If you hike around Prescott, you’ll notice that they name and number their trails, which is nice. The only problem you may encounter is when a local gives you a hiking tip by the number only and happens to be off a digit or two. Could be the Prescott way of telling you to “Go take a hike.”
Anyway, I found the high-country trail that leads up Spruce Mountain, which isn’t hard to find if you know the trail’s name and number. It’s the Groom Creek Loop Trail #307. Some (Prescott National Forest Service peeps) say that it’s “one of the most attractive trails in the Prescott National Forest. Despite the misleading moniker, there are no Spruce trees on the trail to Spruce Mountain, but that’s okay—it’s a lovely shady trek through Ponderosa pine, Gambel oak and Douglass fir. I chose the trail to the left as it was a hot day and this side of the loop is pleasantly shaded. On a cooler day, I’d go for the loop. Perhaps start with the opposite, more exposed side (on the right) and come down the shady side as it gets later in the day.
The trail begins with a gradual climb and easy terrain, ramping up to a steady climb with rockier and rootier terrain near the top. You definitely have an opportunity to get your heart rate up if you’re so inclined (pun intended). The trail is runnable—the deer I startled on the way up concurs.
On top, you’ll find a picnic area with an outhouse and a fire lookout tower. If the lookout-in residence is accepting visitors, you might just be lucky enough to soak in the panoramic views of Prescott’s lakes and forest from the tower’s vantage point as I did.
Distance: ~6.5 miles, if you do the loop it’s ~8 miles
Elevation gain/ loss: ~1,400 ft (starting elevation is about 6300 feet and the top is 7693 ft)
Getting there: ~15 min drive from Prescott, AZ: Take Mt. Vernon Avenue south for 6.4 miles. It becomes Senator Highway and passes through the small community of Groom Creek. Look for the trailhead on the left side of the road.
Notes: Free parking. MT Bikes & Dogs allowed.
Stay tuned for my top picks of places to stay and eat and for more of my active escapades in and around Prescott.
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
Cuyamaca Peak‘s little sister, Stonewall Peak, (5,730 feet) outshines her big sister with her stunning granite crown, haunting tree skeletons (remnants of the Cedar Fire) and lovely vistas of Cuyamaca State Park and out to Anza Borrego. Before I moved to North County and started exploring the area, I had no idea that all this wonderful natural beauty is an easy drive from greater San Diego.
Takes you back to the start
Biggest Dandelion Ever???
Planning your Cuyamaca adventure
You can make it a day or a weekend adventure and do as much or as little hiking as you like. Ambitious, fit hikers can take on both peaks (Cuyamaca & Stonewall) in a day. For the less ambitious, there are plenty of opportunities to add on easy short strolls by the lake and up to Stonewall Mine. Lots of wildlife viewing with trails for the whole family. Stay tuned for my next post. Happy trails!
The historic gold mining town of Julian is a mile or two away with its quaint shops, B&Bs, restaurants and famous pies.
Notes: This is the most popular hike in the park so go early to avoid the crowds. After you reach the Stonewall Peak spur trail and make a right, there’s a really short scramble over some rocks before you hit the last rocky stairway. Keep your eyes open for the metal handrails. On the way back, I recommend taking a right at the junction for a different route down ton what becomes a pleasant single track trail d. At about 3.7 miles, you come to a trail intersection. Make the left onto Vern Whitaker Trail. Shortly after that (around 3.9 miles) there’s another junction, continue to stay left. At 4.2 miles or so,you’ll encounter another side trail; stay your course to the left again.
Miles: ~<4 miles rt if you just go up and down the main trail. My scenic route adds about a mile & a half for ~5.5 miles rt.
Elevation gain: 1,050 feet
Terrain: Mostly sweet, clear terrain (as in trail runnable). It’s gets a bit rocky and pesky for a while near the top so watch your footing. .The single track down was mostly friendly.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate. Depends on your fitness level and the route you take.
Cowles Mountain (1,593-foot summit) is the highest point in the city of San Diego. It’s part of Mission Trails Regional Park, a 5,800-acre open space preserve that is the 7th-largest open space urban park in the United States. It contains sixty miles of hiking, mountain bike and equestrian trails.
To call Cowles a mountain is to be very liberal with the word. I should note that the park has a 5 “peak” challenge if your hiking peeps want a minor challenge and want to document your feats – here’s the scoop. Cowles is the highest peak. This might be fun for kids, but apparently lots of adults do it for bragging rights too. I will say that on a clear day, the stunning views span 360 degrees from Lake Murray, downtown San Diego, Point Loma, La Jolla, and Mexico and out across the glimmering Pacific to the San Carlos Islands. See feature picture above. (Unfortunately, I dropped my camera on a rock so I have limited pics.)
