This post is about the advantages that the unexpected twists and turns can bring whether you’re on a road trip, navigating life’s journey, or sheltering in place during our current COVID19 crisis.
On a road trip or an adventure vacation, I’m always inclined to follow the sign that points to waterfalls or scenic byways, even if it’s in a different direction than I’m heading. I may have a general plan for the day / week that includes multiple stops and hikes, but I’m more than happy to add one on or adapt my agenda. For me, it’s about exploring and experiencing as much I can. So many times when I look back, it seems that it’s exactly those impromptu adventures and discoveries that I treasure most. On a road trip through Washington, Idaho and Montana, I expected Coeur d’Alene to be a major highlight—but it wasn’t for me. About 45 miles down the road, I accidentally discovered the charming town of Sandpoint, what a gem—wasn’t even on my radar. An off the highway stop in Montana yielded an amazingly mini-excursion at Kootenai Falls. On another road trip through the Pacific Northwest, taking a break at an innocuous looking roadside stop, I was delighted to find Cascade Falls where I spent half an hour mesmerized by the shadows and projectile splashes of wild salmon.
Sometimes there are signs and we can choose our journey. Other times, obstacles and detours, like the one we’re having now, are sprung upon us. I’m not saying there isn’t and won’t be hardship and loss, but what I know is that we will look back on these times and remember the silver linings. Maybe it was that one silly, brave friend who held live Facebook dance parties to lighten the mood (C), the group of 10 cars driving up and down the street honking happy birthday, the grade school teacher who decorated her car with balloons and called out to her students on her megaphone as she drove by their houses, the extra time that Mom’s and Dad’s are spending together and with their children will no doubt rank in their “best of family time memories”.
I have no doubt that creativity, artistry, and innovation will surge. People will move beyond inertia and procrastination to evolve and achieve as never before. And maybe social distancing is exactly what we need to learn how to truly connect and to savor those connections. These few weeks of shelter in place are but a blip in our lives. Like the salmon’s flash of florescence —there is much to treasure if you look for it.
What are your favorite memories so far from our enforced “time out”?
Bike up the backside of Palomar Mountain. Get a great workout while enjoying some solitude and splendid views of the San Diego back country, including Vail Lake and numerous snow-capped peaks (Thomas Mountain, San Jacinto, and San Gorgonio). This is nontechnical mountain biking at its best. If you like a climb with views, it’s a good one. Exceeded my expectations.
Their loss, our advantage.
We turned around at mile 8 as the trail was getting muddy and we were running out of daylight. It’s worth coming back to finish it off. Will update this post when I do. Until then, let the good times roll! What a spectacular way to spend the first day of 2020!
Miles: 12 Miles / 24 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation: ~4,000 ft
Difficulty: Depends on your fitness level, knee health, and affinity for climbs. Very doable, the super steep sections are relatively short. Terrain has some rutty sections, but mostly good. This would also be a great trail run, or training for the Catalina Marathon, or any endurance races.
Directions: From Temecula, take HWY 79 east for 18 miles. Stay on HWY 79 and make a right 2/10ths of a mile past the junction of HWY 371 to an RV park/resort. Follow the paved road for 0.3 miles then park in the large dirt area in front of the Fire Service Road 8S05
Notes: There’s no water along this exposed route—plan accordingly. It’s hot during the summer and you may encounter snow during winter, or mud after heavy rains or melts. Vehicles are allowed on this route, but seasonal closures for motorized access often occur. (A bonus for mountain bikers and trail runners.) Further up the mountain, the Forest Service has labeled the High Point Truck Trail (8S05) as 9S09 between this junction and the Palomar Divide Truck. When in doubt, stay on the most “main” looking route.
Bonus: Be sure to top off your ride with a visit to Ricardo Breceda’s amazing outdoor gallery of metal sculptures. Also, check out his work in wild open spaces of Anza Borrego too!
