Category Archives: Tourism

Touring Crater Lake (plus Garfield, Scott, Union)

Wizard Island and northern rim

Once the high wore off, I was pretty sore from my last adventure, so I spent the weekend eating, sleeping, and writing. I was still sore on Monday, but felt good enough to go for an hour run in the morning, before joining the family at Crater Lake. I did a couple of short hikes there, including Mount Scott, the park highpoint, then went off on my own on Tuesday afternoon to tag Union Peak, a distinctive horn to southwest of the crater. Rather than going around the back (southwest) side, the trail is carved straight up Union’s east side. Once I learned to hold my breath while passing PCTers, it was a pleasant hike/run.

While crowded, Crater Lake is worth seeing if you’re passing nearby, e.g. to do Mount Thielsen. It is also educational:

What? And I’ve been… noooo!


Pinnacle Butte

Pinnacle Buttes

The Pinnacle Buttes are the cliffs that grab your attention driving over Togwotee (“TOW-guh-tee”) pass, a local highpoint in the southern Absarokas (“ab-SOR-kuhs”). As they are made of breccia (basically rubble held together by prehistoric mud), no self-respecting climber would deign to climb them. However, a self-abusing peak-bagger like Yours Truly will, after driving past them several times, set aside a morning to make the climb. Plus, there’s free camping at the trailhead.

I followed the Pinnacles trail to where it crosses a faint old road near a high-point, then followed a mixture of road cuts and animal trails to the northeast, looking for the break in Pinnacle Butte’s southeast ridge. The elk and/or goats led me past some vertical sections to the right, where I was able to reach the ridge via some horrible side-hilling across ball-bearing talus. From there, I followed another goat-trail for awhile, then made my way up solid breccia and lousy talus to the summit tundra, passing some cool and bizarre rock formations.

After tooling around the summit plateau a bit, I returned to the car wide awake for the long drive south. So long for this year, Wyoming. I’m not done with you yet.

Impressions of the Wind River range

In addition to tagging a few signature peaks, I spent a few days in the Winds on failed peak-bagging, which could also count as successful sight-seeing. While I hardly know the range after five trail days and maybe 120 miles, I at least have an impression from three trailheads: Green River Lakes, Elkhart Park, and Big Sandy.

Green River Lake

The Green River Lakes trailhead is about 50 miles from Pinedale, relatively low (8040 feet), and far from any peaks. The most prominent peak in the area, and the obvious climbing target, is Squaretop, which has a class 2 route up the “back” (southeast) side from Granite Lake. However, I got a late start and underestimated the distance involved — 10 miles to the Granite Lake turn-off, and perhaps another 3-4 from there to the summit — and ended up going for a scenic hike-run along the Green River. The river is well-named, being the milky green of the glacial lakes from which it flows. The trail is well-maintained, but sees an unfortunate amount of horse traffic. It’s a nice area, but an expensive drive for long approaches via a single trail.

Titcomb from near Elkhart trailhead

Elkhart Park provides access to Titcomb Basin and Gannett, and while the hike is long, the trailhead is only 10 miles from Pinedale, all of them paved, and the trailhead is a pleasantly high 9300 feet. The trails leading to Titcomb are popular, but see relatively little horse traffic. The peaks are often glacially carved on all sides, and are home to significant glaciers, making them both aesthetic and interesting for a scrambler-slash-peak-bagger like myself. I will definitely return.

East Temple and Temple from Schiestler

Big Sandy is nearly 60 miles from Pinedale, the last 10 on a passenger-car-compatible but rough dirt road. It is the access point for two main approach trails: the Big Sandy trail to Big Sandy Lake, leading to the Temple Peak area and the Cirque, and the Fremont trail past Marm’s and Dad’s Lakes, leading to Bonneville, Raid, and Ambush. Both of these trails see an unfortunate amount of horse traffic, and the Big Sandy trail is mobbed with backpackers and climbers. There are few glaciers in the southern Winds, and most of the peaks have only been glacially carved on one side. This makes them appealing to rock-climbers, with 5.10 and harder routes on one side and walk-offs on the other. However, I found them less scenic than the northern peaks, and many ridge traverses are uninteresting walks on talus and grass. I might return to climb Bonneville, Raid, and/or Ambush, but the long drive and the crowds make Big Sandy less appealing than Elkhart Park.

Heavy vs. light snow years

Togwotee Pass, June 5, 2011:



Togwotee Pass, June 2, 2012:


That’s the difference between heavy and light snow years.

