Articles about Hiking

Hiking Havasupai – My Successful Return to Hiking

Havasupai Falls Hike Arziona

Forgetting the ibuprofen was a bad idea.  It was a rookie mistake and I was paying the price for it.  I sat down heavily on a concrete and rock wall next to several other sweaty, dust covered hikers taking advantage of one of the last shady spots left in the rocky canyon.  I pulled the hat from my throbbing head and wiped the sweat from my brow, eyeing a line of horses kicking up dust on their way up the steep switchbacks toward us.  I wanted to stay ahead of the horse pack but I was loosing steam.  As I caught my breath and waited for the aching in my knees to subside I made idle chit-chat with the guy next to me.  There was probably less than a half a mile left, but it was the hard half mile…and my body was constantly reminding me that I was neither young nor in shape anymore.

The guy beside my made some comment, by this point I was barely listening, and I looked up to see the horses were right on top of us and moving fast around the bend in the switchbacks.  As the huge animals jockeyed for position they took up the entire trail squeezing out our lazy spot in the shade.  One horse cut the outside route with a gallop right toward me and I shot up and spun myself toward him and to the outside edge of the trail, just narrowly missing being trampled by the beast.

“Ha ha!  I thought you were tired!”, one of the other resting hikers was amused by my sudden agility.

It’s amazing what a little adrenaline can do for you.

Most anyone who reads here knows I’ve been struggling with injuries for the better part of a year.  Even though last year was one of the most amazing travel years I’ve ever had, the whole thing was a huge, painful struggle.  Last May I found out I had a double stress fracture in my right foot that sidelined me for the better part of 3 months.  As soon I recovered somewhat from that, I injured my left knee.  When I rushed to get back to training after the knee felt better I quickly re-injured my knee even worse and had to resign myself to doctor’s visits and physical therapy.  I had worked hard over the last several years to get into shape and be able to do the kinds of adventures and travel that I enjoy and this year of pain and frustration was a major setback.

Coming back from this many injuries back to back has been a frustratingly slow process.  I’ve had to accept a lot of limitations and come to terms with losing the fitness level I had earned.  It felt like I had thrown away years worth of work and effort.  But taking it slow was going to be necessary if I was ever going to get back anywhere near where I was.

Mooney Falls Havasupai Hike

 

 

Hanging out at Havasupai Falls

I think it was October or November when we decided we were going to hike Havasupai.  My wife and I have been talking about going for years.  I have hiked into Havasupai several times since moving to Arizona but she had never been and has been asking to go nearly as long as I’ve known her.  When her sister offered to let their oldest come out to visit us, my wife thought it would be a great opportunity to show off our state by taking him into Havasupai and showing him an amazing time.  Jason is 14, athletic and is active in the Boy Scouts so taking him on a sweet multi-day backpacking trip to one of the most beautiful places in the country was a great plan.  For Christmas we sent him an old National Geographic magazine with an article about Havasupai, writing in the magazine “April 2014, prepare yourself!”.

As April drew closer, I didn’t seem to be any closer to healed and certainly not healed enough to train for the hike.  If I was going to be able to go at all it was going to be right on the heels of finishing rehab, with no prep.  Goody for me.

Beaver Falls Havasupai Hike

Hiking Havasupai is an interesting experience.  I’ve done it several times and even though it’s close to 12 miles to the campground it’s mostly downhill on the way in.  The switchbacks are the first thing and they’re over quickly (and your’re going down so it’s not as bad).  Then it’s just a long canyon hike down a dry creek bed for the most part.  The hike out is something else entirely and first timers are often taken by surprise at how challenging it can be.  That long slow, easy downhill all the way in turns into an imperceptible uphill grind that saps your energy and then dumps you at the foot of a mile or so of switchbacks fully exposed to the desert sun.  It’s usually not something you do on a whim with no training or a good base fitness level.  I had neither.

Jason did great and his boundless 14 year old energy had him running circles around us for the most part.  I hope we were able to give him an experience he’ll never forget.  I felt like we could have done better had I been more physically prepared for the hike, but all in all we did well.  We put in over 30 miles of hiking that weekend, explored and swam around countless waterfalls, he slept in a hammock for the first time and got to see at least part of the Grand Canyon.  For me, I got to revisit one of my favorite places on the planet and show it off to my wife.  But more than that, I proved to myself that I have recovered from my injuries and can get serious about getting back to the kind of shape that will allow me to keep up with the serious hikers.

I was pretty beat up most of the time we were in the canyon, walking around sore and in pain.  But it was the soreness of muscles worked past their limits, feet sore and bruised from over-activity, NOT the pain of injury.  My knees held up well despite my lack of preparation and meager fitness.  Despite the soreness we pushed through to go see more stuff, jump off waterfalls and swim in the shallow pools.  I may have spent an hour with ice on both knees after hiking out of the canyon but I could still walk, I wasn’t crippled and that, for me, was a success.

Mooney Falls Hike ladder chain

I’ve left this year’s travel calendar almost blank, not knowing what I would be physically able to do.  But now I want to fill in the time with some of the adventures I’ve missed out on.  I had to pass up so many great invitations last year and take it easy on other trips where I wanted to do so much more.  This year will be about saying yes and pushing myself.  It’s time to start looking at all those summits, canyons, rivers and creeks I longed for all year.  Time to pull out the maps and start planning.  I think I hear Utah calling my name…

One Day in Zion…

As night draped over the desert like a thick blanket, Dave and I sat near the small, crackling fire and talked in hushed voices about our grand plans for the coming adventure.  He had flown in to Salt Lake City and made the four hour drive across Utah to Zion that morning.  I had made the robust seven hour drive across Arizona and Southern Utah from Phoenix.  Both of us were short on time.  Saturday was our only day to really see the park, to drink it in until we were intoxicated by it’s unique beauty.  We asked ourselves, “What do you do when you only have one day in one of the most amazing places on Earth?”

Our only answer, “Everything!”

