Backpacking to Barney Lake

On the first weekend of October, we went out for what was very likely our last backpacking trip of the year. Below freezing temperatures led into the weekend, and left us wondering if we’d stay warm enough. And not only would it be cold, early nightfall would mean a long time in the tent waiting for the morning sun. We packed a couple extra layers for this trip, pulling items from our winter gear and even pajama collection. And to add another challenge to this hike, we’d have to figure out how to get a wilderness permit in the middle of a federal government shutdown!

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Entering the Hoover Wilderness

My dad planned this trip for us. Two nights at Barney Lake in the Hoover Wilderness, with a day hike up to Crown Lake. To gain overnight access into this area, you need a wilderness permit. We stopped at the ranger station in Bridgeport, CA and hoped for the best. As expected, the ranger station was closed, but there were plenty of permits left at the self-serve kiosk outside the building. This was a relief, because there are stories around the country of rangers writing tickets for people hiking in some areas.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Further up the canyon

We parked at the Mono Village backpacker parking lot and paid our $10 for leaving the car there three days. Mono Village is a privately owned RV campground, and you must pass through it to get to the trailhead. My mother-in-law and husband were camped here, and we paid them a visit before hiking up into the mountains. They said the bears made nightly walks through the campground, and went through anything they could find. They had an ice chest outside with waters and iced tea in it, and the bears busted open the tea. Since it’s a private campground, there are no bear boxes for campers like you would see in a Forest Service or State run campground. I don’t think I’d want to be in a tent here, and from the look of things, nobody else did either. It was all just RVs.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Little Slide Canyon

Because of other weekend obligations, we got a late start on the trail that day. It was already 3:00 PM, and we had about 4 miles to get to Barney Lake through unfamiliar country. We’d also need some time to locate a campsite once we got there. Our pace was a little quicker than normal, fueled by some nervous energy.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Up the final switchbacks through pretty Fall colors

The trail leaves Mono Village at 7,095 feet elevation, and quickly enters the Hoover Wilderness. The forest here is full of big and widely spaced trees. It almost feels like a park. We passed several large piles of bear scat, apparently left by bears gorged on camper food, headed up to the mountains to sleep it off. After leaving the woods, the trail enters some open country for some great views of the canyon ahead, and Little Slide Canyon to the south. There are many aspen groves here, and all were glowing bright gold.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Arriving at Barney Lake

We made good time through the canyon, thanks to a mostly straight trail. The switchbacks don’t start until the end of the canyon. A lot of elevation is gained quickly through the switchbacks, the trail climbing over granite and under the aspens. Finally the trail arrives at Barney Lake at 8,258 feet elevation. Because of our late start, we arrived at near the perfect time for a stunning view. The lake was smooth and dark, but the massive Crown Point at the other end of the lake was still sunny and reflecting in the water.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
South of Barney Lake looking for somewhere to camp

Still needing to find a campsite, we kept hiking around the west side of the lake, passing a few berry laden piles of bear scat along the way. My map showed a marshy area to the south of the lake, so I wasn’t sure what we’d find. The first good campsite we came to was occupied, so we kept hiking. Large pine trees ahead at the border of the marsh indicated some firm, dry ground.  We hiked down off the trail through a talus field, and entered the stand of trees where we immediately found a good campsite. Just to be sure, I dropped my pack and went a little further into the trees. Just out of sight from my family, I heard a big animal crashing through the nearby trees. It sounded more like something tall and graceful (deer) and less like something short and brutish (bear), but I didn’t want to investigate further. I suddenly decided that the place where we dropped our packs was as good as any other place to camp.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Morning at camp

Without any resting, we went quickly about setting up camp and making dinner. Partway though dinner, a deer walked right through camp and confirmed my suspicion about what was lurking in the nearby bushes. Nightfall was upon us before we could finish our camp chores, and dishes were done with the headlamps on.  We also had more food than room in the bear vaults.  Kristy and I went into the woods with a bag of food and 50 feet of utility cord.   We found a suitable branch, hung the bag high, then I made some of the most pathetic looking knots you’ve ever seen to tie it off.  I really need to practice this.  Soon we were in our tent, and got bundled up for the long, cold night ahead. It was only 8:00 PM, and because of the orientation of the canyon we were in, we wouldn’t get sun on our tent for a while into the morning.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Aspens below Crown Point

Not too long into the night, I heard a munching sound coming from outside the tent where we left the packs. I got my headlamp, unzipped the tent and lit up the packs propped up on the granite boulders. Sure enough, there was a big rodent underneath my pack. It looked more like a big rat than a marmot (which looks more like a fat squirrel). A mountain beaver? It was hard to tell in the dark. I got out and moved our packs underneath the tent fly where I hoped they’d be safe the rest of the night.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Robinson Creek with a covering of ice

The night was long and cold, but we stayed warm enough, mostly complaining about cold feet. Towards the end of the night we tucked our faces down into the sleeping bags for more warmth. While we weren’t really cold, it wasn’t really comfortable either.  I think we all agreed that we prefer warmer temperatures to camp in.  It was more like surviving than camping.  Daylight finally arrived, but it would still be a long time before sun hit our camp. You could see it slowly creeping down the mountainside high above us. Instead of waiting for the sun, we got started on some hot beverages and oatmeal to warm us up. Filtering water with my pump from a nearby creek was also a good way to warm up.  There was a thin layer of ice on the slow moving water in the meadow.  As we started getting ready for the day, we discovered that the rodents had gotten into a couple things that weren’t secure. The packs were fine, but Kristy’s hiking hat had the sweatband chewed out! There were a few nibbles on her trekking poles as well. They were apparently after anything salty.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Granite everywhere

After breakfast and getting camp tidied up, we decided to split into two groups for the day. Kristy, my son, and the dogs would stay behind and hang out at Barney Lake for a more relaxing day. My dad and I planned to hike to Crown Lake up above to the south. My dad and I set out directly to the south along the marsh instead of climbing back up to the trail. The trail eventually crossed the valley, so we’d run into it if we kept going straight. This turned out to be a big mistake though. The brush started to get real thick at the end of the valley. I crossed the creek, and tried my luck on the other side, but eventually got walled up and had to turn back. I followed my dad into a boulder field that was thick with aspens. It was tough getting through, and I thought I might rip my pants or worse, break an ankle. By the time we broke through and reached the trail, we realized how close we were.  It took several minutes to walk just 50 yards.  This little adventure cost us some time, and it felt like we had walked an additional mile. That little climb from camp back up to the trail didn’t seem bad at all now.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Up many switchbacks

