August 16, 2014

Yosemite's Tenaya Lake Loop

Yosemite National park is a really nice place except there are too many people there. Period. I've tried going in winter, I've tried going in fall, I've tried going midweek, and still there are a lot of people there. As a kid, our family hosted exchange students from Japan, Poland, and Germany, and each one of them wanted to go to Yosemite; its notoriety is far and wide.

However, Yosemite is strikingly beautiful so a way has to be found to cope with the masses. Sooo... if you find yourself going through Yosemite on a Saturday in the high-season of August, the week before school goes back, I would recommend a hike around Tenaya Lake. It has crystal-blue waters, granite peaks, a thick forested southern edge, and parking spaces if you get there before 10:00AM. The only Yosemite feature that you're really missing is the waterfall, and you can simulate that with a swim after your hike.

We did this hike by starting at the west parking lot, hiking clockwise around the lake so you hit the part where you walk along Hwy 120 before the sun gets too high and reflective on the granite walls, then past the swampier eastern edge before hiking along the forested southern edge during the mid-day sun to get some shade. There are a few ups and downs and loose rock on this side, but it has solitude as we only passed a few other hikers in this section, and the views of the rock climbers across the lake are spectacular along here. Unfortunately, we read later that a climber fell from a rock and died just a few miles up the road between here and Tuolomne Meadows on the same day we were here. As you get closer to where you started, you'll pass some gorgeous meadows, and the intersection with the Sunrise Trail with its backpackers exiting Tuolomne Shuttle Stop #10 and heading out to the back country. Don't forget a picnic to enjoy along the granite outcrops of the western edge of the lake!

Length: 2.5 mile loop
Elevation gain: 100 feet
Time it took us: 2 hours
Dogs allowed: No
Fees: $20 per car to enter the park
Directions: Tenaya Lake is along the Tioga Pass (Hwy 120) that runs through Yosemite National Park during the summer months (at 8,150 feet elevation, it closes for the winter.) The lake is 31 miles east of Crane Flat or 16 miles west of Yosemite's East entrance. 

South Tufa Trail at Mono Lake

I am writing this blogpost in the midst of a social media "Ice Bucket Challenge" to draw awareness to the neurodegenerative disease ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.) The nurse in me is celebrating; the water conservationist in me is dying over here. I just spent the week in Northern California filling water buckets while taking a shower -- every DROP is precious. I think it's a tribute to how messed up our world is that I'm living in the Sonoran desert, and there is less pressure on me to conserve water than those folks that are living in the shadow of 14,000 foot alpine Sierra Nevada peaks or among the temperate rain forests of coastal California.

So on the topic of water conservation, I thought I'd share a short hike (really a walk) that I did along the southern portion of Mono Lake. I have been to Mono Lake several times over my lifetime, and whenever I mention it to friends (even those that live in California), I am presented with a blank stare. Lake Tahoe -- check. Mono Lake -- huh? Those two lakes are just a little more than 100 miles apart, but worlds different in terms of fame and fortune. Usually, if I say, "Have you ever seen the movie Chinatown with Jack Nicholson?" there is some vague recollection of Mono Lake. That movie is based on the water disputes that drained California's Owens Valley to build up a thirsty Los Angeles. There is a lot of history behind Mono Lake, much more than I will include here, but there is now signage all along the South Tufa Trail explaining the history behind the water wars.

After years and years of diverting Mono Lake's source, the lake began to dry up and expose the tufas. The tufas are formed from underground calcium-rich springs that combine with the alkaline lake water to create calcium carbonate limestone precipitate. The tufas only form underwater so we are seeing these particular tufas because the lake has been drained for so long. There are many other characteristics that make Mono Lake quite unique, and they are explained along the way, as well. This is the far western side of the area known as the "Great Basin." It's kind of spooky out here, and it kind of looks like how I imagine living on Mars would be. Perhaps if the drought in California continues, we can anticipate more of California looking liking this.

Length: 1 mile loop
Elevation gain: none
Time it took us: 1 hour with stops to read the display signs
Dogs allowed: Yes, on leashes, but please keep them away from the tufas.
Fees: $3 self-pay per person, kids under 16 are free.
Directions: From US 395, take Hwy 120 east for 5 miles to the turnoff for the South Tufa Trail. Closest town is Lee Vining, California.