 

The main section of Zion National Park is not terribly huge.  The section of park along the North Fork of the Virgin River from the park entrance to The Narrows is only about 6 or 7 miles long.  But that stretch of canyon houses within it’s hallowed walls some of the most dramatic and iconic scenery in North America.  There are monuments and trails within this sliver of earth that many only dream of visiting.  We’d see icons like The blood streaked Altar of Sacrifice in the Towers of the Virgin, the Sentinel watching over the Court of the Patriarchs, and the Great White Throne of God looking down upon the razor thin edge of Angel’s Landing.  We’d walk among lesser icons like Echo Canyon and plunge our tired feet into the frigid waters of the Virgin River.

Sharp gusts of canyon wind carried a chill through the darkness at camp, rustling the grasses and the cottonwoods.  I fumbled with breakfast in the dark while we packed for the day.  Dave, who is more accustomed to lightweight backpacking than I am, carried a tiny bag with almost nothing but water and a few small bags of snacks.  I had my camera gear to contend with and shouldered a far heavier burden.  The earliest park shuttle would arrive at 7am and by 6:45 we were the only ones stirring in camp, a good sign we’d have the trail to ourselves.  The morning sky was just beginning to glow as we walked quietly among the deer that were loitering at the visitor’s center.

There were only two others on the first shuttle of the morning from the visitor’s center.  The other early risers were an elderly fellow who had plans to see sunrise from further in the canyon and fairly large man in a ponytail who wanted to “hike Angel’s Landing without his wife and kids slowing him down”.  We picked up a few more ambitious hikers before reaching The Grotto, where we would find the trailhead to Angel’s Landing.

Angel's Landing hike-1

We chose to conquer Angel’s Landing first for a few reasons: First, I wanted to shoot from Angel’s Landing in early light.  From all accounts, this would be a technical, heart-pounding hike with serious exposure and there was no way we were going to try to hike it for the first time in the dark just to catch “sunrise” from the top.  I was happy being able to shoot in the early morning light, hoping for something dramatic.  Second, we wanted to beat the crowds of weekend warriors and all-out tourists shuffling up the trail.  The park tells you to plan 4 to 5 hours for your round-trip to Angel’s Landing, but we were confident we could shave that down a little.

Zion National Park - Angel's Landing hikeAngel’s Landing was an absolutely amazing hike.  Short, a little strenuous, and potentially nerve-wracking for anyone with a possible fear of heights.  Since neither of us have ever experienced a fear of heights, the hike wasn’t as white-knuckle-scary as it was made out to be.  There are a few sections where well-worn chains guide you along and give you something to cling to.  I don’t think the chains are necessary though.  We were alone hiking most of the trail, running into very few people hiking that early.  We made short work of it clawing our way to the very end of any navigable path within 45 minutes of leaving the shuttle bus.  We spent nearly an hour at the tip of Angel’s Landing just enjoying the view and taking pictures and never saw another tired, sweaty soul until we packed up and headed back.  On the return hike it was easy to see how this hike could turn into a 4 hour ordeal when it gets crowded.  We never did see Ponytail.

Zion National Park - Angel's Landing hike

Before too long we were back across the Virgin river and waiting for the next shuttle to take us up the canyon to Weeping Rock where we’d catch the trailhead to Observation Point.  This was a busy trailhead, but we were ahead of schedule and doing well to stay ahead of the real crowds.  The beginning of this trail can be busy as it’s shared with those making the short hike to Weeping Rock, or venturing a little further to see Echo Canyon.  A small fraction continue on up the long, winding, never-ending swithcbacks leading to Observation Point.

Zion National Park - Observation Point

Echo Canyon-3This one takes some time, and is one of the most popular hikes in the park for one reason…the view.  From Observation Point you are treated to a plateau level view of the entire valley.  The point itself sticks out from the adjacent canyon wall enough that you are awarded near 360 degree views down into the park.  We sat at the point for a long time, resting the feet, taking pictures and befriending the local wildlife.  We both dreaded the long downhill and what that would mean on our tired, old knees.

I had expressed an interest in checking out Hidden Canyon, which we would pass on the way back down.  We looked forward to a little uphill hiking again after the descent from Observation Point and didn’t lose a step in the transition.  The trail to Hidden Canyon offered the kind of fun we found at Angel’s Landing, narrow trail clinging to the canyon wall, chains provided for the sketchy bits.  We managed to pass a couple of other groups who seemed to be in over their heads on this one.

I really love seeing those people on the trail, sweating with fear and clinging to the chains or rails with a death grip.  They move slow and sure, sometimes swearing and screaming at a misstep or stumble.  This, to them, is the pinnacle of adventure and they are doing it!  It reminds me of my mother on the trail down to the pool below Mooney Falls in Havasupai.  She was scared to death, but she made it.  I’m there because I don’t fear those trails, I love it and I’m comfortable there.  These people are there in spite of their fear and discomfort, pushing past their limits and experiencing wonder.  It’s commendable.

We found ourselves at the bottom of the trail on another shuttle, sore, tired and out of food and water.  But we still had a little more of the most important commodity in our whole adventure…TIME.  So we headed to The Narrows.  After a refill of sweet spring water and a little “Vitamin I” we were back on the trail with a vengeance.  Late in the afternoon, the River Walk Trail leading into the narrows is choked with “tourists”.  These are typically NOT hikers or adventurers but “tourists” in the purest sense of the word and  I’m not ashamed to admit that we bullied our way past the sluggish cattle.  Our time was fleeting and we were moving with purpose.

Zion National Park - The Narrows

Reaching the end of the paved River Walk Trail we scuttled down the concrete steps to the rocky beach.  We continued our brisk pace weaving past the people lingering there.  We reached the water’s edge then, without hesitation, we continued our hike through the cold water.  Further up the canyon the only people we saw were those returning from day hikes into The Narrows wearing wetsuits and drysuits and accompanied by a guide.  We continued to pick our way up canyon, watching our footing in the swift water.  I set up a couple of shots, feet going numb in the cold Spring runoff.  We hiked as far into the canyon as we could, stopping before the water became deep enough to force us to swim.