Back on the trail now, we stopped at Robinson Creek to fill our water bottles and cool down a bit from our tangle with the bushes. After crossing the creek, the trail climbs up into the woods again, crosses the creek again, and then starts a long series of switchbacks to climb the steep granite mountainside. Because of the bends in the canyon, we never could see Barney Lake as we climbed higher.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Pass through the granite

After many switchbacks, we finally arrived at an intersection. To the southwest was Peeler Lake, to the southeast, Robinson and Crown Lakes. Either direction would’ve been a beautiful trip, but we hung a left towards Crown Lake.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Intersection

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Big boulders of granite

This section of trail passes through fields of enormous boulders that were probably moved downhill by glaciers coming off Crown Point. The trail work that was done to get through this area is pretty amazing. I thought of the people who first explored this area, and what it must have took to climb through all this. Here we were just out for an easy stroll.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
First of the Robinson Lakes

The first of the Robinson Lakes we encountered was a pretty turquoise color.  The water was crystal clear and it had a sandy bottom, so it was hard to tell why it was so green.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Another one of the Robinson Lakes

The trail passes right between a narrow strip of land between the two lower Robinson Lakes, with a lake visible on each side. After passing by all the lakes, we followed the creek up through more giant granite boulders.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Outlet of the lower Robinson Lakes on the other side of the lake

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Almost to Crown Lake

The trail crosses the creek once more, and then you are in a basin. Slide Mountain towers above, and soon Crown Lake (9,600 feet elevation) comes into view. The trail follows right along the lake shore for a wonderful hiking experience. We hiked around to the south side of the lake to have lunch, and ran into the two backpackers we saw camped at Barney Lake. These two ladies were headed further up to Snow Lake. We got to talking and found out that the rodents got their stuff too! One of the lady’s trekking poles was pretty chewed up.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Crown Lake and Slide Mountain

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Slide Mountain

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Meadow above Crown Lake

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Trout in the Crown Lake inlet

It was very exciting to be up in this area. I wanted to hike every pass and see what was around every corner. Any side trip we did though was going to add an additional three miles. After sitting down for lunch and relaxing, my legs started to stiffen up, and going back to camp seemed far enough. We investigated the inlet creek to Crown Lake and it was full of some pretty good sized trout. I bet there are even bigger ones in the lake.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Another view of Crown Lake looking north

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Back to Robinson Lakes

We followed the same trail back to camp, but this time getting to see everything from another point of view and with different lighting. We made much better time going back down. We passed a group of backpackers on their way to Peeler Lake. They were running out of daylight and were inquiring of the trail ahead. Luckily they only had a couple miles or less left. I was glad it wasn’t us in a hurry this time.  We flew down the switchbacks, and I couldn’t believe how many we had come up!

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Heavy duty trail work

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Down the Switchbacks

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Pretty Autumn forest trail

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Almost back to Barney Lake

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Swampy meadow south of Barney Lake

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Returning to camp

We finally returned to camp, and were ready for a more leisurely dinner than the night before. It was good to reunite with the rest of the family and hear about their day. I was sorry they didn’t get to see the sights we saw, but also thankful we didn’t drag the dogs into our first bushwhacking adventure. That might have killed the whole day!

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Camp Dog

This night we stashed all our gear under the tent fly, and didn’t leave anything out for the rodents to gnaw on. Sometime in the night a breeze came in, and the aspens were quaking all around us. This also seemed to bring in warmer temperatures, and the night wasn’t as cold as the night before. The night pretty much went without incident with exception of a daddy longlegs that got into the tent and crawled on my neck. In the dark I brushed off whatever was crawling on me, and then I smelled something strange. A little freaked out, I grabbed my light, and then discovered the bug. I’ve since confirmed that daddy longlegs have a pair of defensive scent glands that secrete a peculiar smelling fluid when disturbed. Gross.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Starting the hike out

We woke up and started the coffee/tea/breakfast routine. Normally my son likes to sleep in, but he was already deflating mattresses and stuffing sleeping bags. He was on a mission to get back on the trail, so he could hopefully see my mother-in-law before they left camp. He’d been talking about their raviolis all weekend. I don’t think we’ve ever left camp sooner than we did that day.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Back to Barney Lake

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Looking back at Crown Point and Slide Mountain

Backpacking to Barney Lake
A short visit to the beach

Before the final hike out, we stopped at Barney Lake to shed a layer of clothing and filter some more water. It’s a beautiful view anytime of the day, so of course we took more photos too.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
A final viewing of Barney Lake

Backpacking to Barney Lake
More pretty autumn trail colors

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Enjoying the trail

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Upper Twin Lakes below

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Final showing of color before the snow

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Little Slide Canyon

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Trail Dog

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Looking back up the canyon

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Almost back to the trailhead

Backpacking to Barney Lake
At the Mono Village trailhead

After we got down the switchbacks, Kristy and my son flew down the trail, determined to make it back to see her mom before they left the campground. My dad and I took a more leisurely pace. As we neared the campground, big piles of bear scat looking like early Clif Bar prototypes became more numerous. I was glad they stayed down low and didn’t bother us. By the time we caught up with Kristy, they had been waiting at the campground for a half hour. Sadly though, the camper was gone, and there would be no raviolis. They probably just missed her mom by minutes. Instead, we opened up the bear vaults, and had a backpackers buffet with our leftovers as we drove back to Carson City.

Backpacking to Barney Lake
Looking back at Sawtooth Ridge

This is definitely an area I want to come back to. Especially for longer trips. There are a few different options for loops or extended out-and-backs that would take you through some amazing country. It’ll have to wait until next year though. Snow was forecasted for the area just a few days after we left. I think we got our final backpacking trip done just in time!  It’s with mixed feelings that we say good-bye to backpacking season.  Spring is a long way off, and we’ll miss it.  On the other hand, we’ve certainly got our fill of camping this year, around 25 nights sleeping outside.  Winter is a good time to rest, dream up next year’s trips, and do some day hiking and snowshoeing.

The complete photoset of this trip can be found on Flickr here.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad Review

When I look back on all the backpacking gear I’ve purchased and used this year, my Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad is the item I’ve appreciated the most. Getting a good night’s sleep in the backcountry can make all the difference to enjoying a backpacking trip to the fullest, and this pad has made that possible. And not only is the NeoAir XLite comfortable, it’s also very light. Keeping my pack weight as low as possible has been key to an enjoyable hiking experience.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
NeoAir XLite

We had been using bulky and moderately comfortable Therm-a-Rest pads that we bought when we were car camping exclusively. After two of them sprung leaks, it gave us an excuse to look for something lighter and more suitable for backpacking. We first got my wife a NeoAir XLite to lighten up her pack. I was hesitant to spend the extra money on one for myself, but then was so impressed with hers that I had to have one too.