August 15, 2014

Rainbow Falls & Devils Postpile Hikes

I first learned about Devils Postpile in 1989 while taking a Geology 101 class in college, and although it was explained to me that the lava cooled and formed these crazy hexagons which are some of "the finest examples of visible basaltic columns in the world," I still can't wrap my head around how they're all so perfectly shaped. They're like freaks of nature; they really looked "carved." The glacier came through and exposed these columns (thank you, glacier) so the proof is right in front of me, but it's still mind-boggling.

There are many ways of seeing both Rainbow Falls and Devils Postpile, and there are other things to see around here, but I'll explain what we did and my rationale. Keep in mind that this is just "the long way to the Bay area" for us so we're already on an extended detour!

Catch the Reds Meadow Shuttle from the "mammoth" sculpture at Mammoth Mountain Inn. Just go to the window at the Adventure Center on the day you want to take the shuttle and buy tickets which are $7 per adult and $4 per child. My recommendation is to take the shuttle all the way to Stop #9 which is the 2nd to last stop on the shuttle. EVERY SINGLE person on our packed (even people standing) shuttle bus got off at Stop #6 to do the Postpile first. We moved to the front of the bus for the remainder of the ride, and our driver gave us a personal tour of the valley. My other recommendation is to SLEEP IN and take the shuttle around noon or 1:00. The rainbow at Rainbow Falls is most colorful in the mid-afternoon sunlight. The hike from shuttle bus stop #9 to the falls is 1.2 miles DOWNHILL. Hello, that means 1.2 miles UPHILL on the way back which is another reason why we thought hiking Rainbow Falls first before Devils Postpile would make more sense while we still had more energy. When you get back up to Stop #9, get back on the shuttle (they come every 20 minutes) and take it to Stop #6 for the Postpile. If you've timed this hike like we did (with lots of photo stops) you will be arriving to the Postpile around 3:30 or 4:00 when the mid-day sun has moved to the west so you can look up to the east and view the large basalt Postpile without being blinded by the sun, and instead the sun will be casting some wonderful light on your Postpile. The hike to the Postpile is only 0.4 miles of flat hiking with an optional steep section of hiking up to the top of the Postpile. When we got back on the bus at Stop #6, we traveled down to pick up the hikers at Rainbow Falls Stop #9, and they were lined up like a ride at Disneyland. Some even had to wait for another bus. Just my thoughts on the subject. The Sierras are HIGHLY popular in the summer so if I can avoid the crowds, I will!

Length: 2.4 miles for the Rainbow Falls section + 0.8 miles for the Devils Postpile section = 3.2 miles of total hiking.
Elevation gain: 335 feet
Time it took us: 4.5 hours from leaving the mammoth sculpture to arriving back to the mammoth sculpture.
Dogs allowed: If they are muzzled and well-behaved then they may ride the shuttle bus.
Fees: Shuttle bus: $7 per adult, $4 per child
Directions: From Hwy 395, take Hwy 203 west up through Mammoth Lakes to Mammoth Mountain Inn where you catch the shuttle.

August 14, 2014

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Discovery Trail

I often feel sad that California is largely known geographically for its beaches. I have driven the length of California probably over a hundred times in my life, shuttling between my parents house to college, then my Arizona home to my in-laws. I have done 1, 101, 99, and 5, but I still really enjoy the lesser-known Highway 395 up the eastern side of the Sierras. There is so much to see along here and no one seems to go this way.

I also feel sad that everyone knows that California has the tallest living thing, the California Redwood, and the largest living tree, the Sequoia, but most fail to realize that California also has one of the oldest living things in the United States right here on the eastern side of the Sierras in the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest -- the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine. Some of these trees right along the Discovery Trail are well over 4,000 years old.

The visitor center at the Schulman Grove can give you the complete low-down on why these trees have adapted to this unique environment. You can also learn about their super-sappy, resin-laden and bristly pine cones, and the dendrochronologists who discovered these trees, but the real action is out on the trail where you can get up close and personal to these magnificent trees. The hike is listed as a 1-mile loop, but it seems MUCH longer. Possibly the hike seems longer because of the 10,000+ ft elevation, or maybe because you are stopping so much to photograph them, but plan accordingly. Hiking shoes are necessary due to the loose rock along the trail and the steep incline. Drink lots of water and bring lots of camera battery life!