Framed by the iconic Crystal Crag and the wall of Mammoth Crest, Lake George is lovely spot for a quick nature immersion and possible wildlife sighting. It’s just a short drive out of town, and the highest road-accessible lake at 9,250 foot elevation.
Features: Hiking, fishing, camping, rustic cabins, boat rentals, a tackle and snack shop (seasonal), bear proof food storage, and bear sightings
Winter access to Lake George is by ski or snowshoe only
Crystal Lake Trail at Lake George
Distance: ~2.7 miles
Difficulty: Easy to moderate,
depending on your fitness level & altitude acclimation
Highlights: Panoramic views of the Mammoth Lakes Basin, captivating Crystal Lake
Bartlett Lake & TJ Lakes
Distance: ~1.5 miles
Big views for little effort.
The trail crosses a stream then meanders up through lodgepole pines, hemlocks,
western white pines to the shore of Barrett Lake.
It was along this trail on the edge of Lake St. George that we encountered a large brown bear. I was coming around the corner fast (trying to get as much hiking in before sunset as possible) when I heard a fisherman standing in the lake say in a low voice “Bear there.”
I stopped in my tracks. The bruin was blocking the trail and had its broad back to me. It was busy foraging in the fisherman’s backpack and appeared not to notice us. We quietly retreated up to a high spot off the trail. At one point, the bear looked up, I think he must have detected our scent. That’s when I snapped the shot. After taking another bear detour above the trail, we completed the TJ Lake loop, first passing Barrett Lake, Very picturesque and the light was perfect for reflection shots.
In all my years of hiking, this was my first bear encounter. (Well, I think there was one outside of my tent one night on top of San Jacinto, but I didn’t go out to greet it- just made loud noises to deter it.) What makes me sad is that this wild bear’s days are likely numbered due to it’s habituation to people.
More Mammoth Hikes
If you have more time than I did this trip, check out some of my favorite, longer hikes in the area :
For those of you who might be wondering, here’s a sample of what biking (road biking and mountain biking) looks like around St. George, Utah. As you can see, the views for much of this 60-mile ride were splendid, quintessential Utah—Virgin River, canyons, red rock, and snow-capped mountains. Road quality varied. (Utah drivers were not quite as courteous as I’d hoped. Lots of trucks sped by us without moving to the left or braking.)
Not bad, eh?
Toquerville /La Verkin Road Bike Loop ~60 Miles, ~2500 feet of climbing
A friend of mine, now a St. George local, guided us on this 60-mile road bike sampler with ~2500 feet of climbing on surrounding highways and byways. We took the lovely, low traffic 7 to Sand Hollow Road (rough surface) by Sand Hollow Reservoir (Half-Ironman site) across to State Street / 9. (The 9 is a main thoroughfare with heavy, fast traffic -not so nice. Maybe save this one for Sunday mornings when most of the locals are at church.)
At the halfway point, we enjoyed some refreshments and superb views at the super scenic, ever popular River Rock Roasting, which is perched on a cliff overlooking Virgin River in La Verkin. If you’re in the area, River Rock Roasting is a must stop and is definitely my top pick for coffee, food, brews and views. It’s slammed on Sundays (apparently everyone who is not in church goes here) so pick a weekday if possible.
Our route back on State Street/9 was topped off with a stop at dazzling Quail Creek State Park and Reservoir. And yes, you can swim in it. No, I didn’t this time, but will next! It’s 120 feet deep in places and stocked with rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, crappie, largemouth bass. There’s boating, kayaking, SUPs, hiking, biking and camping here.
There’s another route through the Gunlock and Snow Canyon area that has less car traffic, but we’d already explored those two areas so checking out the are on the flip side of St. George made sense.
Next time, will definitely try the Gunlock loop.
Desert Canyons Mountain Bike Trails: Pushing Tin and Secret Sauce ~8 miles
Our mountain bike sampler was limited as it had recently rained, but we’ve heard there’s tons of epic trails around here. The driest trail option was the newly developed Desert Canyons Trail System. We cruised around two of the trails, Pushing Tin and Secret Sauce, both pleasant easy to moderate with views from the top of the mesa out to the horizon. Unfortunately, these views are slated to be filled in by a Master Community in the near future. (The developer’s concession / gift was this mountain bike trail system.) We were lucky to have it to ourselves with no building encroachment yet.
