock is truly an area to be cherished.

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

Adventures in the Sagebrush State

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

In early August, Jackson Frishman and I were able to get out for a short backpack in the Toquima Mountains of central Nevada.  Although I’ve been interested in the lonely and desolate central Nevada mountain ranges for several years, I hadn’t really been able to explore them until our trip; Jackson was nice enough to give me a great tour.

The entire Basin and Range Province–which occupies most of the American West–is characterized by steep mountain ranges alternating with arid valleys.  In central Nevada, where the Toquimas are located, this pattern is especially pronounced.  These ranges were formed not by crustal plates pushing together, but rather by their separation.  Big blocks of crust acted like icebergs as the West was pulled apart, and one end tipped up, creating a mountain range, while the other tipped down, contributing to a basin.  Despite the common mechanism by which these mountain ranges were created, they are diverse in terms of their ecology.  The White Mountains of eastern California are at the western edge of the Basin and Range and are quite dry, with sparse vegetation (save for their eastern slope), but the other high ranges in Nevada (the Toiyabes, Toquimas, Snakes, etc), are surprisingly lush with beautiful aspen groves and verdant streams and rivers.

white mountains from fish lake valley

Jackson and I planned to climb Mount Jefferson, which is the tallest peak in central Nevada.  Driving across western Nevada to the trailhead, we watched thunderheads build all afternoon.  As we packed our bags, rain drops started to fall, and by the time we hit the trail, we were in a full-on downpour.  We continued onward in the rain through a mix of sagebrush and aspen–two species I’m not used to seeing together.  After about 2,000 feet and three hours of climbing, the rain got the better of our spirits (and our body temperatures) so we set up the tent to climb into the warmth of our down sleeping bags.  Once the rain stopped, we hiked a little further up the trail and saw that it had been snowing not far above us on Mount Jefferson.

The next morning we were awake long before daylight, continuing up the trail towards Mount Jefferson.  Trail builders in Nevada don’t seem to believe in switchbacks, so while steep, the ascent didn’t take long.  Not long after sunrise, we found ourselves in a bowl around 11,000′ looking up at three bighorn sheep rams making their way across the peak above us.  Hiking further up onto the plateau that separates the different summits of Mount Jefferson, we spotted many more bighorn ewes and lambs.

In hopes of spotting more sheep, we walked across the plateau between the Mount Jefferson’s south and middle summits.  Ahead of me as we topped a small rise, Jackson stopped suddenly and said, “whoa.”  I immediately assumed sheep, but a small band of wild horses was just as surprised to see us as we were them.  After spending about an hour with them, we headed south again, towards the highest summit of Mount Jefferson.  Jackson has some great images of the horses here.

As we left the horses I happened to stumble across a small, nearly perfect arrowhead.  This portion of the Toquimas is part of the Alta Toquima Wilderness, which is named for the Alta Toquima archaeological site, which we weren’t far from.  At an elevation of about 11,500′ feet, this site is the first evidence we have that early Americans were settling relatively permanently at high altitude as early as 1 AD (this gives some interesting background on the site and its discovery).  Permanent high altitude settlements are rare in North America, as opposed to places like Peru, Tibet, and Ethiopia.  After photographing the arrowhead we left it and went on our way.

Arrowhead in the Alta Toquima Wilderness

Although we spotted more bighorns in the distance we were unsuccessful in getting a close look (one curious lamb did come fairly close to us for a good look).  After summiting, we hiked back to camp to pack up, then back to the trailhead.

bighorn sheep lamb

After leaving the Toquimas we explored the Monitor Valley which is located east of the range, and the Toiyabe Mountains just a little bit before heading back home.  Even though it was a quick visit to the, it was interesting to see how different they are from the Toquimas.

sunset in monitor valley nevada

south twin river toiyabe mountains

The Basin and Range isn’t an easy place to photograph, in fact I found it quite humbling.  Although I was surprised by the number of (unpaved) roads on our visit, the “best” viewpoints are not easy to get to. The abundance of roads isn’t necessarily matched by an abundance of trails, making access a bit tricky and perhaps left for a time when you’re feeling ambitious.  That said, the payoffs are pretty big.  Jackson and I had complete solitude during our visit to the Toquimas, we saw incredible wildlife, and got to briefly experience of a bit of culture.  That’s not bad for an overnight backpacking trip.

