Spring Break 2017: Great Basin National Park Lehman Cave

I don’t often visit National Parks when I’m out traveling. It’s not that I hold the No Puppy Service in low regard but Sprocket’s my adventure buddy and quite frankly, I’ll skip the crowds for BLM or Forest Service land just outside the park to hang with him.

Since he didn’t join me for this trip, I was free for National Park adventures! I spent some time in Arches but my next stop was Great Basin National Park. I’ve been wanting to go to Great Basin and visit the bristlecone pines for ages (and more recently, I’ve really wanted to climb Wheeler Peak); these high mountain adventures were on hold though since the upper slopes of the park were still pretty packed in snow. Instead, I signed up for the Grand Palace Tour in Lehman Cave.

Reservations for the tours are highly recommended so I made mine about a week and a half before I left on my trip. I’m not much for specific time points to be places but I’m really glad I made space for this! The cave tour was just the right length and our ranger was really informative.

This wasn’t my first tour in a limestone cave (I visited Shasta Caverns in 2009 and Carlsbad Caverns in 2010) but I was impressed. The cave was beautiful and the tour was really interesting.

I really liked this cave bacon:

I was having a really hard time making all of my knowledge of western geology come together while trying to fit in the formation of the cave. The final answer was: I don’t know anywhere near enough about Great Basin geology and I need to fix that before I come back to Nevada. #sciencenerdproblems

I’ll definitely be back to Great Basin in a different time of year to check out the upper part of the park!

Wildflower of the Week: Eastern Pasqueflower

Pasqueflower (or Cutleaf Anemone) 
Pulsatilla patens ssp. multifida

While Sprocket and I were out hiking Ouray’s Perimeter Trail last weekend, I noticed a wildflower. It was only the first weekend of April so I was totally surprised that there were already flowers popping up through the snow! As it turns out, when I did, muddy snowmelt areas are precisely where you’d expect to find the pasqueflower.

These flowers are such pale purple they’re almost white. Their little petals are really delicate and the stems are almost fuzzy. They’re scattered all over the hillside where I found them!

Just a few days later, I also found them on the Thunder Trails near Norwood! They were everywhere!

I have been meaning to learn more about native plants in the San Juans and the Colorado Plateau for YEARS. In order to help me learn, I’m shooting for a weekly plant of sorts like I used to do with the Cactus of The Week feature. Writing the Cactus of the Week really helped to me learn those cacti and I’m hoping for the same to happen here!

Topaz Museum and Historic Site

A cursory Google of my intended route had turned up the (free) Great Basin Museum in Delta, Utah. I figured I could use a leg stretch when I arrived after driving across the state so I pulled in behind the visitor center and walked around the corner.

Before I reached my intended museum, I noticed the Topaz Museum sign. This gorgeous building, with its exterior clad shou sugi ban style, stood out in the plain western Utah town. I’m a little embarrassed but I wandered inside partially not knowing what to expect and partially expecting a rock museum.

It only took me a few minutes of wandering around the lobby to understand what this museum was about. I was confused about whether there was an entry fee and about where to go. Eventually, a woman came out and ushered me into a group with a docent that had started just minutes before me.

We watched two films before the docent ushered us into the start of the exhibits. The first was about the history of Topaz and how it fit in with the rest of the internment camps in the western United States. The second was footage actually shot in Topaz by someone who was held in the camp. An administrator had helped him acquire a camera but didn’t fully give him “permission” to film. This is one of only two home movies to be housed in the Library of Congress.

I was nervous about taking photos of all of the museum exhibits but within minutes of entering the museum I had a sad sinking feeling in my gut. I attempt to not be overtly political on this blog but it is clear that our country has elected someone who is unclear on how much internment is in conflict with true American values and that underscored how important it is that we recognize how we failed ourselves in the 1940s.

The Topaz museum is astounding. The exhibits are incredibly well designed. Housed within the museum is a residence for four people and outside the backdoor is a recreation hall moved from the site. There is furniture from the site that was constructed from found wood and photos showing how Topaz interacted with Delta once it was realized that the internees were not actually a threat to our country.