Directions: From St. George, take the I-15 S to Desert Canyon s exit and take a left under the overpass
We were told that there’s plenty of great mountain biking in and near St. George, but it wasn’t in the cards for this trip. We did make it to Moab for an epic mountain bike ride – stay tuned for that post.
As far as these 2 rides go, I’ll give them 2 thumbs up.
Difficulty: Yes, challenging – all depends on your fitness level & your knee health. Peak is 14, 505 ft elevation with a gain & loss of 6,100 ft & rocky, uneven, occasionally treacherous terrain. If you have arthritis in your knees, like me, going down is going to hurt. A lot. Even with poles.
First of all, I probably wouldn’t have done Whitney again since I’d already been there and done that (1994) and I’m not much for redos.
But we were up in the area. And my swim buddy, Rosie, and a group of her friends were doing it, and Ken wanted to do it, so I figured let’s leave it to fate.
We raced down from Mammoth Lakes to Lone Pine and lined up at the Ranger and Visitor Center at 11AM sharp as instructed. Ken picked a lucky #3 out of the hat, which put us in the lead to capture a spot. Fate would have it that Mt. Whitney and I would meet again. Off we went equipped with the requisite bear canister.
Note the trail is difficult (altitude, terrain, length, elevation gain/loss). Many people train and prepare for months to do it. We are both endurance athletes and accustomed to pushing our boundaries (sometimes we are [i am] a bit too ambitious though – see our Catalina mt. bike adventure). While we were a little concerned about altitude sickness, we were relatively sure we could handle the hike.
Our trip to the mountains was last minute. We packed up in about 30 minutes and accidentally left out some key items (water purifier, hats, gloves, headlamps) at home. We stopped at the Lone Pine grocery and loaded up on munchies and water and then strolled across the street to pick up a couple headlamps at the Outfitters store.
Note, we were not prepared for high-altitude sub-freezing temps the night we camped (without a tent to keep the packs light) and the morning we hiked to the peak. I’m going to put together a camping checklist and post it here so we don’t leave home without the essentials again.
We could have cut the weight in our packs significantly if we’d brought the water purifier. Contrary to memory of 1994 there was plenty of water along the trail and at Trail Camp – lakes, streams and waterfalls.
We started on the trail at 2:30 PM with the goal of camping at Trail Camp 6 miles up, elevation 12,000 ft. I had a vision of sunrise on the peak that I wanted to fulfill – that would certainly make hiking this monster twice worth it. I had no memory of the lovely lakes, streams, and waterfalls (perhaps it was a dry year) and the beauty of the Whitney.
Note there is an earlier opportunity to camp near a waterfall at Outpost Camp just 3.8 miles up and 10,800 feet elevation.
Waterfall at Outpost Camp
About a mile after Outpost Camp the terrain begins to get a bit more ornery (rocky)…Of course, the views become more beguiling to take your mind off the occasionally tortuous footing. Speaking of footing, I hiked both times in trail runners. Ken wore running shoes and said his feet took quite a beating. It’s really personal preference. A visual poll of hikers, coming and going, was about 50/50 hard-toe hiking shoes, running / trail running shoes.
Some hikers wore no shoes at all.
We arrived at Trail Camp at 6:30 PM just in time for sunset. At least a half dozen other hiking parties had already set up their tents. We laid out our mats and sleeping bags. I jumped in immediately, the temperature was already dropping. The video and the picture below were taken from my sleeping bag vantage point. How dreamy to experience sunset on Whitney and (fingers-crossed) sunrise too.
