The weather is beautiful and sunny here in Southern California. I arrived this morning (March 21st) after a week of adventures in the Southwestern US. This post will be broken down by destinations and travel days to attempt to make it a bit more reader friendly, enjoy!
Getting on the road
As most of you who have been following my blog are already aware, Megan and I had been planning a ‘spring break’ road trip to California, the dates of which lined up nicely for the start of my PCT thru-hike and Megan’s break from CSU. After what seemed like months of planning our route, acquiring gear, and and coordinating with friends, March 14th finally arrived and to say we were excited would be an understatement.
While Megan finished up some mid-terms, I organized and loaded the last of our gear into the Forester, a task which proved challenging. The gear necessary for two people to enjoy a 1300 mile road trip including hiking climbing and camping is substantial. Add to that everything else that I own, which needed to come with us to California, and you are looking at very little space for the two people who are needed to actually pilot and navigate said car. It seemed improbable but we managed to fit everything, with a little leg room.
We shifted the car into drive some time around noon and immediately made our first stop at New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins. In addition to the two bombers of La Folie and Tree Shaker that Megan had purloined, we needed to fill her growler, a 64oz. (half gallon) container with some sweet nectar before heading into Utah. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Utah’s liquor laws, lets just say that they make acquiring beer with alcohol percentages higher then 3.2% ‘difficult’.
We ALWAYS have a great time at New Belgium and this visit proved consistent with the past. Our bartender turned out to be a 2010 Appalachian trail thru-hiker known as ‘Tree’. Once he heard that I was on my way to California to begin a thru-hike of the PCT, his eyes grew wide and he came alive, recounting his trail experience a few years ago. We ended up chatting for 45 minutes in which time he offered me that highly valuable information that thru-hiking alumni always seem to posses. As if that wasn’t enough, Tree wished us well and sent us on our way with tasters and a growler fill, free of charge! The trail magic had begun and we weren’t even 15 minutes from the start of our road trip. It is already apparent to me that the community of thru-hikers I am about to immerse myself in are wonderful people.
Beer in hand, we rolled out of Fort Collins towards Boulder to make a few more pit stops before stopping by my friend Jason’s house in Conifer. I took one last look through some belongings that J is looking after for me. I grabbed some fly fishing gear and stuffed it god-knows-where in the solid brick of equipment that had become my car before wishing Jason farewell and resuming our momentum West, towards the coast.
Some other highlights of our first day of driving included bar-b-q in South Park, beers in Breckenridge, and an unplanned motel night in Grand Junction. We had originally planned on driving straight through to Indian Creek that evening to meet up with our friends who we planned on camping with. Initially I was a little irritated at Megan’s suggestion to stop driving, wanting to get to our destination. In hindsight, her GOOD idea got us into bed by 11pm, not 2am. We both got roughly seven hours of sleep, waking up early the next morning to finish the last four hours of driving.
As climbers, Megan and I had seen pictures, heard stories, and dreamed of the day we would get to climb at the iconic desert sandstone cliffs that are Indian Creek. This BLM managed piece of land is located in the high desert of South-Eastern Utah. Heading South through the red rock landscape of Moab, the sun slowly climbed past the horizon and the landscape whispered canyon country. We wandered across washes and around mesas until turning off the main highway towards an area known as the Newspaper Rock Recreation
After climbing through a small window in the sandstone fortress ahead of us, the road angled steeply and drunkenly downwards thrusting us into the canyons below. Crossing cattle guards and making winding turns led us to the parking area for Newspaper Rock, a sort of community canvas of pictographs and petroglyphs. Megan and I stopped briefly to snap a few quick photos but resumed our drive, arriving at the Supercrack parking area about 40 minutes ahead of schedule.
Upon stepping out of the car, we immediate dug out our down jackets – it was coooold and the parking area was not yet basking in the same sunshine splashing over the sandstone cliffs above. We had been on the road since 5am and we needed sustenance. With the Coleman 2-burner set up on the hood, we brewed coffee, Megan had oatmeal, and I ate some granola and yogurt.