The last piece of the museum is a discussion of how the internment was handled in the courts after it happened. This didn’t feel like the end of the story to me so I decided I should head out to the actual site of the camp, just outside of town.

I only made it to the memorial before I sat down on its sunwarmed granite and cried. I hadn’t even entered the site yet. The museum had so well laid the foundation for an understanding of how the internment of Japanese-Americans fit into our history and into our present that I couldn’t help but feel the moment so acutely.

While I was in the museum, one of the docents commented how terrible it was that they were confined to such an ugly place. I couldn’t help myself when I responded, “It’s only ugly if you’re stuck.” On the very edge of the great basin, I was struck by the mountains and the sky. But to imagine being trapped in such a space was unthinkable.

I grew up near the Puyallup Fairgrounds which had been an assembly point for those of Japanese ancestry while waiting to be sent to their permanent camps further inland. In elementary school, we’d had a presentation by the author of Baseball Saved Us, Ken Mochizuki, and we learned about internment camps and how important baseball had been.

Standing behind what had been the backstop of one of the baseball fields, I finally started to feel some peace. I’m not sure if its the idea of baseball being “America’s game” or if its just that my long association with the game makes me feel closer to people or what. I sat on the hard dirt and looked out to the northeast, just like ball fields are supposed to, for a bit and collected myself to move on.

 

While my visit to Topaz wasn’t expected and it certainly wasn’t easy, I really recommend a stop. The museum is located in Delta, Utah right on the main highway and the camp is a relatively short drive outside of town. 

On The Page: The Secret Knowledge of Water

I didn’t discover the wonders of the desert until I was well into my twenties. My former partner took me to Moab and introduced me to its cranky bee-drinking bard, Ed Abbey. After that, I was hooked. The Colorado Plateau is actually considered a “semidesert” but I’ve also learned to love the Sonoran Desert and have learned to “not hate” the Mohave Desert. While mountains have my heart, it’s no accident that the mountains that I inhabit are so close to the desert and that I make regular pilgrimages to those parched lands.

Fellow Western Slope resident, Craig Childs writes about the deserts of the American West in a way that resonates with me more than anyone else, including Cactus Ed. Childs incorporates history, science, and landscape in a way that makes my Western loving nerdy heart sing.

The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert delves into the intimate relationship between the desert and water. Throughout the book, Childs looks at both still water hiding in remote canyons to sustain life and the dramatic floods that rip through the arroyos and canyons of the desert tossing boulders.

I find myself getting pulled into writing like this both as someone who follows along with Craig on his adventures and seeing places through his eyes but also as someone who has walked (albeit more superficially) through some of the same landscapes.

The book opens with Childs discussing his exhaustive study of watering holes in just one range of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The Cabeza Prieta feels incredibly remote and has always seemed very dry to me; however, because I’m a hiker with a peakbagging problem, I have spent more time on the rocky spines of the mountains than probing the quiet canyons just below them. As is usual with Childs’s writing, the scene is made strikingly visible even to those who haven’t visited the locations he describes.

He discusses how ignorance of where to find water in some of America’s driest country can easily lead to death and gives the briefest outline of the history of traversing the El Camino Del Diablo. I was excited to learn more about Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and how he successfully traversed the Camino repeatedly by listening to natives of the area. (The peak for which he is namesake is one I really wanted to climb when in the Ajo area and is pictured below but then the western side of Organ Pipe National Monument was closed to the public; it’s since reopened, I guess it’s time to go back!)

After discussing hidden water holes in the southern deserts of Arizona, the scene shifts north to the Colorado Plateau. While some more standing water is discussed, the story shifts to moving water in the canyons surrounding the Grand Canyon.

Childs impetuously watches flash floods from close range and makes the reader imagine standing on hot desert rock when thunderstorms open up and let water course down the dry falls and canyons. (I was really distracted in this section by the fact that I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon. I’m going to have to figure out when to get down there…)

While I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, I was still born in the northwest and learned to love the outdoor in the wet temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest so I am still fascinated with the extremes of the desert. The Secret Knowledge of Water was a book that gave me a deeper understanding of how life survives in the desert. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the southwest.

