Friday, January 6, 2017

My Most Unusual Hikes

I began hiking with the Boy Scouts back in the 1950s, generally in Schiller Woods which was the closest Cook County forest preserve to our homes, and I quickly realized I had an affinity for the woods -- I was never frightened or intimidated, but rather felt at peace and at home in the wild. 

I now live within a 15 minute drive of a dozen forest preserve hiking trails, and add another fifteen minutes to the driving time and the number of trails more than doubles. During the late fall, winter, and early spring, our little hiking group hikes these trails...

 ...and as the snow depth approaches 10 inches, we switch to snowshoes. 

Besides great exercise and scenery, another fringe benefit of hiking is spotting wildlife such as the deer in the photo below taken at Lakewood Forest Preserve, but we’ve also spotted coyotes, sand hill cranes, oppossum, as well as the usual ground critters like rabbits and squirrels.

When the group isn’t available, I’ll go off to the woods on my own. In the late 1990s, I’d sing in the church choir at the 8 am service, and after the service, when my friends would ask me if I was heading to the adult Sunday School class I’d reply each week, “No, I’m  going to my other sanctuary for more worship.” And when they’d ask where that was, I’d reply, “Deer Grove Forest Preserve!” 

Deer Grove was the first forest preserve acquisition by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County in 1916. At 1800 acres it is quite sizable, and over the years I got to know every trail. In the winter when the foliage was dormant, I often bushwhacked off-trail, exploring every trail-less portion of the preserve. I even wrote to the forest preserve district for a map of the woods (this was before the Internet) and they sent me a map of the cross country skiing trails. I then added to their map all the secondary and tertiary trails that I had discovered in my explorations and shared my map with interested friends.

Though my hiking began as a local activity, it expanded nationwide as I adventured in national parks and national forests. Here are a few of the more unusual hikes I’ve taken across the country.

My buddy, Len, and I backpacked in Colorado a dozen times, but coming from Chicago with its altitude below 800 feet, we had to acclimate to high altitude before attempting strenuous Rocky Mountain trails. So we camped three nights at Great Sand Dunes National Park (back then a national monument) and each day we hiked in order to acclimate to the altitude of 8000 feet.

The first day we’d hike the area around the campground and over to the visitor center. The second day we’d hike the beautiful Mosca Pass Trail, about 8 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 1520 feet. 

The third day we’d hike to the top of the tallest dune, 800 feet up, though slogging through loose sand made it seem much higher. No trails up the dunes, of course, so we had to plan our route carefully to reach the tallest dune peak the easiest way.

I've backpacked once in Utah’s Zion National Park, but I’ve been to this magnificent national park four times for camping, biking, photography, and day hiking. One of my all-time favorite day hikes is The Narrows of the Virgin River. There is NO trail here, just the river, so hikers walk in the water with occasional dry spits of land. As seen in the two photos below, the scenery is unlike usual hiking locales. When there is a large rain storm up-canyon, even dozens of miles away, the Narrows is closed by rangers because it becomes extremely dangerous and flash floods have killed hikers in the canyon because the canyon walls are unclimbable and there is no escape route if you are caught in the canyon. 

Rocks in the river are very slippery so care must be taken when hiking. At the start, dozens of hiking sticks (tree branches) are available and I used one and returned it when I finished. Hiking with a staff gives you a third point of contact with the ground and provides stability. You can see all are using the staffs.  

I hiked about three miles upriver and then back, taking about four hours. Water depth ranged from knee depth in most places to nearly waist deep. The depth of course varies day by day depending on rainfall upriver. The first time I started this hike, I had my very expensive Nikon SLR camera around my neck, and after hiking about ten minutes and nearly slipping a couple of times, I realized how foolish I was being. If I fell and got the camera wet or hit it against a rock, it would be a very expensive mistake. So I ended the hike, reversed direction back to dry land, and the next afternoon returned with my two waterproof cameras, one for stills and the other a video camera. I also left my cell phone in my van to protect that investment.  My video of this hike is available on my YouTube page.

Another “wet hike I enjoyed was in southern Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. “Strand” in Florida means swamp, and we were hiking ankle to thigh-deep through a fresh water swamp forest in the Big Cypress/Everglades area looking for wild orchid plants as one of the activities on a Sierra Club kayaking adventure. 

The Fakahatchee is the “Amazon of North America” and is considered the orchid capital of the continent with 44 native orchids. It is basically a forest that had flooded. The “floor” of the swamp provides solid footing so there was no muddy goo to worry about. Fortunately our guide was an expert because we wandered around seemingly aimlessly for a couple hours looking at orchid plants as well as the rest of the abundant flora, and I was completely disoriented and had no idea of where we were or how to eventually get out of the swamp .