We hung out for a while, savoring our sampling of The Narrows and mentally adding to our To-Do lists for future trips.  I hear Fall is a great time to hike The Narrows…

We returned to camp at dusk thoroughly used, tired, wet, hungry and sunburned.  Surely a sign we’d done our duty well.  We changed into dry shoes and clothes and walked to the Zion Brew Pub (Dave had convinced me that our day warranted more than freeze-dried backpacking food).  We ended our epic day in Zion National Park the way one should end any epic day…with stories and beer.

Many of these images from Zion National Park are available in print or download from my Gallery.

One Day in Zion Gallery…

A Stranger in Zion…

The late afternoon light was stretched low over the horizon casting long shadows in Zion National Park.  I had unpacked my gear from the dusty truck in Watchman Campground and quickly set up my home for the weekend next to another small tent quietly occupying the same campsite under a large cottonwood.  I didn’t know much about my mysterious campmate yet.  Less than an hour earlier, I had received a single text message – all set in F4.  They have a parking permit for you as you enter watchman campground.  If I’m not in camp, I’m off exploring.  Sounds like we’d get along just fine.

View of Watchman from the Campground in Zion National Park

The National Parks and Monuments of Utah have always called to me, especially Zion National Park.  I don’t normally make a huge effort to visit the National Parks, preferring instead to explore Wilderness Areas where I can find quiet and solitude.  There are exceptions.  When my dad passed away in 2005 we were in the planning stages of several trips together.  We were on the wait-list for a private trip down the Colorado River, we were just starting to plan a trip through Yosemite along portions of the John Muir Trail and we were talking about touring the Utah Parks of Zion, Bryce, Arches and Canyonlands.

In Fall of 2007 I was able to raft the Colorado through Grand Canyon on a private boat trip with several of my dad’s closest river friends.  This Summer I’ll finally be hiking most of the John Muir Trail through Yosemite with a small group of backpackers.  And for years I had been patiently looking for opportunities to visit Arches or Zion…when I received this message on twitter:

The timing seemed to fit perfectly into my jigsaw puzzle of a travel calendar.  I managed to scrounge up some petty cash for fuel, take the weekend off and drive 7 hours across Arizona and Utah to meet up with a fellow adventure seeker after nothing more than a handful of Twitter messages.  Twitter has been funny that way, especially when it comes to the outdoor community.  I see it happen all the time with messages like, “Anyone up for climbing near SLC this weekend?” or “I want to do Humphrey’s next time in Flag.  Who’s in?”  Social Media allows us to connect with like-minded people for outdoor adventures that just wouldn’t be as fun (or safe) alone.

This time it was Minnesota native David Wherry, hell bent on making the most out of his first whirlwind trip to Zion National Park in the shortest time possible.  David would have one day, sun-up to sun-down, to doggedly chase down as much adventure and general badassery (yes, it’s a word) as law would allow…and he was looking for a partner to help him run it down.

As I organized my gear at Workman Campground I knew we were staring down the barrel of a long sunrise-to-sunset day of steep, sweat-stained canyon hiking.  So when Dave came strolling into camp after a casual 7 mile trail run, I knew he’d be the guy pushing the pace the next day.

That night we sat around the campfire and discussed our strategy for the next day.  We didn’t know each other before that night but we both seemed very much on the same page about our agenda.  We listed out our priorities starting with Angel’s Landing at sunrise and worked our way from there with every intention of hungrily devouring as much of this amazing park as we could stomach before sunset.  We would not be content to shuffle along with cattle-like tourists.  We would push hard, move fast and end every trail with an eager and emphatic “What’s next!?”

David turned out to be a great trail companion and bad-ass adventure partner.  Hopefully his work continues to land him in parts out west so we can pull off another epic slam-dunk in another amazing location.  The sooner the better…

The Epic Day in Zion National Park…

Angel's Landing at Zion National Park

Echo Canyon at Zion National Park

Observation Point at Zion National Park

The Narrows at Zion National Park

 

To see more of my images from Zion National Park visit my gallery.

Photograph of the Week: Working the details…

Back in December, I shot up to Sedona to catch the first snow of the season.  It was a truly amazing day trip that resulted in some really beautiful shots.  The day was just perfect for photography.  The sunrise was bright and clean, the low wispy clouds clung to the base of the mountains and everything had a dusting of snow and frost.  Sedona photography at it’s best and we took advantage of it.

One of my favorite shots from the trip was not one of the spectacular sunrise directly, or one of the iconic rock features.  It was a simple shot, just north of the Bell Rock feature.  It was sort of a quiet moment for me in the frantic shooting that morning.  We had been scampering around since the sun first crested the horizon, dashing about to catch different angles while we had the window of opportunity.  Then I took a moment…just to take it all in.  It was a beautiful moment and I smiled at the pure, simple pleasure of being there.

As I took in my surroundings I turned away from the sunrise, something I hadn’t done yet, and there was this whole amazing scene behind me bathed in a warm glow.  I took a couple of short steps to frame a few branches from a nearby tree into the shot.  Shortly after that, I resumed my frantic shooting to grab what I could before the day pushed on.

Shooting in low light (sunrise/sunset) can be difficult.  The low angle light creates high contrast and vibrant colors but can be difficult to show without some “dark room” adjustments.  Our eyes do a much better job of working with high contrast than the camera does, so to get a photograph that mimics the experience it can take a little work.  For me, the biggest thing is to bring the shadows forward so that we can see what is hidden there.  To do this (in Lightroom) I push light into the shadows, then immediately increase the Black to restore contrast.  Increasing the clarity will also help bring detail out of the shadows and create contrast.  I rarely have to adjust the contrast directly as the shadow and clarity adjustments do it for me.

The problem with boosting light into the shadows is that you can lose detail in the highlighted areas.  In this piece, the low clouds on the right became a white blob, but by playing with adjustments to the Highlights I was able to get the detail back.  I don’t always boost the Saturation because it’s very easy to get a photograph that looks unnatural.  However, adjusting the Vibrance setting (especially in sunrise/sunset shots) will bring out the vivid colors that make low light shooting so fun.

