Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Dalles Mountain Ranch

Balsamroot blooms near the Crawford Ranch in the Columbia Hills
6.5 miles loop, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

Each spring, the sun-bleached grassland slopes of Dalles Mountain in Columbia Hills State Park come alive with a profusion of wildflower colors. This hike makes a loop across the wide grasslands on a bench above the Columbia River, passing near Crawford Ranch and providing views into Oregon and out to Mount Hood. The hike is not difficult, with gentle climbs and descents through the rolling hills and wide open views the entire way. While it is possible to start this hike from either the Crawford Ranch or from the Crawford Oaks Trailhead off of Highway 14, here I will describe the second option. Wildflower blooms in the area generally peak in mid-to-late May.

I visited the hills on a camping trip with a friend on an April weekend; after setting up at nearby Maryhill State Park, we followed Highway 14 west past the Maryhill Museum and Wishram to the Crawford Oaks Trailhead at Columbia Hills State Park, which was on the north side of the highway. On a day with overwhelming volumes of rain in Seattle and Portland, it was sunny near the Dalles and the parking lot was full.

From the trailhead, we followed the wide multi-use trail up towards the meadows. The trail here was really a gravel road, which we shared with plenty of other hikers and a good number of mountain bikers. After meandering up from the parking lot, the trail made a sharp switchback and began to climb along the basalt cliffs that defined the canyon of the Columbia River. The Columbia River came into view, with Horsethief Butte a notable nearby landmark; Mount Hood was visible far off on our return during a break in the distant storm. The columnar basalt walls of the Columbia River Gorge here were the result of massive volcanic eruptions that left extensive lava flows throughout the Columbia Basin about 15 million years ago.

The Columbia River and Horsethief Butte
Mount Hood
The trail then turned into a ravine cut by Eightmile Creek, following the line of oaks growing by the creek to the north. Some wildflowers appeared here- desert parsley, balsamroot- but nothing that matched the bloom further up. In just under a mile, the trail crossed Eightmile Creek and came to a junction where the loop path split. On the left was the Military Road, on the right the Vista Loop; we chose to do the loop counterclockwise, heading east on the Vista Loop.

The Vista Loop climbed  uphill slightly before leveling out on the bench above the river, traversing open grasslands and passing beneath the power lines that ran through the park. Although few flowers were blooming here, the wide open views of the river and of the Dalles in the distance. Across the river, farmland covered the rolling hills of Oregon.

The Columbia River and the Columbia Hills
Hiking a little further along, we came to a lovely viewpoint of the Columbia River to the east. Today, the waters of the river look calm and peaceful, a result of the Dalles Dam that created Lake Celilo, the second of the reservoirs on the Columbia River that create a chain of slackwater from the Pacific Ocean to the confluence with the Snake. Submerged beneath Lake Celilo is Celilo Falls, once one of the most impressive rapids of North America. Each summer at this spot, where the full volume of the Columbia River made a 20-foot plunge, Native Americans congregated from throughout the Northwest to fish the extraordinary salmon runs. It's estimated that as many as 20 million salmon once ran these rapids every year. Native American fishing at the falls ended in 1957 when the rapids disappeared into the lake.

Lake Celilo and the drowned remnants of Celilo Falls
Continuing along the Vista Loop, we headed north from the river through the rolling grasslands. The wildflower show was still in its early stages and was perhaps a week or two away from peak bloom; while a decent number of balsamroot were blooming, in many spots I saw just the balsamroot foliage and no yellow blossoms yet. While some early lupine had bloomed and lupine foliage was plentiful, for the most part those purple flowers seemed at least a week or two removed from true bloom. Desert parsley was blooming well throughout, though, and I spotted plenty of blooming phlox as well.

Lupine and desert parsley
About a mile and half up the Vista Loop, we came to a junction with the Military Road. The trail to the left led back towards the parking lot; the trail to the right continued uphill towards Crawford Ranch. As we hadn't seen many flowers yet, we decided to continue the hike and see if we could spot more flowers closer to the ranch. The trail to the right towards the ranch continued through the undulating slopes and approached the base of the taller buttes that defined the crest of the Columbia Hills.

I was glad we continued on towards the ranch, as the best of the wildflower show was on the slopes nearby the ranch. As we approached the ranch, we transitioned from scattered pockets of flowering balsamroot to fields in full bloom. In some areas, there were even a handful of blooming lupine and phlox scattered with the balsamroot.

Views into Oregon
The trail came to another junction at the ranch itself: here, the Eightmile Alternate trail led back towards the Crawford Oaks Trailhead while another trail led just slightly uphill to the ranch itself and the upper trailhead for the hike. At this junction, we found the wildest profusion of flowers: yellow floral faces filled the prairie in all directions.

Balsamroot and lupine at Crawford Ranch
From the ranch, we followed the Eightmile Alternate Trail back towards the trailhead, enjoying the open views along the trails and the many patches of blooming phlox, balsamroot, and desert parsley.