Length: 1 mile
Elevation gain: 300 ft
Time it took us: 2 hours
Dogs allowed: yes
Fees: $3 per adult or $6 per carload
Directions: From US Hwy 395, turn east on Hwy 168 just north of Big Pine. Follow Hwy 168 for 13 miles to White Mountain Road and turn left (north) for another 10 miles to the Schulman Grove.

August 5, 2014

Woods Canyon Lake Loop

There has been a noticeable lapse in hiking over here at Our Hiking Mystery so I must confess to the reason. You see, hiking was foremost a way for the authors to cool off from the desert and the concrete jungle, and then last year, the authors put in a POOL and began to spend more time at home! However, although the pool was put underneath a 35 foot Mesquite tree, there is still an absence of TREES in the life of the Our Hiking Mystery bloggers. Therefore, a pact has been made to get back to hiking. There is something very invigorating about the solitude and time to commune with nature while getting some exercise.  Hiking is the best.

The best way to do this hike is to plan six months in advance, get a waterfront campsite at Spillway Campground, and then march down the 100 yards to the spillway dam and begin your counter-clockwise,  5-mile loop of the lake. This hike is extremely easy to follow since there are blue plastic diamonds nailed to the trees leading you around the lake. If you haven't scored a campsite, the hike can also be started from the marina parking lot or the day use Rocky Point trailhead parking lot. The lake is only a little more than a two hour drive from metro Phoenix so a day hike is certainly doable.

This is a fabulous summer hike to do if you are yearning for some green scenery. Woods Canyon Lake, at 7,500 feet elevation, is so heavily forested that it is reminiscent of an Ewok Village with the heavy tree cover. The whole area along the Mogollon Rim has the most densely packed area of Ponderosa Pines in all of the United States. After summer thunderstorms, as we have just had, the slopes along the lake are also covered in a green carpet of grass, and the ferns, skunk cabbage, and lichens are all moist and greener than usual.

Woods Canyon Lake, even midweek, is a busy place during the summer. There is a very strong fishing culture here so I didn't find it to be the best place to kayak for wildlife viewing. Kayaking was tiresome trying to avoid people’s fishing lines. There are some cool narrow arms to explore though. However, hiking was the opposite – none of the fishermen seemed to have any interest in hiking so the gorgeous perimeter trail was nearly empty on a Tuesday in August.

Along my hike, I saw chipmunks, squirrels, Steller’s Jays, Herons, a turtle, and a snake. The trail on the north side of the lake takes you past some typical rugged Mogollon Rim rock formations and past the site of a recent forest fire.

With the dense forest, it’s really easy to see why this area is so vulnerable to wildfire. There are a few steep areas on this northwest portion of the trail with some loose rock so be careful hiking through here.

The steep area leads out to two arms of the lake with a little creek crossing and some lush meadows and wildflowers. This is the most beautiful section of the trail.

From here, you will go uphill again, and if you are hiking during spring and summer, you will be re-routed away from the lake a bit on this southern portion because of bald eagle nesting sites. It gets a little confusing through here, but just keep looking for the blue diamonds on the trees and know that you might be going OVER some fallen trees that are blocking the trail. From here, you will come down to the Rocky Point trailhead (if you started there), or, following the road, to the marina, or back to the campground. This southern side has all of the activity and people. The other side is the place to be if you want solitude. I can't imagine coming here to this beautiful lake without going all the way around it, and seeing the whole thing along this fantastic loop hike.

Length: 5.5 miles (with the slight spring and summer re-route)
Elevation gain: 100 feet
Time it took us: 2.5 hours
Dogs: Yes
Fees: $5 day use fee or included in camping fee
Directions: From metro Phoenix take Highway 87, the Beeline Highway, to Payson. Then go east on Highway 260 towards Heber, approximately 30 miles, and turn north (left) on Forest Road 300 which is just past milepost 282, across from the Rim Visitor Center, and follow the signage to Woods Canyon Lake.