Distance: 2.9 miles up & back
It’s a very popular trail so expect lots of humans and their canines…There are a couple of different ways to reach the top from various starting points and parking lots. The hike itself is moderate (with some steeper sections that will get those calves & glutes burning). It’s decent workout, especially if you run it. There are single track trails and some fire road. It’s short from any direction so I explored up and down on a couple of trails and was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more to see. You can’t really get lost so do as much or as little as you like.
The main trailhead is in the San Carlos neighborhood on the corner of Golfcrest Drive and Navajo Road
Lovely Lake Murray
Since I didn’t quite get enough enough of a workout / nature fix, I decided to check out alluring Lake Murray Reservoir, also part of the Mission Trails Regional Park. I strolled the paved road that navigates around most of the lake stopping short of the dam (no access). It’s another popular spot – walkers, runners, bladders, and even road bikers aplenty (the latter seems silly to me, because the path / road is only 3.2 mi long and there are many children and dogs on it).
Lake Murray is a great spot for birdwatchers with abundant ducks, geese, and herons abound and about 149 bird species to observe. It’s a pleasant spot for a picnic too.
Lake Murray is open for shore fishing and private boats, kayaks, and float tubes seven days a week from 5:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Permits can be purchased onsite at the iron ranger boxes. The lake is stocked with Florida-strain largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish, black crappie, and trout. Minimum size limit for bass is 12 inches.
Fish limits: 5 trout, 5 bass (min. 12 inches), 5 catfish, 25 crappie and bluegill total, no other species limits
A designated national natural landmark and wilderness study area, Hell’s Half Acre Lava Field is a basaltic lava plain found in the desert ecosystem of the Snake River Plain of Idaho. It consists of about 150 sq miles of other-wordly terrain created by a lava flow from about 4,100 years ago. There’s a 1/2 mile trail marked by blue poles, you can follow those to the red poles that lead you out 4.5 miles to the central vent, where the lava broke through the surface thousands of years ago (9.4 mile round trip).
Hiking across a lava field is not for everyone, especially not for the tender footed. It’s cool, but the novelty wears off fast. While the trail is flat and easy, the terrain itself is tough and unforgiving. Lava rock is extremely sharp – like glass shards- and fragmented and the field is a trap of open cracks, gaping holes, jagged rocks and uneven, tortuous footing. It’s slow and treacherous going. One misstep can land your foot or your body in a hole. And if you trip, you’re likely to be broken, bruised or bleeding. Sneakers are not enough, the lava will eat them up. I’d recommend sturdy hiking shoes even for the short stroll. Also, it’s easy to get lost in the vast monotonous beauty of the lava field, you really have to look for those trail pole markers. Not a hike to set the kids loose on. Do not attempt the long hike in the summer as this place gets hot as hades.
Normally, I’m up for a hiking challenge, but I was happy to keep it short here, especially when I heard the rednecks firing shotguns close by…(sigh).
So I asked my athletic beau, Ken, “How about we take our mountain bikes to Catalina and ride from Avalon to Two Harbors, hang out and ride around there for a day, and then ride back? What do you think? ”
“Sure, sounds good,” he replied without blinking an eye…This is where I should have pulled out the disclaimers about the ~1700 foot climbs (that’s plural) that we’d be doing from sea level over the course of ~21 mile traverse across steep, unforgiving fire roads, and the fact that he’d be carrying a heavier pack than I…
I did dig out my old map of the marathon route with its epic elevation gains and losses, but he didn’t give it a glance. I declared with my usual exuberance, “It’s going to be a tough one, but it will be a great adventure!” You see, back in 2000, (yes, nearly two decades ago), I ran the Catalina Marathon, which takes you across some of the same routes so I had a distant, but visceral memory of how “challenging” the climbs on the island can be. (Decades of trail running has also taught me that’s it far easier to run up hills than it is to bike up them, especially if you are on heavy, beater bikes lugging packs on your back.) Of course, I’m nearly 2 decades older now and should also mention that we don’t mountain bike much (our last MTB adventure was Noble Canyon and we all know how that went. My bruises have finally faded,)
Bottom line, we both try to maintain a moderately-high fitness level for our weekend warrior and extended escapades and active adventures…(I’ve been focusing on yoga, swimming, hiking and a weekly road bike and he’s been running, and joining me for swims and road bikes as his schedule allows.) Unfortunately, I can’t run any more due to literally running out of cartilage in both my knees. Ugh, I know! For some reason, I thought I would be ok on the mountain bike with the hills…
Catalina Island is a small (22 miles long & 8 miles at its widest point) rocky gem in the Pacific ~ 22 miles from Los Angeles, but thanks to nearly 50 years of the Catalina Islands Conservancy’s good work, it’s really worlds away! The island’s topography is a study in rugged beauty with steep cliffs and jagged coastline. Ninety percent of the island’s 4k population live in Avalon, which is also the Island’s major tourist destination with quaint shops, restaurants and bars. Yes, it has its charm, but you know by now that I’m more of a “wildlands” fan myself. That’s why we’re heading to the remote Westside of the island and staying in Two Harbors,
So I was wrong about that. Not long after the picture above was taken, 3/4 through the first climb from sea level up the airport road, I thought my knees were going to explode. No way I can make this, I thought. That’s when Ken pulled over and ordered me to empty everything heavy out of my pack and put it into his. I didn’t argue, toughing it out wasn’t an option if we were going to make it across. Yes, Ken is a stud and my hero! Wouldn’t have been able to make it without him taking on the extra poundage.