Phlox and balsamroot
Trail through the Columbia Hills
The Eightmile Alternate Trail merged with the Military Road and descended back to the Eightmile Creek crossing to complete the loop. As we descended the gravel road back to the trailhead in the evening light, Mount Hood made a brief appearance and a last few rays of sun painted the hills in Oregon.

The hike through the Columbia Hills is certainly worth it for the spring wildflower show; it made for a fun trip combined with visits to the nearby Maryhill Museum and the Maryhill Winery.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblos

San Francisco Peaks rise behind the Box Canyon Pueblo
0.5 miles round trip, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Wupatki National Monument Entrance Fee required

This very short and very easy stroll visits three picturesque pueblos in Arizona's Wupatki National Monument. It's a good way to see structures built by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the area and has only a fraction of the visitors of the larger Wupatki Pueblo in the same national monument. Lomaki Pueblo offers a chance to wander through a pueblo, including a rare opportunity to pass through two T-shaped doors. Views of the nearby San Francisco Peaks make this an overall enjoyable way to spend a half hour or so. The park's proximity to US 89 and the Grand Canyon makes this a good stop on the way to more famous sights on the Colorado Plateau.

I visited Wupatki National Monument after a trip to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Whether coming from Flagstaff or the Grand Canyon, one approaches Wupatki on Highway 89 either heading north or south, respectively. About 25 miles north of Flagstaff or 12 miles south of Gray Mountain, there is a turnoff to the east for Arizona Highway 395 heading towards Wupatki; I took this turnoff and followed it east for four miles into Wupatki National Monument. I took the turnoff to the left (north) for Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblos, which quickly came to a parking lot for this hike.

The trail is extremely straightforward: the mostly flat path winds for a quarter mile through the desert out to Lomaki Pueblo, passing two structures on either side of a small box canyon along the way. Side trails lead up to both of the small pueblos next to the canyon. All three pueblos are clearly within sight of each other. Lomaki Pueblo is the largest of the three structures, although it too is a small pueblo of just a handful of rooms. Impressively, all three of these structures have not been reconstructed; they have only been stabilized to prevent further deterioration. This means that the beautiful masonry of all three pueblos is original.

Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblos
These pueblos lie on the southwest edge of the area inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloan culture; indeed, the societies that inhabited these structures show influences of both the Ancestral Puebloans to the north and the Sinagua to the south. Although these structures are clearly similar to and influence by the Pueblo architecture at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, there are notable differences: pueblos in Wupatki do not have kivas, circular ceremonial rooms that are a distinguishing cultural characteristic of the Ancestral Puebloans. Instead, Wupatki Pueblo, which lies some distance east of Lomaki Pueblo, has a ballcourt, which ties it by cultural influence to the Sinagua and the civilizations of Mesoamerica. However, the structures at Wupatki retain many characteristics of Ancestral Puebloan architecture: notably, Lomaki Pueblo has two T-shaped doors. As the pueblos here can be explored, Lomaki offers a rare experience to walk through the T-shaped doors and explore inner rooms of a pueblo.

Lomaki Pueblo
Like the Box Canyon Pueblo, Lomaki sits at the edge of a small box canyon. It's likely that the inhabitants of these pueblos built check dams in the canyon to store water; the wash might have been used for agriculture as well, to plant the corn, beans, and squash central to diets of pre-contact Americans.

T-shaped door in Lomaki Pueblo
The southwest horizon from Lomaki Pueblo featured the snowy summits of the San Francisco Peaks and other volcanoes of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The San Francisco Peaks, capped by Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona, were the most dominant peaks in the scene; these mountains are actually the remnants of an ancient stratovolcano, which has since collapsed. O'Leary Peak was a separate high peak to the east of the San Francisco Peaks and Sunset Crater, a cinder cone, stood east (to the left) of O'Leary Peak. The Citadel Pueblo was visible below the silhouette of O'Leary Peak.

Sunset Crater, O'Leary Peak, and the San Francisco Peaks
In fact, a number of pueblos were visible atop nearby mesas as I surveyed the landscape. The most notable of these was undoubtedly the Citadel, a closely pueblo right off the main road in Wupatki that I visited after leaving Lomaki Pueblo. The density of pueblos in this area is remarkable, a reminder that the landscape of the Colorado Plateau was not so much a wilderness as much as it was an inhabited, human landscape during the heyday of Ancestral Puebloan civilization.

The Citadel
The Wupatki area was populated in the eleventh century; competing explanations for why people chose to settle in such a desolate location both involve nearby Sunset Crater, which erupted around that time. It is possible that the Wupatki area was settled by people escaping lands to the south that were devestated by the eruption; or it's possible that the eruption actually attracted immigrants from elsewhere, as cinders and ash from the Sunset Crater eruption improved water retention in nearby soils, improving agriculture.

