Review: Pronto Cafe Coffee…

Every once in a while a brand (or rep) will contact me about testing gear.  A lot of times it just doesn’t fit with what I do, sometimes it fits but I’m kinda settled with the gear I have.  Point being, I tend to turn away a fair amount of stuff throughout the year because I don’t feel like I can do it justice.  But when someone offers me coffee, I’m in!

I started working a little with Sport-Hansa after talking to them at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in January.  They’ve been a cool company to work with and represent and distribute several European brands here in the US.  I’ve been experimenting with coffee lately in the field (instant, French Press, Aeropress, Grower’s Cup, etc.) so when Sport-Hansa asked if I wanted to try a new lightweight, portable coffee brewing product I, of course, said “absolutely!”

I first saw Pronto Cafe mentioned at HikinginFinland.com earlier in the year.  Pronto Cafe is a French product with coffee roasted in Italy and packaged in Switzerland.  I didn’t expect to find it in the US, so didn’t give it much thought.  With Sport-Hansa now bringing the product to the US, I was happy to be able to try it.  Each package weighs in at only 8 grams and delivers about 8oz of fresh brewed Arabica coffee.  In the sealed package they are supposed to have at least a 12 month shelf life.  Pronto Cafe seems to be available in a 3 pack sampler (for $3.87) or a 10 pack box (for $12.29) which calcs out to a cup of fresh brewed coffee for about $1.25 each.

Pronto Cafe Field Test…

Pronto Cafe Coffee

Recently I had a chance to do a quick day hike with some awesome Twitter friends in the Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix.  It was a cold, rainy weekend perfect for desert hiking and fun (dangerous) creek crossings.  As is my usual custom, I brought a Jetboil with me on this day hike so we could warm ourselves up with a hot beverage when we stopped for lunch.  Among the assorted beverages was the new Pronto Cafe packets.

Pronto Cafe CoffeeWhen we stopped I was able to offer up coffee, tea, hot chocolate and hot apple cider.  We tried several of the options including the coffee from Pronto Cafe.  The packets are pretty simple, a bit of ground coffee in a small brewing pouch with built in support arms on either side to allow it to rest at the rim of your cup while you pour water over the grounds.  The water seeps through, delivering hot fresh brewed coffee.  We set everything up and began to pour the heated water through but it poured through very fast not allowing much of a steep with the grounds.  As expected, this gave us pretty weak coffee and left me wondering if there was something that could be done.

Pronto Cafe CoffeeLater I decided to try it again, but this time I tried to compact the grounds a little in the pouch before pouring the water in.  I also deliberately slowed the rate of pour (previously I simply filled the pouch then let it drain out, filled again etc.).  I also made sure I delivered a measured amount of water so as not to dilute the brew.

This method seemed to deliver a better, richer cup of coffee.  The trick seems to be to create a little more of a condensed layer of grounds, then trickle the water through.  It still filters through quickly, but you do seem to be able to control the strength of the brew in this way.

All in all, not a bad cup of coffee for a single-serve lightweight option.  It certainly is lighter and creates less waste than many other brews I’ve tried for the backcountry.  Outside of bringing your own instant coffee, Pronto Cafe seems to be the most compact, lightweight and low waste product on the market.  Given the luxury of space and weight, I still prefer my french press…but this is a good alternative for those lightweight scenarios.

Feeling Alive in Death Valley…

I just got back from an amazing first trip to Death Valley National Park with some amazing people and I desperately want to go back.

Death Valley Sunset

Twitter has been amazing for a lot of reasons, but mostly for it’s role in allowing a community to come together that would otherwise probably never have any contact.  The weekly twitter chat #ATQA (Adventure Travel Question & Answer) has introduced me to a group of incredible people online and I’ve had the great fortune to meet quite a few of them in person.  So when #ATQA host and Adventure Travel Aficionado J. Brandon started talking about a group meet up in Death Valley, I was in without hesitation.

#ATQA is a pretty big community online and the weekly chats bring in a lot of participation.  But when it comes down to planning a trip, very few people can make it happen.  I have found this to be pretty typical with most group trip planning: lots of interest, little actual participation.  Not that that’s a bad thing, fewer people is often better and easier to manage, more flexible…and fewer people to drink my whiskey!

