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Johnson Canyon & Johnson Arch

We have an embarrassment of hiking riches here in St. George. It really is ridiculous, the things you can see and visit in a very short time. Today was a perfect example of this. After picking up my eldest daughter from school, we swung by the Johnson Canyon trail. This short (1.85 miles round trip) trail is perfect for kids or when pressed for time, and today it was just the right thing for our family.

Just outside of Snow Canyon State Park (and the fee area), the trail heads east through a substantial lava flow. The trail winds through the black outcrops of rock and sagebrush with little elevation gain. It eventually passes by a deep wash lined with Cottonwood and Willow before winding around the western toe of the canyon.

One nice surprise of this trail is the spring that trickles down at the bottom of the wash. In a notoriously dry area, it is delightful to hear and see (barely) running water. That might be the one thing I really miss (besides friends and family) about the Northwest: the sound and sight of flowing water. Sure, there is the Virgin river and there are some nice streams up in the mountains, but nothing on the scale of the rivers I am used to.

After entering the small canyon, Johnson Arch is reached after a quarter mile or so. A big, hulking arch with a 200′ span, it is almost a shock to see one that big — and it is in city limits too! How many towns can boast about that? Not many.

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The trail continues on for a few hundred more yards and terminates in a glorious box canyon with sheer, 300′ walls. This is actually my favorite part of the canyon. Its a great place to test out your echo skills. I find it very peaceful in there, and could just sit and meditate there for a long, long time.

We headed back to the car, stopping at a big rock to practice our bouldering skills and talk to a nice older couple we had seen on the trail. The whole hike, car to car, took less than an hour, and was a perfect way to top off a full day.

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The North Bank Habitat: The East Ridge Loop

NBHMA II

I have written often about the North Bank Habitat Management Area before, but considering the limited time I have left in Oregon, I would like to write at least one more post about this under-appreciated jewel of a park. I have had a love affair with this place since I first came here, although it took a couple of hikes before I really came to realize how amazing a spot it is.

A brief history: Several decades ago, the Columbia White Tailed Deer was nearly extinct. As far as anyone knew (in the 1970’s), there was only a tiny isolated population found on an island in the Columbia river. But then it was discovered that there was also still a small population living in Douglas County near Roseburg. This habitat (the NBHMA) was at that time privately owned, and in 1994 the Bureau of Land Management acquired the area in a land exchange. The deer have since rebounded and were taken off the Douglas County endangered list in 2013. The park itself is over six thousand acres in size, or approximately ten square miles.

Personally I have hiked all over this place, but what I enjoy most are the really long ridge hikes that can easily exceed ten miles in length. The views on these particular hikes are superlative, with Mt. Scott looming to the northeast and the North Umpqua river winding its way to the south. It is also quite incredible how few people come here to hike. I don’t think I have ever seen more than five people in a single hike. Most times it seems as though it is completely empty.

My favorite of all the hikes I have completed so far is the East Ridge Loop (my name for it.) It is a combination of the Thistle Ridge-Middle Ridge to the Northgate junction, then east along the North Boundary Road/Ridge trail to the East Boundary Ridge trail in a massive, 13.5 mile loop (according to my GPS.) You gain about 1500 feet of elevation along the way and completely circumambulate a large valley. Along the way there are massive madrones, a nice rocky crag that is supposed to be a den for rattlesnakes, a weather station, endless hills and a Purple Martin sanctuary.

Recently I put together a video of the hike for a school project, and I am pleased to present it to you now. Rather than wax rhapsodic about the hike, I will just stop and let you watch the video. Enjoy!

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Southwest Tour, Part VI, B: Hidden Valley

After we had left behind the slot canyon of the lower Observation Point trail, we came a short ways down the huge rock face that the trail cuts across, then we came to the junction with the Hidden Canyon trail, and began heading straight back up a steeper and tighter series of switchbacks. At the end of the switchabcks, the trail begins hugging a series of crags along narrow ledges protected by chains like the Angels Landing trail. After rounding a couple of these crags, we came to the opening to another slot canyon – Hidden Valley. I had been told about this trail by some fellow campers in the campground, and so Charles and I had decided to add it to the end of our Observation Point hike

Sandstone pockets in Hidden Valley

The entrance to the ‘valley’ (it is really more of a canyon or gorge) is protected by a short scramble up a small boulder. There are several such steps in the valley, each overcome by easy but exposed scrambling up or around the blockage. The bottom of this slot canyon is mostly sand, with occasional protruding steps of sandstone.