The question of why the Ancestral Puebloans left their houses is asked everywhere pueblos are abandoned in the Southwest. As with the other pueblos at Chaco and Mesa Verde, it's not clear here; a changing climate or the arrival of nomadic tribes might have had an effect. While it's not clear why they left, it appears that today's Hopi are among the descendants of those who used to live in this landscape: Hopi histories hold that their ancestors migrated to their current home in the mesas of the Painted Desert from Wupatki, the Verde Valley, and other areas of abandoned pueblos.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Wilcox Ridge

The Athabasca Glacier spills out from the Columbia Icefield
6.5 miles round trip, 1450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canadian National Parks pass required

The Columbia Icefield is the greatest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies and is surely among the more accessible icefields of its size. Wilcox Ridge vies with nearby Parker Ridge for the trail-accessible spot with the best view of the Columbia Icefield; I've hiked both and I'm more particular towards Wilcox Ridge. From the viewpoint at the end of the trail on the shoulder of Wilcox Peak, there is a sweeping viewshed that encompasses the Athabasca and Dome Glaciers flowing off the Columbia Icefield, the barren tundra scenery beyond Wilcox Pass, and the stately peaks that border the Saskatchewan River Valley. This is a relatively easy hike considering the incredible scenic rewards and should be at the top of the list of any hiker traveling the Icefields Parkway through Alberta's Jasper National Park.

I did this hike on the first day of a four day trip to the Canadian Rockies. With four days to visit four parks, I decided to pick a single highlight hike in each park for my September trip; for Jasper, I chose to hike Wilcox Ridge. I drove to the trailhead directly that morning from the Calgary Airport; after following Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway) west past Banff and Lake Louise, I took the exit for Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway, to drive north to Jasper National Park. The Wilcox Ridge hike is at the very southern reaches of Jasper National Park; I came to the trailhead shortly after entering the park at Sunwapta Pass. The trailhead was at the entrance of the Wilcox Creek Campground, which is on the east side of the Icefields Parkway (on the right if you're heading north).

Trailhead parking was pretty crowded: this is a popular hike! Leaving the trailhead, the trail began an immediate ascent through the forest. The trail ascended steadily along the well-maintained trail through a forest coated with a recent dusting of snow.

Wilcox Pass Trail in the forest
After just under a mile of hiking through the forest, the trail emerged into a small clearing for its first views. To the north, the lip of the Columbia Icefield was visible just above the ridges of Snow Dome and Mount Kitchener and the Dome Glacier poured off the largest icefield of the Canadian Rockies. Below, the Icefields Parkway ran through the meadows of Sunwapta Pass.

Dome Glacier pouring off the Columbia Icefield
The trail briefly reentered the trees before emerging again into open meadows. This time, the Athabasca Glacier came into view as well, spilling off the Columbia Icefield and filling a broad valley.

Athabasca and Dome Glaciers and the Icefield Centre
The trail passed a set of red Adirondack chairs. These chairs are a recent addition to the Canadian national parks: after debuting the red chairs a couple of years ago to popular acclaim in Newfoundland's Gros Morne National Park, Parks Canada has expanded the program and installed chairs throughout the park system. For many hikers, these chairs, a mile from the trailhead with a good view of the Athabasca Glacier and its icefalls and moraines, is a sufficient turnaround point. From here, I could spot the road used by Brewster Snocoaches to take tourists out onto the Athabasca Glacier. As perhaps the most accessible glacier in North America, the Athabasca Glacier is a rare spot where tourists can ride buses onto a glacier and walk around.

Athabasca Glacier, Snocoach visible
While many hikers hung out near the chairs, satisfied with the scenery at this point, I chose to continue on to Wilcox Pass and Wilcox Ridge. The trail continued climbing past the chairs, albeit at a gentler grade, and the open views of Mount Athabasca and Mount Andromeda across the valley made the ascent feel much easier.

Mount Athabasca
Soon, the trees thinned out entirely and the trail was traversing an open alpine landscape. Views were stark and beautiful with fresh snow capping the surrounding peaks. As the trail began to parallel a small ravine, the Athabasca Glacier disappeared behind a nearby ridge, but views to the south past Sunwapta Pass into the Saskatchewan River Valley became increasingly impressive. The patterns in the fresh snow accentuated the sedimentary layers forming the Rocky Mountains.

Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, and the Athabasca Glacier
View towards the Saskatchewan River Valley
A mile and a half of ascent through the open meadows brought me to Wilcox Pass. Through this uphill stretch, the rocky summit of Wilcox Peak filled the view in front of the trail.

Wilcox Peak
Wilcox Pass is an extremely broad, flat mountain pass; maps show that a lake fills part of the wide, flat pass, but I didn't end up spotting any significant body of water. Wilcox Peak rose to the northwest of the pass, while an alpine tundrascape of snowcapped peaks rose to the northeast. I crossed a stream at the pass that was meandering through the flat meadows, with views back towards Hilda Peak, Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, and the Andromeda Glacier. The Athabasca Glacier itself was not visible at the pass. While the pass makes a nice destination and the views to the north are quite unique, if you've made it this far you might as well go all the way to the end of the trail at Wilcox Ridge.