We left Avalon after 1PM and we didn’t pass the halfway mark until 3PM with all my knee breaks so we were getting a little worried that we might not make it by dark. There were no hikers or bikers out except for us and only a few cars and Island Conservancy trucks passed us. We had decided not to camp as we’d be carrying the weight of sleeping bags and Thermarests and possibly a tent too. Instead, we decided to treat ourselves to a stay at the Banning House Lodge for both our recent birthdays. So instead of stopping and relaxing at one of these gorgeous deserted beaches we pushed on and on…
We came around a corner and a gorgeous Catalina Fox crossed in front of Ken. Unfortunately, my camera was in my backpack and getting it out would have scared it away so we both just sat still and watched in quiet wonder as the beautiful creature took 5 steps looked back at us, took five more, looked back again, and once more before disappearing into the roadside brush. As if to say, “Hey, I’m giving you guys plenty of photo ops, what’s your problem?” This would be the first of several fox sightings in which I would be camera cursed each time. (Luckily, we met a great couple from Carlsbad (John & Julie) who caught some great pics while we were having dinner together at Harbor Sands. Stay tuned.)
We would have one more notably larger critter encounter on our final climb out of Little Harbor, a brute of a buffalo was snorting and drooling his way up the hill. He was on the far right. We stayed as far left as we could.
About Catalina’s Wild Buffalo
In 1924, 14 buffalo were brought to the island for a movie shoot and the rest, they say, is history. The bison thrived here and at one point the herd grew to 600. Today, the Catalina Island Conservancy manages the population (via birth control) to about 150, thereby striking the balance between protecting the sensitive ecosystem and keeping the herd healthy.
The weather was perfect and the visibility out to the mainland was the best I’ve ever seen it. Unfortunately, camera didn’t quite capture it. (Wasn’t going to bring my heavy Nikon.)
We made it just in time for sunset and the splendid wine and cheese welcome at the charming Banning House Lodge (another 150 ft climb) just to add insult to injury.
Big sigh of relief after our full, half-day adventure – brutal workout, spectacular views, a studly boyfriend who’s a great sport, a hot shower and a comfy bed – now that’s a birthday to remember. Stay tuned for Part II & III. (If you’re a mountain bike legend fan, you’re never going to believe who we ran into in the middle of the island on our way back to Avalon…)
Wanted to make it to the lake and back. The trail is one of the best in the area with 11 waterfalls on the way. It was heavily wooded so the views of the waterfalls and the dramatic canyons and the cliffs weren’t always visible without a slight ramble on spur to the right.
Hiking distance: 11 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 1,900 feet
Unfortunately, the trail was heavily iced and snow-covered so I had to turn back at Chasm Falls about a mile and a half short of the lake. In the video below, I misnamed the hike Hyacinth – it is Hyalite. Must have been the brain freeze.
Here’s a close up of the icicles by the falls.
By the way, do you think my jacket is bright enough? I’m hoping the hunters will too. Heard a couple shotgun shots on the way down. Ended the hike via the accessible and lovely 1.5 mile Grotto Falls trail.
Ah, closing a day of hiking with a great meal at Ted’s Montana Grill and a big sky sunset, does it get better than this?