Photograph of the Week - Original

At this point in the editing process Lightroom lets you fine tune the saturation and hue by color.  I don’t play with this often as it will also easily create a look that is unnatural and “over processed”.  But in some cases (like Red Rock country) where the colors can become either muted or oversaturated depending on the natural light, I will use these tools to push and pull to recreate what the scene felt like.

You can see from the original shot that the details are all there.  The light is much more subtle and the shadows disguise much of the section of trees in the middle.  You also don’t get the feel of the sunrise which was much more vivid in person.

The last thing I do once I have the colors and shadows adjusted is focus on detail.  Lightroom has fine detail adjustments that let me strip out some of the noise and Sharpen the finer details.  Sharpening the image will usually bring out even more noise, but by also increasing the Luminance to match the Sharpening I can drop the rough noise out.  This, to me, results in a much cleaner and more readable image.

Photograph of the Week - Sedona Sunrise

 

Specifications:

  • This image was shot on a Nikon D70s with a Nikon Nikkor 10-28mm WA lens.
  • Exp: 1/160, F/9, ISO-200, 10mm.
  • Originally shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

 

…And the big announcement!

I finally created a virtual gallery for my work!  I’m really excited to introduce Wilderness Dave Photography where you can see (and purchase) the top photos from my outdoor travel sets.

Wilderness Dave Photography Gallery

Go check it out, I’d love some comments and feedback.  The gallery will be updated with new work as it is produced.  Every week I will feature a special price on the Photograph of the Week for my readers if anyone would like to purchase a print.  This week, use coupon code POTW4413 to get 40% off your purchase.

Photograph of the Week: Plan B in Boulder Creek…

The plan was to hike a 12-13 mile loop down Second Water to Boulder Creek then up the trail along the creek to return via Lost Dutchman Trail.  I was looking forward to hiking the creek and shooting some fun angles in Boulder Creek Canyon.

Normally, Boulder Creek is a thin stream that casually babbles it’s way down the canyon.  Crossing is not terribly difficult and the multiple creek crossings are part of the fun.  What I hadn’t really planned for the was the late Winter storm that rolled through Arizona (and much of the southwest) dumping tons of rain and dusting the local peaks with snow.  I stuck to my plan and headed out to Lost Dutchman State Park figuring I’d hike my designated route, in the rain if need be, and explore this part of the Superstition Mountain Wilderness.

When I hike, the “plan” isn’t much more than a loose sketch…an idea of where I’d like to end up depending entirely on what I might find along the way.  I try to allow a lot of wiggle-room in my agenda and very rarely think of my proposed route as “set in stone”.  Adaptability and flexibility are the name of the game.  My dad used to say something to the effect of, “Plan B makes for better stories”.  He was usually right.

I had to slog through muddy, mucky trails and cross many drainage washes running with water.  There had been so much rain, the ground was soft enough for me to sink a couple of inches with each step in places.  For a good section of the downhill side heading into Boulder Creek Canyon the drainage ran down the trail itself (very happy I had my waterproof boots with me on this one).  Once I reached Boulder Creek I realized I might need to rethink my plans.  The creek was swollen and brown with runoff and moving fast.  I had already passed one group that had turned back at the creek, but I wanted to see it for myself.

I tried desperately to follow my side of the creek looking for any sign of a trail, or a safe place to cross.  I followed a sole set of footprints up the boulder strewn creek fighting through vegetation until I was finally choked out.  I sat on a large boulder in the middle of the creek for a long time thinking about what I wanted to do.  As I munched on a snack bar, I considered the option of crossing the creek to look for the trail.  I considered heading up the canyon wall on my side to see if there was a trail higher up.  All of these considerations were sketchy at best and if the storm decided to let loose with another downpour I could find myself trapped on the wrong side of the creek or, worse, caught in a flash flood.

Eventually, I succumbed to reason and figured the smart thing for me (or anyone) hiking solo out in these conditions was to head back.  I reluctantly headed back the way I came, fighting through the same brush and still looking for a missed opportunity to cross the creek.  When I came back to where the original trail met the creek I tried my luck at crossing again but found nothing I deemed safe.  So I decided to make the best of it and get the camera equipment out to play with.

The storm hadn’t given me much of a sky to shoot.  It was very gray and overcast, very little definition and the light was diffused and too soft to create dramatic shadows.  My immediate thought was that it might be a good opportunity to play with slow exposure shots.  A slow exposure might give me a little boost of light in the scenery.  It would also allow me to play with the moving water effects that I always thought looked so cool.  I shot a few canyon shots then started playing with exposure times.  I took a few shots right down by the creek repeating the same shot with different exposure times to see what I would get.  The new shutter remote I got worked perfectly for being able to stabilize the camera on the tripod and get the shot without the risk of shaking the camera.

Photograph of the Week - Boulder Creek-Superstition Wilderness

Specifications:

  • This image was shot on a Nikon D300 with a Nikon Nikkor 10-28mm WA lens.
  • Exp: 1/5sec, F/29, ISO-200, 18mm.
  • Originally shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

I eventually climbed up a small boulder cliff adjacent to the creek to get a better view of the canyon downstream.  I snapped a couple of shots then turned the camera around and shot almost directly below me catching a scene where the creek was choked with smaller, colored rocks and desert riparian shrubs.  The chocolate milk color of the storm-swollen creek softened the scene and when I slowed the exposure the movement of the water created a nice silky effect.  The result was magical.

This really turned out to be my personal favorite of this entire set.  I love the colors, I love the contrasts, I love the composition.  The lichen on the granite rock below me provided some really nice interest and texture to balance out the detail in the rocky side of the creek.  The movement of the water flows nicely in a diagonal across the composition dividing the two opposing scenes.  It just feels really nice to me.  I intend to have this one blown up on a tall canvas wrap for my office.