After some driving around, we managed to run into Jeramiah and Kevin, our friends we were looking for. They led us down Beef Basin road to a fantastic camp site right below the Technicolor Wall. To say this spot was scenic wouldn’t do it justice. We were tucked right below the massive sandstone walls we would be climbing that afternoon, in the middle of a valley that winded it’s way between buttresses of red iron. In the distance, snow-dusted peaks showed winter’s reluctance to let go of this stark landscape. Not long after pulling into camp, our friend Ian came motoring up the road on a dirt bike he was just learning to ride. He attempted some advanced maneuver which resulted in him laying the bike down immediately in front of the group, resulting in laughter. It was quite a grand entrance. We laughed, met new friends, stuffed climbing gear into packs and headed up the ridge line to the Technicolor wall.
Upon arrival, Ian ‘warmed up’ on a fist and off-hands-sized corner that was damn near 60 meters long. On top-rope I was humbled by the nature of the climbing as my hands were sanded into submission. No tape could protect me from the ancient sea floor. Megan and I marveled at the nature of the climbing, managing our way up the climbs but without the style or grace of our friends who have obviously honed their desert crack climbing technique from previous visits. We were beat down and we were loving it. The cracks and chimneys that made up this small part of the climbing area kept us occupied until the sun dropped below the canyon walls and we retreated to our barracks for the evening.
Dinner consisted of meat products (meat stick and bacon) in cheesy mac – let the flatulence begin! We shared beer and good company around a campfire with a million stars overhead. My night alternated between moments of deep sleep as well as waking – I often sleep this way outdoors, I can’t quite explain it. In the early morning I listened to the cries of coyotes.
Day two saw us driving towards the Pistol Whipped wall, a bit further down Beef Basin road. After a steep approach to the base of the cliff, we traversed right until we found some appropriate climbs to warm up on. I jumped on lead on a short and think finger crack while Ian set up one of the tightest chimneys I have ever climbed. After a boost of confidence I got to watch Ian onsite a 5.12- finger crack, impressive. Ian and Jaremiah mentioned a climb called Jolly Rancher when we had initially hiked up to the climbing area for the day and at 5.10, it seemed like a grade I could manage. After collecting close to 20 cams, I walked around the buttress until a splitter hand crack came into view. After the previous day I knew that although this line looked beautiful, the climbing would be strenuous and challenging.
The first few moves off the ground were difficult – slightly insecure jams with thin feet. I managed to reach high enough for a solid thumbs-down jam, camming my feet into the crack, finally feeling secure enough to reach down and select a cam. After a few more moves the climbing eased a bit more and I repeated the process of selecting a cam and protecting my upwards movement. After about twenty feet I placed one more cam and decided to take a rest. Crack climbing is really no different then any other type of climbing when you get down to the underlying strategy. Conserve energy, hold your body close to the rock with your hands and use your feet for upward progress whenever possible. I have told hundreds of students those very strategies and thankfully Ian and Jeremiah were there reminding me of these basics. It’s easy to lose sight of the simple things when your forearms feel like they are about to rupture and you are on the sharp end of the rope.
I wish I could say that after that rest I run right up the rest of the climb. The truth is that it took me about 45 minutes to finish the remaining 120 feet of the route. Rock climbing can be extremely humbling and this was a perfect case of ‘first time at the Creek’. I didn’t give up though, thrashing my way up the crack, running out
of small gear when I desperately wanted it right at the end. After clipping the anchors and being lowered I rested for a long time. I was beat down but I enjoyed it. Jamming your way up a splitter crack, in the middle of a blank sandstone face, in the desert turned out to be an excellent experience. I look forward to next time.