We looked up and around us in awe, sometime the canyon would narrow to less than twenty feet, but the walls can be hundreds of feet high. One wall was particularly perfect, dead-on vertical and absolutely smooth. Yet this narrow valley was not devoid of life, there were numerous stands of trees, mostly cottonwood, plus man varieties of herbaceous shrubs. Plus cactus, of course, there was always cactus.

After hiking for about twenty minutes, Charles pointed out an amazing little arch that I had walked past without seeing it.

The Hidden Arch

We continued on, the canyon cut a perfectly straight path through the Mesas on either side. After climbing past three or four obstacles, we could see that we had come to where the canyon widened and began heading back up, and we decided that we had essentially come to the end of the valley.

We turned around and hiked our way back out, glad to have added this additional challenge to an already challenging day. We returned to the Weeping Rock trailhead, caught the shuttle back to the lodge and spent the rest of the day between the lodge, our campsite and the swimming hole a few hundred yards away. We had one more day left in Zion, and the challenge that lay ahead would be my toughest test yet.

The trail up to Observation Point

Southwest Tour, part VI, A: Observation Point

The trail up to Observation Point

The trail up to Observation point is, in my opinion, one of the single greatest pure hikes around, period. Having done the Angels Landing hike/scramble the day before (which was recently listed as the single greatest day hike in the U.S.), I can honestly say that I think this one is better. For one, there are far fewer people. With nearly double the elevation gain of Angels Landing and more than twice the mileage, it weeds out the casual hiker or tourist after the first couple of miles. Another great thing about this hike is the astounding variety of scenery packed into it.

Starting from the Weeping Rock trailhead, the initial mile is quite strenuous, switchbacking up a rock face and gaining around 800 feet of elevation. I told Charles from the outset to just go ahead and go at his own pace and I would do the same, enabling me to film and take pictures at my leisure.

Sandstone walls from lower on the trail

When I reached the top of the first major rise, the trail switched from climbing up a sandstone face to traversing through a gorgeous, narrow canyon, with a deep, dark slot canyon below the trail. I was in awe, absolute awe. The beauty and serene tranquility(especially after experiencing the throngs on Angels Landing) was wonderful, and the climber in me naturally wanted to rap down and explore the deeper recesses.

The trail follows these narrow canyons for several miles, until finally wrapping around a corner and opening up into a wide amphitheater-like area, a sort of backdoor section of Zion that is equally beautiful to the canyon itself. Here the heat started to really rise, the next forty-five minutes of hiking was like being in an oven.

The ‘backdoor’ area on the trail.

I was essentially alone on this part of the trail. I had passed a couple of young ladies in the canyon section, but out here there was virtually no one. I made my way along endless switchbacks, feeling the heat try to wither me, but after the Grand Canyon I felt pretty impervious. We had actually allowed ourselves to sleep in that morning instead of waking up at our usual four or five a.m., and now we were paying the price.

A sign along the Observation Point trail

As the trail headed into a fold in the mountain, the heat increased even more dramatically. Looking at the perfect wall opposite from the trail, I saw numerous rock-climbing routes that were begging to be climbed. Eventually the trail wrapped around the side of the mesa, and once more I saw the vista of Zion Canyon below, and I knew I was getting close to the top. It was much cooler on this side, too, bringing a welcome breeze and shade after cooking for the past forty-five minutes.

The trail at this point is a switchbacking series of ledges literally blasted out of a cliff face. You can actually see this portion of the trail from Zion Canyon. I took some footage of myself hiking up the ledges, and after about ten minutes, I had reached the top of the mesa. Now it was an undulating mile along the rim to reach Observation Point. Ten or fifteen people milled around on top, enjoying the stunning views. Angels Landing, our previous hike, could be seen about a thousand feet below us. Charles and I congratulated each other on another phenomenal hike. I took more pictures and film, and once again had to fend off an over-aggressive squirrel who was obviously used to handouts.

The view from Observation Point

Don & Charles on Observation Point

Myself eating a seaweed snack Ryan had asked me to take on the trip.

We spent fifteen minutes enjoying the stunning views before heading back down. When we got back to the begining of the narrow canyon, I opted to scramble down and see if I could make it through one of the narrow slot canyons I had seen on the ascent. It was so amazing in there, the walls that were only five feet across but one hundred feet high snaked below the trail. I finally got to a point where there was a pool of water, and if I hadn’t had the expensive cameras on me, I would have gone for a swim to reach the other side, but I thought better and went back to re-join the trail.

When we reached the junction with the Hidden Valley trail (on the initial rock face we had hiked from the Weeping Rock trailhead), we headed back up, but that is a subject for the next blog…

 

Looking Back.