If I had not been forced to abandon Plan A and turn back, this shot would never have happened.  I’m happy to see where Plan B took me.

More Images from Boulder Creek…

You can now purchase Photograph of the Week images from my Virtual Gallery.  The Gallery is set up to allow you to purchase prints or digital copies for personal use.

Petroglyphs in Chalk Canyon…

I have a little hiking group on Facebook.  It’s just a group for local friends who have expressed an interest in hiking.  It allows me to post my plans for smaller hikes in case anyone wants to join me.  I still hike alone a lot.

I don’t think anyone but me has posted anything in that group in a very long time.  And even when I do post something, there really isn’t much engagement there.  I’m sure most of the people in the group don’t even remember joining.  But I’m trying to change that.  There is some new blood in the group, new people that I know are active and up for an adventure.  They are bringing a pulse back to the lifeless body of my little hiking group.

A few weeks ago, I met up with Heidi (@Bananabuzzbomb) while Katie and Niko (of @SimplyAdventure fame) were in Phoenix.  The four of us did a quick hike at South Mountain.  Later, Heidi showed a lot of interest in wanting to hike more so I figured I’d add her to the group and put something together.  Her interaction in the group has enticed others to pay attention.  So I posted a possible hike and got a small group together to go check out a trail north of town.

I had been wanting to explore further up Cave Creek north of Spur Cross for a long time.  It seemed like the perfect hike for a small group.  I picked a decent hike along the Creek with the potential for a nice payoff at the end with some petroglyphs and possible ruins.  The hike would end up being 8 or 9 miles round trip and have varying terrain and multiple water crossings.  A good moderate hike to get to know some new fellow hikers.

Sunrise light at Spur Cross

We got an early start on a cold morning just as the sun was coming up.  I may not have made it entirely clear from the beginning, but I had never hiked this trail before.  I was going off of a pretty decent map and a trail description found online.  I didn’t know if there would be trail markers or not, or how easy the trail would be to follow once we got out of Spur Cross Recreation Area.  There is an expectation, when hiking with the person who has suggested the trail, that they are leading the hike.  This dawned on me shortly after we got started and I felt the pressure of needing to know where we were, where we were going and how far we still needed to go.  Every time someone asked, “is this the trail?” or “do we cross the creek here?” I felt like I should not only know the answer but be confident about it.

Crossing Cave Creek at Spur Cross

I quickly made it very clear that we were all in the same boat, that I had never been on this trail before and was learning as we go just like everyone else.  I’m not sure if that made them feel any better or not, but I wasn’t going to have them following me into the desert with some false sense of security that I knew where I was going.  We took turns leading and route finding, making mistakes, backtracking a little and continuing to refer to the map.

A little scrambling along one of our false routes

At one point, we encountered a couple of older gentlemen out hiking the same trail and looking for the same petroglyphs.  They seemed to be having similar routing issues as us, but they had a GPS.  So we compared notes and I tried to compare his GPS location (his maps sucked) to my map.  This worked well until the next creek crossing and we lost our route again.  We had been looking for a turn, a side trail to take us up an adjacent canyon from the creek but couldn’t locate it.  The guys with the GPS were confident that they knew the way.  And here’s my next mistake…I followed themWE followed them.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that most of the time the guys with the GPS really don’t know where they are.  Most of the people I’ve come across using GPS don’t even know how to relate their GPS position to where they are on an actual map.  I should have known better than to follow these guys and we missed our turn.  Once I realized this, I communicated that to the party and we all agreed it didn’t matter too much.  We’d just continue to follow the creek and, worst come to worst, we’d retrace our path along the creek to get back out.

Leaving Spur Cross onto an abandoned private ranch to look for the Petroglyphs

Missing our turn meant we missed a chance at the ruins.  But we could still find the Petroglyphs if we watched carefully.  Luckily, we spotted them quickly and were able to stop and take pictures and explore the area.  We found some great rock art along with several metates in the natural boulders.  The low lands around the creek would have served as the agricultural land for the Hohokam living on the hilltops in pit houses and rock structures around here about 800 years ago.

First sign of Petroglyphs

more Petroglyphs

More petroglyphs on a huge boulder

After the petroglyphs we made a half-assed attempt at climbing the rocky hill above the petroglyphs to make an attempt at finding any ruins but we were running out of time.  I know had a good hike and really enjoyed the trail.  I hope that my companions enjoyed it as well.  I know Heidi enjoyed it enough to sign up for another hike the following weekend on yet another trail I’d never been to and had no idea what we were in for.  But that’ll be another story…

This hike did teach me to be a little more prepared and to not take my role as planner lightly.  As the one planning the hike, I became the default leader and guide.  The expectation was that I would know the way and I didn’t.  This does make an argument about the virtues of scouting new trails before bringing others out.  But then that takes me back to hiking solo, which most people agree is not safe either.  I found the answer, at least in this case, was good communication as well as feeling out the mood of the group.  As soon as I felt tension or frustration in the group, we called it and headed out.

On the way back out we found the junction in the trail we had missed.  It was a really obvious junction with a sign and a map and everything (hell, it could have had red flashing neon arrows we still missed it).  I look forward to heading back out to the trails north of Cave Creek and exploring further…maybe as a solo scouting trip next time.

Old abandoned Spur Cross Corral

Chalk Canyon Petroglyphs Gallery…

Testing out a new chest rig…

A couple weeks ago I went on a short hike in the Superstitions with my camera gear.  For the first time in a long time, I carried my ridiculously heavy tripod out into the field.  Carrying the D300 along with a couple of lenses AND the tripod adds a lot of weight to the pack and can make it awkward to carry.  I also hate carrying the camera in the backpack just because of access issues.  This normally results in me carrying the camera through the entire hike.  I like to have my hands free when hiking, it’s part of the reason I can’t seem to make myself use trekking poles.  So, last week I decided to fix this situation and try some ideas I had.