Mosaic Canyon ATQA- Death Valley

Three of us made it out to Death Valley and I could ‘t have spent my time in Death Valley with two better people.  Val said it best, “…an amazing confluence of travel, people, and place”.  It’s the trifecta of happiness!  I have always loved to travel and I’m not the cruise-ship-resort-tourist type of traveler.  I find real bliss traveling in dirty places, off the map, encountering real people and I generally enjoy the company of the people I find there.  Even though we were in the California desert only a couple of hours from Las Vegas, this felt like real travel.  Long bumpy drives on lonely dirt roads to obscure sign posts in the desert had something to do with that, but this really did have more to do with the people.  I haven’t had this sense of ease and understanding on a trip since traveling South America with my dad.

I think it’s easy to feel at home anywhere in the world, it’s rarely a “place” that makes me feel more comfortable and at ease.  Although there are places that call to me, like canyons and rivers, feeling at home is much more about the people you share that place with.  Those interactions and relationships are what shape an experience more so than the water, rock and sky.  Traveling solo is sort of a cheat, you can be comfortable in your community of ONE.  But traveling in a group, and feeling a definite sense of community and understanding is much harder to find.

I have to thank Val and J for making Death Valley one of my new favorite places and I can’t wait to go back for more.

 

Teakettle Junction- Death Valley

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Images from this trip are available on my gallery at WildernessDave.Photoshelter.com.

Finding diversity in Hawaii…

The trip was doomed before it even began.  My wife and I (mostly my wife) had been planning our first anniversary trip to Hawaii with focus on spending time in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  We poured over places to stay and tried to compile a list of things to do inside the National Park as well as outside the park.  We settled on a promising little cottage just outside the park in the village of Volcano where we would be close enough to the park entrance that we could easily get in early and have no trouble staying late (so I could get my sunrise and sunset opportunities).  But things began to unravel early…

Two weeks before our departure from the mainland my knee decided to fail me.  I had been training again trying to get in shape from my foot being broken nearly all Summer.  Miserable as that was, I was excited to be out again and getting in shape in time for some Winter fun and our anniversary trip.  My knee thought otherwise and I was reduced (once again) to painfully hobbling around the house with limited mobility.  Awesome…Hawaii here we come!

Also looming on the horizon was the giant black cloud of the government shutdown.  In my mind, it would be a game of chicken until the 11th hour and then someone would give in and the crisis would be averted.  Never did I expect it to actually happen and, even if it did, I didn’t expect the National Parks to shut down.  I guess that’s the naturalist in me that considers the National Parks and Monuments part of the “essential” services that would be untouchable during a shutdown.  I also, naively, thought of the National Parks as truly public spaces that would still be accessible even if the Park’s services were closed.  But clearly I was mistaken…

Honolulu and the North Shore

North Shore of Oahu

Honolulu, Oahu Hawaii

We arrived in Honolulu for the first leg of our trip.  We would be staying one evening here before moving on to the Big Island so that I would get to see the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.  My wife has been, but since this was my first trip to the islands we made time to make sure I would be able to see the Memorial.

The long flight had been hard on my miserable knee so we reluctantly chose to push Pearl Harbor off to the next morning and explore the North Shore a little bit and maybe catch the sunset.  We fought our way through afternoon traffic to get outside Honolulu and head toward the beaches.  Still pretty sore and stiff from the long flight, I had a hard time getting around but luckily the road pretty much follows the shoreline and there wasn’t much hiking to get to the beaches along the North Shore.

Turtle Beach on OahuWe stopped at a few places, got to see some turtles, had a little snack and waited out the sun as it slowly settled to the horizon.  We stopped at Sunset Beach and while my wife got out the beach towel to lay in the sand and soak up the last hour or so of sunlight, I hauled out the camera gear and set up to catch the fading light.  The weather was nice, there was a slight breeze and a nice set of clouds in the west for the sun to play with as it set.  The sunset wasn’t spectacular but it was pretty nice and it allowed me to get the equipment dialed in.