That afternoon Megan and I decided that we ought to continue our journey South to Blanding, Utah. Our friends were getting on the road back to Salt Lake City that afternoon and we needed gas in the car as well as water and some other food items. Simultaneously cracking open beers in the parking area, we recounted our experience that day and laughed together. Ian bestowed upon me some lighter trekking poles for my PCT hike and he and Jeremiah offered to help out with mailing supplies to me on the trail if necessary. The trail magic continues and I’m not even on the trail yet.
South-Eastern Utah, Butler Wash
After leaving Indian Creek, Megan and I had a short drive South, through Monticello and Blanding, Utah. We rolled down Butler Wash late Sunday evening and without too much difficulty, found a spot to park the car. For those of you that are unfamiliar with South-East Utah, amazing Native American ruins and artifacts reside in the sandy, winding canyons that make up this arid landscape. Butler Wash road, South of Blanding, gives access to Comb Ridge, a sandstone incline punctuated with many easily accessible canyons. In these canyons you will find many Anasazi ruins as well as petroglyphs, pictographs, potshards, and many other artifacts. The Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, by Michael R. Kelsey, is a fantastic resource.
Since we were climbing nearby, exploring some of the cultural past that Utah has to offer seemed like a fun and relaxing option (not to mention convenient, less then an hour from Indian Creek). After a productive morning, cleaning and organizing the car as well as cooking bacon and eggs in cast iron over our campfire, we were feeling motivated to do some walking. We quickly learned (or maybe I already knew) that BLM land often has limited signage. Having neglected to reset the odometer on the car as we turned off the main road, figuring out the specific turns to access the ruins we were looking for proved challenging. While I drove aimlessly down the dirt road, Megan glassed Comb ridge with her binoculars and suggested that we take one of the side roads to our West. Leaving the main road and heading towards Comb Ridge, we eventually found a parking area with trail markers. With water and cameras in our packs, we began the pleasant walk towards the canyons.
Within five minutes sandstone walls rose on both sides, funneling us towards the cool shade of the alcoves and brush within the confines of the canyon ahead. We continued down the well-worn path, eventually cross in front of a sign the warned ‘do not disturb cultural resources’. We were on the right path. A few more minutes of walking and the canyon opened. We didn’t see the ruins immediately, they blended into the orange and red rock which they were perched on. Upon closer inspection, we could now see an overhanging alcove with two levels. Stone and mud walls were carefully perched on the edge of each level, offering a living space for what appeared to be multiple family groups.
Upon closer inspection we found pieces of pottery, stone flakes from the creation of tools and grinding marks from processing grain (we guessed). The walls of the canyons nearby were inscribed with carved images known as petroglyphs depicting events long passed. As we climbed among the old structures we imagined the people who made this place their home and wished we were so lucky to live in a canyon as beautiful as this.
As we began out walk out of this location, our attention to detail had shifted and we now saw many more petroglyphs on the walls that we had previously passed. It’s amazing how these ancient pieces of artwork could be sitting right in front of us and go unnoticed. We had gotten a late start this morning and wanted to visit at least one more canyon before getting on the road. Getting back to our car, we consulted the map and picked another side road to explore.
The next trail that we found led us to an area known as Monarch cave, one of the deeper and more expansive alcoves we had seen containing similar structures. This particular site had some features that we had not previously seen including wood incorporated into the stone dwellings as supports and also as roofing. We found some grinding plates as well as lots and LOTS of carved and drawn images on the nearby walls.
After our cultural exploration was complete, we headed back to Blanding to pick up an atlas and some food items. We needed an oil change and a destination. After talking to the caretaker for a local RV campground, we decided to drive a little further to the town of Bluff, to find a campground that might offer showers and internet. Bluff didn’t disappoint and we were able to get cleaned up and upload email a few photos to our friends and family.
The Grand Canyon
Megan and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Southeastern Utah, but with California in the distance, we had to get on the road and put some more miles behind us. Morning saw us rolling across the Navajo nation through Monument Valley and ultimately ending at the Grand Canyon.
