Thursday, October 25, 2012

Palo Duro Canyon - Running the Wild Frontier

One day last week I was able to escape from the job site I was working on in the Texas Panhandle and spend the morning running through Palo Duro Canyon. My memories of this area go back to family camping trips when I was very young, and it had been many years since I've been here.

 Since those early visits, I've developed a love for exploring desert landscapes, especially those involving canyons, to an extent that comes close to rivaling my love for the mountains. I've spent long hours running through the desert canyon areas of Utah and Arizona, among other less notable areas, and have come to consider the wild places in northern Arizona and southern Utah to be the standard to which I compare every other similar place that I visit. By this comparrison, Palo Duro Canyon does not come near the same level as Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, or the Grand Canyon; however it is by far the best canyon area there is in Texas, and is beautiful and rugged in its' own right.

The developed trail system within Palo Duro Canyon state park is extensive enough to accomodate a run lasting several hours without re-visiting any trails, and the trails are arranged so that many different combinations of loop routes can easily be pieced together. On this trip, I primarily ran on the network of developed trails in the central section of the park. Along the way, I identified a number of other primitive trails, game trails, and dry washes that could be followed if a longer expedition venturing into some of the more remote areas of the park are desired.

The red sandstone formations which rise up along the canyon walls give relief to the sometimes green, sometimes brown growth of cedar trees which line the bottoms of the canyons.

In the dry times of the year, the vast majority of the creeks within the park dry up and leave exposed their sandy and rocky paths like the one shown below, which can be followed all throughout the park to access some of the smaller, more remote side canyons.

Many of the developed trails in the park see heavy use by mountain bikers. The Little Fox Canyon trail is one of these, and along a remote portion of this trail a rustic rest stop/meditation area of sorts has been built within a small grove of cedars, and features dozens of toys and trinkets hung from the branches of the trees. This must be the type of thing that only mountain bikers can truly appreciate, because I just found it sort of creepy.

Possibly the most notable natural feature within the park is the Lighthouse - a 300' red sandstone tower with a high bench connecting it to a prominent fin that I don't know the name of.

The connecting bench between the Lighthouse and the large fin was a fantasic area to sit and admire the surrounding beauty. I felt like a kid, full of energy and free of worry, running around the smooth sandstone formations and the soft sandy slopes in this area.

The mostly dry wash below was just too intriguing to avoid exploring, and I spent some significant time off-route exploring the path of this interesting little canyon.

The perfectly cool fall weather I experienced during my run provided an excellent setting for this adventure. In an area of the state with few things that I consider worth seeing or doing, taking a run through Palo Duro Canyon stands out as an anomoly in the most positive of ways. I'm hopeful that during one of my upcoming trips to this area that I'll be able to take some additional time to escape to the canyon and explore some of the more primative and remote areas that I did not get to visit on this trip. Until then, I guess running around Black Canyon and Moab will have to suffice.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Conundrum Hot Springs - Experiencing the Aspen Fall Colors

I recently spent the weekend in Aspen, CO taking part in some fantastic runs. My timing happened to coincide with the peak of the fall colors in the Roaring Fork valley. As one may guess, the town of Aspen and the surrounding area is littered with huge groves of aspen trees that turn bright golden yellow during the fall. Over the weekend, I was able to run the Golden Leaf Half Marathon and take a nice run to Conundrum Hot Springs.

The Golden Leaf Half Marathon begins at the base of the Snowmass Village ski resort, and after climbing up the ski runs within the resort, traverses across single track trails to the town of Aspen. The only slight deterrent to the amazing views of the fall colors was the slight haze of smoke from the fires in Wyoming and Idaho, but this was a minimal bother. The race itself was an excellent event and is one that I'll make a priority to try to run in the future - hopefully improving on a somewhat "flat" performance, yet still enjoyable experience, this year.

Saturday night I camped at the Conundrum Creek trailhead and waited until full light in the morning to begin my run up the trail. I didn't want to miss out on any of the views I knew would be in store for me. The run up and down the ~9 mile trail to Conundrum Hot Springs was absolutely spectacular with the fall colors. The second highlight of the run in addition to the fall colors was breaking up the running with a nice long soak in the hot springs at the head of the valley with a number of people who had backpacked in for the weekend. The weather was perfect for this sort of activity, and the warm water worked well to relieve some of the soreness in my legs from the prior day's race.

In lieu of attempting to narrarate the details of my run up Conundrum Creek, I'll let the photos speak for themselves. I've decided this is one of those runs that will go on my "must repeat as soon as possible" list.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Alaska Adventures Part 3 - Crow Pass and Pioneer Peak

After the run to the Harding Ice Field on Sunday morning I drove up to Girdwood and spent the rest of the day checking out the area, running on some trails in and around the Alyeska ski area, and positioning myself for the next day's planned adventure - a run up to Crow Pass and exploring the valleys and peaks around the Raven Glacier and Clear Glacier.

The next morning I woke up to continued rain - just as the forecast had predicted. I drove to the trailhead, and it was raining there also. I took a nap for half an hour, and when I woke up it was still raining. I decided to just go for it and hope that the weather would clear eventually, so I stashed a beer in the creek and took off up the trail. The higher I climbed the heavier the rain seemed to get despite the hints that the clouds were beginning to break up in the higher elevations.