After sunset we headed back to Honolulu for a nice sushi dinner and some much needed rest.  My knee kept me from getting much rest, but we were excited to get out to the National Memorial before our flight to Hawaii.  My wife turned on the news as we were getting ready and that’s when we found out about the closure of the National Parks.  Blindsided and somewhat devastated that we were going to be denied access to the only reason we stayed in Honolulu AND potentially miss out on the main reason we were visiting Hawaii we scrambled for some answers.  I called the number listed for the Pearl Harbor Visitor’s Center and spoke with a woman who assured me that the memorial, or at least most of it, was still open.

She was partially right, the collection of memorials and monuments at Pearl Harbor are managed by the NPS but some of them, like the Pacific Aviation Museum are actually on the military base property and were therefore still open.  DOD funding was intact, so the USS Missouri and the museum were still open but access was now cut off so they were shuttling visitors onto the military base to access these memorials.  It was a mess and no one really knew what was going on.  We spoke with some very helpful NPS Rangers stationed in front of the visitor’s center, but their news was grim.  This would not be a quick resolution, the parks would likely be closed for a while.

We reluctantly gave in and headed to the airport.  After a pretty rough flight (my knee was really having a fit with all this travel) we landed in Hilo, grabbed our car and headed to Volcano to check in to our cottage.  We rented a private cottage from Hale Ohai cottages in Volcano.  Our place was awesome and set back in the thick jungle vegetation making for a beautiful setting.  Unfortunately, we wouldn’t get a chance to spend much time there.

As most everyone knows now, the National Parks stayed closed for over two weeks which meant that our 5 day adventure in Volcanoes NP was spent outside of Volcanoes NP.  Every morning we woke up hoping that the shutdown was over the park would be reopened.  It was sort of our obsession throughout the trip.  The upside of being locked out of the National Park was that we got to see much more of the rest of the island than we had originally planned.

There is so much to see on the Big Island.  Even being limited by my meager mobility we still got to see a ton of diversity in Hawaii as we ventured out from our home base in Volcano.  Exploring the gardens and waterfalls around Hilo, the rough and rugged coastlines around the southern tip of the island, the high grasslands between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea and various beaches.  Ultimately we had a great time driving around the island exploring State Parks, beaches and old lava flows.  We had some great meals in Kona and Waimea and found some amazing little roadside mom-and-pop restaurants.  Parks closed or not, we still had a great time exploring the diversity in Hawaii and spending time with each other on our anniversary.

Cape Kumukahi

Cape Kumukahi near Hilo

Cape Kumukahi is just outside Hilo near Puna and was a rough and tortured coastline of old lava flows broken and twisted by the relentless action of the waves.  Throughout our trip, this area was usually cloudy and raining but we happened to catch it one morning when the sun was out and the clouds were still gathering in the distance.  It’s beauty is in it’s hostility, the sharp black lava rock with very little vegetation and the hard crash of the waves on this side of the island.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls near Hilo

Just minutes outside of Hilo is Ranbow Falls, one of the most visited falls on the island from what I’ve read.  It’s really easy to access and there are paved walks to view points to see the falls.  Many tour buses drop off loads of cruise ship tourists to come in and snap some pictures and gawk at the dramatic falls and lush vegetation.  It is no doubt a beautiful spot, and the falls is much larger and more dramatic during other seasons but I would have liked to visit more remote falls had I been more ambulatory.

Lava Tree Gardens State Park

Lava Tree Gardens outside Hilo

Lava Tree State Park is also near Puna and hosts a unique feature on the island.  Vertical lava tubes dot the park.  These unique features were created when molten lava washed through the area in the 1790s and cooled faster around the large trees as it washed over the land.  The trees burnt out leaving hollow vertical tubes that still stand today.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Black lava shores of Punalu'u beach

Past the south end of the National Park is Punalu’u Black Sand Beach County Park.  It’s a small protected black sand beach area with some cool lava formations and a small section of black sand beach where we saw another turtle on the shoreline.  We actually visited this spot a couple of times during our trip because it was close enough to Volcano to be an easy drive.

Southern Tip of Hawaii

Southernmost tip of the US

The southernmost tip of the Big Island is also the southernmost tip of the United States and is a pretty harsh area.  The seas are calmer here but the currents are still strong.  If you can brave the undertow, there is supposed to be some excellent snorkeling at the base of the shear cliffs.  There was a lot of long-line fishing going on here when we stopped by.  The rugged, windswept cliffs and the expanse of endless ocean beyond really do make this spot feel like the “edge of the world”.