Wilcox Pass
At the pass, a sign indicated the Wilcox Ridge trail breaking off to the west. I followed this trail, which was narrower and less well defined than the Wilcox Pass Trail. Cairns marked the route towards the ridge. The trail began to climb up from the pass towards the top of the ridge emanating southeast from the summit of Wilcox Peak. As I climbed out of the pass, views to the north improved; there was something hauntingly beautiful about the tundra-like landscape to the north defined by the blue of the sky, the yellow of the meadows, the white of fresh snow, and the gray of rocky peaks.

Alpine landscape of Wilcox Pass
The trail was at turns muddy and rocky as it made its way towards the ridge. After an initial ascent, I realized that the ridge was not a single layer, but rather a series of parallel ridges defined by layers of sedimentary rock. The viewpoint of the Athabasca Glacier was on the southwesternmost of the parallel ridges; I followed the cairns across the alpine landscape up and down each of the parallel ridges. The views in this landscape were spectacular: even though the Athabasca Glacier was still not fully in view, the panorama along the trail encompassed Nigel Peak to the east, the Sunwapta River Valley to the south, Hilda Peak, Mount Athabasca, and Mount Andromeda to the southwest and Wilcox Peak to the northwest.

Nigel Peak and the view south down the Saskatchewan Valley
About three-quarters of a mile from Wilcox Pass, I reached the end of the trail, at a viewpoint high above the valley holding the headwaters of the Athabasca River. The mighty Athabasca Glacier flowed out from the Columbia Icefield directly across from where I stood.

Athabasca and Dome Glaciers pouring off the Columbia Icefield, viewed from Wilcox Ridge
The Columbia Icefield is the largest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies. Astride a triple divide, the Columbia Icefield feeds rivers that flow into the Pacific, the Arctic, and the Hudson Bay. It is the headwaters of the great river of the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia. The Saskatchewan River just to the south near Parker Ridge is the headwaters of the Saskatchewan River, which itself is the primary inflow of Lake Winnipeg and thus the main source of the Nelson River, which flows into the Hudson Bay. The Athabasca Glacier is the source of the Athabasca Glacier, which feeds into Lake Athabasca and is part of the larger Mackenzie River watershed, the second largest watershed in North America that drains much of northern Canada into the Arctic Ocean.

Athabasca Glacier and Mount Andromeda
The large parking lot of the Icefield Centre and the Icefield Chalet lay directly below the ridge. Across the Icefields Parkway, the green waters of Sunwapta Lake sparkled in the sunlight. I first visited the Athabasca Glacier in 2001 on a trip with my family; we did many of the touristy activities at the glacier on that visit. I returned, briefly, in 2011, before this most recent visit. Through the three visits, the glacier had visibly retreated. At the start of the 20th century, the Athabasca Glacier flowed all the way to the foot of Wilcox Ridge. It has since retreated a mile up the valley, thinning out as winter snows continuously failed to replenish the existing ice. The impact of a changing climate was obvious here; it was sad to see such a mighty river of ice beat such a constant retreat over time.

Looking south across Sunwapta Pass along the Icefields Parkway
The views at Wilcox Ridge were stunning and required only a moderate effot to reach, making this an excellent hike even though the trail doesn't wander too far from the Icefields Parkway and the civilization of the Icefield Centre. I highly recommend this hike as a way to experience the Canadian Rockies' most famous river of ice, the ultra-touristy but still dazzling Athabasca Glacier.

Friday, February 2, 2018

O'Leary Lookout

Sunset Crater from O'Leary Peak
10 miles round trip, 2050 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

O'Leary Lookout offers a view, both expansive and intimate, of the Painted Desert and the San Francisco Volcanic Field of northern Arizona. The peak offers a chance to peer down into nearby Sunset Crater with beautiful views of the snowcapped San Francisco Peaks and faraway views of the Grand Canyon and Navajo Mountain. Although the trail itself may be boring, following a gravel road still used by the Forest Service to access the lookout, the views along the trail and at the summit more than justify O'Leary as a worthy destination. This is a hearty northern Arizona hike that allows you to enjoy the non-Grand Canyon features of this part of the state.

I hiked up to O'Leary Lookout on a pleasant winter day during a year with remarkably little snow in the Flagstaff area. Hoping to catch early morning light on the landscape of the Colorado Plateau and the Painted Desert, I chose to hike this trail very early, starting over an hour before sunrise; this meant that I was up and back down the mountain by 11 AM. I drove to the trailhead from Flagstaff in the dark; I followed US 89 north out of Flagstaff. After driving up the first major hill north of Flagstaff, I turned right onto Route 395, following signs for Sunset Crater National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. I followed this road two miles to reach Bonito Park, a wide, grassy meadow with views of Sunset Crater ahead and the San Francisco Peaks to the west. At the eastern end of the Bonito Park, I took the turnoff for the O'Leary Campground on the left (north) side of the road. I followed this road to a point where it made a sharp left turn into the campground; here, I went straight and parked in a small parking area next to a locked gate. As the trailhead is in Coconino National Forest rather than Sunset Crater National Monument, no entrance fee is required to hike here.