NeoAir XLite Features:

  • Very comfortable at 2.5″ thick.
  • Only 12 ounces (Regular Mattress, 72 inches long).
  • Warm – reflective layer recycles body heat and creates dual air pockets that conserve warmth.
  • Packs down small to fit safely inside a pack.
  • Stuff sack and repair kit included.
  • Made in Seattle, USA.
  • Comes in 47″, 72″, and 77″ lengths. There is a women’s version too, but it only comes in a 66″ length.

Comfort

Prior to this purchase, when I thought of lightweight sleeping pads, I thought of thin, closed-cell foam pads. Although these types of pads do have their merits when it comes to durability, they leave a lot to be desired when it comes to sleeping comfort. This is not the case with the NeoAir XLite though. At 2.5 inches thick, there is more than enough padding for a comfortable night’s sleep. I’m a side sleeper, and the extra thickness allows my shoulder to sink into the pad without hitting the ground. I keep my pad on the firm side, and it stays well inflated throughout the night. I’ve even gone a couple nights without having to adjust the pressure.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
A very comfortable 2.5″ thick

Light Weight

The pad I was carrying on my pack was 2.5 lbs (40 ounces). At only 12 ounces, the NeoAir XLite has saved 1.75 lbs of pack weight. Although not a huge number by itself, when you apply a weight loss strategy across all your gear, significant weight savings can be achieved. There is definitely a pack weight threshold, that when crossed, the pack becomes a burden on your shoulders, back, hips, knees, and feet. The NeoAir XLite has helped keep my pack in the comfortable zone.

Packs Small and Carries Safe

We were carrying our old pads on the bottom of our packs without any protective stuff sacks. Every time we sat the packs down or leaned up against something, the pads were taking abuse. Eventually, abrasions caused the two pads to go flat. What I like about the NeoAir XLite is that it comes with its own protective stuff sack, and it fits inside the sleeping bag compartment of my backpack where it’s safe from the outside elements. And should a problem arise out on the trail, a small patch kit is provided for fixing the pad in the field.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Packs down small

Warmth

Also notable about the NeoAir XLite is its warmth. I wasn’t sure how an all-air pad would perform without the heat-trapping foam in it, but the inner reflective layer does a great job at recycling body heat and conserving warmth. In fact, I was surprised at how much warmer it was than my old pad. I have the Regular sized mattress, and at 72 inches long, it fits my 5’10″ (70 inches) body perfectly, helping to keep me warm from head to toe.

Inflation, Using, and Deflation

Since the NeoAir XLite doesn’t have a self-inflating foam core, it takes a little more wind to inflate. The inflation time is only slightly longer than thinner pads though, and I don’t find it significant.

Some people have commented on the “crinkly” sound the pad makes when you climb onto it or move around. I think this is due to the reflective baffling inside. While it is a different sound than a self-inflatable, I don’t find it annoying, and it hasn’t cost me any sleep. I even think the crinkling has subsided some now that the pad is broken in.

Deflating the pad is easier than with a self-inflating pad, since there is no expanding foam to fight back. Simply open the air valve, squeeze the air out, fold in half, then roll up and stuff.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Light weight and full length

Bottom Line

I highly recommend the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad for those looking to lighten up their pack weight and get a good night’s sleep in the process. The pad has proven to be quite durable for its weight, and has stood up to several backpacking and car camping trips this year. The small size of the pad when in the stuff sack allows it to be packed away safe inside a pack instead of lashed to the outside. This also keeps the pack’s profile smaller, better balanced, and more maneuverable in tight situations. The price for this pad is significantly higher than many other pads on the market, but I feel the performance gains are worth the extra money.

More info and specs on the Cascade Designs Website.

Ready to purchase? Buy now at REI and help support this website!

Backpacking from Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass

In September we were looking for a quick weekend overnighter, not too far from home.  I had never hiked above Virginia Lakes in the Hoover Wilderness.  The maps and photos showed several lakes, jagged mountains in a variety of colors, and an 11,100 foot pass that promised spectacular views. All this without a lot of hiking.  For this hike, my dad would be joining my son and I (and our dogs of course) for our first ever father, son, and son hike. I hadn’t backpacked with my dad since I was just a little older than my son is now, so this was a pretty special occasion. We left Carson City early in the morning on a Saturday, and stopped at the Bridgeport Ranger Station to pick up our overnight wilderness permits before arriving at the trailhead.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Virginia Lakes Trailhead

The trailhead for this hike is at the very end of the Virginia Lakes Road which leaves HWY 395 to the west at Conway Summit just north of Mono Lake. Virginia Lakes Road is paved until almost the very end, then turns into a well graded dirt road near the trailhead at Big Virginia Lake. There is ample parking and a restroom here. The trail leaves from the end of the parking lot behind the restrooms.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Into the Hoover Wilderness

The trailhead was really busy this time of year, but most of the people were down at the lake fishing. The fishing looked to have been excellent. One guy was returning to his car with a trout that was at least as long as my forearm! After leaving the trailhead though, the crowds thinned out, and we only saw a few anglers and day hikers heading up the trail for the upper lakes.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Below Blue Lake

This hike starts at over 9,800 feet elevation, so you’re into the rugged mountains from the very start of the hike. Soon after leaving Virginia Lakes, you enter the Hoover Wilderness, and arrive at Blue Lake at 9,886 feet. There is no camping at Blue Lake due to its proximity to the trailhead, but not to worry, as there are plenty of places further up the canyon.  Although there was evidence of fire rings in the canyon, fires are not permitted here above 9,000 feet.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Blue Lake

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Looking back at Blue Lake

We hiked around the north side of Blue Lake, and then climbed above it to the west. In the woods above the lake is an old miner’s cabin making its last stand. It looks small and cozy, and probably slept one short prospector. There are remains of old furniture inside, and even a few old items still sit on a table. It’s severely leaning right now, and many logs are propped up on one side to keep it from falling down.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Old Miners Cabin

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Cooney Lake

Just past the cabin is Cooney Lake at 10,240 feet, bordered by big boulders. A few anglers were casting from the shores, and we could see Summit Pass now further up the canyon.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Lower Frog Lake