 

Spring Break 2017: Crossing Utah

Departing from Katherine and her friends, I headed north towards I-70. Although I detest driving on the interstate, I must say, Green River to Salina is actually pretty damn amazing. Just outside of Green River you cross up and over the San Rafael Swell and then cross through some pretty mountains before descending into Salina.

Views of the Book Cliffs from US-191:

Approaching the Swell:

I got off the interstate near the crest of the swell to hike out to San Rafael Knob. The beta I attempted to follow lead me to the edge of a cliff. I’m pretty willing to scramble a lot of things but I couldn’t quite figure out how to get back on track for the route. After a bit, I abandoned the hike (fortunately its right off I-70 so making it back here isn’t hard).

It was a nice ramble along the canyon rim even if I never did find a way to penetrate its defenses.

Just after the hike, I started to descend from the swell before heading up into the mountains.

From Salina, I headed around Fishlake National Forest to Delta, Utah. (Delta was mindblowing so it gets its own post…until tomorrow!)

Spring Break 2017: Moab, Utah

2017 has been more of the crazy busy that 2016 was. I did take off some time recently to hike Mt. Peale and Black Mesa but other than that, I’ve been head down working hard on making a house happen (and on that front, I’m waiting around on an “as built” appraisal right now…).

Last fall, my friend Kelly moved to California and left her van at my place until she could figure out how to get it moved out there with her. I volunteered to drive it out over Spring Break. My roommate, Katherine, was starting her break in Moab so I joined her and her friends for a couple of days.

On my way out to Moab from Ridgway, I discovered, when I was pulled over in Norwood, that the tags on the van were expired. This lead to some handwringing between Kelly and I as we tried to figure out what our best course of action was. Since the courthouse in Ouray was closed on Fridays, we decided I should just go for it and we’d deal with potential tickets when and if they came. Because of this delay, I reached Moab a little bit later than I’d hoped but it was Thursday night and I had more than a week of freedom ahead of me.

We’d hoped to get permits to hike Arches National Park‘s Fiery Furnace on Friday morning but alas, all of the permits were gone until Sunday but I’d need to head west before that. Since Katherine’s friend Brittney had never been to the park we hiked to Delicate Arch and then out to Sand Dune Arch. The weather was windy and cold so it wasn’t until we got out to Sand Dune Arch that I finally started to feel like it was break. Scrambling around sandstone makes me grin like a fool and that really helped kick off some vacation!

 

I mentioned that I really wanted to go to Back of Beyond Books and Katherine wanted to go to Gear Trader. Out of character for all of us, we went shopping. Much to Katherine’s surprise, I spent money: I bought books, a (super sweet) hat, and a new MSR pot since mine seems to have disappeared. The sun came out and the weather warmed up so walking around town felt awesome. Once we were done shopping, we started floating ideas about where to go next. I suggested Cable Arch but that wasn’t getting much response. Katherine suggested visiting Castle Valley so I suggested that we go out there and taste wine at Castle Creek. We caravaned out of town, pausing to get water at Matrimony Spring, and headed for the winery.

Tasting at Castle Creek is only $1 for 4 tastes (thanks Utah law, you can only do 4 tastes but if you plan with your friends you can taste them all). Since we’d stopped at Red Rocks, we visited the Utah Museum of Film and Western Heritage. I’d never stopped before but was pretty fascinated with all of the movies and commercials that had been filmed out there! I knew about a lot of them but there were several that were total surprises!

Back in Moab, we grabbed dinner at The Spoke and then headed to the brewery to pick up some beer and have a pint before heading back to camp. The blustery weather had returned so we were happy to not have to return to camp yet. It seemed to be outdoors social media weekend in Moab so I was able to finally meet Dave W. and catch up with Mike R.

After a couple of beers we headed back to camp, where much wine and beer were drunk and campfire smoke inhaled and we all headed off to sleep. It poured overnight making getting the van out of our sandy camp spot somewhat interesting but it was time for me to be heading off towards California!