Prior to starting our road trip I had attempted to contact a good friend of mine who has been on a road trip for the past 10 months. Craig retired, and now that he is receiving social security, he is living his life on the road! I am impressed that someone such as Craig is able to find happiness and peace living a simple life, enjoying the National Parks and other Federal lands from the comfort of his tent. I wish more people could see how much value exists in a life lived this way.
As we climbed the long road out of the desert up to the entrance station to the park, I mentioned to Megan that I had not yet successfully gotten in touch with Craig. His daughter told me that we would find him at the Grand Canyon but knowing Craig, he could be anywhere in the Southwest soaking in the sun in his camping chair. We took a chance and headed towards the campgrounds on the South Rim, hoping to find my friend.
There are over 250 designated camp sites on the South Rim and we started with number 1. Megan and I drove slowly around the loops looking for the green Tacoma and L.L. Bean tent. Winding through the pines, we searched every corner of the campground loops without much luck. Occasionally we would see a promising site, but no luck, Craig was nowhere to be found. Driving through the last loop, I was feeling a bit discouraged, preparing myself for the task of finding our own site and setting up all of our equipment when we saw something promising. Through the trees a big, 70’s style tent came into view, complete with a tanned, shirtless dude, sitting in a camp chair, his white handlebar mustache almost fluorescent in the afternoon sun.
Craig’s familiar smile crept onto his face as he waved hello and we stepped out of the car to greet him. It was
really wonderful seeing Craig who I originally met working in Boulder, Colorado, trimming marijuana in a dimly-lit warehouse. The two of us hit it off, with similar life experiences and a love of the outdoors. I was so happy to introduce Megan and the three of us immediately drank a few beers and shared stories from the road.
Craig was happy to have us stay at his site and he offered to let us sleep in his tent as he was using the back of his truck. We gladly obliged, saving us some time and allowing us to kick back and enjoy some beers. That afternoon we all hiked to the rim where we watched the sun retreat behind the horizon, painting the canyon walls orange, red, and magenta.
The following morning Craig headed into town for gas and other provisions while Megan and I had a dense pancake breakfast. We discussed our options and decided that a nice day hike on the Bright Angel Trail would give us a taste of what the Canyon had to offer. Packing our gear for the day we made sure to put a couple beers in our packs to enjoy during lunch. Megan and I hit the trailhead at 10:30 and began our descent.
The Bright Angel Trail is one of the most famous hiking trails in the Canyon, eventually winding it’s way down to Phantom Ranch. As we began our hike, it was clear that the trail was manufactured, carved into the steep side of the upper canyon. The more switchbacks we rounded, the warmer the air got and the fewer other park visitors we encountered. We were headed to Indian Gardens, a campground part way down the trail. Amazingly, there are MULTIPLE bathrooms and water filling stations on the way down the trail (in just 3 miles). While I laughed and joke with Megan that we better get our $25 worth, it occurred to me that multiple guests probably would have died without these services. While the existence of these structures don’t exactly lend themselves to creating a wilderness experience, I remembered that this was not a wilderness, this was a park. There is an obvious difference.
Megan and I eventually made it to Indian Gardens which felt like an oasis, complete with flowering shrubs, singing birds, and flowing water. We had brought PLENTY of water and didn’t need a refill. Instead we continued on towards Plateau Point, our halfway point and planned destination. Our new trail diverged from the Bright Angel Trail, and we became further removed from the crowds. Park visitors were replaced with barrel and prickly pear cactus as the hiking became nearly flat. Megan and I covered the remaining mile, ending at a beautiful rock point overlooking the Colorado river 2000 feet below.
Megan and I ate some lunch and fended off ground squirrels with my trekking poles, those little bastards, I wanted to smack them over the cliff near by. It occurred to me that the ‘chiselers’ are only so food agressive because of all the park visitors that have fed them in the past. While keeping a close eye on our packs, Megan and I snapped a bunch of photos and took some time to relax before beginning our 3000 foot climb back to the canyon rim. By the time we reached the end of our 12 mile hike, we had both worked up a substantial appetite and immediately began cooking food when we got to camp.