Climbing around the north side of Cooney Lake, we soon came to Frog Lakes at around 10,370 feet. There are three Frog Lakes, but they are smaller than the previous lakes. As we hiked around the upper lake, the largest of the three, we spotted potential campsites above the south shore.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Upper Frog Lake

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
One of the many frogs around Frog Lakes

We hiked around the west side of the lake through a meadow and over the lake inlet. Frog Lake really lived up to its name. The grass was hopping with little frogs, and there were so many that we had to walk slow and careful so we didn’t step on them.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Upper Frog Lake inlet below Black Mountain

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Camp at Upper Frog Lake

We found an existing campsite on the southeast side of the lake, far enough away from the water, with a good tent area, and nice pile of flat rocks with log chairs for a kitchen. There is no shortage of suitable sites on this side of the lake. Those looking for more privacy can climb up a bit higher.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Looking down on Cooney Lake

Setting up camp early gave us the luxury of getting a head start on dinner, a big pot of vegetable noodle soup. After cleaning up, we still had plenty of time to explore the area. Just to the east of camp we had good views of Cooney Lake below. Later my dad and I went off to filter some water near the outlet of the lake. A couple bottles into the process, we heard a pack of coyotes howling back in the direction of camp. It was so loud that it could’ve been in camp, so my dad went back to check on things while the dogs and I continued our chore. It turned out the coyotes weren’t in camp, but my son was worried that maybe our dogs had gotten loose and were being attacked just up the hill from him. My guess is that they were hunting the small rodents that have made numerous holes all over the hill above.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Alpenglow on Dunderberg Peak

We wound down pretty early that night. My dad brought along a bivy sack to sleep in, and my son, the dogs, and I shared our 3-man tent. We had a little extra room just in case my dad changed his mind. I stayed up until near dark, sipping some wine and trying to capture photos of the alpenglow on Dunderberg Peak. It was a peaceful evening with barely any breeze, and no bugs. And if you don’t have bugs to contend with, you can almost say that everything is perfect.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Bivy sack and tent

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Evening at Frog Lakes

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Hurry up sun!

It was a pretty comfortable night until late morning. I was glad to see the sky getting brighter through the tent walls, and I couldn’t wait until the sun hit the tent. It was pretty chilly, and I was really starting to doubt the 20 degree rating on my sleeping bag. Either it’s not really rated for 20 degrees, or the ratings don’t actually mean you’ll be comfortable at this temperature. Perhaps it just means you won’t freeze to death.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Morning at Frog Lakes

None of us waited for the sun to hit our campsite before getting up. Tall trees were preventing a timely warming. Instead we bundled up, and made some hot coffee and tea. Finally we had some patches of sun to sit in by the time we started on breakfast.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Morning Exploration

The plan for the day was to hike to Summit Pass without the big packs. We cleaned up camp and packed most of our stuff away. Before heading out though, we explored further up the hillside above camp. My dad found some old mines, and this explained the purpose of some of the old scraps of metal we had found around camp. Some of the shafts were still pretty deep, and we even found the remains of what might have been a small stone cabin.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Remains of an old mining cabin?

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Open mines

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Balanced Rocks

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Climbing to Summit Pass

We were finally ready to make our climb to the pass.  Although it doesn’t seem to be officially named Summit Pass, this seems to be the generally agreed upon name when referring to it. On the other side of the pass is Summit Lake, so the name is fitting.  We returned to the trail on the north side of the lake and followed it up to the west. Soon we came to the upper lake with no name. It appears to be a permanent lake, but its shallowness gives it a emerald color.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Unnamed lake at the top of the canyon

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Near Summit Pass

After leaving the lake, the trail switchbacks up a steep slope of talus. Elevation is gained quickly, and amazing views of the canyon below open up. Directly to the south are some black jagged peaks, and they still had snow patches from last winter at their base.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Top of Summit Pass

Up on top of Summit Pass, the jagged peaks to the west come into view. The 12,000 foot peaks of Virginia Peak and and Whorl Mountain in Yosemite National Park look impossibly steep. Just a little bit further and Summit Lake in the valley below becomes visible. You feel like you’re on top of the world.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Summit Lake, Virginia Peak and and Whorl Mountain in the background

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Hoover, Gilman, and East Lakes

Untitled
Panorama of Summit Pass

We hiked over to a spot where we could look down into valley below, and found a good lunch spot out of the wind. From our vantage point we could see Summit Lake, Hoover Lakes, Gilman Lake, and East Lake. Way off in the distance we could see Bridgeport Reservoir.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Hiking along the pass

We explored the pass more before descending back to camp. We found the couple of little lakes on the map just south of the summit, but there was very little water left in them. As high up as we felt, there were still nearby mountaintops a thousand feet above our location.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Heading back down

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Mountain Dogs

After a smooth descent back to camp, we finished taking down the tent and loading up the packs. We stopped at Cooney Lake for an intended swim. As we got to the lake though, the wind was blowing really hard. My son was in his bathing suit ready to go, but eventually gave up hopes of a plunge. The water probably wouldn’t have been too bad, but the windchill getting out would’ve been brutally cold. He made a wise decision I think.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Loaded Packs

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Cooney Lake and Summit Pass above

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Moat Lake is up in this canyon

Between Cooney Lake and Blue Lake, there is a canyon below Dunderberg Peak. Sitting up in a little basin is Moat Lake, out of view from the trail below. Climbing up to the lake would make a nice little side trip.

Virginia Lakes to Summit Pass
Back down to Blue Lake

We returned to the trailhead in great spirits , feeling like we had hiked just the right amount of miles for this trip. It was enough of a hike to feel like you did something, but short enough to enjoy some downtime resting and enjoying the scenery. The fall colors of the bushes and trees really complimented the black and red mountains, and made it a unique time to visit. We’ll definitely be back for another trip into this area.

More photos of this hike can be found on Flickr here.

Tip:  Free wilderness permits for overnight trips, and good maps can be found at the ranger station in Bridgeport, CA.