Grasslands outside Waimea

Grassy hills outside Waimea - diversity in Hawaii

Totally unexpected to me were the rolling hills and open grasslands dotted with cattle.  I never expected to see expansive wild grasslands in Hawaii and I found myself staring out at it every time we drove through these areas.  It was different than anything I expected to find on a Pacific Island I was slightly in awe of it.  We stopped one evening on our way from Kona to Waimea as the sun was setting to grab some pictures at the edge of the highway and these ended up being some of my favorite pictures from the trip.

As disappointed as we were to NOT make our trip about the National Park in Hawaii, we still made the best of it and had a great time checking out all that Hawaii had to offer.  As I said to my wife several times throughout the trip, there’s no way to see it all in a week.  We could spend years out here and never get to see it all.

We are already talking about getting back to Hawaii soon to handle some unfinished business.  Keep those parks open, Hawaii, and we’ll be back soon!

A little something about #TryingStuff…

OmniTEN-jump3

The Columbia Spring/Summer 2013 #Omniten set out on the Rogue River in southern Oregon this Summer in the spirit of #TryingStuff.  A grand time was had by all and I wrote about my experience a little bit, and some of you may have seen the pictures and read posts from the other Omniten about the trip.  Amazing group, amazing time, all with a truly amazing company.

We had a great photographer on the trip by the name of Mark Going who took some cool footage and interviews with the group.  This is the resulting video sent to us from Columbia.  Toward the end there’s a peak at me doing a little bit of a back flip.  Good fun.

Rogue River with Omniten

It’s pretty awesome.  The Winter Omniten has been selected and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for them!

Testing Columbia’s Omni-Freeze Zero…

Being #OmniTEN has it’s perks.  One of the awesome parts of this experience has been the opportunity to dig a little deeper than usual into a brand’s technology.  Usually, I get to test one or two pieces from a company and give my opinion.  Columbia has sent us a pretty wide sampling of pieces hosting a collection of technologies.  The big focus for us, as Spring/Summer Omniten, has been on the OmniFreeze and Omni-Freeze Zero fabrics that are featured this year.

Columbia Omni-Freeze Zero Technology

Omni-Freeze Zero Products I’ve used…

Between the products that I’ve received as part of the OmniTEN welcome package, pieces I’ve asked to test and a couple of pieces I’ve purchased I have quite a collection of Omni-Freeze Zero products.  Here is the list of what I’ve worn:

Omni-Freeze Zero Technology…

Columbia Omni-Freeze Zero TechnologyOmni-Freeze ZERO is the culmination of a four-year development effort including Omni-Freeze, the short lived Omni-Freeze Ice and now Omni-Freeze Zero.

The basis of the technology is to use the sweat (moisture) we produce during exercise or in extreme heat to cool the fabric.  Omni-Freeze Zero fabric is embedded with thousands of little blue super-absorbent polymer rings that trap up to 300% more moisture than normal fabric then use that moisture to physically drop the temperature of the fabric for an extended period of time.

Excerpt from Popular Science Magazine about the technology:

“The human body already has a highly efficient cooling system: As perspiration evaporates, it draws heat away from the body. Wicking fabrics facilitate this process by distributing sweat evenly over the fabric, so that it dries more quickly. Despite devising cheats, such as menthol-like chemical coatings added to fabrics, companies have never actually improved upon the body’s natural cooling process. Designers at Columbia Sportswear have now made a fabric that does.

Omni-Freeze ZERO shot with a thermal camera

image taken with a thermal camera that displays, when it was moistened with steam, darker blue areas signify colder temperatures

The wicking polyester base of the Omni-Freeze ZERO T-shirt is embedded with thousands of 0.15-inch hydrophilic polymer rings (a men’s medium has more than 41,000 of them). As the base spreads sweat, the rings absorb moisture and expand into three-dimensional doughnuts. In order to swell, the rings require energy, which they gather as body heat. In tests, the shirt was up to 10 degrees cooler against the wearer’s skin than shirts made from any other material.”

Typically coupled with complementary technologies like Omni-Wick EVAP and Omni-Shade, these new garments are tailor made for adventures in the heat.