As I hiked up in the dark, I'll describe sights that I saw on my descent. The first mile of the trail- which was really a road- was essentially flat, with a slight bit of elevation loss in the very beginning as the trail approached the Bonito Lava Flow. Shortly after leaving the trailhead, the trail began to parallel the edge of the Bonito Lava Flow. Even 900 years after the eruption of Sunset Crater, the lava flow is able to support only some vegetation: while some trees have sprouted up in the dense field of a'a lava. The lava flow boundary was abrupt; on one side, ponderosa pines grew in ash-dense soils, on the other side, fragmented, hardened black lava stifled most vegetation from sprouting.

Sunset Crater, Bonito Lava Flow
The two summits of O'Leary Peak rose ahead, with the fire lookout prominently sticking out on the mountain's south summit. O'Leary Peak, like all of the nearby peaks, is of volcanic origin, with the same geological origins as the other cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. However, unlike Sunset Crater, which is a cinder cone, and Mount Humphreys, which is a remnant of a stratovolcano, O'Leary Peak is a lava dome- it's made up mainly of viscous lava that piled up to form a mountain.

O'Leary Peak
After a mile of flat hiking, the trail began to ascend as it reached the foot of O'Leary Peak. The initial ascent was direct, with no switchbacks, but as the slope of O'Leary Peak became steeper, the trail/road began using switchbacks for the ascent. The wide trail was easy to follow and grades along the trail, with the exception of the very end, were generally reasonable as the road is still used by Forest Service employees to access the fire lookout at the summit. At 2.3 miles from the trailhead, the trail made a switchback to the east just downhill from a saddle.

At this point, the road emerged into the first views of the hike. Sunset Crater and a number of other small volcanic cones were visible across the mostly-desolate flat plain of the Bonito Lava Flow.

Sunset Crater and the Bonito Lava Flow from the trail
The eastward switchback was the longest switchback of the hike, at over a mile long; over the course of this switchback, the trail recorded a fairly substantial elevation gain, though all at a reasonable grade. At the end of the switchback, the trail arrived at a high saddle between O'Leary Peak and Darton Dome. Along this switchback, good views of the San Francisco Peaks emerged to the west. From this vantage point, I was able to gaze directly into the Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks. This valley is actually a caldera- the San Francisco Peaks are the remnant of what used to be a massive stratovolcano. The northeast face of the mountain eventually collapsed in an eruption likely similar but larger than the eruption at Mount St. Helens in 1980. Arizona's highest peaks- Mount Humphreys and Mount Agassiz- are simply high points along the caldera of what was once a much greater volcano.

After the long switchback, the trail/road continued ascending via switchbacks for another mile and a half to reach the summit. At this point, the sun rose and I caught beautiful sunrise lighting on the San Francisco Peaks.

Sunrise on the San Francisco Peaks
As the trail winded up the mountain, the north and main summit of O'Leary Peak came into view. After the trail reached a saddle between the peaks, it aimed for the south summit, which was only a few feet lower than the north summit. The final stretch of trail was very steep and featured metal grating over the road to provide more traction for trucks ascending to the lookout. At the end of the steep stretch, I arrived at the summit, which was topped by a tall fire lookout tower which stuck out above the tree line. The summit itself was mostly surrounded by trees.

O'Leary Lookout
The lookout cabin itself was closed when I visited, but by exploring around the summit and lookout area, I was able to piece together a panoramic view of the entire area. The best viewpoint was a few steps past the lookout atop a jumble of boulders facing the south. That spot provided a sweeping view of Sunset Crater and the San Francisco Peaks.

San Francisco Peaks from O'Leary Lookout
The San Francisco Peaks were initially named the Sierra Sin Agua by the Spanish for the dry climate in the area (Sin Agua translates to "without water"), ironic as nearby Hopi and Yavapai peoples found the mountains to be a rare lush spot in an otherwise harsh and dry landscape. The Sin Agua name was later applied to the precontact peoples who lived in the Flagstaff and Sedona areas who built elaborate pueblos that were abandoned by the time of European colonization.

To the south, I could look down into Sunset Crater. Snow coated the northern slopes of the crater and the morning sunlight kissed the cinder cone's colorful rim. John Wesley Powell, the legendary one-armed explorer of the Southwest, named the volcano for the red cinders near its summit crater. Sunset Crater was formed in one largely continuous burst of volcanic activity around AD 1080. Its formation was likely similar to that of Mexico's Paricutin: a volcanic vent spewing cinders and ash erupted from a previously peaceful spot, with a continuous eruption that eventually built up a cinder cone 1000 feet high. The eruption was accompanied by a lava flow of a'a lava from the vent that spilled to the west, filling a plain and creating the Bonito Lava Flow. Archaeologists have found evidence that the Sinagua people once inhabited this area; Sunset Crater's eruption forced their departure either south to Walnut Canyon or north to Wupatki.