A quick stop at the REI got me what I needed (some of the stuff I already had) and I was set up to test a new camera rig.

testing the new chest rig

 

I picked up a LowePro Top Loading Camera Case from REI.  I had to find something that would have quick access D-rings at the top corners of the case or it wouldn’t work (I also made sure the case had a rain cover).  I then added a couple of ultra-light carabiners to my GeigerRig RIG1600 at the shoulder straps.  Then, to connect the camera case to the carabiners I used lighweight S-biners.  These gave me a little wiggle room with the location of the case and set the top-load flap at a good height for access.  The S-biners come in a large variety of sizes so you can customize the hang of the chest rig to fit your sizing.

This setup worked great all weekend.  The only problem I had with it is the incessant chirping of the metal on metal as I hiked.  But that was easily resolved with a little duct-tape where the two biners rub together.  After that, it was perfect.  I found the LowePro case on sale and I already had the biners so the whole rig only cost me about $20 to set up.  You can buy camera chest rigs from manufacturers but most run $80 and up.

This worked great for me, fit my camera well, allowed me a hands-free hike with quick access to my camera on the trail.  It is also really fast and easy to take on and off when you need to remove the pack.  Now I just need to figure out an easier way to strap my tripod for quicker access.  The only problem I ran in to with this was not being able to see my feet on technical terrain.  That is easily resolved by merely unclipping one side of the camera case.

Amazing Sedona – Part II: Sunrise, Photography and Snow…

Only a couple of days after my Sedona trip with Tim I left for Houston to spend some time traveling East Texas with my new wife.  I flew out and the next morning we headed north in her little Honda Civic for Nacogdoches, a small town a couple of hours north of Houston.  The claim to fame of this little Texas tourist destination is that it is the oldest town in Texas.  Originally a settlement of Caddo Indians, the official town of Nacogdoches was founded in 1779 by Gil Y’Barbo with permission from the Spanish Government.

My wife and I spent a day hiking trails and exploring the small downtown shops and restaurants after spending the night in a really nice, rustic B&B cottage outside of town.  The history in Nacogdoches is rich and there are still some original buildings from the early 1800’s.  Outside of town are the Caddo Mounds, archaeological sites from around 800 A.D.

While in Nacogdoches the weather turned incredibly cold (for the southwest), reaching down to the low 20’s overnight.  I checked the weather back in Arizona and saw there was supposed to be a storm system moving in.  This put me on the lookout for snow.  Soon, the weather forecasts were calling for snow over the weekend in Flagstaff and Sedona, a few days earlier than the historic forecasts had estimated.  I immediately put a message out to my occasional hiking partner and photographer, Jabon Eagar exclaiming, “Snow in Sedona this weekend!  Time to play hookie!”

Jabon and I had been talking about heading to Sedona to catch images of fresh snow for months.  Jabon had been discussing this prospect with another friend for close to two years.  So when snow came to Sedona, we both were ready to drop everything and go.  It was starting to snow in the upper elevations around Sedona by Friday night, I didn’t get back in to Phoenix until Saturday evening and had plans for Saturday night.  Jabon and I laid plans to drive up Sunday morning, early, and be in Sedona before sunrise…and this time I meant it!

Once again, I found myself forced to leave a party early so I could get a few hours’ sleep before driving north for an adventure.  Jabon arrived at my place right at 5AM, I was already packed and had the truck running to warm it up.  Jabon’s buddy Mike was due to join us, but no one had heard from him and Jabon’s attempts to reach him went unanswered.  We soon left, figuring if he was running late he’d call and we could turn around and toss him in the truck.  We never did hear from him.

There was little traffic on the cold, dark drive to Sedona.  Aside from hitting a patch of black-ice at about 80 MPH (and totally maintaining control of the truck without spilling a drop of the coffee in my hand) and missing my exit onto 179, the drive was uneventful.  Even with lost time we hit Bell Rock just as the first light of the morning sun was beginning to endow the frosty morning mists with a supernatural glow.

misty fog clinging to the rock

We stopped the truck and quickly got out to chase the first photo-ops of the morning.  I ran across the road and scrambled to higher ground across frost covered red rock ledges looking to capture the mood of the view that was unfolding.  The thick, wispy clouds clung to the desert floor and gathered around the base of the red rock towers to the east.  As the sun climbed higher it gave life to the misty fog, like stormy seas crashing around these crimson battleships in the desert.

Bell Rock in the morning mist at sunrise

We were there for the photography that day, and Mother Nature was giving the performance of her life.  Jabon and I hiked on and off-trail looking for angles, framing compositions in the viewfinder, excitedly shouting back and forth, “The light is amazing from this spot!” “Look, the fog is clearing over there!” “This is incredible, I’ve never seen it like this!” “This is perfect!”

framing the light at Bell Rock

When we came off the trail, after exhausting every photographic consideration, the parking lot had filled with early morning photographers looking to snap their own versions of this amazing sunrise.  I was glad our ambition had carried us there first, before it got crowded.  There was thick frost on the ground, but we still weren’t high enough to be in the snow…and that’s why we were there.  So we loaded up and continued through Sedona and on in to Oak Creek Canyon where the snow had collected over the weekend.

I had to stop the truck several times before we made it to West Fork because the view along the road was too good to pass up.  We would stop, pile out of the truck and scurry along the narrow shoulder snapping shots as the light and shadow played with the mountain tops.  Then quickly back to the truck to move on so we wouldn’t miss the best light further up.

View of Oak Creek in the Snow

Jabon taking a shot at the first creek crossing at West Fork Trail Oak CreekWe finally made it to the West Fork parking lot, which was closed, and found a spot further up along the road where we could legally park.  We hiked back toward the trailhead along the roadside careful of the growing traffic on the narrow, winding roads.  We were not the first ones to the West Fork trailhead and we followed the footprints through the snow back in to the canyon collecting shots along the way.  Once we reached the first creek crossing, the foot traffic grew thinner…not many wanted to cross the frozen water.

bright light behind the cliff at West Fork Oak CreekWe took our time and watched for subtle changes in the light inside the canyon trying desperately to choose our shots wisely.  The snow was 6 to 8 inches thick and clung fresh and soft to the rocks and trees.  This was one of those perfect places where you could easily snap off thousands of photographs if you weren’t more discerning.  The combination of the brilliant red rock in the intense morning light against the stark, clean whiteness of the snow was a dramatic scene.  Then layer in the deep emerald of the tall evergreens, the electric blue of the sky all of it wrapped in the ever-changing misty morning clouds.