I came across this nice looking air compressor and receiver tank among other scattered mining junk at the old Monarch Mine site.

Higher through the valley, the rain continued to come down and obscure the views of the surrounding mountains, but during the times when there were breaks in some of the low clouds I was able to catch some sights of the beautiful parts of the terrain.

Near the top of Crow Pass the wind speed increased, driving the rain directly into me. I had read that upon cresting the pass, the Raven Glacier will come into view and provide a majestic sight. The picture below is what I instead saw when cresting the pass.

The Raven Glacier is in there somewhere I'm sure, but it's not showing itself any time soon.

At that point, I decided there wasn't much use in trying to go any higher or in making the traverse over toward the Clear Glacier with the current state of the weather, so I turned around and ran back down the trail the way I had come up. As I descended toward treeline, the clouds once again gave some hints that they were starting to break up, but I'm sure I would have had to wait out the storm for a long time in order to see much improvement at the higher elevations.

Fast forward to early evening that day as I pulled into the trailhead for Pioneer Peak near Palmer, which was my destination for the following day. The rain had stopped and the sky had cleared, but there was evidence that this area had been fairly soaked by the recent rain storms.

I was running low on clean water and I had read that there were creeks that crossed the trail below treeline, so I set off with a few empty water bottles in hand. Since I didn't plan on going far, I didn't feel the need to wear substantial footwear so I set off up the trail in flip-flops. I soon realized this wasn't the best choice since the trail was choked with all sorts of brush, including lots of Devil's Club, and the trail itself was still excessively muddy from the rain. Nonetheless, I continued and finally found a creek about half a mile and a significant amount of vertical from the beginning of the trail.

The entire time I had been hiking up I felt fairly uncomfortable because the vegetation surrounding me was so thick that I could rarely see more than a few feet in any given direction and I felt as though I may startle the local wildlife more easily if I were not able to spot them from a distance, and vice versa. The tall grasses along the sides of the trail were littered with spots where large animals had recently been bedded down, as evidenced by the remaining indentions, and I was just waiting to happen upon some bear or moose taking a snooze right next to the trail.

As I filled my water bottles in the creek, I heard a rustling sound on a small rise above me and looked up to see a bull moose about 30 meters from me, just trying to figure out why I was disturbing his watering hole. He wandered off shortly and I hurried to fill my bottles and head back down the trail for fear of being forceably removed from the area.

The next morning as I hiked up the overgrown trail below treeline, I once again kept alert for nearby wildlife. The trail that I was hiking up was a truly spectacular thing when considering that it had been constructed through thick rainforest vegetation on the sometimes very steep mountainside. The trail below treeline was very difficult to move quickly up because it maintained a steep pitch, it was overgrown with all sorts of plant life, and it was covered in slippery mud. I felt significantly relieved when passing above treeline and leaving the annoyance of the vegetation and excessive mud.

Markers were placed along the trail indicating progress every 200 feet. By this, I do not mean every 200 vertical feet gained, but every 200 feet straight line distance along the trail. The markers were consistently placed from the "0" marker at the start of the trail all the way to the point where the trail crested the ridge nearly 5 miles into the trek. I've never seen anything like this and the markings seemed excessive to say the least, but perhaps they serve some useful purpose that I'm not aware of.
Below, one of the helpful markers indicates that I've traveled exactly 8200 feet up the overgrown and muddy trail.

Above treeline, the terrain became much more friendly and I would have been able to move more quickly if I had not been stopping every 30 seconds to take pictures. This area was just exceptionally beautiful, and in all I took over 200 photos on this adventure alone.

As I climed higher, I began to catch views of the higher mountains in the eastern portion of Chugach State Park.

I came across a frozen creek running out from below a large snowfield just before gaining the ridgeline, and refilled an empty water bottle with the ice cold clear water.

Far to the west, Foraker, Hunter, and Denali were clearly visible (a rare sight) sticking out above the lower mountains, but became obscured by the ridge of Pioneer Peak as I climbed higher.

Across the Knick River, evidence of the snow produced from the recent storms provided a nice contrast.

Below, the mountains of Chugach State Park shed the last bits of cloudcover from the recent storms.

Evidence of the recent light snowfall was still lingering on the higher portions of the south ridge of Pioneer Peak.

When I reached the south summit of Pioneer Peak, I spent a significant amount of time just admiring the views in every direction. The view below is to the south across the Knick River and into the Talkeetna range.

To the east, Mount Marcus Baker, Mount Goode, and Mount Gannett continually came into better view the higher I climbed. The views of these high peaks with the Knick glacier spilling out below them was one of the most beautiful mountain scenes I've experienced.

The tundra was beginning to show some signs of fall, and as I descended from the mountain I stopped to attempt some artsy colorful shots with the high peaks in the background.

One last look back at Pioneer Peak, with the south summit on the left and the slightly higher north summit on the right. The climb to the south summit proved to be a fun ridge scramble without any real technical difficulties as long as the route finding was paid attention to.

Later that evening, as I watched the sun set over the high mountains far across the Cook Inlet, I reminisced over the things I had experienced during my short time in Alaska. Even though I didn't feel ready to leave, I was thankful for the gift of experiencing such a beautiful area of the world in a way that few others do. I certainly hope to return here some day and continue exploring new areas and seeing new things in this amazing place.