Weekend in Monitor Valley

Labor Day weekend was approaching, and the smoke from the Rim Fire was still choking Carson City. We went south to flee the smoke the weekend before, so this time we decided to head east to Monitor Valley in Central Nevada.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Quiet NV Road

We left Carson City about noon just as the smoke was starting to clear up for the day. Not far to the east, the smoke thickened, and each valley we passed through was full of smoke. We were starting to lose hope until ironically, the haze cleared when we got to Big Smoky Valley east of Austin.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Pine Creek Campground

The evening was coming on, so we started thinking we should find a campsite soon. We were approaching the Toquima Cave Campground at Pete’s Summit. The last time we came through this remote area, it was completely deserted. When we arrived though, all the sites that can really be called a site were taken. This is the risk you run getting a late start on a busy camping weekend. We still had daylight left, so we pressed on to Monitor Valley, hoping for something at Pine Creek Campground.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Tent next to Pine Creek

When we finally got to the turn off for Pine Creek Campground, we saw a jeep coming down the road. Either they were just going out for a cruise, or they found the campground full and left. I was pretty nervous driving up into the mountains, expecting to find the campground full. Time was running out to go find an alternative in a nearby canyon.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Camp all setup

Entering the camp we found the first few sites packed. But just up the loop we found several sites open. We picked the site at the very top of the loop, right on Pine Creek. We setup our tent just above the creek, and I thought about how soothing the noise of the creek would be as we slept. After the shelter was setup, we went to work getting a fire built and food on the table. We relaxed by the campfire before going to bed, and enjoyed the dark starry night.  I wasn’t sure how I’d sleep with the sound of the creek so near, but it ended up being one of the best night’s sleep I’d had in a while.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Can you spot the lizard?

The next morning we headed south for the ghost town of Belmont. Belmont was established following a silver strike in 1865, and at one time boasted four stores, two saloons, five restaurants, livery stable, post office, assay office, bank, school, telegraph office, two newspapers, and a blacksmith shop. But like many of the mining towns in Nevada, it eventually experienced decline. Thankfully there are still some proud residents left in Belmont who take great care of the town.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Combination Mill – East Belmont

We climbed up out of Monitor Valley to East Belmont, just over the ridge from town and where most of the mining activity took place. Our first stop was at what is left of the Combination Mill. You can see the outline of the buildings here and there is a small room in the side of the hill, but the prominent feature is the giant remaining chimney. At this mill, the sulfide silver ores were crushed, roasted, salted, and mixed with mercury to extract the silver. The big smokestacks were intended to carry the smoke and pollutants down wind and away from the community of East Belmont. I can only imagine the smell and health hazard!

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Chimney at the Combination Mill – East Belmont

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Welcome to Belmont

Just over the ridge from the Combination Mill is the main town of Belmont. We first stopped at the center of town at a self serve visitor center. Here you can pick up a pamphlet for a self-guided tour of 16 points of interest. We leashed up the dogs, and began a leisurely stroll around town.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Still Standing

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Bank Building

Only the front of the old bank building still stands. It was originally a bank, but later became a sheriff’s office with 2 jail cells in the basement. In 1874 two strangers, Charlie McIntyre and Jack Walker, drifted into town and had an altercation that ended up with a citizen being wounded by gunfire. Charlie and Jack were taken to the jail in this building. A vigilante lynch mob broke into the jail one night, and hung the two strangers in the basement. Such was justice in the old west.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Rubble

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Rust in Peace

Weekend in Monitor Valley
A little overgrown

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Fire Dept

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Turn up the heat!

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Maid’s day off

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Indian Maggie’s Saloon

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Pretty good indeed

We walked all over town, looking at all the points of interest.  The main attraction in town, though, is the big Belmont Courthouse, built in 1875-1876. From a distance it looks well maintained and in good shape. It’s not until you get up close that you see it’s as old as it is. We arrived for a tour, but the tour guide never showed. It looks like we could have gone down the street to one of the local businesses to request a tour, but it just wasn’t that big of deal. We peeked in the windows instead, and saw walls covered in graffiti. Apparently there is one marking on the first floor that reads, “Charlie Manson + family 1969,” with a peace symbol drawn in the O in Manson. Some speculate that this inscription from the doomsday cult may be authentic. Not able to see much inside, we wandered around back and found a few jail cells with heavy iron doors. I feel sorry for anyone who got locked inside one of these metal boxes on a hot day!

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Belmont Courthouse

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Locked Up

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Jail Keeper

Weekend in Monitor Valley
View to the Southwest

Before heading south, we stopped at the spring in the middle of town, drank the cool water, and refilled our water bottles. This spring was a good stop for early Native American hunting parties, and probably a reason the town was built where it was.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Spring water

Our next stop was the Belmont Cemetery. We didn’t spend too much time here, but examined a few of the older headstones.  It’s a peaceful and well maintained place.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Belmont Cemetery

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Old Grave Site

We left Belmont to the southwest, and drove through the hills to the small ghost town of Manhattan. There are a few people living here, but it’s not as well preserved like Belmont.   According to this website, the church in Manhattan was originally in Belmont and moved here in 1905.  The new church in Belmont is a replica of the old one.  We decided not to stop and hike around, and just viewed a few sites from the car before returning to Belmont.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Old Church in Manhattan

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Mine in Manhattan

Upon returning to Belmont, we investigated the Belmont campground. I didn’t see any fee stations, and the place seemed to be occupied by RVs and buses, the visitors probably staying more long term. There were more ATVs in town than cars, and more often than not, there was a dog riding on the ATV as well. I think a lot of these ATVs were coming from this campground.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Dirty Dick’s Belmont Saloon

Wanting to get a cold drink before heading back to Monitor Valley, we stopped at Dirty Dick’s Belmont Saloon. Since we had our dogs, we couldn’t stay inside, but we enjoyed beers and sodas out on the porch looking out over the canyon. The bartender says we missed a huge Labor Day party the day before, complete with a BBQ. We’ll have to keep this mind for next year!

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Enjoying a cold drink at Dirty Dick’s Saloon

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Whoa!

