Catalina Day 4: The High Road

January 13, 2016
Parson’s Landing to Two Harbors
Miles: 8

I roll over and poke my head out of the tent just in time to see the sky glow pink with sunrise. I am relieved to see that the ocean has stayed mostly in its place through the night. No need to test the limits of the crumbling seam tape on my aging tent’s bathtub floor. Still in my sleeping bag, I lean out a little further and boil water for breakfast in bed. I decide to relieve Hanie of some freeze dried yakisoba she’s carried all this way but left untouched. It’s terrible. Note to self: bring real food on short trips.DSC06055Hanie has decided to take the road back to town, content with seeing what we’ve seen, still feeling a bit under the weather. I think she also wants to test out solo hiking before hitting the Camino de Santiago later this spring. I will be looping back to town on the high route, climbing back up to the ridges for another dose of stunning views.

I wander lost a bit looking for the right trail since I’ve decided to skip the last out and back to Starlight Beach, the true end of the Trans-Catalina Trail. I’ve heard it’s anti-climactic, not nearly as nice as Parson’s Landing. I find the correct path, and am soon suffering the consequences. The ridge looms 1750 feet above the beach, and most of this elevation is gained in a single mile of trail. I tackle what is rumored to be an exceptionally steep – even by Catalina standards –  fence line trail in reverse, each step barely in front of the last. There are several stretches where I could have easily used my hands if they weren’t holding trekking poles. Hanie would have hated this, I muse, as I attempt to giggle while gasping for oxygen and instead choke on my own laughter.  It’s always impossible to really show how steep the grade is, but with that in mind consider the following:DSC06065

DSC06075After a few demoralizing false summits, I am back up in the sky. And, as always, on this captivating island, the views are so worth it. The ochre earth, saturated with recent rains, so bright against the deep blue seas. And finally, I have found a bit of island devoid of tire tracks. A sign reminds me that Starlight Beach is only 3.5 miles away. But it’s not really in my plans. I stop to reconsider, but do not want to tease the ferry – it’s Wednesday and the next boat doesn’t leave Two Harbors until Friday. No need to create a stressful day by power hiking an extra 7 miles with a deadline. Besides, I have nothing to prove (I lie to myself) so this is a good challenge in choosing fun over miles [Update: a year later I regret not doing those last miles. Darn purist ethics or ego or both].DSC06078After a few hours of ups and downs, the trail weaves its way back down to sea level, passing through a public works yard and back to town. I find Hanie at the beach. She seems surprised to see me, assuming I would have caved and added those extra miles instead of coming straight back. Hanie ended up walking with the dude from the beach.  His GPS conforming that the distance by road is closer to 8 miles, the same as by trail. The many signs and mile markers, while reassuring do not feel particularly accurate here.DSC06084 Though the trail is officially 37 miles end to end, we’ve manage to log 43 miles without even tagging the far shore of the island. I nap on the beach in the winter sun, rolled up in the tent against the ocean breeze, food bag and ziplocks strewn about. “That was very hikertrash” declares Hanie when I wake. 

On the ferry ride back to Long Beach, a friendly long-time local answers forty miles of accumulated questions, topped off with bonus stories aplenty. Hanie’s veterinary background makes for easy conversation with a live-off-the-land local. We learn that the many fences were built to assist in managing (read: culling) an out of control population of wild goats and pigs. The first attempt, you see, at machine guns slaughter via helicopter was not entirely successful. So they divided the island into quadrants, which were then meticulously  walked by teams that shot everything in sight. Oh, island life. It’s so gentle and peaceful. Less distressingly, we also learn that the bison are, ironically, one the the genetically purest populations. The original prairie herds where they originated  have since mixed with cattle. So now there’s an exchange program, whereby SoCal bison are deposited into South Dakota winter, and left to puzzle the mystery of the cold white stuff on the ground.

The ferry makes a stop in Avalon, and the sun sets as beautifully as it rose four days ago. A fitting end to a pretty trip with eventful skies.DSC06094

Let’s Hike! Red Peak Pass Loop

Red Peak Pass Loop is a 50 mile hike into some of the least visited reaches and over the highest bit of official trail in Yosemite National Park. It’s a great way to combine iconic Yosemite features – Nevada Falls, Merced Lake, Half Dome or Cloud’s Rest side trip – with a more remote backcountry experience, all in a tidy loop. Since it’s more of a trip concept than a single codified trail, here are some thoughts and resources for planning in addition to my trail journal.

The Trail: I took inspiration from Jeffrey Schaffer’s Yosemite National Park Complete Hiker’s Guide, trip 75 “Glacier Point to Merced, Washburn and Ottoway Lakes.” My version starting from Yosemite Valley was almost exactly 50 miles, with a cumulative elevation gain and loss of about 11,000 feet each.

Schaffer details a clockwise loop, which was my initial plan. I really liked doing the opposite though, ending by following the Merced river, which I find more spectacular than the Illilouette. The downside, particularly if you start from the valley, is that you have further to go before a good campsite on the first day. Either way, permit availability will most likely dictate your path. You will need to specifically add Half Dome to your permit if you plan to make the side trip. As will all Yosemite backpacking, wilderness permits and approved bear canisters are mandatory.

Red Peak Pass Loop
Yellow = My Actual Route from Happy Isles, Orange = Recommended Route from Glacier Point, Red = Roads

My Actual Route: I took the John Muir Trail from Happy Isles, turning south at the junction before Nevada Falls to head up the Panorama Trail. At the next signed junction, I turned south toward the Clark Fork of the Illilouette, and then Lower Merced Pass Lake, Ottoway Lake, over Red Peak Pass (11,078 feet), and Down the Red Peak Fork of the Merced. Basically, stay left at all the signed junctions once you leave the Panorama trail, and you will end up back at Nevada Falls, 45 miles later.

My Recommended Route: I recommend beginning at Glacier Point (or Mono Meadows) heading down the Panorama trail and up the Illiloutte (counterclockwise loop), skipping the long and often very hot ascent out of the Valley. If you arrive by the bus (and do not want to pay/wait for another one), have trouble getting specific permits, or just love bonus elevation gain, start at Happy Isles as I did. Most people seem to take 5-6 days to do this trip. I easily managed it in three and a bit, but had a light pack, (less than 25 pounds with 4 days food, bear can and some water), and was still trail-strong from a summer of Pacific Crest Trail hiking.

Maps: I used the National Geographic Yosemite map, which was perfectly adequate since all the trail junctions were well marked. Bring the more detailed USGS maps, which you can download and print for free, if you plan to make any of the tempting off trail detours. I would love to go back and climb Triple Divide Peak or stay at Red Devil Lake.

IMG_5036
Well-marked trail junctions.

When to Go: The Clark Range tends to be the last part of Yosemite to melt out in the Spring, making this a perfect late summer/early fall trip. Fall was amazing, with zero mosquitoes and much solitude. Snowstorms are a very real possibility in October though, so double check the forecast if you go as late as I did (October 9-12). September would be safer weather-wise, especially if you are planning to take more time, since forecasts get pretty inaccurate more than a few days out.

Water: Water can be scarce along the upper reaches of the Illiloutte by late summer (between Clark Fork and Lower Merced Pass Lake), so inquire at the Wilderness Center before heading out. Otherwise, water was plentiful even in October of a record drought year.

Campsite Suggestions: Clark Fork, especially for running water late in the season; multiple spots beside the Illilouette a few miles further up stream from Clark Fork; Ottoway Lake; the really pretty unnamed lake beside the trail about two miles east of Red Peak Pass or head half-mile cross country to Red Devil Lake downhill; trail junction at the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced River; and the obvious Washburn Lake, Merced Lake, and Little Yosemite Valley.