Sunset Crater and the Bonito Lava Flow from O'Leary Peak
Sunset Crater is actually just the latest volcano to erupt in the San Francisco Volcanic Field, which contains some 600 volcanoes. Spread out on an east-west axis north of Flagstaff, the San Francisco Volcanic Field is likely the result of a subcrustal hotspot; activity in the field has appeared to migrate from west to east over the millions of years of activity in the field. The field is also responsible for the former stratovolcano at Humphreys Peak and for the field of cinder cones visible in all directions from the summit of O'Leary Peak. In fact, O'Leary Peak's lava dome is itself a creation of the San Francisco Volcanic Field as well.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon and cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field
The north rim of the Grand Canyon was also visible to the northwest past a line of especially shapely cinder cones. Navajo Mountain, a massive mountain in Utah near the Glen Canyon, was visible to the north past the canyons of the Little Colorado River. Doney Crater and the landscape of Wupatki was visible to the north as well, although I was unable to spot any of the pueblos despite my best efforts. To the east was the vast expanse of the Painted Desert, a mostly flat landscape punctuated by occasional buttes and canyons. To the southeast, past Sunset Crater, I spotted what appeared to be the circular rim of Meteor Crater, another incredible Arizona geological feature formed about 50,000 years ago by a meteorite impact.

Painted Desert
The popularity of this trail is unclear to me. On a nice but cold January morning (the temperature was 14 F outside when I began hiking), I saw one other hiker; Flagstaff is a very outdoorsy town and the views at O'Leary were nice so I'd be surprised if the peak is consistently overlooked. The trail is also mentioned occasionally in National Park Service literature at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, though I doubt few visitors to the monument would bother hiking up to O'Leary. In any case, as I had the summit to myself for an hour, it's clear that there are certainly times when one can find solitude on O'Leary Peak.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Plateau Point (Bright Angel Trail)

Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon's Granite Gorge below Plateau Point, Tower of Set in the distance
12 miles round trip, 3250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; uphill on return, possibility of searing temperatures and dehydration
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Grand Canyon National Park entrance fee required

Plateau Point is a hair-raising viewpoint in the heart of the Grand Canyon, situated directly above the Colorado River beneath the towering spires of the canyon's soaring temples and buttes. Reaching Plateau Point involves a hike down the Bright Angel Trail from the canyon's South Rim, an extraordinary hike that delivers the perspective necessary to comprehend the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. This hike is a remarkable way- simultaneously intimate and grand- to experience one of the planet's geological wonders.

Hiking into the Grand Canyon is a strenuous physical activity. If you're not a regular hiker, you should exercise extreme caution in picking your destination in the canyon. The descent into the canyon can be deceptively easy and mask the difficulty of hiking up from the canyon; each year, Grand Canyon National Park mounts hundreds of rescues to bring out hikers who descend too far and struggle to return to the Rim. Choosing to hike deep into the canyon without having a good gauge of one's physical abilities is the height of irresponsibility and can endanger your life. Casual day hikers can consider hiking down and back from the Mile-and-a-half Rest House but the hike to Plateau Point should only be attempted by experienced and fit hikers. If you've never hiked a trail as long as 12 miles round trip with over 3000 feet of elevation gain, this should not be the first place you attempt to do so.

Additionally, the National Park Service emphasizes that the round trip down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River is not a day hike. I didn't attempt to go all the way down to the river, but based on my experience with Plateau Point, I will say that I think it is plausibly doable for very fit hikers; if you have to wonder about whether or not you can do it, you probably shouldn't.

During summer, heat is an extreme hazard at the Grand Canyon. Temperatures are much warmer in the lower elevations of the inner canyon than at the rim and there's very little shade in the canyon itself. During winter, daylight hours are short and ice and snow may often cover the upper portions of the trail, making traction devices such as Yaktrax or microspikes a necessity. Additionally, potable water sources at One-and-a-half Mile Rest House and Three Mile Rest House are turned off for the winter. Check with the National Park Service on conditions before you hike.

As this hike description will mainly describe my hike out to Plateau Point, you can gain an idea of the difficulty of ascents on the return based on descriptions of the grade of descent on the way down. Overall, you should expect constant ascending grades from Indian Garden back to the Rim.

I hiked the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point during a brief January visit to the Grand Canyon. I parked at the Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village and walked slightly west along the rim from the lodge past Lookout and Kolb Studios to reach the trailhead of the Bright Angel Trail, next to a mule pen.

The trail made a short switchback as it began dropping downhill before joining up with a spur trail that led up to Kolb Studio. From here, the trail continued to descend, making a long switchback through the Kaibab Limestone that formed the top layer of the many sedimentary layers of the Grand Canyon. The trail passed through a small tunnel blasted through a fin of Kaibab Limestone as it followed a path blasted out into the rock cliff face. The slopes were almost continuously open, allowing for great views out into the canyon.