The Savages of the Colorado Plateau

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

In early July, I made it home to the Four Corners region of the Southwest to visit my parents.  Although I haven’t lived there in close to two decades, I use the word home to describe it because that’s how it feels–no matter how long I’ve been gone, it always feels like I haven’t left.  Perhaps this isn’t a good thing, implying things about a lack of progress, etc., but I prefer to think that feeling is due to an intangible familiarity that is coded in our DNA.  Safe, familiar, known–space becomes place.

As I usually try to do on my visits home, I visited the Cedar Mesa area of southern Utah.  Driving across the unassuming highway that crosses the Grand Gulch Plateau, I was reminded of the many backpacking trips I took there when I was younger.  My friends and I climbed the ledges of the canyons, busted through the willows, and–yes–explored the numerous Ancestral Puebloan ruins in hands-on style.  While we were never destructive, we certainly never hesitated to climb inside, living in our own fantasies of what the lives of these people must have been like, completely oblivious to the historical context of the sites.


Last week, I took my seven-year-old son backpacking in our local mountains here in southern California.  After driving home from New Mexico, he wanted a “short car ride,” and I was happy to oblige.  The San Jacintos have really wonderful Sierra Nevada-esque piles of granite boulders, and after arriving at our campsite for the day, he was content to play in these makeshift forts, but of course from a seven year-old’s perspective, a fort can always be improved on.

After a few hours of playing, he asked for help moving a huge number of logs and deadfall into a particular area to create a wall.  My first reaction was that moving that wood would violate Leave No Trace principles, and I caught myself starting to redirect his attention towards something less impactful for future visitors.  But then I looked around: impact abounded around us.  Visitors from the weekend had left a 5-gallon bucket of water, there was trash in the next door.  One weekend’s crowds leave, another’s roll in.  I happily picked up my first log and put it where I was directed–this was going to be a wall that could stop Hannibal and his elephants.

After getting home, I read an article that perfectly echoed my sentiments from that evening in the San Jacintos.  Environmental education (for kids especially) has almost gone so far as to turn kids off from nature.  As the author of the article says, kids need to be untutored savages in nature for just a while in order to appreciate it, treasure it.  My afternoon of asking my son to appreciate being outside went completely unheard; after building the wall together, he asked if we could live in the mountains for the rest of the summer.  All it took was 20 minutes.


Back to Cedar Mesa, and my childhood years running rampant through its canyons.  Today we know the area was colonized at least twice by Ancestral Puebloans, and it is incredibly rich with archaeological sites.  Some of them are well known and can be reached easily (like the sites I visited as a kid), but others are more remote, their locations are more guarded to prevent looting and just to keep them from being “loved to death.”  Today, I feel incredibly connected to this place–probably more so than anywhere on earth–but if you had tried telling the twelve-year-old me the area’s history, I would have tuned out for sure.  Looking back, I feel like I needed to be an untutored savage on those backpacking trips to have the appreciation I do for the place today.

The timing of my recent trips and this article are serendipitous, and it does seem like certain things intersect in our lives at opportune times.  Understanding the nature of nature education is research that needs to be done; instilling a notion of the inherent value of the land in our children needs to be done now, and with urgency.  This is especially true on Cedar Mesa.

Given my years of running freely there, I admittedly have some internal conflict about it, but I can’t help but feel the area needs more protection.  Some pockets–like Natural Bridges National Monument–are protected, but the area at large is managed loosely by the Bureau of Land Management, and the oversight is minimal.  The “guarded” archaeological sites I mentioned are becoming less so by the day with GPS coordinates popping up here and there on the internet, putting them at risk for looting (which is shockingly rampant) or simply being “loved to death.”  Add these threats to the area’s cultural history to potential development, and we are forced to ask at what point we impose stricter rules via protection.  It’s never an easy issue on public lands.

storm cell over Monument Valley, seen from Cedar Mesa, Utah

This recent article from the High Country News summarizes the groups involved in Cedar Mesa’s protection and the compromises being made on that long journey.