Sunday Sermon

Accepting Heaven at Great Basin
Nathalie Handal

When you doubt the world
look at the undivided darkness

look at Wheeler Peak
cliffs like suspended prayers

contemplate the cerulean
the gleaming limestone

the frozen shades
the wildflowers

look at the bristlecone pine
a labyrinth to winding wonders

listen to the caves
sing silently

remember the smell of sagebrush
after a thunderstorm

that Lexington Arch
is a bridge of questions

in the solitude of dreams
that here

distances disturb desire
to deliver a collision of breaths

the desert echoes
in this dark night sky

stars reveal the way
a heart can light a world.

Navajo County Highpoint: Black Mesa

I looked at March on my calendar back in February, I realized that it was going to be a long tough stretch leading up to Spring Break. To combat that, I scheduled a day to head down to the Navajo Reservation to hike to the top of Black Mesa, the Navajo County highpoint.

I had to do a little bit of prep work to get ready to hike this one. Since I wanted to respect Navajo Nation sovereignty, I needed to follow their processes to obtain a hiking permit for the reservation. I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t pick up a permit in Kayenta but when I discovered I could pick up one at the Four Corners Monument that worked out alright (I would have liked to start an hour earlier but alas, I had to wait near the Monument until they opened at 8am.) It was a little difficult to communicate to them where I wanted to hike but since I’d set everything up ahead of time I had no problems at permit pickup.

I started from the gate just below the water towers as suggested by prior trip reports. The gate was open both on the way up and the way down but I didn’t want to risk being locked in. This only added about a mile each way on flat road so it wasn’t a big deal (Sprocket might have disagreed when it was warm on the way down).

The trail sticks to the top of one of the ridges before it makes one large switch back up the side of the mesa. I found that the lower part of the trail, especially the start of the swing to the left that starts the switch back wasn’t really obvious and it was nice to have the GPS track from a prior hiker. After that junction, the trail became much clearer as it moved up the side of the mesa. (In fact, this trail would be a great one for the Reservation to develop into a more formal trail!)

As one might expect in mid-March, the north facing slope still had some snow covering the trail in places. I sort of embraced this since it’s not spring around here without some postholing and scrub oak scrapes. Even though it’s sort of painful, it is a definite signal to me that spring is here (although I have learned that long socks and shorts are the jam for springtime hiking).

Once I reached the rim, the views were incredible! I could see so much of the Four Corners region from there!

The highpoint of the mesa is actually located a little ways east of where the Yazzie Trail reaches the rim of the mesa. Some of it is in the open but it eventually goes into a pinon-juniper stand where the highpoint is located.

We wandered around for awhile looking for the highpoint, again, using GPS to make sure we were in the right area and eventually found the summit cairn. It was fun to see all the familiar names on the register!

Since the summit wasn’t particularly photogenic, we paused along the rim on the way back to the Yazzie Trail for photos.

It was a glorious day for adventuring outside! Sprocket found it a little bit warm on the way down but old dog is a trooper. He even got a McDonald’s kiddie ice cream cone once we were back in Kayenta.

San Juan County Highpoint: Mt. Peale

Mt. Peale has been on my list of mountains to climb since I first went to Moab in 2009. The La Sal Mountains tower above the red rocks, often graced with snow during “desert season” in the spring and fall. Being based in Norwood this year brought fresh incentive to climb Mt. Peale since the La Sals grace the western skyline on most of my after school runs.

The highest peak in Utah outside the Unitahs, Mt. Peale comes in at 12,721′ above sea level. Moab, to the northwest, sits at only 4,000′ while Paradox Valley to the southeast is at about 5,300′ of elevation. Peale is on a whole slew of peakbagging lists, including clocking in at #57 on the USA prominence list (it’s the 3rd most prominent peak I’ve climbed to date).

Early this winter, my rooomate Katherine mentioned that she wanted to climb Mt. Peale in the winter and wanted to know if I would join her. I was somewhat hesitant considering that I wasn’t sure when I could commit to climbing the peak since I was working 7 days a week and as a result of all that work, I wasn’t running very consistently. She basically ignored me and just kept talking about the hike like it was something that was Going To Happen.

