Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Backpacking Havasu Canyon of the Grand Canyon

The Havasupai Indians ("the people of the blue-green water") occupy a reservation of 185,000 acres, including the Havasu Canyon and its blue-green Havasu Creek, located about 140 miles west of the national park. Approximately 650 enrolled tribal members comprise the tribe, the smallest tribe in America, and all speak their native language, Havasupai, which has been a written language for about 35 years.

Most live in the village of Supai, eight miles down from the rim. The tribe has occupied these lands for over 700 years, but when miners found these lands in the 1800s, the tribe's lands were drastically reduced in size. Congress in 1975 returned most of the land to the tribe. The Havasupai are proud to announce in their literature that they "do not receive any government stipends and they do pay income taxes just like all Americans." They have an attractive elementary school for their children, while high schoolers are sent to a boarding school in Kingman, Arizona. A new tribal office building was completed when we were there in 2001 and a number of homes were under construction. We watched stacks of lumber being delivered on a sling beneath a helicopter to one of the new homes being constructed.

Access to Havasu Canyon is possible only by foot, horse, or helicopter. To reach the Supai Village, you must drive 68 miles on a paved road from the Hualapai ("the people of the pines") Indian town of Peach Springs, Arizona, and then walk or horseback 8 miles down to Supai Village on a hot, dusty trail. The first mile or so is a series of switchbacks descending 1000 feet and the remaining seven miles descend another 900 feet. No water is available, so carry plenty. Guarding the people of Supai is the stone monument Wigleeva, a double tower of Supai Sandstone overlooking the village and protecting its occupants.

Four waterfalls down beyond the village carry Havasu Creek to the Colorado River which is nine  miles below the village.  Navajo Falls is the first of the four waterfalls you reach after about a 1.5 mile hike down from Supai. This waterfall is 75 feet tall and comes down in several distinct falls. The foliage is so thick here that good views of the falls are obscured, though a trail can be followed down to creek level and there are some pools you can go in at the base of the falls. I've seen photos taken in later years where the foliage has been pruned back giving better views of the various strands of these falls.  Navajo Falls is named after a 19th century Havasupai tribal chief who as a child was kidnapped and raised by Navajo Indians. Years later he learned of his identity and returned to his home.

A half mile beyond Navajo Falls is the namesake Havasu Falls which are about 100 feet tall, dropping into the magnificent blue-green pool which beckons visitors to linger on the shore and play in the constant 70 degree water.

Water is contained in numerous smaller pools by naturally occurring travertine dams formed by the high concentration of limestone in the water which precipitates out forming the dam walls.  Though heavy rains and flooding in 1992, 1995, and since 2001 have washed out many of the travertine dams, many remain and new ones are being rebuilt gradually by nature. If you wear proper footwear such as sandals, you can safely walk across the dams to access other pools, or you can simply swim over to any area you wish to explore.

The tranquility of this place drew us back the second day and we spent the better part of the day here, in and out of the water, but often simply staring at the beauty, mesmerized by the pounding of the falls, the splatter of the spray, the magnificence of the scenery. Even after 5 hours, it was difficult to leave and return to Supai. When I'm asked what the most beautiful I've visited is, Havasu Falls comes to mind first!  This is the most popular locale in the canyon, so expect other people to be there.

Another mile beyond Havasu Falls is Mooney Falls, the tallest falls at 196 feet (29 feet taller than Niagara Falls). Mooney was a miner who died here in 1880. Several versions exist regarding his death, but all revolve around the fact that he attempted to descend by rope, which jammed and ultimately frayed and broke. The Havasupai call this waterfall "The Mother of the Waters."  Below is a photo taken from the top of the falls.  Many visitors stop here and simply enjoy this overlook because this is the hardest of the falls to reach the bottom of,  and the next few photos explain why.  At the top are several warning signs that try to dissuade you from continuing, and when you entered the Supai Village and paid your entrance fee, you must sign a waiver for accidents incurred in the canyon.  I think this is the place they have in mind!