It has been around three months since my chronic pain issues were miraculously relieved. I truly hadn’t expected to find a medication that would take away my pain. I had been using all sorts of narcotics which, while helpful, only lessened the extreme agony I had been feeling. I felt that the suffering I was enduring was a life-long thing that I just had to deal with, and since it seemed to be getting progressively worse, I could also expect to have more and more limitations to my life, especially physically. For someone who loves to climb, kayak and hike, this was a depressing scenario, to say the least.

So it has been months since the last time I felt anything close to agony. I still feel pain, but only when I forget to take my medication in  a timely fashion, and even what discomfort I feel is nothing too horrible. It is quite amazing to me. Consider the following video, from the last winter, when I was in the midst of a horrible attack:

I looked, and felt awful. Here I am a month ago on Bartram’s Rock:

While the two videos are admittedly different, I think it is still pretty obvious how much better I look and feel in the second one. My mother told me recently that I look like I had shed about ten years, and I think she’s right. My skin looks better, my body language has changed, but I think more than anything, the look in my eyes is radically different. I have had numerous people tell me what a change has come over me. That makes me happy, knowing how obvious the improvement is.

I recently had blood work and x-rays done at OHSU, Oregon’s premier hospital, and they all came back normal except for seriously low vitamin D levels, which I am now taking prescription mega-doses of to restore it to normalcy. So no Ankylosing Spondylitis or rheumatoid arthritis. Looks like Fibromyalgia (what I originally thought I had) is the main culprit. Actually, part of what tipped the doctors off is the relief that Tramadol (the med I started taking) gives me, it works for Fibro patients when nothing else will.

I am now in better shape for this time of year than I have been in ages, maybe ever. Usually I cannot really train or condition during the colder, wetter months of the year, but this year I am already in great shape. Got up Mt. Thielsen in around 4 hours, pretty good considering the snow level. When the blister on my ankle heals, I will be returning to the gym again, and push my fitness even further. I will be happy when I can climb Thielsen in 2.5 hours with snow. Nevertheless, this year is looking like it is going to be an awesome year for mountaineering, rock climbing and kayaking, and all thanks to finding the right medication.

A silent alarm & a change of plans

I was supposed to have gotten up at 4:30 a.m. I would be on the road a little before 5 and arrive at the Mt. Thielsen trailhead by 6. Unfortunately, my cel-phone, which also doubles as my alarm clock, was set to silent, so my wake-up call came and went while I slept in ignorant oblivion. When I did wake up, I immediately realized something was amiss. For starters, it was already getting light outside. I grabbed the phone and looked at the clock. It was 5:57. Shit. I knew I wouldn’t be climbing Thielsen that day.

As a climber you really have to be time-conscious, and getting to the trail by 7 or 7:30 was just going to be a little too late, especially since there was still a ton of snow and I wouldn’t be able to run up the mountain like I could in summer. I wanted to be on the summit by 12 or 1, and I just didn’t think I could get there with that late of a start.

So I got up, made some coffee and thought about my options. After a short time I decided I would just go upriver and take pictures and shoot some film. I told my girlfriend about my change of plans and headed out, determined that the day wouldn’t be a waste.

I am quite fortunate to live so close to such an amazing area of natural beauty. I live on the North Umpqua river, one of the most beautiful rivers on the planet (in my opinion), and fifteen minutes upriver from where I live the canyons narrow and the river becomes increasingly spectacular. I pulled over after a short drive and started shooting film. I did this for a time, stopping somewhere along the highway where the river looked particularly beautiful and getting out my cameras. As I meandered up the highway, I decided that I would go somewhere I hadn’t been before. First I was thinking about heading into the Boulder Creek Wilderness, but as I pondered that option, I realized that construction on the nearby Soda Springs Dam would probably keep me from reaching the trailhead, so I changed plans and decided to head up to the Illahee Rock lookout. I had often wanted to go there, but just hadn’t managed to get there, so I made the decision to go.

Along the way, I continued to stop and take pictures, and spent a little time at Steamboat Creek and Canton Creek:

Beautiful turquoise Canton Creek

Lovely jade color of Canton Creek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soon I was on the dirt Illahee Road heading up and up, hoping that I would be able to reach the trailhead without running into any snow. I never saw anyone as I drove higher and higher in elevation. Soon I caught a breathtaking glimpse of Mt Bailey through the trees and I was immediately glad I had come this way. Just seeing mountains makes me happy. I drove on, and soon I began to reach the area where a huge fire had stripped most of the forest thus allowing a better look of the drive ahead. In the distance I could see snow on the road, and I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to drive quite all the way to the trailhead. Just when I could see Illahee Rock, several feet of snow on the road brought me to a halt. Being this close, I knew it wasn’t a big deal, so I parked, got my backpack and headed out.