Living in southern Arizona and growing up in California, I haven’t had opportunity for much hiking in the snow.  I really enjoyed this hike!  Snow along a trail, even an easy one like West Fork Trail, completely changes the hiking experience.  Finding the route is challenging unless there are footprints to follow, the deeper snow forces you to pay closer attention to each step.  Snow covered trails also means fewer people in most cases, which is how I like it.  My wife loved snowshoeing in Tahoe for the same reasons.  I’ve collected better Winter gear and will be looking forward to more snow hiking.

white snow and bright sky at West Fork Oak Creek

Soon there was only one other set of footprints in the snow, only one person ahead of us.  We finally came across her as she was headed back, another photographer out to capture this pristine wilderness.  Soon after that we stopped near a large boulder along the creek and where I heated up water for hot cider.  We sat there for a while, watching the light change in the canyon and snapping off the occasional picture.  Jabon took some shots of the frozen creek and we both worked to find angles for shooting the icicles hanging from the huge boulder next to us.

Snowy trees at West Fork Oak Creek

Heading back out of the canyon, being scolded for hiking in a “closed” area.  Some of the other early morning opportunists had received violations for parking in front of the closed gate.  We drove higher up the mountain after helping an older couple get their car out of the snow bank long the road.  There was little more to see and the casual visitors were starting to get thick as the morning grew late.  Jabon suggested we head in to more remote country and offered to show me a set of ruins he’d photographed a while back.  He was anxious to get another opportunity to shoot them, especially with snow around.

Hidden Canyon Ruins in the snowWe had time so we headed down a muddy 4-wheel-drive road to a remote canyon where Jabon led the way into a small obscure canyon.  After climbing up the drainage, we reached the head of the canyon.  A rounded bowl lined with 100 ft sheer red rock cliffs opened before us.  Tucked unobtrusively under a recessed ledge at the base of one side of the vertical canyon walls is a small, semi-circular stone structure.  The lower portion of the walls are original, still held together with ancient mortar.  The top has been obviously reconstructed including the lintel above the entrance.  The interior shows recent use, and even relatively recent remnants of a camp fire.  The site was simple, but the setting was magical.  I was really glad we could squeeze this last little excursion in to the day.

View from Hidden Canyon RuinsIt was getting late after that and we’d had an incredible morning.  Both of us were anxious to get back and start going through our images.  I am really happy with what we captured in Sedona that day.  It was one of those trips that we’d talked about taking for a long time and it turned out to be even better than we could have imagined.  Luckily the first snow of the season was a good one and it laid down thick and clean all over the upper elevations around Sedona.  I don’t know how I’m going to be able to top this trip…but that won’t stop me from trying!

Trip Gallery:

Jabon is another one of those great friends I’ve met through Social Media.  I found him a couple of years ago when I did a quick search and discovered that he and I were planning to take groups on the same hike on the same weekend.  I reached out to him about the possibility of combining our groups and we hiked to the Pueblo Canyon Ruins together a few months later.  Since then we’ve talked about many possible adventures and collaborations.  We also have done Cold Spring Canyon, a quick photo-hike to Tom’s Thumb and this Sedona trip.  You can check out more of Jabon’s photography on his website or visit his Facebook Page.

Amazing Sedona – Part I: Gear testing, Sunset and New Friends…

I haphazardly packed the back of the truck in the cold, dark pre-dawn hours Saturday morning as the dogs looked on through the glass front door.  I’m sure they were just as curious as I was about what possessed me to be up this early on a Saturday after only a few short hours’ sleep.  Friday night I had been out with friends enjoying our annual Christmas Party and had stayed longer than I had planned.  I had double-booked my weekend and needed to be in Sedona by sunrise to meet a new friend for a weekend of camping, hiking and gear testing.

Tim had arrived in Sedona early Friday afternoon ahead of me and claimed our campsite at the tiny Manzanita Campground along Oak Creek.  We had planned this trip on the spur of the moment realizing that we both were planning outings to field test new gear and figured it was the perfect opportunity to meet.  After a few phone calls and a handful of emails back and forth, we had reservations for a campsite and a loose itinerary.

I was in charge of figuring out our hike for Saturday since I am more familiar with the area.  I noticed that there was a nice, strenuous hike very close to our camp that would take us to one of only a few natural rock arches around Sedona.  Vultee Arch is a small natural rock bridge named after the owner of a small aircraft manufacturing company.  Jerry Vultee and his wife got caught flying in a severe blizzard over Wilson Mountain in 1938 and crashed on the north end of the plateau.  Between the crash and the resulting fire, neither survived.

Tim and I had both discussed our increasing focus on photography in our outdoor pursuits so the arch was a great fit, but I wanted to make it even more interesting so I proposed we plan our hike so that we’d hit the arch at sunset.  This would mean an afternoon hike, a nice pause while we waited for the light and grabbed some shots, then a night hike over the pass on our return.  Tim responded with, “Sounds good to me.  Night hikes are awesome.”

Between last minute packing, a longer than expected stop for coffee and fuel as well as not accounting for the extra distance from the my new house, I was running late.  I realized I wasn’t going to make it to camp before day break, but hoped I would at least make it to the lower end of Sedona’s Red Rocks by Sunrise.  I barely made it to the turn-off as the sun was getting ready to crack the horizon.  I stopped for a few pictures of first light and found a great old tree to use as foreground.

my sunrise shot near the turn-off to Sedona

I continued toward Sedona and made it as far as Bell Rock before I decided I needed to stop and capture more images of the sunrise.  I managed to take some really nice shots at Bell Rock as the sun climbed higher.  I decided to skip a stop in Sedona and head straight to camp, knowing I was running late.  There was really no reason why I needed to be to camp so early except that I had specifically told Tim that I would be.  That was enough reason for me to worry about being late.