Another unusual day hike was on Alaska's Root Glacier deep in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest of all our national parks. This was a two week Sierra Club outing which included two days of camping in the park in late September which was already getting pretty chilly. In fact, my water bottles froze in my tent overnight! We had one free day to relax or go on an adventure. A few lazed in camp, several took a plane trip to see the glaciers from the air, but a couple of us  chose to hike Root Glacier with a guide as seen in this photo on the right. What a great experience! We had crampons (metal plates with spikes on the bottom) attached  to our hiking boots which allowed us to scale the glacier...

...and to investigate various chasms in the glacier to see the deep blue coloration caused by hundreds of years being compressed by tons of ice.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument (pronounced de-SHAY) covers 83,000 acres in northeastern Arizona and is entirely owned by the Navajo Nation. 

I spent five days camping and hiking there as part of another Sierra Club outing. By law, licensed Navajo guides must accompany all visitors. Our guide grew up in the canyon and we camped on land his family owned. Our day hikes took us through the entire canyon and twice up to the rim and down again via very interesting routes as seen in these next two photos...

The “stairs” we are climbing below were chiseled out of the rock over a thousand years ago by the local Native American residents. 

Petroglyphs and pictographs adorned many walls, and the ruins of numerous structures were also abundant as seen here...

This area was inhabited for over 5000 years by Puebloans, Hopi, Navajos, and Mexicans. Our guide and his family prepared traditional Navajo meals and demonstrated how they sheered their sheep, made wool thread, dyed the wool with soil and plant matter, and used homemade looms to craft magnificent rugs and clothing. Very interesting!

The Tongas National Forest is the largest of our national forests and it occupies the coastal land surrounding Alaska’s Inside Passage. I made  use of their campgrounds just outside both Ketchikan and Juneau and hiked several lovely trails in this temperate rain forest. This area averages over 150 inches of rainfall annually, so flora is prolific in the forest.  Obviously, dirt trails found in wet hilly terrain don’t fare well, so miles of my hiking were therefore on wooden stairways or raised wooden walkways, often with old asphalt roofing tiles nailed to the surface to provide traction when the surface was moist. 

As someone who has done 30+ volunteer trail projects which included building bridges and elevated walkways, I appreciated all the time, effort, and money that had obviously been expended to create these trails! (See my stories about trail work here.)

Badlands National Park in South Dakota (below) was the opposite environment — extremely arid. Its nearly quarter million acres contain rugged beauty and striking geologic deposits, and hiking among these formations of eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires is breathtaking. They are also fun and challenging to climb. 

The colonies of prairie dogs that inhabit the area are especially interesting to observe. I have backpacked, camped, and done trail work in the Arizona desert several times, but I’ve only done day hikes in the Badlands because my visits were always brief since I was always enroute to Yellowstone National Park, where I have backpacked, hiked, and camped extensively on my ten visits there.  

Another unusual hike in Yellowstone is to the bottom of Yellowstone’s Lower Falls, the final part of which is this extremely long and steep metal staircase seen here...

This was quite an experience and is rewarded by this view of the thunderous 309 foot waterfall. If you look closely, a small rainbow can be seen near the bottom. The noise is deafening as the water crashes on the rocks. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is 1000 feet at its deepest and these stairs take you down many hundreds of feet to an overlook where you can see the falls...

The stairs and railings are wet and slippery from the constant mist, of course, so care must be exercised, and the trudge back up is quite strenuous, but that pretty much guarantees that this route will be less crowded than trails to the other overlooks because far fewer people are willing (or physically able) to accomplish this hike. 

Another strenuous and dangerous hike was in Havasu Canyon, a side canyon of the Grand Canyon west of the national park, located on land owned by the Havasupai Tribe. Their name means “people of the blue-green waters” which refers to the beautiful Havasu Creek that runs through their canyon as it travels down to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon proper. We visited three of the four waterfalls created by the Havasu, and the third, Mooney Falls, was the most challenging because the trail to the bottom of the falls involves climbing 200 feet down to the bottom of the falls through two passageways chiseled out of the rock by miners (notice the people on the "trail")...

Here you again see hikers descending via ladders and chains and handholds to the bottom. A sign at the top says “proceed at your own risk,” and they’re not kidding! 

Here you see Scott, Steve, and Len on their way down,

 and Scott, Steve, and I with the falls in the background below. 

Hanging Lake in Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon within the White River National Forest is another marvelous day hike. Long ago, this 1.5 acre lake dropped from the land above due to a geologic fault and became a magnificent scenic location that supports a thriving hanging plant  community which has been granted National Landmark status. The hike up is a strenuous mile and a half in length with an elevation gain of some 1055 feet. 