Excellent move.

As it happened, I suggested March 12 for our ascent. I had paid no attention to daylight savings time beginning at exactly the time we planned to depart from the house (2am MST/3am MDT). Somehow I figured I had plenty of time to finish my shift at Mouses at 9pm, drive 50 miles to the house, sleep a bit and still climb a giant mountain? I was, however, committed, so I was in. Three hours of sleep and all.

Also throwing a wrench in our plans was that the weekend prior, Katherine had twisted her ankle in an ice climbing fall. I was willing to let her off the hook on the hike (in some ways, I saw an escape that would prevent me from facing my fears about my own fitness) but she continued to insist that she would be fine despite not wearing real shoes at school all week. (#realchampion)

My alarm didn’t go off because I very wisely set it for 2:45am, a time that actually didn’t exist that day. Katherine gently woke me up at 3am and then attempted to lay out to me that she was 75% sure her ankle could handle the hike. It was 3am, I was out of bed, and we were leaving. That was that. We jammed to T-Swift in the car on the way to the trailhead (which meant that I had “Bad Blood” and “All You Had To Do Was Stay” in my head for 16 miles…) and I kept my eyes peeled for deer lurking on the roadside.

Honestly, when we strapped our snowshoes on at the start of the snow-covered road, with Peale looming in the full moonlight, I gave us a 50/50 shot of making the summit. We had a long slog of road before we could even think of moving up the slopes. The magic of hiking in the dark took over though and we made great progress. I didn’t even turn on my headlamp because the moon was totally sufficient for light.

The day dawned just as we reached the start of our ridge ascent. Once we left the road, the snow got steep fast. My 2nd hand snowshoes purchased when I lived in Montana (in 2010!) don’t have ascenders. They’re small, definitely not designed for mountaineering on 30% slopes, and some of the quick tighten bindings don’t stay very tight anymore. It wasn’t long before my calves were screaming and I was tugging on my bindings every few minutes to keep them tight. I was tired and just wasn’t feeling it. The sky was greyer than I’d expected and I felt terrible.

I’d seen the exposed rock on the ridge from the road and all I wanted was to make it there. As soon as I could, I removed my snowshoes and strapped them to my pack, opting instead to go up the scree with microspikes and ice axe. On the rock, I started to find my groove and the sun started to come out. I moved efficiently upward grabbing short breaks while waiting for Katherine to catch up; during one of these little breaks I actually fell asleep in the wind at 10,000′. It was sort of nuts.

At the top of the exposed rock on the ridge, we crossed some steep snow on our way to the summit. We were both tired but the summit was only 150′ above us. Most of the way, we managed to stay below the ridge and were somewhat protected from the worst of the strong winds out of the northwest. On the final walk to the summit, however, the winds were definitely something to contend with. I braved the wind to take a couple of selfies and then it was time to head down.

Our short summit stay was sort of disappointing since the views were incredible. We could look north to the bulk of the La Sals, including Grand County highpoint, Mt. Wass:

Looking south over South mountain the Abajos and the Henrys were visible along with most of canyon country:

Looking back to the west, there was the Uncompaghre, Pardox Valley, and my beloved San Juans:

We debated a little how to descend and eventually settled on a glissade down the gully. It was steep in some places but it worked out okay. The day was getting warm and the snow turning to mashed potatoes so our pants were soaked. By the end, when the grade had lessened, we were both laughing and mentally preparing for the long slog back out to the Jeep.

12 hours after we’d gotten out of Ruth, we arrived back in the parking lot and headed out hoping to make it to Naturita in time for burgers and milkshakes at Blondie’s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two milkshakes consumed that fast.

At home in Norwood, we attempted to have celebratory beers but I was sleepy by the time I’d had two sips. We’d covered somewhere in the ballpark of 15-16 miles and climbed 5000′ in elevation. That’s definitely not too shabby for an afternoon on the snow.

Thank you so much to Katherine for an awesome day in the mountains. I learned a lot and I reached the summit of a mountain that had been taunting me for years.