Omni-Freeze Zero Performance…

It’s hot in Phoenix, there’s no getting around it.  A clothing product that can cool itself sounds like a desert dweller’s dream.  So when Columbia sent me the first batch of Omni-Freeze Zero stuff I was anxious to try it out.

I decided to do the first test mid-day on the bike with a brisk 20 mile ride in the Trail Dryer Hat and Freeze Degree 1/2 Zip long sleeve shirt.  I didn’t sweat.  This told me two things: I need try harder and the light, breathable fabric with Omni-Wick kept me pretty dry.  Halfway through the ride I poured a little water on the headband of the hat and did feel some cooling, but it wasn’t significant.

Columbia Omni-Freeze Zero TechnologyLater, I took the Terminal Zero shirt out for a hike.  It was over 100 degrees and I did 6 hot miles on a rocky, exposed trail to work up a sweat.  I could tell that certain areas where the sweat was accumulating I could sense the cooling in the fabric.  I never really built enough sweat to get larger sections of the shirt to cool so I sprayed some water on my neck, shoulders and arms to give the fabric a little boost.  BAM…there it is.  Initially, there’s the immediate natural cooling effect you would feel in any shirt when you splash it with water, but then the fabric cools down and goes well beyond anything water would do alone.  Even spraying it with warm water, the fabric cools below the temp of the water.

There is a tipping point where the fabric saturates enough to activate the cooling of the material.  I decided to see if more water meant more cooling and later put on the Freeze Degree Long Sleeve shirt and jumped in the pool.  It was well over 100 degrees in full sun.  I got out of the pool and sat in the sun with the shirt on.  The shirt didn’t seem to significantly cool until it had dried out a little, then the technology kicked in and I felt a significant sensation of cooling where the shirt was touching my skin.  This cooling effect slowly dissipated as the fabric dried out.

Coupled with complementary technologies like Omni-Shade (50 SPF UV protection) and design features like a vented back panel (in some shirts), the clothing performs well outdoors.  I do feel like I was more comfortable on my warm weather hikes in the Columbia clothing I tested.  Like most technical fabrics, it doesn’t take much use to build up some stink, there’s something about tech fabrics that really amplifies body odor. The Omni-Freeze Zero materials are best used next to the skin so wearing something underneath defeats the purpose.

Room for improvement…

I’ve heard some complaints about Columbia having inconsistent fit and sizing with their garments.  That makes it difficult sometimes to order things online especially when you’re sort of in between sizes like I am.  I don’t think it’s so much that the sizing has been inconsistent as much as they sell different cuts and some styles are more fitted than others.  I found most of the sizing true to convention.

It would be nice to see Columbia develop an Omni-Odor Block technology of some kind.  All of the tech fabrics in athletic wear seem to amplify body odor and these shirts are no different.

Other than that, I like the styling, fit and weight of the garments.  I do wish they made the Terminal Zero in a black or dark gray color but I seem to be in the minority lately about acceptable clothing colors…and I like the blue.  There’s not a lot I would suggest beyond what they’ve done.  I think Columbia does a pretty thorough job in designing clothing that works well in the outdoors.

Bottom Line…

It works.  If you’re like me and you don’t sweat buckets when you’re exercising, you might need to add a little moisture to activate the cooling but the fabric works.  We did get free samples to test as part of OmniTEN, but I felt confident enough in the products after using them to purchase more pieces with my own money AND buy some for my wife.  A little cooling help in Arizona means an extra month or so of enjoying the outdoors before even Omni-Freeze Zero can’t compete with the heat.

 

More from The OMNITEN…

For more Columbia Omni-Freeze Zero talk…check out the reviews from fellow #OmniTEN bloggers Kristie, Eric and Erika.

Kristie:

“I decided to put my long sleeve 1/2 zip top on myself and throw Rainy in my Freeze Degree short sleeve top.  We then took a dip in the water, and it was instant relief and disbelief for me.  I felt unbelievably cool in the water, but once I stepped out of the water (after dunking my Trail Dryer hat in the water), I stayed cool for a couple hours without going back into the water!”

Eric:

coming soon!