End of the drive.

It was already a hot day, and I foolishly had forgotten my sunscreen, so within five minutes I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I was going to end the day with a sunburn. I turned my baseball cap backwards, since the sun was behind me, and kept on trudging through the slushy snow. Ahead of me I could clearly see the lookout towers that grace the summit of Illahee Rock, but I was even more intrigued by the the rocky bluff to the left of Illahee. Hey, I’m a climber, what can I say?

Reaching a fork in the road, I had planned on taking the right-hand fork, but a rock tower to my left grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. I took the left-hand fork. At first, I was planning on just taking some pictures of it, but since it was so obviously nearby, I knew I could at least get to it pretty easily. I left the road after a quarter mile and followed discontinuous game trails along a gentle ridge. I thought I was seeing a formation known as Rattlesnake Rock, but I would later find out that it is actually named Bartram’s Rock. As I approached, I could see that it was very sheer-sided, but I figured I might find a gentler aspect to it if I kept exploring.

I traversed beneath the rock, and with judicious route-finding, scrambled my way around to the west side of the rock, where I encountered a really interesting rock formation:

A mini ‘Rabbit-ears’ on Bartram’s Rock.

I had come so far around the crag that at this point, I wasn’t certain I could find a way to the top, but I ended up scrambling up through some rather steep terrain, using trees and roots as handholds while making some genuine climbing moves, and after a few minutes, found myself on top of a pretty cool little sub-summit.

I took the time while I was on the precipitous crag to make a short introductory video for my Kickstarter project, and in the midst of doing that, I kept looking across at the main tower and really wishing I could find a way to climb to its summit. When I got done filming, I decided to go for it. I could see a way up along the left side of the rock, so all I had to do was find a way to its base. So I downclimbed from the secondary summit to a notch between the two crags, then started following ledges and gullies, and in a matter of ten minutes or so, I was on top of Bartram’s Rock. I was really happy to have gone for it. Now my day was really made, I had found a new crag and using my wits and experience, found a way to summit. I took some more shots and then scrambled back down.

I wandered my way back to the road, and began looking for ways up to the top of Illahee Rock. I could see what appeared to be an old trailhead marker, but it seemed really overgrown and I didn’t feel like doing to much bushwhacking so I decided to go back to the fork in the road and take the right hand road, hoping I could find the right trail. I trudged through the snow, but I never did see what looked like the main trail, so I eventually decided to head up what was obviously an overgrown logging road, and so I ended up doing quite a bit of bushwhacking. Clambering over deadfall, shoving my way through dense stands of young firs, all the while repeatedly post-holing up to my knees in soft snow made what would have ordinarily been an easy hike into a grueling thrash. Later I would figure out that I was nowhere near the main trail. I believe I found what might have been a trail to the lookouts long, long ago, but for the most part, the route I picked to hike up Illahee was pretty much entirely trailless. It was definitely an adventure though.

Eventually I reached a craggy area that at the very least looked like it might provide some fun scrambling, but once I was on the rocks, a better trail revealed itself to me (this still wasn’t the main trail, but was in much better shape than what I had been following so far.)

After numerous switchbacks and more than a few snowbanks, I arrived at an area I began calling the Goblin Gardens, a craggy slope of small, twisted rocks that reminded me of a stony menagerie of goblins or trolls. I could also tell that I was now quite near to the summit of Illahee rock.

The petrified menagerie

Looking down on the garden

I continued on, and in short order the slope eased, and I saw the lookout tower for the first time.

I started to climb up the stairs, but a warning sign requesting visitors to stay off persuaded me to be respectful and leave it alone. I was happy enough as it was. There are actually two lookouts on top of Illahee, the tall one, and a small cabin a short distance away. I inspected both before finding a rock platform where I could take a break and film. The views were magnificent, to the north I could see the Three Sisters, Mt Yoran and Diamond Peak, while almost due east were Mts. Bailey and Thielsen.

I called my girlfriend back home and assured her of my continued existence, then filmed another brief bit for my Kickstarter project. I did not, however, have a lot of time. Thunder clouds were building, and even though Illahee Rock isn’t the highest mountain, it is one of the highest in the area, and I had no desire to become a human lightning rod, so I didn’t linger long.

It took me perhaps an hour to arrive back at my Jeep, sunburned, scratched and weary, but more than happy to have salvaged the afternoon.

Here is the complete video of my day: