Archive for March 2018

Adventuring Grand Canyon ~ Toroweap   7 comments

Ocotillo and barrel cactus in spring green: Lava Falls Trail, Toroweap, AZ.

The Grand Canyon is on the bucket lists of many of us.  Most head to the south rim where all the tourist facilities are.  This little story is about the much less popular north rim, which is worth visiting too.  But wait, it’s not even about the more popular north rim, where the lodge is located.  It’s about a little corner of the park that is a little tough to get to.  Called Toroweap, it’s in the northwestern part of the park, which means it overlooks the lower Colorado River.

On the road to Toroweap, Arizona Strip.

Toroweap, which is little more than a campground and overlook, is a Paiute word meaning “dry valley”.  And that’s what you drive up on a long gravel road from the Arizona Strip.  That’s the narrow, isolated strip of Arizona that stretches along the Utah border and north of the Grand Canyon.  I was in the area visiting Zion and the Grand Staircase and had a few extra days.

I’d been wanting to drive up to the north rim from Kanab.  But being late winter, the main route through Jacob Lake was still closed due to snow.  I thought of Toroweap, which is at a lower elevation than the rest of the north rim.  It was open!  So despite my allergy to washboard gravel roads, that’s where I went.  There were fields of flowers blooming along the way (image above).

Along the trail to Lava Falls.

The last short stretch to the spectacular overlook over the lower Grand Canyon is rocky and recommended for high clearance vehicles.  I babied my van over the rock shelves but still parked a couple hundred yards from the lookout.  I claimed a campsite and took a hike out along the rim to the east.  Recent rains had filled the potholes in the sandstone, adding to the atmosphere.  Toward day’s end the light got awfully nice and I got some nice shots before sunset (below).

A rainstorm leaves full water pockets at Toroweap on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

I know what you’re thinking: not too adventurous.  That’s what I was thinking too.  Why hang around an overlook all day?  So next morning I took a little dirt road I’d spied.  It led down to the trailhead for Lava Falls, which I knew was somewhere nearby.  I decided to see how far down the trail I could get before chickening out and turning around.  The sign isn’t kidding.  The trail is super-steep and rough, though much worse in the heat of summer.  Each few hundred feet you drop down it you become more and more aware of how far back up you’ll be climbing in the heat of the day.

Trailhead to Lava Falls, Grand Canyon N.P.

As I went down I left the cool air of the rim and entered springtime.  I came across some just-blooming wildflowers along the way.  I saw a raft party pull off the Colorado, scout Lava Falls, and then run it.  It seemed as if I was looking straight down on them from the trail above.  After a certain point it was hard to stop; the river pulled me toward it.  On reaching the river I scrambled along the shore to reach one of the Colorado’s most impressive rapid, Lava Falls.  Pulling myself up over a boulder I was surprised by a rattlesnake (or vice versa).  I’d never seen this species.  It turned out to be an endemic (found nowhere else), the Grand Canyon pink.

A Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake, found nowhere else but here.

A blooming prickly pear attracts a pollinator within the lower part of Grand Canyon.

Sitting on the rocks next to Lava Falls is an interesting experience.  The water is so powerful that you can feel and hear large boulders roll with the current along the stream bed.  I got as close to the main rapids as I dared, and got the shot below.  It was remarkably warm at the river, and even though the water was ice cold, I took a swim below the rapids.  I figured I’d need the memory of it about halfway on the climb back up.  It isn’t a very long distance, but it was almost sunset by the time I reached the rim.  That last mile or so was a struggle!

Cactus blooming inside the lower Grand Canyon above Lava Falls.

One of Grand Canyon’s most fearsome rapids, Lava Falls, rumbles and roars.

After some great light and a nice shot of the Toroweap Valley at sunset (below), I was far too exhausted to go anywhere.  I slept right where I’d parked for the hike.  I never saw another soul either at the rim or along the trail.  Just those rafters on the river.  It had been the perfect shooting experience, at least for me.  I love being around people when doing travel photography but prefer shooting alone for landscape and nature photography.

Thanks for checking out the post!  Have a wonderful weekend.

I camped near the trailhead for Lava Falls: Toroweap, Grand Canyon N.P.

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Adventuring Mt. Rainier ~ In the Dark   6 comments

Mt. Rainier and Upper Tipsoo Lake.

There really is no Cascade peak like Mount Rainier.  Mt. Hood is spectacularly beautiful.  Mt. Saint Helens has a dangerous beating heart.  And Glacier Peak is surrounded by the kind of wilderness that reminds of Alaska.  But Rainier is at another scale altogether.  Not only is it broad it’s lofty.  It is flanked by dramatically steep glaciers that drop dramatically down to relatively low-lying forested valleys.

From Seattle, Rainier looks like a normal snow-capped mountain.  But when you approach close to or inside the national park that covers the mountain, it’s a different story.  It’s a massively rugged mountain ringed by high country, like the Tatoosh Range to the south.  Each side of the mountain has its own character, with extensive subalpine meadows a consistent feature.

Last post I related a little bear story from one of these meadow areas:  Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground on Rainier’s southwest side.  I was a young buck then; years later I returned to photograph the wildflower display.  The thing about Indian Henry’s that makes it a little challenging is its distance from trailheads.  Most people backpack in.  But if you hike up Tahoma Creek trail from West Side Road, it’s a mostly straightforward, if long, day-hike.  Don’t take it too lightly though.  At over 12 miles round-trip with more than 2500 feet elevation gain, and with parts of the trail sometimes washed out, it isn’t an easy trek.

Mirror Lakes in the center of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Mt. Rainier National Park.

Night-Hike

On a photo trip to Rainier five years ago I decided that Indian Henry’s would make a great late-day hike.  It’s the sort of hike only a nature photographer would consider.  The kind where you time it to be someplace awesome to shoot at sunset.   And since your camera gear alone is heavy enough, you really don’t want to schlep the extra gear for camping.  So your shoot is followed by a hike back in the dark.

I started at mid-day from where West Side Road is closed off to vehicle traffic.  After a couple miles on the gravel road-bed you take a trail that follows Tahoma Creek upstream.  This is a powerful glacier-fed stream, and the previous spring’s melt had torn out long sections of the trail.  The lower part of the hike thus featured a few nervous stream crossings.  I’ve been swept away before and felt very close to drowning, and so I respect rapidly moving water as much as I do anything in nature.

After a few long stretches of boulder-hopping I left the creek and climbed steeply to the meadows.  From the photos you can see the light was very nice, despite the cloudless skies.  Best of all the wildflowers were in perfect bloom.  It was late August, which may seem to be late in the season for peak flower bloom.  But Rainier’s subalpine meadows are high and snow lingers well into summer.  On that special day the wildflower close-ups and the grand scale shooting were both sublime.

The pasqueflower is a different sort of bloom: Mt. Rainier, Washington.

After the golden light left the mountain, dusk began to approach rapidly.  I packed my gear into the pack and wasted no time starting my descent.  Not long after crossing timberline and entering the forest night began to come on like a train.  I stopped at a waterfall and grabbed one more shot, confident of my headlamp.  But after only 20 minutes or so my headlamp began to flicker.  I had put what I thought were fresh batteries in before I started out, but they must have been well past expiration.  I should have had spares, but had failed to check my pack before starting out.  I silently cursed my impatience to get going.

Just as I began to hear the roar of Tahoma Creek below my lamp finally gave out and darkness gathered around me.  At first the trail was barely discernible and easy enough to follow.  I was confident of being able to reach and follow the creek bed.  But the night was moonless and exceptionally black.  I missed a turn and struggled to regain the trail, falling a good 10 feet or so between two huge rock outcrops.  I wasn’t hurt, but slowed down considerably after that close call.  Then I reached Tahoma Creek and began to follow it downstream.

Narada Falls at night-fall, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington.

I was lucky.  If there had been more dense forest walking ahead I would have been forced to stop and spend a cold night with no shelter.  Luckily, frequent glacial floods had removed most of the trees along the creek, allowing the stars to shine through.  With eyes now fully dark-adapted, and with the normally unnoticed added light from many suns burning far away, I discovered that if I went slow, I could just barely see features before reaching them.

I lost the trail at the first washout and was forced to stumble down the rubbly stream bed for the duration.   I traveled in a sort of slow-motion crouch, using starlight to show me boulders and other obstacles.  I tripped and fell a bunch of times anyway.  And the stream crossings were even more fun than on the way up.  Thankfully by the time I reached them the stream’s flow was lessened because of slower melting from upstream glaciers brought on by the cool of night.

I followed the creek longer than necessary, not noticing the road off to my right beyond some dark trees.  When I finally realized my mistake I climbed the bank and crawled through the trees, where my feet touched something strange.  Flat, even ground, the road!  The feeling that washed over me was pure ecstasy.  But easy walking on the road felt very strange.  Have you experienced this?  Where your legs, after endlessly struggling up, over and around, can finally walk normally.  But it suddenly feels like you’re swinging heavy stone blocks?  My head and torso felt like they were floating above my too-heavy lower half.

My van looked even better than West Side Road had, parked there all alone, patiently waiting as if certain of my safe return.  The little clock on the dash said 2:55 a.m.  I can count on one hand the number of times in life that the cliche’ actually came true.  You know the one, where sleep takes you before your head even hits the pillow.  Going hard for so many hours will do that.

Next morning, it’s needless to say, my body was sore all over and bruised in a dozen places.  But it was worth it.  The photos, which turned out nicely with or without the accompanying adventure, seemed even better for having come at a price, and with a memory.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

Low clouds move up the Nisqually River, but the stars are revealed from a high perch on Rainier as night comes on.

 

Adventuring Mt. Rainier: Hiker’s Heaven   8 comments

This is the same face of Rainier that residents of Seattle see every clear day. Much better up close!

The first time I saw Mount Rainier up close I was completely blown away.  I was 19 and had been in the Pacific NW for less than a year.  The Cascade Mountains seemed like the Himalayas to my East Coast eyes.  And Rainier is the biggest and baddest of the entire range.  When I got that first good look I was impressed the way only a young man with far too much energy can be.

Since that first good look at it, Mt. Rainier and its national park have always been a special place of mine.  I’ve spent quite a lot of time rambling the steep trails, climbing it twice.  I even worked for NPS one summer doing wildlife surveys.  So let’s leave the desert for now and continue this Adventuring series with an adventure in Washington’s oldest (and the nation’s 5th) national park:  Mount Rainier.

By the way, I wrote a number of illustrated posts on Rainier that are more travel-guide/documentary in nature than this one.  Check those out if you’re thinking of a visit for pictures or hiking.

Trailside waterfall, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Just below Indian Henry’s, the park’s Wonderland Trail crosses a high suspension bridge over Tacoma Creek.

Camping Where the Bears Are

Rainier hosts the most extensive, and I think finest, subalpine flower meadows in the Cascade Range.  When I was in my 20s I backpacked with a friend to one of Rainier’s best:  a place on the southwest side called Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground (see image below).  It’s named for a Tahoma native called So-to-Lick who lived in a cabin there before there was a park.  He straddled the two worlds, guiding the likes of John Muir and assorted climbers up the mountain.  But he never summited himself, holding it sacred like his tribe and thus staying off the glaciated upper reaches.

I tended then, as now, to eschew trail-side camping in popular areas.  So we camped overlooking the meadows, atop a broad peak called Mt. Ararat (had to look that one up it’s been so long).  Toward dusk I took a walk from camp to get a view.  I hadn’t been there long when, from a rocky outcrop facing north, I saw movement on the grassy slope just below.  To my amazement a large bear stepped from behind the nearest trees and slowly foraged across the slope not more than 100 yards away.  It was a cinnamon-colored black bear, and still the largest of that species I’ve ever seen.

As with nearly all my bear encounters over the years, this one mostly ignored me.  But I couldn’t leave well enough alone.  I had a cheap little film camera.  So like a young fool I determined to get closer for a picture.  I waited for him to move a little further away and then climbed down off the rocks.  I slowly stalked after him, keeping the small but dense groups of subalpine firs between us.  I kept moving downslope even though I wasn’t catching glimpses of him anymore.  I thought he’d gone.  Then peering around a shrub, I froze.

This is NOT the bear in the story. This one is much smaller, but also lives on Mt. Rainier.

He was now less than 50 feet away, staring at me hard.  He chuffed once.  There have been other occasions like this in my life, but I believe that was the first.  Despite the differences they all feel the same.  The adrenaline floods in first, immediately followed by the realization of how foolish you’ve been.  You force yourself to breathe, and above all try not to do anything stupid.  Like run.  Those moments stretch time.

Of course the big boy just ended up doing that funny double-take I’ve seen a number of times since then.  Where the animal shifts its attention back to what it was doing, but abruptly turns back and seems to reconsider, and sometimes repeats.  Then finally turns away, apparently deciding you’re not worth it.  And the tension of the moment drops like a stone.  I watched him drift away down the mountain-slope through the tall grass, realizing I had forgotten that picture I wanted.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!

Just before dusk, Mount Rainier soars above the flowery meadows of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.

 

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