Once back to Monitor Valley, we took a small side road to explore a hill of interesting rock formations. We climbed around the rocks, and investigated the little canyons. This little hill would have been great to climb if we had more energy and weren’t ready to get back to camp.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Back to Monitor Valley

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Climbing some rock formations

Back at the Pine Creek Campground we relaxed for a while, then began our chores. The sky had darkened, and we could hear thunder off in the distance. It sprinkled lightly off and on, and we weren’t sure if the storm would pass. We built a fire and cooked dinner. The rain picked up a little after dinner, and then continued to build. Soon it was a full on thunderstorm, and we retreated to the tent. The campfire hissed and died.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Pine Creek Campground

Thankfully we brought some good books along. The rain continued on, never letting up. Thunder boomed overhead, and one of our dogs dogs shook with fear. It’d be a long time before she finally calmed down. We could no longer hear the creek, and fell asleep to the sound of rain instead.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Creekside Camping

We awoke to a calm cool morning. The desert can sometimes heat up quickly as soon as the sun comes up, but the temperature stayed comfortable all morning. We made up for the campfire we missed out on the night before, and took our time packing up.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Morning Fire

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Pine Creek

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Turnoff to Pott’s Ranch

After packing up, it was time for the grand finale of the visit in Monitor Valley, a stop at Pott’s Hot Springs. The rain had left the dirt road in a different state than when we arrived. There were puddles everywhere, and we had to scan the road for new ruts and washouts. On the plus side, there was no dust.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Pott’s Hot Springs

Activity in the valley had really died down by Sunday, and we were pretty sure we’d have the hot springs to ourselves. A quick scan of the area from the road with binoculars verified this. When we got to the hot tub, it was already full and ready, and we promptly jumped in for a long period of relaxation. It looks like the place had some activity over the weekend, and there was a bit of litter in the area. In some places you expect this, but it seemed to defile this pristine location. Before leaving we walked around and picked up all the trash, leaving the place better than we found it. We also drained the tub and fixed up the flume a bit. It’ll be all ready for the next visit.

Weekend in Monitor Valley
Back over Pete’s Summit

As we left Monitor Valley, I examined all the other possibilities for exploration. Unexplored canyons and unclimbed mountains. The Table Mountain Wilderness on the east side of the Valley. You could spend days here exploring. A whole book could be written about this place. We can’t wait to go back.

More photos of this trip can be seen on Flickr here.

Additional information on Belmont at this site here.

What is Wilderness?

What is wilderness? Most often we hear the term in the news as a place in dispute. One user group wanting to protect an area of land from another group, another user group saying it should be open to them as well. Some accuse hikers of being selfish, wanting only a place of exclusivity. Other more intrusive entities want in too, promising not to make a mess with their all-new, hi-tech industrial machinery. Hikers, mountain bikers, ranchers, loggers, land developers, mining companies, oil drillers…we all want a piece.

Twenty Lakes Basin

In the last couple years, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in several wilderness areas and national parks.  Hiking, camping, swimming, and snowshoeing.  Sweating, freezing, relaxing, and suffering.  It has certainly given me a new perspective of what wilderness means to me, and what types of activity should be allowed there.  It’s one of the only places left where you can go for solitude, to shut out the outside world, to heal and detox your mind, and to remind yourself of what’s really important in life.

Hike to Round Top

I recently read a book with an excellent description of wilderness, an explanation that really hit the nail on the head for me. Here’s an excerpt from Edward Abbey’s 1968 autobiographical work, Desert Solitaire:

“Wilderness. The word itself is music.

Wilderness, wilderness . . . We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination.”

Capitol Reef

“Why such allure in the very word? What does it really mean? Can wilderness be defined in the words of government officialdom as simple as “A minimum of not less than 5000 contiguous acres of roadless area”? This much may be essential in attempting a definition but it is not sufficient; something more is involved.”

Capitol Reef

“Suppose we say that wilderness invokes nostalgia, a justified not merely sentimental nostalgia for the lost America our forefathers knew. The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit, Romance–but not to be dismissed on that account. The romantic view, while not the whole of truth, is a necessary part of the whole truth.”

Leavitt Meadows

“But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need–if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us–if only we were worthy of it.”

Alaska

“No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

Alaska

Any human activity makes an impact in the wilderness, but it’s important that we visit it. More people need to know what clean water tastes like.  What it’s like to breathe fresh mountain air.  What “quiet” sounds like.  To stand under a giant tree that’s older than this country.  The exhilaration of diving into a cold mountain lake.   The more people experience wilderness, the more they’ll realize what’s at stake and want to protect it.  They may even bring some of that wilderness back with them, and feel stronger about protecting their own community as well.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV

So what type of activities should be allowed in wilderness and other protected areas that express our loyalty to the earth?  The Leave No Trace Principals are a good place to start, guidelines to be followed that minimize our impact in sensitive areas and protect our remaining wild places.

Carson-Iceberg Wilderness

Some activities are definitely more gentler than others though. Hiking in on foot is the primary way we access wilderness these days. It’s quiet, gentle on the earth, and you can’t carry much with you.  It’s not easy, and you have to earn your way in. Riding in on horseback is the other generally accepted method of non-mechanized travel. There is much discussion as to whether mountain bikes should be allowed into wilderness areas. I’m on the fence with this one. As a mountain biker myself, I don’t think they do any more damage than a horse. They’re also quiet, and would probably be compatible in some areas. Most of the wilderness I’ve visited though, it’s the rugged terrain and overgrown trails that would keep the bikes out, not the law.  Still, some areas might benefit from mountain bike use, as there is much interest in building quality trails among this group.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass

But can activities that require roads, make loud noise, dig big holes, spill toxic substances, exploit the land, and build permanent structures be compatible with wilderness?  I don’t think so.  At least with very few exceptions.  Not without changing the definition of wilderness.  It’s a destruction of paradise, and a betrayal to future generations for short term gain.

Hiking to Agnew Lake

The Rim Fire raging to the west of Yosemite has brought thick choking smoke to northern Nevada. The Carson City health department has issued warnings that the air quality is fluctuating between “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy”. Desperate for some clean air and outdoor time, we decided to try our luck at the higher elevations, hoping that we could get above the smoke. A first attempt was made at Carson Pass up at 8,575 feet elevation, but we never broke through the haze. We drove back through Tahoe, but it was every bit as smokey there. We returned home to regroup and come up with a new plan.

Agnew Lake
Leaving the Rush Creek Trailhead

Looking at the current satellite imagery, we could see that the best bet was to head further south in the direction of the fire. The smoke plume was fairly narrow at the source, and didn’t fan out until it drifted north. Just to the east of Yosemite by Mono Lake looked reasonably clear.  At just over 4 miles round trip, Agnew Lake above the June Lakes Loop has been on my to-do-list, and looked like it’d be perfect for a Sunday afternoon.  We quickly loaded up the car, threw some leftover pizza in my pack, and got out of town. The smoke didn’t clear until we were nearly at Bridgeport, CA. What a treat it was to see blue skies! We rolled our windows down and breathed deeply.

Agnew Lake
Leaving Silver Lake below

South of Lee Vining and the Tioga Pass cutoff, we took the June Lakes Loop. Just as we reached Silver Lake, we parked at the Rush Creek Trailhead near the pack station at around 7,200 feet elevation. It’s a busy area with the nearby campground, pack station, and other resort activities, but there was still plenty of parking left.