Sunrise at Bell Rock, Sedona

When I got to camp, Tim was up and had been down by the creek.  After a handshake and an apology I unloaded my gear and set up camp as we visited like old friends.  We spent the better part of the day talking about gear, the outdoors, family, food and life in general.

Tim is one of a small handful of people I’ve now met in person after getting to know them through Social Media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.  It’s the modern version of finally meeting a pen-pal you’ve written to for years.  There is an instant familiarity, comfort and friendship that is merely extended by the shaking of a hand and the sharing of a meal…even more so when done around a camp fire.

more Oak Creek at sunrise at Manzanita Campground

It eventually came time to head out for our hike, we needed to make it over Sterling Pass and down to the arch by 4:30 if we were going to have a chance at being in position by sunset at 5:15.  I had studied the times and angles of the sun against the topography around the arch to insure that we wouldn’t lose the sun early due to some distant peak.  It looked as through we’d have light at the arch until at least 5pm.  We headed out at 2:30 to give us plenty of time to hike the pass and make it down in to canyon below the arch.  I did not have an exact idea of how difficult the hike up to the arch itself would be so we needed a little padding in the schedule.

Dead trees along Sterling Pass Trail

The marked trailhead for Sterling Pass was almost directly across the street from camp where we began the steep climb up and over the rocky pass.  Much of the area was still recovering from the Arch Fire that devastated this canyon in 1996.  The blackened skeletal remains of the formerly thick forest jabbed skyward through the lush new growth optimistically trying to regain it’s footing.

The rock and vegetation changed at the pass before we plunged back down the steep switchbacks on the other side.  The forest was much thicker on this side of the pass where it had clearly been protected from the fire.  My knee was reminding me throughout the descent that it is still not 100% and I was relieved a bit when the trail leveled out finally along the bottom of the canyon.

Sterling Pass on the way to Vultee Arch

We were on the lookout for the side canyon containing Vultee Arch and, with the sun chasing toward the horizon, we were getting short on time.  Finally we reached a point where we could see the arch, still drenched in the glow of the setting sun.  As we approached the rock ledge that house the plaque describing the arch’s namesake, I noticed we were not going to have light on the arch for as long as I had estimated.  This was going to significantly shorten the window for getting the photographs I was after.

I was feeling the pinch of time and when we found what appeared to be the small trail leading to the actual arch, I took off leaving Tim to find his own pace.  I aggressively scrambled through brush and cacti along the overgrown trail before finding the right spot to venture off-trail in an effort to find a unique angle for shooting Vultee Arch.  I waded through thick Manzanita and danced around prickly pear cactus and agaves as I climbed under and around the arch.

Sunset light on Vultee Arch, Sedona

The sunset light was well worth the effort and I was glad that we’d made the decision to visit the arch when we did.  The sunset that evening gave us an amazingly warm orange glow that accentuated the red rock of the arch.  Even the vegetation took on a supernatural glow as the sun cast the last of it’s fading light across our little canyon.  Tim caught up and found a perch atop the arch to watch the sunset and nibble on some trail mix as I scrambled precariously along all points collecting my shots.

Long view from below Vultee Arch, Sedona

View of the late sunset from the base of Sterling Canyon

When light had faded from the arch we hiked back down to the rock vista, made hot coffee and watched the remainder of the sunset.  Once darkness had pushed the last traces of light from the horizon we packed up and headed out.  The cold was kept at bay with the exertion of climbing the switchbacks back up to Sterling Pass.  As we crested the pass we were greeted with a rich, black, moonless desert sky deeply punctuated with brilliant stars.  We sat here for a while, with headlamps off, taking in the night sky.  Both of us live in larger cities where the night is never truly dark and stars never laid out so thick.

Some time later we strolled back in to camp and started dinner.  We ate well and talked late in to the night around the camp fire.  This is the perfect example of what I love about being outdoors.  We encountered very few people on the trail and all of them had bailed before light ran out.  We had the arch entirely to ourselves and experienced it in a way that very few ever would.  The desert was our playground and I reveled in it with a giddy, childlike joy.

When it came time to head home the next day, we said our good-byes and vowed to do this again soon. With any luck, the next excursion will include our wives and another amazing location.  I left Sedona that afternoon tired, happy and hoping for another adventure very soon.  Little did I know at the time, that I would be back to this very same area in only one week…

…but that’s another story.

Trip Gallery:

For more pictures from the hike check out Tim’s gallery here.

Suunto Ambit mapping vs. OpenGPS…

Side by side comparison of the map and stats of the track recorded on the Suunto Ambit and simultaneously tracked using the OpenGPS app on my 4G phone.

Ambit

The data from Movescount.com and the data stored on the watch says 2.38 mile total distance. But when I load the GPX track in to Google Earth (via GoBreadcrumbs.com) the track distance is 2.8 miles.

OpenGPS

The actual stats from OpenGPS show a total distance of 2.9 miles AND you can see in the map below it shows MUCH better accuracy of the route. If you zoom in on the map you can see the THIS track actually follows the trail indicated on the map very closely. The track above from the Ambit does not perform as well.

My biggest problem with this comparison is the Ambit’s distance tracking. I don’t mind a sloppy GPX track, especially if I’m just tracking fitness runs. But the half-mile difference in distance (especially considering the total hike route was less than 3 miles) is troublesome.

Speed Tracking

This is another place where the Ambit advertises superiority. The Suunto speed tracking software us supposed to be super accurate and sensitive to stops and starts. Looking at the speed charts below, I think you can see that the Ambit does perform better when tracking overall speed and variations in speed.

Ambit

OpenGPS

Has anyone else experienced similar issues with the Suunto Ambit? I’d really like to test it against Garmin’s new Fenix if they’d let me.