If you use the Schaffer guidebook, note that I failed to locate either of the two packer camps along the upper Merced (lots of fallen trees), and that the Moraine Dome campsite in Little Yosemite Valley is one giant burn area now.

IMG_5060
Sunny Beach at Washburn Lake, all to myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Peak Pass Loop Day 2: Amaze-miles of Solitude. And the Merced River Headwaters

October 10, 2015

Miles: 20

I do a lot of tossing and turning in the long night, twelve hours of darkness. Earplugs dulling the rustles and snaps of nighttime forest capers enough for me to sleep, until a cold wind picks up and I wake shivering in my 10 degree sleeping bag though it is still above freezing. Finally, I wake to daylight, sticking my head out of the tent to check for large mammals before leaving my little haven. Packed and on the trail by 8 am, I have a big day ahead of me. The pass looms huge and unknown. How will I fare at 11,000 feet just one day out from sea level?

I keep following Ilillouette creek, until even the puddles have disappeared; only a bed of dry cobbles where the trail crosses the creek. Golden leaves lit up by the morning sun cheer the way. All morning I rehearse in my head the conversation I hope to have with people up at Ottoway lake: “I have seen more bears than people in the last 24 hours,” I will say. “How many bears?” They will ask. “Just one!” I will reply.

From the junction, the last three miles to the lake go easily. Ups and downs offer respite from all the climbing and there is even water in Ottoway creek. More human footprints here too. DSC05421But there are no people at the lake. Just me and the dialogue in my head. The lake itself is spectacular, just enough inlets and islets to be interesting, just the right size to be impressive but still have the looming peaks feel wild and close. Trout swimming in clear turquoise water. I stop for an early lunch along the shore, resting for what is to come.

The ascent is relentless, but efficient: two sets of serious switchbacks directly up to the pass at 11,000 feet. I pause many times to take photos-as-excuse-for-breathing breaks. The trail surprises me, heading toward inhospitable rocky towers that look disconcertingly unstable. Still, I make it to the top by 1:30, and as always, there is a way through.

DSC05432

IMG_5029

DSC05449The slopes of the far side are a shocking namesake Red. I sit at the top, looking down upon the very beginnings of the Red Peak Fork of the Merced River. A few tiny tarns and trickles among the boulders. The very last snow melt puddles of a severe drought. The way down is spectacular, view after view, so many tempting lakes just off trail. I am cruising on the downhill. Or am I? I fail to make the next junction at the time I expected. I begin to worry I have taken a wrong turn, or somehow missed the next sign. But there’s no app for this, like for the PCT, and no one anywhere to ask.

Just after 5pm I am incredibly relieved to see the sign-marked junction at Triple Peak Fork. I might be slow today, but I am not lost. The creek is full but barely seems to be flowing if at all. The still surface multiplies the gorgeous evening light channeling through the east-west valley. I want to stay in this pretty place. But I had planned to walk until 6 today, to minimize the hours alone in a camp that will be at too high an elevation to have a fire. So I press on.DSC05458I have instant regrets. The trail moves farther from the creek, which seems increasingly dried up. Then it gets rockier and nowhere seems promising. I check out a few potential sites, but always move on. I hit the switchbacks after 6pm. There’s supposed to be a packer camp down there somewhere by a bridge. Daylight is fading fast. But I smell smoke. A campfire! I think hopefully, or maybe a forest fire, I think with dread.

I make it to the bottom at 6:40, it is already dark in the woods. I am at the bridge, but see no sign of the packer camp and definitely no sign of a campfire. Exhausted by what has amounted to an accidental 20ish mile day with considerable elevation change, I pitch my tarp right beside the trail, a good 97 feet short of the minimum distance required by my permit. I gulp down some soup for dinner, fill a bottle from a creek puddle topped with leaves and duck into my shelter.

I do yoga in the darkness, conserving my only batteries. I forgot to pack spares. My aching feet are strangely comforting. Evidence of a good hard day of hiking, and a distraction from all the little noises. Do more miles like this tomorrow, and I will be done a day early. But maybe the push to keep going will lesson as I make my way back to the more populated reaches of the park.

Day 85: A Grand Pause

July 31, 2015

Miles: 9
Grand Total: 1417

For the last time this trip I stuff my dusty gear into my dusty pack. Tie my worn shoes. Check my water and my maps. Pick up my pack, my poles. Each mundane movement overflowing with meaning today, the Last Day. I mark my name in thanks on a picnic table covered in gratitude, before leaving this wondrous cache that embodies the generosity of the PCT community. I walk, heart heavy with the sadness of endings. I walk, lungs burning with the smoke-tinged air of fire season in a year of extreme drought.

At the bridge I chose to follow the riverside path to Burney Falls. Suddenly struck with the realization that this is where I leave the trail, I pose hugging the signpost, tears in my eyes, before reluctantly moving on. The riverside path delivers its promised magic, a transition from desert to abundance condensed into a single short mile, like a fast-forward flyover of the Mojave becoming the Sierra. From a completely dry creek bed, with flowers sprouted here and there among the gravel, puddles emerge and then trickles. As I walk, the river that is not a river comes alive, my emotions welling up with the water until I stand sobbing at the brink of the huge falls. Water pours impossibly out of stone, the mist diluting tears for three incredible months, millions of footsteps, and all the adventures yet to come.DSC05248At the Burney Falls store, I pose with kitschy t-shirts, Hannah Solo taking the photo that will let Stephen know I am on my way home. A few days ago, I had promised to leave the trail at the next stop with an ‘appropriate’ tourist t-shirt. I give away the contents of my resupply box, wash away the trail dirt, and don my new shirt. The others sit with me for a while, in quiet support, until I am ready to leave. Tikimon makes my hitchhiking sign. There’s no other way to get to town. “My only trail art,” he says, taking photos.IMG_4638I stand at the park gate for an hour, maybe two. Watching car after car of tourists ignore me or shrug their apologies. Finally, a car of three early twenty-something friends pulls over. “We saw you on the way in,” they say. “Our friend Elise is hiking the PCT this year. We can take you to Redding.” Even as I leave, the trail community is strong.

I am deposited at the transit station, but the train station is closed, and the bus sold out. I find a cheap motel for the night in the sketchy part of town. In the morning, I ceremoniously cook my last pack of ramen eat it at the worn table of my dated motel room. I look over my maps, previewing the day’s elevation profile and set tentative goals, performing my morning ritual though I will be flying, not walking today.

The airport is crowded, even for SFO. People are everywhere and I cannot remember feeling lonelier. Not a friend in the masses, not one person who sees me as a PCT hiker. I am just a woman in a stained skirt with wild hair and a dusty backpack that reeks with the sweat of a thousand miles. I walk through a bookstore, stroking shiny covers of favorite books. Overwhelmed, I apologize to the man working there for not being able to decide on a purchase, explaining where I have been for the last three months. He points to Wild, “like her?” He asks. IMG_4645Yes, I say, abstaining from my usual lecture. What makes you a thru-hiker anyway, I wonder? Is it an accomplishment or a state of being? What if a thru-hiker is not someone who completes an entire trail in a single season. What if a thru-hiker is simply someone who walks as if it is her calling, day after day, for as long as she can.

From the air, I see clouds to the east, barest pink in the very last light. I think of all the hikers scattered along the invisible line below. Eating their garlic-ramen mashed potatoes, sharing stories of the day before curling up in sleeping bags in the quiet forest, muscles aching with accomplishment. I hope it is fully dark before we fly over the cascades; I know not if my heart can handle the sight of snowy summits rising through the clouds. Already, I miss the trail with my whole being. Already, I want to begin again. To start fresh and brave at the border, with all the miles before me.