Agnew Lake
Entering the Ansel Adams Wilderness

The trail borders a parking area for a short distance, cuts behind the campground, crosses Alger Creek, and then begins its ascent to the south towards Rush Creek and Agnew Lake. Although the trail gains elevation pretty rapidly, it’s never too steep.

Agnew Lake
Nearing the falls at Rush Creek

Soon we crossed the border into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Just seeing the name on the sign got me a little excited to be hiking this trail. Here is some info about this wilderness from the Forest Service site:

Ansel Adams Wilderness encompasses 232,000 spectacular acres of granite peaks, steep-walled gorges and rock outcroppings. Several small glaciers cling to north and northeast facing slopes of the highest peaks. There are also a number of fairly large lakes on the eastern slope of the precipitous Ritter Range. Elevations range from 3,500 feet to 13,157 feet. The area includes approximately 350 miles of trails, including portions of the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. 79,000 acres of the Ansel Adams Wilderness are managed by the Inyo National Forest, while the remainder is managed by the Sierra National Forest and Devil’s Postpile National Monument.

Agnew Lake
Tramway construction

The trail is well constructed, and is wide enough to accommodate the pack horses that frequently use it. Set into the mountainside, the landscape drops off steeply to the east of the trail. It played with my fear of heights at times. The immediate visual would cause a brief panic impulse, but then a scan of the terrain would relieve me that I wasn’t going to fall. I never felt in any real danger while on the trail, but this is certainly a trail where you want your dog leashed and your small children kept close.

Agnew Lake
A long way down!

We soon came into view of Rush Creek and the falls. There didn’t appear to be much water cascading this time of year, but it was still interesting to see the water taking such a treacherous course down the granite cliff.  I bet it’s spectacular in the Spring.

Agnew Lake
Looking up the tramway

Near Rush Creek we encountered the tramway, a super steep rail system. One site, The Sheet, says the tramline, which runs to Agnew Lake and Gem Lake, serving the SCE hydroelectric power plants at each, was built in 1915. Another site says, “this tramway was used in the construction of the hydroelectric facilities above. Its rails, lifts, and cars were purchased from a defunct mine at Bodie. This first section of tramway, 4,800 feet long, runs from Silver Lake up to Agnew Lake, with a rise in elevation of 1,250 feet.” That’s a lot of cable!

Agnew Lake
A little exposure

I’ve seen many photos of people hiking up the tramway tracks, and it looks like a quick way up to Agnew Lake. With all the construction signs and equipment on the tracks though, I didn’t feel it was the best idea. And besides, I wanted to hike the upcoming section of trail.

Agnew Lake
Sierra coffeeberry

After crossing the tracks, the trail gets into a section where it’s cut into the very steep granite cliff side. This section pushed my fear of heights, but was actually fun. I kept my eyes on the trail instead of the drop-off, and this kept me moving forward. It also helped knowing from experience that I could trust the abilities of my family as well. I knew they’d be OK, and I could relax somewhat.

Agnew Lake
Nearing the dam

After returning home, I talked with a friend that used to live in this area. He said that years ago, several pack horses died on this section of trail. They were all tied together, and one fell off the side taking the rest of them with it. All but one died, and the surviving horse had to be tied to a tree for several weeks with its front end elevated to let its legs heal. There’s no way I would’ve ridden a horse through this section, and especially not now after hearing the story!

Agnew Lake
Agnew Lake, 8,508 ft elevation

A few switchbacks later, and we were at Agnew Lake at 8,508 feet elevation according to the sign. At least what was left of the lake. We hiked past all the dam equipment including little buildings, tram tracks, spillways, pipes, and the dam itself. We descended some stairs that looked like they probably enter the water at high water mark. Now though, they just took us down to a long descending beach.

Agnew Lake
Agnew Lake looking towards the Gem Lake Dam

We followed the beach around to the south and found a windbreak behind a big rock. The wind was blowing pretty hard, a chilling reminder that summer is nearing an end. We rested, enjoyed some pizza and water, took a few photos, and surveyed the area. The Gem Lake dam was just above to the west, and the trail was pretty short to get there. We would’ve loved to explore more, but it was 4PM already. If we wanted to get dinner in Lee Vining, and get home at a reasonable hour, we’d have to get going.

Agnew Lake
Agnew Lake was way below the dam

Agnew Lake
Wind Break

Agnew Lake
Silver Lake and Mono Lake in the distance

We left the lake the same way we came, climbing back up to the trail. The trail on the eastern slope was now mostly in the shadows. I was curious to see how I’d do coming back down the switchbacks with a different perspective.

Agnew Lake
Down the switchbacks

The trail turned out to be not too bad for me, possibly even easier having already walked it once. I started thinking though, that this was definitely a time when the trail was more fun than the destination. With the high wind, the really low water level, and the industrial feel of the dam equipment at Agnew Lake, the trail turned out to be the best part of the day.

Agnew Lake
Rugged Trail

Heading north now, we were treated to all new views on the descent. Silver Lake and a meadow below, and Mono Lake over the mountains to the northwest.  The landscape in this area is rugged and beautiful, and we definitely want to come back for further exploration into the wilderness.

Agnew Lake
Rose hips

Near the bottom, I pulled over with my dog to let a couple hikers pass. They’d apparently been out for a couple days, and had attempted 13,149 foot tall Mount Ritter. They didn’t make it, and were too tired to hike back to Tuolumne Meadows where they started. They asked us if we were headed back to Lee Vining and if they could hitch a ride. We had just enough room for the two, and agreed to shuttle them north.  It was fun to hear the story of their hike as we drove away from June Lakes.

Agnew Lake
Meadow south of Silver Lake

We dropped the two hikers from San Jose off at the entrance to Tioga Pass so they could hitch another ride up to Yosemite to rejoin their group, then proceeded to Lee Vining for dinner on the deck at Bodie Mike’s. They agreed to let us bring our dogs to dinner, the same as on our visit here last year. We enjoyed burgers and beer and thought about the drive home. The thought of returning into the smoke after a day of fresh air wasn’t appealing at all. We were just starting to feel better! North of Bridgeport at Devils Gate, we entered the thick smoke again and tried to enjoy the eerie red sunset. There’s no real hope on the horizon at this time for fire containment.  It’ll be another long week of enduring smoke, but also good incentive.  Plans are already in the works for another trip to find fresh air next weekend!

More photos from this hike can be found on Flickr here.

Note: Permits are required for overnight trips into Ansel Adams Wilderness from this trailhead, but currently not for day hikes.