Our final evening with Craig was enjoyed around a campfire, drinking good beers and sipping some red corn and oat bourbon we brought all the way from Fort Collins. Megan and I wanted to stay longer and do more hiking and exploring but Megan had some family events to attend and needed to get to the airport in Las Vegas by 3 the next afternoon. In the morning, right before getting on the road, Craig bestowed upon me a ‘lucky’ coin that has been in his possession for 40 years. This gesture of generosity and thoughtfulness is a perfect example of Craig’s nature. He is thoughtful and selfless and we were happy to spend some time in his presence, soaking in the sun in the freedom of the outdoors.
Las Vegas, Joshua Tree and the West Coast
We continue rolling forwards, the solid mass of gear that is my car carrying us across the arid landscape towards the most unsustainable city EVER. This black hole continuously grows bigger, sucking the life out of the Colorado River, beaming electric sex into the atmosphere and the minds of those poor souls that succumb to it’s draw like moths to a light. This is Vegas. We pointed the car straight at it and hit cruise..
When we saw the signs for the Hoover dam, it only made sense to burn extra gas exiting the highway to go back in the direction we just came from to see the biggest pile of concrete man has ever crapped out onto the
surface of this beautiful planet. This massive wall would ultimately stop you if you traveled the length of the Grand Canyon and continued across lake Mead (not a lake but a reservoir). We looked for the free parking, ran to the edge of the precipice, snapped a picture and got back on the road. We needed a cheap buffet, probably the only positive thing that place has ever or will ever do for me.
After filling up on the mediocrity that was ‘best Vagas buffet’ or some similar ironic title, we rolled on towards the airport where Megan caught her flight to Florida. I immediately got on the road towards California, intent to leave the city and get back to the more wild places. Megan and I had initially planned on doing some climbing in Red Rock Canyon but now that my partner was in the air headed towards the East Coast, I couldn’t see the appeal in hanging around (unable to climb).
California was close and I reached Barstow quickly. I continued on through the desert, the vegetation changing slowly until Joshua trees abounded and the park felt within my grasp. I passed the fee station at 8 o’clock and drove on, through the rocks and ridges, looking for a place to camp for the night. This quickly proved to be more difficult then I expected, surprising for a Thursday evening.
I drove from one campground to the next, cruising every loop without any luck – EVERY single campsite was full. When I say full I don’t necessarily mean that the sites were packed with tents. Instead, every single site had a paper ticket on the site number post, showing that someone had reserved it or paid for it prior to my arrival. As my frustration mounted, my driving speeds increased, carrying me through every campground in the park with no luck. Eventually I parked at the group camping area, threw my pad on the ground, forgoing a tent, and fell asleep with troubled thoughts.
Awaking to the sound of an owl, just before sunrise, I quickly packed up and looked for a good spot to photograph the changing light. A few nice photos were the only thing I was motivated to accomplish that morning and after some difficult communications, I decided to leave the crowded park (in favor of LA? geeze…) and continued my road trip to it’s Western terminus. It only took roughly 3 hours to get from Joshua Tree to my Father’s house. I had made it.
Our trip from Colorado to California ended up being a bit shorter then we originally planned, but Megan and I had a fulfilling and wonderful time sharing the company of each other as well as our friends. We had the pleasure of spending a few days together in LA when Megan flew back out to enjoy the last three days of her spring break. We hiked, climbed, and explored the city.
Where one trip ends, another begins, and this is far from the end for either of us. My head is literally ready to melt after writing this article although reliving the experience in the confines of my mind has been a blast. The Pacific Crest Trail is 2 weeks away and I’m on the cusp of starting something great. Thanks for following along so far and I hope you all read along as I take the next big leap. Stay adventurous my friends!