Grand Canyon from atop the Bright Angel Trail
The Grand Canyon is a incredible record of geological history. The hike down the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point starts in limestone laid in the Permian Period, about 250 million years ago, and cuts down to sandstone laid in the Cambrian Period, over 500 million years ago. Each intervening sedimentary layer has been almost perfectly preserved in position during the uplift of the Colorado Plateau. The layers passed along this trail, in descending order, are the thick cliff-forming Kaibab Limestone; the thin, slope-forming Toroweap Formation; the thick, cream-colored cliff-forming Coconino Sandstone, one of the most impressive formations in the canyon; the slope-forming red Hermit Formation; the multi-layered and generally sloping red Supai Group that is topped by a thinner cliff-forming unit, the Esplanade Sandstone; the thick and sheer cliffs of the Redwall Limestone; and the Tonto Group, of which the bottom-most layer is the hard and erosion-resistant Tapeats Sandstone, which forms the flat Tonto Platform in the inner canyon. Below the Tapeats Sandstone is the Great Unconformity, marking an over 1 billion year shift in the geological record to the ancient Vishnu Schist that forms the basement of the Grand Canyon.

Descending into the Grand Canyon is a difficult proposition because of the many cliff-forming sedimentary layers in the canyon walls. The Bright Angel Trail tackles the three major cliff-forming units- the Kaibab, the Coconino, and the Redwall- by taking advantages of layer mismatches resulting from a small fault. The trail is thus able to minimize the amount of time traversing blasted cliff faces by constantly switching sides of the fault to maximize time spent in slope-forming layers.

After switchbacking through the Kaibab and the Toroweap Formations, the trail descended into the Coconino Formation. For a brief stretch, the trail was cut directly into a cliff of Coconino Sandstone and included a section in which a tunnel had been blasted through this towering sandstone.

Tunnel on the Bright Angel Trail blasted through Coconino Sandstone
From the rim, it is difficult to appreciate the true magnitude of the Grand Canyon. Hiking through the Coconino Sandstone with its five hundred-foot tall cliffs finally makes clear the canyon's extraordinary size. Rim views are deceiving: our brains are unable to process sights such as the Grand Canyon and viewing the canyon from above may give the whole scene a surreal and almost toy-like feel. Yet being in the canyon and seeing the Coconino Sandstone tower hundreds of feet overhead, dwarfing other hikers, one starts to comprehend the size of it all. I felt the same wonder that Coronado's men must have felt when they became the first Europeans to descend into the canyon and realized that large rocks they had thought to be the size of men were actually as tall as the greatest towers and domes of Europe.

The Coconino Sandstone of the Grand Canyon
After cutting through the Coconino Sandstone, the trail began to head north as it descended into the Hermit Formation. Here, I came to the Mile-and-a-half Rest House, a small shelter with a nearby restroom. As the name suggested, this shelter was a mile and a half down the Bright Angel Trail from the rim, marking one quarter of the way out to Plateau Point. In summer, there is potable water at the resthouse; in winter, the water is turned off to prevent pipes from freezing. For most dayhikers, this is an excellent point at which to turn around and return to the rim; it's already 1000 feet lower in elevation from the canyon rim.

Mile-and-a-half Rest House
Past the Mile-and-a-half Rest House, the trail continued its steady descent, soon entering into the Supai Group, a set of largely slope-forming layers that are a beautiful red color, one of the principal sources of the canyon's broad palette. While hiking through the Supai Group, I encountered a mule team descending the trail towards Phantom Ranch. Mules have been one of the most reliable ways to move people and supplies up and down through the canyon.

Mules descending into the canyon
The Bright Angel Trail is today built atop former Havasupai paths into the canyon, which were widened by Ralph Henry Cameron, a European American prospector who staked a land claim at the canyon rim. While Cameron was initially interested in the canyon as a source of mineral wealth, he soon came to see tourism as a lucrative endeavor. Cameron widened the Bright Angel Trail and began charging early visitors tolls to hike down into the canyon. Cameron vigorously opposed the establishment of a national park at the Grand Canyon due to the potential revenue it could generate in private hands through tourism and resource extraction. The opposition of Cameron and other local settlers delayed the passage of a national park bill on the Grand Canyon in Congress; although the park was first proposed by Benjamin Harrison in 1882, it was not until 1919 that Congress finally established Grand Canyon National Park. The backbone of park opposition was only finally weakened when Theodore Roosevelt established Grand Canyon National Monument using the Antiquities Act at the end of this second term. Without the strong executive power granted by the act that allowed Roosevelt to unilaterally move to protect the Grand Canyon, it's unclear whether the Grand Canyon would be preserved in the condition we see today.

The Supai layers were thick and took most of 1.5 miles to hike through. After the trail had cut down through most of the Supai Group by switchbacks, it came to the Three Mile Rest House, which was 3 miles down from the rim as the name suggests. Here, there was once again a shelter and a restroom; a thermometer at the rest house allows summer visitors to gauge the heat in the canyon. Three Mile Rest House is just over 2000 feet downhill from the rim; only fit hikers should continue past this point.