“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”  — Edward Abbey

An Untutored Savage


Chasing Set

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

“You will then…quickly discover the music and poetry of these magnificent rock piles…each and all are the orderly beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart.”  — John Muir


Every so often a place will catch my eye and after just a little research, “Hmmm that place looks interesting!” turns into a bit of an obsession. This is probably why I’ve always liked maps so much: I can imagine what a place is like, and after I’ve been there, I can mentally put individual rocks and trees on the contour lines.  This obsession isn’t driven so much by photography, but by how remote and unvisited it is.  There’s something calming about unplugging and getting far, far away.

I’ve had my eye on the Coxcomb Mountains, a small but surprisingly imposing mountain range near the California-Arizona border, for a little over a year.  After they caught my eye, I started reading the few trip reports I could find, trying to correlate them with topographic maps.  In late January a friend and I made a long day hike into the range, and it was exactly what I’d hoped for: no trails, no sound, and no easy access point.  I returned a couple of weekends ago for an overnight backpack.

Coxcomb Mountains Sunset

The mountain ranges in the Southwest deserts are basically very big piles of boulders–the Coxcombs rise over 3,000′ from the bajada.  Their canyons are choked with rocks and boulders that have come down from the high peaks during floods and winter freeze-thaw cycles.  There’s a special kind of chaos here in the desert, and after being in places like this, it’s no wonder that in Egyptian mythology Set is the god of both the desert and chaos.  Making a coherent photograph out of the disorder would require me to climb to one of the high points in the Coxcombs to confront Set on his terms.

Sunset on Dyadic Point, Coxcomb Mountains

There’s no available water to speak of in the Coxcombs, so I spent only one night, hauling in about six liters of my own water.  After a four-mile hike across the bajada, I started working my way up a canyon, towards Tensor Point, one of the three high points in the Coxcombs that make up “Aqua Peak.”  The panoramic view from the top is impressive, and one can see the San Bernardino Mountains nearly 100 miles to the west, as well as ranges that stretch into Arizona.  Additionally, the views of the Pinto Basin, in Joshua Tree National Park, are outstanding.

After sunset, I spent a couple of hours with a somewhat pesky deer mouse, and finally fell asleep.  I woke up the next morning with no deer mouse but with a thick blanket of clouds.  After breakfast, I packed my gear up and arrived at the car just about the time rain started to fall on the desert in earnest.

I’ve never had much luck making any sense of the desert’s jumbled boulder piles in a photograph.  While they’re beautiful to look at, they’ve never translated well to photographic compositions for me.  Being on top of Tensor Point allowed me to step back from that chaos and compose images that seemed to make it all fall into place.  After a nine mile cross country hike through boulder piles and thick cat’s claw, I realized that maybe to make sense of the chaos, you must fully immerse yourself in it.

2014 year in review

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

“Walking takes longer… than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed.” — Edward Abbey


In several ways, 2014 was a journey for me, and I am grateful much of it was taken on foot.  With a couple of exceptions, my favorite images this year were made on hiking or backpacking trips.  In June, Jackson Frishman and I had a great trip through the Ansel Adams wilderness and another friend and I spent a wonderful week in August in the John Muir wilderness.  Both trips were highlights of my year, not just for the photography and scenery but also for the company.

Now that 2015 is upon us, the journey continues.  I’m looking forward to seeing where life takes me this year, and I hope you find yourself on happy trails in your own travels.

See some of my other favorite images from years past: 2011 | 2012 | 2013

Fog races over a hilltop at dawn

Foggy Giant Forest

Sunset in the Golden Trout Wilderness

Bentonite Hill Layers, northern New Mexico

Sunset over Minaret Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness California

Iceberg Lake, John Muir Wilderness

Granite Park sunset, Sierra Nevada, California

Pacific Ocean sunrise

Mojave Desert storm light