Chimney Peak Wilderness

While it doesn’t have any particularly high or spectacular peaks, Chimney Peak Wilderness, at the very southern end of the Sierra, is still worth at least knowing about. It contains a scenic shortcut from 395 to Lake Isabella, up Kennedy Meadows Road and down Canebrake/Chimney Peak Road (graded dirt, with a nice little campground along the way). There are a few SPS peaks in the area — Sawtooth, Lamont, and Spanish Needle — plus Owens and another Pilot Knob nearby.

Finally, it’s BLM land, the closest thing to anarchy this side of Somalia! You can shoot a man while driving an ATV blind-drunk on moonshine, then roast quail and marshmallows over the body, as long as you remember to build a fire ring, smother the ashes afterward, and pack out your trash. Well, not really — it’s still more-or-less part of the United States, and there are some nice BLM tracts out there which I would like to see stay that way — but at least everything is free.

Chimney Peak

This a super-easy bushwhack either from the southwest, from the PCT, or the northeast, from a road that apparently used to be part of a scenic jeep loop (Chimney Basin Road on some maps), but is now blocked by a “POSTED No Trespassing” compound (apparently of the scary, off-the-grid, we-shoot-first kind). Still, it’s a short climb from the gate, and you can pick up an old road that takes you partway up. There’s even a picnic table along the road, suggesting that it was graded by BLM many years ago.

Chimney sees few summits, and for several years was climbed only once annually by the Chimney Peak BLM superintendent and his dog. From an old film canister in a bush next to the main register, I learned that once again Smatko had been there first.

Sawtooth Peak

This is a moderate bushwhack from the PCT if done right. Perhaps two miles in, the trail crosses a ravine at the point where it flows over a large, flat rock; there may be a cairn left of the trail just after the ravine, near a game/use trail. This ravine is near the apex of a large bowl north of the trail. Follow the ravine up the valley and through a cliff band, finding occasional ducks, then make your way to the northeast however is easiest; the peak is the eastern highpoint of the ridge.

If you get off-route, you can look forward to lots of oakbrush, and maybe even small cliffs of rounded, rotten granite. So don’t do that.

There is a nice view of Owens Peak to the south, and Olancha and the high Sierra to the north and northeast, including Langley, Whitney, and possibly the Kaweahs and the Mineral King peaks.

Lamont Peak

Unlike Chimney and Sawtooth, bushwhacks up unremarkable blobs, Lamont has both a trail to near the top, and a distinctive shape. The trail climbs from a saddle along the road (5400′) to the summit with no nonsense switchbacks and little elevation loss. The rocky summit looks out on a line of steep granite pillars leading north, a distinctive feature visible from much of the area. At least, the “Lamont” I climbed has these things. Though it had SPS register books and many of the regulars had signed them, a forested point somewhere west on the ridge may be higher, and may be the official Lamont. This one was much nicer, though.

Staying north of the ridge (south lies only oakbrush and misery), one soon picks up an abandoned but still useful spur of the PCT, convenient in linking Lamont with Spanish Needle and possibly Sawtooth.

Spanish Needle

My road atlas — the only map I have for this area — does not include Spanish Needle. However, from knowing its elevation and seeing register entries on Lamont and Sawtooth saying that it was possible to link it with either peak, I suspected it was one of three relatively sharp peaks to the east, on the ridge north of Owen. As it turns out, the south peak is “Polly’s Needle,” the middle Spanish Needle, and the north apparently unnamed, though it had an old-looking, totally blank BLM register.

I climbed the unnamed one first, then eyed the traverse. It looked too tough, but I checked it out anyways. It quickly turned 5th class, so I retreated, downclimbed, and found some ducks. The proper route for Spanish Needle does a bunch of annoying side-hilling to reach a saddle, then some contorted 3rd class to reach the summit. The crux for many people is apparently crossing a large, angled slab on the northeast side, reached by a series of flakes and a cut or dynamited step (!). One normally approaches from the PCT north of the peak, where it touches the ridge. I returned to this saddle, jogged to the Lamont cutoff, and made it back to the car much more quickly than on the way out.

Hello, Mineral King

Big trees, small roads.

The difference between Mineral King and most east-side trailheads reminds me of that between their nearest city populations, the Bay Area and Los Angeles, respectively. Where east-side access roads are impressive feats of engineering, the Mineral King road is a feat of historical engineering. It goes from perhaps 1000 feet to 7800 feet via 25 miles of terrifying one-lane blind corners, hardly something anyone would think of building today. Driving to Mineral King requires an hour of white-knuckled terror and constant attention, as everyone drives 25-30 MPH in both directions, stomping on the brakes and swerving to the edge when there is oncoming traffic. Driving there is the most dangerous thing you’ll do at Mineral King.