Descending to the base of the falls (without duplicating Mooney's demise) requires traversing two nearly vertical tunnels and then climbing down with the assistance of chains attached to steel stakes hammered into the rock face. In the photo below, my sons begin the descent after the tunnels. The green water of the pool can be seen below. Several of the chains have detached from the pitons and flap about, and of course, spray from the waterfall can make the rocks and chains wet. Also, everything is coated with a layer of red dust from the redwall limestone in this area. However, if care is exercised, this looks like a much more difficult enterprise than it actually is, and it is exhilarating! I suggest you follow the trail from the top, go through the tunnels, and begin going down the first section of chains. After you see what the "path" is like, you can decide for yourself whether you wish to descend all the way.

The photo below depicts the bottom half of your adventure climb.  If you look closely, you can see 12 people ascending various sections of the "trail."

The next two photos show us nearing the bottom utilizing these homemade ladders and the chains...

The descent was an adventure, as was going back up, but we all agreed that the beauty down here was worth the effort!

Two miles farther downstream is the smallest of the falls, Beaver Falls, and four miles beyond that is the Colorado River. The trail below Mooney Falls becomes more difficult and crosses the creek numerous times, and as you get farther downstream, you will begin meeting people coming upriver from raft trips traveling through the Grand Canyon.


Some hikers camp at the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead parking area to get an early morning start to beat the heat. Or you can stay at either the Hualapai Lodge in Peach Springs or the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn a dozen miles east of Peach Springs. The former is a modern (1997) 60 room motel with full restaurant, phones, televisions, and air conditioning. The latter is an old '50s type motel.  The interesting caverns connected to this latter motel are worth the 45 minute tour, which cost $9.95 in 2001. (As of April, 2002, the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn was under new ownership, and their plan is to upgrade all rooms with satellite TV, as well as new phone system, plumbing fixtures, heat, and air conditioning.)
In the canyon, you can stay at the Havasupai Lodge in the village or hike another two miles to the campground the tribe operates. Each of the 24 lodge rooms is sparsely but comfortably furnished with two queen beds, private bathroom, and air conditioning. A phone is available in the lobby. An entrance fee is assessed every visitor ($20 in 2001). Lodge rates started at $75 for a single and the campground rate was $10 per person per night. The village has a small cafe with limited menu, but serving reasonably priced, tasty meals, and you'll find a small grocery store and a post office (the only one in America served by mule train). Remember, all deliveries are by mule, so everything does cost a bit more than up on the rim. Many tribal members keep a car on the rim. When they shop in one of the larger Arizona towns, they often mail their purchases to themselves to avoid carrying the items down themselves. We saw boxes of supplies for the grocery store waiting to be carried by mail mule down to the store, each box with postage of over $4.00 affixed (2001 postage.) If you would rather hike without your gear, you can pay to have your gear taken down and back up by horseback, and even hire a horse if you'd rather ride both ways. You can also hire Havasupai guides to take you to the waterfalls.

Havasupai Lodge
P. O. Box 159
Supai, AZ 86435
(520) 448-2111 or 2201

Hualapai Lodge
900 Historic Route 66
P. O. Box 538
Peach Springs, AZ 86434
Grand Canyon Caverns Inn
P. O. Box 180
Mile Marker 116.5/ Route 66
Peach Springs, AZ 86434

Monday, June 29, 2015

Backpacking Alaska's Kesugi Ridge Trail in Denali State Park

In 2004, I participated in a Sierra Club outing -- two weeks in Alaska, which included a backpack trip into the wilderness of Denali State Park.  Groups of our large size are not allowed to backpack in Denali National Park, so our Sierra Club group backpacked across the road in Denali State Park, which offered much the same topography, flora, and fauna as the national park, as well as magnificent views of Mt. McKinley.