IMG_2673

Day 84: Cache 22

July 30, 2015

Miles: 25
Total: 1408.5

There’s only one cache. Cache 22. Carry enough water, and the weight slows you down until you need more water. But to rely on the cache is to carry the weight in worry. How much water do you bring when too much is never enough, and less than enough can kill you?

I try to beat the impossible water-logic, semi-cautiously carrying what I think I need to not die, with hopes of a good drink at the only cache on Hat Creek Rim: cache 22. I am eager to get off the exposed plateau, no longer so magical without the rose-gold glaze of sunset. The grass looks dead, the trail dusty, the sky faded. Already it is too warm; soon it will be blisteringly hot. At least the cache is fully stocked  and I can take a bonus drink without diminishing the few essential liters that will get me to the next water oasis, now 14 miles away.DSC05180But the heat seems to intensify with each step. With relief, I follow the trail as it winds down off the rim, only to find myself walking through an expansive field of black lava shimmering with heat. Resilient trees grow out of the meager pockets of soil, but they stand too far apart to mitigate the intensity from above. My head feels all wrong, feverish and heavy. Everything looks over-exposed, an all day movie flashback sequence to the menacing desert that I never encountered in SoCal. The harsh sun is tearing through space-time; the trail at my feet too distant to be here and now.

I drift a few more miles until there is a road, a surreal, newly-paved black ribbon cutting through the lava-forest. Where it goes I do not know, but where there are roads there could be trail magic. I hope desperately for a cooler full of icy beverages. Several deserted gallon jugs of water sitting in the bushes will do. I was hoping to do my first thirty mile day today, to rock it all the way to Burney Falls State park. Where, I am working on accepting, this year’s hike must end. But it is too hot to press on. I collapse in the meager shade with Tikimon. It is over an hour before any others catch up. No one is moving fast this afternoon, if at all. By the official weather on my phone it is 99 degrees, but our bodies says otherwise. “Coffees ready” jokes Tikimon, as he passes the water, reeking of plastic, almost too hot to drink (the next day I will learn that it was actually 114 degrees. In the shade).

After a nap, I rally for more miles, for the next water. Across the baking tarmac, then mercifully downhill until I hear a strange sound, like the crackling of high voltage power lines. Instead I find water bursting from a large pipeline. I stand and stare at this excess. The arcs of clear liquid, too good to be true. Can I touch it? Is it sewage? Fashion Plate Dan appears, sticks his head in the water without hesitation. I follow, and Tikimon too. An icy blast for a heat swollen brain. Three of us sit on the cold pipe, until I ask if it is possible to have an ice cream headache in your butt.DSC05191After a week of wavering, today has been a day of resolving to leave the trail. My new job comes with a deadline, measured now in days not months. I search the landscape for justification, finding poetry in the return of the desert. A linear journey turned cyclical. Walking again among sagebrush and cactus, pace dictated by water. Cowboy camping under expansive night skies, on just big enough dusty patches of ant-covered ground with new friends close by. Returning to where I started, but never the same. With strong legs immune to sunburn, no longer phased by hills or darkness or drought. No longer fearing rattlesnakes under every rock. Walking with quiet confidence alone into the dusk.

And with this quiet confidence, I renew my plans to make it to the falls tonight. Until I stumble upon the Wild Bird Cache, mother of all trail magics. The Oasis to beat all oases.

A coffin-sized cooler stocked to the brim with icy cold sodas. A whitewashed cupboard of food. A proper camp stove and lantern. Picnic table, umbrella, chair! Wind up flashlights! A sun powered USB charging station! There is nothing to want for here. A solar shower, with soap and razors and mirror. Others arrive and we guzzle cold liquids in the still, warm, air. Watching the moonglow filter through drifting clouds and dark treetops. I could not ask for a better last night, so good it undermines my resolve once again. “Why is it so hard to leave?” I ponder aloud. “Because you love it so much,” says Fashion Plate Dan.

And I do.