After chowing down on some nuts, Slim Jim’s and other munchies “in bed”, Ken put the bear canister ~150 yards away and it was lights out. My plan was for a 3:30 AM start. We didn’t sleep much—it was quite chilly (understatement). At 2:30, I saw another group rustling around with their headlamps and beginning their hike to summit. We got our start around 30 minutes later, rising at the crack of darkness to make a run for sunrise at the summit. Watching the string of headlamps bobbing in the darkness ahead and above us, snaking around the ridges through the infamous 97 switch backs was like being in an adventure film. I wish I had taken some pictures or videos, but my phone battery was low and my hands were freezing, despite my improvised sock mittens.
Unfortunately, my headlamp failed (note to self – bring extra batteries – duh). Since my eyesight is so bad, Ken let me lead with the other headlamp. The footing is quite tricky and some areas were wet so it slowed us down a bit. (The puddles had turned to ice when we reached them on the way back.)
When we arrived at Trail Crest, the highest trail pass in the US (13,645 ft) it was still pitch dark and we were half -asleep and perhaps a bit altitude touched. Somehow, we misread the sign and went the wrong way – going about 1/2 mile off course. We thought it was odd that we’d be descending before the peak, but we saw some headlamps down there and none in the other direction…Despite the wrong turn, we made it to the top in time for one of the most memorable sunrises of my life.
This time, no altitude sickness at all, but you can hear me slurring my speech a tad in the video – from the cold & altitude (no mimosas, unfortunately). These past 24 years and my history of running have not been kind to my knees so the way down was much harder (hurt more) than the way up. Not sure I’ll be back again, but ya never know. Maybe I should do it every 24 years? Maybe not. Anyway, it was totally worth it.
The steep drop-offs on the upper trail were equally daunting in the dark and in the daylight.
The view of a few of the infamous 99 switchbacks and the little lake by Trail Camp on the way down.
Ran into my swim buddy, Rosie, on the way down – her way up.
We made it back to Trail Camp by 9AM and out the bottom by 1:30PM – all in a days work – 23 hrs with camping. I recommend camping if you can, you get to enjoy the hike more and see more.
Many thanks to Ken for capturing and sharing his great photos on this post, for always being a great sport on my crazy escapades, and for carrying the heavier pack.
My toenail causality. Guess my foot modeling days are over.
Getting there: Take Whitney Portal road from Lone Pine
Big Sky, unlike Anaconda, has a name that captures its essence as you can see. This vista above was a big highlight on an otherwise fairly unremarkable first couple miles. I’m a bit surprised that this out and back hike in the Gallatin National Forest was rated one of the top 10 in the world. (Guess I’m becoming a bit of a hiking snob.) In wildflower season, I suspect it blossoms beautifully, bewitching its visitors. November is not her best month. It’s either dry and reedy or muddy and icy, but there are shimmering sights at the basin that do reward those with the tenacity to trudge through the thick slime and slog through the snow in the off-season…(Yes, that would be me.)
In my first video, I mistake the first, unnamed lake for the destination lake.
As for equipping myself with the bear spray, I learned that the “griz” are the most active before hibernation and there have been recent attacks in nearby Ennis and Yellowstone National Park. Not to mention that the sign at the trail head was difficult to ignore.
You may notice that I’m wearing a bell around my neck to alert bears of my presence. (Let’s see a bell, chocolate in my pocket -you got it, I’m a walking, talking bear toy.) Have you heard the rangers joke about how you can tell black bear scat from grizzly scat? The grizzly scat has bells in it. I’ve stopped wearing the bell as they say the bears might find the ringing intriguing (or perhaps annoying). They say it’s better just to talk loudly and make a lot of noise in areas with limited visibility. You don’t want to surprise a griz. Supposedly, they’ll hear you coming and go the other way.
The panoramic views were breathtaking. And slogging through mud, ice, and snow mean I’m getting a more intense workout. What’s not to like, right?
Topped off a fantastic day with a feast at the Gallatin River House Grill, what a great spot on the river with outdoor seating, a band stage and volley ball court. Their Famous Flank Steak Sandwich is as outstanding as is their riverfront view. One day, I will return to see the trail in its wildflower splendor and for post hike festivities and another feast at the River House.