Erika:

“Here is the main reason I’m in love with this shirt, it adapts to the temperature of my body, avoiding those too hot, too cold, moments so common in spring. I can put the Omni-Freeze ZERO long-sleeve shirt on and wear it all day comfortably from sun to shade.”

 

Bored Hipster Seeks…Adventure!

It’s interesting the conversations you overhear, out of context, that resonate with you.  It happened for me at camp this weekend in Grand Canyon at the Desert View Campground.

Desert View is a first-come-first-served no-reservations campground on the extreme eastern end of the park.  It sees a lot of last-minute campers that couldn’t make reservations at the main campground near Grand Canyon Village, so it’s quite the motley crew when it fills up.  We had everything from drunk Canadian party boys to German families to nomadic guitar playing hippies.  We also had a small herd of urban hipsters who were seemingly lost, because they sure didn’t seem to be happy about this whole “camping” thing.

One morning two of the hipsters had broken from the purposefully-uninterested, apathetic  herd and were conversing in the typical condescending fashion.  Clearly, one of the two was not satisfied with sitting around camp practicing cool indifference and honing his snarky, sarcastic wit.  He struggled to explain his ambitions to his friend.

“I don’t know, man…it’s just not what I want to do.”

“Well, what is it then?”

“I…I want to…to go for a walk…go somewhere.  You know…meet random people, see random things.  Maybe do something slightly unsafe…”

I have never heard anyone struggle so much to explain their need for ADVENTURE.  In his struggle to verbalize his inexplicable desire to do something exciting he inadvertently delivered what I believe is the best definition of “Adventure” I’ve ever heard.  I really hope this guy got the adventure he was after, but sadly his tribe probably snarked him into submission.

But his plea for adventure got me thinking about my own trip.  How did our little trip to the Grand Canyon measure up to these requirements?  Would he have approved of our own little adventure?

…Go for a walk…go somewhere…

Broken foot or not, we did hike.  It wasn’t far and it wasn’t difficult, but we hiked.  Even with a full campground and a tourist packed National Park we found and hiked trails that had few, if any, other people on them.  We found places along the South Rim with epic views and quiet solitude.

Wilderness Boot - Adventure

…Meet random people…

Most notably, we made the acquaintance of local photographer, and ex-Grateful-Dead-chasing-hippie Jeff Franklin.  As we sat at Shoshone Point waiting for sunset, Jeff made his way out to the point and chatted us up for the next couple hours.  He was an interesting guy with a lot of stories to tell.  He lives in the area and his wife works for Grand Canyon Village so he spends his time biking and hiking the area exploring and taking pictures.  We talked about The Park, conservation, history, nature, and he offered some tips and insight for exploring some of the more remote regions of the Canyon.

Random Encounters - Adventure

…See random things…

Among seeing tourists dangling from the edges of the canyon, posing with dangerous wildlife and wearing some of the most inappropriate and outrageous clothing you’d expect to see at a National Park…I’d say it got pretty random.  But nothing takes the cake for randomness like Bedrock City.  It’s the one place where if I were to show you the pictures, out of context and without the story, most people would react with a big fat WTF!  In the 1970s when The Flinstones was still a very popular cartoon and Hanna-Barbara was the king of Saturday mornings this place made perfect sense.  Now though, it qualifies as a VERY random roadside oddity.

Random Things - Adventure

…Do something slightly unsafe…

Admittedly, this is my favorite part of any adventure.  This one is pretty subjective because what I consider “unsafe” and what others consider “unsafe” can vary by a wide margin.  With my busted foot, I wasn’t in a position to push the boundaries too much.  But I imagine our hipster buddy would potentially break into a cold sweat and get wobbly in the knees standing too close to the 400+ foot drop offs at some of the Canyon edges.  We saw plenty of tourists who’s own fear of heights kept them well behind the guardrails.

Desert View Hike - Adventure

I guess, all in all, when I look back on the trip through the thick-rimmed retro glasses of Mr. Skinny Jeans I think we satisfied his criteria for fun and adventure.  Standards differ and there are varying levels of adventure, but the basics are all here…go somewhere new, see random stuff, meet random people and do something that scares you…even if just a little bit.

If you have a story about seeing random stuff, meeting random people or doing something that scares you…share it with me in the comments!  I love those kinds of stories!

Desert View Hike - Adventure

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: 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…