Denali State Park is located an hour south of Denali National Park and straddles both sides of Alaska Highway 3 (Parks Highway). Established in 1970 and enlarged to 325,240 acres in 1976, it is almost the size of Rhode Island and is located about 160 miles north of Anchorage and 160 miles south of Fairbanks. Its western boundary is Denali National Park. Mount McKinley (20,320 feet), the highest summit on North America, is 35 miles away. 

We began at the Ermine Hill Trailhead, where we first headed through lush forest and then began out uphill trek to the ridge...

...where we  reached the Kesugi Ridge Trail, part of a 35 mile-long north/south alpine ridge which is the backbone of the eastern half of the park. "Kesugi" is a Tanaina Indian dialect word meaning "The Ancient One" and is a fitting complement of the Tanana Indian word "Denali" which means "The High One" referring to the mountain we now call McKinley. 

You can get a feel for the openness once atop the ridge, with its huge views...

Camp was set up on the tundra, a soft thick mat that was quite comfortable to sleep upon...

It was nice to find this large bolder to use as a table our first night...

Pretty obvious what brings the smiles to our faces with views like this!

As well as views of Mt. Denali/McKinley just 35 miles to the west...

What goes up, must go down.  Three times, in fact, the ridge trail hit gullies requiring us to descend... 

... cross boulder-filled gullies, and then hike back up to the ridge.  And you can see from our rain gear and the covers on our backpacks, that we had some rain, making the boulders even more slippery and treacherous.

Wildlife in the park include moose, brown and black bears, caribou, lynx, coyote, red fox, squirrel, ermine, marten, land otter, mink, wolverine, muskrat, pika, marmot, vole, shrew, porcupine, and 130 species of birds. Fish include all five species of salmon, as well as Dolly Varden, whitefish, and various trout. White spruce and paper birch predominate below 2500 feet elevation. Above 2500 feet, moss campion, mountain avens, and other hardy flowering plants thrive. Tundra meadows, cotton grass tussocks, dense birch-adler-willow thickets, black spruce stands, and black cottonwood thrive.  Edible berries abound and include blueberries. cranberries, currents, watermelon berries, crowberries, and cloudberries. 

The weather in the park is tempered from continental extremes by the relatively warm ocean waters 100 miles to the south. The Alaska Range to the north protects the park from the dramatic temperature extremes common to Interior Alaska. In summer, temperatures are usually in the 60's with highs, rarely, to 85 degrees F. In mid-summer, almost 21 hours of possible daylight give ample opportunities for recreational activities. Average winter highs range from zero to 30 degrees F, while on extremely cold days the low may reach minus 40 degrees F. Annual precipitation reaches 30 inches, including an average annual 180 inches of snowfall. Snow begins to accumulate in October and frequently reaches depths of six feet or more. 

 MORE INFO: Denali State Park - Alaska State Parks website

Video of our 2 week Alaskan Sierra Club Outing:

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Backpacking Yellowstone's Shoshone Lake

A friend is spending the summer working at Yellowstone, mainly so she can hike the magnificent trails on off days.  She posted a few photos of her latest hike on DeLacey Creek Trail which struck a chord with me because that was the trail I used in 1997 to access Shoshone Lake for a three day, 32 mile backpack trip.  Many fabulous memories swirled in my brain, so I scanned some photos and am now updating my trip report for that backpack.

Yellowstone National Park, created in 1872 as the world's first national park, comprises 2.2 million acres (3472 square miles), and despite the fact that there are over 370 miles of paved roads, most of Yellowstone is managed as wilderness (less than 3% of the park is roads and facilities), offering 1210 miles of trails and over 300 designated backcountry campsites.

Yellowstone National Park is 80% forest, 15% meadows, and 5% water. Though mostly in Wyoming, small portions are in Montana and Idaho, which is why all three state flags fly high atop Old Faithful Inn. 