You’ll see lots of people turn around and not complete the hike, but if you can make it to the top, the scenery at the lake is awesome as seen in the photo below left. When you arrive at the lake, you will also notice a sign saying “Spouting Rock” and pointing up a side trail that takes you up to this waterfall that feeds the lake below.

People often linger for a long time, just soaking up the  atmosphere, and you’ll see people taking photos from all sorts of vantage points, trying to capture the beauty. In fact, you’ll probably being doing that, too!

 One of the most beautiful places I’ve hiked was Antelope Canyon, a pair of slot canyons on Navajo land just outside Page in northern Arizona. Visitors can simply walk into Upper Antelope Canyon with no stairs involved, but it requires a bumpy, dusty ride up a dry sandy riverbed on a Navajo tour truck aptly nicknamed a  “shake and bake.” Here are a couple shots...

Lower Antelope Canyon is right along the highway just out of town, but the entrance to the canyon is quite unique as seen in the photo below where we are seemingly entering a crack in the earth. 

The stairs are right there so it isn’t dangerous, but as you walk the half-mile or so within the slot canyon, you keep descending, and at the end you have about three stories of metal stairs to climb to emerge back on top, and then you hike back to the parking lot. As you can readily observe, the scenery is breathtaking! This is a canyon, not a  cave, so a bit of sunlight enters from the narrow slot high above your head, and like Upper Canyon, the lighting changes as the sun traverses the sky...

...making the rocks appear to change color.  If you look closely, you can see bits of sunlight in these two photos. More beams of sunlight are found in Upper than Lower Antelope Canyon since it has a wider opening at its top. These two magical places will enthrall you as you discover new formations and colorations around every bend. 

The acoustics are phenomenal and Navajo flautists play their handmade flutes for you as you travel through Lower Antelope Canyon. Large rainstorms can put water back into the creek that formed the canyon, forcing the closure of the two sites. You wouldn’t want to be in there when flash floods are possible! As  I recall, the Upper tour was $50 and the lower tour $25 (more for the one when they have to drive you to the location.) Both are wonderfully scenic and both require you to join a tour with a Navajo guide. I preferred the Lower Canyon because it was more strenuous and challenging because of the stairways. It was longer and narrower and had places with tricky footing, and I liked the more intimate closeness of the tight walls and the formations you encountered.

I also hiked slot canyons on several paddling expeditions. Below is the White Cliffs area in Montana’s section of the Missouri River, made famous by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The canyon was an upside-down “Y,” with the two prongs closest to the river. We hiked up the right side, 

...then climbed and crossed over the intervening mountain...

...before returning down the other prong of the “Y.” The scenic white cliffs were awesome and provided interesting climbing and hiking.

Below are photos showing some of the moves needed to continue hiking up some of these narrow, fun slot canyons when you encounter obstacles that blocked your progress. Below left you see me in a side canyon on Lake Powell in Arizona, using the chimney move to scale a boulder clog impeding our progress. 

The next two photos are side canyons we hiked when we kayaked down the Colorado River starting below Hoover Dam. This area is called the Lake Mead Recreation Area and is operated by the National Park Service Here is a woman chimneying to get above a small waterfall...

 In this area they have installed a rope to assist us...

... and elsewhere a 20 foot ladder to assist hikers in hiking up the side canyons. 

Here they placed sandbags to hold the naturally occurring hot spa-type water in a pool for people to relax in as they passed by.  We were tempted to spend some time there, but an older "gentleman" was there already, and he was soaking in the nude, and perhaps in an attempt to flaunt his obvious, wrinkled shortcomings, he stood up as we arrived. We kept hiking and had a good laugh where we were out of earshot.

Several times, as we reached the mountain top where the slot canyons began, we found petroglyphs and pictographs made over a millennium earlier by Native peoples who had lived in the area. 

Finally, on a rafting expedition down Utah’s San Juan River, we left our rafts and hiked up the Honaker Trail (seen bottom left) with one of the guides. 

Then, after enjoying the vista from the top of the mountain, enjoying the river far below us...

...we hiked down the other side, where the other three guides waited after bringing the rafts around the ox-bow of the river (which is a U-shaped bend where the river turns back on itself and returns on the other side of the mountain.) At the top, we saw the remnants of a rock house that had been build in the 1890s by a miner named Honaker who had been mining in the area during Utah’s gold rush. I always find it interesting when the guides relate the history and culture of the areas we were paddling and hiking and I try to imagine what life had been like here back in those days. 

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