Canyonlands National Park – The Needles

A continuation of our Spring Break trip earlier this year…

After a few days in Moab, Arches National Park, and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands, it was time to move on. Due to the crowds of people focused around Moab, it had been pretty much impossible to camp. And that’s if your idea of camping is setting up within a few feet of noisy, hulking RVs. Furthermore, the thought of making a reservation to camp just seems blasphemous to me. The Needles District of Canyonlands is over a 70 mile drive to the south, so we thought if we got an early of enough start, we might just score a campsite in the remote center of the park.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Newspaper Rock

After leaving the main highway, we began our drive towards the park. Along the way we stopped at Newspaper Rock, one of the largest known collections of petroglyphs. The first carvings at the Newspaper Rock site were made around 2,000 years ago, left by people from the Archaic, Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, Anglo, and Pueblo cultures. There is much to look at and ponder on this rock.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
What does it all mean?

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Six Shooter Peak

Further in along the road, the landscape becomes more dramatic, with giant red cliffs towering above. There looked to be much to explore, and we weren’t even officially in the National Park yet. Many of the unique rock features are named, like Six Shooter Peak.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Puebloan granary on the Roadside Ruin Trail

The first thing we wanted to do when entering the park is find a campsite. We drove on past the Visitor Center, and into the campground loops. It looked like a nice quiet campground, but there was not a single space left. I was sure we would have found at least one! We decided to go back to the Needles Outpost just outside the park entrance. It’s a private campground, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I worried we’d have more of the same craziness we saw back in Moab. As it turned out though, it was well maintained, and had many nice tent sites right up along massive red rocks. The office is also a little store, has camping supplies, food, and a small selection of beer. It was uncrowded, so we got just the site we wanted. We setup camp, then headed out to do some hiking.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Cowboy Line Camp – Cave Spring Trail

The Needles District forms the southeast corner of Canyonlands and was named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. Our goal for the day was to take it easy, and do some of the smaller hikes near the park road. There were dark clouds rolling in as well, and we didn’t want to be too far out anyway if it started raining. Our first hike, a distance just long enough to stretch our legs, took us to see an ancient Puebloan granary along the Roadside Ruin Trail, a place once used for storing food.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Cave Spring

Next up was the Cave Spring Trail. Although another short hike at just over half a mile, there was much to see and experience. The trail first takes you by an old Cowboy Line Camp, various petroglyphs including hand prints, and by cave spring itself. Although just a trickle, this spring must have been a life saver for travelers through the region at one time.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Cave Spring Trail

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Hand Prints

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Ladder on the Cave Spring Trail

The Cave Spring trail eventually leaves the ground, climbing up ladders to a slickrock trail above. The rock formations, including the rock you’re hiking on are mushroom shaped. This is caused by rock that is more quickly eroded away at the base. It makes for a bizarre looking landscape.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Cactus, Grasses, and Cryptobiotic Soil in a slickrock pothole

There are many potholes on top of the slickrock, and some have even collected enough blowing dirt to form little mini ecosystems in the rock, supporting plants like cactus and grasses.  Also among the plants is cryptobiotic soil, a biological soil crust composed of living cyanobacteria, green algae, brown algae, fungi, lichens, and/or mosses. It’s very fragile, takes years to create, and is easily damaged by boots. It’s also everywhere, along with numerous caution signs not to damage it. You may think you can just openly roam land like this, but there is fragile life everywhere. Thankfully there is much slickrock to walk on that lets you navigate without fear of trampling something. Still, there was much evidence of careless people, especially near the proximity of the trailheads.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Up on top – Cave Spring Trail

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
View of the Needles from Pothole Point Trail

The Pothole Point Trail was next to explore, another short trail that was mostly on slickrock. As the name suggests, the rock is full of potholes. It must be fun to watch this area in heavy rain, watching the potholes fill up with water, spill over into other holes, finally draining to the washes below.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Natural Sculptures

Once on top, the Pothole Point Trail wanders through some giant boulders sitting on top of the slickrock. All around are views of mushroom rocks, needles, and canyons. It was definitely the closest thing we’ll ever get to exploring another planet.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Are we still on the same planet?

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Pothole Point Trail

Eventually the rain made good on its threats, and quickened our pace back to the trailhead. Not long after returning to the car, the rain stopped, and we found a picnic area to cook up some hot soup. Not sure what the weather was going to do next, we decided to go to the Visitor Center, and then back to camp.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Wooden Shoe Rock (far right background)

Once back at camp, the weather cleared up considerably. Kristy wanted to take a nap, and the boy and I wanted to explore the rocks above. It turned out to be a fun climb. There were many little features to explore, and most took a little route finding to get to. When we got as high as we wanted, we took time to enjoy the view.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Exploring the rocks above camp

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
View from the rocks above camp

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Another view above camp

After climbing back down, I took a little time to sit on a rock and enjoy the silence of the desert. After being around lots of people, jeeps, ATVs, and motorcycles, the solitude felt wonderful. There wasn’t even a breeze at this moment. A crow flew above me, and I could actually hear the feathers cutting through the air as it changed directions.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Time for Wine

The boy and I visited the camp store to get some supplies for the evening. Marshmallows, and a couple single cans of beer. We found a suitable roasting stick on the way back to camp.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Sundown

As fancy as the hotel was back in Moab, it didn’t compare to our campsite. Campfire, cocktails, dinner, and a spectacular desert sunset.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Sunset

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Mushrooms and Needles

The next morning we decided to do one more hike before leaving the park to head to Colorado. The weather was perfect, and allowed us to get further out this time. For a few hours, we explored the 2.4 mile Slickrock Trail. The trail is almost entirely on slickrock, so you must follow the cairns to navigate the loop. Along the way there are many opportunities for further exploration, and we also took the time to just sit and enjoy the view.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Break Time on the Slickrock Trail

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Amazing Color

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Slickrock Trail

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Following the cairns of the Slickrock Trail

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Deep Canyons, High Mesas

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
Rest before the hike out

The Slickrock Trail was a good last hike. It was a little sad to be leaving Utah, but the excitement of exploring Colorado was enticing too. We left the park the same way we came in, then headed southeast for Cortez and Mesa Verde.

Canyonlands NP - Needles District
La Sal Mountains

Visiting the Needles was definitely one of the high points of our vacation, and we only caught a glimpse of what the area has to offer. It’s a place we’ll have to come back to for more exploration, and take some of the longer trails out into the needles.

More photos of this trip on Flickr HERE.

Canyonlands National Park – Needles District Website