Here's a view of Shoshone Lake after a hike of 3 miles on DeLacey Trail from Grand Loop Road (Hwy. 89).  

My first night's camp was at the southwest corner of Shoshone Lake, with a great view of the lake.  Be advised that the circuit around the lake requires a half-dozen or so fordings of creeks and rivers -- no bridges are available and no downed trees are handy for your use, probably because any fallen trees are swept away by spring melt floods.

The scariest was fording Moose Creek on the southern part of the trail, which for me was running with a very strong current and at one point was chest deep, due mainly to the heavy snowfall during the winter of 1996-1997 which was responsible for all the drainages running at higher than normal levels. The fording of Lewis Channel (photo below) was the longest, but it had little current and a very stable small-pebble bottom surface, making it an easy ford.

A nice fringe benefit was hiking through the Shoshone Lake Geyser Basin at the far western end of the lake.  It is billed as one of the world's most important basins with over 70 geysers, including 15 foot by 5 foot Minute Man Geyser seen steaming in the background of this photo below.  This geyser basin is far less visited than others in Yellowstone due to the long hike necessary to reach it.  The trail meanders through the basin with no retaining walls or boardwalks, so care must be taken to not wander off the narrow trail, and I did spot some animal carcasses in some geysers.

Here are couple more of the geysers...

Immediately beyond the geyser basin heading south, you encounter a mile-long marsh which has you ankle-to-knee deep in marsh water until you finally reach solid ground again.  This might be solid trail in a year with less snowmelt, but it wasn't in 1997!

After fording Lewis Channel (which connects Lewis Lake and Shoshone Lake), I was hiking though one of the areas burned by the 1988 fires which affected 793,880 acres of Yellowstone, 36% of the park.  $120,000,000 was spent on extinguishing the 51 fires (9 caused by humans and 42 caused by lightening.)  If you look at the left of the photo below, you see the narrow trail, and the ground between the snags (dead trees) is loaded with new growth, showing the self-seeded "replacement" forest well underway just 9 years after the fires.

On my visit through YNP in 2014, the new forests throughout the park were densely forested with 15 to 25 foot tall growth growing so close together you couldn't bushwhack though the new growth!  I talked to a ranger about this and he excitedly described how these new dense forest areas were ideal habitat for the smaller animals since they now had areas to hide from larger predators.  Of course, Nature will thin out these stands as time progresses.

Elevation within Yellowstone ranges from 5282 at Reese Creek to 11,358 at Eagle Peak's summit. There are 110 waterfalls with a drop of 15 feet or greater. Yellowstone gets its name from the high yellow rock cliffs along the upper reaches of the Yellowstone River which are very obvious in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The Minnetaree Indians called the river "Mi tsi a da zi" or "Rock Yellow River" which was loosely translated by French trappers to "Yellow Rock River" and eventually Yellow Stone River."

Through cooperative efforts, The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been designated and consists of 11 to 22 million acres of land, comprised of Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and the six national forests surrounding them. Over 4000 miles of trails are within this area. Grizzly (approximately 200-250) and black bear are the most talked about wildlife. In addition, though, are 7 species of hoofed mammals (including bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, moose, and mule deer), 49 other species of mammals, 290 species of birds, 18 species of fish, 6 species of reptiles, 4 of amphibians, and 5 endangered/threatened species. Flora include 8 species of conifers (with lodgepole pine the predominant species) as well as over 1050 species of native vascular plants and 168 species of non-native plants.

Backpacking info:

Yellowstone has a designated backcountry campsite system and a Backcountry Use Permit is required for all overnight stays. Each designated campsite has a maximum limit for the number of people and stock allowed per night. The maximum stay per campsite varies from 1 to 3 nights per trip. Campfires are permitted only in established fire pits. Wood fires are not allowed in some backcountry campsites. A food storage pole is provided at designated campsites so that food and attractants may be secured from bears.
Permits may be obtained only in person and no more than 48 hours in advance of your trip. Permits are available from backcountry offices located in most ranger stations or visitor centers. In order to obtain the best information on trail conditions, permits should be obtained from the ranger station or visitor center nearest to the area where your trip is to begin. The Backcountry Use Permit is valid only for the itinerary and dates specified. Backcountry travelers must have their permits in possession while in the backcountry.  Info can be found here.