Three Mile Rest House
Past Three Mile Rest House, the trail descended into the Redwall Limestone, a towering, dark red cliff-forming formation. The trail negotiated this descent with a set of extremely tight switchbacks, packed onto the narrow slopes of the canyon. Whereas most hikers on the upper portions of the trail had been day hikers, most of the hikers I encountered from here on were backpackers coming up from the river.

Switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail in the Redwall Limestone
At the bottom of the Redwall Limestone, the trail reached the gentler slopes of the Tonto Group. With the steepest part of the descent behind me, I continued gently downhill through the slopes of Muav Limestone. At this point, trailside vegetation had changed completely from what it had been at the rim. While the hike started amongst ponderosa pine and junipers, here I hiked alongside catclaw, prickly pear, and Mormon Tea, plants more common to the low elevations of the Sonoran Desert than to the highlands of the Colorado Plateau.

Looking up, the cliff-forming layers of the canyon walls towered one above the other. The Kaibab and Coconino Formations, which had appeared so majestic when I had descended through them, were now far enough away that I no longer had a good sense of their size; it amazed me that this canyon could make even the mightiest cliffs seem diminished.

Kaibab, Coconino, and Redwall Formations viewed from the inner canyon
4.5 miles from the trailhead, I came to Indian Garden, an oasis in this desert canyon. At Indian Garden, the nonporous underlying Bright Angel Shale forces groundwater to the surface. Surface water supports a grove of cottonwoods, a lush patch in an otherwise dry landscape. The Indian Garden area was actually quite developed, with water pumping stations, a ranger station, restrooms, year-round potable water, and a backpackers' campground. The cottonwood trees at Indian Garden still clung onto a few autumn leaves, allowing me to see desert fall foliage in January.

Cottonwoods of Indian Garden
Indian Garden marked the end of significant descent into the canyon; the remainder of the trail to Plateau Point was mostly flat, with only slight ascents and descents. At the far end of the Indian Garden area, just past the restrooms and water fountains, the Bright Angel Trail came to an intersection with the Tonto Trail West. Here, I left the Bright Angel Trail, instead taking the left fork towards the Tonto Trail and Plateau Point. While the Bright Angel Trail continued descending towards Phantom Ranch, the Plateau Point route instead stayed on the Tonto Platform.

The Tonto Trail crossed a stream and then entered the desert slopes of the Tonto Platform. Ahead, views of the inner canyon opened up as I finally hiked out of the side canyon to which the Bright Angel Trail had been confined. After hiking all morning in the shadows of the canyon, I now finally entered the sun.

Leaving Indian Garden on the Tonto Trail
About three-quarters of a mile out from Indian Garden, the Tonto Trail split from the Plateau Point Trail; I stayed to the right at this junction to continue out towards Plateau Point. Plateau Point's name comes from its position on a particularly flat section of the Tonto Platform in the inner canyon. This plateau is formed due to erosion-resistant nature of the underlying Tapeats Sandstone, which forms the base layer of the Colorado Plateau's many sedimentary layers.

Agave and desert vegetation populate the inner canyon on the Tonto Platform
Out on the Tonto Platform, the trail was flat and dry, surrounded by catclaw, prickly pear, and agave. Great cliffs rose on all sides: the Battleship, the Tower of Set, Cheops Pyramid, Isis Temple, Buddha Temple, Brahma Temple, and Zoroaster Temple were just some of the soaring buttes that filled the view. Looking back towards the South Rim, I could now spot the distinct promontories of Hopi Point, Yavapai Point, and Yaki Point. Indian Garden was also visible, a lone clump of trees at the bottom of a wash.

Looking back from the Tonto Platform towards Indian Garden
A mile and a half past Indian Garden- six miles from the trailhead- I found myself at the edge of a cliff, high above the Colorado River. Above me soared the grandest buttes and temples, shaped into spires by five million years of erosion. Below, the Colorado River- mighty, raging, and ever-patient- continued to cut though Granite Gorge, eating away at the Earth's crust as it eagerly charged towards its final resting place in the Sea of Cortez. The raw cut of the Vishnu Schist below Plateau Point was a stark contrast with the clean layers of sedimentary rock that composed the upper reaches of the canyon. The power of the Colorado River, the magnitude of what water can do given time, was sublime and terrifying.

The Colorado River flows though Granite Gorge beneath Buddha, Brahma, and Zoroaster Temples
As I gazed out into the abyss from Plateau Point, I saw a number of rafts make their way through churning rapids on the Colorado in Granite Gorge.

Rafts in Granite Gorge on the Colorado River
I arrived at Plateau Point in the middle of the day; although I initially saw few other hikers, by the time I left a steady stream of hikers was arriving. Still, the crowds here were thin compared to those at the rim or higher up on the trail. Squirrels at the point were remarkably bold, making repeated raids into the backpacks of many hikers; don't leave your gear alone when you're here.

Standing 1500 feet above the Colorado River, deep in the heart of the Grand Canyon raised some complex emotions for me. The scene was undeniably beautiful, but also inspired some feeling of fear and awe at the magnitude and rawness of the canyon. You'll have to make it out to Plateau Point to experience it for yourself.