Trailhead facilities feel like the “locals” (i.e. rich families with summer homes) tolerate and accept backpackers, rather than that someone has built huge parking lots for tourists. The trailhead parking is a primitive, too-small, overcrowded dirt lot. There are a payphone and an outhouse, but not much more.

The trailhead climate looks like northern New Mexico or southern Colorado, with aspens and pine trees, interspersed with open areas of sagebrush and scrub. Of course, the pines are huge sequoias rather than ponderosas, firs, and spruces. Unlike the east side, Mineral King features wildlife, with fearless (though not entirely creepy) deer wandering the parking lot. You get used to seeing curious eyes in your headlamp.

So it’s a nice place, if a total misnomer; it should be named Animal and Vegetable King, at least when compared to the east side. Though there were not enough minerals to keep the mines open for long, the place is teeming with plants of all sizes, deer, and at least some bears, though I only saw their scat on the trails.

Bring more food.

Quake Lake

Memorial boulder in perspective

Montana has some surprisingly well-built National Forest roads, trails, and campsites. The trails surprise me, since they are useless to loggers, and while I have seen lots of people enjoying the free primitive camping, I’m not sure how many stray from their cars and hip waders. Hopefully the trails and roads are being maintained, though given the constant budget squeeze National Forests face, I’m not optimistic.

Montana also has cool little things like Quake Lake. In 1959, an earthquake triggered a massive landslide that killed 28 campers and blocked off the Gallatin river, near-instantly creating a lake. The slide must have been amazing to watch: a hard outer layer of Dolomite on one entire side cracked, releasing itself and underlying soft layers to wash across the canyon and partway up the other side. Some large blocks of Dolomite didn’t even roll as they slid, but wound up right-side up on the other side.

One such boulder has a plaque with the names of those killed. The Forest Service staffs a small museum that, annoyingly, charges a separate entry fee, but the slide itself is worth a stop if you travel through.


Waiting for Old Faithful

As I predicted, my thigh and ankle have rendered me a semi-sedentary tourist for awhile. What better to do, then, than toodle around Yellowstone with the hordes on 4th of July weekend? So I got some beta on what to see from John, then made my winding way through the park from south to north.

I made my way fairly directly to the Old Faithful section of the park, with its ring of hotels and restaurants surrounding the rows of benches surrounding Old Faithful. Arriving around 8:00, I was surprised to see the parking lots almost empty. I eased myself out of the car, put on my pack, and spent a few hours hobbling along the boardwalks, trying to take some interesting pictures. I was not too impressed by the geysers themselves, and didn’t have much luck taking interesting pictures of them — it’s hard to anticipate when the geyser will emit an interesting spray, and autofocus lag gets in the way. I found the multicolored pools and bacterial mats more interesting and photogenic.

By the time I was done, hundreds of people were sitting waiting for Old Faithful, and the parking lot was closer to full. I spent the rest of the day among the tourists, including a surprising number of Indians.

The highlight of the park for me was the Grand Prismatic Pool. A high-temperature spring supports a variety of colored bacteria in a large, steaming pool. From some angles, light reflected off the pool bottom colors the steam. The Museum of the Park Ranger, though small, was also interesting.

I was less impressed with the terraces, which are featured on the front of the park brochure. It was hot and crowded, and most of the area was dry and inactive. I saw a few bison, and three bears at two bear-jams, but after my up-close encounter in Burnt Wagon Gulch, watching distant bears through binoculars was not that exciting.

I ended the day with an extended hobble up the old road to Mount Washburn from the south. The trail was still mostly snow-covered, but the snow was well-consolidated and -traveled. Being the highest point in the northeast corner of the park, it affords a good view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the southeast, the caldera to the southwest, and the Absaroka, Beartooth, and Teton ranges on the horizon.

Dirtbag notes

There are truly excellent free, no-reservation campsites near Grass Lake, only a few miles from the south entrance to Yellowstone. Each site has its own picnic table, fire ring, and outhouse. While there are only 14 sites, I had no trouble finding one early in the evening during prime tourist season.

Gardiner, near the north entrance, is surrounded by national forest with good access roads and no restrictions on dispersed camping. The town itself is not as bad a tourist trap as one might expect, but WiFi is hard to come by; the coffee place charges $2.50 for the password.