NPS website

Yellowstone National Park
P.O. Box 168
Yellowstone NP, WY 82190
Backcountry Office: (307) 344-2160
General info: (307) 344-7381
Lodging info: (307) 344-7311

Yellowstone Net
Yellowstone Park Net
Exploring the Yellowstone Backcountry by Orville Bach, Jr.; Sierra Club Books, San Francisco; 1991; 276 pages.
Yellowstone Trails: A Hiking Guide by Mark Marshall; The Yellowstone Association; 1995; 172 pages.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Biking the Des Plaines River Trail (Lake County segment)

The Des Plaines River Trail runs 31.4 miles through Lake County, from near the Wisconsin border (at Russell Road in Van Patten Preserve near Wadsworth) south to Lake Cook Road, the border with Cook County.  The trail then continues another 20+ miles south through Cook County to Maywood.

The Lake County Forest Preserve District began the trail in 1981 and the final one-third of a mile of property was acquired and built in 2015, completing the dream of those who began the preserve district in 1958.  The trail/greenway includes 7600 acres of woodlands and traverses 12 forest preserves. The trail is possible because the Lake County Forest Preserve District owns and preserves  86% of the land along the namesake Des Plaines River, which has been accomplished through 142 land acquisitions over 53 years. Maps of the trail are available at the bottom of this post. The final trail section (1500 feet) was purchased and built in 2015 and is seen here.

Twelve underpasses provide safe travel under busy roads along the 31 miles, though spring floods occasionally close some underpasses as seen below.  The Lake County Forest preserve District website has a map where you can check if any underpasses are closed.

There are seven bridges that take trail users from one side of the river to the other along its length, as well as an overpass across busy Lake-Cook Road to provide safe travel to the connecting Cook County portion of the trail.  These bridges also give nice views of the river as you cross them.

There are a couple places where the trail is built over the water on a metal superstructure because there is no room alongside the river. In this case, Route 120 is to the left and there wasn't room for the trail to fit between the road and the water.

The northern section takes you through both Van Patten Preserve and Wadsworth Savanna Preserve, and this 8 mile segment is all preserve with two easy road crossings.  A brief section takes you along railroad tracks, and if you are there around 11am, you may see the Amtrak train to or from Milwaukee, as well as freight trains like this...

The trail takes you through all four types of habitats that the preserve district maintains -- wetlands, prairie/meadows, woodlands, and forests, though the majority of the trail traverses forests and woodlands.  Whether spring, summer, or fall, the scenery is outstanding, and wildlife sightings abound.  Here's an early Spring photo...

...and a lush-foliage summer photo...

You can also find side trails that loop from and back to the Des Plaines River Trail for some extra mileage and additional gorgeous scenery.  Independence Grove in Libertyville is the crown jewel of the preserve system, and it offers the paved 3.7 mile Overlook Trail seen below, or the crushed stone Lakeshore Trail loop at 3.2 miles.  Old School Preserve has about a 2 mile loop, and Van Patten Preserve has a 2 mile loop around the picnic areas and also a loop around Sterling Lake.

Dan Wright Preserve (adjoining Half Day Preserve) has a loop trail that adds about 3 miles, and this side trail leads to some great scenery as seen below off St. Mary's Road...

Here are detailed maps of the North and South sections of the trail, showing parking lots, preserves, major roads, etc.  (Click to enlarge.)

Des Plaines River Trail (Cook County segment)  (My webpage)

Independence Grove  (LCFPD page)

Lake County Forest Preserve District website

Forest Preserve District of Cook County website